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By Dave Hood
“Every child is an artist. The problem is how to remain an artist once he grows up.”
― Pablo Picasso
Often, the writer must sit some place with a blank page and pen or a white screen staring back, and attempt to find something interesting, compelling, illuminating, entertaining to write on the page or type on the screen. It can be a daunting experience. The esteemed Canadian writer, Margaret Atwood, writes in her introduction,” Negotiating with the Dead”, that writing is too often like “walking into the labyrinth….like groping through a tunnel..like being in a cave…like wading through a deep river at dawn or twilight.” She goes on to write: “Virginia Woolf said that writing a novel is like walking through a dark room, holding a lantern which lights up what is already in the room. “Given the obstacles in unearthing a story or the difficulty dusting off an inspiring idea that can be expanded into a poem, short story, personal essay, article…why would anyone desire or aspire to write?
There are many reasons why people desire to write. Some want to express their creative spirit. Some believe it is the ideal career. Others want to write in a particular field, such as journalism, technical writing, medical writing. Many writers who take up creative writing–crafting poetry, fiction, short stories, novels—combine writing with teaching. I would guess that all teachers of creative writing in MBA programs are published writers. And most could not survive without teaching. In other words, they’d be starving artists, like most of you reading this article/blog post. You will not make a living writing poetry. And if you read the biographies of any poet, most had day jobs. Popular American poet, Wallace Stevens, who crafted many memorable poems, worked by day in the insurance industry. When Stevens died, many of his work colleagues didn’t know that he was a poet in his leisure time. Here’s a favorite poem of his:
The Snow Man
by Wallace Stevens
One must have a mind of winter
To regard the frost and the boughs
Of the pine-trees crusted with snow;
And have been cold a long time
To behold the junipers shagged with ice,
The spruces rough in the distant glitter
Of the January sun; and not to think
Of any misery in the sound of the wind,
In the sound of a few leaves,
Which is the sound of the land
Full of the same wind
That is blowing in the same bare place
For the listener, who listens in the snow,
And, nothing himself, beholds
Nothing that is not there and the nothing that is.
I write to express my creative spirit, to share something important, to fulfill my need to create, to express, to illuminate others with universal truths about life, to be recognized, to be published. This is why I write. And you will have your own reasons why you write or desire to write. There is no right or wrong reason. Writing creatively—using metaphor, simile, alliteration, symbolism, showing people what happened, not telling them, vivid details, imagery, and other literary devices— elevates good writing into an “art form.” A memorable poem, compelling short story, personal essay that illuminates a truth about the human condition is art.
by Dave Hood
Most great writer’s have a routine. That is what I’ve learned by reading Margaret Atwood’s “Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing,” Steven King’s “On Writing: A Memoir on Craft,” and Elizabeth Berg’s “Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True.”
Writer Elizabeth Berg suggests that your writing routine should be “as personal and as varied” as your routines for anything else.
If your lifestyle changes, so will your writing routine. If you are a student at university, taking courses in creative writing, you’ll probably have lots of time to read and write. But, if you are working full-time, and attempting to write a novel, or short story, you’ll have to do it in your leisure time, perhaps at night or on the weekend.
Berg suggests that you begin your writing day by reading the writing you completed yesterday, and then edit it before writing something new. Why? The break from writing will provide you with fresh insight and a new perspective, perhaps even some new material.
Other writers suggest that you complete the first draft before beginning any sort of editing. Why? Editing can slow down the process of putting words from your mind on the page. Editing can also stifle the creative spirit. I always write the first draft before editing. And I always take a break for a few days before revising my work. The break allows me to discover new material and see my work from a fresh perspective.
Berg also suggests that when you are completing a writing project, continue to read unrelated material, such as other books, magazines, poetry, newspapers, to help you continually fill your creative spirit with new ideas.
How long should you write for? Berg writes for three or four hours in the morning, and then stops. Other writer’s do the same. Most writers don’t write for long stretches of time, such as 9,10,11 hours. Why? Their mind gets tired, they are unable to think clearly, they are unable to dust off authentic and original ideas from memory or their imagination. They are unable to write at their best with specific details, fresh similes, surprising metaphors.
As part of the routine, you should also write in a quiet and inspirational place, some location that allows you to think. Some writers set up a writing room. In their writing room, there is a desk, chair, bookcase of favorite books, a dictionary, thesaurus, perhaps some quiet music on the stereo, art on the walls, and photographs perched on the desk. Other writes craft a piece of writing in their bedroom, lying in bed. Many writers carve out something in a quiet cafe, where there’s the hustle and bustle of people, and soothing music.
Part of your routine also requires that you choose the “writing tools” that inspire you and allow you to quickly express your thoughts on the page, including a pen or coloured pens. A notebook. A writing Journal. A computer, such as tablet or laptop. Most creative writing instructors tell you to keep a writing journal, and write in it each day with a pen or a set of coloured pens. Most writers will also tell you to carry a notebook, so that when an interesting idea pops into your mind, you can capture it.
To write a poem, short story, novel, article, anything well, you require discipline. To be disciplined, you need a routine. Some writers like to write in the morning, other writers like to write at night when it’s dark. Many writers are only able to write in their leisure time, such as on the weekend, when they don’t have to work at their 9 to 5 day job.
If you truly want to become a good writer and publish, you must have discipline. Discipline requires that you make writing a high priority. And so, if you are a person who writes a “To-do-list” each day, you should make writing your number 1 priority, or very close to the top of your list of things to do. As well, instead of writing when you feel like it, you must establish a schedule and write at specific time of day. This helps to establish a routine. If you do not have time to write, you must find time. For instance, you could write for 15 minutes on your lunch, write for 15 minutes on your coffee break, writer while you ride the bus home from work… Discipline as a writer requires that you organize your life around your writing.
The act of writing makes you a writer. Writing requires that you do it regularly. Establishing a routine is the best way to write each day or on some schedule. Establishing a routine enables you to learn to write, to experiment with your writing, to become a writer, to write creatively like Hemingway, Alice Munro, Stephen King. Establishing a writing routine allows you to complete projects and to publish your writing dreams, rather than leave your writing aspirations to chance.
If you’d like to learn more about the writing life, I recommend that you read:
- Margaret Atwood’s “Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing”
- Steven King’s “On Writing: A Memoir on Craft”
- Elizabeth Berg’s “Escaping into the Open: The Art of Writing True.”
Each of these books is an entertaining read and provides insight into the writing life, as well as great advice on the art and craft of writing.
Conducting research is the part of the “nonfiction” aspect of writing creative nonfiction. It is one of the Five R’s of creative nonfiction, one of the essential components of writing personal essays, memoirs, and literary journalism. The amount of required research for a writing project depends on the form of creative nonfiction. Research involves collecting facts to increase understanding of a person, place, event, idea, experience, thing.
In this article, I’ll explain the purpose of research, identify the methods of research, and how to research your own life.
Purpose of Research
You carry out research to increase your understanding of a person, topic, idea. You also do research to see what else has been written on the topic that you are going to write about. You don’t want to duplicate what is already written. You can also do research to become a subject matter expert.
Research also allows you to verify facts. You want to be sure that what you written is true and accurate.
And research has another purpose: To stimulate our memories. Often when we investigate an experience or event, memories associated with the event rise into our minds from depths of unconsciousness.
If you intend to write a memoir, you’ll be required to complete extensive research into your own life — to recall significant details of people, places, events from your own past.
Facts from research can also be used by the writer to create metaphors or similes. Brenda Miller suggests this in her book, “Tell It Slant.”
Some forms of creative nonfiction require more research than other forms. For example, a personal essay about a canoe trip to a lake that resulted in an epiphany requires less research than a memoir. The canoe trip might only require you to consult your writing journal and to speak with the friend who accompanied you on the canoe trip, whereas a memoir will involve interviewing friends and family, visiting the library and public records offices, revisiting the places you frequented during the period of the memoir, and obtaining details about the popular culture of the time by conducting research with a Google search.
There are two drawbacks to doing research. First, the tsunami of facts that you collect can overwhelm, preventing you from writing. Secondly, research can result in procrastination. In other words, the task of researching a project often prevent you from writing the narrative.
Methods of Research
Immersion. You acquire an understanding by “living the experience.” Suppose you intend to write a story about baseball, but you’d never played this game before. You could increase your understanding by playing a few games of baseball. You would then use what you learned from the experience to write your piece of creative nonfiction.
Interviewing. A popular approach is to interview a subject matter expert, or talk to people who participated in the event or experience, or interview those who were a witnesses to the event, or interview those who knew the person you are writing about. An interview always requires a list of question to ask. These questions should be open-ended, requiring the person being interviewed to respond with more than a “yes” or “no.”
The Reference Library. The reference library contains a sea of information, including:
- Publications on microfilm, such as old newspapers
- Online catalogues to help you find facts
Be sure to ask the librarian for assistance.
The Internet. Begin by conducting a Google search, the most popular search engine. There is also Google Scholar, which you can use for scholarly searches. Then read and collect useful facts at reputable websites. For instance, suppose you want to learn more about modern and contemporary art, you could visit “The Art Story website at www.artstory.org. To help you find information, you can use the Search tool on the website. Not only can you read content on websites, but you can read blog postings. Many subject matter experts have their own blogs in which they post articles, commentaries, and so forth. And YouTube offers you information via video and photographs.
Public Records. Sometimes you’ll be require to verify facts. The public records is the place to fact check marriage licences, dates of birth, and death certificates.
Researching Your Own Life
Writing a personal essay often requires that you research your own life before writing. This is mandatory when writing a memoir. Research allows you to check the accuracy memories. Research enables you to recall details of the popular culture, as well as the social and economic and historical conditions of the life you lived in the past.
Research also enables you to mine your own memory, enabling you to recall people, places, events, experiences that have long been forgotten. Why? Researching a timeline or time period stimulates your memory. You can start with a timeline. For instance, do a Google search to find out what happened in 1980. The Google search results of the events of that year will enable you to recall memories of things that happened to you during that year
Besides using a timeline, there are many other ways to research your own life, including:
- Challenges, setbacks, obstacles. For instance, what is the biggest challenge you have faced in life? What is the saddest moment in your life?
- Moves, leaving home, first home, place where you lived after the divorce.
- Birthdays, anniversaries, graduations, marriages, deaths
- First experience, such as your first kiss, first new car, first speech, first job
- Achievements. What are your accomplishments?
- Legacy. What do you want to be remembered for?
- Revisit places of your childhood, adolescence, or adulthood
- Look over old photographs, read old diaries and journals and letters, leaf through old scrapbooks.
Author, Lois Daniel, has written a must-read text for anyone who desires to write personal narrative essays or a memoir. Her book is called, “How to Write Your Life Story.” She explains, provides tips, and suggestions on how you can tap into memory, and rediscover your favorite toys as a child, write about inventions that have significantly impacted you, accomplishments you are most proud of, happy and sad family events, favorite pets, friends and family who have passed through your life, and much more.
What sort of research will be required? The type of narrative determines what information/facts the writer provides the reader. (You Can’t Make this Stuff Up by Lee Gutkind)The key points to remember: creative nonfiction writers do research to increase their understanding of themselves and the world in which they live. And yet, too much research, a mountain of facts, can blow out the flame of creativity. And so, a writer ought to do only as much research as required to understand the topic, person, idea, he/she is write about.
Resources. For more information on how to increase your understanding by research, read the following:
- You Can’t Make this Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything In Between by Lee Gutkind.
- To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
- Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction, Second Edition, by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
- How to Write Your Own Life Story: The Classic Guide for the nonprofessional Writer by Lois Daniel
Writing creative nonfiction is about telling true stories. You can tell a story about yourself, crafting essays about personal experiences. You can also write about other people, places, and events in the world.
There are three categories of creative nonfiction: the personal essay, memoir, and creative nonfiction. Within these categories, there are several subgenres. For instance, if you want to write a personal essay, you can choose from personal narrative, opinion essay, meditation, or lyrical essay.
Creative nonfiction requires that you write true and factual narratives, not fiction. You’ll want to present the truth and facts in a compelling, entertaining, and memorable way so that others will be inspired to read your story. To write any of these forms of creative nonfiction, you have many techniques to choose from, such as scene, summary, personal reflection.
In this article, I’ll identify the toolbox of techniques that writers are expected to use when writing creative nonfiction.
Topic and Question. Author Eileen Pollack, in “Creative Nonfiction”, suggests that before writing, you ought to select a topic and then pose a question. She suggests that a question creates a focus and purpose for writing. For instance, suppose you recall a memory, ask yourself: What is so important about this memory? What did I learn from the personal experience? Why is it significant? Is there a universal truth? Or, suppose you wanted to write a meditative essay on “freedom.” You could start by posing a question to yourself: What is freedom to me?
Narrative Structure or Shape of a Story. There’s no single structure, nor is there a formula for writing creative nonfiction. Often your narrative takes shape as you write. Connie Griffin, in “To Tell the Truth”, writes that narrative structure is not imposed from the outside, but discovered from within the narrative, meaning that you discover the details of the story and its structure as you write. In creative nonfiction, there are five popular narrative structures or shapes:
- Narrative structure: Telling the story chronologically, from beginning to end.
- Braided Structure: Telling a story by weaving or combining two, sometimes three, narratives or stories.
- Collage: Using a thematic and segmented approach that combines a quotation or two, poem, scene, metaphor, simile, allusion, personification, image, vignette, anecdote, a short, short, true story, with an epiphany.
- Frame: Telling a story by opening with a particular scene or reflecting and closing with a particular scene or reflection.
- Narrative with Flashback: Telling a story using scene, summary, reflection, and flashbacks.
As well, the you can experiment with the narrative structure, resulting in a new structure or shape.
Distinctive Voice, Style, and Intimate Point of View. All good writers have a distinctive voice, which is the persona of the writer expressed on the age.
Dinty Moore, in “Truth of the Matter”, writes: “An author’s voice consists of many things, including word choice, sentence structure and rhythm, metaphor and imagery…perhaps humour or irony, and always the personality of the writer. Good writers also have a unique style. A writer’s style is his/her expression of persona on the page. It includes choice of diction, sentence variety, and tone, point of view, use of metaphor, and other literary devices. The tone of the writing itself is always friendly, conversational. Stories are often told using the first-person point of view.
Detail and Description. Creative writing is often a form of discovery. As you write, you recall the details, the memories, the images, the felt emotion, the deeper meaning. You’ll recall from memory significant, particular details and then writes them down. You’ll craft vivid descriptions with concrete, specific, and particular details. You don’t have to include every detail, only those that are significant or important. Often you’ll use sensory imagery, language that invokes the sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, or hearing. The purpose of including detail is to recreate the experience in the mind of the reader.
Scene and Summary. One of the most important techniques of creative nonfiction is writing in scenes. A scene recreates the experience of the writer for the reader. A scene evokes. To write a scene, you must show the reader what is happening. A scene often includes:
- Setting-time and place of the story
- Action-something happens.
- Dialogue-someone something not always
- Vivid description-concrete and specific details.
- Imagery-language that invokes the reader’s sense of sight, smell, taste, touch, hearing
- Point of View-first, second, third person.
- Figurative language, such as simile and metaphor.
- Beginning, middle, and ending-A scene has a beginning, middle, and end
Summary involves telling the reader what happened. Telling means to summarize and to compress, leaving out the details and descriptions. Telling is explaining.
You should create scenes of important events, such as for a setback and the turning point.
Scene and summary are used for all types of creative nonfiction.
Techniques of Fiction. You’ll also rely on the techniques of fiction to tell a true story, including:
- Setting-time and place and context, which provides the backdrop to the true story
- Narrative Arc ( inciting incident, conflict and setback, climax, epiphany, resolution)
- Point of View- first person “I”, Second Person “You”, third person “He/She”
- Character development- Developing character through action, dialogue, description
- Vivid Description-descriptions that are concrete and specific
- Use of imagery-literal imagery through description; figurative imagery with simile or metaphor
- Theme-the meaning of the story
The narrative arc is used to write a personal narrative essay, sometimes a memoir. The opinion essay, meditative essay, and collage essay don’t require a narrative. These sorts of essays tend to be structured around a theme.
Poetic Devices-Figurative Language. You’ll often use one or more of the following poetic devices to write creative nonfiction:
- Assonance and alliteration
Experienced Writers often use any of the above to write creative nonfiction. Simile and metaphor are the tools of choice.
Personal Reflection. In most types of creative nonfiction, you’ll share personal reflection with the reader. These can include:
- Personal thoughts and feelings
- Personal perspective
- stream of consciousness
Personal refection is required to write a memoir. It is also used to write a personal narrative, opinion, meditative, and lyrical essay. Personal reflection can also be incorporated into literary journalism.
Word Choice/Diction. Check to see that you use language in a fresh and original way,making note of connotation, the implied meaning of the word. As well, selecting words with the best meaning. Meaning refers to diction. Avoid using clichés and jargon.
Sentence Variety (Length and structure). Use short and long, and a variety of syntax to create a personal essay, memoir, or literary journalism. Sentence variety includes:
- Intentional Fragment. e.g. A pen. Pad of paper. Time, lots of time. Experimentation. A creative mind. These are the requirements of creative writing.
- Simple, compound, complex, compound-complex sentences.
- Parallel structure in sentences. E.g. I require a pen, pad of paper, spare time, experimentation, and a creative mind, to write creatively, to write poetry, to write fiction, to write a personal essay, to write anything.
- Declarative (statement of fact), Interrogative (ask a question), exclamatory (emphatic) sentences
- Inverted sentence. E.g. The book of poetry he wrote…The film, the script, the special effects, the story, I enjoyed.
- Lose sentence and periodic sentences. When writing a periodic sentence, the main idea and clause are at the end of the sentence. For a lose sentence, the main idea and independent clause are at the beginning of the sentence.
Lyrical Language. Sometimes a writer will use a lyrical style to express emotion and evoke emotion in the reader. This is often the case when writing a lyrical essay. The writing style is based on the following:
- Repetition of words, phrases, clauses
- Parallel Structure
- Rhyme, both rhyme and internal rhyme
- Alliteration and Assonance
- Sensory Imagery
For additional information on any of these techniques, read the following:
- Truth of the Matter: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Dinty Moore
- Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
- Creative Nonfiction: A Guide to Form, Content, and Style by Eileen Pollack
- To Tell the Truth: Practise and Craft in Narrative Nonfiction by Connie D. Griffin
By Dave Hood
The most important sentence is often the first one. It is often called the hook or lead. If it doesn’t inspire the reader to proceed to the second sentence, and then the third….your personal essay, or memoir, or any other form of creative writing is dead. That is what William Zinsser tells us in “On Writing Well”, a how-to guide for writing creative nonfiction.
Your opening must capture the reader’s attention and motivate them to read your entire piece of writing. You do this by writing a compelling lead, opening, or entry point.
There are many ways to create an entry point, or lead, or beginning for a piece of creative nonfiction. One way is to just begin “telling the story.” Sometimes writers begin with a “quotation” or “interesting fact.” Another way is to ask a question. For instance: More than 20 million people have purchased Fifty Shades of Gray. What does this suggest about women?
And once you’ve written your piece of creative nonfiction, you must end with a bang. Otherwise, the reader is inclined to be disappointed. The lousy ending is like a film that ends poorly. And so, you’ll want to end with a one final point, which the reader can take away and ponder.
In this article, I’ll discuss the following:
- How to write an opening or lead or entry point into a story
- How to end a piece of creative nonfiction
Writing an Opening
As mentioned in the introduction, there are many ways to begin writing a piece of creative nonfiction. Some writers begin by telling a story. That’s what Malcolm Gladwell did when he wrote “Slackers” for the New Yorker magazine. (July 30th, 2012)
William Zinsser, author of the splendid writing-advice book, “On Writing Well”, identifies a few other ways. You can begin with:
- A question
- A quotation
- A fascinating fact
- An Anecdote
Laurie Oliver, author of the how-to book, “The Story Within,” identifies many other ways to begin:
- With a list
- With a memory
- With a scene
- With a reminiscence
- With a reflection
- With an assertion
- With a diagnosis
- With a general statement
One of the simplest ways to begin is by asking a question. For instance, what made Andy Warhol a fascinating artist? What was his contribution to the world of art?
Another easy way to begin is with a list. For example, here are the reasons why I write…
Another is to begin with a quotation. For instance, “Patience is the companion of wisdom.”—St. Augustine.
An interesting fact can also introduce a good piece of creative writing. Writer David Remnick, the author of the profile “We Are Alive: Bruce Springsteen at Sixty-Two” (July 30th, 2012) begins with an interesting fact:
Nearly half a century ago, when Elvis Presley was filming “Harum Scarum and “Help!” was on the charts, a moody, father-haunted, yet uncannily charismatic Shore rat named Bruce Springsteen was building a small reputation around New Jersey as a guitar player in a band called the Castiles.
Usually, the form of creative nonfiction you are sitting down to write will define the how to begin. For instance, a personal-narrative essay will usually begin at the beginning of the story. A meditative essay often begins with a question. For instance, What is the meaning of life? A travel essay can begin with a memorable scene. A literary journalism essay often begins with an interesting fact, generalization, assertion.
Writing the Ending
Writing a good ending is as important as writing a compelling opening. You need to know when to end and how to end a story. You should give as much thought to your ending as your opening. That is what William Zinsser tells us. There are several ways to end. The personal narrative usually ends when the story ends, often with some epiphany. Some writer’s end by referring back to the beginning of the story. If your entry point into the essay is a question, then you can end with one final answer. Many writer’s end with a final quote.
In the essay, “Slackers” by Malcolm Gladwell, he ends with the following quote: “None of the doctors who treated me, and none of the experts I’ve consulted since the day I collapsed, have ever heard of anybody being gone for than long and coming back to full health,” he writes. He was back on the track nine days later.
David Remnick, author of “We Are Alive”, ends with the following quote: Springsteen glanced at the step and stepped into the spotlight. “Hola, Barcelona!” he cried out to a sea of forty-five thousand people. “Hola, Catalunya!”
Other ways to end are to make a judgement or recommendation or share an insight.
In “On Writing Well,” William Zinsser makes a few suggestions about ending a piece of creative nonfiction:
- “When you are ready to stop, stop. In other words, don’t write too much.”
- “The positive reason for ending well is that a good last sentence–or last paragraph, is a joy in itself. It gives the reader a lift, and it lingers when the article is over.”
- “The perfect ending should take the reader slightly by surprise.”
- “What usually works best is a quotation.”
Zinsser also tells us not to end by summarizing. For instance: “In summary…or “To conclude…”
Why? A summary is repeating yourself by compressing details that were already shared with the reader. Instead, you ought to make one final point that resonates in the mind of the reader.
There are no rules on how to end, only suggestions. It is up to the writer to decide how to begin and how best to end a piece of writing. Whatever methods you choose, be sure to capture your reader’s attention when you begin. A good beginning draws your readers into the writing like a magnet. And end your work with some important final point. A good final point is like a knockout punch.
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- The Story Within: New Insights and Inspirations for Writers by Laura Oliver
- The Elements of Story: Field Notes on Nonfiction by Francis Flaherty
Your writer’s voice and writing style are developed as you learn, as you experiment, as you master the art and craft of writing. The more you read, the more you experiment, the more you learn about writing, the more polished your writing becomes. Your voice and style emerge as you become a polished writer.
All great writers have a distinctive voice and style, which they learned, developed, and polished over time. For example, fiction writer Ernest Hemingway’s writing style is like minimalism art. His style is sparse. He uses short sentence, and write with nouns and verbs, applies adjectives and adverbs sparingly. His voice is conversational. Many fiction writers aspire to write like Hemingway. Why? Because they like his voice and style of writing.
If you don’t like the tone, or the voice, or the style of writing, you are likely find a personal essay, memoir, or any other creative nonfiction or fiction writing dull. When a work is judged to be dull, the reader will not proceed to read it.
In this article, I’ll discuss voice and style as it applies to creative nonfiction. (The same definition of voice and style applies to fiction and poetry.) The following will be covered:
- How to analyze the voice and style of writer’s you like
- Voice of the creative nonfiction writer
- Writing style of the creative nonfiction writer
- How to develop your voice and style
Analyzing the Voice and Style of Great Writers
To become a great writer, you must not only write on a regular basis, but also read like a writer. What does reading like a writer mean? It means analyzing the prose of the writers you enjoy reading, learning what sorts of sentences, diction, tone, voice, point of view they use.
In the July 30th, 2012 edition of the New Yorker magazine, Malcolm Gladwell writes a piece of creative nonfiction called ” Slackers.” He begins the literary journalism essay as follows: “Whenever I take the freeway west from Toronto to my parent’s home, I pass a park where I ran a cross-country race many years ago……” From Gladwell’s beginning, we get a glimpse of his writing voice and style. He uses everyday language, the first- person point of view (“I”), and has a friendly, conversational tone.
In the next section, Gladwell introduces us to Alberto Salazar, the great long-distance runner of a bygone era. Gladwell shifts point of view to third-person, referring to Salazar as “he”, and then begins to profile Salazar. We see that Gladwell makes use of the simile, writing “Salazar shuffled like an old man.” We see that he makes use of the short sentence with “Distance runners tend to be elfin.” We learn that Gladwell is speaking to the reader using everyday language, sentence variety, and the active voice.
You can improve your style and develop your voice by analyzing the prose of writers you like reading. Once you learn how they constructed their essays or memoirs, you can use their techniques, such as syntax or diction in your own writing.
The Writer’s Voice
What is voice? It is a confusing term, often misunderstood, or not understood at all, by those who aspire to become creative writers. One of the best definitions of “voice” is written by author, Jack Hart, in Story Craft. He suggests that voice is the personality of the writer revealed in the words on the page. For Hart, voice has two components:
- The persona of the writer. A writer has many personas. Some public. Others private. A woman can be a mother, wife, friend, artist, and so on. For each of these personas, the woman as a writer can express a different voice. To understand persona, ask yourself, what kind of personality is revealed on the page? Happy? Sad? Serious? Humorous? Friendly? Sophisticated? Condescending?
- The position or narrative distance of the writer in relation to the true story. If I tell a story using “I” or first-point of view, then I am close to the story, probably directly involved or a close observer. On the other hand, if I tell a story using “He/She” or third-person point of view, then I am telling the story from some distance, like a spectator watching a football match from the sidelines.
The writer’s voice is also revealed in the thoughts, feelings, reflections shared on the page with the reader. This is especially true for creative nonfiction, which relies on the building blocks of scene, summary, and personal reflection, to tell a true story, whether a personal essay or memoir or literary journalism.
Why is voice important? Often, we make a decision to read to its completion a piece of creative nonfiction because we like the voice of the writing. Jack Hart writes that “voice plays a key role in attracting and holding readers, regardless of their subject.
In creative writing, the writer’s voice is an important quality of the writing, especially in personal essays and memoir. And yet, ” the “voice of the writer” is excluded in so many types of writing. This is true for business writing, technical writing, academic writing. It is formal writing, laced with jargon, clichés, and written in the third person. In essence, the writing doesn’t reveal the personality of the writer, nor does the writer use “I” or first person point of view. Hart refers to writing that excludes persona as the ” institutional voice.”
When writing any type of creative writing, you must discard the “institutional voice.” Instead, work to develop a friendly, conversational voice, using everyday language.
The Writer’s Style
What is style? Hart, in Story Craft, suggests that style is different than voice. For Hart, style is the expression of the writer’s personality on the page. How does a writer express his style? There are many components of a writing style. In a general sense, style is everything the writer brings to the experience of writing–views, prejudices, biases, expertise, wisdom, knowledge, and so on. But this does not enable us to understand a writer’s style as it applies to the writing itself. What, then, are the important components? Most instructors of creative writing will tell you that writing style includes:
- Word choice or diction. Each word that the writer selects has a dictionary meaning (denotation) Does the writer use educated language, such as ten-dollar words or simple language, everyday language? Most words also have a connotation (implied meaning.) Many words have more than one meaning, depending on the context As well, a writer must strive to use language in a fresh and original way, which means that clichés should not be used. What are clichés? They are warn-out words or phrases that have become dull like old paint on a wall. A clichés just makes for dull writing. As a writer, you must be cognizant of diction, connotation, and clichés.
- Syntax or sentence variety. This refers to the length and types of sentences the writer uses–an intentional fragment; simple, complex, compound, or compound-complex sentence; periodic sentence or loose sentence; Declarative, interrogative, or exclamatory sentence; Parallel structure; items in a series. (If you don’t understand these different types of sentences, you ought to learn them and use them. Sentence variety also refers to the length of the sentence. The writer can select a single word, a phrase, or a longer sentence. Short sentences speed up the pace; long sentences slow down the pace.
- Figurative Language. You have many choices: metaphor, simile, allusion, personification, symbolism. Figurative language gives an infinite number of possibilities to develop your style. Figurative language is like different colours of paint you use to paint a memorable landscape.
- Tone. It refers to the attitude of the writer towards the subject and the audience who will read the work. Some writer’s write in a friendly, intimate tone. Other writer’s write with authority and expertise. (There are many types of tone that a writer can use. Never use a condescending tone.) Humourist David Sedaris writes with a humourous tone.
How to Develop Your Writing Style
Writing Style evolves as you write. If you don’t write on a regular basis, If you don’t learn how to write, if you don’t study the writing of great writers, your style will stagnate. Here are a few suggestions on how you can develop your writing style:
- Expand your vocabulary. If you read a word you don’t understand, look up its meaning in the dictionary. As well, if you don’t have a strong vocabulary, start by learning a new word each day, and then use it in your daily conversations and writing.
- Read and learn the rules and principles and guidelines On Elements of Style by Strunk and White.
- Read and internalize the advice in ” On Writing Well” by of William Zinsser.
- Learn to read like a writer. Not sure how? Pick up a copy of Reading Like a Writer by Francine Prose. How do you read like a writer? You read good writing in the New Yorker or some other publication. You analyze the style, word choice, and structure of the writing, learning how the writer constructed the piece of creative writing.
- Get in the habit of writing each day. How? Keep a personal journal. The easiest way is to buy a pen and notebook of paper, then begin to write each day. Write about what is important to you, such as a memory, interesting observation, “important moment.”The act of writing makes you a writer. When you write, experiment with your writing. Learn how to write a loose and period sentence. Learn how to write an inverted sentence. Learn how to write metaphors and similes and use personification. The more often you write, and experiment with your writing, the more original your style will become.
- When you write, always be yourself. Don’t write in a breezy manner. Don’t use grandiloquent language. Don’t use inflated language. Don’t write as if you are someone else, like creative nonfiction writer, Malcolm Gladwell, or fiction writer, Ernest Hemingway. Begin by writing like you speak. Use the language that you use in daily conversation. Relax and write as yourself.
A Few Tips
Here are a few easy ways to improve your writing style and develop your voice:
- Use the active voice. The verb performs the action of the subject. Examples: You composed a poem about summer….He hit the ball with the tennis racket…I pressed the shutter release, capturing a memorable photograph of a happy moment on the trip.
- Write with concrete nouns and verbs.
- Write with verbs that express some action. Examples: Jumped, climbed, punched……….
- Use adjectives and adverbs sparingly. By selecting the best “verb”, a writer can find a word in the dictionary or thesaurus that best expresses the meaning of the adjective and adverb.
- Use sentence variety—long and short, simple, compound, compound, complex, loose, periodic, and so forth.
- Write in a friendly, conversational tone. Start by using “contractions.” Image that you are writing to a friend.
- Use everyday language.
If you want to learn more about voice and style, I suggest you read and learn from the Elements of Style by Strunk and White, On Writing Well by William Zinsser, and Sin and Syntax by Constance Hale. These are the best books for the lowest price on learning how to write. If you read, learn, and master the rules and guidelines in these books, if you also write every day, and if you read something interesting, like poetry, fiction, creative nonfiction, even the newspaper, you’ll become an excellent writer. Perhaps you’ll even publish your work of writing art.
- Story Craft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart
- Reading Like a Writer: A Guide for People Who Love Books and for those Want to Write Them by Francine Prose
- Elements of Style by Strunk and White
- On Writing Well by William Zinsser
- Sin and Syntax: How to Craft Wickedly Effective Prose by Constance Hale
By Dave Hood
What are the ethics of creative nonfiction? The intent of the writer must be to write honestly and truthfully. The writer must not change facts, distort facts, fabricate facts, tell lies, or mislead the reader. Changing a story by adding significant, false details or events that never happened is writing fiction, not creative nonfiction. And if readers discovers that they have been deceived, the writer will lose credibility and a reading audience. And so, when writing creative nonfiction, such as a personal essay, memoir, or literary journalistic essay, the writer must strive to tell the truth the best he/she can. As well, the writer must not fabricate events or experiences.
In this article, I’ll discuss the ethics of writing creative nonfiction. The following will be covered:
- Facts and Emotional Truth
- Memory and Imagination
- What gets included and omitted
- Dealing with Exaggeration
- Compressing Time
- Composite Characters
- Cues and Disclaimers
Facts and Emotional Truth
When writing a personal narrative essay or memoir, you are required to mine your memory for details of a past event or experience. Yet, much of the detail is lost, forgotten with the passage of time. Other details are filed in your unconscious mind. Insignificant details cannot be recalled. Conversations between people cannot be remembered verbatim. How can you fill in the details of things that have been forgotten?
Most writers believe that when writing creative nonfiction, the writer has an ethical responsibility to “tell the truth” the best he/she can. This implies that significant events must have happened. The writer cannot fabricate events. For instance, the write cannot write that he/she visited some place and experienced some setback, obstacle, or adversity—-when it never happened. This is fabricating a story. It is writing fiction–not creative nonfiction, which is based on fact and truth.
Telling the truth also means fact checking. For instance, if someone is alive who can enlighten you about some experience, you are required to listen to their point of view. That is why conducting interviews is a often a required form of research for some creative nonfiction, such as literary journalism and writing a memoir.
Some writers believe that if minor details of things or events cannot remembered, such as the colour of the shirt, the name of a street, the food eaten, cannot be remembered, then they cannot be included. In other words, ” probable details”, such as what you probably ate, or wore, or thought the street name was, must be omitted. These writers believe that “no” detail can be added unless you are absolutely sure. In other words, there is no room for fabrication, even by adding insignificant details.
Other writers believe that it is acceptable to write about “emotional truth” in a personal essay, memoir, or literary journalism. What is emotional truth? It refers to the writer’s “felt experience” in dealing with a person, place, thing, adversity, setback, and so forth. Emotional truth answers the question: How did you feel? For instance, suppose you lost your job, and it felt like the world was coming to an end. Then emotional truth dictates that you can write about how the experience felt to you. You would include the facts of the experience and also the emotional truth of the experience. For instance, the writer of creative nonfiction might respond to a job loss by writing: “Losing my job was like a death. I mourned the loss for years…”
Memory and Imagination
Our memories are faulty. We cannot recall every single detail of an event or experience that happened, far back in our past.
As well, the truth is often a matter of perspective. What I believe is true, and you believe is true might not be the same. Often our imagination plays a role in filling in the forgotten details of memory.
And so, the writer relies on his imagination to invent details of an experience or event that actually happened. Otherwise, the writer would be unable to write the narrative. Many writers believe that it is acceptable to drill into the imagination, withdrawing insignificant details of an event, providing that important aspects of the event are not changed, or that lies are not told. Many writers of creative nonfiction also believe that they be allowed to interpret the facts of the experience as they see them, so long as the intention is to tell the truth—-not lie, not deceive, not distort, and not fabricate significant details or events.
What Can be Included and Omitted
A writer of creative nonfiction will often include certain facts and omit others. If you are writing an opinion essay, there is nothing wrong with including only facts that support your argument, ignoring the opposing argument. Often the lack of time and space prevent you from exploring both sides of the argument.
But readers expect you to paint an accurate portrait of a person or an event with words. They expect that the writer will accurately describe events that have happened, and not add details that never happened. They expect the writer’s “best evidence.”
What can be omitted? Essentially, if the fact or detail is not relevant to a story, it can be left out or omitted. But to omit important facts or details is to distort and mislead the reader. And so, all important facts should be included, and then interpreted by the writer in the memoir or essay.
The writer can respond by writing about the “emotional truth” of an event. Often two people have different feelings about the same person, event, experience. And so, the writer is not making up details or fabricating a story when writing about the emotional truth.
Some writers believe that if something cannot be verified by fact-checking, then it must be omitted from the creative writing. Other writers rely on emotional truth to help them make the decision about what to include and omit. For instance, Joan Didion, a well-known writer, believes that the writer can construct reality based on their own “sense of truth.”
As well, the degree of truthfulness depends on the type of creative writing. If you are writing a literary journal essay that will appear in The New Yorker , or writing a memoir that will include people who are still alive, or writing a profile about a famous person, you’d better get your facts correct. Otherwise, you’ll face retribution. On the other hand, if you are writing a personal narrative essay about a memory that happened 50 years ago, the need for absolute truth and fact-checking is not as important. What matters is the writer’s “sense of truth.” This means: What did the writer recall? What did the writer remember about the experience? What did the writer remember about the person?
Dealing with Exaggeration
Some writers exaggerate the truth to get laughs. For instance, in 2008, when humour writer David Sedaris, released a book of stories called, “When you are Engulfed in Flames”, some well known people accused him of exaggerating the truth. And yet many believe that “exaggeration” and embellishment are acceptable when attempting to share a larger truth. In the response to criticism of Sedaris, Columnist Jon Carroll wrote in the San Francisco Chronicle:”A humorist has lots of latitude because funny things don’t usually write funny.”
Other writers believe that exaggeration is an acceptable technique providing the reader knows that the writer is exaggerating the facts of the story. If the writer is going to use one of the devices of humour, such as satire or exaggeration, he/she must indicate this to the reader by ” cueing the reader” or by writing a ” disclaimer.”
The intent of the writer must not be to use exaggeration to mislead or deceive. Sometimes the writer applies the label “humorist” to his work. This identification tells readers that the writer might embellish the truth to get laughs.
Compressing time is a fictional technique that writer’s deploy to craft short fiction and novels. They use this technique to dramatize the story. They also use this technique to change the pace of the story–to speed by writing vivid details and particular descriptions and to slow down by compressing time by summarizing, “tell the reader what happened.” Vivid details and description are omitted. The writer does not show what happened; the writer “tells” what happened. Time is compressed by combining events that happened over a few days, weeks, months, and so forth, into a shorter span of time.
This technique of compressing time is also used by creative nonfiction writers to craft short personal narrative essays and to write a memoir. For instance, several days might be compressed into a single day or a few hours, even less. Pearl and Schwartz, in the text, “Writing True”, suggest that compressing time is acceptable, providing that the writer’s intent “was true–to capture the truth.”
Real time unfolds one day to the next. Often insignificant events occur during this span of time. To include these details would result in a dull, but true story. And so, many writers use fictional time to tell their true stories. Fictional time or dramatic time omits the unessential details, in order to dramatize the event or experience, and to write an entertaining, story that happens to be true. For instance, memoirist, Azar Nafisi, in Reading Lolita in Tehran, compresses time to tell the true story of a group of seven university students who are invited to meet at per apartment each week to discuss literature. The group meets for two years to discuss books. Instead of writing the details about ever meeting, from start to finish, she compresses time, and writes about the significant conflicts, interactions, experiences that took place. Compressing time allows her to explore the larger themes of oppression and identity and defiance against the established religious culture in Tehran.
And so, compressing time is acceptable for most writers. It allows the writer to speed up the pace, remove insignificant details that can bore and distract, and helps to dramatize the story.
Creating a Composite Character
A composite character is created by combining the personality traits, behaviours, habits, and experiences of two or more people into a single person, who becomes the composite character. Sometimes names are changed in creative nonfiction to protect the privacy of someone who is alive. Other times, traits and behaviours and experience of two or more people are combined to protect the identity of a person. Essentially, a composite allows the writer to share personal information that could be embarrassing or damaging to the integrity or reputation of a person still alive. Most writers believe that using a composite character is acceptable, providing the writer tells the reader, by including a disclaimer in the preface, or as an acknowledgement, or as a footnote in the memoir. Including a disclaimer tells the reader that the writer is not attempting to deceive or lie to the reader, and so the credibility of the writer is maintained.
Cues and Disclaimers
Often the writer can use a ” tagline” or “cue” readers when unsure of the facts or details. Here are a few ways:
“As I recall…”
“Perhaps this if the way it happened…”
“I don’t recall exactly….”
“This is what it was like…”
As well, the writer can add a disclaimer to the preface, introduction, or prologue of a memoir. The disclaimer notifies that reader that the writer is not 100% certain of the details, or that a composite character was created, or that the memoir is part nonfiction and part fiction.
For instance, In his memoir, “The Heart Breaking Work of a staggering Genius”, Dave Eggers, tells readers that part of his memoir is fiction by using humour in the “Preface to this Edition”: “For all the author’s bluster elsewhere, this is not, actually, a work of pure nonfiction. Many parts have been fictionalized in varying degrees, for various purposes.” He then proceeds to tell readers, in ten pages, what in the memoir is fictional.
To summarize, the intent of the writer of creative nonfiction must be to tell the truth the best he/she can, and to also write in a way that is entertaining. As well, the writer can compress time to speed up pace and dramatize parts of the story, create a composite character to protect the identity of someone, use imagination to fill in trivial details, omit information that is not critical, use exaggeration to get laughs, and write about “emotional truth.” The ethics of creative nonfiction require that the writer tell stories about events that are true, and not fabricated, whether the writer is writing about “self” or the outside world. And when there is any doubt that readers might be mislead or unsure of what is true, the writer must “cue the reader or write a “disclaimer.”
Your most important guidelines for writing creative nonfiction are to write honestly, even if it means “sharing emotional truth.” In other wordsl, telling your readers how it felt to you. As well, your intent must always be to “tell the factual truth” the best you can. Fabrication of significant events is fiction, not creative nonfiction. If you desire to fabricate the details of a story, you should write short fiction or a novel.
To learn more about the ethics of creative nonfiction, you can read:
- Tell it Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola
- Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction by Sondra Perl and Mimi Schwartz
- The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction by Dinty M. Moore