Friday, May 08, 2009

Surprise me!

There's a great interview with Kim Barnes up on the Brevity website right now about writing short non-fiction pieces. She talks about the 'factuality' of non-fiction and offers one of the best basic descriptions of emotional truth I've seen:

The “creative” aspect of writing nonfiction simply refers to the art, not the act of make-believe. It means that we heighten our use of language and shape our story; we impose a narrative of meaning that represents our individual emotional truths. That truth varies from person to person.

And in a moment of synchronicity, I'm listening to The Reunion with the Beirut hostages, John McCarthy, Brian Keenan and Terry Waite, along with Jill Morrell, on Radio 4 as I write this. It's worth having a listen to (on the wonderful Listen Again service, just click the link above) for two reasons.

One is how Brian Keenan describes the differences - of having a fifth gear in the car, of drinking beer from bottles - he was shocked by when he returned. These are the details writers need to think of when placing a story in a particular time because we forget and take for granted how things change.

But another key moment for me was Jill Morrell's comment at the end. She said that she found the programme useful because in talking again about what happened, she could make her own narrative clearer. By bringing in the truths of the others, she was able to colour hers in a little more, make it more substantial for her.

I like the idea of our life narratives not being firm like this. Of being aware of how they can shift and change depending on who is telling the story. It's frightening, but it's exciting too. We write to find out what we think and perhaps as much, we write to find out what happened to us. When we do this well, we turn our life into something others can share and respond to. And the secret of doing that successfully is that we should take nothing - not even drinking beer out of a bottle - for granted. As Kim Barnes answers with this question:

Q. Is there a moment in a short piece that you find yourself looking for as a writer and reader?

A. Yes – that point where the essay surprises me. This surprise can come as a word, a phrase, an image, an appropriate revelation. It’s what causes the essay to transcend individual experience and attain the level of art.

And if you are looking for somewhere to submit your essays, Conclave Journal are now open to submissions of character based essays and non-fiction amongst other things. Definitely worth a look, and also your support.


jem said...

You have possibly provided my dose of synchronicity for today! This says so much that I need to hold on to -

'We write to find out what we think and perhaps as much, we write to find out what happened to us. When we do this well, we turn our life into something others can share and respond to.'

I think it's a sharper way of making the point I made yesterday about catching life. I'm going to stick your quote into my notebook and reflect on it frequently. I've also printed off the Barnes interview to read with full paper focus.

Sarah Salway said...

Glad it captured something for you, Jem. W

Marianne said...

I really enjoyed this post and it reminded me of something I said to a friend recently about my current efforts to write about Afghanistan. I'm finding it much harder than writing about my time in Gaza (which was 10 years ago) because I feel like I haven't had time to shape the story of my time in Afghanistan through oral story telling, as I have with Gaza. A decade of telling people about my life in Gaza has helped me whittle out what doesn't work and refine the narrative shape in a way that seems to speak to people. With Afghanistan I'm having to do that as I write and learning a lot about the challenges of writing! Thanks for the Conclave tip!

Sarah Salway said...

That's fascinating, Marianne, but of course the problem with telling our story is the things we can't fit in the narrative, and that get left behind if we're not too careful. I hope you're going to try Conclave - would love to read more of your experiences.