And Further Reflections on the Role of Creative Writing in the Tragedy at Virginia Tech

In two previous posts (here and here) I’ve tried to reflect a bit on the place of creative writing in last week’s terrible events at Virginia Tech. And I’ve tried to link to others’ thoughts; in this post I’ll refer you to some more of that writing:

In The New York Times, Marc Santora and Christine Hauser write that the “Anger of Killer Was on Exhibit in His Writings.”

For a different take, see Stephen King’s commentary for Entertainment Weekly.

There’s also a conversation on this topic over on the After the MFA blog.

Then there’s Diane Roberts’s commentary on NPR’s Weekend Edition (Sunday). You can hear it here.

Finally, there’s this article in the Baltimore Sun and this one in New York Magazine.

Friday Find: "Reading How You’re Read"

Most serious writers encounter critiques at some point in their writing lives. If you’re lucky, you’ll get some solid training on how to write critiques for others’ work. And if you’re really lucky, you’ll get some good advice on how to read the critiques you receive on your own work, too. That guidance might very well include Ann Pancake’s article in the new (May/June 2007) Poets & Writers magazine. Check it out, (and click here for the issue’s full Table of Contents, including other segments also reprinted online).

More Reflections on the Role of Creative Writing in the Tragedy at Virginia Tech

Though yesterday’s post on the relationship between creative writing and this week’s terrible events at Virginia Tech hasn’t yet gleaned any public comments here, I have received a number of private e-mails about it (and believe me, the site stats/referral pages show readers are coming to the blog specifically because that post is here). Since the topic is now attracting more attention elsewhere, today I’ll provide some sources for further information/reflection:

At you can find Elizabeth Redden’s “When Creative Writing Provides a Clue” as well as a number of reader comments.

At Harriet, the Poetry Foundation’s blog, you can find Emily Warn’s “Responding to Violent Poems in the Classroom”.

And it turns out that poet Nikki Giovanni (who provided the rousing closing moments for Tuesday’s Convocation on the Virginia Tech campus) seems to have been the instructor who brought the future gunman’s alarming behavior/writings to Lucinda Roy’s attention (again, see yesterday’s post for that background). Last night Giovanni appeared on CNN on both Paula Zahn’s show and Larry King’s. You’ll need to scroll down each transcript for her comments, including this from the Paula Zahn appearance: “You’d be amazed at what we get in creative writing, not to mention across the campus. You get a lot of expression. Some of it would be troubling, and in Cho’s case, some of it — you know, some was a troubling youngster that, frankly speaking, I didn’t think I could help. That didn’t mean he was beyond help.”

Reflections on the Role of Creative Writing in the Tragedy at Virginia Tech

We seem to learn more, almost hour by hour, about what happened at Virginia Tech on Monday. I’ll spare you all my thoughts and associations, but for writers who teach, there’s one aspect of this story that simply must be addressed.

I ran across the name “Lucinda Roy” twice yesterday. In the morning, I read Ms. Roy’s eloquent op-ed in the New York Times. And later, I read news reports, like this one at, detailing how alarming the gunman’s creative writing had been.

After having the young man’s work brought to her attention, says the CNN report, Roy, former English department chairwoman at Virginia Tech and co-director of its creative writing program, “went to the police and counselors ‘and everywhere else, and they would say, but there’s nothing explicit here. He’s not actually saying he’s going to kill someone.'”

Frankly, if selfishly, I wish the op-ed had addressed this piece of the story, too.

Why? Because those news reports about the student’s writing brought back a memory. It’s hazy now–I can’t supply the details. But it involves my alerting my writing program supervisor about what I viewed as alarming elements of a student’s fiction writing in a summer school workshop. Counselors were contacted. And the student raged at me, both semi-silently and gloweringly in class, and in words, when the time came for my end-of-course evaluations.

But I’m not sorry I signaled her work to my supervisor. I’d rather risk being “wrong”–and/or suffering a bad evaluation (which is actually pretty serious business within this particular writing program, but that’s a subject for another post on another day)–than taking the risk of silence.

It’s a difficult balance to try to maintain, especially when students are writing fictional plays, or short stories (or poems, which despite what some people may believe, are not always first-person “confessional”), and we must respect the forms. We must refrain some assuming that what’s on the page is autobiographical.

But sometimes, as Lucinda Roy recognized, you just have to speak out. And then, you have to find people who can and will do more than simply listen to you. They have to act, too.

Any of you practicing-writers-who-teach have other thoughts on this?

Telling True Stories: An Interview with Wendy Call

(This interview originally appeared in The Practicing Writer, February-March 2007.)

TELLING TRUE STORIES: An Interview with Wendy Call
by Erika Dreifus

Many of our practicing writers have heard me mention the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, which I’ve had the privilege to attend for the past two years. Now, I’m delighted to present an interview with Wendy Call, co-editor (with Mark Kramer) of Telling True Stories: A Nonfiction Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University, which is based on Conference sessions.

Wendy Call is a freelance writer and editor, currently writer-in-residence at Richard Hugo House, Seattle’s literary center. Excerpts from her narrative nonfiction book-in-progress, No Word for Welcome, have won awards from the Blue Mountain Center, Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference, Hedgebrook, and Wesleyan Writers Conference. Grants from Artist Trust, Institute of Current World Affairs, Oberlin College Alumni Association, and the Seattle CityArtist Program have supported the reporting, research, and writing of No Word for Welcome, about rural, southern Mexico.

Wendy’s nonfiction has appeared in English, Spanish and French in more than 20 magazines and literary journals, including Blue Mesa Review, Chain, NACLA Report on the Americas, Revista: The Harvard Review of Latin America, and VIVA NY/The Daily News, as well as in several anthologies. Wendy became a full-time writer and editor in 2000, after devoting a decade to work for social change organizations in Seattle and Boston.

Recently Wendy responded to a series of questions from Practicing Writer editor, Erika Dreifus.

Erika Dreifus (ED): Wendy, how would you define “narrative nonfiction”? In your view, how does it overlap with (or differ from) “creative nonfiction”?

Wendy Call (WC): In the preface to Telling True Stories, my co-editor Mark Kramer and I sidestepped this question, which is nearly always asked. We wrote, “The genre of telling true stories goes by many names,” then listed seven different terms – including “narrative nonfiction” and “creative nonfiction.”

I don’t think there are clear differences between the two, though writers who attach one or other label to their work seem to fall into slightly different categories. Narrative nonfiction writers tend to maintain allegiance to journalistic ethics – valuing factual accuracy above all else – and tend to write about subjects and people outside of their own lives and experience. Creative nonfiction writers tend to follow a slightly different path. Some come to literary nonfiction writing from poetry or fiction; their work tends to have a more fully developed first-person narrator.

Mark likes to tell his students, “Do whatever you want, just make sure you tell the reader what you are doing.” I agree. If you are going to change subjects’ names or collapse time or reorder events, and still label your work any variety of nonfiction, make sure your readers understand that.

ED: Telling True Stories is a guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University. Please tell us a bit about the work of the Nieman Foundation.

: The Nieman Foundation’s primary mission is to provide one-year, mid-career fellowships at Harvard University for journalists from all over the world. The history of the foundation is an interesting one; you can read about it at the Nieman Web site.

Telling True Stories is based on sessions offered at the Nieman Conference on Narrative Journalism, hosted annually by the Nieman Foundation from 2001 to 2006. (The next conference is scheduled for March 2008). Mark founded the conference at Boston University in the late 1990s and moved it to Harvard University in 2001.

ED: How did you become involved with the Nieman Foundation, and with this book project in particular?

: My connection to the Nieman Foundation is limited to the anthology; I’m a full-time freelancer. In early 2000 I transitioned from full-time grassroots organizing to full-time writing and editing. (I used to write in my spare time, now that’s when I do my activist work.) I was preparing for a two-year fellowship in southern Mexico, to write a narrative nonfiction series about how rural, indigenous communities were adapting to the huge changes brought by economic globalization. I’d never taken a writing class before, and thought I should do that before heading off to Mexico. I attended a half-day National Writers Union workshop led by Mark Kramer, and then I signed up for a literary journalism graduate course he taught at Boston University. It took two full years reporting and writing in southern Mexico for me to understand what Mark had tried to teach us about immersion journalism. He read what I wrote, and after I returned to the United States, he approached me with the idea of crafting an anthology from the workshops and lectures offered at his Narrative Journalism Conference. Four years later, Telling True Stories has finally come into the world.

: I can’t imagine any reader going through this book and not learning a number of valuable lessons for his/her writing. I’m thinking, for my own purposes, of David Halberstam’s revelation of “the best question a reporter can ask a source” (it’s “Who else should I see?”). I’m thinking of Bruce DeSilva’s points on endings. I’m thinking of Adam Hochschild’s emphasis on “travel [writing] as discovery” and his suggestions to broaden newspaper travel coverage. Please tell us about some lessons you may have learned from the contributors to this book in the process of working on it.

WC: In a sense, every lesson in Telling True Stories is a favorite of mine, because Mark and I culled the 95 pieces in the anthology from more than 350 conference sessions. I edited 600,000 transcribed words down to 110,000 published ones.

Some of the lessons I found most stimulating are those from other fields of inquiry:

–Tom French suggests that narrative writers read graphic novels to understand story sequence, giving the excellent advice: “To learn about sequencing, study jokes.” (p. 143)

–Malcolm Gladwell describes how psychologists distinguish between samples and signatures – using this distinction to show that watching a subject’s behavior might be instructive, and might not. (p. 74)

–Alma Guillermoprieto, who began her career as a dancer, explains, “While out reporting, I stage a little theater in my mind. Before choreographers begin rehearsals, they choose a group of dancers. By the end of the first rehearsal, one dancer will stand out. As a reporter, I do the same sort of casting. By the end of the first week I have my leading cast selected.” (p. 157)

–Poet-photographer Emily Hiestand offers the pointed advice: Take an art class. (p. 200)

–Historian Jill Lepore warns against the pitfall of presentism – one that often entraps journalists and other nonfiction writers. (p. 86)

–Filmmaker Stanley Nelson shows the importance of fostering the reader’s sense of discovery. (p. 130)

I even learned a few “life” lessons from this book. My favorite is the “seven-of-ten rule” from Jacqui Banaszynski, a Pulitzer Prize-winning writer, editor, and professor. Jacqui says: “Of the ten things you most want from a boss, life partner, job, or house, you will get seven if you are smart and lucky, and work at it. Don’t lament the missing three, because here’s the deal: You can change your job or your partner or your house to get the other three things, but you still won’t have more than seven.” (p. 223)

ED: The book includes an extensive list of “Suggested Readings.” There’s also a (much shorter) list of “Web Sites and Internet Resources.” Please tell us about a few readings and/or online resources you’ve found to be most useful with your own work, and how they’ve been helpful to you.

: The “Suggested Readings” is heavily slanted toward the writers that have most inspired me. It’s not an accident that the list of literary works is three times as long as the one of books about craft and theory. Even as the co-editor of a craft anthology, I must admit that I find how-to books far less instructive than great literature. Recently, reading the work of Sandra Cisneros, Adam Hochschild, and Michael Ondaatje has helped me solve problems in my own writing.

The Nieman Conference Web site has links to the writing of nearly all 52 volume contributors. Read their work! (From, go to the Nieman Program on Narrative Journalism, then the speakers’ biographies under “Narrative Conferences.”)

As much as I love brick-and-mortar libraries, the Web is an increasingly good place for great writing. There are some wonderful online magazines. Two that inspire me to go out into the world and write about it are Terrain: A Journal of Built and Natural Environments and (no longer updated, but excellent) SixBillion.

For general writing resources, Practicing Writer’s list of resource links is a great place to start!

ED: Thanks, Wendy! Anything else you’d like to share?

: We will be posting information on how writers, editors, writing coaches, and professors use Telling True Stories at Nieman’s Narrative Digest. Check for updates. We are planning readings with contributors in Cambridge and Seattle. Anyone interested in hosting another reading should let me (wendycall[at]yahoo[dot]com) know.

For any readers in the Seattle area: This spring, I’ll be teaching creative writing classes based on Telling True Stories at Seattle Central Community College and Richard Hugo House as well as giving several readings from my own writing. Drop me a line if you would like to know more.

Telling True Stories: A Writers’ Guide from the Nieman Foundation at Harvard University
Edited by Mark Kramer and Wendy Call
Plume, 317 pages.
Paper, $15.00 ($18.50 CAN)

Copyright (c) 2007 Erika Dreifus