Craft Essays and Interviews

Podcast interview with Lynda Barry (about 15 minutes)

Lynda Barry talks about her book What It Is and “images” and the prewriting exercise we’re going to try.

Noah Cruickshank, “Interview: Stuart Dybek on the Art of the Short Story Centered on a Single Object”

Excerpts:

“With Lydia Davis, you’ve got a very domestic, everyday title: The Sock. … we’ve got this everyday, little nondescript thing called The Sock, and … That sock is going to funnel all the history of this relationship into this particular image ….”

“The sock doesn’t intrigue me in and of itself. It’s the fact that the entire story of the relationship is organized around it. By the end of the story, it carries quite a lot of emotion, which seems for me to kind of come out of nowhere. Of course it doesn’t; it comes out of the beautifully devised skill behind the story.”

“T.S. Eliot has this very fancy-sounding phrase called an ‘objective correlative.’ …one of the ways writers approach emotion, get emotion into a piece, is not that they name the emotion, because if you do that, there’s a very reductive element about it. If we say someone’s lonely, it doesn’t say anything about the five hundred, five thousand, five million ways you can be lonely. It only gives us a word for it.”

Laura van den Berg, “Object Lessons,” CRAFT

Excerpts:

“[I]n life, objects have the power to shift, deepen, and even reshape moments—and the same is true for fiction. The right object, appearing at the right time, can change a scene, a story. Or, in the words of Italo Calvino, ‘I would say that the moment an object appears in a narrative it is charged with a special force and becomes like the pole of a magnetic, a knot in the network of invisible relationships.’”

“Objects contain worlds; troubled and fractured histories; unanswerable mysteries; forcefields of thought and feeling.”

Dinah Lenney, “To Judith Kitchen,” Essay Daily

Excerpt (from Lenney’s reconstruction of Judith Kitchen’s photo prompt): “…your job, then, is not description. It is contemplation. Speculation. Fantasy. You must surround this photograph with the thoughts and feelings that well up in you. You must probe its contents, and then move beyond its boundaries, thinking about what it doesn’t say, what isn’t in the frame—what you know you simply cannot know. Look at [the picture] as a physical object.  Look at its subject.  Who inhabits its spaces?  Ask it questions. What is your relationship to this scene? Who is taking the photograph? Where is she now in its sepia tint? Now come at the photograph from many angles. You can use it as a starting point, expanding until it comes alive for the reader, as it has for you.  Or you can write it into being, telling its story right up to the moment of the camera’s click. You can comment on the photo, making it a central part of your written text.  Move into the ‘tone’ of the moment. Think about what the photo holds for all time.  Think about the nature of time. Give what you’ve written a context, a stance from which you are looking.  Wonder about [the young woman]: what were her dreams? Where did they go? Give that stranger a life [she] may never have lived, but one that connects [her] to you in the odd, imaginative space that exists between you—now that you own a piece of [her] life. By directing your attention to the object itself, you have emerged as a narrating sensibility. By speculating, crossing that intricate divide between fiction and nonfiction, you have found those thousand words that might be worth a photograph.” (Kitchen had her students write on each other’s photographs, but you can apply these questions to a photograph from your own family album.)

Optional further viewing and reading:

Lynda Barry Youtube talk, “Accessing the Imaginary” (about an hour)

Karen Babine, “Odd Objects: In Praise of the Wunderkammer,” Brevity

Excerpt:

epigraph from John Maguire: “No matter how abstract your topic, how intangible, your first step is to find things you can drop on your foot.”

“The odd object essay always starts with this doesn’t make sense and this thing holds more than anybody would expect just by looking at it. Odd object essays, by their very nature, are almost exclusively driven by ‘assay mode’—the mind of the author, rather than narrative or lyric energy—simply because the object has no function, no purpose, without the writer’s mind. This makes a battered plastic keychain, which may be a memento—an object that evokes a memory, or a souvenir—an object that evokes a place/event, as useful a starting point. The keychain may lead us to memory, but that is not where the essay starts. What makes an object essay work is the context the author creates on the page that takes an object from relatable (everybody’s grandmother has this object in their kitchen) to relevant: If I don’t know you, what is here to keep me thinking after I put these plastic Tupperware measuring cups back in the drawer?” 

Lisa Knopp, “’Perhapsing’: The Use of Speculation in Creative Nonfiction,” Brevity

This short essay by Lisa Knopp on “perhapsing” may be particularly useful when writing creative nonfiction based on photographs, where you are speculating about what you don’t know as well as describing what you can see. Knopp discusses Maxine Hong Kingston’s “No Name Woman” from The Woman Warrior as an example of “perhapsing”: “By perhapsing, Kingston offers motives, actions, justifications, and specific details that add richness, texture, and complexity absent in her mother’s account [of her aunt’s story], without crossing the line into fiction.” You may choose to let speculation lead you to fictionalize of course! Kat Moore in the sample flash above crosses over into fiction.