The brilliant Margaret Wappler is teaching Nonfiction II this fall, and she took time out from revising her novel to answer some questions about the class, which starts Tuesday, September 30th at her home in Mt Washington. Check them out below, and see all class details here.
You’re not only a journalist and freelance nonfiction writer,
you’re also a fiction writer working on a novel. How does your
diversity of experience and interests, genre-wise, influence how you teach nonfiction writing?
I’m a big believer in borrowing strategies from any genre. In fact, this is a hallmark of creative nonfiction – that it can hold one or several different genre strains in a single essay, chapter or book. Maybe I especially encourage nonfiction as a hybrid form because I’m often swimming between fiction and nonfiction myself, and the waters are inextricably mixed in my own practice. How does this experience play out in my instruction? For instance, I often tell my students not to be afraid of using research or reporting in their work, both of which are associated with traditional journalism. Reporting, by the way, can simply mean interviewing another family member about what she/he recalls from a specific time; it doesn’t have to mean getting the Surgeon General on the phone (though that would be pretty cool). Research – which can be anything from reading several articles to driving down the street where you used to live – can help develop your ideas, correlate (or productively complicate) your own experience or provide structure. I also talk about the value of building scenes, typically considered the purview of short stories and novels. It can crack an essay wide open to show characters interacting “in real time,” to get dialogue on the page, to use plotting (more or less the principle of what to reveal when) to develop tension in the piece. We also delve into poetics, particularly the well-established connection between poetry and the lyric essay. One last genre that I like to talk about, perhaps the most humble of all: the list. You might not realize it but that To-Do list sitting on your desk can be the foundation of a powerful essay.
What’s one of your favorite pieces or excerpts of nonfiction to
teach, and why?
It’s a tie between “Make Me Worry You’re Not OK” by Susan Shapiro and the first few chapters of David Shields’ “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto.” The Shields’ book argues that we’re obsessed with reality as a culture because we hardly experience any (despite what Reality TV or Facebook would have us believe); it also implores us to reframe how we think about truth, memory and appropriation (the book is a collage of quotes from essayists, poets, novelists and other thinkers). “Reality Hunger,” which is particularly critical of the novel, is also fun to discuss because he relentlessly picks a fight with statements such as “I find nearly all the moves the traditional novel makes unbelievably predictable, tired, contrived, and essentially purposeless.” Tell us how you really feel, right? As far as the Shapiro piece goes, it wonderfully lays bare an essential truth about any kind of nonfiction you are writing: that the stakes should be high, that it should concern the reader for your health and/or survival. That’s not to say that essays can’t be about, as David Foster Wallace called it, the “dark matter” of life, the tedium, boredom or little things that plague us (our big thighs, that offhand thing someone said to us at the dog park) – but the piece must engage the subject as a matter of urgency. The essay should read like it’s the main preoccupation on the writer’s mind at that moment.
How do you make sure your nonfiction workshops remain open-minded and compassionate, while also critical and helpful? Is it difficult to discuss writing about stuff that actually happened to the writer?
This is such a great question because to me, as a teacher, none of the practical writing instruction means diddly if I can’t set up an atmosphere that supports risk, emotional honesty and compassion. Creating a nurturing but rigorous environment is my single biggest concern as a teacher. There are a couple of rules I set up to encourage this right off the bat: One is the way we talk about a student’s work. Instead of asking the writer “Did that really happen to you?” or talking about the “I” on the page as “you,” I encourage the students to refer to the “I” as “the narrator,” and to ask questions and give specific notes that might foster a better essay, not verify the veracity of a story. We also talk about the “I” as a persona, based on the essay “On the Necessity of Turning Oneself Into a Character” by Philip Lopate. This helps to keep the class firmly grounded in craft, not therapy. That said, I have a box of tissues at the ready. I’m not scared of a few tears, people. I like to tell my students that if an essay is making them cry or want to puke while writing it, they’re in fertile territory. If you feel like you have the flu when writing it, well, then that’s another story. You should probably go to the doctor. Anyway, I’m continuously inspired by my students’ ability to share the raw material of their lives and fashion it into insightful, lovely and haunting essays. It feeds my own writing everyday.