What craft elements do you think are most important in the nonfiction genre?
The big umbrella term “nonfiction” covers many types of writing—from lyric essays that lean hard toward poetry to immersion journalism that requires the skills of an investigative reporter—and so teaching it requires covering a broad swath of territory. You need to cover the basics of fiction writing: setting, dialogue, characterization. Toss in the sound and rhythm of sentences and literary devices like metaphor and juxtaposition. Then there’s research: how to interview, how to find and synthesize sources, how much “I” to include. Finally there are ethical considerations: How creative can we be in nonfiction? What do we owe to the real live people we write about? There’s plenty to keep us busy.
What writers/books have you been teaching lately and why?
So many! I love teaching Ryan Van Meter’s collection If You Knew Then What I Know Now for the way he weaves reflection and empathy into personal essays written almost entirely in present tense. I also love Roxane Gay’s voice-driven cultural criticism in Bad Feminist. For immersion journalism—how to blend the “I” character as researcher into a book about a very large subject–it’s hard to beat The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot. In memoir, I can’t even choose a favorite—please don’t make me!—but for a gorgeous seamless blend of action and reflection, I’d choose The Tender Land by Kathleen Finneran. When it comes to craft books, I go mainstream. I like Phillip Lopate’s To Show and to Tell, Sven Birkert’s Then, Again: The Art of Time in Memoir, and Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s Tell it Slant.
What one concept or book do you teach that you think other teachers or programs too often overlook?
My students will tell you that I’m obsessed with reflection, the ways that writers try to “make sense” of themselves and the world on the page. There are many ways to approach it—by melding Now and Then perspectives in memoir, by offering well-placed commentary in a profile or review, by using white space and juxtaposition in a lyric essay—but I think some form of reflection is crucial to any successful NF piece.
What do you expect from your students in the MFA Program?
Hard work, of course, and a willingness to dig deep whether in self-examination or in researching a subject. I also believe that most real writing takes place in revision, so I expect a lot of that, often requiring three drafts of the same piece in a semester. And a sense of humor. We’re all in this together. Might as well laugh.