Keep It Real: Edited by Lee Gutkind

Here are some thoughts/notes on writing creative nonfiction, using Lee Gutkind’s excellent book published in 2008, on the subject: Keep It Real. I highly recommend reading it.

Keep It Real, a collection of writings on narrative nonfiction and memoir was compiled by Lee Gutkind, founder and editor of the journal Creative Nonfiction. The subtitle of the book is Everything You Need to Know About Researching and Writing Creative Nonfiction. I was intrigued by this title because I am very interested in the blurry lines between fiction and nonfiction. Maybe this book would help me to see what those lines are in a way that might help me in my own work. Every time I read fiction I find myself wondering how much of the fiction is from the author’s own life and how much is completely from an author’s imagination. Does it matter?

In Poets & Writers, in an interview of fiction writer Mary Gaitskill, interviewer Nina Shengold notes, “She scatters autobiographical crumbs throughout her fiction.” What makes this autobiographical fiction writing different than creative nonfiction then? In Gutkind’s book he tries to address this, “…the anchoring element of the best creative nonfiction requires an aspect of reportage.” And, “…creative nonfiction…presents or treats information using the tools of the fiction writer while maintaining allegiance to fact.” Continue reading

The Brain Is A Really Weird Thing

I’ve been thinking a lot about the brain for the past five years or so.  Something lucky, before I begin: My brain still works pretty well.  I do crossword puzzles, I am physically active, and I read and write all the time.  Even so, there are no guarantees.  Dementia and Alzheimer’s don’t care all that much about what you’ve done to stave them off.  To say nothing of brain injuries.

Here are some of the reasons I think about the brain – maybe more than the average person. First – one of my sisters suffered a traumatic brain injury four years ago, and I have been very involved in her rehabilitation, and in her life since her accident.  This is a sister I never had a close relationship with, but who I would now kill for.  This is basically the premise of a memoir I just completed about being a sister.  Second, my father died of complications from dementia, a harrowing experience I wouldn’t wish on any family.  Third, I started writing a novel that was based on the premise that you could “freeze” your brain (or something like that), and “live” forever.  Or, at least your brain could.  I got well into this novel until I hit a wall and set the book aside for a while.  But in the meantime, I did a ton of research into the brain.

So, this is a subject I obviously find fascinating.  Just recently I read a brand new memoir called Memory’s Last Breath: Field Notes On My Dementia by Gerda Saunders.  It is an amazingly raw and tender and sad and joyous story.  I had originally heard the author a few weeks ago being interviewed on NPR, and immediately went to the library to get the book.

A few out of many memorable passages:  “I write to remember, to inhabit for a while, my earliest self…”  And, “I convinced myself that shining light into the lonely and scary place of my mother’s dementia – and mine- could possibly be of value to other people who live with dementia, whether it’s their own or that of someone they love.”

I highly recommend finding the interview on NPR, and also reading the book.  And if you can bear it, and haven’t done so yet, read Still Alice by Lisa Genova, and see the movie by the same name (with Julianne Moore).  I know it’s hard to talk about this, and read about it, but the more we face these issues with some type of understanding (and even humor and grace) the better equipped we might be to survive with our humanity intact, and maybe even enhanced.

(I also shared an essay I wrote about my father’s dementia in a post on 4/27/17.)

The Crazy Grandpa With the Alligator Shorts

(For Father’s Day… This essay appeared in The Beach Reporter on 6/13/91. )

Shortly before my parents’ last visit here from Washington, I told my children that Grandma and Grandpa would be coming down for a week or so. They asked, “Is that the crazy grandpa or the regular one?”

I had to pause for a moment. After all, this was my own father they were talking about. “Why do you call him crazy?” I was curious as to what they would say, although I knew there could be many answers.

“Because he wears alligator shorts and he watches the Weather Channel and he plays funny games with us,” was the matter-of-fact reply of my children.

True, true. He does wear alligator shorts, only not the Izod kind. His alligator shorts are bright green and they have little dancing alligators with sunglasses on them. It’s just one of his ways of making a fashion statement.

He also loves to watch the Weather Channel, which to me is about as fascinating as watching your fingernails grow. But if you have a daughter who is a flight attendant, like my father does, you need to know the weather all over the world because you can fly for free. You never know when you might get the itch to fly to Cabo or Vegas and you would need to know if you should bring your alligator shorts. Continue reading

The Art of Place

(Every story takes place somewhere… In my work I often go back to Golden, Colorado, where I spent most of my childhood.  Here is an excerpt about Golden from The Queen of Everything.)

The town of Golden still has a nicely kitschy sign arching boldly over the center of Washington Street, the main thoroughfare that runs north to south, paralleling the Coors brewery. It states Howdy Folks! Welcome to Golden, Where the West Lives!

To our family, hailing all the way across the country from Plainfield, New Jersey in our cruise-ship-like Plymouth, this Howdy Folks! sign was exciting and exotic stuff. We had left the gritty, grimy, graffitied city life behind; left behind our Irish and Polish relatives, and arrived in the Wild West.

Lookout Mountain rises hugely and majestically out of the western plains that slope immediately upward out of Golden’s city limits. The Table Mountains – North and South – form flat, dusty sentinels on the town’s northeastern and southeastern edges, and the powerful fist of Castle Rock looms over the sprawling Coors plant. You can see the outline of its distinctive shape on cans and bottles of Coors beer.

Our family took a collective breath of the clear, piney Colorado air and noticed something else. Another smell. Something slightly yeasty and malty, cloying and sweet. This odor, the distinct odor of the brewery, belching out steam clouds of its processed hops and barley into the dizzyingly thin mile-high air, was a sense memory my sisters and I would forever associate with Golden, and with our childhood there.

That day though, that first day, the brewery – a few blocks east of downtown – was just part of the exciting sights, sounds, and smells of our new Golden life.