Iowa City Inspiration

I just returned from a quick overnight trip to Iowa City.  There are many things I love about this city.  Like….

People playing outside pianos.

People playing outside pianos.

Children frolicking in fountains.

Children frolicking in fountains.

Inspiring Art Everywhere

Inspiring Art Everywhere

Great Food! Yum!

Great Food! Yum!

But the real reason I return to Iowa City every summer is the way it inspires my writing.  Today I attended a free lecture by Juliet Patterson, “Alternative Fuel Sources: Powering the Non-narrative Essay.”  I was interested in the topic since my sermons and writing are typically narrative driven.  What other tools might I use to drive an essay or a message?

Patterson encouraged us to capitalize on our organic strengths as writers.  She’s not a storyteller.  She’s a lyric poet.  So she’s more comfortable describing scenes in specific detail and focusing on the cadence of her words than on a particular narrative. The risk of writing like this–writing a lyric essay–is that it can be lifeless is there is no drama, arc or plot.  (I can think of a lot of lifeless sermons I’ve heard that fit this description.)  You have to build a scaffolding for what you’re writing.  Oftentimes that comes through the plot of a narrative, but Patterson suggested other alternatives such as images, a refrain (a repeated line or two to return to throughout the piece to ground the reader), or connecting small, seemingly disparate details, into a larger context of meaning.

To understand this way of driving a piece of prose, it was helpful to read the examples Patterson used in the lecture.  Here’s a picture of my notes on two excerpts she discussed.

Alternative Fuel Sources / Patterson 2015 Iowa Summer Writing Festival

Alternative Fuel Sources / Patterson
2015 Iowa Summer Writing Festival

The first excerpt by Joni Tevis uses the image of water / rain to create drama.   The song, “When the Levee Breaks,” provides the structure.  Tevis did a lot of research for this piece, which began (we learned) as a lifeless essay.  But the more research she did the more details, images, and ideas started to connect which made the piece come alive.

The second excerpt by John D’Agata’s “About a Mountain” really struck me.  It uses a refrain, “The life span of” to ground the reader.  But what is so stunning about this piece is about how it creates this aura of slippery-ness here.  Everything is slippery.  Everything slips away.  Even the sentences get shorter as the piece progresses.  D’Agata intentionally creates this aura of slippery-ness before introducing the subject of the book; nuclear waste.  A substance that does not slip away.  Ever.   This is a stunning piece of prose that doesn’t need a narrative to drive it.

After the lecture I went straight to the bookstore and bought two books highlighted by Patterson, “About a Mountain” by John D’Agata and “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary” by Sarah Manguso that I hope to dig into this summer. Inspiration abounds in Iowa City!

IMG_0494

“About a Mountain” “Ongoingness: The End of a Diary” and a fun book about farts for my 8 year old.

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