Forms of CNF

A few years back, Susan Olding (Canadian writer; author of the essay collections Pathologies and the recently released Big Reader) served as my mentor. She helped me understand how to get from where I was (floundering in a manuscript morass) to where I might like to be (with a book on a shelf).

Maybe even a book in the same section as some of these.

Tangles, Sarah Leavitt; Trespasses, Lacy M. Johnson, Voice, Adam Pottle;
Keep Moving, Maggie Smith; The Book of Delights, Ross Gay. 

This Saturday, Susan and I are speaking about mentorship at the Creative Nonfiction Collective's annual conference. Info is at this link; you register once--$100--for everything and get to learn from a bunch of interesting folks. It's held completely online.

As is true in my life in general, I'm increasingly aware of the many (many!) ways in which privilege operates. Specifically, how privilege allowed me to participate in this mentorship. Obviously: money. Obviously: education. Obviously: family support, personal safety in which to undertake anything creative, health. 

It's a long list.

In fact, it's baked in. 

Here's what I mean. 

At the most basic level, I could go to the bookstore and find an example of what I wanted to do. There they were, essay collections. Rows of them. When I chose Susan to approach as a mentor, I had read works by others, but when I picked up Pathologies, I said, "This." 

But what if you want to tell a story that you can't find in a bookstore? What if your story isn't neatly captured by lines of prose on a page? 

Our mentorship included a reading list and discussion, and Susan directed me toward many titles that play with form. I'd already groped my way toward some braided essays, and she introduced me to several others, two of which are below: prose poems and graphic novels. 

The point of showing you any of these forms isn't so you READ what's in the picture--you can tell just by looking that these aren't like a traditional book, with its paragraphs of prose. 

Trespasses, Lacy M. Johnson

Tangles, Sarah Leavitt

Since then, I've noticed books in different shapes (physical shapes, even; this book is tall and slim), like Adam Pottle's interrogation of the many meanings, to a Deaf man, of the term "voice." 

Voice, Adam Pottle

Books like Ross Gay's and Maggie Smith's, that collect brief "essayettes" and intersperse inspirational quotes with longer explanatory essays. 

The Book of Delights, Ross Gay

Keep Moving, Maggie Smith

In my book's essay, "Transitions: A Coding Secret," I collaged snippets of my mother's writing to explore what elements of her personality might remain as her dementia progressed.

from Reverberations: A Daughter's Meditations on Alzheimer's

So yes, CNF comes in many forms--and these are just a few that are printed and available in bookstores. Again, it's a privilege to see them.

But what if my culture relied on stories in a different form? Deaf culture treasures "ABC stories"--a story that grows as the speaker uses handshapes in alphabetical order. They've available now on YouTube and through publishers like DawnSignPress, thanks to technology. 

Other forms of oral storytelling might lend themselves well to podcasts specifically, or radio stories in general. 

Both of those forms of storytelling also have barriers to entry--monetary costs of equipment and access to publication methods, for starters. 

And also: You have to know that those forms are even options. You have to be able to see someone doing the kinds of things you want to do. 

Beyond an individual showing you what's possible, you need a community in which you can share your stories and improve your ability to connect with your audience, within the context of your story. Not to conform to some institutional, established norms of grammar and structure--but in the way your story wants to live. 

I think mentorship is perfectly designed for these kinds of storytelling. Mentorship is flexible, a relationship with varying degrees of formality that can contain elements of teaching, coaching, feedback, and critique--and that can strengthen a culture. The Festival of Literary Diversity and other various arts-granting programs can be resources for mentorships.

And about creative nonfiction forms: Both Nicole Breit and Brenda Miller have many resources specifically around forms of creative nonfiction. 

I feel the need for a summary statement, because that's apparently the form of essayette or blog post or whatever-this-is that I'm writing. So here you go. In closing, two things: consider finding a mentor when you feel stuck; and privilege, like creative nonfiction, can take many forms.