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Writing excuses 8.51: Creative non-fiction with Mette Ivie Harrison

Writing excuses 8.51: Creative non-fiction with Mette Ivie Harrison


Key points: Creative nonfiction, also known as literary nonfiction or narrative nonfiction, is basically nonfiction writing that uses literary techniques. Both fiction and nonfiction try to elicit emotions. Creative nonfiction often takes normal things about everyday life and makes them feel magical, evoke a sense of wonder. To describe something normal in wondrous ways without straying into purple prose, use the right word, selected details. Many readers want to feel transported to a different world, but it doesn't have to be a fantasy world. If you are writing creative nonfiction, you need to think hard about embellishment, exaggeration, and fabrication.

[Mary] Season eight, episode 51.
[Brandon] This is Writing Excuses, Creative non-fiction with Mette Ivie Harrison.
[Howard] 15 minutes long, because you're in a hurry.
[Mary] And we're not that smart.
[Brandon] I'm Brandon.
[Mary] I'm Mary.
[Howard] I'm Howard, and we don't have a Dan.
[Brandon] Yes. The part of Dan today will be played by a wet noodle stapled to a sock. But we also have Mette Ivie Harrison joining us. Say hi, Mette.
[Mette] Hello, everyone.

[Brandon] Welcome back to the podcast. Tell us a little bit about your work.
[Mette] My latest book is called Iron Mom. It's a creative nonfiction piece about how I came to triathlon very late in life and how I manage triathlon and a family and a writing career.
[Brandon] Awesome. By coincidence... Entirely coincidence, we're going to talk about creative nonfiction. I had no idea that there was such a thing as creative nonfiction before I went to college and they explained how stupid I was. Mary, what is creative nonfiction?
[Mary] Well, creative nonfiction actually has a couple of different terms. It is creative nonfiction, literary nonfiction, and narrative nonfiction. You'll hear people talk about them in different ways. But it's basically nonfiction writing that uses literary techniques to present "factually accurate" narratives.
[Brandon] Mary's doing air quotes around factually accurate.
[Mary] Yeah. I'm pretty sure they could hear that.
[Brandon] Uh-huh. Yes.
[Mary] Factually. Accurate.
[Brandon] I'll be honest, creative nonfiction was the big surprise of my degree. I went in and when I saw that there was this course about creative nonfiction that I could take or something like this, I'm like, "I should take this so I know what it is, but it's going to be one of these things that's going to be like highbrow and literary and I'm just not going to like it." I loved it. I went into the course and I was blown away by the fact that it was something real, then it wasn't just journal writing souped-up, that it had this fiction feel to it. It was quite awesome. It was one of my most enjoyable classes through my entire graduate degree of coursework.
[Howard] Sandra does a lot of I guess categorically it would be called mommy blogging. My favorite of her blog posts are the ones where it's not just a recounting of the events, it is crafted so that the events are fitting into a beginning, middle, and end narrative, and there is an arc, there is cathartic... You can see the try fail cycle.
[Mary] That is the aspect that makes it specifically creative nonfiction.
[Howard] Creative nonfiction. Okay.
[Mary] Or narrative nonfiction, is that you're applying those literary techniques to the facts that you are telling...
[Howard] But literary nonfiction doesn't use the literary... I'm so confused.
[Mary] No, literary...
[Brandon] Those are all three terms for the same thing.
[Mette] Different words.
[Mary] They're all the same words.
[Howard] Oh, okay.
[Mary] As opposed to journalism, which is factual but not using literary narrative techniques. So sometimes you'll see a human interest piece in a newspaper that is skirting into creative nonfiction, that's using some of those techniques. Memoirs can also go into...
[Howard] Slow news day fiction?
[Brandon] Yes. But it depends on the [editorial style?]
[Howard] I'm kidding. I'm making [garbled]
[Mary] But it's very much... It's using all of the things that we talk about, with character arc, try fail cycles, to relay information that is factually accurate. So you don't make shit up.

[Brandon] This is happening a lot more, I've noticed, online on like the online magazines, like Salon and things like this, where there is more space, you don't have to worry so much about the word counts. It's... The journalism line here is blending a lot more, I'm finding. Mette, I wanted to ask, you have done both of these, you've released books both fiction and creative nonfiction books. Did you find anything specifically different about approaching the creative nonfiction book?
[Mette] I think it is a lot the same. The way I think of writing a book, fiction and nonfiction, is about emotion. Or at least that's the way I've been thinking about it a lot lately. When I write a creative nonfiction piece, I am trying to elicit an emotion in a reader, the same emotion that I felt. So I try to use the words so that the reader can experience as much as possible the emotion that I experienced in the event itself. So, yes, there's an attempt to convey actual facts, but I mean in a triathlon, if I spend too much time talking about what my bike equipment is or how many yards or whatever, that tends to take away from the emotional aspect I am trying to get the reader to feel. That's why I feel like... I mean, this is a book that I'm trying to tell people that you don't have to start out as a great athlete, you don't have to be anybody special... I'm not a... I was never a great athlete in high school, and I had five kids before I went back to triathlon. So what I'm trying to do is get people to feel what I feel when I race. The idea is that will make them want to start changing their life so that maybe they could have that experience in real life themselves. That emotion of... Like the high of exercise.
[Brandon] That seems like an interesting distinction for me, because in a lot of my fiction, the main goal is a story and emotional resonance to the characters. Where you're shooting for an emotional resonance to a feeling, to a... You're trying to motivate, really. So...
[Mary] Well, I think in some ways, it's about using yourself as a character. But... Showing that to the reader.
[Brandon] Right, right.
[Mette] I mean that... I was using that as an example. That's one thing that I do. I talk about... The book begins with the story of my first Ironman, which I signed up for nine days after I lost my sixth daughter. She was 10 days late. She ended up being stillborn. I thought about doing an Ironman before. Suddenly, in this grief stricken state that I was in, I desperately needed something to focus on. Like day by day. I could get up in the morning, I knew that... What I was going to do, and I could check off a list of things. That would help me get through to the point where I thought I would be over it and like recovered. I'm not sure that actually happened, that recovery part. But it's not just about... So that event, the Ironman itself, it's not just about trying to motivate people to do an Ironman. It's also trying to explain to them why I did this crazy thing. So that they understand, they can feel that grief that propelled me into it as well. So yes, as a character, I'm using myself as a character, and trying to get readers to sympathize with me and to see why I would do what seems like an absolutely crazy thing to do after... Nine days after delivery, you're not even supposed to be up.
[Howard] Seems like...
[Mette] So the idea that you would start training for a race that's 112 miles of biking and then topped off with 26 miles of running... Yeah, that does seem crazy.
[Mary] I just have to say that that seems crazy under any circumstances.
[Brandon] Yeah, yeah. I'm there with you.
[Mary] But I haven't read your book yet, so...
[Mette] Yes. Well, my husband and I laugh about that. We say that 13 miles, or a half marathon, is in the sane category. Anything past that, you're moving into the insane category where it's really not about fitness anymore. Like you can be plenty fit and do 13 miles. Once you go past that...
[Brandon] 13 miles?
[Mette] You're starting to risk lots of injuries. So it's really not about fitness anymore, it's just about the craziness.

[Brandon] Let's go ahead and stop for a book of the week. Our book of the week this week is Steelheart by Brandon Sanderson. Hey, by coincidence, we have him on the podcast right now. Brandon?
[Mary] I think he's... I've heard he's a promising young author.
[Brandon] Uh-huh. Tell us about your book?
[Brandon] Well, Brandon, Steelheart is about what happens when people start gaining superpowers but only evil people get them. It's an action adventure thriller. It was published as older teen, but I think anyone would enjoy it. Audible themselves did the audiobook and have been fantastic to work with. So I would highly recommend this book to you. It's narrated wonderfully and is a very enjoyable experience.
[Brandon] That's very good, Brandon. Hey, Howard, how can they get Brandon's book?
[Howard] You can start a 30-day free trial membership, grab a copy of Steelheart absolutely free, and maybe find something else there that you would like to listen to as well.

[Brandon] Yes, indeed. So, creative nonfiction. One of the big things that I loved about creative nonfiction when I was... As a student taking this class was it seemed like the authors who were doing it were able to take normal things about everyday life and make them feel very magical. Not magical in the sort of fantasy since, but evoke a sense of wonder. The great book that we read a lot and that is often held up as like a great example of this is Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. The idea about Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is she's passing through the wilderness and she'll find some everyday creature and she'll look at it closely and describe it in these marvelous beautiful ways that are in some ways discomforting, in some ways wondrous. It makes... Made the entire world seem a more wondrous place, which is what I liked about it. I felt that... Taking this class, one of the reasons I loved it so much is it made me a better fiction writer by looking and saying, "Wow. People who are writing creative nonfiction can take a stroll through the woods and make it seem as wondrous as traveling to a fantasy world. That means that I should be able to, in my fantasy books, evoke the sense of wonder not just from the traipsing across the wilderness in this fantastical land, but the morning routine where the mother and the child get together and have that same sense of wonder." It was very eye-opening to me. Which is why I recommend creative nonfiction and why the class was so interesting to me. I would say let's talk about how to do this. Have you noticed in your own writing... What... How do you take something normal and make it wondrous without going purple? Because that's always my danger. I'm like, "I'm going to describe this thing in such a beautiful wonderful way." Then I get done with the paragraph and I'm like, "Wow. That sounds... That stands out like the proverbial sore thumb." Where suddenly it's like Brandon is trying to be literary now. How do you do this?
[Mette] I think that you can use... Sometimes, the right word. You don't have to use all of the right words. So, like for me, when talking about triathlon, while I want to avoid explaining every single complicated detail of my bike setup, saying that it's a Cervelo 48 cm and it looks like it's a bike made for a little kid but with super fancy aero bars... Just a few of those precise words that only apply in a very specific situation can really help to make it feel like you really know what you're talking about and that you're in a different world. I think that a lot of readers read because they want to feel transported into a different world. You don't have to... It doesn't have to be a fantasy world, it can be a world... It can be a cooking world if your character is a chef, you can use the words that have to do with very specific instruments that they use. Or in the triathlon world, you can use very specific words for that. I think that's one way to do it.
[Mary] Yeah. I think the other thing you can do is pay attention to narrative rhythms. Like one of the things we talk about when we're writing fiction is what your point of view character is noticing and how long they're lingering on it. You can do that with nonfiction by helping the reader or listener understand which part of the story is important by how long you linger on it and the words that you use to describe it. As we were talking, I suddenly remembered that a friend of mine, Jodi Eichelberger, does these narrative nonfiction podcasts. He did one about an event that I was a participant in. It's very interesting, hearing that story from someone else's perspective because the... He is using all of these narrative tropes to drive it forward. He's using repetition, he's using alliteration, he's using all of the tools. But it makes me go, "Oh, yeah. Now that was a serious adventure. We're lucky we weren't dead... Aren't dead. Huh!"
[Mary] At the time, it was... It was a cool thing that happened, but it didn't...
[Howard] That's the experience that I get reading Sandra's blogs, is... I mean, it's wonderful because all yeah, I was only there for part of this story, let's see what happened. In the part that I was in, I'm like, "Oh. Wow. Sounds a lot better than I remember it." But it's not inaccurate. It's just... It's...

[Brandon] That's something to bring up. Creative nonfiction, one of the lines that people walk is embellishment. Because it is a staple of the field that you're allowed to do things like combine two experiences to make one narrative experience as long as they're both events that happened. But if you stray too far and start making up events, then you [garbled] into... What was that? A Million Little Pieces? Or... The Oprah book, James Frey?
[Mary] It was billed as narrative nonfiction.
[Brandon] Billed as narrative nonfiction, but it was found out that he greatly exaggerated and fabricated. A lot of the creative nonfiction community was actually like, "Yeah, it's not a big deal," but the community as a large felt betrayed because this was presented as a true story. But it was a true story like a Hollywood based on a true story, rather than things that actually happened. It kind of destroyed his career. At least... It didn't completely, but it was a major impediment because of this distinction, where it really should have been published as fiction inspired by real events in his life as opposed to creative nonfiction. What liberties do you take, Mette? How do you walk this line?
[Mette] I wouldn't even go so far as to combine two different events. However, if you talked to my husband and asked him how much of the stuff that I write about in this book actually happened, he might argue about it. I think he believes that I exaggerate. I don't intend to exaggerate, but it is true sometimes that when I am creating the arc of a story, that I may... I don't know, some... I think I might actually see the world differently because I am shaping it as I am living it sometimes.
[Howard] Yeah, you use stronger words to describe the pain that you are in during the low part of the story, because that's part of the arc that you are trying to shape. You're not lying about the fact that you were in pain there, and this actually happened. It's just the tools that you use shape the story.
[Mary] Well, it's also getting into point of view. It's like how you perceive things... People can't argue with... If I perceive someone walking into the room as being 6 feet tall and he's in fact 5'10", it... That gets into... Again, trying to carry across the emotional impact of the person.
[Mette] I think that's what I end up doing. Not consciously, necessarily. My husband, who is a physicist and a computer programmer, is very literal. So for him, if I ever stray from the exact... He measures stuff in his head all the time and he's always accurate. So for him, he feels like I'm straying from that, when for me, that felt like it was the truth.
[Howard] The nonfiction that he is familiar with is technical documentation.
[Mette] Yes. Yes. That is all... That is what he reads.
[Howard] You're not really allowed to play with the words much.

[Brandon] One of my favorite pieces of creative nonfiction was by Louise Palmer. I read it in a different class, but it was awesome, because she did all of this stuff telling this story about like I think it was when they took their dog into be put down. It had all the emotional content and things and she got to the end and was telling all this and then she was talking about seeing the dog and all this. Then she said I was telling this story to friends, and my husband said, "You weren't there." She stopped and said, "Yes I was." He said, "No. You were away on a trip. We described this to you." They went back and looked and lo and behold, she had been gone for the trip. She had fabricated this memory. The whole creative nonfiction essay was then turned into this idea of what is real and what isn't real, when our minds are perfectly capable of fabricating memories, and how does that relate to actually writing creative nonfiction. It's a great story. This is an entirely... This is a very large field. I'm hoping to eventually have more people who write creative nonfiction on so that we can talk about it more. But we're out of time for this particular podcast.

[Brandon] But I'm going to give a writing prompt to you guys. It's a very obvious one. But many of you listening may never have tried this before. So I would suggest trying to take something everyday ordinary in your life that might be extraordinary to people who are not living your life. Describe it using literary techniques. See how that helps improve your fiction. All right. This has been Writing Excuses. You're out of excuses, now go write.
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