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My third assignment for The Craft of Creative Nonfiction (#1057)

Topics/tags: Writing

Today I turned in my third manuscript and assignment for English 207, The Craft of Creative Nonfiction. As you may recall from a previous musing and another previous musing, we are supposed to pick a model piece from those we read, identify some techniques the author used, turn those into guidelines in an assignment for ourselves, and then write a manuscript that follows those guidelines. For the first two pieces, those manuscripts were five to six pages. This time, our manuscripts are eight to ten pages.

The previous two times, we had an assigned genre. This time, we got to choose our own genre (other than the two already assigned). I chose Lyric, Reflective, and/or Experimental Memoir. That seemed to be more of a challenge to myself than, say, mimicking David Foster Wallace [2]. I play with language, but not to the extent that you would expect in a lyric essay. I tend to write linear text, to connect explicitly the parts of the pieces I write. There are obvious connections even when I ramble [3]. But this genre asks us to make larger leaps, to leave bits missing for the reader to fill in, or not.


Model piece: Elizabeth Graver’s Migrate from Seneca Review Fall 2009/Spring 2010, Volumes 39/2–40/1, pp. 64–65. Stephen Kuusisto [4] and Ralph James Savarese [5], Editors.

A few standard aspects of Lyric, Reflective, and/or Experimental Prose, present in Graver.

  1. Make huge paratactic [6] leaps. Graver does not use the almighty return bar to separate sections, but I have chosen to do so.

  2. Experiment with language, with sentence structure.

  3. Pay attention to rhythm.

  4. Weave together multiple threads.

Particular aspects of Graver’s work.

1. Build on relationships to family, closeness and distance.

The opening and ending reflect on her daughters and physical contact with them.

2. Include at least one inappropriate joke.

Welcome to Jonestown! (p. 65)

Try not to lick the floor. (p. 65)

3. Use italics and parentheticals, but limit their use.

Graver uses italics twice in two pages. Once in how cared for she’d felt, once in a quotation (or sign).

4. Ask and answer questions. Some answers are short, a few words, a sentence. Other answers can be longer.

Where have you been? Where have you lived? I have lived in Paris. I have lived in a house in the woods, another in the fields. (p. 64)

As I mentioned recently, I had not explicitly written the assignment when I first drafted the essay. I had Graver’s piece in mind, as well as the genre, but I had not spelled out everything I wanted to use from it. I knew that I could not reach Graver’s level of rhythm and lyricism, but I liked the piece and wanted to see what I could take from it. Graver’s was also the first pathography [7] we read, and Prof. S’s discussion of pathographies helped shape my plans for the essay. I suppose I should have made that part of the assignment. Write a pathography that breaks from the standard narratives. I guess that was implicit rather than explicit. Whoops!

Beyond that huge component, the first of these tasks was on my mind throughout the drafting. The second and third required a bit of rewriting and rethinking. But the fourth! The fourth task (questions) didn’t come to mind until I reread Graver. It ended up leading me to restructure my piece in surprising ways.

My manuscript is almost nothing at all like Graver [8], but the piece and associated tasks did help me shape it.

I’ll share it with you tomorrow. Or at least I plan to. You never know.

[1] Or assignment and manuscript.

[2] That’s not to say that mimicking DFW is easy. Rather, it’s that excessive use of footnotes (an obvious characteristic of DFW) is part of my everyday writing practice.

[3] I don’t always ramble, do I?

[4] We read a book by Kuusisto this semester. It was lyrical in other ways.

[5] Isn’t it fun to see what your instructor does in their spare time? And how does Ralph find spare time for something like that?

[6] A new word I learned on the first day of class this semester. One contrasts parataxis with hypotaxis.

[7] Another new word!

[8] More precisely, nothing at all like Graver’s essay.

Version 1.0 of 2020-04-28.