Now Write! by Sherry Ellis: Exercises from Today’s Best Writers and Teachers

December 30, 2009
Written by

An excerpt from the new book edited by Sherry Ellis
(Tarcher/Penguin 2009)
January 2010

Now Write! by Sherry Ellis
Now Write! Nonfiction
Memoir, Journalism, and Creative Nonfiction Exercises from Today's Best Writers and Teachers
(Tarcher/Penguin 2009)
ISBN: 9781585427581
Buy this book
Amazon.com

 

Editor Sherry Ellis grants aspiring writers access to the personal writing tips of some of their most respected role models in this indispensable guide, NOW WRITE! Culled from the personal stashes of such critically acclaimed nonfiction writers as New York Times–bestselling author Tilar Mazzeo (The Widow Clicquot: The Story of a Champagne Empire and the Woman Who Ruled It), Pulitzer Prize winners Madeleine Blaise (The Heart Is an Instrument) and John Matteson (Eden’s Outcasts: The Story of Louisa May Alcott and Her Father), as well as many other top memoirists, journalists, and teachers of creative nonfiction, the exercises collected in this accessible guide will help any writer hone their skills and learn how to overcome their creative blocks.

Wide-ranging topics include insights and exercises on capturing character and breaking out of a tired style to finishing a project that has lost its appeal and making your sentences “sing.”

An Excerpt from the Book Can You Smell What [Your Name Here]
Is Cooking?
by Ira Sukrungruang

I’m about to reveal a deep, dark secret. I watch wrestling. Not the Olympic, Greco-roman kind, but the kind with beer can-crushing Texans, Samoan beasts, and men who have ominous names like The Undertaker. I’ve been following wrestling off and on since I was eight. Backbreakers and pile drivers and figure four leg locks don’t quite thrill me like they used to, though I did practice all those moves on a body pillow my mother made with leftover carpet padding. Now, what I enjoy about wrestling are the mini-storylines that carry on from week to week, the off-the-wall, off-beat, off-their-rockers wrestlers, characters that have made me laugh, got my heart going with adrenaline, and once, when the great Hulk Hogan lost his title to the Ultimate Warrior, made me cry.

Believe it or not, watching wrestling has helped shape my own work. No, I am not a wrestler. And no, I haven’t written about wrestling. I am, in fact, an overweight pacifist Buddhist. When I started writing creative nonfiction, however, the biggest problem I faced was seeing myself—the “I” of the piece—as a character. The “I” was me after all; there was no separation. I knew my past. I knew my stories. In my mind, all I had to do was simply retell them. What became of my early narratives, however, was something I saw more and more of as a teacher in my beginning creative nonfiction students’ work. They wrote essays with characters that went through the motions, characters that simply acted. Yes, the “I” did do things of significance. Yes, the “I” was part of the conflict. But the important part of the “I” was missing.

When interviewed before matches, many wrestlers slip into the third person, notably former WWE wrestler The Rock, who used to bellow into the microphone: “Can you smell what The Rock is cooking?” Speaking in the third person separates and highlights the character from the person. In The Rock’s case, there is the charismatic, one eyebrow raising wrestling maniac, and then there is Dwayne Johnson, the man who plays The Rock. This separation is similar in nonfiction writing. There is the character and there is the writer; the two are linked, but the writer has additional responsibilities, to portray and to explore the character, to make sense of the character’s experiences, to make meaning out of them. In my early nonfiction, Ira Sukrungruang wasn’t there. The shell of him was present, the “I” that did this and that, but he was absent, like a daydreaming student looking out the window, one who is there in body, but absent in mind. Because of this, my early essays failed to be anything more than interesting but simple stories. I needed Ira Sukrungruang to come alive. I needed him to be more than an “I,” to be a character with thoughts and analytical skills, to elevate the story to another level. I needed the other half of him to surface.

 

Exercise
Take a tip from wrestling interviews. Write a nonfiction narrative in the third person. Discard the “I” and allow the “he/she” to take over. By doing this, you might be able to separate yourself from the narrative. The trick to this exercise is to detach from the character. The writer becomes an omniscient overseer of his/her actions. In many ways, you become Ebenezer Scrooge, revisiting the past with a different set of eyes, making sense of the things the character in the moment could not. After completing the draft, change all “he/she’s” to “I.” Some sentences may have to be rewritten, but you may find that the “I” is now not just a skinny pronoun. The “I” has biceps like mountains.

Ira is a Thai-American. His essays have been published in many journals, including Isotope, Post Road, and The Bellingham Review. He is the coeditor of two anthologies about obesity: What Are You Looking At? The First Fat Fiction Anthology and Scoot Over, Skinny: The Fat Nonfiction Anthology. He teaches creative writing at University of South Florida.

Quoted with permission, from Now Write! Nonfiction (c) 2009 by Sherry Ellis, published by Tarcher/Penguin

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