In A Poetry Handbook, Mary Oliver stresses the importance of understanding and practicing metered verse for modern students and writers of poetry. To lack a deep understanding of metrical forms, she says, is “to be without [a] felt sensitivity to a poem as a structure of lines and rhythmic energy and repetitive sound.” How can we utilize this theory when developing short form nonfiction? How do we begin to envision a nonfiction equivalent of “metered” verse?
One way is to simply apply a word-count constraint. Creative Nonfiction sponsors a rolling Twitter contest—microprose in 130 characters (plus hashtag), and Brevity seeks essays of 750 words or less. You could also, as many flash fiction sites encourage, give yourself word and genre constraints: write two-pages of memoir that include the words chartreuse, scintillating and wheelbarrow. Now make it a two-page travel essay.
There are certainly style and tone constraints that one could follow (write a Montaigne-esque idyll, or recount a family dinner in David Sedaris’ style).Yet these still seem to speak more to content than form. How can we get to an exercise that requires the concision of a sestina or tanka?
My first-ever MFA workshop was with Jeff Lockwood at the University of Wyoming, in fall 2011. The focus of the nonfiction workshop was exploring the short form. On the first day, Jeff gave us a list of short “forms” that he had compiled and that we might explore over the semester. They included: check register, wedding announcement, shopping receipt, postcard, quick start user guide, recipe and obituary.
Jeff said things like, “Wouldn’t it be neat to think about what the shopping list for ‘Ancient Egypt’ might look like?” Not a shopping list from ancient Egypt—but an entity called “Ancient Egypt” going on a shopping trip. Or, what might the birth certificate for Modern Man include?
The next day, three people dropped the workshop. Those who stayed did so with documented reservations.
The workshop was an experiment, and Jeff was willing to work with us to refine it over the course of the semester. Very few of us wrote from such lofty perspectives as “world peace” or “the consumer culture,” and there were several forms that we just couldn’t find clear ways to convert into essays (checkbook register was nixed, as was utility bill).
However, what we did find was that many of the forms Jeff identified contained inherent tones, built-in audiences, and expected format and syntactical elements that we could use as constraints. For example, a drug-facts label has a rigid format as well as an authoritarian voice and an audience in probable-distress. Postcards often walk a line between flippant storytelling and intimacy.
We wrote annotated recipes and obituaries and product advertisements, and talked about the importance of including or excluding details based on one’s audience. We created dress codes, food reviews, and horoscopes, and discussed how the expectations intrinsic to certain forms can be used to affect the reader. For example, how does a reader respond to a horoscope that ends in a list of things to do, rather than a prediction? Or, how can a New York Times-style food review transform a single meal from one’s childhood?
While it is not my contention that a movie review is equivalent to a rondel, or a code of conduct to a sonnet in terms of literary quality, I do believe they are useful as examples of organized forms of nonfiction.
And just as amazing sonnets, villanelles and haiku are still being written, some of these constraints, when applied to writing creative nonfiction, can and do result in remarkable essays. As part of the workshop we had to find examples of these forms as well as produce them.
When it came time to write a multiple-choice test, we uncovered Nancy McCabe’s “Can This Troubled Marriage Be Saved: A Quiz”, originally published in the Bellingham Review. McCabe’s essay isn’t flash nonfiction, but it is a remarkable example of how an essay can be crafted by simple subversions of an expected form. Question two begins like this:
2. True or False: You sometimes feel like you don’t really exist.
a. Wait a minute—isn’t this a question from the Minnesota Multiphasic Personality Inventory? What does it have to do with your marriage?
b. False. As a child, on a swing, the wind rushing by, your stomach lifting and dropping, you used to think, with a little thrill: I’m alive. I exist. I exist, you used to think, and the thought caused you to exist in that moment the way the world magically existed when God said, “Let there be light” and there was light.
This single question continues with six more answer options, three false, three true, and a final “all of the above” option. McCabe uses the multiple-choice test form as an excellent container to render the messy and often contradictory thought process of a person considering divorce.
We also looked at the craigslist/personals format for “missed connections,” sometimes called “shot in the dark.” Brian Oliu posted a series of lyric essays on the Tuscaloosa missed connections board over the course of 45 days (in accordance with craigslist policy, each essay automatically deleted after 45 days). In 2011 Tiny Hardcore Press published the essays in a collection, So You Know It’s Me. Number 23 (subtitled: Cinchonism (SINKANISM) – Not My Party – m4w 22) starts out like this:
It must have gotten lost in the mail. Things get lost there sometimes: I tried to send a phonebook one state over and it never surfaced. Just the other day I heard about a woman who received a letter from her grandmother with a five dollar bill in it—her grandmother had been dead for seven years. It was the granddaughter’s birthday. If I had a five dollar bill I would have put it with the invitation: it would’ve been a way to let you know that I was thinking about you, that things here are good and that I hope that things are good where you are.
In his short, lyric essays, Oliu moves seamlessly between the conversational tone shared between close friends and the “salesmanship” of someone looking to attract a listener, date or partner—both of which are hallmarks of this sometimes earnest, sometimes performative form.
Finally, I’d like to share an example that came out of our workshop. Lauren Trembath-Neuberger’s “Drug Facts” was published online by PANK magazine in December 2011. Every drug-facts label begins by listing one or more active ingredients and their purpose. In Trembath-Neuberger’s essay, her active ingredient is “Sexual Intercourse” and its purpose is “for Money.” Here’s what appears under the inactive ingredients heading:
nothing here is inactive, darling. your body will tremble for the next two months like cicadas are trapped in your chest. your heat, that meaty mass buried deep beneath your skin—it will beat so hard. it won’t stop. electricity will rush through you, and every inch of your skin will buzz so loudly you will think you can call those cicadas by name. you are flesh and burning and you are so damn alive. child, this I promise: oh, at least you are alive.
Lauren also uses the doctor/patient relationship constraint that is inherent in medical instructions, but wildly subverts the objective language that this format usually employs. Her “facts” then become a way to give advice to her protagonist, while keeping her adviser anonymous.
Whether or not your own to-do list or food review gets published isn’t the point (although there are markets for them); the idea is to find ways to pay acute attention to tone, word choice and format. The idea is to practice adhering to constraints and also undermining those constraints in the pursuit of economy, brevity and concision.
Chelsea Biondolillo’s prose has appeared or is forthcoming in Hayden’s Ferry Review, Creative Nonfiction, Flyway, Diagram and other journals. She is pursuing a dual MFA in creative writing and environmental studies at the University of Wyoming. In her spare time she knits wool sweaters and prepares bird skins for the University of Wyoming Vertebrate Museum. [Chelsea’s craft essay is adapted from a presentation she gave as part of the AWP 2013 panel, “The Art and Craft of Short-Form Nonfiction.”]