Tag Archives: writing craft

The Theatricality of Creative Nonfiction

Converting Actor Advice for Writers

While writing itself may be a solo act, the resulting story is destined for an audience. Creative nonfiction combines the solo act of writing with the intensely personal experience and emotions connected to the events that actually transpired. This makes CNF uniquely susceptible to a few traps that can be examined via the lens of the theatre—a format that must always keep the audience at the forefront of every decision.

Play to the Audience

An actor’s primary goal is to convey the story to the audience from their character’s point of view. The writer’s primary objective must also be the audience, albeit the writer has a more complex angle to consider as the writer is responsible for all characters’ points of view simultaneously. How each of those characters comes across to the audience will greatly affect how they receive the overall work. While creative nonfiction primarily centers on one character, the writer must still ensure that supporting characters are multi-dimensional in order to center the readers—and not the writer—as the primary audience.

Creative nonfiction is inspired by real-world events and emotions. That is one of its greatest attractions. But  such emotional work entails some significant challenges for writers, some of which are the same as those actors face when performing emotional scenes:

Protective Mechanisms Distance the Audience

If you are focused on protecting yourself, you may miss the opportunity to create a visceral experience for your audience. When writing or performing something that is extremely personal and raw, it can be a challenge to force yourself into the headspace you occupied as the events occurred originally. In order to protect your psyche, you may pull back and share a sarcastic, arm’s length, or even toned down version of events.

If you believe you are still too close to the material, and that it still creates powerful emotions within you, it may be helpful to write down events as factually as possible and then give yourself a long enough break from the subject matter until you are psychologically ready to dive back in. Distance will likely open up fresh perspectives for your narrative.

When you do get back into the material, do not forget to give yourself mental breaks and schedule pick-me-ups and detoxes if the material is traumatic or painful. If you burn yourself out, you will naturally start to withdraw and that will serve neither you nor your narrative.

Introspection Breeds Inaccessibility

People naturally fold in on themselves when experiencing intense emotion—directing that feeling inward or at a very specific external target. An actor or a writer must open the window, so to speak, and radiate that emotion outward, making the audience complicit. Not every audience member needs to resonate with every line, but every audience member needs to resonate with some aspect for the story to land successfully. In CNF, as in acting, this can be quite a challenge because if YOU—the writer—are feeling BIG EMOTIONS then they must be there, right? In the theatre, your director and fellow actors will provide perspective on whether they feel impacted by the actor’s performance, essentially serving as editorial eyes. In CNF you may be working largely alone so you absolutely need to reach out to your writing group, mentors, editors, or trusted confidants to get an honest assessment of whether your stakes are landing with your audience, or whether you’ve got an outsized reaction to them because your personal memories and real life emotions are interfering.

Playing the Action, Not the Emotion

It may seem intuitive to write emotions such as anger or sadness by giving signifiers such as tears, raised voices, or thrown pots. However the real-world spectrum of emotion and how it manifests is far more complex, fascinating, and changeable. Actors are taught to focus on the ACTION (the profession is “actor” after all, not “emoter”) rather than the emotion as an entry point to avoid cliched behavior. This can help develop more complex characters in your writing and counteract authorial insertion by giving you an entry strategy to complex emotional scenes.

Playing the Opposite

If a scene reads as though the character should be angry, try playing them sad. If a scene reads as comical, try playing it straight. This rehearsal-room strategy does not always end up successful, but it does inform the final iteration. It can be used similarly in your writing to tease out layered reactions and behaviors in your characters that in many cases will inform your final draft even as the explorations end up on the cutting room floor.

Parting Thoughts

None of this advice is earth-shattering or new—you’ve likely heard it all in one form or another before. However, occasionally tweaking old standards to a new perspective unlocks new ways to use your existing tools. Using Stanislavski’s “Magic If” to pretend you’re an actor telling the story may help you center your audience in a new way and prevent some of the pitfalls common in CNF.

Orca Editor Renee Jackson is an actor and a graduate of the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill, where she majored in Dramatic Arts. She was a founding member of Forget Me Not Theatre in Chicago, IL, where she served as the Literary Manager.

In Praise of Creativity

What we do is often referred to as “creative” writing. But just how creative are most of us in our work? Creative writing instructors (at least mine) are fond of saying that there are no hard and fast rules for writing creatively, but that there are conventions, mostly unspoken agreements among writers and readers as to what is acceptable/publishable in the literary landscape. This, of course, changes over time, and is what allows for a small amount of true creativity to infiltrate and possibly alter accepted style.

The impetus for this blog post comes from an article on my favorite Australian website, Aeon/Psyche, “Are Successful Authors Creative Geniuses or Literary Labourers?” The article begins by comparing the literary careers of two well-known writers, Edgar Allan Poe and Jules Verne. Today Poe is far more famous than Verne. During the times they were alive Poe was considered a minor writer, while Verne was incredibly popular. But Poe was the innovator, Verne merely adapted Poe’s style for his own writing. Poe died in poverty, Verne became fabulously wealthy. Perhaps what’s most important to remember is that Poe continued to experiment with forms of writing. The article refers to Poe as writing, “…nothing is more thoroughly dignified or supremely noble than a poem which is a poem and nothing more.”

When Verne found what worked in the marketplace, he stopped tinkering and wrote everything in the same style with similar plotlines. Verne became a literary laborer, churning out essentially the same product, over and over. Although he often paid homage to Poe, his motivation appears to have been primarily to make money, more than to be creative. I think it’s safe to say that Poe had those priorities reversed.

I’m trying not to say that one path to writing is better than the other. Any effort to bring literature and ideas to the public is of some benefit. Definitely both approaches to creative writing are necessary—the laborer approach is needed to engage the public. If everything was purely creative the number of people who actually read would drop significantly (and it’s low enough already). But creativity and experimentation with writing, trying to find new ways to convey meaning, is what drives the form forward. This doesn’t mean writing obscurely—in fact it’s the opposite—writing that seeks to connect more organically with readers. I’m reminded of the Paris writers of the early 1900s (the movable feast of Hemingway, Stein, Fitzgerald, Joyce, etc.), all of whom contributed to a major shift in the style of creative writing, away from the authorial intrusion of previous times to a more character-based, immersive approach that allowed readers to connect emotionally to characters. This reflected similar shifts in art and society at that volatile time. The members of that group were the right people at the right time to lead the changes in creative form that we think of as conventions today. Similarly the work of the Language Poets (or L=A=N=G=U=A=G=E) of the 1960s and 70s reflected societal changes that questioned traditionally held values by calling into question how we perceive the words themselves. In the article, the author, Oleg Sobchuk, discusses “hot streaks,” the times when new forms seem to catch on with the public.

There are always many writers doing amazing things with literary form. But we live in a time in which conformity seems to be a powerful driver of how we live. Yes, there is polarization in our society, but whichever side you’re on it seems you are increasingly driven to conform to the beliefs of the side you choose to be on. It’s no surprise to me that writers who experiment are not well represented in the marketplace these days. But there are always venues that champion this type of creativity. Orca has always looked for imagination and experimentation with style and language, and moving forward we will seek to expand that effort and include even more work that challenges mainstream conventions.

– Joe Ponepinto

On Reading to Learn Writing

One of the more popular approaches to learning how to write well has long been to read, read, read. Some writing teachers even encourage their students to copy, word for word, passages or stories from their favorite writers as though, through osmosis, they will learn to write better.

How true is that?

It seems that by copying the words of an established writer one learns how to copy, not necessarily how to write. The same is true, maybe, about reading. The more you read, the better you become at… reading?

In an essay on the website psyche.co, titled, “How to Read Less and Think for Yourself More,” David Bather Woods, an associate professor in the Department of Philosophy at the University of Warwick in Coventry, UK, quotes liberally from Arthur Schopenhauer and Marcel Proust to make the case that reading should be a means to an end, but not the end itself—that what you read and how you read it are more important than the quantity of reading material.

There are many writers, some famous, who claimed that they learned to write by reading copious amounts of work by the writers who inspired them. So many that this approach has become something of a standard in creative writing circles. But Woods’s essay is more inspiring to me, personally, than any of that. I’ve never been one to want to copy anyone else’s words. And I certainly wouldn’t call myself well-read, particularly in comparison to academics who can quote by heart passages from dozens of writers in the literary pantheon. Book knowledge only translates into effective writing if the concepts learned while reading are synthesized into the reader’s existing knowledge base (which, I suspect, is what those famous writers really meant to say). Reading, whether a lot or not a lot, is only one part of that equation. Woods, using Schopenhauer and Proust to back him up, claims that too many people substitute what they’ve read for their own opinions, and that just reading more doesn’t make them any smarter. Assume that’s true for a second and apply it to emerging writers, the ones who are most susceptible to the influences of other, established writers—are they learning to write well and develop their own style, or only to write better, or are they merely killing time? The answer seems to depend on the reader’s disposition, a variety of psychological, cultural, and situational factors the reader brings to a book, and that seems to support what Woods is saying.

Woods quotes from Schopenhauer: “Reading is a mere surrogate for one’s own thinking…erudition makes most people even more stupid and simple than they already are by nature.” And, “The only way reading shapes us for writing is that it teaches us the use we can make of our own natural gifts…” Apparently Schopenhauer didn’t have much faith in the average person, particularly those who didn’t have the educational advantages he had. (He’s another author I have not read well.) But I think what he’s saying that’s helpful here is that without thoughtful analysis reading is merely an exercise in memorization, not comprehension. The information gleaned from reading is often used only to support a pre-existing belief, not to challenge that belief. (He also seems to be broaching the subject of whether some people are born to be writers while others are not. Perhaps I’ll explore that one next time.)

Proust was more poetic about it: “The supreme effort of the writer as of the artist only succeeds in raising partially for us the veil of ugliness and insignificance that leaves us incurious before the universe.” The implication is that we must do the rest ourselves, and that if we are not already curious about the universe no amount of reading is going to make us change.

I can’t help wondering how many excellent writers bristled against the recommendations that they received to read until their eyes are ready to fall out, and copy passages, and now are afraid to admit it because of the stigma the creative writing world has applied to being less well read than your department chair. While in school I slogged through many books that I found tedious and unhelpful, and which I would quickly abandon now. Others, however, had me re-reading passages asking, “How did the writer do that? How did she provoke such an emotional reaction in me?” Those books encouraged me to develop a more interdisciplinary approach, to look beyond just the words on the page and into the structure of the work, how it carefully created a foundation that primed the reader to have that reaction. They helped me begin to see how closely tied good writing is to psychology, how certain structures and words can trigger responses. That depends a lot on the individual reader’s culture, education, etc., but that’s another blog as well.

The essay does, however, dovetail nicely with what Orca wants to see in the submission queue. We love thoughtful stories that come from a unique perspective. We’d rather see a story that shows how a writer has thought through a situation, than one that mimics a plot or a style from a better known writer. We want to see the influences of great writers applied to your own way of looking at the world, more than we want to see how well you can mirror someone else’s style or perceptions.

– Joe Ponepinto

Image by Foundry Co from Pixabay

Who Do You Write Like?

Once upon a time a few years ago I submitted a few paragraphs to some online thing called I Write Like that claimed to be able to tell which famous writer one wrote like. That time the answer came back H.P. Lovecraft. Dear God. Pompous and wordy, a writer of hackneyed fantasy/horror. Moi? The literary critic Edmund Wilson said of Lovecraft’s work, “The only real horror in most of these fictions is the horror of bad taste and bad art.”

Must have been faulty software. Later, reviews of my novel Mr. Neutron compared the style to David Foster Wallace’s Broom of the System, and to Thomas Pynchon. Yeah, that’s more like it.

I tried again recently; put in a few paragraphs from a recent short story and got Anne Rice. At least it’s an improvement. I was hoping for Sebald, though.

Of course none of this really matters. Although emerging writers are encouraged to read established authors, and even to copy out passages from them in order to imbue the craft within their developing minds, ultimately you write like who you are. Your experience, your education, your preferences, your repressed emotions eventually come through, and if they appeal to readers you’ll have some success as a writer. Trying to copy the style of a famous writer rarely leads to success, and it’s insincere, not only to the public, but to yourself. At Orca, nothing is more refreshing than to read a submission by a writer who is confident in her voice.

But just for fun, here’s that link again: I Write Like. Feel free to post your result in the comments.

– Joe P.

Lovecraftian image by Waldkunst from Pixabay