Thursday, November 26, 2009

Negotiating fact, fiction in nonfiction.(Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction)(Book Review).

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Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. McGraw-Hill, 195 pages. Paper, $14.95.

SO MANY BOOKS on how to become a published writer, so many approaches to consider. In Tell It Slant, two Western Washington University professors emphasize drawing on materials from one's own life to break into print. After all, they say, every life is unique, and so ought to offer fresh material to readers. The title comes from an Emily Dickinson poem, "Tell all the Truth but tell it slant--." The final word of that line connotes admirable qualities in the teachings of Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola: "It's the 'creative' part of the term 'creative nonfiction' that means a single, active imagination is behind the piece of reality [an] author will unfold" for readers.

The book, slanted more toward publishing memoir-laden essays than omniscient third-person journalism, is designed to help you, as wanna-be authors, "gain access to your particular stories and memories--your particular voice--while also providing suggestions for turning your gaze onto the world in a way that will allow you to find material outside of the self." Miller and Paola begin with tips on mining memories, then move outward to mining material from family, environment, spirituality, history and the arts. Optimistically, they say, "Readers will want to read your work not because they wish to lend a sympathetic ear to a stranger, but because of the way your truth-filled stories may illuminate their own lives and perceptions of the world."

"Creative nonfiction" is a slippery term, along with "literary nonfiction," "narrative nonfiction" and the like. Just how slippery becomes apparent on pages 81 and 82.

To many writers, the word "nonfiction" is inviolable. It signifies, they say, that the published piece is factually accurate, that every detail is grounded in the verifiable world, and that nothing is invented. No matter what adjective is paired with "nonfiction"--whether it is "creative" or "literary" or "narrative"--no sentence, no paragraph should derive from imagination alone, they hold, unless the reader is put on notice.

Miller and Paola, though, suggest that fact and fiction can coexist in published works and still legitimately be termed nonfiction.

Here is their context:

If you set out to establish a pact
with the reader--to gain his or her
trust--then you must make some critical
decisions about how, or whether,
you will employ fictional elements in
your nonfiction writing ... [T]he simple
act of writing and the construction
of the narrative voice are essentially
creative acts that impose a form
where none before existed. Beyond
that, what kinds of fictions are allowable
and what are not in creative nonfiction?
Just how much emphasis do
we put on "creative" and how much
on "nonfiction"?
Miller and Paola are more permissive in their answer than many writing teachers would be: "We believe that every writer must negotiate the boundary between fact and fiction for him/herself. What constitutes fabrication for one writer will seem like natural technique to another." That is dangerous advice. Fortunately, Miller and Paola emphasize that authors must offer cues to readers about crossing the line, employing phrases like "I imagine," "I would like to believe," 'I don't remember exactly, but ..."

Toward the end of the book, Miller and Paola describe the various forms authors can use for their finished stories. They emphasize the personal essay and the lyric essay. Their bibliography consists almost entirely of such essays. Classic examples include "Total Eclipse" by Annie Dillard and "Why I Don't Meditate" by Anne Lamott.

Those are worthy examples, summarized cogently by Miller and Paola. The authors' emphasis on the essay form as a way to break into publication is unusual. It is also a high-risk, low-percentage way to succeed. While many authors develop the reporting, organizing and stylistic skills to write journalism that deserves the label "creative nonfiction," far fewer are skillful enough to convert material grounded in the deeply personal into something that connects universally. If the Miller-Paola regimen helps yield future Annie Dillards and Anne Lamotts, bravo.

Steve Weinberg writes magazine features, reviews and nonfiction books from his home in Columbia, Mo.

Named Works: Tell It Slant: Writing and Shaping Creative Nonfiction (Book) Book reviews

Source Citation
Weinberg, Steve. "Negotiating fact, fiction in nonfiction." The Writer Nov. 2005: 46. Academic OneFile. Web. 26 Nov. 2009. .

Gale Document Number:A137016087

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