Tag Archives: creative nonfiction

What I Remember from Meeting Mary Karr 15 Years Ago

Of her actual talk, not much. I remember liking her, and how her eyes thinned when she smiled. Worse yet, she couldn’t have spoken in the room I’m remembering (which is in Virginia, and I heard her speak at Rollins College, in Florida), and I don’t know who invited her or what she said.

I mean, let’s be honest: what I really remember is me: my question. “How . . . how accurate would you say your dialogue is? In The Liar’s Club?” I asked after her reading. “It, I mean you were just a child when those events happened.”

(Let’s note that I’m using dialogue here, too, now.)

She laughed. “It’s not like I had a tape recorder.”

That’s all I remember from the event. That and a manila envelope she handed me at the end. In it: a short story I had typed and printed, her comments handwritten on it.

I was a college student, taking a creative writing class that I suspected I didn’t much like, writing fiction I also suspected I didn’t much like. (I was probably a sophomore, which makes this a year after my class on the personal essay, a class where I was amazed to like everything I wrote, all of it, every opportunity for weekly essays a chance to say more about me, me, always me, and always beautiful and powerful and my favorite. Why was I even taking fiction?)

But however uncertain I felt about this fiction class, the professor said I would be the one student whose writing would go to visiting author Mary Karr in advance, for her to read and comment on and deliver lovingly at the end of her reading, like a present. I had read The Liar’s Club and liked it (even though I definitely threw it across my dorm room at one point, but it was a sympathetic sort of throwing, a horror at what she went through, you have to believe me here), so I was pleased at being chosen, but I think I was also kind of confused and didn’t really get it. That is, it was a bigger deal to be chosen than I really realized at the time, but I was too wrapped up in how my stories weren’t very good to notice.

When I looked through what I had to send her, I assumed I had to pick something I had written in this fiction class. (Is that true? Did the teacher insist on it?) So instead of giving her one of the essays I loved and wanted to work on forever, I chose a story–but, tellingly, one of those stories that was essentially 90% memoir with 10% fiction. That must be why I liked it: it was about me. (Shh!)

The 90%: someone who was essentially me was talking to someone who was essentially a friend from high school in a fake cafe on a real road by a real marsh. We talked about why our mutual attraction never quite turned into anything beyond friendship and how her later relationships complicated it. The 10%: the cafe didn’t really exist, and neither did the conversation (at least not all at one time, with those words). I called the story “Marsh Land” at the last minute and hoped that its lack of meaningful action or change (one long conversation in one marshy cafe) would make it feel modern or something, like overlong dialogue from a Quentin Tarantino movie.

What I remember from Karr’s feedback: only one thing: the moment, 3/4 of the way through the story, where I accidentally used “I” instead of “he” on a dialogue tag. She caught it, writing something like “A telling mistake?” in the margin. Mortified, I stuffed the manuscript back in the envelope. I never revised the story.

Next fall, I’m teaching creative nonfiction for the third time, and we’re reading Karr–The Liar’s Club, of course, paired with her new The Art of Memoir. While I eat lunch in my office these days, so much like the office of my essay and fiction professors, I’m reading Lit, her third memoir, chapter by chapter, each little chunk now associated with the salad or sandwich I brought that day.

So she’s on my mind a lot these days. And every time she shares something, here in her books, it has that feeling of a person honoring someone else with the truest meaning they have at their disposal, and I smile and nod in thanks, realizing that all I gave her was a cover-up, a not-quite-really-myself character who I couldn’t even bury as far as I thought I could, and I never even took her advice about how to make him work better.

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Things I’ve started writing but haven’t published

  1. A blog post about the anniversary of R.E.M.’s Green, because somehow this blog has become obsessed with R.E.M.
  2. A blog post in anticipation of my workshop on podcasting at the 2015 Computers and Writing conference–a workshop and conference that has now ended, with the post sitting there unfinished, unposted
  3. A scholarly webtext on the materiality of sound, vinyl records, and the crazy ways that these things can inspire composition pedagogy (few of which I’ve actually tried in the classroom yet), a text that I drafted last summer over 3 weeks of using 750words.com every day
  4. It depends what we mean here by writing, but maybe when I talk to a friend in the car about writing routines and relationships and kindness, maybe that’s a kind of writing and maybe saying good things out loud together is a kind of publishing
  5. A chapter from my dissertation on historical attitudes toward the rhetoric of music and how we can do better
  6. A chapter from my dissertation reporting on interviews with student music composers
  7. A piece of music, which I admit hasn’t even been started or considered until now, but a piece of music that tries to capture what it’s like to write but not quite doing so, sitting there, dodging it all by organizing your mp3s and reading good scholarship and tweeting good tweets–which are writing too, we can all agree on that, it’s the 21st century–and if you don’t know why a piece of music would be good for that, why are you even reading this list
  8. An bizarre, juxtaposition-filled audio essay that jams together the sounds of my favorite movies/TVshows/videogames with the words of scholars on the phenomenology of sound
  9. That one above actually exists, even though you’re starting to wonder if any of these things actually exist, and I don’t blame you, how could anyone have this much that they haven’t finished, how could anyone be so much like cookies that just went into the oven?
  10. This one doesn’t exist, but I wish it did: a blog post on Pearl Jam and aggressiveness, chronicling how intimidated I was by their first album and how I forced myself to like it anyway and then how they slowly came to just seem like nice guys playing rock music but when did that happen I mean don’t you remember “IT’S . . . MY . . . BLOOOOOOOD!!!!” and all that from the second album?
  11. A personal essay about the time in 4th grade when I stayed the night at Andy’s house and jammed a thumbtack through the face of a kid I didn’t like on his copy of our class photo, followed by the time in 5th grade when I pulled the fire alarm at school but before it started so that’s not as bad I think
  12. A personal essay about my youngest brother and our weird mutual aggression over our lives, if you can call it that, and I’m not sure you can, but don’t you think I should use the word aggression to echo #10 above?
  13. A personal essay about chaperoning a bunch of college student singers on a trip to Florida
  14. Episode nine of my podcast which is on teaching with podcasts kind of self-referential isn’t it podcast podcast podcast kind of a weird word when you say it too often
  15. Self-referential blog posts that–and you won’t believe me here–that actually help move these texts toward a public, which is really where they ought to go, so let’s get to it, folks

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Writing Habits

Many, many times, I’ve heard people (especially students, oddly) say some variant on the following: “If we write in text-speak all the time, we won’t be able to turn it off when we need to write for some kind of professional audience.”

My response, usually: bah. With practice, we can turn our writing habits on and off for different communities, genres, audiences, settings, and so on.

But: lately, as I’ve been drafting like mad my article on remix literacies, I find two habits keep sneaking into my academic writing unexpectedly:

  1. Professional writing habits: I write so many emails with lots of headings, short paragraphs, and bulleted lists that it’s hard to put those aside occasionally in favor of more fully developed paragraphs.
  2. Creative nonfiction writing habits: I’m having trouble gauging how much my target journal (shooting for the top: Computers and Composition) wants artful analogies, prodigious first person, narrative asides, and so on.

Now, both of these things, contrary as they may seem, are things I’d like to see more of in published scholarship, and I have no problem being a voice in favor of their slow leakage into academic journals. But it’s interesting to see how much these feel like habits that are hard to break, that I’m sort of defaulting into, and which in heavy-revision mode I’ll have to decide which to keep. Perhaps this is what it feels like 2 writers who R used 2 abbrvtd stylz. (Or not?)

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