Monday, June 28, 2010

On Writing About Writing

For three weeks I have been reworking the first chapter of my book. And yes, I’m going dotty because in many ways I have been working this same chapter (it began as an essay) for five years. About now it’s like tough, old dough that requires a violent punching. But this is the last stand. I have to make final decisions and once my book is out there I can’t take it back. If Chapter One doesn’t hold, then the reader will never go any further. So I am fine combing the situation and it’s brutal.

My Stymie of the Day takes place on page seventeen. I am worried about being one of those writers writing about writing.

In Montana workshops the general rule was to disdain stories about writers and writing. I'm I was one of the naysayers, but the more I think about it, I'm a sucker for stories that star writers (Sophie's Choice, Wonder Boys, Winslow in Love to name a few). Writers done well make for great main characters. But a bad story about a writer is worse than a bad story about a lawyer. Hence the sordid slushpile tale about the young "writer" who gets his "college girlfriend" "pregnant" and she breaks down over the "abortion."

Lesson: Write about writing if you must——but proceed with caution.

My book (as Chuck Klosterman would say) is 85% a true story. Nonfiction presents a different dilemma: How does the writer set up the project without writing too much about being a writer. My issue right now is that I have to get our heroine (me) from North Carolina to Montana to begin the story. The blog pretty much outs why I moved to Montana. But do I really want to write about that? The MFA, it seems, is often the published writer's dirty little secret. Writing about the MFA is akin to talking about that great yoga pose that aligns the lower intestine. Writers are supposed to emerge from remote valleys and mountain caves, not graduate school

Here's were the creative part of creative nonfiction comes in. I could simply say, "I moved out to Montana to write" and not say why. I have encountered this sidestep often in books, essays and author bios. "So and so lives and writers in the high plains of Nebraska." What so and so might neglect to mention is that he/she is in a PhD program in Lincoln, or a tenure track professor.

How much of the “writerly” parts should an author include? Eat, Pray, Love neglects to mention the lucrative book deal. But while as a writer (and poorling) my first question was how Elizabeth Gilbert financed all this self-actualization, it’s obvious most readers didn’t want to hear about it. They just wanted the story.

These are questions. And I haven’t decided yet.

I should also mention that the part about the MFA takes up maybe two paragraphs.


(Note: It’s okay in a writing blog directed at other writers to write about writing)

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