THIS

Progressive politics, ideas & culture

Menu

The results are in: Online creative non-fiction workshop

Lauren McKeon

Creative nonfiction is tricky stuff, but after more than a week of hard work, our three online workshoppers are ready to show you their writing chops. Check out their before-and-after excerpts—complete with blurbs explaining their workshop goal—below to see how just a little can change a whole lot. Stuck on your own piece? Feel free to workshop with each other in our comments section below. And don’t forget to enter our Lit Hunt. The deadline is July 31.

Excerpt 1, from Michelle Kay:

For this piece, we really focused on adding dialogue. Just like fiction, dialogue can really make creative non-fiction that much better. It adds life to your piece, and to your characters. As readers, we get to see how they interact with each other, and the world around them. In draft one, a story about the writer becoming vegetarian in a Chinese-Catholic family, we didn’t get much sense of who the writer’s mother was, though she played a large part in the story. Adding some dialogue also showed us we were also missing out on some seriously funny stuff.

So this:

When I was 15, I told my Chinese-Catholic mother I was becoming a vegetarian. She was not happy.

Chinese food is not just meat-heavy—it is vegetable-heavy too—but more importantly, it is flavour-heavy, whether that flavour comes from a cow or a root vegetable or a sea creature.

Became:

When I was 15, I told my Chinese-Catholic mother I was becoming a vegetarian. She was not happy.

“What do you mean, you don’t want to eat meat?” she said to me in Cantonese. She glanced up from the chopping board where she was mincing beef, looking especially menacing holding the silver cleaver. She often used that rectangular-shaped clever to tenderize meat, skillfully mashing it into submission.

“What don’t you understand?” I countered, noticing a new patch of white in her hair.  “I just don’t want to eat meat anymore. There is no reason other than I don’t want to.”

“What about chicken?”

“Mom, chicken is meat.”

Excerpt 2, from Rob Thomas:

For this piece, we worked on making characters come to life. Often, when we write creative nonfiction, we are writing about people we know: our mom, our dad, our children, best friends, husbands, wives. We know these people intimately, and it’s easy to write this way. It’s important to remember, though, that our readers don’t. As writers, it’s our job to make these people—that are so intimate in our lives—real to others who don’t know them. We don’t have to go overkill on this. This writer’s first draft, a story about his dad, didn’t tell the reader what his dad looked like, how old he was, how he talked, etc. He was able to do so in subsequent drafts with just a bit of detail.

So this:

There is a photograph of my father on our fridge. He sits in the bow of a rowboat. He wears a green shirt and a white fishing hat. A shoreline of evergreens cut across the photograph directly behind his head. My father holds a large bass that his brother Gerry just caught. He holds the fish is very close to the camera, exaggerating its size. My father’s smiles broadly. There is a note, addressed to my son, on the back:

Became:

There is a photograph of my father on our fridge. He sits in the bow of a rowboat. He wears a green shirt and a white fishing hat. A shoreline of evergreens cut across the photograph directly behind his head. My father holds a large bass that his younger brother Gerry just caught. He holds the fish very close to the camera, exaggerating its size. My father is a wiry man. His remaining hair is gray and cut very short but his skin is smooth and youthful. He is probably 68-years-old in the picture but could be mistaken for ten years younger, or more.  His smile is broad and toothy. There is a note, addressed to my son, on the back:

“I couldn’t find a postcard in Mattawa showing me with Uncle Gerry’s bass so I’m sending this picture instead. Weather prevented flying 50km to Hamel Lake most of the day but we flew in for 30 minutes fishing. I caught four perch, one small bass and Gerry caught this one. We missed several more as the bass were just starting to bite as we had to fly out before dark.”

It is a photo of my dad posing, very proudly, with someone else’s fish.

Excerpt 3, from Lissa Robinson:

For this piece, we worked on what can, sometimes, feel like the biggest writing obstacle when it comes to using the “I” voice: focus. The narrative that goes on in our head—that “I” voice—can sometimes be confusing for people who aren’t, well, us. Sometimes we tell too much, or not enough. This writer had lovely detail in her first draft, a memoir about her dad. But she also chose to tell his story, and her own, in a complex way: by relating it to her favourite childhood classic, Wizard of Oz. As we workshopped this piece, the writer was encouraged to tether everything back to that central theme.

So this:

Fairytales are fraught with darkness, violence and death, but there is always some shimmer of hope or a character’s emergence into a state of grace. Or, for that poor wicked witch of the east, a finale, her  monumental fall from grace. Of course, this is a religious interpretation, but it’s worthy of closer inspection because it continues to be one of the mass psychological affects of our time. Although I was raised Presbyterian, religion wasn’t a daily or even weekly ritual in our household, but it still permeated the air. A moral miasma that seemed to infect the very core of my being and was reflected back to me in the mirrored eyes of people lining up for their daily bread. I am not a religion hater, but I have struggled with its purpose and meaning, and have been deeply troubled by the mass shame and violence it has perpetuated in its people.

And so the story begins.

Like the witch, my father had his own fall from grace. But that will come later.

Became:

Fairytales are fraught with darkness, violence and death. In the end, though, there is that shimmer of hope that the good ones will rise above, unscathed, and that we’ll see them emerge into a state of pardon or grace. Where good triumphs, evil fails. For that poor Wicked Witch of the East (and West), the finale is a fatal blow dropped from the heavenly sky.

Like the witch, my father had his own fall from grace.

Sleeping pills and a bottle of rye. A suicide—even a failed one—is an act of lonely despair. A twisted kind of hope at ending the shame and finding redemption. Just imagine, white and black striped legs, crumpled above the knee and splayed out for all the world to see. Oh, the sin.

Ding Dong! The Witch is dead. Which old Witch? The Wicked Witch!
    Ding Dong! The Wicked Witch is dead.

My dad was a creature of habit and he liked his home to be arranged in a certain way and with a particular kind of discipline and order. Early on, I think that’s what kept his own internal wickedness at bay. We were taught to never speak out of turn, but to be stoic and fearless, and to eat all of our peas.

Thanks to everybody who participated! You were all awesome.

Show Comments