Going DeeperMay 2015 An interview with Leslie Rubinkowski
Leslie Rubinkowski directs the MFA in Creative Nonfiction program at Goucher College. She has taught at the University of Pittsburgh and West Virginia University and has lectured at The Poynter Institute for Media Studies. The author of Impersonating Elvis, her essays have appeared in Harper's, River Teeth, and Chautauqua. She also works with writers through CNF's mentoring program.
At the 2015 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, Leslie will teach a master class on pacing and structuring a book-length narrative or memoir. In anticipation of the conference, CNF’s Katie McGrath spoke with Leslie about working with writers, the importance of research, and knowing when to be a part of the story.
CNF: As a longtime teacher, CNF mentor, and now director of the MFA program at Goucher College, is there a piece of advice you find yourself giving your students a lot?
RUBINKOWSKI: The first — and sometimes only — question I ask writers looking for advice is: What is your story really about? Not its subject but its theme: the deeper idea that animates the narrative. Billy Wilder said, “If you have a problem with the third act, the real problem is in the first act.” And most likely the problem with the first act is that you began without knowing what you really mean.
CNF: What do you find appealing (or appalling) about writing in the first person? What advice do you have for writers for how to get readers to care about their stories? How does one make the personal universal?
RUBINKOWSKI: People who fret about first person could stand to get over themselves, on the page and probably in other ways, too. If used well, it can connect narrator and reader. But even a first-person story can’t just be about the writer. The reader is more likely to care about a writer’s presence if the writer’s not the only reason to care. That’s one way to make the personal universal: to write about more than just your own emotions and circumstance. And — see, here I go — to think through and articulate in as many aspects of the story as you possibly can your story’s themes and deeper ideas. Express those desires and emotions that any reader can feel, no matter how different your situation is from their own.
CNF: What about research? What role does research play in crafting a nonfiction narrative—even a personal one?
RUBINKOWSKI: Every nonfiction story needs research, memoir included. For one thing, it’s fun. For another thing, it can derail your story and then make it better. That part can be less fun. Learning, say, that your memory of an event is different than you remember can feel scary, even soul-shaking. But you can learn a lot about yourself comparing your memory of an event with the facts of it. And a story can only benefit from thinking hard about what that gap might mean.
CNF: Besides teaching, you’ve worked as a journalist, a feature writer, and a film critic. What was your first job in the writing world? What did you learn from it?
RUBINKOWSKI: I was a creative writing major in college, but I soon learned that you couldn’t pay your bills selling short stories. (Not my short stories, anyway.) So I got a job at the Herald-Standard in Uniontown, Pennsylvania, as a general-assignment reporter. I covered all of life’s important milestones — graduations, city council meetings, demolition derbies. After a couple of months I realized the things that happened in a week of work I couldn’t have created on my best day. I couldn’t get over it. Actually, I never got over it.
CNF: For your book, Impersonating Elvis, how did you find the one impersonator you chose to frame the story around? How did you approach him, and let him know you wanted to tell his story?
RUBINKOWSKI: I called dozens of Elvises before somebody told me about Dennis Stella. I called him one night and the first thing he said was that he’d be happy to talk to me but he didn’t think he was very interesting. I had a suspicion that if he didn’t think he was interesting it meant that he probably was too busy being interesting to think about whether or not he was interesting. I asked him if I could come and hang out with him and he invited me to a karaoke party at his house. It was Dennis and a whole bunch of other guys dressed like Elvis on his patio in Calumet City, Illinois, with a grill and a giant sound system. It was probably the best party I’ll ever attend.
Dennis told me he didn’t think he was all that interesting a lot over the next couple of years, usually when he was in a hotel room gluing on some sideburns or standing outside Graceland surrounded by people holding candles and singing “Love Me Tender.” And I would just nod and think about how this was really my life.
CNF: How did you decide how much (or how little) of yourself to include in that story? And how did the story change from what you’d thought it would be to what it ultimately ended up being?
RUBINKOWSKI: I’ve thought about this a lot. I wasn’t in the book very much because I was in a phase of my writing life where I felt weird appearing in a story. I didn’t know enough then to see that I was in the story whether I was a character in it or not. I didn’t get that good nonfiction rises and falls on the degree to which you calibrate your presence in the story. So if I were writing that book now I would likely unshadow myself a little more, but only if I felt sure that showing up would draw the reader deeper inside that world.
CNF: If you could go back to the start of your career, what advice would you give yourself?
RUBINKOWSKI: That writing is always a lucky thing to be able to do. Even when it sometimes feels like the opposite.
CNF: How do you handle rejection?
RUBINKOWSKI: Rejection in writing and every other aspect of life is easier to handle when you don’t take it personally. Someone asked Duke Ellington how he handled those who disrespected him — in far more serious ways than I could ever encounter — and he replied, “I merely took the energy it takes to pout and wrote some blues.” I wish I’d understood that at the start of my career, too.Patience, Persistence, Precision Katie McGrath Online Only Encounters
In Search of Moments of Real ConnectionAn interview with Hattie Fletcher
Hattie Fletcher has been the managing editor of Creative Nonfiction since 2004. With Lee Gutkind, founding editor of CNF, she co-edited True Stories, Well Told: From the First 20 Years of Creative Nonfiction Magazine.
At the upcoming 2015 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference, Hattie will teach a master class on “Working with an Editor and Polishing Your Work” and moderate the "Fact & Story: A Balancing Act" panel discussion. In anticipation of the conference, Creative Nonfiction’s Shannon Swearingen spoke with Hattie about the evolution and definition of creative nonfiction; connecting to our communities through first-person stories; not taking rejection personally; and what it’s like to work for a nonprofit literary organization.
CNF: You’ve been the managing editor of Creative Nonfiction since 2004. How has the genre evolved during the time you’ve worked for the magazine?
FLETCHER: I don’t know that I would say the genre has evolved in any specific direction so much as I would just say it’s come of age. That is, as more people have come through more and more MFA programs, and as the term, generally, has gained more acceptance (though there’s still a ways to go on that front, certainly), that’s opened up room for more flexibility with form and subjects. Happily, too, it seems we’ve also been able to move (most of the time) beyond our collective existential crisis—constant discussions of what the term “creative nonfiction” means, and whether it’s an oxymoron, or whether it means making stuff up—and just get on with it. I think that might be the biggest change I’ve seen over the past 10 years.
CNF: What new directions do you see the genre taking in the next decade?
FLETCHER: I think we’re seeing a lot of interesting experimentation—more online than in print, but not exclusively—into new ways of presenting information within a narrative framework, and I think that’s really exciting. It seems to me that one of the big challenges we face (ignoring climate change, for the moment) is dealing with or making sense of the simply enormous amounts of information available to us. At the same time—again, you see this online, especially—it’s hard to judge the accuracy of information; it’s a bit of a free-for-all. Now, maybe that’s always been the case, but there’s just more of everything now, and faster. I think narrative—true stories—can be a really great way of helping make information accessible and important, and some of our recent projects at CNF have tried to encourage the use of creative nonfiction techniques in other fields—for example, we were part of a National Science Foundation-funded project that tried to combine public policy with narrative. It may be sort of a stretch, but it’s an interesting and productive one, I think.
CNF: Before coming to Creative Nonfiction, you were a teacher. What made you decide to make the transition to editorial work?
FLETCHER: After I graduated from college, I taught middle school Latin at a local independent school, and then added some English/writing courses—which is just to say, I’ve always been pretty language-oriented. I never really had a plan to become an editor—I got here in a roundabout way that involved doing the better part of a creative nonfiction MFA at the University of Pittsburgh—but I think it involves a lot of the same skill sets as teaching: for example, having a broad range of interests and a preference for the big picture over intense detail; and trying to meet writers where they are. Also, I have a pretty high tolerance for chaos, and that’s definitely been an asset in a small nonprofit setting.
CNF: Are there people who still question the definition and validity of creative nonfiction as a genre? What would you say to them?
FLETCHER: Well, at CNF we definitely get silly emails of the “Creative nonfiction? That’s an oxymoron!” variety pretty regularly, but I don’t tend to think of that as a serious questioning of the genre. I think a far more productive question is whether it’s helpful to have a broad label that covers such a wide range of writing, or whether it would be ok if we just thought about everything more specifically—as memoir or longform journalism or flash nonfiction or lyric essays or whatever else. At a certain point, I do think it is helpful to have that label, broadly relating to “the literature of fact” (that’s John McPhee’s term), and, you know, maybe “creative nonfiction” isn’t a perfect term, but it seems to work pretty well once you get past the silliness and realize that the “creative” goes with the style of writing and not with the “nonfiction-ness” of the writing.
Maybe “creative nonfiction” isn’t a perfect term, but it seems to work pretty well once you get past the silliness and realize that the “creative” goes with the style of writing and not with the “nonfiction-ness” of the writing.
CNF: Why do you think readers are interested in first person stories?
FLETCHER: We’ve always learned from stories we tell each other. The thing is, now our neighborhoods and communities can extend around the world, and we’re a little less connected to our immediate communities. That’s amazing and can broaden our perspective immeasurably; but sometimes it also means we live in a world—in certain socio-economic parts of the United States, at least—where expecting parents take classes because they’ve never really held a baby, or where you learn how to tie a tie or iron a shirt by watching a video online. We definitely spend less time just sitting around sharing our stories and experiences, and I think fundamentally that’s how we learn all kinds of things—maybe not the hard sciences, but about what can happen to a person in life. What giving birth is like, and aging, and illness, and grief, and death; in some ways you can’t know those things until you go through them, but I think we’re fundamentally magpies, and we collect those kinds of stories for when we need them. I think most of us like first person stories in the same way that most of us like having coffee and a good talk—a moment of real connection—with another person.
CNF: What qualities are you looking for most when seeking out personal essays or other first-person stories?
FLETCHER: At Creative Nonfiction, we tend to look above all for narrative, for a story—something happening or changing—and then we look for some reflection or research or an element that gives the story a broader context or meaning. The pieces that balance both of those things: that’s our sweet spot.
CNF: What should people expect when working with you?
FLETCHER: I can’t say this with 100% certainty, but I think we tend to edit a little more heavily than most literary magazines. We usually won’t accept a piece that needs major editing—occasionally we’ll cut a couple paragraphs or a small section—but we often make a number of small changes to polish the prose. We also fact check pretty rigorously, for a magazine our size; we don’t call people’s moms to confirm memoirs or anything like that, but we do verify everything that can be verified. You’d be surprised at the kinds of inaccuracies that slip into work along the way, even when writers have the best intentions and are being careful.
CNF: What does a typical day at the editor’s desk look like for you? (Is there such a thing as a typical day?)
FLETCHER: I don’t really have too many typical days, I’m afraid—or days when I’m just editing. CNF is a pretty small place with a lot going on and an entirely part-time staff, so you never quite know what a day will involve—it could be anything from grant writing to hauling boxes up stairs to event planning to having meetings about our online courses. But in my editorial fantasy life, I have an office with a comfy chair and a door, and I drink coffee and read manuscripts all day. (Ha!)
CNF: What is the biggest mistake made by emerging writers who reach out to you?
FLETCHER: Hmm. I don’t know if this is the biggest mistake, but I wish many of the writers who send us work would spend as much time reading as they do writing. A lot of the work we get is based in personal experiences—which is great, except that when you get down to it, even though we’re all our own special snowflakes, we also all have a lot of the same experiences. Our dads are complicated; our moms die; we cook food. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t write about these things, but it helps if a writer can back up and get some perspective: What’s uniquely complicated about your dad, and why will other people want to hear about it?
Our dads are complicated; our moms die; we cook food. That doesn’t mean people shouldn’t write about these things, but it helps if a writer can back up and get some perspective: What’s uniquely complicated about your dad, and why will other people want to hear about it?
CNF: What's the biggest mistake you've made as an editor?
FLETCHER: I am chronically and horribly overwhelmed by email. If you’re reading this and I owe you an email… I apologize.
CNF: If you could go back to the start of your career, what advice would you give yourself?
FLETCHER: Apologize less—or, rather, apologize appropriately (see above), instead of for everything, always.
CNF: What role does social media play in your job?
FLETCHER: Social media has been a really helpful tool for small publishers, I think; it lets us interact pretty directly with readers and our broader community, and that’s really important and amazing. It’s also helpful that the core of our particular community is writers, who tend to spend a lot of time on social media; I’m not sure it works quite the same way in other industries. I’m the primary admin on CNF’s Facebook page; we share not only news about what’s going on at CNF and what’s new on our site, but also stories that we think will be of interest to our readers and followers—anything from scientific research into how memory works to news about our contributors. I like Facebook a lot, actually; I know it’s easy to complain about all the food and baby pictures and silly videos, but I also get a lot of news about writers and the writing world from not only friends but some of the groups I’m part of. The risk, I think, is if you forget that not everyone is on Facebook; it’s only part of a much bigger picture, and you don’t want to rely on it for all the news.
Twitter, on the other hand, I really don’t understand. I have it on my phone, and I keep an eye on CNF’s feed, but I generally don’t push any buttons if I can avoid it.
CNF: What advice do you have for new writers who may be facing rejection? How do you handle rejection?
FLETCHER: I think it’s really impossible to say this too often: rejection is almost never personal, and shouldn’t be taken personally. It feels personal, of course, especially when it’s a personal story that’s being rejected. But really, all a rejection means is that a given story isn’t useful to—or isn’t a good fit for—a certain publication at a certain time. With a print publication, especially, space is very limited; at CNF, in the magazine, we publish maybe 35 long essays a year, out of maybe 2,000 submissions. So we send a lot of rejections. But a lot of those pieces—especially the ones that get close—end up being published elsewhere, and it’s always interesting to see where. I admit to some regret when a piece we rejected ends up in Best American Essays or something like that, but even then, in most cases, I would make the same call again.
I don’t really write, personally, so the kind of professional rejection I often encounter these days is things like not getting a grant, or throwing an event no one comes to. Those kinds of rejection sting, too, but once that goes away, it’s they’re also good learning experiences. And I find that fear of that kind of rejection is also a good motivator.Long Form, Always Shannon Swearingen Online Only Encounters
“Hope for those seeking help”
A new collection of narratives highlighting struggles and breakthroughs for both patients and therapists
“Proof that someone else struggled and found hope.” - PsychCentral
“Bursting with warmth and inspiration.” - Hippocampus
"A deeply humanistic and creative collection, this book is full of insight, encouragement, and hope." - Judith Schlesinger, PhD, author of The Insanity Hoax: Exposing the Myth of the Mad Genius
In any given year, one in four Americans suffer from a diagnosable mental illness—and yet there is still a significant stigma attached to being labeled as “mentally ill.”
We hear about worse-case scenarios, but in some—maybe even most—cases, there is much room for hope. Intimate and sincere, these narratives set out to prove that compassion can trump diagnosis and even help patients move forward with their lives. In Same Time Next Week: True Stories of Working Through Mental Illness, 18 writers attempt to look past their titles of patient and therapist, and candidly relay their struggles and triumphs, commenting on the failures of mainstream therapy and the unfair disconnect between person and patient, human and healthcare. This collection highlights the basic necessity of empathy in treating people, and gives insight into the lives of those who live with mental illness, as well as the professionals who are helping them.
Ultimately, these stories help to provide hope for those currently struggling with the challenges presented by depression, bipolar disorder, OCD, and other mental disorders.
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