Monday, February 14, 2011

Guest Post - Author Kate Hopper

Last week we were so excited to announce to you that we are starting a second weekly writing prompt that will have to do with memoir writing.  Today, I am beyond excited to bring you a guest post by someone who not only practices writing memoir-style writing, but also teaches it.

When Kate agreed to write us a little something about the ins and outs of creative nonfiction, I could hardly contain my excitement!

Kate Hopper is a Minneapolis-based writer, editor and teacher. Her writing has appeared in a number of journals and magazines, including Brevity, Literary Mama, Mamazine, and The New York Times online. She is working on two books: Ready for Air, a memoir about learning to live with uncertainty in the wake of her daughter's premature birth; and Mother Words: A Writing Guide for Mothers. She teaches Mother Words online and at The Loft Literary Center, coordinates the annual Mother Words reading, and leads an annual writing retreat for mothers. She’s an editor at Literary Mama and blogs at Mother Words: Mothers Who Write.

Creative Nonfiction and Blogging: Taking Your Posts to the Next Level
Kate Hopper

Thanks so much for having me here at the Red Dress Club today! I’m going to be talking about creative nonfiction and how blogging fits into that genre.

Maybe you have been blogging for a couple of years, but your posts feel stale. Maybe you are new to blogging and want to get off on the right foot. Understanding some of the basics of strong creative nonfiction writing will help you improve your blog writing and help you move beyond capturing moments and into creating stories.

Okay, before I discuss what makes strong creative nonfiction, I want you to stop and think about what makes certain blogs and blog posts stand out for you. What are the characteristics of the blogs that make you pause or nod your head? (Please feel free to post these in the comments.)

For me, strong blog posts have the following characteristics:
§  They are well written.
§  They tell a story.
§  They reveal something thought provoking. (And for me this often has to do with the author being honest and searching for meaning in her posts.)
§  I can relate to it in some way.

All of the characteristics I’ve listed above are characteristics of strong blog posts, but they’re also characteristics of effective creative nonfiction. Creative nonfiction is the umbrella term under which you can put memoir, personal essays, collage, literary journalism, and lyric essays. It’s writing that uses the techniques of poetry and fiction—lyrical language, metaphor, character development, plot, scene, dialogue—to tell a story based on actual events and your memories of those events.

I’ve been writing creative nonfiction for a little over a decade now, and one of the things I love about the genre is its versatility. It’s an open genre and there are always new sub-genres popping up and demanding a little space under that umbrella. 

I think blogs and blog posts are one of these forms. So, if you’re a blogger, I think it’s helpful to place what you’re doing inside this genre and also understand where it fits next to some of the other creative nonfiction forms.

So I’ll take a step back from blogs and talk for a minute about some of the characteristics of effective creative nonfiction (adapted from Bret Lott’s “Toward a Definition of Creative Nonfiction”:

    • There is reflection. The author is self-aware, is telling a story and reflecting on it or, if not reflecting, than at least s/he is self-conscious about it. Reflection is the author making sense of what she’s experiencing; it’s her thinking on the page, trying to process and make sense of the raw experiences of her life. The author is struggling for honesty, searching for meaning. I love this intimacy.

    • There is an apparent subject and a deeper subject (Or as memoirist Vivian Gornick said, there is a situation and a real story.)

    • There is attention to craft (language, character, dialogue, place, metaphor, etc.). I want concrete sensory details; I want to be able to see and hear the characters you’re writing about; I want to have a sense of place, etc.

    • There is a timelessness of meaning—there is something universal there.

So these four things are vital in writing effective creative nonfiction. Now you might be thinking, Oh my God, how would I do all that in a blog post? And in every blog post? And of course you can’t. Blog posts are a little different; they can be short memoirs/essays, but often they aren’t because of the immediacy of blogs. You’re blogging your life as you live it, so often there isn’t enough distance from the material to reflect on it and make sense of it.

The other thing that makes blog posts different is that your readers—ideally—are reading regularly so they are accumulating your story; it doesn’t all happen in one post. So I think expectations are different for a blog because ideally you (and your readers) are in it for the long haul. The story—and perhaps the meaning—emerges more slowly, over many posts.

So blogs are different than a straight memoir or personal essay, and I wouldn’t expect anyone to write mini-essays for each post. (I certainly don’t do that. On my blog I post an occasional short essay-ish piece, but I also interview authors, check in on the progress of my writing, review motherhood literature, and post about upcoming classes and retreats. What kind of posts you’re writing and how often you post depends on what kind of blog you have and what the purpose of your blog is.)

But regardless of your purpose for writing a blog, you can use the techniques of creative nonfiction (reflection, attention to craft—character, place, dialogue, etc.—a situation and a story, and universals) to help you deepen your writing and make your posts more deliberate.

I hope this has got you thinking. I want to invite you to post what makes a blog post (or any writing) successful for you in the comments. And please check back. I will be providing the weekly Red Dress Club writing prompt. It will be an exercise on memory and reflection, which will hopefully help you move beyond the surface of “this is my immediate life” to a more reflective, contemplative level where you are making connections and searching out meaning in your writing. 


Thank you, Kate for this educationally inspiring post!  And I know we are definitely looking forward to that prompt!

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