Category Archives: creative non-fiction

How do your memories influence your fiction writing?

“Any sorrow can be borne if it can be made into a story,” said Danish author Isak Dinesen (Out of Africa). 

8_Wells-LiteratureEmpathyMany of my friends are writers. Most of them I know very well. Well enough that when I read some of their work I occasionally recognize autobiographical events, people or places, but these “true” events and such have been fictionalized and told as if they have happened in the lives of the story’s characters. Every author writes from his or her personal experiences, and I believe the more you know about an author the better you can understand that author’s perspective and ideas and what they may be trying to get across to the reader.

In my experience, I’ve never written a story or novel from a preconceived outline or plot diagram. Things change too rapidly, and life may give me another idea that will work better, and the story writes itself like a runaway train. Cities and towns have souls and memories and stories just waiting to be mined.

I am guilty of stealing other’s life experiences as well, and giving them to my characters, changing them up a little.  A red-headed male friend once told me about being chased by a rooster every time he stepped foot in his grandparents’ yard. Seems the rooster was after his red hair, and his grandma shouted to that rooster, “Don’t you spur my baby you peckerwood”. That ended up being in the history of my protagonist in a manuscript – the red-headed boy was too easily remembered.

Humor is everywhere. My daughter’s boyfriend was learning to tie a necktie, and the stress he put himself through developed into a short story. He asked me if I knew how to tie a Windsor knot and I said to look up ties in the Encyclopedia (this was  in the olden days before Google) and he returned, downtrodden, and told me, “it said ‘see railroad'”.

My husband and I walked around Jackson Square in New Orleans late one evening. Fortune tellers and tarot card readers sat around at tables draped with fabric, candles burning, as they lured customers to their tables for readings. Suddenly a young man rounded the corner and had a python wrapped around his body. We walked a little faster around the Square, the man and python following us for a long while. This experience gave me a short story series.

Sadness and sorrow, as well as shock, are always singed in our memories. In my childhood I remember a little friend drowned in her father’s minnow trough. She was about 5 or 6 years old, as was I. My parents went to the wake and took me with them. I had no idea what had occurred until we arrived at the ramshackle house on the outskirts of Hattiesburg MS and saw people peering into a long wooden box on the dining room table. Children climbed on chairs to have a look. I did not want to miss out on whatever they saw in there so I mounted a chair and looked in and was stunned to see my friend, her little body perfectly still in a pretty pink dress, her lips blue, sleeping in that box. That scene will never leave me. I’ve included the scene in one of my novels.

There are so many scenes from my childhood that I’ve used in numerous places in fiction, hiding them in different places than they occured, most times, or they hide themselves, or take a turn you did not expect. When you are going in one direction and think you know where the characters are headed, they just may surprise you and hop on a freight train!

What are some of the events tattooed in your soul? (I promise I won’t steal it, although I may change it up a bit so you won’t recognize it!)

Who Reads Those Footnotes?

Last night in my Creative Non-fiction class at the University of Memphis, there was a big discussion about footnotes in CNF narratives. The piece we were reading was about a student’s conversation/interview with his grandfather. There were about 6 or 8 footnotes included, which mostly were the writer’s notes to clarify something in the narrative, something that his grandfather said or did. The instructor asked if the class members read footnotes when they were reading other works, whether CNF or whatever. Most students said they skipped over them; footnotes were annoying. When footnotes appear in anything they may be necessary, but they are not welcome.

As I re-read this writer’s footnotes about his grandfather’s life, I realized that that’s probably where the real story was – in those afterthoughts, in those minute explanations to make or clarify a certain event. Most suggested that the writer get rid of the footnotes and put them in the narrative flow, to include them as part of the building of the characters – both the writer and the grandfather.

What are your thoughts? Do footnotes interrupt the flow of the story? Should there be endnotes instead? Do you have creative methods to include research information within a narrative?

Perspectives

This semester, I am taking a creative non-fiction workshop class at the University of Memphis. The instructor is Sonja Livingston, a talented and passionate writer (Ghostbread, and others). I submitted an essay on the Jung-oriented dreamwork that I do (see past posts on this blog) to my workshop this week. A couple of my classmates said they think Jung is outdated, and another said there is more modern neuroscience that I completely left out. That if I wanted to publish a book on dreams I should do more research for the book proposal.
            Truth is, I have no intention of publishing a book on dreams. There are thousands out there from professionals in the fields of psychology, anthropology, analysis, biochemistry, and, yes, neuroscience. And even chemical engineers. This essay was about how the type of dreamwork I do has changed the way I see life – changed the way I see others, changed my relationships. The essay was intended as an invitation to others to listen to dreams, the visitors in the night, and to share my own experience.
            To say that I needed to include modern neuroscience and brain research was, well, like I’m watching a waterfall, being enchanted by the rainbows in the spray, watching the way the water spills and splashes over the rocks, whispers past the ferns at water’s edge, eddys and pools as it enters the creek, then someone says there’s no way I could appreciate the scene unless I had a better understanding of current studies in hydrology, and a scientific appreciation of H20 and geology.
            Seems this way of looking at life is somewhat like viewing the world through a tube, and the viewer can only see what the tube is aimed at. There is a loss of the milieu, the broader sense of place that comes with appreciation of the small things that make up a scene.  Can one take in the colors, the fragrance, the sounds, if the eye is only zeroing in on one element of the scene?
            Depending on one’s personality type, there will always be differences in people and their views of life. That’s what makes us interesting – our personalities and quirks. To grow our soul, do we just accept that “that’s how I am”, or do we try to learn about another way of seeing? Just as the ones who say I needed more modern science in my essay, then perhaps I need to look at the world through their eyes for a few minutes. Perhaps I should ask myself, How can you clarify words so that you don’t sound like you’re clinging to an old fashioned, out-of-date concept (even though there has been a resurgence of Jung’s concepts in modern psychology circles, and I’ve studied dreams for years and years, and completed a two-year dream leadership course of study a couple of years ago).
What does it take to see, really see, something? Does it take a complete understanding of everything that goes into the ‘thing’? Or can one merely appreciate on a simple level the beauty of a thing’s existence? My stance is to try to understand another’s perspective. Others may take a more dismissive stance. How do we better appreciate each other’s perspective? 

Telling the Truth

Good writing is about telling the truth. – from Anne Lamott’s classic book on writing, Bird by Bird.

Writing is not about achieving perfection.  Writing is about telling the truth. How do we write the truth about people and events in our lives when to do so may hurt the very people we care about? The truth, for me, is what I personally learned from those people and events.

When I write about certain events or people, I tend to think about the subjects first as fiction, and I begin with the most traumatic thing and quickly make bullet points of what happened to build up to transformation.  This makes for my story outline.  From there I move into setting the scene and building the characters. How would I describe the milieu, the scene? Where is the conflict, and how were the characters changed in some way? To write creative non-fiction, I’ve learned to use the qualities that make good fiction. There’s good advice everywhere, even in some unconventional places. The following is from an introduction to Kurt Vonnegut’s 2000 book of stories, Bagombo Snuff Box: Uncollected Short Fiction, where he gives ‘rules’ for writers.  Even though these 8 tips are directed toward fiction writers, they can apply to nonfiction as well. I keep these ‘rules’ (and others) close by so my conscious mind is aware of these types of issues as I write [comments in brackets are mine]:

  1. Use the time of a total stranger [your reader] in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
  2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for. [Why should I care about this person?]
  3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
  4. Every sentence must do one of two things …. reveal character or advance the action [move the story forward].
  5. Start as close to the end as possible. [Time after time I hear editors tell writers, “in the middle is where the action starts …. make that your beginning!”]
  6. Be a sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
  7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia. [To me, this is great advice, because a writer cannot write to please every reader, every taste, every family member.]
  8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To heck with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on [what’s at stake], where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages. [Richard Bausch says, “Be a docent in your own museum.” Know your characters and your setting inside and out before you begin your story.]
I hear friends say many times that they have a memoir in progress, or a short story based on fact, and they cannot submit for publication until certain people are dead.  The point is, how were YOU transformed in the event? That’s the real story. If you can write about that, then you’ve done your soul work, whether the project is ever published or not. What is your greatest writing advice?

The Story I Really Want to Tell

The Color of Justice
The murder occurred
Only a mile or two from
My bedroom window.
Hattiesburg, small town
And comfort-laden
Had become a seat
Of violence. 
I didn’t know
The fire was set
I didn’t know
White men did this
I didn’t know
who Vernon Dahmer was.
I didn’t know.
I am part of a family
Of people, so involved
In survival, so involved
In day-to-day living,
So involved with other
Concerns, like my mother’s
Alcoholism, my father’s
Pride, that the event may as well
have happened
on the other side of the world
As I played with torn out
paper dolls with white faces.
I didn’t know.
  _______
I wrote this poem in 1966. I was 16 years old.  Hattiesburg Mississippi is my birthplace, and my world revolved around school, my friends, and my after-school job at a dry cleaners.  Even so, I was quite isolated because of the culture of the time.  There was a television in our house, most of the time. My father repaired them and would bring one home “just to make sure it would stay tuned up,” he said.  These television sets always held a place of honor in the middle of the dining room table, plugged into the overhead socket. 
When he finally delivered the TV to its owner, we would be setless until he brought home another newly repaired set, usually within a day or two.  In the interim, we missed several big news stories.  One of the stories I did not miss was the shocking story of the burning of Vernon Dahmer.  
Photo from Vernon Dahmer, Jr.

My father knew Mr. Dahmer.  He had repaired his television (or could have been a radio) about a year before.  I rode with my father out to deliver that TV to the Dahmer home, and sat in the truck while he went in the colorful Dahmer store (which was next door to their home, I think) to collect from Vernon Dahmer.  Several light-skinned boys sat on the porch of the store.  I almost got out of the truck to purchase a soft drink, solely on the influence of the Barq’s Root Beer sign on the front of the store, when I saw my father coming out the door. 

Several months after that, I remember standing with my father in front of another loaner TV perched on our dining room table watching the photo of Vernon Dahmer and hearing the news that he had been murdered, his store and home fire-bombed.  Mr. Dahmer was assisting in voter registration drives and had a voter signup in his store. Up until that moment, I did not know Vernon Dahmer was black.
________

More about this story here: Justice is done.

This story is only one of the stories of my growing up years.  We were not middle class America, but we did not know that we weren’t. We were too busy existing day to day. These and many other stories are still bumping around in my head. I am trying as fast as I can to write them down so I won’t forget them.

One such story I have turned into fiction.  And that story is now a 300 page novel manuscript based in part on the fascinating history of the Dahmer family. I’ve incorporated countless true events in my fiction stories. And you do not always have to base a story on a traumatic event.  The best fiction I’ve read lately are every-day event-type stories, like meeting someone for coffee, and the dialogue that takes place where a secret is revealed or a person has a sudden awareness. I’m certain these stories are based on the writers’ true life events, or things he/she has heard or read about.

I recently heard a story about a writer talking to an agent about a fiction manuscript that was not finished, and that he was struggling with completing the novel, but he just couldn’t get an ending. The Agent told the writer to put the entire project aside, and “to write the story he really wanted to tell.”  I don’t know who the writer was, but according to the teller of the tale the writer began to write creative non-fiction stories about his life and his world was changed forever. But I thought this to be very powerful advice. What draws us to write fiction, when the truths of our own lives are far more interesting?

Where I’m From

The Jacoby Store in Louisiana,
where my father grew up.

A model of my fathers old red truck.
Walthall Elementary School, Hattiesburg
(I alway likened it to the Alamo)
,

I’m from Mamaw Bass and Papa James,
the piney woods and Gore Springs,
butter beans and blackeyed peas,
Mason jars and bumble bees.

I’m from Aunt Emma, Alvin, Helen and Jacoby,
Walthall School and the Seale-Lily.
I’m from wire clotheslines and wooden washboards,
Swings on porches and torn screen doors.

I’m from tree houses in sweet gum trees,

The Beverly Drive-in Theater
burned this past year.

the sweet aroma of burning leaves,
shrimp gumbo and the Atchafalaya River,
from Cajun music and a guitar picker.

I’m from Edwards Street and the Dairy Dream,
red eye gravy and turnip greens,
rabbits in cages and more chicken please,
hot water poured over Luzianne tea.

I’m from Hattiesburg and a wooden boat
Antoine, Pierre and a billy goat,
playing under the house, the Beverly Drive-In Theater,
From diabetes and congestive heart failure.

I’m from cane poles and mule skinners,
all you can eat buffets and catfish dinners
buttermilk cornbread, coffee and chicory,
barbequed ribs smoked with hickory.

I’m from South Carolina and Louisiana,
Anjou pears and the Bouie River,
a big old house with an old red roof,
and ceilings that were never waterproof.

I’m from a faded red truck with a running board,
from wanting things we couldn’t afford,
from a fig tree and a hand-me-down,
Hattiesburg, Laurel and the Mississippi Sound.

I’m from Lake Shelby and Kamper Park,
kids catching fireflies after dark,
from the Golden Rule and love thy neighbor,
and burning crosses and Vernon Dahmer.

From sit-ins and a cow-pulled wagon,
Woodstock and a Beretta hand gun,
fig trees, rabbits and home-grown tomatoes,
catsup poured over French fried potatoes.

I’m from fried corn and cracklin bread,
the Sunday paper in Mama’s bed,
Moonshine and hurricane Camille,
From don’t let mama behind the wheel.

I’m from a petticoat and an undershirt,
digging to China and playing in the dirt,
from the (cedar) Christmas Tree that Daddy’d provide
To playing I Spy, and a country ride.

I’m from space heaters and fire halls,
wooden steps and popcorn balls,
old wooden radios with glass tubes,
and clumsy metal trays for ice cubes.

I’m from Bayou Lafourche and the Natchez Trace,
from roller skates and playing chase,
from a Catholic, a Methodist and a Baptist,
from a bigot, a blowhard, and an absurdist.

I’m all these things inside of me,
as exciting and embarrassing as they may be.
Using this formula as a rule of thumb,
Now, can you tell me, where are you from?

What a Character!

In her post, Memoir: Turning Yourself into a Character, author Nanci Panuccio says, “Memoir is character-based non-fiction. As obvious as this might sound, what’s often missing in an early draft of memoir is the narrator’s engagement with his or her own story. Observers by nature, writers sometimes tell their story as witness rather than participant.”

In my fiction writing, my characters are composites of real people as well as people that I imagine in my head. I can lay on anyone certain hand gestures, the way they may smoke a cigarette, or sip their coffee. The way someone speaks to another, how they inflect their voice, can tell the reader a lot about that character. The clothes they wear, internal thoughts. But how do we create ourselves as characters? Is it much the same process?

In thinking about this, I realize that my own self-perception is different than others’ perception of me, and I am in a sense a ‘witness’ to my own life. How observant, how involved am I really in being conscious of the minute details of my own mannerisms, my own voice tone, my own way of walking? Perhaps I should ask others about their memories and interpretations of my hand gestures, my speaking voice, or what my movements might infer. How do you create yourself as a character, and how real can “you” be?