Saturday, October 18, 2014

Revising Creative Nonfiction (updated)

Revision in five passes.

Here's my 'quick and dirty' method of revising nonfiction. It's a combination of a my own experience and things I learned in Susan Orlean's Skillshare class on creative nonfiction.

Pass 1. Revise for dialogue.
Note: Never deliver information via dialogue, instead use dialogue to illustrate character.

Pass 2. Revise for description.
Note: Cut description to absolute minimum, make all descriptions vivid and memorable.

Pass 3. Revise for expert opinion.
Note: Avoid literal quotations by experts. Don't say "Professor Foghead says 85% of studies show that peas are demonstrably good for most people..."  Instead, speak in writers voice and say: "Peas are good for you."

Pass 4. Revise the conclusion.
Note: Avoid the 'recap.' Instead of summarizing information, communicate a feeling. When reporting, look for anecdotes you can 'hoard' for the conclusion.

5. Revise for pacing.
Note: Aim for an engaging mix of dialogue, description, expert opinion and commentary. In terms of filmmaking: dialogue=closeup, description=medium shot, expert opinion and commentary=long shot.

Update 1: 
I now believe that the revision listed above overlooks structural revision. If the structure is not right, the piece will not work no matter how much revision and polishing you do.

Two questions arise in my mind after this realization. 
   1. How does Susan Orlean structure her stuff so beautifully? 
   2. What can you and I do to improve the structure of our work?

First: How does Susan Orlean structure her stuff so beautifully? 
I suspect it's a combination of pure genius, an 'ear' for writing, thousands of hours of work, and a brilliant mentor or two somewhere along the way. Asking why Orlesn's stuff is so beautiful is a little bit like asking why a hummingbird hovers delicately in front of a flower. It just is. It's her nature. (Um... and also that 10,000 hours of painstaking work.)

Second: What's the most effictient way for a 'mere mortal' --someone without Orlean's genius--to analyze the structure of a nonfiction piece?  That would be Shawn Coyne's Story Grid process.  The Story Grid process is extraordinary. What Coyne has done is up there with Aristotle's Poetics in terms of importance. Really. It's that good. Coyne explains the process in his book, The Story Grid.

Update 2:
Coyne is storygridding the best-selling nonfiction book, Tipping Point by Malcolm Gladwell. You can read the analysis here.

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Revising '70 backbends?' -- Dialogue

Looks like the actual writing of 70 Backbends? is only the first step.
The next step is to go through the piece and revise the piece's use of dialogue, description, expert opinion, and conclusion.

First pass is for dialogue.
(Urk. It looks like I am using dialogue to deliver simple facts.)

A few notes on revising dialogue from Susan Orlean's Skillshare class on Creative Nonfiction:
1. Dialogue is one of the basic building blocks of Creative Nonfiction.  
2. A few rules for revision:
- Never use dialogue to deliver a simple fact.
      - Use dialogue to extend the reader’s understanding of a character.
- Use dialogue to reveal the language that people use when they are speaking to each other.
- Use dialogue to give a sense of who the character is, instead of just delivering facts.
- To evaluate a quotation, look for the *way* it is expressed.   What makes it worth quoting?

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

70 Backbends?

Master yoga teacher Tony Briggs

 Tony Briggs decided to hold a 70 backbend workshop for his 70th birthday. He posted an announcement on his website, and sent out an email.
The response was terrible. A week before the workshop he was teaching his regular Sunday morning class. He stopped the 22 students.

“Next week is my 70th birthday and workshop, for which almost NONE OF YOU HAVE SIGNED UP! Silly me. I thought, ‘I've been teaching for 25 years. I'm 70 years old. Somebody's going to come!”
Then he laughed.
“I swore I wasn't going to say that, and I went and said it. Did you ever do that?”

“He has the ability to show up honestly,” said Barbara Murphy.

Even advanced yoga students are afraid of backbends. There is no good reason for this. Apparently, human beings just do not want to bend backwards. B.K.S. Iyengar, Tony’s root teacher for 37 years, believed backbends are increasingly important as we age. In his yoga tradition, the ideal is to do one backbend for each year of your age on your birthday.

Tony had reserved the training hall at Petaluma Orthopedic and Sports Therapy (POST) near his home in Petaluma. Large windows at the end of the converted warehouse overlook the Petaluma River and the theater district.  That morning the sky was bright blue, and the air had the fresh coolness of early autumn.

The parking lot was empty when Mr. Briggs arrived a half-hour before class. He parked, unlocked the red sliding barn doors and went inside.

Soon, students began to arrive. The parking lot filled quickly. People parked next door. Inside, laughing friends surrounded Mr. Briggs. They piled coats, sweaters, scarves, shoes, yoga bags, birthday presents, cards, flowers, and a lopsided homemade chocolate cake with a single candle on the benches near the door.

By 9:00, yoga mats filled the room. Mr. Briggs opened the class by thanking everyone for showing up. He introduced his partner, a tall, graceful gray haired woman with a gentle smile. He confessed that they honestly did not expect so many people to show up. He said if there was not enough ice cream after class, to blame his partner. “She was in charge of ice cream!”

Mr. Briggs began by leading the class through a brisk half hour of standard poses. Then he began a series of increasingly difficult backbends. Finally, it was time for the most advanced backbend, dropback into bridge pose.  In a bridge pose, your hands and feet are on the floor and you push yourself up so your back arches like a bridge. It takes strength, determination and flexibility to do this pose.

“If you want to be dropped back, make two rows... and give me about three feet of space in between. If you don't want to be dropped back, go do something else and we'll catch up with you.”

About half the class lined up in two facing rows in the middle of the room. Mr. Briggs stepped close to the first student, placed one hand on her back, and the other on her stomach.
“I got you.” 

She leaned back until her hands touched the floor. He released her and immediately stepped to the next student and repeated the process.

When everyone had done three dropbacks, Mr. Briggs gave a speech.

“I didn't rehearse except for one thing. I want to acknowledge Mr. Iyengar.” He pointed to small table in front of the open glass doors facing the river.  A small bouquet of flowers and a picture of Mr. Iyengar sat on the table.

“His teaching is everywhere. They'll be reading about this guy for hundreds of years, and he was my teacher. He died on the afternoon—our time—of the 19th. Today is the 13th day (after his death), the last day of the mourning period. So I want you to do 13 back bends of some kind. Dedicate them to any person or situation, which helped you to learn and grow, which has now passed out of your life. Do 13 and we will have done 69 backbends.”

When everyone was finished, Mr. Briggs said,

“The last one's for me. You are going to do your (70th) backbend and sing me happy birthday before you get to come down.  Up you go!”

When all 60 people were into a backbend, the room erupted into a cheerful happy birthday song.

“That's for you, as much as for me. Some of you guys thought you could never do 70, and you can!  You don't have to be afraid of that anymore.”

After leading the class through a 40 minute cool down, Mr. Briggs said,
“Now, the fun stuff. The ice cream truck just pulled up outside. Just go out there ... tell him what you want he'll give it to you... you can even have seconds!”

I was sitting with several students having ice cream when Annette shared her backbend story. Several years earlier, she had just returned to class after giving birth.

“I gained forty or fifty pounds – with the pregnancy and the breast feeding. I was struggling to get into a bridge pose when Tony walked by. He said, “Struggle some more.”
“I could have wrung his neck! Struggle some more!” she repeated indignantly.
“I am very determined person, and after he said that…”
Within a year, she lost forty pounds and was doing bridge poses.

Briggs is the teacher that other yoga teachers send their students to. His classes are extraordinarily demanding and effective. I finally decided that a combination of things makes him unique.

He is male and 70, in a field where most practitioners are women and younger.

There is absolutely no sentimentality in his teaching. He once said ‘I teach reverence. But not here. Class is a place to work hard and laugh a lot.’

He knows all aspects of yoga intimately—physical, mental, psychological and spiritual.

Like his root teacher, Mr. Iyengar, he constantly tinkers, experiments and learns.