Creative nonfiction professor and author Miles Harvey stopped by Roosevelt University yesterday to read from his new book Painter in a Savage Land and talk about how he wants his students to approach writing. I think everyone in the Roosevelt University Creative Writing Program who attended agrees that Miles Harvey had some great insights!
Painter in a Savage Land is the story of Jacques Le Moyne de Morgues, the first artist to travel to the what is now the continental United States with the express purpose of recording the New World visually. The artist and 300 Frenchmen land in Florida in 1564, and an adventure full of shipwrecks, mutiny, and discovery begins. This book is both a fascinating and exciting piece of creative nonfiction.
Miles Harvey also shared some of his thoughts on writing. He said he tries to get his students to be explorers. To seek out questions that haunt them and won't let them rest until they've found an answer. He said that great creative nonfiction starts with a question that troubles the writer so much that the writer has to pursue it. He also talked about "place" in writing and how puzzling it is that place seems to be disappearing from the work of younger writers. Someone will write about his apartment in New York City without so much mentioning the city in the outside world. Someone will write about their traumatic childhood without mentioning how rural Iowa fits into the story. Harvey was not talking about simple landscape descriptions, he was talking about world building, how place defines characters, their values, their assumptions, their realities.
Harvey and the other attendees offered their ideas on why developing writers seem less concerned with place:
1) Since we are so connected by the internet, networking sites, cell phones, instant mass media, we subconsciously assume that everyone's experience is the same regardless of place.
2) With the suburb explosion in America's cities, every place IS starting to look the same (Applebee's, shopping mall, cookie cutter homes, etc.)
My own personal thought is that with the explosion of MFA writing programs, blogging (hahaha), livejournaling, and memoir writing, fiction and nonfiction have turned egocentrically autobiographical. Of course, we all bring ourselves into our writing, I don't see how you can avoid that, but I do see a whole generation of young writers who think they can now make a living writing nothing but personal memoir or fiction inspired by autobiographical events that could just as well be nonfiction if they changed a few character names. Looking at commercial writing, I think this is especially true, and self-disclosure on the internet has become the new form of self-expression in the twenty-first century. Excuse me while I go twitter this random thought that just popped into my head...
Okay, I am back. In some ways this is good because it gets people interested in writing, and indeed, I think this is how many of us first become interested in writing. It's an art that appeals to the ego. If you are like me, you probably wrote about a defining experience of your childhood for a high school English II assignment, and your teacher told you it was funny, clever, insightful, and maybe even moving. This, of course, made you feel like YOU were funny, clever, insightful, and maybe even moving. And instead of looking at the story and everything you did right--your craft, your language, your grounded sense of place, your handling of tension (things you probably couldn't even articulate at the time), you looked at yourself and concluded YOU to be the strength of your writing. You narcissist! I am completely exaggerating of course, but I think there is something to that.
When I think back to books on writing that I read even as late as undergrad, I realize how much those books appeal to the developing writer's ego. In fact, that is probably why those books are commercially successful: "Do continuous journal writing exercises for hours on end, record your every thought, get it all out there on the page, some if it will be ugly, but some of it will be surprising, insightful, even beautiful." That thinking has great value in generating someone's interest in writing, and that egocentricity is an important developmental stage that many writers have to go through. But I think this is what creates insular writing if one doesn't unlearn that approach just a little bit.
I suspect most writers can never completely escape their own ego. We are, after all, artists, and presumably we think highly enough of ourselves to put our words out there for an audience. However, I see a lot of writing that is incredibly egocentric, self-focused, and exists solely for the writer's own catharsis. This, I think, is the possible reason for the general neglect of things like place. Writers are turning inward, because that is what they have been encouraged to do, because that is how they first found those clever sentences and witty remarks that caught their first mentor's attention. That kind of validation was incredibly valuable and possibly essential for us in becoming the writers and artists we are today, so it's a tough habit to break, to stop writing for yourself and start writing a product for an audience. But writing ultimately has to be an ego-less process, because it's the story that is the most important, not you. (Sorry!!!)
Anyway, to come back to Miles Harvey, I loved what he said about writers needing to be explorers. And no, Mr. emo livejournaler, he wasn't talking about exploring inward (we all do that enough), he was talking about turning outward, walking around your city, traveling, researching a topic, reading history (gasp!), looking at paintings and old maps, engaging questions that trouble you, and coming back with a report!
I conclude with a quote from the director of University of Las Vegas' MFA Creative Writing Program. The program requires ALL of their students to serve in the Peace Corps before finishing their MFA (weird?). At the AWP seminar I attended, he said "our fiction and nonfiction workshops are a lot more interesting." Is this because that program literally forces their students to be explorers? To first turn outward before turning inward to finish up those theses? I suspect that has something to do with it.