Wednesday, June 28, 2006

But is it really True?

I was in the Creative Nonfiction workshop at the Summer Writer's Institute. There's often confusion about what, exactly, Creative Nonfiction is.

"If it's creative, how is it nonfiction?"

Our workshop leader, Kathleen Finneran, explained to us that the "creative" part comes in how you tell your story and in the writing itself. Does your life story look like an encyclopedia entry, just a straightforward listing of facts? Or can you pick important episodes from different parts of your life, and, juxtaposing them, create an even more compelling narrative?

Creative Nonfiction doesn't have to be memoir. The genre comprises essays, opinion pieces, blogs, biography, autobiography, food writing, travel writing, oral history, reviews, literary journalism, and on and on.

Basically, Creative Nonfiction is anything that tells a good and interesting story, while still being true. The creative part refers to the way the story is structured and to its writing, not its veracity.

Different authors draw the line in different places, of course. Some stretch the truth to tell a better story. Some lie. There are not yet any hard-and-fast rules for the genre. The current thinking is that as long as you're honest about what liberties you've taken, then you're OK.

Finneran published an essay called Lying in the Land of Memoir: straddling the Line Between Fact and Fiction suggesting that there are three acceptable ways to bend the line between fact and fiction:

1) Make up dialogue: but carefully. The writer must remember that the conversation really took place, have some memory of what was discussed, and how the conversation ended. Then she (or he) can carefully recreate the conversation as closely as possible to how it probably occurred.

2) Conflate time: gently. Perhaps something that really took place over two nights looks like it took place in only one night in the piece, so that the narrative flows better. Personally, I'm a little uncomfortable with this one.

3) Leave stuff out. Well, duh. It boggles my mind that people cry, "That's not what really happened!" just because the writer doesn't mention that Jim Bob was also in the room. I mean, perhaps Jim Bob isn't really a major character in this story, he didn't contribute anything meaningful, so it would just be confusing to bring him up for no apparent reason. In a history textbook, the author would mention that he was standing silently in the corner all night. In Creative Nonfiction, the author has the freedom to choose whether or not his presence is significant.

Other authors take much greater liberties. In her "memoir," Bitter is the New Black, Jen Lancaster admits that she has left out the names of places she worked, changed the names of the characters, altered the timeline to move the story along, and combined some characters together, all in a story about how long she was unemployed and why. That, in my opinion, is a thinly fictionalized novel, based heavily upon the author's own experiences. Ditto with James Frey's A Million Little Pieces.

Ira Sukrungruang also takes liberties in his (fun!) creative nonfiction. One scene in his first memoir is bookended with what's happening on The Crocodile Hunter on TV. The TV was on, Animal Planet was on, The Crocodile Hunter was on. But he doesn't really remember exactly what was happening in the show while he was having this particular conversation with his mother; he filled in the details to bring the story to life. That, too, is further than I'm willing to bend the truth, but I respect that he's honest about what he's done.

So, that's creative nonfiction, and I guess I'll write about Kathleen Finneran and the workshop participants tomorrow.

Tuesday, June 27, 2006

Like Me?

The biggest mistake I made at the Summer Writers Institute was to try to keep working (a little) throughout. I went in to the office for a few hours at least a couple of evenings a week during both weeks of the workshop, and that was exhausting.

Even without trying to split my focus in yet another direction, I was trying to complete coursework for a 3 credit graduate-level course in two weeks, which sounds insane. (I have one follow-up book to read and paper to write, as well as a revision of some of my previous work, then I'm all done.) Many nights during the second week, I passed out, exhausted, well after midnight without having completed quite all of the required reading. The first week was much the same, except that my stamina was greater and I always finished everything. Next time I hope to go away for a workshop, so that my focus is not at all split.

It worked like this: The Institute comprised four workshop groups: Fiction, Advanced Fiction, Poetry, and Creative Non-Fiction. Every morning, we met in our individual workshop groups for 3 hours, then broke for lunch. After lunch, we met all together to hear speakers and have panel discussions.

The morning sessions varied depending on which "class" you were in. Some groups workshopped every day; mine didn't. We watched a fascinating documentary, did in-class writing exercises, discussed published pieces (the nightly reading assignments) and had class-type discussions every day. 3 days a week, we also workshopped each others' work.

We spent 1/2 hour on each workshopped piece, and we each had a piece workshopped once each week. I spent about an hour reading each piece and preparing my thoughts for every workshop, and I think that was probably typical.

The level of participation in my group was quite impressive, and I'll talk about that more tomorrow, including who led the workshop, who else participated, and what sorts of things they were writing.

The afternoon sessions were fascinating. We had published writers talk about Craft, we had writers reading from their own work, we had a panel of literary journal editors (all men, all white, all in their 30s /early 40s, a highly representative sample). We had a notable publisher from an academic press, we had a food critic from Sauce magazine, we had a relatively useless talk about creating an author website (useless because none of the panel participants understood even basic web design). The directors of the MFA programs at Wash U and UMSL spoke, as did a couple of instructors.

Perhaps the most useful thing of all, especially with the afternoon sessions, was that I was surrounded by writers, real writers, all of whom kept referring to all of us as writers, real writers. And that was really something to contemplate.

Sunday, June 25, 2006

Dolls Do It Too

I'm back! The Summer Writer's Institute was amazing, and I'll be posting about it for the rest of the week. But in the meantime . . .

In retrospect, I should have guessed what was happening.

Ellie was playing by herself in the front room on Saturday afternoon, and, frankly, I was thrilled. I was still exhausted from my 2 weeks of writing-working-not sleeping and was grateful for a few minutes to read lazily on the couch in the family room while Paul, who has been doing most of the childcare around here, took a shower and rested briefly.

My angelic young daughter walked back into the family room, picked up her Miss Piggy potty book (Bye bye diapers/Bye bye smell/Bye bye cold wet wipes as well) and her favorite Dora doll, the one that talks and sings and lights up and absolutely cannot go through the washing machine.

"Ellie, would you like me to read you that book? Do you need to go potty?"

"No. Bye bye mama!" She headed back into the front room and played happily for several more minutes.

Then she brought Dora back into the family room and put her on the potty.

I came over to help, and to encourage Ellie to take a turn on the potty. I noticed a couple of things simultaneously. There was a gritty brown substance all over (in the potty Dora was sitting on, on Ellie's cheek and legs, on the floor around them) and something smelled really really bad.

The phone rang, and I grabbed it while trying to wrestle Ellie out of her clothes to see if she'd had a messy/leaky diaper. She did not.

"PAUL! Could you come out here and help a bit, please! I need you to take care of Ellie while I answer the phone and try to determine what stinks in here." I was not using my patient voice.

I went to the foyer and looked into the front room and immediately knew what the problem was. For the first time in many months, Lizzi had decided to use the front room as her own personal patch of grass. And she had been prolific.

Ellie had spotted the pile and taken advantage of it, putting Dora on top of "her" poop, then showing her how she should have gone in the potty.

I told the friend on the phone that we'd meet up with her a little later, rather than sooner. Paul took Ellie to the bath, then the two of them gave Lizzi a bath. I cleaned up the poop, vacuumed the floor, used a strong chemical spot cleaner, then used our little Bissell to wet clean the floor, then vacuumed again. Then Paul and I each changed into clean clothes, washed our hands, and we went out to dinner instead of staying in our recently disgusting house.

I worked on Dora with Shout wipes to no avail; she still reeks.

Sunday, June 11, 2006

Time for Bed

My sister's bridal shower in Valparaiso, IN was perfectly lovely this weekend. It was a "times" shower, where every guest was assigned a time of day. I had "afternoon," and my card said,
For afternoon or any other time . . . but not for work

I got her a lovely nightgown and matching robe, in translucent antique white. Very wedding night. She blushed satisfactorily.

My Writer's Institute starts tomorrow. So I might not be writing much here for the next couple of weeks, or I might be in a writing frenzy and posting daily. Time will tell.

Regardless, have a lovely June!

And, Elizabeth, I might not have mentioned this, but I hate the phone. And I really don't want to intrude right now. But I'd love it if you feel like calling me sometime to let me know how your week's going. Just call at home, because anytime I'm at home it's a good time. I hope you're having a wonderful time. I hope you're too busy to call, and way too busy to be reading blogs. And we should start Yoga again soon: Paul says that my posture sucks and I'm tense.

Thursday, June 08, 2006

Foot in Mouth

I am fantastic at fitting my entire foot in my mouth.

If I start dishing about a co-worker while out to lunch, her best friend is likely to be sitting right behind me. If I'm talking to a friend who is dealing with infertility, I can't seem to stop myself from talking about babies babies babies.

I used to work with a woman my good friend didn't like (long story). We had company bulletin boards where you could post stuff you wanted to sell to other coworkers. Once I "replied" to woman-I-didn't-like instead of "forwarding" her post along to my friend. With catty commentary, of course. Oops.

Here's one that still bugs me from about 10 years ago. Especially since this couple is in our extended group of friends and we see them not infrequently. In fact, I just went to their baby shower a couple of weeks ago.

My parents never talked about money and my mom doesn't wear much jewelry. I was out of school, working at my first "real" [read: career-track] job, and lots of my coworkers talked about rings and diamonds and stuff like that. I myself was in a long-term committed relationship (Hi, Paul!) and decided that I was interested in learning more.

I went to the library and checked out a large, full color, beautiful reference book on diamonds. I rechecked it a few times and read the whole thing cover-to-cover. (I'm sure that the book's presence on the coffee table didn't bother poor Paul at all.)

One night, I was out drinking at a favorite bar with friends, including buddy S, when his brand-new fiance came in.

"Congrats!" I said with excitement. Then it all went downhill. "Can I see your ring? How big is that diamond?"

I still cringe with embarassment whenever I think about it. At the time, I really wasn't thinking. I didn't have any friends who were engaged or married at the time, and my interest was purely academic. I wanted a benchmark. "Oh, so that's what size X looks like." But, man, was that ever inappropriate. And I sure think about it whenever we see them.

A few weeks ago, Ellie and I went out to brunch with a friend. We ran into a family from church at the restaurant and ended up all eating together. This is a really really nice family. The husband had just gotten a new job, and he ended up paying for all of us, which makes my episode of verbal diahrea even worse.

He was talking about his new job, and how his coworkers were all Christians, Presbyterian, in fact!

And even as I watched myself with horror from behind my imagination's sheltering hands, I found myself pontificating on the differences between those Presbyterians and us.

(In this case, it's not too late to fix it. I've written a carefully crafted apology disguised as a thank you note for the brunch. I just need to get their new address and mail it.)

Maybe someday I'll grow up and out of this. But maybe not. I've got a friend and former co-worker - and you know who you are! - who once replied to an email from Human Resources announcing FREE KRISPIE KREMES in all the breakrooms with a two-word email: "YOU B*TCH!" Sans asterisk. Reply to All. Yes, whole office.

I think the best solution, since "think before you speak" is never going to work for me, is to cultivate a reputation as "a real character" so that things like this are expected of me. Or I could just get really really rich. The extraordinarily wealthy are allowed to be "quirky."

Wednesday, June 07, 2006


I'd be remiss if I didn't mention that Paul started a new job this week. He's at his same company, in the same group. But, as he puts it, his hair just got a little pointier.

I'm proud of him, because he got the job over several qualified applicants. And I'm happy for him, because he's really excited about it. And I think he should be flattered that a Sr. Director at his company said, "I'd invest in your career if I could." How cool is that?!

Did I mention that he's 29? Congrats to Paul!

Tuesday, June 06, 2006


When I was in elementary school, I had a friend named Tikisha. Tikisha had the most beautiful mother in the whole school. She'd walk to the school to pick up Tikisha and her little brothers, and everyone would watch her. She was gorgeous! She didn't look anything like a mommy.

And, of course, she was very very young to be the mother of a child as old as Tikisha. But to a young child, a grown up is a grown up - no age distinctions.

When we started 5th grade, Tikisha and I both chose clarinet to play in the band. We sat next to each other, playing clarinet, for the next 6 years. I worked hard at it. I practiced lots and I took private lessons. By the time I got to high school, my dad was driving me to a nearby college town once a week so that I could take lessons with a professor there.

Tikisha rarely even took her clarinet home, but she always sat next to me, second chair. I strongly suspect that she threw chair tests because she knew that being first chair meant more to me than it did to her.

Tikisha had a really relaxed view about a lot of things. She was smart, but grades weren't important to her so she didn't really stand out in the crowd academically. Or athletically. Or musically. Or socially.

But by high school, Tikisha was beautiful, just like her mother. Sharply tilted gorgeous eyes. Quiet intelligence, quick humor, relaxed, comfortable attitude: who wouldn't love Tikisha?

One particular upper-classman drug dealer sure did.

By 10th grade, Tikisha and I were not as close as we used to be. The high school was a much bigger place than our little elementary school and we'd drifted into different groups.

She told me about the dealer. She didn't do drugs, that wasn't her thing, but she did really enjoy the spending money he'd give her. She just had to have sex with him, which she didn't mind, and he wouldn't wear a rubber. She wasn't too concerned.

When my family and I moved away toward the end of that year, Tikisha was pregnant.

I never talked to her again, but I often think about her and wonder what happened to her. And I wonder why I didn't speak up louder at the time, why I didn't make an effort to reach across and stay closer friends with her, why I didn't try to insist that she take care of herself.

I clearly remember thinking, "This is stupid, this can't end well, but this is her decision."

I just looked for her online. I am thrilled to see that she is married, with three kids, has a bachelor's degree, and a good job. And her favorite hobby is reading.

She was a better friend to me than I was to her, but I bet if we met again today we'd be friends. I love the Internet. Just not enough to actually write email and keep in touch with people.

Monday, June 05, 2006

More No, Please

Today at school Ellie was . . . much like she's been at home for the last couple of days.

"Ellie was . . . I don't know how to describe how Ellie was today. Chatty! But mostly she just said, 'no!'" said Ellie's teacher when I stopped by to pick up Ellie from preschool.

"She went poo poo in the potty, but then she stood up, looked right at me, and reached her hand into the toilet! Later, when I was changing her diaper, I had to use the safety strap on the table because she just wouldn't lie still. Then she crashed and wouldn't even wake up for lunch until just a few minutes ago."

We're now in the stage of the antibiotics process when she will no longer tell me when she needs to go to the potty, or when she's gone in her diaper, because the cleaning up hurts so much. But the not-cleaning-up makes the problem much worse. So there are many tears. 3 more days of this . . . and lots of yogurt: yogurt in her oatmeal, yogurt in her dinnertime milk, yogurt for an afternoon snack . . .

We see her doctor again tomorrow, though. I'm going to ask her if it's possible that this hyperactivity and rough behavior is a symptom of the medication, or even of her illness itself.

Maybe she'll also be able to tell me why Ellie sometimes holds her arm to her chest and cries, "Arm! Arm!" like she's in terrible pain. Nursemaid's elbow? But no, she's inconsolable for a while, and then she forgets all about it in half an hour and uses both arms normally again. Odd.

It's shocking how quickly I've become accustomed to my walking, talking little Ellie. It's inconceivable that I wondered when she'd begin to talk. It's impossible that a mere 7 months ago I wondered if she'd ever be walking around the house or to and from the car independently. Amazing.

Sunday, June 04, 2006


Today we got a little hint of what life must be like for some other parents.

See, Ellie didn't get to go to school all week last week. And we weren't out doing exciting things, either. She was sick, and we kept her (mostly) quietly at home. By today, she was climbing up the walls.

The morning began with a crash: she broke a lovely blue glass vase that we got for our wedding. The vase began a trend of people giving us blue glass presents, and my blue glass collection has moved as both it and Ellie have grown. From the dining room table to the bottom shelf of the tall cabinet Paul's grandfather made for us, finally to the top two shelves of the cabinet. Eye level for me. Ellie reached it by standing on the arm of an easy chair and yanking the beaded, tatted cloth that some of the pieces were resting on.

A little later, as I was changing a disgusting, antibiotics-related diaper, she reached out and grabbed it. My fault: I left it within reach. But she doesn't usually do that. Poopy hand.

See, when other people bring their children to our home, they start moving things around and noting obstacles. Our house isn't perfectly child-proofed. But it's child-proofed for us. We know what Ellie gets into and we've addressed those things. Mostly. When we started putting locks on cabinets, we did it one-at-a-time, as Ellie became fascinated by each cabinet in turn rather than exploring all at once.

But back to today.

When I needed a few minutes alone in the bathroom, Ellie laid down on the floor outside and started kicking the hollow-core door, hard, with both feet. Shod in sturdy Stride Rites and orthotics, natch. BOOM! BOOM! BOOM!

She got into cupboards she's not usually into and got out appliances she's not usually interested in.

She removed the cushion from the rocking chair in her room, climbed up on it, and pushed her floor lamp over. Then she climbed up onto her bed to better examine and dissect the workings of the lamp.

She decided to drink from the dog's water bowl.

She unplugged every cord she could find.

She went to Paul's dresser and pulled the top drawer down. Only her hyper-flexibility saved her from being crushed by it.

She was fascinated by the (gas!) stove while we were cooking.

She "climbed" down out of her booster seat by herself at dinner.

She broke the door off a wooden bench/cabinet.

She climbed up on the arm of a sofa to reach the cherrywood secretary, removed one of the drawers, and got out the stone coasters I'd "hidden" inside.

What's so disturbing is that one or both of us was right beside Ellie as she did nearly all of these things.

"There's no way tonight doesn't end in a trip to the emergency room," Paul said.

Now she's sleeping like an angel. No trips to the ER today. But I am so very glad that she's going to preschool tomorrow! She still has a cough and her energy level isn't back to normal - she crashes earlier for her nap - but she needs this outlet. And so do we!

As we were finishing up dinner, Ellie was playing quietly in the living room. She'd excused herself from the table earlier, as you might recall, by sliding out of her seat. She walked back in as we were finishing up, with something in each hand.

"CD?" she asked us politely. She'd thoughtfully opened the cases and obtained a CD for each of us. A Dr. Seuss album for me, and Ani Difranco's Reckoning for Paul.

Thursday, June 01, 2006

So Lucky

I sometimes take my childhood for granted. I often forget how lucky I am.

Tonight I went to the grocery store after Paul and Ellie went to sleep. This was a mid-week run for things we are out of, like milk; luxury items I wanted, like the brand of disposable diapers that hold in Ellie's antibiotics-related diarrhea; and expensive, brand-name packaged foods that tempted me. Pickles? How about crisp dill Claussens from the cooler? Yummmmmm.

It was 10:30 on a school night, and I was surprised by the number of children there. There were a lot of children there.

I know that dealing with 3 young children, limited funds, and a workaholic husband was not easy for my mother. But she kept us on a regular schedule and we had predictable, ordered lives. We were always well-rested and fed for school in the morning, whether we wanted to be or not.

How might my experience have been different if I had been going to school after spending a good portion of my should-have-been-sleeping hours out running errands? Waking up with cartoons and junk food? I can imagine. And it makes me feel a bit less proud of my accomplishments: I had a huge leg up.

In the checkout line, the young Asian man two people behind me was nervously buying a corkscrew and two long-stemmed light pink roses. The middle-aged blond man in a gray Nike t-shirt just behind me was picking up Soap Opera Digest.

And the woman just in front of me, shopping with her two-year-old, used her bank card to buy a single sippy cup. She had to run her card through several times, watching the screen oh-so-closely to see the "Approved" pop up. Then she had the cashier ring through the rest of her order separately: 5 cans of formula with a WIC certificate casually lying on top.

I had been smiling at the mom and waving to the little girl. After I noticed what they were buying, my eyes kept straying back to the huge pile of packaged, brand-name foods on my side of the little plastic bar.

Physical pain.

So often, I think of the things that I want but don't have.

So often, I intellectualize poverty, or try to forget it altogether for a while.

Because thinking about it, really thinking about it, and thinking about how I myself benefit from it and contribute to it, hurts really badly.