WWLA instructor Seth Fischer is teaching Nonfiction II this winter. To preview his class, we asked Seth a few questions about teaching, writing, and reading - his answers are like a mini-course in and of themselves!
If you want to get in on all this great writing, go to our classes page to see the course description, and email firstname.lastname@example.org if you’re interested in enrolling. (And remember, Nonfiction I is not a requirement for Nonfiction II!)
You teach and write both fiction and nonfiction. How does your fiction writing influence your nonfiction writing, and vice versa?
Fiction taught me the importance of using scene in nonfiction. In school, we’re taught to write the most boring possible essays, essays that are predictable, overly logical and completely devoid of feeling. This is a real tragedy, a real disservice to students. One of the easiest way to remedy this, when writing nonfiction, is to put you or your characters (for they are all characters, even in nonfiction) into a scene. Once you are somewhere, you can remember the smells, the sounds. You can remember that even though, say, the president was asking you a question, you couldn’t stop thinking about the broken button on your shirt. Scene leads to detail, which leads to emotion, which leads to nonfiction that feels more real.
Nonfiction has taught me quite a bit about what will be tolerated by readers, and this is something I take into my fiction. I actually think that in many ways, fiction is harder, because the excuse “but that actually happened” doesn’t matter at all. What matters is what rings true. But nonfiction taught me how to deal with that. If it’s hollow, if it doesn’t ring true, you’re not digging deep enough into into yourself. In fiction, I never thought about digging deep into myself until I started writing more nonfiction.
Can you give us a hint about what your students will be reading in Nonfiction II? What’s one of the essays or excerpts you’ll be assigning and why do you want your students to read it?
Lately, I’ve fallen in love with Jonathan Lethem’s essay collection The Ecstasy of Influence. I will definitely be having students read the prologue to that book, as it really expertly deals with one of the biggest problems with nonfiction: how do you take yourself seriously enough to write nonfiction while simultaneously not taking yourself so seriously that you piss everyone off around you?
I’ll also likely be assigning lots of classics this time, like Zora Neal Hurston, Truman Capote and Joan Didion, because I think it’s important for creative nonfiction writers to understand that although the “field” is fairly new, they come from a strong tradition, a strong history, and that this tradition and history can both open up possibilities and impose restrictions on them. I also hope to have pieces by modern readers who do an excellent job at eliciting a strong emotional reaction through their nonfiction, like Emily Rapp and Steve Almond and Michelle Tea and Cheryl Strayed and Jeanette Winterson. Because if your writing doesn’t do that, well, then. Why write?
When you were a student of writing, what was your best/most profound/most influential workshoping session?
Well, first of all, I still consider myself a student of writing. Someone recently, and I can’t place who, I apologize, said that the best teachers are the ones who have never stopped being students, and I really agree with that. Writing isn’t like building a carboretor at all. There are some parts of it that are like that. I mean, there are substantive things to learn, like scene and punctuation. But most of it is not. It’s a lifetime of work, figuring out how to use these little arbitrary symbols to communicate ideas and stories to people. I still have groups I workshop with all the time.
As for my most profound workshopping session, it was probably with Emily Rapp, quite a few years ago. I was working on an essay I’m actually still working on, an essay I’ve been working on for more than five years at this point (egads), about being raised by psychologists. The really dangerous and scary thing about nonfiction is that it’s completely possible, especially if you’re writing about something deeply personal, to write an essay that you think is about one thing when in fact all you are doing is making yourself look terrible. This is especially true when you are writing out of anger. Emily, always gracious and kind, spent a long time talking about the strengths of my essay, and then, subtly as can be, suggested that I needed a stronger current story to reflect against the past story. It was a very kind way to put it.
You recently had an essay featured in the 2013 compilation of Best Sex Writing. What is your own favorite piece of sex writing, from any year? Why?
Oh man! I can’t possibly say. There’s so many different ways sex writing can be powerful, and I can’t possibly get it down to just one. The first thing that pops into my head is the first chapter of Valenica by Michelle Tea, because it really taught me what is possible in fiction, how subversive sex writing can be while still being. you know, sexy.
I can’t answer what my favorite piece of sex writing is, but I can tell you one that I’ve been thinking a lot about lately: The scene in Orlando by Virginia Woolf with Princess Marousha Stanilovska Dagmar Natasha Iliana Romanovitch. It is hilarious and awkward and subtle and completely not subtle and erotic, all at once. It’s the kind of scene where the line “Would you have the goodness to pass the salt?” takes on an erotic charge that all the pornography made in LA County couldn’t beat.
If you could live inside the world of a book you’ve read (fiction or nonfiction!), which world would you choose?
Ha! There are so many worlds I would not want to live in. I read a lot of dystopia literature. The world of Katherine Dunn’s Geek Love, for example, seems particularly terrible. But honestly, if I didn’t have to stay there forever, I am absolutely in love with Dashiell Hammett and Raymond Chandler and classic noir. I wouldn’t want to kill or be killed, but I’d love to see it, to wear the fedoras, to have a drink with Sam Spade. I would want to get out of there, though, before things got out of hand.