Go deep

Your generation needs your voice, but swimming in the shallows of written expression will get you nothing but a handful of rocks.


                       Sugar Pine Point, Lake Tahoe                                                      Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe

According to a recent article posted on Flavorwire, titled “2013’s Worst Writing About Millennials”:

The past 12 months saw more ill-founded, hysterical, condescending, and generally awful writing than ever about what so-called “millennials” are up to and why it’s ruining the country.

Writer Alison Herman collected examples of what she calls “the lowlights of this year’s coverage.” Included in her list are the “Me Me Me Generation” story from Time magazine and a New York Times piece titled “Sex On Campus: She Can Play That Game Too.” One of Herman’s biggest complaints about the articles?  “Reducing an entire generation to a series of lazy stereotypes,” and a “lack of actual statistics.”

Read the entire Flavorwire story here.

Then be inspired to set the record straight with your own truths about your own selves.  Insert your  voice into the unending conversation.  For goodness sake, go beyond stereotypes and include facts, statistics, and primary research in your work this semester.

Maybe next year’s list of “2014’s Best Writing By Millennials” will have your name on it.

This is all true.

“Nomade, 2007” by Jaume Plensa, found in Des Moines Sculpture Garden, Iowa
 Photo Credit: Catherine Keefe


Everyone asks why there can be no fiction in Composing Self.

Exactly, I say. I say there’s enough to blow your mind in the world without having to stop and say:

But. Is. This. True?

I say, only those who don’t have to worry about the next meal and the roof overhead have the luxury of stopping to study this thing called “self” and why writers might create one. I say you’d better look around and share your voice with those too weak to speak and you’d better write true or you might be dismissed.

How real is this?

Let’s say:  911,395,855

That’s how many “undernourished people in the world right now” there are. Were. It grows by the second.

1,557,016,576 is the bigger number of the bigger number of “overweight people in the world right now.” Growing too.

Real time statistics fluttering up each second on StoptheHunger.com

Who could make that up?

Do you know how many bodies are – according to the very real “Famine Scale” – a “cause for concern?”

That real scale is made up of steps based on body counts, numbers per thousand, steps reaching toward heaven on piles of corpses creating an overall “Crude Mortality Rate.”  Is there any other kind of mortality rate from a preventable death?

These silent statistic sentinels hold back a monsoon. Behind each digit rounded to the nearest million

is a name,

a name with a real live birth date and a coming-too-soon death date

with mothers human

and fathers too



Meanwhile, we’re over here stuffing ourselves. Really really, I could write a story about that, replies the one who writes novels as if this has never occurred to me.

As if I’ve never read Hamsun or Kafka, García Márquez, or Lispector, or Morrison or Martel.

“But what about testimonial literature?” my friend from Argentina asks, the one who survived barely the unclean war and has lots of fiction to contribute.

“We call it fiction so no one can say, ‘that didn’t really happen.’”

I say, enough of that open door.

“But what about censorship? Your perspective is so Freedom of Speech American,” says my friend who won’t let me use her name or place her birthplace on the map.

Exactly, I say, my freedom means I can limit your “write to censor.”

And then, the intake of breath. And the question, as if I’ve never read Dante.

“Ah, but why allow poetry?”

They all ask this, as if I’ve somehow allowed myself to unwittingly be trapped by the “I.”

“Is poetry true the way nonfiction is true?”  They ask, licking their chops, waiting to pounce upon a debate I may be unprepared for. Yes, I say, and now I can let David Shields and his Reality Hunger Manifesto take over because he got to the page first.

“The poem and the essay are more intimately related than any two genres, because they’re both ways of pursuing problems, or maybe trying to solve problems.”

And I’ll defend further than David, to where my limb droops under the weight of Percy Bysshe Shelley’s line: “Poets are the unacknowledged legislators of the world.”

Poems are true the way music is true the way photography without Photo Shop is true, the way flesh and sunrise and dirt and death, birth and hunger and warm hands are true. The poet is the response, the mirror, the lens to reality. Poetic inspiration – quite literally, poetic inspirare from the Latin “to breathe” – is shaped by the willow whistle of crafted composition to give language to the universal human experience.

You can write a poem without a character, a poem about an apple, a pie, a sun.

You cannot write fiction without character.

I can’t keep track of every human right now.

I don’t want to add imaginary numbers to the people to keep track of in my heart.

Everyone asks why there is no fiction in Composing Self.

Exactly, I say.

It is all too true.


What you just read, is one example of a manifesto.  Put, most simply, it’s “a public declaration of intentions, opinions or motives,” according to the authors of “Writer’s Community,” a blog dedicated to writer development.

Can you write a manifesto for your final?

Words in the Wild

world is a book                      Poly Canyon, San Luis Obispo                                             Photo by Catherine Keefe

What did you see this weekend? What surprised you? What did you learn?

I saw the writing on the wall.

I took this photo during an exploration of Poly Canyon where the learn-by-doing projects for Cal Poly San Luis Obispo students in the College of Architecture and Environmental Design are open to the air and free to the public.

According to the Cal Poly website:

A portion of Poly Canyon encompasses a nine-acre outdoor experimental construction laboratory that for more than four decades has been the host site of several structures designed and built mostly by students of the College of Architecture and Environmental Design.

On a quiet November Saturday I saw families climbing in and out of seemingly abandoned structures and groups of students following leaders in brown straw hats. I saw piles of crushed, empty green plastic party cups. Green is the Cal Poly school color. Go Mustangs! I saw Pabst Blue Ribbon cans, smashed and flung below The Cantilever Structure. And I saw a small leg bone, presumably from an animal, about the size of a baby coyote. I saw The Shell House and The Stick House and The Underground House where I took these photos. I saw a plastic pan with dried black paint and a roller.

words on walls


I bellowed to cows I saw across the canyon. I saw vineyards and brocolli on the bush in a field and a flock of turkey vultures, which I later learned is called a wake. I learned that San Luis Obispo is one of California’s oldest communities.I saw the infamous downtown Bubblegum Alley where I stuck a chewed wad of Wrigley’s Extra Polar Ice. 

I saw three good friends.

I learned that life offers every surprise and delight you need, if only you stop to look.
What did you see this weekend?

For more information on Poly Canyon, check out Inside San Louis: Architecture Graveyard Hike.

A little context please.

Sometimes life gives the very best writing lessons.

Sunday morning on the trail, I quite literally almost walked into this.

photo-53Yep, it’s a rattlesnake. I think it’s a diamond back but I didn’t get any closer to identify it conclusively.

Movement alerted me to its presence.  It slithered out of the brush slowly, at about the speed of a puddle of cold maple syrup seeping across the kitchen table.  It wasn’t five feet in front of me and mere inches from Chester the white retriever who was off-leash, sticking his nose in sage and chaparral flushing roadrunners, quail, and rabbits.

I yelped and Chester raced back to my side. I snapped him onto his leash, then we paused to watch the snake’s slit tongue test the arid morning air. I wondered how to get past the snake. It lay between me and home.

There’s a smaller side path that runs parallel to the main trail. I never hike this side path because it’s so narrow the brush skims my ankles and feet – ticks! – and I can’t see what’s curled up in the bushes – snakes! But I figure there can’t possibly be two snakes today so we backtrack a quarter mile and detour.

When we returned home, I retold the story to neighbors who frequent that trail.  I repeatedly had to answer, “How big was it?”  Audience always wants context.  Look again at the first photo. Is that snake the size of an earthworm? A small curl of jumprope? A woman’s full arm?

I’ll show you a second photo, both were taken from the small side path.


If you don’t know this trail, I’ve still given you no context. Is the footpath the size of a doorway? A room? A stadium?

If you stretch out both your arms from side to side, each of your hands would touch the scrub brush.  The trail is so narrow in this spot, when I walk with my husband, we hike single file. If you focus carefully you can see footprints in the dust, left foot, right foot. Most hikers are too broad-shouldered to fit abreast in this spot.  The snake, not completely straightened out fully, filled nearly the whole width.

The snake was fatter in diameter than either one of my arms.

It was huge. And silent. Its rattles were broken off, making this, in one sense, one of the more deadly snakes I’ve ever seen. When I hike I listen intently, alert to rattles. If I hadn’t seen it, I never would have known it was there.

In all my years hiking the Cleveland National Forest, I’ve seen more snakes than I can count. Some king. Some garter. Mostly rattlers.  I’ve heard some I’ve never seen and seen some I’ve never heard.  Chester has had his nose in a bush that all of a sudden started rattling and we’ve walked past snakes that we only see the second we step past them coiled in a shadow.

This is the biggest snake I’ve ever seen. Does that make it the scariest? Actually, yes and no. The fact that I could walk around it and stand far enough away to photograph it is evidence of my relative comfort.  The most frightened I’ve ever been of a rattlesnake is the time I walked down the side path of my own backyard, felt a slight tickle on my bare right ankle and in some kind of slow motion horror film clip looked down, saw that what tickled my ankle was the raised rattle of a snake descending into my orange orchard, then jumped and screamed like a lunatic.

I don’t have a photo of that snake. It’s the one I’ll never forget, seared into my memory. I can recall that light reptilian stroke on my ankle at will. And now I’ve got this latest silent snake to watch out for. Rattlesnakes have a home range and I walk right through it.

Andre Acimen asks an important question in “Intimacy.”

Does writing…seek out words the better to stir and un-numb us to life-or does writing provide surrogate pleasures the better to numb us to experience?

Do I want to feel numb to experience? Not at all. Am I less afraid now that I’ve written about the biggest rattlesnake I’ve ever encountered on the trail?  If I say yes, does that answer presume that I’m afraid of rattlesnakes? Can I be afraid, yet cautious, aware yet undaunted?

Does context create nuances of meaning?

Is some context necessary to adequately translate a writer’s experience to a reader? I’ll throw the question back to you.  Can you adequately translate the experience of your Creative Nonfiction project to a reader without providing some context?

Workshops will help us answer that.  We’ll scan the trail. Get dusty. We certainly will pause to marvel at all wild things.

Sometimes moms really do have the best advice…

There’s light at the end of the Bridge to Wisdom. Costa Rica.
Photo Credit:  Catherine Keefe

It came.

Kony 2012, the “most viral video in history,” captured our attention in class.   One student called it, “pure propaganda, very well done.”

It bothered us.

We discussed why we did or didn’t donate to the Invisible Children campaign; why we did or didn’t order the Action Kit which comes with the tagline, “People will think you’re an advocate of awesome,” and includes a t-shirt, two bracelets, a poster and stickers all designed to raise awareness about the atrocities committed in Uganda by one Joseph Kony.  We discussed why we did or didn’t plan to Cover the Night on April 20.

Is it gone?

On the West Coast, on the morning of April 20, we have a vantage point which will allow us to watch events unfold east of us in response to the Cover the Night campaign which, according to the Kony 12.com Events page means that – “The rest of the world will go to bed Friday night and wake up to hundreds of thousands of posters demanding justice on every corner .”  So, as of this writing, it’s too soon to tell, but by the time we go to bed, we should already know what’s happening on other continents.

As of this writing, the film has had 88, 017,991 hits on YouTube.  To get  a perspective on the size of that number, imagine every single person living in the three most populous cities on the planet: Tokyo, Delhi, and São Paolo.  Now add the entire population of Miami and Caracas and imagine this sea of humanity all watching one film.

During this historic phenomenon, there’s been no dearth of comments from detractors of the Invisible Children organization but what I haven’t read, until today, is a thoughtful analysis about lessons to be gleaned from the eerie way this film spread so quickly and abundantly and why that makes the task of informing digital natives how to be discerning consumers of information.

Nathalie Hopkinson on The Root , gives a personal narrative that, in the words of your Creative Nonfiction Assignment, places herself within the world and in some obvious, but skillfully graceful way, integrates a larger issue into your prose.  Check it out:  “A Child’s Wisdom About Kony 2012: As Cover the Night hits the streets, parents can help kids learn the truth from spin on the web.”

Interestingly, like the film, Hopkinson’s commentary is structured around the story of a parent, a mom, teaching a child a lesson.  Breaking big ideas down into small narratives, now that’s an excellent writing technique.  Have you ever heard of it before?

What Happened When the Professor Went On a Field Trip

“Yellow School Bus, Chicago, Illinois, USA” Flickr Creative Commons

I lied all the time as a teenager.

I told tales about where I was going, who I was going with, and what kinds of things I did while I was out of the house.  Somehow I rationalized all the deception by complaining that my parents were excessively strict and I wasn’t doing anything worse than my friends whose parents seemed to be fine with girls going on dates at 16, or driving to Palm Springs from Los Angeles alone at 17, or attending overnight house parties where no parents were home at 18.

After this admission, it would make perfect sense if you never believe anything I ever say, much less that I woke up one morning in my early 20s and vowed to never lie again because decided I was really tired of trying to remember which movies I was supposed to have seen, or where I was supposed to have spent the night.  Honestly, there was a little more to it than that.  My very self seemed at stake.  I wondered who I was if I couldn’t face my own life head on and true. What kind of craziness was it to act one way and pretend to be another?

I’m not proud of my past, and I do still owe my parents a very long apology, but I did vividly recalled that long ago girl recently when, once again, the literary world convulsed about the distinction between truth and art, nonfiction and made-up stuff.  The most current flashpoint ignited when Mike Daisey retracted some of his Apple Factory in China story which aired on This American Life. If you missed that brouhaha, catch up here. Or if you want a brief overview of literary lies on a cheating scale of acceptable to never, check out Slate magazines visual guide.

My personal experience may or may not be the reason I’m intensely passionate about truth as a concept in general.  It could also be that as a writer, teacher, and human being, I’m appalled at what might happen to a society which willingly accepts an eroded truth in exchange for a better story, a better bargain, a smoother ride.  Is it dangerous to allow things which are labeled “nonfiction” to be acceptable even if they didn’t happen quite the way they were written because then it will become easier to dismiss real atrocities presented as truth as possible fiction? This conundrum reminds me of listening to Elie Wiesel respond to a question during his “Memory and Hope” presentation at Chapman in 2010. The soft spoken gentle storyteller was asked:

Is Night a memoir and a novel?

He quickly responded:

There’s nothing fiction in it. It’s literature. It’s a witness. It’s a testimony.

Memoirs are supposed to be true. Witness and testimony, so help me God, are true.  And novels are accepted as fiction, even if, even if they’re born out of real events. Night is not a novel.

Photo,© City of Chicago, from http://www.awpwriter.org

So when I perused the AWP catalog before heading to Chicago for the annual conference, one of the first panels that caught my eye was,”What’s Wrong with the Whole Truth?”  Even better when I discovered that one of the panelists would be Rebecca Skloot, author of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks, the first text we read for this class. Here’s the catalog description:

Many writers feel comfortable molding the truth to create a more satisfying story, yet still calling their piece nonfiction as long as the emotional core and basic frame of the work remain true.  Not the writers on this panel. These authors, journalists, and nonfiction professors will explore the philosophy of factual versus emotional honesty and discuss how to achieve both—beautiful and moving nonfiction writing that is 100% true.

You can read a brief roundup of what happened during the entire presentation on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog, here if you like.  You’ll find all the panel participants and an extended comments section which keeps the conversation alive.  But what I’d like to tell you doesn’t show up there, in fact this little anecdote doesn’t show up in any of the post-Chicago news I’ve read, yet for me it was one of the most compelling things I heard all weekend.

Rebecca Skloot graciously opened her moment at the microphone with an observation that perhaps we have a linguistic issue at the heart of this discussion of why nonfiction writers seem to be dropping like flies out of the whole truth sky.  Maybe there’s confusion, she says, that “Creative” doesn’t apply to the truth implied in the nonfiction label, rather to the way the truth is presented. She used the opening scene of Chapter 1 of The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks as an example of the sort of excruciatingly time-consuming work she performed to get every detail of the book correct.

Rebecca begins by reading from the opening paragraphs of Chapter 1, page 13 in my book.

She stops and the end of the page and asks, “Now this happened in the 1950s, I wasn’t there. I wasn’t even born.  So how did I know all that?”  She proceeds to tell us.

She checked the weather bureau which tracks weather back for decades and yes, on that day it was, in fact, raining in Baltimore, Maryland. She asked Day, and others, “what kind of car did Day drive?”  “A Buick” was the consistent answer and then she found an old photo of Day standing by his car and she was able to confirm that yes, Day’s car at that time, was a Buick.

She went to Johns Hopkins which had archival photos of both the inside and the outside of the building.  She found a photo showing a tree by the front door and she showed the photo to a botanist who confirmed, “That’s an oak.”  She found a photo of the front desk and was able to describe it from the photo.

“So how did I get the line, ‘I’ve got a knot on my womb’? I’ve got Henrietta’s medical records but it sure doesn’t say that in there.  So over and over and over I interviewed family and friends who knew Henrietta and I asked them, what did she say? Did she tell you she was sick?  How did she describe her problem?”

“And to a one, the all said, ‘Henrietta said, I’ve got a knot on my womb.”

Rebecca says yes, of course this is an incredible amount of work, but “we don’t want people to lose credibility.”

She says the hardest parts of the book were writing the sections where she appeared. She says she re-interviewed people who were with her. “How do you remember what happened that day?” And they’d say, “Why are you asking me that, you were there.”

“I don’t want to get it wrong.  So much damage can be done by incorrect facts.”

Rebecca Skloot insists there’s no detail too small to nitpick.  She recounts her experience reading from her book in front of audiences and said she frequently reads the section where Henrietta, in the bathtub, discovers her “knot.” She says she knows the house Henrietta lived in at the time and she knew that house had a bathtub and Henrietta had told many people she found the knot on herself in the tub and there’s really only one way to find that lump.  “But I think I overstepped with “slowly spread her legs.”

“How did I know it was slowly?  I know it was a small bathtub, but do I know it was slowly?  That bugged me so much, the second edition I had my editor take out the word slowly so that’s one difference between the first edition and the second edition.”


Check out your own page 15 to see which edition you have.

Rebecca ended with, “Journalism techniques are undercut, underutilized in creative writing.”

Later on, when presentations have given way to Q & A, Rebecca sounded frustrated.

“I can’t believe we’re still having this conversation,” she says.  She recounts a personal story about fallout from the discovery that some key elements of Greg Mortenson’s Three Cups of Tea were untrue.  If you’d like to watch the 60 Minutes segment where Steve Kroft questions facts of that book, watch here.

Skloot said there were so many parallels between the two books. They were reported over a long period of time.  Both writers had started a foundation. She was inundated by queries, folks all wondering if she too had made any parts of her incredible story up. Calls. E-mails. Questions.  All assumed there must be some sort of guilt by association.

“I lost my credibility. It took me one entire year to rebuild my credibility the day the Three Cups of Tea story broke.”

A question from the audience: “Where comes this requirement that the essay form be fact?  You already said poetry doesn’t have to be true.  So who decides?  Why do essays have to be true?”

Rebecca answers “actually it’s publishers and bookstores who label it so.”

Philip Gerard, another panelist spoke up to remind that the term “essay” comes from the French essayer, meaning, to try.  “In an essay you deal with the world the way it is to get to the bottom of things.”

In truth.  As best you can discern. Because that’s where the real world is. And the real world is where we live.