“Inserimento” and the Torre Cambiaso

By Sarah White

“Cena? Non ce stasera,” the barrista tells us. Dinner will not be served tonight. The little restaurant of the Torre Cambiaso hotel is closed, because this is a Monday.

This means there really WILL be no dinner, because the nearest restaurant is so far down the mountain that the cost of the taxi alone would equal a dinner.

My husband Jim and I have arrived at this baronial-estate-turned-hotel high on a promontory overlooking Genoa, and we are in the kind of personal low that predictably overtakes anyone who’s been in transit more than 24 hours and has been told there will be no dinner.

The problem, when you are planning your next trip, is to capitalize on knowledge gained on past trips but avoid the trap of thinking you are an expert. That was my situation as I organized a visit to Italy’s Cinque Terre region for my husband and me, in celebration of our twenty-fifth wedding anniversary.

On our last Italian trip, we arrived in Venice midday, too early to check into a hotel, too tired to sightsee. With nowhere to place our bodies, we ended up in a small park, taking turns napping on each other’s shoulders, desperately sleepy and disenchanted. I swore I would plan better this time.

The way cross-Atlantic flights are timed, the midday arrival is unavoidable. So I set myself to finding a hotel in Genoa that would offer a restful improvement over that dingy Venetian park. Google’s top search result presented me with Torre Cambiaso, “located in a former manor house with a unique tower. It was once the home of a noble family, and is set in its own private gardens with a swimming pool… A walk through the gardens leads guests past a lake, several grottos and a secluded grove where peacocks roam.”

I settled in to read the consumer reviews, and chuckled with a knowing smile at descriptions like, “We struggled to get any service from the bar and when we did we had to wait while a waiter could find the time to get us a coffee!” Yes, we experienced visitors appreciate the unhurried pace, and the less-intrusive service style, of Italian waiters. Those poor uptight Americans imposing their rush-rush attitudes. While several reviews mentioned the remote location as a negative, to me that sounded tranquil–perfect.

I composed the scene in my mind; lounge chairs in the private garden with the peacocks and all, enjoying drinks brought (however lackadaisically) to our elbows as we dozed in afternoon sun. The Torre Cambiaso got my click and credit card deposit for one night’s stay. We would fly to Genoa, arriving midmorning.

That was the plan. Instead, we were delayed in Rome awaiting our connection, and those sleep-desperate hours I’d tried to place in the Torre Cambiaso’s sundrenched garden instead took place in hard plastic chairs in Fulmicino Airport. When we finally got to Genoa, afternoon had turned to evening and “sundrenched” turned to merely “drenched.”

A taxi took us in pouring rain high into the hills above Genoa. Something came back to me from my Googling, a consumer comment saying, “ I was well aware that this hotel is not near anything,” which had preceded a complaint about difficulty getting dinner.

We check in. Our room is small but the setting is baronial, with modern amenities crowded by heavy antiques. We went to find out when dinner service will begin in the little restaurant on the ground floor, where the website promised “Italian and Ligurian cooking styles combine.” And that’s when the barrista gives us the bad news.

The moment is ripe for domestic dispute. But wait, the barrista is promising that the staff will put a cold plate together for us! And there’s a complimentary bottle of white in our mini-fridge. This will do.

When the tray of dinner arrives, we decide to take it upstairs to the library area under the eaves. There we picnic on an array of cheeses, olives, arugula sprouts, breadsticks, and a sliced composed meat called cima. Jim (a chef) is excited to see the cima, a Genoa specialty he’s read about. A veal breast is wrapped around a pate of ground veal, eggs, and pistachios. “It’s no stranger than bologna,” Jim says, damning with faint praise.

 

The meal and wine raise our spirits. Already we are catching the spirit of the place, imagining it filled with conference-goers or wedding guests. Before long we return to our room, where sleep slams into us.

We wake to find the rain lifting. In a gallery overlooking the courtyard a breakfast buffet offers pastries, rolls, cereal, and blood oranges.

The waitress is stiff with us, and no friendlier to the other guests—a trio of conference planners who have arrived in advance of their event, and a pair of women, probably travelers passing through as we are. Did Google seduce them too?

After breakfast Jim and I explore outside. Maybe now we’ll inhabit the scene I composed when I booked us here, lounge chairs and peacocks and all, revised to feature a cappuccino in morning sun instead of wine at sunset.

Online I had read that the Torre Cambiaso grounds cover 100 acres. I now realize that most of those acres are given over to a working farm. The actual grounds for guests comprise no more than half an acre, falling away steeply from the manor house on its narrowing promontory.

The amenities described online are packed as tightly as clothes in a suitcase. We follow a garden path that winds in hairpins past rose bushes to the grotto. A gas grill squats in an alcove, ready to be wheeled out for summer weddings. A little watercourse flows into a swan pond (the “lake” of the online description). The path leads past cages housing peacocks and swans to a small formal garden surrounding a fountain. At the bottom of the garden stands a little faux Grecian temple, a party house now locked up and in disrepair. I imagine a terrazzo floor inside, a ghostly string quartet playing as guests of the Baron Cambiaso dance.

But here comes the rain again—forget cappuccino with the peacocks. I’m picturing myself here with a conference, or a friend’s wedding. The Torre Cambiaso has a peculiar air of being perfect for somebody, sometime, but not us, not now.

But no matter. We’ve completed our “inserimento.” We summon another taxi and leave without a backward glance.

Our short stay at Torre Cambiaso was a microcosm of any stay anywhere, the predictable highs and lows in mood, the twists of fate. These are the complications that deliver the traveler to the next story and the next.

Lately I’ve been asking for stories of “inserimento”–arrival and settling in. This essay concludes the series for now–but feel free to send further “true stories well told” on this theme. See  submission guidelines here.

Advertisements
Posted in Sarah's memoir, Writing prompt | Leave a comment

Falling Through the Rabbit Hole

 I’ve been asking for  stories of inserimento lately–see  submission guidelines here. Doug Elwell answered the call with the following Vietnam-era essay.

By Doug Elwell

At the end of a long day of being poked and prodded in places one should never have to be poked and prodded, those of us who were deemed fit to get our whole asses shot off for Uncle Sam stood before some kind of officer, raised our right hands and swore to uphold and defend the Constitution from all enemies of the United States, foreign and domestic. Following our swearing-in we were assigned to a group and were ordered to assemble at the Y.M.C.A. the next day to leave for Lackland A.F.B. basic training.

Frankly, I’m embarrassed to send you off to my Air Force.

The sergeant paused then pleaded. Try to remember that each of you are now the property of the United States Air Force and are expected to conduct yourselves in a way that is a credit to the Air Force. Don’t be any more stupid than you already are until you get to Lackland. Save it up girls; you’ll have plenty of opportunities to show how stupid you are when you get there. When he finished, he was at the boarding gate. Motioning over his shoulder, he said now get your sorry asses on that plane.

 

We got our sorry asses on that plane headed for San Antonio via Shreveport.

 

Our sorry asses touched down in San Antonio on June 11, 1966 around two-thirty in the morning. We were met by a sergeant of some kind I didn’t know standing in green fatigues next to an Air Force blue school bus. Sgt. McFarland stood by the door as we boarded. He looked as tough as a piece of charcoal broiled gristle. He was at least in his mid-forties, probably older, short and thick, not fat, from his shoulders to his boots. The first thing I noticed about him was what I couldn’t see. He had no neck. His head sat on his shoulders as if it had once been broken off and rolled into a dark corner and disappeared, so they just sat his head back on his shoulders.

 

That’s what Elmer McFarland looked like. From the look of the wear and tear on his face, I suspected getting his head and neck knocked off sometime in the distant past was probably what happened. He had the look of a man who had been around the block a number of times and appeared to have lived to tell about it, although in the dark I wasn’t sure. I was fairly sure though that if I had to choose only one man to be my partner in a bar fight, McFarland would be my first pick.

 

So it went.

 

A large, lighted sign like the ones at the entrances to trailer parks sat under an old F-100 mounted on a pylon. It greeted us as we were waved through the main gate. The bus rumbled slowly through a maze of dimly lit streets turning left then right then left again. I lost all sense of direction. I would soon realize arriving in the middle of the night in a strange place was the Air Force’s first step in ripping us away from the civilian life we had left. Presently brakes screeched to a halt in front of a mess hall lit up in the night like the painting of Hopper’s Nighthawks. I looked at my watch—three am. It was brutally hot and muggy. McFarland ushered us in where we had our first Air Force breakfast. Large fans on floor stands roared from each corner of the hall shoving the hot, muggy air around. I picked up a tray, a plate, knife and fork and a couple paper napkins that were curling at the edges, turning yellow like a newspaper left on the driveway. As I inched down the line I noticed a tall black cook standing over a large griddle at the far end, scrambling eggs and frying bacon while beads of sweat dripped off his arms and nose onto the eggs. Before I got to the egg pan in the steamer, I picked up a couple pieces of toast and a half pint of orange juice thinking there was less chance of them being seasoned with the cook’s piquant Diaphoresis Vinaigrette than were the eggs. About ten minutes after entering the mess hall, McFarland stood and announced we were to be back on the bus in five minutes. It trundled on into the night through another tortuous series of left and right turns until it screeched to another halt in front of a darkened barracks. He led us inside and said to find a bunk, get some sleep. The lights went out. It was three-thirty.

 

So it went.

 

At four-thirty, the lights came on. McFarland paced the center of the bay rousting everyone. We stood at the foot of our bunks rubbing red, swollen eyes and scratching our crotches while he launched into his welcoming speech.

 

You and me got jobs to do. You do what you’re told. If you don’t, I’ll be climbing up your sorry asses twenty four hours a day. (I had heard “sorry asses” so often I thought it might be a rank. Later I learned it was—Airman Basic) Anyway he went on. Last night you heard some sergeants screaming, calling their men names and so on. I don’t believe in that. We got to get through as best we can with the least amount of aggravations—don’t like no aggravations. He stopped near the door to the latrine and faced us. One more little thing. I don’t like debriss around my barracks. He made the “ess” sound at the end of debris. I didn’t volunteer anything. Maybe another time when it’s just the two of us in the day room discussing Proust over brandy and cigars I’ll mention the s in debris is silent. At any rate, he began pacing up and down the center aisle looking at the floor as if searching. If you see any debriss, pick it up. He shuddered. Debriss is someone else’s disgusting filth and if it accumulates—especially chewing gum wrappers and cigarette butts—if it accumulates—cigarette butts are the worst—stink and when they stink—germs in the butts—debriss multiplies—maggots—oh—candy wrappers—don’t want to live with no filthy maggots from stinkin’—debriss. It’s those godless commies—spreadin’ debriss around in the middle of the night to weaken us—drag us down to the godless gutters of filth they live in. Beads of perspiration dotted his forehead. He shouted, this barracks will not be a filthy godless gutter. He shuddered, brushed his arms as if to rid them of debriss. He stood still, back to us, slapping at maggots in his ears. I wished I had some steel bearings to give him to roll around in his hand like Humphrey Bogart in Caine Mutiny. But I didn’t.

Excuse me. He disappeared into the latrine. We looked at each other in silence—some resumed scratching their crotches, then the sound of running water. When it stopped, we heard paper towels cranking out of a dispenser on the wall. He emerged with his hands full of them, vigorously drying his arms and wiping his ears. He threw the towels into the trash, straightened and ran his thumbs around the inside of his pant waist then dismissed us.

 

So it went.

At five a loudspeaker attached to a nearby pole erupted with a series of loud scratches from a worn out record followed by a blaring trumpet blowing Reveille. A few minutes later we formed up outside and started our day.

 

The thrumming routine of basic training was under way.

 

So it went.

Doug, after Basic Training

© 2017 Doug Elwell

Doug Elwell grew up on the prairie of rural east central Illinois. His stories feature the characters, lore, and culture of that region. He explores the depth and richness of the inner lives of its people and communities. He is an occasional contributor to The Australia Times. His work has also appeared in The Oakland Independent, Ignite Your Passion: Kindle Your Inner Spark, True Stories Well Told, Every Writer’s Resource, Writers Grapevine, Ruminate and Midwestern Gothic literary journal. He has a Kindle novel, Charlie, available from the War Writer’s Campaign at www.warwriterscampaign.org. Proceeds from purchases go directly to the campaign, a non-profit that helps re-integrate veterans into society following their deployments. Doug can be contacted via email at: djelwell@mchsi.com.

Posted in Guest writer, Writing prompt | 4 Comments

Travel “Inserimento” and a Book Review: Story Genius by Lisa Cron

Lately I’ve been calling for your travel “inserimento” stories–settling-in tales about arriving in a new location for the first time. Meanwhile I’ve been reading Story Genius: How to Use Brain Science to Go Beyond Outlining and Write a Riveting Novel by Lisa Cron. Yes, dear reader, I look everywhere for fresh insights to bring you, including in the world of fiction-writing.

This morning it struck me that Cron’s advice is highly relevant to writing that “inserimento” episode of your travel memoir. Her key point is that, based on the science of what our brains are wired to crave in every story, writers must not start by plotting the external structure of their work (whether fiction or nonfiction). Rather, we must blueprint the inner struggle of the story’s protagonist. What do they want? What do they believe will help them achieve that aim, and why? Where is a mistaken belief thwarting their progress?

Or, to let Lisa Cron say it:

How do you isolate and identify your protagonist’s inner struggle, so you can then develop it? By laser beaming into his specific dueling internal duo: what your protagonist wants (his desire) and the misbelief that keeps him from it (think: fear).  It is from these two small, burning embers that all stories grow and flame. It is this struggle that becomes your story’s third rail.

The opening of a travel memoir is the perfect place to explore this starting place. Before the external events get underway, the trip to the airport, the jet-lagged “inserimento” in some strange new now, the protagonist wants something and believes something.

  • She wants to arrive in a novel, exciting, delightful experience.
  • She believes she knows enough / has trusted the right advisors / to lay plans that will deliver that surprise and delight.

Here’s a little example from my 2008 trip to Italy–

 “Cena? Non ce stasera,” the barrista tells us. Dinner will not be served tonight. The little restaurant of the Torre Cambiaso hotel is closed, because this is a Monday.

This means there really WILL be no dinner, because the nearest restaurant is so far down the mountain that the cost of the taxi alone would equal a dinner.

We have arrived at this baronial-estate-turned-hotel high on a promontory overlooking Genoa, and we are in the kind of personal low that predictably overtakes anyone who’s been in transit more than 24 hours and has been told there will be no dinner.

I had wanted to cushion the landing from a transatlantic flight, and (mis) believed that my knowledge of Italian culture trumped the several negative reviews on Trip Advisor of the Torre Cambiaso. And I got what I deserved… a good story (which I’ll publish here in a few weeks) and a comeuppance for my hubris.

Back to Lisa Cron’s Story Genius. As I read, I am finding my approach to memoir writing undergoing a deepening in appreciation for the emotional beats of the story, brought on by the shift from a focus on external structure to internal struggle.

The book itself is annoying for its padded, joke-y style. I’ll end with a quote from GoodReads reviewer Rebecca Renner: “…a little bit of really stellar advice almost eclipsed by the rest of the junk surrounding it. My advice? If you read this, check it out from the library. Read pages 35-123 and skip the rest.” That’s what I’m doing and hey, it’s working for me.

Writing prompt: Send me YOUR stories of inserimento! Submission guidelines here.

Posted in Book review, Writing prompt | Leave a comment

A Guatemalan Inserimento

Last week I called for your travel “inserimento” stories–settling-in tales about arriving in a new location for the first time. Several of you have responded, so here come the stories! – Sarah

By “WanderN Wayne” Hammerstrom

As WanderNWayne, people assume my wandering travel is directionless, without destination or arrival. Lewis Carroll’s Cheshire Cat tells Alice in Wonderland, “If you don’t know where you’re going, any road’ll take you there.” Anywhere and somewhere are wonderful travel locations discovered by random wandering, but I often need to go to a specific destination, and that’s when unintended adventures begin.

I had volunteered to help at a rural school in Livingston, Guatemala, approximately 150 miles from my location in Guatemala City. Google mapped my northeastward route with public transportation: bus to Copan, in Honduras, for a 3-day exploration of ancient Mayan ruins, then bus to Puerto Barrios, Guatemala, where I would have to take a boat to Livingston, which is a water-only-access community adjacent to the Caribbean shore. My itinerary was made with good intention, but like the crumbled Mayan ruins I had finished exploring at my first stop, Copan, the schedule and route quickly fragmented.

I nearly missed the hotel shuttle that took me to my second, connecting bus. My limited Spanish vocabulary is sufficient for making small-talk, ordering a meal, a beer, or a place to sleep, but not for navigating details like bus routes and schedules. When I didn’t hear my destination announced, I assumed that shuttle wasn’t going where I was. Wrong, my destination was en route to the final stop.

After 15 miles, the shuttle driver assisted me, his geographically confused passenger, onto the bus going to Puerto Barrios. To reduce my continued anxiety, I calmly walked the isle past local commuters as an experienced world traveler, who carries his personal belongings in a backpack. My confidence returned, and soon was sharing songs on my phone with adjacent passengers in broken English and Spanish conversation. Music can bridge cultural gaps and languages.

My musical reverie was interrupted later by a bus assistant silently waving me to bring my backpack to the front of the bus where I was unexpectedly let out at an unmarked, rural transfer point. Alone. Somewhere or anywhere, but not at a busy bus terminal. There was no sign or indication of being an official bus stop, only a metal bench placed on the sandy roadside. Two people came to stand with me, assuring me that this was the route to Puerto Barrios.

A rural gas station in Guatemala, photo by WanderNWayne

A 15-passenger van, already filled with perhaps 20 people, stopped to load the three of us onto the front seat with the driver; my pack pressing upon my lap. Uncomfortably, we rode silently through the hot afternoon sunshine. The van driver asked me where I was going and I simply stated, “the port of Puerto Barrios,” because I didn’t want to try describing a destination I knew nothing about. He nodded his head and continued erratically swerving around slower vehicles and driving on pedestrian sidewalks whenever left-lane passing was unavailable. His route wouldn’t take me directly to the boat dock I needed, so later he stopped the van and motioned to the left as a direction to the port. Hefting my backpack, I exited the van and walked in that direction as dusky shadows were beginning to conceal my destination.

In darkness, a small boat filled and slipped quietly into the busy shipping lanes of the port. Mine wouldn’t depart until a number of paying passengers made the voyage financially viable. My arrival in Livingston, by boat from Puerto Barrios, took more than an hour of listening to slapping waves against the hull, looking at residential lights on the shore, and hoping we’d see, or be seen, by other vessels on the black water.

At journey’s end, I was both exhausted and stimulated by the 5-day adventure that took me well out of my language and location comfort zones.

 

© 2017 Wayne Hammerstrom

Wayne Hammerstrom has been a lifelong traveler who now wanders (WandrNWayne) serendipitously on journeys near and far. He lives in Madison, Wisconsin.

Posted in Guest writer, Writing prompt | Leave a comment

A Southern Indiana “Inserimento”

Inserimento in Italian means “settling in.”

It describes the process travelers go through when arriving in a new location. it happens at the beginning of the trip, and again with each change to a new locale. Inserimento is that gateway between the transition and the new “here and now.”

It is equivalent to the Hero’s Journey step of the gateway (“he finally crosses the threshold between the world he is familiar with and that which he is not”) or, if inserimento goes badly, the beginning of tests, allies, enemies (“out of his comfort zone, the Hero is confronted with an ever more difficult series of challenges he must overcome on the journey towards his ultimate goal.”)

As I wrote in Write Your Travel Memoirs (shameless plug), “How do you sync up with the place you’ve reached? What is its story, and what is your place in it? When expectations crash into reality, how do you handle the impact?…On a short vacation there’s a lot riding on inserimento.”

In my last post, I invited you to send my travel stories. How about we share tales of  inserimento? Here’s mine.

 

I went to Indiana over the 4th of July weekend for a reunion with my closest friends from college. These people are my chosen family, dearer to me than life itself, and we haven’t all been together in one place since roughly 1978. Thanks to the miracle of social media we’ve stayed in touch, and were able to align on staying at a lake cottage down in the hollows of Brown County, Indiana, not far from Bloomington where we hung around Indiana University all those years ago.

Before I could reach the calm still center of that lake cottage vacation, I had a lot of inserimento to get through.

My route was circuitous, a plan designed to get me there with time to do some necessary work on the way instead of behind the steering wheel for the 7+ hour drive. I took a bus to O’Hare airport where I caught a flight to Cincinnati. There Friend Marty and his wife would pick me up as they passed through en route from West Virginia to Bloomington.

Arriving in O’Hare, my troubles began. The airline wouldn’t let me carry on my carry-on bag. A short two hours later, waiting for it at the baggage carousel in Cincinnati, texting with Marty waiting in the cell-phone lot, my iPhone went “brick.” Dead to the world. I had my laptop–but its battery had run down to zero while working during the flight.

Then I noticed my flight had cleared the monitor–no bag. And no contacts. Everything was on those devices.

I went to the customer service desk, got the delayed-bag report started, used the nice man’s phone to call my husband back home and have him look up Marty’s number, then call Marty with the update. The nice baggage man promised United would forward the bag, even though my destination was over 2 hours and a state away. Marty came, I met his wife Diane for the first time, and off we went.

That’s about the time I realized the asthma inhaler I need twice daily was in that delayed bag.

We arrived in Bloomington about 5pm, went to the house of  Friend Donna and her sweetie Tom, and I explained my dilemma. “The bag might make it yet tonight,” I hoped. But Tom insisted, “The stress of worrying about it could bring on an asthma attack. I want you to have that inhaler,” proving to be a take-charge, take-care kind of guy. We drove to Bedford 20 minutes away to fill the prescription.

That evening, I opened the bag I’d picked up at the pharmacy. Wrong inhaler.

In my panic (I am surprisingly flappable when plans go awry, to my own dismay) I had told the pharmacist the name of my rescue inhaler, not my daily maintenance drug. I spent an uncomfortable night worrying about when I would stop being able to breathe. In the morning, Tom went back for the right inhaler. In my Hero’s Journey, I had found my ally.

By noon the next day my bag still hadn’t left Cincinnati. We left in several cars for the lake. Donna gathered some hotel mini personal products for me and took me to Target to pick up a bathing suit, coverup, and hat. We arrived at the cottage, opened the window to chase the mustiness out, changed into bathing suits and Inserimento was over. I had everything I needed–and my friends.

 

Soon the rest of the “family” arrived–Victor,  Rick, Colette. We welcomed their “plus-ones”–spouses/lovers and Colette’s sister Suzie, whose urge to return to Indiana had set this whole Rube Goldberg machine of a reunion in motion.

Then the delight of downtime enveloped us. The weakest whisper of a cell signal reached down in that valley, and I used it to tell United “forget delivering my bag, I’ll just pick it up on my way back.”

We powered down and story-told instead. The convoluted tale of how we all met, the combinations and recombinations since, co-creating the myth of our shared past.

And so passed several days. We migrated and morphed in small groups conversing on the deck, down on the dock, and in the water hanging out on our swim noodles. In the Hero’s Journey, we had reached Reward. (“After defeating the enemy, surviving death and finally overcoming his greatest personal challenge, the Hero emerges a stronger person and often with a prize.”) As I wrote in Write Your Travel Memoirs (shameless plug, now available for Kindle and iBook), “If insertion goes well, you are living a new life you were always meant for.” I only wish I could have stayed there a whole summer, living the life my friends and I were always meant for.

But for the Hero, the journey has a return leg. He must make it through more ordeals to return to the Ordinary World, bearing the Elixir that “represents three things: change, success and proof of his journey.” For me it was back to Cincinnati, reunion with my bag, a flight and a bus and a short drive to home. My other home, because in my heart, like Rick and Ilsa have Paris in Casablanca, we’ll always have that lake.

 

Now, send me YOUR stories of inserimento! Submission guidelines here.

– Sarah White

 

 

 

Posted in Sarah's memoir, Writing prompt | 2 Comments

Let’s have some true travel stories, well told!

I have travel coming up on my calendar–Indiana to see college friends over the 4th of July, then Halifax for grad school residency in August, followed by some tourism in Nova Scotia…  and after that? Maybe a trip to Oxford, Mississippi to the Southern Foodways Alliance conference in September, related to my MFA project.

I’m in a suitcase-packing mood!

While I’m traveling hither and yon, help me keep the virtual pages of True Stories Well Told stocked. Send me your travel stories. And if “how to write them” is on your mind, I know a nifty little book that might help… shameless plug. 😉 Write Your Travel Memoirs is now available on Kindle for only $4.99.

So let’s get out of town! Pack up those stories and send them my way. Essays of up to 1500 words accompanied by a photo or two will find a warm welcome here. Find additional submission guidelines here.

To get in the mood, read Mark Blondin’s essay on arriving in San Miguel de Allende–the first day of a six-year expat experience that led to writing At Home Abroad: Today’s Expats Tell Their Stories with his wife Betsy. Click the title in the image below to go to Mark’s essay on Medium.

View story at Medium.com

Posted in Call for action, Guest writer, Writing prompt | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

“Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction” by Jack Hart

Sarah’s Big MFA Adventure began with a book order for three texts, to be read before the residency begins August 6th. The first book I tackled was this one:

Storycraft got me really excited about my writing. What higher praise could I give?

It is a practical book filled with examples, written for an audience of journalists who are experienced at producing true stories about real people and events, for publication, usually on tight deadlines. This isn’t writing to find out what you think, or writing to learn a la William Zinsser. This is effectively using the tools of the writing trade to write better, faster.

The book starts with cogent advice on structure that could save you weeks of work repairing bad drafts, and returns to go deeper on structure after a tour of basic components like point of view, voice, scene, character, action, and dialogue.

I particularly appreciated Hart’s parsing of narrative nonfiction into several specific forms: reporting, story narratives, explanatory narratives, and “other.” That last category contains vignettes, tick-tocks, bookend narratives, personal essays that “take an idea for a walk”, and issue essays like Michael Pollan’s New York Times Magazine article “An Animal’s Place” that grew into The Omnivore’s Dilemma.

My favorite line in the book is “give structure its due.” Hart backs that up with a quote from John McPhee, who says outlining is essential to his process. “Going through all that creates the form and the shape of the thing. It also relieves the writer, once you know the structure, to concentrate each day on one thing. You know right where it fits.”

It didn’t hurt that Hart frequently referenced my favorite writing instructor Jon Franklin, author of Writing for Story. If you’ve ever heard me talk about the complication, three developments, and a resolution–that’s Franklin’s infallible advice on structure.

Being written for journalists, the book reports the evolution of this genre from the “New Journalism” of the 1960s-70s pioneered by Tom Wolfe, Hunter Thompson, Gay Talese, and the like. Hart takes a dim view of their emphasis on the subjective perspective. His chapter on ethics points us toward what I’ve heard referred to as “the nonfiction contract” (although Hart doesn’t use that term), a hallmark of today’s creative nonfiction (the term currently in vogue). In that contract with readers, the author’s challenge is to portray the world accurately, without indulging in speculation, compositing of characters, collapsing of time/space, exaggeration, etc. “Develop an ethical habit of mind,” Hart counsels. “When a story idea takes shape, the first questions should measure the idea against its ethical implications… Question everything with the same tough intensity that a district attorney brings to bear on a criminal defendant.”

The fact that the book is written for journalists means it reads a little differently than the many “how to write your memoir” books I’ve collected. Many in this genre offer writing craft tips in the same vein, but Storycraft is to those what a master class is to a weekend workshop. The topic list is the same, but the instruction goes much deeper.

At the same time I was chowing down Storycraft I was drafting a 4000-word sample essay about my MFA project, a company history of Glory Foods drawn from interviews with one of the founding partners. I literally felt my brain expanding as I swallowed chapters whole, then immediately tried to apply what I was learning to what I was writing. Each draft grew stronger under Jack Hart’s specific, practical advice.

Would you benefit from reading this book? That depends on your intentions for your writing. If you have one life story you plan to tell, for an audience of family and friends, there are easier little how-to-write-memoir books I’d point you to. The Memoir Project by Marion Roach Smith is one of my favorites, (reviewed on Trues Stories Well Told back in 2011).

But if, like me, you want to deepen and clarify what you know, to learn terminology for things you’ve sensed but never been able to put into words,to take your nonfiction writing to a new level, to boy oh boy is this a great guide!

 

Posted in Book review | Leave a comment