I love the work I do, helping brave truth tellers write their stories.
And I love celebrating when writers are recognized for the work they produce in one of my classes — when they get their first acceptance with a journal, their name on a contest shortlist, or win an award.
Writers get in touch to share their successes with me fairly often. Sometimes a few good news emails arrive the same week!
Of course these writers bring their own talent, skill and motivation to their work.
But I also believe learning about experimental CNF helps their writing in significant ways.
Structure + form = a creative bombshell
An important aspect of crafting powerful narratives is shape.
Having a frame, a skeleton or a container for your story helps manage your material, defining its boundaries.
I’ve also noticed that constraints can help writers work with their difficult material. (More on that a bit later…)
In my online writing programs I teach variations on two forms…
The flash essay and the lyric essay
Flash nonfiction limits word count but can contain any kind of story form.
The lyric essay is extremely versatile, and can incorporate images, media, and layered texts from a variety of sources in its segmented format; it can also inhabit found forms (i.e. the hermit crab essay), stretching even further into hybrid sub-genre territory.
I think one of the reasons my students’ work gets recognized is because they keep pushing the boundaries of personal narrative. Some examples of the brilliant genre-bending and blending work produced in my classes:
- “Individual Education Plan” by Karen Zey
- “A Year for Ectoplasm” by Emily Kellogg
- “When A Jack Fails” by Shirley Harshenin
The key to award-worthy life writing: creative play
There’s a reason why working with a structure or constraints increases creativity when we write.
It comes down to how the mind works.
The brain is a pattern-finding, link-making machine, constantly seeking meaningful connections. Pick two random things– hummingbird, Christmas — and the mind gets to work, searching for a relationship.
Einstein called his technique of bringing together two dissimilar ideas to discover new possibilities “combinatory play”. Exploring potential relationships others had dismissed or ruled out was part of his genius.
The writers I work with engage in a similar kind of creative play when they bring their personal material to a new structure.
Magic happens when two previously unrelated things — the time you had temporary amnesia + a post-it-note-length story format — come together.
Let’s not forget courage …
The writers I teach tend to be pretty fearless in their work — even when their subject matter triggers strong emotions.
It’s not that they don’t feel afraid when they begin a new story that delves into vulnerable material. I think turning their minds to structure helps them to be more honest, vulnerable, and revelatory — their stories, more compelling.
When my mind is busy working out how a story is going to come together, I forget to be uncomfortable. My attention isn’t on how an experience made me feel (or how hard it can be to write!) but on solving the puzzle of the form I’ve chosen to work with.
When writers are in the zone, playing with form and writing brave, their work that emerges is brilliant.
I’m never surprised to learn their course work received an acceptance. I always say it’s just a matter of time before it finds its literary home.
The evolution of first draft into art
Writers tend to arrive in my courses primed for negative feedback: Just tear it apart, tell me what to fix, be harsh, I can take it.
My approach to nurturing the development of emerging essays works better than negative critiquing. As Eufemia Fantetti says: Why throw acid on a garden when you want it to grow?
When we’re in the midst of the creative process, curiosity is needed — not judgement. We help our work become the beautiful thing it wants to be when we slow down, pay attention, simply observing what is there.
I believe our stories are smarter than we are – we’re just the scribes, a step behind, catching up to what they’re trying to tell us. So we have to pay attention.
Writers are skilled at this, so learning to nurture a work in progress is simply learning to turn your attention to what a reader might want more of.
I used to shy away from including peer feedback in my courses. Now I teach the things I look for in a work-in-progress because it’s empowering for writers to master the art of re-vision.
In my Spark Your Story program I help writers learn to use their deep noticing skills, to keep improving their strong first drafts.
Questions, not directives.
Having read nearly a thousand works in progress, I’ve noticed that the main elements of a story are often present in the first draft.
It’s a matter of asking what is happening in the draft phase, then recognizing what’s essential, adding, trimming, perhaps rearranging a sentence or section to strengthen the impact.
Come close, then closer
The words I say most often when supporting the revision process is that I want to get closer. I want to know what the narrator is seeing, sensing, thinking, feeling.
Coming in close means the picture frame around the scene is small – not everything and everyone in the panorama shot but an up close zoom. There are moments when I want to be closer still — not outside in the frame, but inside the narrator’s mind and heart.
The truth, exactly as it happened
Life writers are often inclined to include everything that happened in their story, in the order it occurred, because they’re trying to recreate the truth. But story isn’t a play-by-play re-enactment.
Story is in the shape — what’s on the page, as well as what can be gleaned in the white space.
Let your reader make a few leaps; don’t fill in all the blanks for them.
One final suggestion: end sooner than you think you should. Maybe just before the last goodbye, when it isn’t all quite over.
Remember, when you work with form, you’re working with boundaries — within a structure or frame. If you cut out what’s beyond the edges, it doesn’t make what’s left inside the frame less true.
You’ve just narrowed your focus for impact, and made your story stronger.
A summary of guidelines for more potent life writing
* Experiment with form and structure
* Write with playfulness; revise with curiosity
* Be more honest, vulnerable, and brave than you hoped
* Never throw acid on a garden
* Questions, not directives
* Get close to your narrator, then closer
* Remember: story is in the shape