The Art and Artifact of Creative Nonfiction

While many feel writing a memoir during the 30 days of National Nonfiction Writing Month (NaNonFiWriMo) might be too large a task to take on, some forethought about how to approach your life story can provide the key to making the job manageable—and doable. For instance, determining the structure you might apply to a vignette, an essay or a full-length memoir could provide just the inspiration you need to bring together your memory or memories into a cohesive story quite quickly.

That’s what author and professor of nonfiction writing Dinty W. Moore explains on Day #6 of the Write Nonfiction in November (WINFIN ) Challenge, thus providing support for anyone who needs a bit of help writing creative nonfiction during National Nonfiction Writing Month (NaNonFiWriMo).

The Art and Artifact of Creative Nonfiction

By Dinty Moore

structure helps you get memories for your memoirRebecca McClanahan has a quote that to me seems almost koan-like.  “Memoir is not about recapturing something,” she says. “Those things are not made of words—so any attempt will be failure.”

At first, the quote threw me a bit off balance.  If words are not going to work for us, are going to lead to inevitable failure, what hope does a memoirist have? Aren’t words the paint and brushes we have been taught to study and love?

Once my heart rate calmed a bit, I noticed the first half of McClanahan’s quote: “Memoir is not about recapturing something.”

She is absolutely right. Memoir is not about recapturing. It is about making something new.

Another favorite writer and writing teacher, Richard Hoffman, puts it this way: “If you want to be a writer, at some point your allegiance must shift from experience—what is important to you, what happened to you, what you saw—to artifact—what you make of it.”

Nonfiction writers are not security video cameras hovering above a scene to capture a seemingly objective record. We are not court stenographers. We are artists. And we need to make art, an artifact, because even if sensory detail and dialogue were to somehow manage to be 99.9% accurate, the description will likely still fail to capture the true sense of how it felt, how it was experienced. Our actual lives are not experienced in an orderly fashion. Life does not come in sentences, paragraphs and pages, turned one at a time.

So what do we have, besides words, in order to create our artifact?

One answer is structure.

Look for instance at the circular patterns nested within Debra Marquart’s stunning flash essay “Hochzeit.” The essay begins “I remember circles—the swirling cuff of my father’s pant leg, the layered hem of my mother’s skirt,” then begins to circle itself, almost whirling at times, through a wedding ceremony in North Dakota, capturing not just the rhythm and trajectory of the polka, but the sheer exhilaration of the family celebration.  The essay ends where it began, closing the circle: “My father secures his arm around my mother’s waist. They spin and reel as they polka circles around the room. If left to itself, gravity could take over, centrifugal force could spin them out, away from each other…”

Or take as example Meg Rains’ essay “The Memory of My Disappearance.” Running the risk of disorienting the reader—the narrator has three separate memories of seeing her mother for the last time? —the essay employs segmentation, out-of-order chronology, and fractured image to approximate the writer’s experience of a fragmented, unpredictable relationship and of the mental illness that ravaged the mother’s mind and the narrator’s life.  As Rains writes, “Although memory’s a tiny wrecking ball, this story’s a song of salvage.”

The more I look, the more examples I see, including two recent book-length memoirs.  Marcia Aldrich, in Companion to an Untold Story, adapts the model of a reference book, assembling letters, objects, and memories alphabetically in an attempt understand the death of a friend by suicide.  A simple narrative would not have captured the obsessive nature of wondering “what did I miss?” Barrie Jean Borich, in Body Geographic, explores the geography of her immigrant ancestors, the geography of her native Chicago, and the geography of her own body by structuring her chapters as maps, with overlays, underlays, and insets.

Experimental or unconventional structure can seem like a gimmick at times, but when it acts as metaphor for the experience itself, when it gives the reader unexpected access not just to what happened but to how it felt, structure can be as important as the words that are contained within.

About the Author

dwm2013smDinty W. Moore is author of The Mindful Writer: Noble Truths of the Writing Life, as well as the memoir Between Panic and Desire, winner of the Grub Street Nonfiction Book Prize in 2009. He also edited The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers. Moore has published essays and stories in The Southern Review, The Georgia Review, Harpers, The New York Times Sunday Magazine, The Philadelphia Inquirer Magazine, Iron Horse Literary Review, and The Normal School among numerous other venues. A professor of nonfiction writing at Ohio University, Moore edits Brevity, an online journal of flash nonfiction, and lives in Athens, Ohio, where he grows heirloom tomatoes and edible dandelions.

Photo courtesy of Victor Habbick | freedigitalphotos.net

Comments

  1. Loved the quote by Richard Hoffman– written down and kept.

    The essays you mention are almost poetry in their style. Written visuals. Worth a reread for their technique to express the emotion and picture not just the scene.

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