Creative Nonfiction: Defining the Genre

by Elizabeth Ruth Deyro, Prose Editor

Creative nonfiction is the fusion of creative writing and journalism. On one hand, it uses principles of journalism to build the skeleton of the story, which, as suggested by the tag ‘nonfiction’, demands to be hinged on facts instead of merely the writer’s imagination (as opposed to fiction). On the other hand, it seeks to be “creative” in such a way that it employs literary devices to retell the fact-based narratives.

The genre, as Theodore A. Rees Cheney noted, requires “the skill of the storyteller and the research ability of the reporter.” Creative Nonfiction Magazine expounded on this thought, saying that the genre “allows a writer to employ the diligence of a reporter, the shifting voices and viewpoints of a novelist, the refined wordplay of a poet, and the analytical modes of an essayist.” The multiplicity of personas that a creative nonfiction writer has to embody in the process of writing his piece unveils the complexity demanded by the genre. A writer ought to be versatile and, needless to say, patient throughout the process.

More than this, a writer has to surrender to vulnerability. This is the same as in other genres; however, creative nonfiction demands a more personal insight from the writer. Creative nonfiction, after all, is the attempt to make sense of the complexities—or mundanities—of real life, and retell them in a more compelling, more bearable way. “The writer of creative nonfiction presents the world—or that slice of it he wishes to focus on—through the prism of his own personality,” Cristina Pantoja-Hidalgo writes in Creative Nonfiction: An Overview. “[I]t is writing about oneself in relation to the subject at hand,” Bret Lott writes in Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction. Whereas journalism leaves no room for one to discuss personal takes on issues, creative nonfiction makes it a point to consider and use a writer’s subjectivity in line with what is being written about. “[B]alance is unnecessary and subjectivity is not only permitted but encouraged,” said Lee Gutkind in The Art of Creative Nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is a reinterpretation of real-life events, without the attempt to change what must be taken as “actual.”

Nevertheless, creative nonfiction is a commitment to stay loyal to the facts for the sake of the story’s accuracy. The genre is all about the author’s calculated use of his freedom. The line between artistic license and transgression in the genre still have blurred spots in my understanding.

It reminds me of what The Great Gatsby’s Nick Carraway called being “within and without.” I cite a person from a work of fiction, which I think should no longer be ironic, considering that the genre itself prides on using borrowed devices from fiction. Carraway curiously went about his days with a sense of detachment from the rest of the world that he was in. He was immersed, but at the same time, he was uninvolved—in the case of creative nonfiction, this might be necessary because, as much as personal connection to the actual event will contribute heavily to the foundation of the piece, events are bound to be misconstrued when perception is tainted with bias and emotion-driven subjectivity.

So then, how do we draw the line between subjectivity and the necessary objectivity in creative nonfiction? Would it even make any difference to know where one ends and the other begins? Would it even matter? Maybe creative nonfiction isn’t so simple after all.

The Struggle to Become a Woman

by Elizabeth Ruth Deyro, Prose Editor

When I was a child, I would write my stories imagining myself as a man. Somehow, I found it hard to see myself as a woman, when I did not know what being a woman meant. I, like every girl my age, had been taught to think that a man is independent and strong. He is capable and wise. He is indestructible and necessary. I wanted my characters to possess the qualities of a man. I wanted myself to possess the qualities of a man, but how can a woman, designed to be subordinate to a man, be ever able to contain these traits?

I was made to wear skirts and dresses, wedges by the age of seven, no matter how
uncomfortable they felt on me. As I grew older, the skirts and sleeves had to be longer, the blouses tighter. I was told I had to learn to wear higher heels. I had to wear a bra to hide my nipples and define my breasts. I could not risk being seen as a distraction to men, but I still had to be attractive enough to get their attention. When I could not pique their interest, I thought it made me less of the girl that I am. Was I not beautiful? Perhaps not. I went on trading dresses for pants, blouses for loose shirts, heels for sneakers. Boys’ clothes felt so much more comfortable than those of the girls. Being a boy felt so much more comfortable than being a girl.

I became the teenage girl whose sexuality puzzled everyone. I started to look like a boy, but my preferences remained the same. I was attracted to men, just as I was expected to. Not long after, my fascination toward the strong personalities of the male grew into a hopeless pursuit of their validation. The clothing I used to despise became my costume, hoping this time around, I could be pretty enough for men. I used the methods only a woman can, slowly dragging my self-respect to the ground as I reach for their approval.

To my younger self, I would write you as many apologies as I could for the rest of my life. You were never meant to become any man’s toy. You were never meant to believe that you were inferior to the male. You did not have to imagine yourself as a man just so you’d feel invincible. Being a woman may be the most difficult task you would ever be given, but it will also be the most fulfilling, when you realize that being a woman is so much more than what you were taught to think. Women thrive in spite of the discrimination; we fight against the stereotypes that cage us. We were not created for the male gaze; we were not made to seek validation from the opposite sex. We were made to create and conquer, to breathe life anew, to hold the universe in our palms and keep its heart beating.

Music Minute: Coalesce, a playlist featuring mellow songs by POC

Curated by Stephanie Chang, Blog Contributor

Coalesce, a playlist featuring soft and mellow songs by POC. This selection is best listened to during a rainy evening, chamomile tea in your favorite mug. Old honey sitting on your tongue while you reminisce all the sweet things you smiled upon today. An overcast sky battered with pinpricks of light; just about cold enough. Your heart in funny places and silence seeps in from the floorboards. It’s the best kind of quiet, the least haunting nothingness can be. Listen to the playlist on Spotify here.

  1. Fireworks – Mitski
    I will be married to silence
    The gentleman won’t say a word
    But you know, oh you know in the quiet he holds
    Runs a river that will never find home
  2. Boyish – Japanese Breakfast
    Watched her lips reserving tables
    As my ugly mouth kept running
    Love me
    Love me!
  3. Mermaid – Yvette Young
    The last time I felt love,
    The sun was a halo around your head.
    I saw clouds, I heard waves
  4. Oak Tree – Mirel Wagner
    So if you walk in the woods and you see
    A big old oak tree
    Thread carefully, please
    Cause I’m dreaming underneath
  5. Free – Body Language
    Tell me what you really wanna be
    Tell me, are you really free?
    Do you trust, do you care?
  6. Heartbeats – Dabin
    We had divine sense
    To know what to say
    Mind is a razor blade
  7. Cold Apartment – Vagabon
    And we said it’s not the end
    But she wore that white dress
    And I changed
  8. Two Hearts – Valerie June
    Then they fell
    Two hearts they fell
    What they felt
  9. Blank Maps – Cold Specks
    Head for the heart; does it break?
    Words may fall, the body remains
    And every map is blank
  10. Chasing Shadows – Santigold
    You find us where we fall
    We’re chasing shadows
    Here is the glow

 

Weighing In: The Purpose of Poetry

by Devon Balwit, Poetry Editor

What is poetry for? Lately, many have weighed in on this topic in the popular press. Why do big events like natural disasters, 9/11, or Trump’s election seem to call it forth? Why do many people hate it? Why do many others continue to produce it? How should one approach it as a reader?

A recent essay in The New Yorker titled “In Defense of Poetry” by Louis Menand examines a number of claims made about poetry’s utility or lack thereof. Of interest is his summation of Ben Lerner’s “The Hatred of Poetry”: “Poems simply cannot do what people want them to do—create timeless moments, or express individual experiences with universal appeal, or create a sense of communal identity, or overturn existing social mores, or articulate ‘a measure of value beyond money.’ All they can do is expose the impossibility of achieving any of these things by writing a poem.”

I disagree that poems “can’t” do these things. They do them all the time. To write a poem is to take a moment—historical or personal—and expand it, first, through the act of writing, and then again through the act of reading.  Does the moment become “universal”? That word is perhaps too large unless you mean the space of intersection with an Other and the finding of commonalities there. The commonalities may not even lie in identity or shared life-experience, but in the power of art to produce shared emotions: nostalgia, indignation, empathy, lust, etc. They create a space apart from the world. (Perhaps this is why we shouldn’t be troubled with liking the work of a poet whose politics we disagree with. Inside their work, we can encounter them in a different space, that of our shared language, or of the creative process itself.)

Poems also frequently overturn existing social mores—perhaps not in the sense of fomenting social movements or inspiring legislation, but in that of an individual sharing information that otherwise wouldn’t be shared publicly, or sharing it in language usually deemed socially inappropriate. We see this when poets write about being victimized, about perpetrating crimes, about acts normally performed behind closed doors. By bringing these taboo events and thoughts into the open, they challenge social mores.

Similarly, too, poetry celebrates a value beyond money. Few poets earn money through publishing, teaching, lecturing, websites, or workshops. Thus, the creation of poetry is largely unpaid as is its dissemination. In fact, I’d venture that this is the source of much of the scorn leveled at those who write and read poetry. Those caught up in the production or enjoyment of capital cannot understand dedication to something that doesn’t pay homage to the currency of this realm.

Menand also paraphrases Matthew Zapruder’s essay “Why Poetry?”: “Where people who are puzzled by poetry go wrong, he thinks, is in expecting poems to say something straightforward about life, to be useful. Poems are really about language—ultimately, about the impossibility of fixed meanings.” I want to step out of this grad-school lingo. Many poems, I’d counter, are quite straightforward. They use simple language and situate themselves in recognizable and commonly-lived experiences. Sometimes, even the most successful poems emerge from the artist’s personal experience. (I think of Maggie Smith’s “Good Bones,” about explaining death and evil to a child.) Poems are evidence of the writer’s grappling with a moment. The fact of a poem is like an intimate stain on a sheet. We know sex occurred. We can imagine it. We didn’t live that encounter with the lover, but the facts of it resonate within us. And what of the “impossibility of fixed meaning”? One does find meaning in or through poems. They don’t mean anything or nothing at all. Perhaps “fixed” is the key term as each reader might enter the poem through a different line or phrase, and the same reader may enter it by a different one the next time they read it.

Perhaps those people who are puzzled by poetry are not really puzzled at all, but rather offended. They don’t want to slow down. They don’t want the apparent slightness of a poem compared to a Netflix series, a movie, or a book. They might be affronted by the gossamer lines asking for “weighty” consideration. They may resent having to work for pleasure in their leisure time.

Menand also intrigues when he notes: “One of Lerner’s chief examples of misplaced expectations for poetry is what he calls ‘nostalgia for a poetry that could supposedly reconcile the individual and the social, and so transform millions of individuals into an authentic People.’” We imagine a “back then” in which children routinely memorized and performed poems in school, or when people kept notion books of notable lines or whole poems. We imagine the pool of poems smaller and thus shared and familiar. I wonder if we are romanticizing the past. Then, as now, only a fraction of extant poems are offered for such activities, usually the most accessible, the best-known, those with the most marked rhythm for ease of memorization, those most likely to carry the audience along. The rest, certainly the most daring or experimental, or those written by “margin-dwelling” writers didn’t find themselves “reconciling individuals into a People,” at best perhaps they brought together a group of friends/compatriots around a café table, or as now, rippled outward among a “friend group” on social media.

I take issue with Zapruder’s lines: “We find genuine questions everywhere in poetry because they direct the lines away from certainty and stasis. In the best poems, often the poet does not know the answer.” A poetry critic always runs the risk of elevating personal preferences to principles. For example: “I prefer ambiguity; thus, the greater the degree of ambiguity, the better the poem.” Many poems that I love examine recognizable themes in language that invites the reader in (see, I am doing it too: elevating my preference to an aesthetic ruler). These poems take the reader to what could be called a “conclusion.” The final line “makes sense.” The poet—gasp!—perhaps even knows where they are going and how they wanted to arrive there. This doesn’t render the poem “static.” We know any given wave will advance over the shore and retreat, but never the same way. Its movement isn’t ambiguous and enigmatic, only variable.

Without being churlish, I confess that I like the final two lines of Menand’s essay best: “I understand that the reason people write poems is the reason people write. They have something to say.” This, indeed, sums up the impulse. I see, read, hear, feel something, and it sparks a desire to respond. It opens the door to the room set apart, that strange room of the mind that is bigger than the whole world, that exists outside of time, unbound by it. The saying of the thing created there is pure pleasure, independent of whether it is read, understood, appreciated, or remunerated. The act of transmuting lived experience or thought into language is all-absorbing.

I would like to end by quoting Menand: “You read this piece…maybe it will change your life. If it does, the change will be very, very tiny, but most change comes in increments. Don’t expect too much out of any one thing. For although the world is hard, words matter. Rock beats scissors. It may take a while, but paper beats rock. At least we hope so.” Our brains are restless tools. Poetry, the making and reading of it, gives this tool its perfect exposition. It is the sought-after perpetuum mobile, the inexhaustible process.

Interview: In Conversation with Amanda Sinco

Our Art Editor, Carl Scharwath, recently interviewed Amanda Sinco, a fine arts photographer from Orlando, Florida. Read the conversation below, and stay tuned until the end of the post for some gorgeous samples of Amanda’s work!

A word from Carl: I wanted to share this interview I had with Amanda Sinco. She resides in Orlando, Florida and is a friend from our previous employment. When I first started to write, she provided my bio photo and two more photos for my first published short stories. Until now, she did not know that I was inspired by her work to begin my own journey into the beautiful world of art photography. Perhaps she will inspire you as well. Please visit her website: amandasinco.com.


What first sparked your interest in photography

Amanda: I was always interested in photography. My father was a photographer, and several people in my family are photographers, and we had a dark room at home. Growing up, I was exposed to the art but was never allowed to touch my father’s camera. He thought I might break his camera and told me it wasn’t a toy to play with. At the time, I’ve always composed a photograph in my mind when I look at the scenery or just different objects. I still do that a lot to this day, except now I have a real camera that I can use to take a picture. People who know me always hear me say this would be a good angle when I’m looking at something. It’s just how my mind works naturally.

What inspires you in general? 

A: Beautiful subjects like nature and sometimes even people and everyday life; the list goes on. I think nature is so beautiful and I would like to share that beauty with the world. I think a lot of people take nature and everything around them completely for granted. I also like to take pictures of buildings once in a while.  I am constantly experimenting with different subjects but nature is my favorite subject to photograph.

Which do you do more often: get an idea in your head then set out to get it, or go out trying to get ideas and then come across something you like?

A: I think I do a little of both. I go out to an area because I know the area is beautiful and I try to pick a time that would be ideal for the photograph I am trying to take. Then things just happen and I take the picture!

When you get this idea in your head for a photo, how do go about getting that shot? 

A: I look at the scenery and just take the picture that I think would look best. Then, I pick and choose from the pictures that I took.

How do you know when you get “the shot”? 

A: You just know when you take the photograph.

What type of camera and equipment do you use? How do you get such vibrant colors in your photos? 

A: I shoot with a Nikon D800 and use my 16-35mm wide-angle lens a lot.  I also have 18- 300mm zoom for close ups. I am not too fond of my tripod but I bring it with me in case I need it. On one occasion, I had to take over 200 exposures just to be able to capture lightning in the distance by propping my camera up with a windowsill. This was when I realized that the tripod is very important. For my photographs, I see the vibrant colors in my mind, so I make sure to make my photographs as vibrant as the way I see it. Then I enhance the photos through post-editing.

Any advice for first-time photographers? 

A: Experiment, experiment, experiment! I still experiment to this day and will never stop. Take the picture the way you want to take it, not because someone told you that this is the only way. I don’t believe in conforming to the standards of this or that. The only standard you should conform to should be the one you feel is best for you and your taste. There are several photography classes out there that one can certainly learn from; I would use that as a starting point. Art, after all, is anything you want it to be. As the saying goes: beauty is in the eyes of the beholder.


Samples of Amanda’s photography:

blogworkinghorsesBlogDSC_6407-EditblogDSC_5352

To see more of Amanda’s work, visit her website amandasinco.com.            

Minute: Pursuit of Happiness & Writing Till the Last Breath

by Kinzey McHale, Prose Editor

I’ve been asked one question too many times over my short life: what do you think you’ll do in life?

To be truthful, I have no set plan for my life. My main goal is to earn my GED and then focus on developing myself. Learning what makes me happy. As of now, that is all my plan contains. No college ideas, no career ideas, no detailed life plan, no rush. I’m living as I go, and learning as I experience new things. I’ve had tremendous pressure on me, from my mom primarily, to excel in school and begin college this fall. My “plan” was just to follow her plan. Unfortunately, that plan fell through in late May of this year. My mom passed away from a heart attack.

Everything happened so quickly. After going to the hospital and saying goodbye to her still body, my little brother and I moved in with our older brother. It all went down over the course of a few hours, from the first signs of her heart attack to seeing her in the hospital. It was immediate and startling having to live with someone we haven’t lived with in years, as well as his girlfriend of two years. I hadn’t known her very well, but I knew my brother and I knew that whoever he chose to live with was a good person. So, we accepted the move to his townhouse in Laurel, Maryland.

It’s been almost two months since my younger brother and I were completely uprooted from our lives in Stevensville, Maryland. We’ve both adjusted fairly well, and are closer than ever before with our older brother and his girlfriend. I’ve gotten closer with her and consider her family, call her my “second sister.” My older brother, who is in his mid-twenties, has shown me business tricks and helped me further my interests. Recently, my laptop broke and he let me use the desktop for a while, until I started to want to write when he was working on it. My “second sister” offered her old laptop, the laptop on which I’m currently writing this piece. That kind gesture has allowed me to continue an incredibly therapeutic hobby.

My mom taught me how to write when I was six years old, citing it a necessary skill in life. Although I knew how to write, I didn’t know how to actually create art. I’ve helped co-workers design event posters, edit short stories, and assist with speeches. The ability to bind letters at a moment’s notice has strengthened numerous work relationships, attracting attention to me and my skill set. Above all the other things she showed me, she taught me how to weave life with words.

My love for reading and writing was nurtured from age six, continuing well into my teens. That’s one reason I’ve been accepted as Minute’s new Prose Editor! I always hoped that having an insatiable appetite for writing would bring me amazing opportunities like this. My hope is to eventually be a fully-employed writer for a magazine publication, whether it be a tiny advice column or a travel spread. Somewhere I can spread what I’ve learned to others, offer a place people can go to for fresh thoughts. I’ll work as hard as I can for a career in which writing is necessary, no matter how much it takes from me.

As long as I have a pen and paper—or in most cases, a laptop—I’ll be writing until my last breath.

Photoem: The Crux of Poetry and Photography

by Carl Scharwath, Art Editor

Is the photograph dependent upon the poem or is the poem dependent upon the photograph?

I love poetry and I love photography, but in my opinion, I find combinations of the two to be difficult to master. One or the other might have to be sacrificed to “fit creatively” with the other.

To borrow from  Frederick Sommer: “If we can feel that whatever finally happens was not done at the expense of the thing photographed, we are okay. But many things, not only in the arts, not only in photography, but in many walks of life, get us rudely tangled with the awareness that one thing has been done at the expense of another. Something was  skinned to the bone; something was absconded with.”

Why not think in terms of their working together, harmony, counterpoint, tension, and of course dialogue? Should we look for the poetry in the photograph or the words giving light to the moment in time captured by the camera? In my work the image is the birth of my idea followed by fragments of poetry to complete the reflection of thought. I have also worked in collaborations with another poet, where the photograph was presented to her and she created the poem to compliment. This adds a new dynamic of two artists attempting to enter the psyche of the others art.

As your new art editor, perhaps you will be inspired to attempt this. I would love to see your work published!