Thoughts On Putting Together a Creative Nonfiction Collection

I'm liable to forget all this once the semester starts.


August 18, 2013

Well, my book manuscript is off to the University of Georgia Press now for editing. I worked hard at it and am proud of the results, but for a time I forgot what grade my children are in. A friend asked me to post about what I learned before I could forget that too, so here are some thoughts on the task, in no particular order.

Everything is fragments. We don’t always notice that, but it’s how we perceive: Sentences, chapters, scenes, acts, verses, choruses, tweets, wall posts, snapshots, individual paintings in a retrospective, final looks over the shoulder goodbye. It’s merely common sense that all our narratives are collections, but we resist that, since fragmentation and randomness have often caused us pain in the past. (Presidential historian Robert Dallek, in the Times this morning: “To believe that only Oswald killed Kennedy—that there wasn’t some larger plot—shows people how random the world is, how uncertain. And I think it pains them; they don’t want to accept that fact.”)

Yet to acknowledge fragmentation doesn’t have to mean letting go of sense. A more mysterious order sometimes emerges. Think of Denis Johnson’s short story “Work,” in which there are drugs, yet another fight with a girlfriend, a chance encounter with a buddy who wants to rip all the copper wiring out of his former house in order to buy more drink and drugs, the vision of a naked woman parasailing behind a boat on a river, a visit to an estranged wife’s house, a potential bar fight that doesn’t happen, a stroll through a hailstorm “that should have been” like birth somehow, and a battered bartender who doesn’t remember you but who’s like mother—whether Mom or Mother Mary, it’s impossible to say. “As nearly as I could tell, I’d wandered into some sort of dream,” the narrator says. That’s the dream of the examined life, and in the story it works brilliantly. In nonfiction it’s quite possible to pick three or four subjects at random and shape them into not only a coherent essay but also a surprisingly true one. Process is the bullheaded insistence on finding hidden order in apparently disconnected experience. It’s different from being logical.


It’s not the apparently big decisions that are hard—deleting off the 6,000-word chunk that turns out to be unthematic and immature. It’s small things, such as finding verb tenses in a single paragraph that’ll serve three time zones of consciousness: The current book’s, the middle (speaking) past, and the distant past with its events.


Sequence both does and doesn’t matter. There are many possible sequences, each with its own effect, and several of them fine. Holding the whole book in the mind at once is hard, let alone imagining each different mix tape that’ll result from variations of sequence. Eventually, a kind of psychic blindness occurs. At that point, that close to the end, the temptations of the machete should be resisted. (Earlier it might be a good idea.) After all, your other, more rested reading selves thought it worked, and editing is an average.

A nightmare: What if you didn’t resist the irrational response to revision blindness and spent a long night of the soul swinging at the prose, emerging exhausted to offer your publisher the three pages that survived the cuts? “’Some people hear their own inner voices with great clearness. And they live by what they hear. Such people become crazy...or they become legend,’” she would say.


Incompatible tones of individual pieces are a potential problem. But when do multiple tones become range instead, which we praise? “[W]e each only really speak one sentence in our lifetime,” Mary Ruefle says. Of course that sentence has punctuation and variations of mood, since the voice keeps picking up and setting back down at a tangent. What’s surprising is how often the long sentence of a life is integral, no matter which way it runs. (Think of Robert Coover or John Barth.)


Between a collection as I always thought of it (the best work by a single writer or poet) and a narrative with a “throughline” (which agents and publishers want now), there is another thing, a cloud of ideas, images, and emotions with specific effect.


Traditional cues will always be useful to serve expectations, a last loud chord that remains in memory, for example. (“I think you overestimate our dear Viennese, my friend. Do you know you didn't even give them a good bang at the end of songs so they knew when to clap?”)


The whole might act as individual pieces can, teaching you how to read them. Every time I reordered the sequence of the book, I also had to comb the entire thing for mention of people and events in order to provide context the first time and not be redundant afterward. What started to come apart was my feeling that this had to go in simplistic ways. First mention could be a mere hint, and the rest of the info spread among several instances, so the feeling of déjà vu in a reader could be played with. The way in which context changed as I tried different versions surprised me. A line about a parent guiding a young child safely through the world was more poignant if used after, not before, an unhappy event between them later in life.


I didn’t know the extent of some of my own preoccupations. (My trusted cabinet of personal advisors helped me pick pieces from hundreds of thousands of published words, and I wrote new pieces to go with them.) An emerging theme of what Twain called “lonesome”: separation, distance, memory, the sublime world. Because the final title will be, Pirates You Don’t Know, and Other Adventures in the Examined Life, I had to think hard about how pirates and the sea overlaid all that. I even had doubts. But they did, and I’m the one who started talking about pirates without knowing why. (“This is the seashore. Neither land nor sea. It’s a place that does not exist,” novelist Alessandro Baricco writes.)


I’ve always watched the humorists carefully: Twain, SJ Perelman, H. Allen Smith, Dorothy Parker, Tina Fey, Woody Allen, Mel Brooks. How friable is comedy. Little that’s flippant, easy, derisive, or snide survives. And yet: “Poetry = Anger x Imagination” –-Sherman Alexie.


I told Crazy Larry at the start of the year that I would probably exhaust myself in the effort to make the book good. I said I also knew that in doing that it would mean the end of that for a good long while; my desire to do this kind of writing would be expended. Back then it seemed possible that would mean permanently. Instead, I find that what I’ve learned excites me, and I’m thinking about what it would mean to apply it to a new topic. That’s hopeful for me. It gives a little tickle of stomach-pleasure, like being in a car that someone drives too fast over an elevated rail crossing.

Now I’m tired of re-reading myself, 8 to 15 hours a day. For weeks. “You’re allowed to do nothing,” the wrapper on my Dove PROMISES® Silky Smooth Caramel Milk Chocolate bite tells me.

I’m tired of reading the Times: “You can give your wallet a wild ride in this diminutive constitutional monarchy, but there is also a world of affordable fun to be found.”

I’m tired of reading Facebook posts, how that young poet ate nothing more than an entire pint of delicious perfect red little strawberries for lunch while walking Brooklyn all by herself on a recent visit.

Actually, the only thing I feel like reading right now is my students’ work. I feel like doing that a lot. So come ye, dwellers of the north woods, punters of the fetid bayou, soakers of the casino hot tubs; o come ye newly vegans, shooters at the gun range. Come ye down here from DC and Aurora and Atlanta, and provide me the best kind of entertainment -- something meaningful, recognizable, and most definitely not from out of my own head.


Illustration credit: My son Starbuck, who has a great sense of humor and will work for snowcones.

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