Following the Thread of Thought

I recently wrote a review for Assay: The Journal of Nonfiction Studies on an AWP panel I attended.

Here is a description of the panel:

Following the Thread of Thought

How do writers follow the thread of a thought through the maze of events in an essay or memoir? What is the art of reflection? Writers of nonfiction may have more latitude than poets or fiction writers to tell as well as show in their work, but the challenge is to keep these ruminations from becoming dull, simplistic, or moralistic. Panelists examine the way writers keep ideas lively and offer techniques for effectively weaving the thread of thought into the fabric of nonfiction.

Panelists: Steven Harvey, Phillip Lopate, Ana Maria Spagna, Sarah Einstein

It was an amazing panel, chuck full of great insights, ideas, and inspiration not just for writers of nonfiction, but pastors who write sermons would benefit from this as well.  Click here to read my review!

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.

Writing teaches writing

After reading this article by Ben Huberman at The Daily Post I clicked over to the Paris Review to read their full interview of John McPhee in a new series called “The Art of Nonfiction.” I always appreciate reading about the process of successful writers. Typically, I find myself inspired to write after reading how their craft evolved. The interview of McPhee did not disappoint in this regard.

McPhee’s description of writing a novel for his college thesis was what stoked my writing fire. His university had, as he said, “a great fight” over whether or not he would be allowed to write a novel for his thesis. No one had before. In the face of opposition, they finally allowed McPhee to proceed. This is how he described the experience:

They asked me to show up on the first day of senior year with thirty thousand words. So I spent the summer in Firestone Library, working in the English grad-study room, writing longhand on yellow pads. I had a real good time in there, working alongside these English grad students, all in various stages of suffering. I got my thirty thousand words done, and then I finished the thing over Christmas. It had a really good structure and was technically fine. But it had no life in it at all. One person wrote a note on it that said, You demonstrated you know how to saddle a horse. Now go find the horse.

But writing teaches writing. And I’ll tell you this, that summer in Firestone Library, I felt myself palpably growing as a writer. You just don’t sit there and write thirty thousand words without learning something.”

Writing teaches writing. That was the line that got me. So even though it was late (I don’t write well when it is late) I pulled out my notebook, set the timer on my Ipad for ten minutes and free wrote about a hospital visit that I recently made. The visit was a profound one—one of those pastoral visits that make you contemplate life, tragedy, and the meaning of it all. I knew I needed to write about it, but hadn’t yet made the time. McPhee inspired me to make the time.

More than anything, I want to learn and grow as a writer—not so much to publish more, or get more followers here on my little blog. But to help me make sense of this world in which we live and pay careful attention to it all.  I want to be able to articulate the experiences I have and find my way to new discoveries. The best way to do that, I’ve found, is through my writing. So, thank you, John McPhee, for tonight’s teaching.  I am better for it.