Review by Sue Blot:
I recall a jump rope chant. I’m six again in the alley beside my house, rope slapping against cobblestones; my red leather shoes with perforated edges tapping the slippery stones; the stones themselves, steely blue grey at their best like ice cubes from a North Sea storm. Aloud I chant as I skip:
Sausage in the pan
sausage in the pan
sizzly sizzly sizzly
sausage in the pan
Something spectacular happens at the ‘sizzly sizzly’ part, something which sets this verse apart from the other verses of the chant. Perhaps a sideways jump, feet to the left, feet to the right, to emulate the zeds in sizzle. I forget. No matter. The memory is what counts...a memory captured by this book, Old Friend From Far Away The Practice of Writing Memoir by Natalie Goldberg. The memory is as rich as the rhyme itself, unearthing sounds and smells and the rhythm of life. I’m glad to have recovered it because it can take me places in my writing, any form of writing, not necessarily only creative non-fiction.
Such is the beauty of Goldberg’s book—her explanations and exercises act like fish hooks snagging unsuspecting memories and dragging them to the surface. I bought the book last fall at Banyen Books in Vancouver along with some Tibetan hand-rolled incense and a deep red glass heart. Before I had finished the book’s introduction (entitled “Read This Introduction”) I knew it would fast become another writing book staple.
I read it as a bedtime book first, anxious to bask in her words, skipping from mood to mood, exercise to exercise, perhaps cautious of murky memories. If I merely read the book instead of working through it, all those circling shark-like feelings would remain below the calm surface of my consciousness, right? Not so! Several times after I put the book down and began to drift to sleep, a fresh insistent memory or a powerful emotion stirred by the book made me drag myself back from sleep to quickly write it down and snatch its essence. Not necessarily a relaxing bedtime read!
Imagine the magic of working through the book, committing to her exercises, absorbing her words. Already I have several poems inspired by a simple read through.
Old Friend from Far Away is divided into ten sections. Each section contains an eclectic mixture of short explanations or anecdotes, often from Goldberg’s own life, and exercises.
Dip into any section, let her words ignite: “Writing has to move us. Writing is alive, a living process...Whatever is hidden or secretive will look for a way out. You’ll write about a grilled cheese sandwich and bubbling up in the middle of the cheese will be incest, deception, and adultery.”
Do any exercise, prepare for surprise: “When did you pretend not to care? Go. Ten minutes.”
“Write a last letter to someone...Allow truth, like an open bowl—don’t try to put a lid on it or a bow.”
Natalie Goldberg’s first writing book, Writing Down the Bones, is one of my all time favourites, one I refer back to time and time again, one I regularly recommend to other writers. Long Friend from Far Away is now another steadfast favourite. As I read it, I find one hand turning the skipping rope all those years ago and the other hand holding a pen:
Pen across the page
pen across the page
sizzly sizzly sizzly sizzly
pen across the page
Something spectacular has happened. I’ve touched the raw nerve of an old memory and ignited it, if only for a book review. But don’t just take my word for it. Read the book and, in Goldberg’s own words, “...let’s pick up the pen, and kick some ass.” Go. I double dog dare you!
By Susan Rogers
Recently I got a bit worried because I couldn't come up with new tweets. Big deal, you're thinking - one less tweet in the world is hardly a crisis. But I've been using these nano-stories as a kick-start to my writing.
Here's how they scraped the side of the car: the wife gave directions, while the husband--blind--drove it into the garage. #cnftweet
That’s one of my stories in 140 characters. Actually, it’s only 131 to allow for the #cnftweet hashtag.
Creative NonFiction, a quarterly magazine, sponsors this daily contest of “Tiny Truths”, re-tweeting its favourites and publishing a select few. I was delighted when the following tweet was featured in Issue 57 last fall:
Tent, foam mattresses, wine and chocolate all packed. Ready to rough it in a government-run campground.
For a while, I was a tad obsessed with writing these tweets—CNF calls them ‘micro-essays.’ As I walked or swam or snow-shoed, I turned almost every bit of overheard conversation, observation and experience into a sentence or two in my head. I submitted a tweet almost every single day. I’ve scaled back now, but still love the exercise. It is an excellent way to practise writing strong sentences where every word matters. I know every word should always matter, but when you try to add plot, voice, description and maybe a simile into a tweet, it’s like cramming winter clothes into a carry-on suitcase. You can only pack the essentials.
I had a university professor for a Charles Dickens course who put a three page maximum on assigned essays. Whereas the author is quite verbose (in a good way), we were trained to be succinct in our analysis. What I learned in that course is that it’s much more difficult to write short than long. That professor taught us concentration, concision and clear thinking. Writing story tweets does the same.
Creating these #cnf tweets is the appetizer to the main course of my writing. It is the crumb that becomes the cake. The warm-up before the marathon (not that I do marathons). Above all, the exercise has made me hyper-observant—engaging all senses—so important to telling stories.
Here are some ways I believe writing these compact truthful tweets can provide a springboard for longer-form creative non-fiction (and fiction too), followed by some of my #cnf micro-essays:
1) The ears tune into dialogue, making us aware of how people speak. Whether in the pool or on an airplane, I’ll hear nuggets that translate into story tweets.
"If you pee in the pool, the water will change colour," the man warns the boy. Later: "Hey, mister! I peed and nothing happened."
2) Observational skills are honed: the eyes notice objects, maybe in unusual locations, or spark a memory, or hint at something else.
A woman’s blue sandal, wedged in the rocks on the shoreline at the edge of the forest, holds a story. Was she chased or careless?
3) Sounds and smells are stimulated, adding another layer to our writing.
An eerie groan slips through the slapping of snowshoes. We stop. Snow-burdened spruce trees sway. Their branches rub and complain.
4) It challenges us to paint stories with similes and metaphors.
The men on both sides claim the plane's armrests. One moves. I flick out an elbow like a lizard's tongue and take what's mine.
5) It’s a way to play with voice and point of view. The tweets don’t always have to be first person.
”He sleeps a lot,” she says about her husband with dementia. She smiles and adds: “But at 4 p.m. every day he speaks Italian.”
6) I appreciate humour and like to use it in my writing whenever possible. So if I can capture a funny bit and tell it in a tweet, I do.
The husband can’t breathe with the cats in our bed. I look into their expectant faces and decide it will have to be a coin toss.
If you’re looking for a window into writing, or want to distil your writing into its essence, I recommend trying these tiny truths. There’s also the potential for a tiny success by having one of your tweets re-tweeted by Creative NonFiction or published in their magazine.
How do you kick-start your writing?
You can follow me on twitter: @SusanRogers6 and check out my blog: https://jubilantjubilada.wordpress.com
By Brandon Walker
My fiancée gave me Stephen King’s 11/22/63 for Christmas and the timing couldn’t have been better. I’m halfway through the book and am excited to watch the eight-part miniseries starring James Franco and produced by JJ Abrams, which premieres Monday, Feb. 15 on the Hulu streaming service (not available in Canada) and on the Super Channel (available in Canada) on Wednesday, Feb. 17 at 9 pm.
If the series is anything like the book, it will be quite epic. I won’t provide any spoilers (mainly because I don’t have any, yet). The main character, Jake Epping, travels back in time to the 1960s to stop the assassination of President John F. Kennedy.
This is not a typical Stephen King novel, unless you consider that King also wrote the Green Mile and the short story that Shawshank Redemption was based on (called Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption).
King’s writing in 11/22/63 reminds me of the way King’s other dramas were written. I think King writes his horror stories quickly and his dramas slowly. This story is written in a way that’s slower paced (unlike most of King’s stories, which get to the gore fast) but still draws the reader in.
The protagonist is likeable, which is important because throughout the first 400 plus pages you’re seeing and hearing through his eyes, ears and mind. The man who killed JFK, Lee Harvey Oswald, will be Jake’s main antagonist, but there’s a lot of build up to that in the 850-page novel.
So far, I’m 400 pages in and there have been two antagonists, but I’ll only mention one in this blog: the past, because it’s “obdurate.”
Obdurate is not a word I was familiar with until reading this book. It means someone or something that is stubborn.
That’s one of the great twists to this story – the past doesn’t want to be changed, and because of that things get very difficult for Jake to complete his mission. Like Back to the Future and other time travel stories, there are rules that he must keep in mind.
Check out King’s 11/22/63 and/or the miniseries and let me know what you think at
Oh, and by the way, some of the miniseries was filmed in Southern Ontario. Pretty cool, eh?
By Alex Kosoris
I will have to make mention of my unfamiliarity with the style of language and literature, when approaching an epic poem the likes of Paradise Lost. This isn’t to say I had an impossible time understanding the Renaissance English; it just took me much longer to get through. (And, you know, the frequent notes were helpful.) I am, however, thankful that I stuck with the difficult task, as Milton’s poem chronicling the fall of Satan and the subsequent corruption and expulsion of Man from the Garden of Eden is beautifully written and surprisingly informative.
I suppose the informative side of things comes more from my failings. Perhaps I didn’t read enough of my Bible, or perhaps I didn’t pay close enough attention in church, but I learned important, though basic, tenets of Christian theological logic, such as why Jesus was the only one who could die for our sins or why the Tree of Knowledge was in Paradise. Milton is very careful in his explanations, going far out of his way to not blame The Lord for the transgressions of Man and Foe, to the point where God starts sounding, frankly, a bit defensive as he speaks. But who am I to judge? As interesting as I found these teachings, however, I think the big, juicy excitement to be taken from Paradise Lost is in Milton’s use of language. At first, I thought it was merely due to the superb wordplay he employs – the likes of which are unmatched, barring, perhaps, the writings of Vladimir Nabokov – but it’s more than that. The ambiguous language and puns galore come primarily from the legion of sinners. Satan uses this strategy to sound more persuasive, though his arguments often ring hollow; this comes to great effect against Eve (spoiler), and seems to make him much more enticing to many readers. (I will admit I fell under his spell, as I was often much more excited to hear him and his rebellious horde converse than members of the holy army.) Conversely, God and the angels lack this ambiguity, this wordplay, as they do not lie; Milton was showing that there is consistency between their words and message, despite my earlier concerns about the godly defensiveness.
Unfortunately, the biggest failing of Paradise Lost isn’t the old English, but, rather, that large chunks of the poem are tedious as all hell. So, it’s good, really good, in fact, but it’s very difficult to recommend picking it up just for a fun read.