Writing non-fiction + what we can learn from our kids’ photos

This week I have an essay up on Motherwell, a new online magazine with some really interesting, thoughtful writing about parenting. My essay came out of a challenge I gave myself a few months ago, to try and write a few non-fiction pieces. I’ve written a lot about parenthood in my stories and I was curious what writing non-fiction about the same topics would feel like (the other essay that came out of this experiment was up on Brain, Child a while back). It was more difficult than I thought, to have to stick to reality, and I was reminded many times in the process why I love fiction so much. Sometimes, for me anyway, to really get at the truth of what happened, it seems best/natural/easiest to make things up (or at least alter the details).

(Tangent: I think that’s Werner Herzog’s approach to documentaries, where he is searching for the “ecstatic truth,” “wherein literal accuracy cedes its ground to emotional accuracy, a subjective realm entered through manipulation and fabrication.” (quote from Tom Bissell’s great essay on Herzog “The Secret Mainstream.”) So Herzog doesn’t mind having his interview subjects rehearse the answer to a question first. He’s not against giving them an idea for a dream they never had, or a habit they don’t possess, if it gets at some greater truth that may not have been accessible by sticking strictly to the facts). 

That said, I’m still interesting in exploring non-fiction, but maybe playing with form by trying a “hermit crab essay”–a form I didn’t know existed until I came across this great essay about it. (From the essay: “Hermit crab essays adopt already existing forms as the container for the writing at hand, such as the essay in the form of a “to-do” list, or a field guide, or a recipe.”) Or else I might continue to explore speculative non-fiction, a term I believe I made up, where it’s still about your life, only with speculative elements included. 

My essay on Motherwell is about quite a few things, including learning how to accept who my son actually is, as well as what happened when we gave him a camera a few years back. To compliment the essay, I wanted to post a few of my favorite pictures that he’s taken. I’m fascinated by kids’ photographs: it’s like getting into their brain and looking out at their world through their eyes. Because my son has mild autism, and communication isn’t always easy, I feel especially lucky to have these glimpses into how he sees the world. 

These are two of my favorite extended-family photographs. I love the expressions on everyone’s faces, and how honestly everyone is captured.

family-pic-jasper

These are some of my favorite extended-family photographs. I love the expressions on everyone's faces, and how honestly everyone is captured.

These were from The Holy Land Experience’s Christmas display in Orlando. It was a surreal place for me, and I think Jasper captured that surrealness. I am fascinated by his sister Stella’s expression in the photo with the (fake) horses.

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These were from The Holy Land Experience's Christmas display in Orlando. It was a surreal place for me,  and I think Jasper captured that surrealness. I am fascinated by his sister Stella's expression in the photo with the (fake) horses.

Some self portraits….I have wondered, what does it mean when a child obscures his face like that in a portrait of himself? 

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A few other family shots. Love the first one, a family portrait where you can barely see who’s there. As if there are perhaps more important things in a family portrait than the people themselves. In all of these three pictures, faces seem the least important part of a person.

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A few other random shots…of an art installation involving mirrors at Brooklyn Bridge park, some frost on our car window, and a zoo pic.

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Rovers on Mars

I've been interested for awhile in the possibility of something living on other planets--whether it's us living out there, or some other life form living there, or robots are fine too. Just so, you know, it's not just us living here. (A few favorite books on living elsewhere: The Dazzle of the Day, by Molly Gloss;  The Book of Strange New Things, by Michel Faber; and The Birthday of the World and Other Stories, by Ursula LeGuin). So when I came across these photos of the tire tracks from rovers wandering around Mars, I kind of fell in love. It's pretty easy, for me at least, to humanize the rovers, and get to imagining what they're thinking, or what if they were us. My first instinct is to view these photos as a portrait in loneliness--something about a being looking back at where they've come from, and only seeing their own tracks, is so quiet and a little sad to me--but that also seems predictable. Why can't they be excited? Or relieved? Or lost? 

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IDL TIFF file

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Uprooted and a really cool surprising love scene

I just finished reading Uprooted (Naomi Novik), a fantasy novel and a great summer read. I loved a lot about this book--the narrative voice is funny and true, the narrator is super likable, the descriptions of the creepy woods are excellent, the plot is exciting. Though I'll admit I was disappointed that the book eventually succumbs to a rather traditional romance (young girl falls in love with cranky older--in this case 150 years older--man, but he doesn't look old, so maybe it's okay--and underneath his crankiness, there is rare glimpses of kindness, like maybe he has a heart of gold but just doesn't show it) (but I don't know, I still questioned why she loved him so much--is the heart of gold there or is she just imagining it?) (and if someone has a heart of gold but pretends they don't, will that be satisfying in a relationship later on?) (perhaps she loves his magic more than his personality--I like this idea best, that she falls in love with his magic more than him) (or maybe she adores the crankiness?) (it would have been interesting had he actually looked 150 years older--would she still have loved him in the same way then?). 

Anyway, before all that traditional romantic stuff happens, there are some really lovely scenes where Agnieszka (young narrator) and Sarkin (old magician who doesn't look old) do magic together. Sarkin practices a very traditional, rational magic, and Agnieszka's magic is more intuitive and wild.  I'm always on the look out for examples of love that look different from how we usually describe it, and I was kind of blown away by this scene. 

"A month into my new training, he was glaring at me while I struggled to make an illusion of a flower. “I don’t understand,” I said— whined, if I tell the truth: it was absurdly difficult. My first three attempts had looked like they were made of cotton rags. Now I had managed to put together a tolerably convincing wild rose, as long as you didn’t try to smell it. “It’s far easier just to grow a flower: why would anyone bother?”

“It’s a matter of scale,” he said. “I assure you it is considerably easier to produce the illusion of an army than the real thing. How is that even working?” he burst out, as he sometimes did when pressed past his limits by the obvious dreadfulness of my magic. “You aren’t maintaining the spell at all— no chanting, no gesture—”

A few reasons why Louise Edrich and LaRose are amazing

(side note: I have an essay up on Orion about why insomnia can be a little beautiful, and an essay on Brain, Child about why I got rid of all my parenting books) 

I've been studying Louise Erdrich's new novel LaRose these past mornings. It's been awhile since I've read anything so great that I wanted to go over it, sentence by sentence, and figure out what the author is doing and how the heck she does this (books I've done this with in the past: Wolf Hall (many times), Alice Munro's short stories, Alice McDermott's Someone) (I'm noting that these are all women authors--I wonder if there's something specifically female in their use of language that makes me want to study their writing).

I love Erdrich's dialogue, which sparkles, sparks, and is often hilarious. Her characters argue with fierceness but also with this underlying love (versus my own characters, who seem to argue with this biting meanness or detachment which I sometimes wish wasn't there). Erdrich is not afraid to use exclamation points. And I find it interesting she doesn't use quotation marks to note dialogue (despite my googling skills, I've been unable to pull up an interview where she reveals why. What came up, instead, were readers irritated at Erdrich for not using quotation marks. The Guardian has an interesting little essay about not using quotation marks, in which an author suggests quotation mark-less dialogue is "more immediate, more with it." I can see how it flows more smoothly, perhaps seems more spoken.) 

Here's some dialogue that I loved between a married couple, Peter and Nola Ravich.

Secret anti-plot hidden messages

and two publications

Side note #1: my novella "Over There" is out in the latest issue of the Alaska Quarterly Review. It's not exactly a beach read. Sometimes I wonder if it's perhaps the least commercially viable piece of fiction I've written -- a dark, violent, slightly experimental novella of all things about motherhood and torture in the Iraq war. Who in their right mind would publish something like that? Who in their right mind would spend months and months (I am underestimating the amount of time here) researching and writing something like that? On the other hand, I'm glad I wrote it. I wanted to investigate and try to understand how someone raises and loves a child after participating in really terrible things. Now I think I understand that more. I'm very grateful to the Alaska Quarterly Review for publishing a piece like this. They've published two other stories of mine in the past few years, both dark, violent, disturbing and rather humorless stories, that I think a lot of other journals might shy away from. I appreciate that the AQR takes risks and still sees the value of a story beyond its entertainment value. 

Side note #2: I also have a brief story up on Terraform from Earth Day. The story is from this project that has exploded all over my desk, which I'm trying actively to ignore now, but I will have to deal with it soon. I've read a lot of non-fiction these past two years about the environmental crisis, during which I started thinking the world would really be better off without us humans on it, so I wanted to examine that idea further by writing about it. This project concerns the future, computer games, the last generation of humans, auto-extinction (a word my husband claims to have made up but I love it), suicide, and beauty. It's supposed to be an optimistic project but either my characters or I keep seeming to forget this fact. The project now looks like it will be several million pages long. Commercially viable? Hmmmm.

In order to avoid working on that project / desk issue described above, I decided to clean up other areas of my desk, at which time I came across this folded sheet of legal paper that I found last year. The paper had been slipped inside the pages of a library book. I still have this fantasy, leftover from my childhood, of finding a really exciting note slipped into a book that would be the start of this great adventure or mystery: a clue, a map, a spell, etc. Instead, what I found was a woman's brief answers to a quiz from 2011. I kind of love that as an anti-plot twist. Actually I love a lot of things about what the woman wrote and how she wrote. The grammar of the voice. Her description of her eyes changing color (in answer #3 - read it - it's beautiful and eerie!). The slight feeling of a formal performance--it is a test after all--though it seems heartfelt as well. It's a reminder for me about what makes a voice believable. The small turns of phrase (how the opening that jumps right into the sentence ("Since I can remember..."). I would have written it, "Ever since I can remember," which is so much more stilted). The little surprising revelations (wanting to enjoy and slow down even the bad stuff in one's life). Or what is crossed out. 

Emotional truth versus realism

A Poem from The Crossover

The existence of the novel-in-verse YA genre strikes me as so unlikely. Who would have thought such a specific form could exist let alone be appealing and keep winning a lot of Newberry Awards? Speaking as an ex-poet, I love how a novel-in-verse can give poetry a cohesive story and, in doing so, makes poetry feel so much more relevant and enjoyable. It also can strip away unnecessary description and maneuvering from fiction, streamlining the voice in this very powerful way. Inside Out and Back Again, Brown Girl Dreaming, Out of the Dust, and Crank are a few great novels-in-verse  I've enjoyed. So during a recent trip to the library, while lugging bags around containing honestly 50 pounds of graphic novels for my son, I spied The Crossover and gladly checked it out. Told in free verse, The Crossover won the Newberry Award in 2015. It's a story of twins, Josh and Jordan, talented in basketball, and about their relationship to each other and to their father.   

The most powerful poem of The Crossover for me is "Questions." Josh's dad is in the hospital, Josh is angry, he's just sat beside his father, and after the two of them stare at each other for 10 minutes in silence, the dad suggests they take turns asking questions but not answering them. While I can imagine characters thinking these questions, I can't imagine characters speaking most of these questions out loud, and I wondered for a while whether the non-realism effects the powerfulness of the interchange. In the end I decided so what if this dialogue would never happen in reality: these words capture the emotional truth of the relationship and the situation so well that I don't think extreme realism matters here.

This idea of capturing emotional truth rather than reality reminds me of several passages from Tom Bissell's great essay about Warner Herzog, "The Secret Mainstream." Herzog occasionally scripts dialogue or action for his documentary subjects who, at least in the examples Bissell cites, don't seem to mind as the scripted parts get at the emotional truth of these people maybe better than their actual life does. Here's one example as described by Bissell: "In Little Dieter Needs to Fly (1997), Herzog’s astonishing documentary about the escape and survival of a German-American pilot named Dieter Dengler from a Pathet Lao prison camp in 1966, Herzog shows us Dengler entering his San Francisco home, whereupon he opens and closes the front door several times before entering. “Most people,” Dengler explains, “don’t realize how important it is, and the privilege that we have, to be able to open and close the door. That’s the habit I got into, and so be it.” Dengler did not actually have this habit. In fact, it was Herzog’s idea. While it embodied a real feeling Dengler had, it was not a real activity. Assigning to Dengler an activity he did not engage in is what Herzog has called “the ecstatic truth,” wherein literal accuracy cedes its ground to emotional accuracy, a subjective realm entered through manipulation and fabrication."

Two publications and a great book without words

Penny, The Sun, and The Only Child

I have a short piece out in Penny, a cool new journal that pairs a writer with an illustrator (the illustrator for my story was Brandon Reese), as well as offering interesting writing and drawing prompts. I started writing flash pieces about a year and a half ago, when I was bogged down in a slightly experimental novel about the Iraq war, and it was so freeing to work within a 1,000 or 1500 word limit. And fun! I mean, the revision process just can't go on for months or longer (one hopes) if your story is only a few pages long. Penny's limit is 500 words and it is such a pleasure to work within those constraints.

Also in the March issue of The Sun I have a short story "The Portal." Back in 2003 The Sun published my first real short story--about a girl who is trying very hard to be a miraculous saint. The story, and that acceptance, convinced me that I really could be a fiction writer (I was a poet at the time), so it was great to work that magazine again. Not to mention that in "The Portal" I finally got to channel my decades of longing for a real portal to open up and take me to another world. (Do most people outgrow this kind of longing? I might say I wish I could, but if I was totally happy in this world, I probably would give up writing.)

On the topic of longing for other worlds: Stella and I spent the last few days reading The Only Child (by Guojing), a wordless book told in heartbreakingly lovely pictures, and I really savored that time with her. Stella is in first grade and these days prefers long chapter books, ideally books with scary things in it, such as monsters, adventures, and danger (I'm glad I snuck in the Little House books with her when I could). Or, now that she is reading. she wants to spend our time reading Elephant and Piggy books to me. It feels like my days of reading great picture books to her (and maybe reading aloud to her in general?) are numbered. The Only Child was perfect for us though, as we took turns telling each other the story that was happening on each page - I told the story on the left page, she told the story on the right. It's about a child who is left alone one day because her parents need to work. The child leaves the apartment and takes the bus by herself, hopefully to go find her grandmother. But she becomes lost and enters a warm and compassionate fantasy world instead.  

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Random Thoughts I’ll Compile Here Since I Haven’t Posted Anything For Months

Writing about suicide: Adam Johnson's fabulous short story "Nirvana" (from Fortune Smiles) and the YA book All the Bright Places have gotten me thinking about the challenge of how to bring suicide into a story. Johnson does a great job of the narrator husband struggling to love his depressed and probably suicidal wife who can't stop listening to Nirvana (the band) and will probably be unable to get out of bed for the rest of her life. How do you create love in that setting? It's a powerful, moving story. Though honestly I could not put All the Bright Places down, I found Finch, the suicidal bi-polar boy, to be a bit too charming. What if he was just depressed? What if he wasn't so likable in his manic phase? What would the story be like then? It did feel like Violet (popular pretty girl who is struggling with older sister's death) only knew, and perhaps could have only loved, Finch as his manic self. Was it really love then? The thing about teenage love, I suppose, is that it has less strings attached than, let's say, marital love with house and kids. Though it's sad to leave it behind, you could more easily. Had Finch only been depressed, I'm guessing Violet would have never fallen in love with him in the first place (or if she had been able to fall in love with him, that would have been a very interesting and complex story). For my own writing, I was pondering if the least interesting point of view in a story about suicide was the suicidal person's point of view. Why would this be? And who to tell the story from then?  

YA tropes: though I love really, really YA, some of the repeating tropes are starting to get a little old for me. The cute outsider boy in a band. The boy who likes the girl who eventually likes him back. The awful parents. The clueless parents. The absent parents. The parents who are the cause of the characters' problems. Are parents of teenagers actually so terrible?

YA books that transcend those tropes: Picture Me Gone (a girl who has a close relationship with her parents, her parents are good, they do make mistakes but everyone works past that - it's also a great mystery); Tamar (historic World War II novel about resistance in the Netherlands. Parents make mistakes but it also shows the parents, or in this case the grandparents, at a young age making those mistakes, and it shows the complexity of how a mistake is made, and then having to live with those mistakes); The Astonishing Life of Octavian Nothing (I don't remember there being any romance in this book, finally. Instead it is brutal, honest, breathtaking account of race and the American Revolution ); The Summer Prince (the prince loves the narrator's best friend (a boy) but also loves the narrator (a girl). In fact he has gotten some tech alterations and now loves everyone, including the city -- can that still be love? And the girl loves the prince....it was kind of mind-blowing to see a different set up of teen relationships here);  

Where are the YA books where: nobody likes anybody romantically; people like each other but then those people like other people for the entire book; people like everybody; the parents are good and doing their best; kids cause their own problems; there is not some revelation at the end and it's just really messy

Children Writing Books

Stella wants to be a writer / personal trainer when she grows up. Some nights she drags out my exercise equipment and encourages me to do the really complicated exercises she dreams up. Other evenings she spends working on her writing. Being a first grader, she's smack in the middle of learning to read / write / spell, which sounds like a magical time, when words stop being symbols and they start clicking into focus. She wrote some of her first independent sentences for this book she made in honor of her cousin Andre's first birthday. Seeing her work so hard on her word choice, and what happens next, and what she wanted to communicate to her reader made me think that writing when you're 6 isn't a whole lot different than writing when you're older, only my 6 year old seems less anguished about it. In fact she radiated pure joy every time she got down a sentence. I love the sweetness of her plot and how everybody in her story is happy. I wish it was possible to write like that as an adult. Here's the text / translation of Stella's story. 

hi
Clap clap cat said baby andre.
The baby andre had a cat. Did the baby andre have a dog? 
Baby andre did not have a dog. Hi stella said baby andre.
Little baby andre hid with stella.
Baby andre played with stella.
Baby andre laughed with stella.
Baby Andre pretended to fly. Stella did too.
Baby Andre climbed and ran. Stella did too.
Love stella

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Family Art

Hillerbrand+Magsamen, Clifford Ross, and a few other gems from the summer

My husband and I developed a nasty habit of really enjoying art museums when we were living in Minneapolis decades ago, and when our two children arrived, we weren't going to let the fact they existed make us quit. So we've been dragging our kids to museums ever since they were babies, learning a few things along the way, such as museum guards in big cities will probably be unkind so remember you're not there to see the guards, while museum guards in small cities will likely be nicer, and audio tours, especially audio tours for kids, are a godsend.

This summer we saw several exhibits that engaged the kids. I felt lucky to have the chance to watch my son and daughter experience, and lose themselves in, so much art. 

Stephen Vitiello’s All Those Vanished Engines

#1. Mass Moca, lodged in an old converted cloth printing factory in Massachusetts, was a treat, in part because the campus is such an industrial playground meant for exploring. Especially of note was Stephen Vitiello's All Those Vanished Engines, a sound installation taking place in the old boiler house building. While my husband called this perhaps the most dangerous art installation he's experienced (no unnecessary safety rails here!), the kids were thrilled with their ability to wander around the building on their own, and with Vitiello's sounds playing throughout, the once utilitarian setting was able to transform into something more sculptural, abstract, haunting (and haunted?), and timeless. I'm always grateful when art is taken out of its sacred guarded context and put in a place which encourages the viewer, and in particular a kid, to interact with it.