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Birthing the Mother Writer Class 5: The Spectrum of Creative Nonfiction

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We are now entering the third unit of our Birthing the Mother Writer class. While for many, nonfiction feels like the most natural starting place as a writer (we often start out journaling, and what is journaling but nonfiction?), I consciously wanted to begin by examining the genres of poetry and fiction in our class because some of the essential elements in these forms of writing are crucial for good nonfiction.

Let's begin by taking a look at the different types of nonfiction. Being clear about exactly how your writing falls into one of these categories will help you immensely in your development as a nonfiction writer. Lee Gutkind is another good source for reflecting on the types of creative nonfiction, and you may want to look at his essay on this. In my mind, there are five basic types:

Journalism. This is the important genre from which we get our news. There is also a movement called Literary Journalism or Immersion Journalism or Narrative Journalism that blends the best of both worlds. Examples of those considered masters would be Truman Capote's In Cold Blood, John Hersey's Hiroshima, and work by Susan Orlean, John McPhee, Norman Mailer, Hunter S. Thompson, and Tracy Kidder. This is an important movement, but since it is not usually part of what Literary Mama publishes, I won't cover it here.

Memoir. This is an autobiographical account of one's life. The important thing to think about is that it is not the old fashioned "autobiography." It is not linear in time or narrative and it often draws from the techniques of both fiction and poetry. I recommend two examples of this: Elif Shafak's Black Milk: On Writing, Motherhood, and the Harem Within reads like a novel (the author is a well-known novelist from Turkey), and it does an excellent job of showing the ambivalence of consciousness that comes when one is deciding whether or not to become a mother. And Joy Harjo's memoir, Crazy Brave, uses elements of poetry throughout, while showing the coming-of-age of one of America's most important poets who is also a mother and grandmother.

Essay. Many magazines, including Literary Mama, devote prime space to this popular genre of writing, often under the heading of Creative Nonfiction. Another way to showcase this type of writing is through the nonfiction anthology. I have an essay in the new anthology, Blended: Writers on the Stepfamily Experience, edited by Samantha Waltz, and this book is a stellar example of the way small memoir-type pieces can be gathered together to create a diverse portrait of a complex experience. The essay takes elements from both fiction and poetry, as does memoir, but adds an additional component, usually an aspect of either the category of How-to or Learning/Reference, which we discuss next.

How-to. This is a very popular form of nonfiction in our DIY culture, and many bloggers use this style as a way of drawing in readers who are developing their own sets of skills in the worlds of marketing, web design, food, and parenting. A great example of this for Literary Mama readers is Kate Hopper's Use Your Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers. And a little self-promotion here: I wrote my new book, Earth Joy Writing, with this category in mind. Read Literary Mama reviews editor Camille-Yvette Welsch's review here.

Learning/Reference. This is a bit different from How-to. This kind of nonfiction ranges from scholarly books to books about culture, history, and nature. The more scholarly works tend to be less narrative focused, while the more popular works usually teach something in the context of telling a story. I include biography in this category, and would recommend Alexis De Veaux's biography of Audre Lorde, Warrior Poet: A Biography of Audre Lorde, for those who want to know more about a "mother-warrior-poet," as Lorde called herself. Also included in this category would be the book review, which teaches readers about new books that they may want to read for themselves.

In my next column, I will discuss the use of poetic and fiction techniques in memoir writing and walk you through the writing and submission process for your own piece. (Look for this in September!)

In the meantime, the writing prompt this month will be a little different and will allow you to study one of the books on my recommended reading list (or one nonfiction book of your choice) while also trying your hand at a sub-category of Learning/Reference non-fiction: the book review. Since the Birthing the Mother Writer Class will be on summer break from late June until September, I intend to post a few of your short reviews here so readers can have a nice reading list for the summer. Your reviews are due June 4 and have a limit of 250 words in length, so get reading!

Here are some guidelines:

1. Pick your book. Here are links to the six nonfiction books I've suggested. You can also choose one of your own.

 

2. Before beginning, ask yourself: What are my expectations for this book? How will I know if my expectations are being met as I read? Write this answer down.

3. Start to read. Notice when your reading speeds up and you start to lose yourself in the book. Take note of this. Also notice when your reading slows and you get bored. Note this, too. (These aren't necessarily going to be part of the review, but keeping conscious of your engagement allows you to read more critically.)

4. Finish the book and then page back through it for your favorite passage. Ask yourself: What touched me about this? Is it something I relate to? Did it teach me something? Do I have a friend who would love this book?

5. Begin writing. Resist the temptation to cover "every damn thing." (This is something we will discuss in September when we talk about memoir in more detail, but like a poem, a book review should be short and zoom in on the emotionally and intellectually essential elements.) Remember that you only have 250 words. So zoom away!

Here are a few suggestions for where to aim your focus. Choose one of the options to focus on in your review:

  • Who needs this book? Why? What will they learn?
  • What touched you emotionally about this book? Choose one passage and explore your emotional reaction.
  • What did this book teach you? List three things you didn't know before reading this book.
  • How does this book change the way you look at its subject (e.g., stepparenting, nature, mothering, or poetry)? How will you apply this lesson in your own life?

 

Your reviews are due June 4* (but you're welcome to send them earlier!) Send in the body of an email to birthingmotherwriter (at) gmail (dot) com and include a one-sentence bio for yourself. The subject heading of the email should be BMW 5 Reviews. Good luck and happy reading and reviewing!

*Deadline extended to June 30, 2015!

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Birthing the Mother Writer Class Syllabus (with "Due Dates!")

Photo credit: Susanne Kappler

Here is the syllabus of the class for the next year so you can look ahead and think through the genres, elements, and themes we are covering. And, just as you had a due date for the arrival of your baby, we've got them, too—for your writing for the Birthing the Mother Writer Class! Below are the submission deadlines for your writing. Feel free to send things in early (just like some babies come early!) Pay particular attention to the submission guidelines at the bottom. I look forward to reading your writing and I'm so glad you're in this class!

Unit 1: Poetry

 

Unit 2: Fiction

 

Unit 3: Creative Non-Fiction

  • May—The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction
  • June—Reader Response to The Spectrum of Creative Non-Fiction (Submit a book review of 250 words. Due June 30, 2015.)
  • July and August—Summer Break
  • September—Life is a Book
  • October—Reader Response to Life is a Book (Submit a memoir piece of 700-1000 words developed from old journal entries. Due October 4, 2015.)

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Reader Response Submission Guidelines

Please email your submission to me at birthingmotherwriter (at) gmail (dot) com by the due dates listed above. Be sure to do the following:

-Put BMW and the month of your submission in the subject line of the email. For example, if you are submitting writing for February’s column, your subject line should read “BMW February.”

-Include a brief bio of up to 50 words.

-Place both the bio and the text of your submission in the body of the email. By sending in your submission, you agree that your writing, if chosen for publication, may receive suggestions for revision, and you also agree to revise and submit a new version for publication within five days.


Cassie Premo Steele, Ph.D. is the author of 13 books, most recently Earth Joy Writing. The book includes writing prompts for every month of the year, plus audio meditations and video workshops. She teaches an innovative online course combining mindfulness and feminist theory for women academics called The Feminar. Cassie is currently working on a memoir about how coming out returned her to her mother and her faith.


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