Issue #12, 1999
About the Author: Leaf Seligman
Transforming Terror into Prose
About the Author: Leaf Seligman
Leaf Seligman understands the value in rewrites. "When I first came home and started to write about the reunion, it came out so flat and so boring. It was just awful," she says. "I realized in order to tell this, I had to tell the back story. As Dorothy Allison, my literary hero says, 'if you're not terrified when you're writing you're probably not doing it right'." This piece was terrifying for Seligman to write because she was writing it with the purpose of getting it out in the world. "The challenge of nonfiction is like going below the dream scale. In my conscious mind, I'm going to try and access the stuff I usually try to push down. I think that's what makes it so terrifying. That's when I finally feel like I'm doing it right."
Seligman has only been writing creative nonfiction since 1994, when she began working on a collection of personal essays. Initially she was not interested in writing about herself. She feels her essays and memoirs are about documenting grace, and trying to understand the incomprehensible. "It became very important to me in the midst of a very broken world to document the goodness I could experience."
She feels writing creative nonfiction has changed her as a person as well as a writer. "I used to think in order to write a memoir you have to be a real important person. Often we focus on ourselves living in this world. I know what's happening in the world, but I couldn't tell you if my neighbor down the street had a heart attack. The very best creative nonfiction tells us about stuff I never would have known about. The more personal writing that we do lets me learn what's happening in the other side of the duplex."
Seligman's favorite writers include Lauren Slater and Lucy Greeley, "Their work makes me go, 'Whoa, this is so honest it makes me uncomfortable.' It grabs me by the throat in the best sense." When reading nonfiction, she looks for whether there has been a transformation, either in the writer or herself as the reader. "I remember when reading Lauren Slater's "Welcome to my Country," thinking, 'oh she is so brave'. Sometimes you just have to be braver than you are. It's a hard decision as a writer to be brave and disclosive, but not to say things just for shock value. She often tells her students, 'we all have stories in us that need to be written, but it doesn't necessarily need to be read.'"
One point she tries to get across to her students about writing essays is the story has to serve an idea. "What does it serve my reader, and what is it I need to work out by putting pen to paper? A poet friend once told me 'you can't make art out of pain on the same day'. I find that really helpful because when I am going through emotional pain there is a voice in my head that says 'if I could just get a poem or a story out of this'. You can pour it in your journal and in two years you might mine it. I find that helpful because I work with a lot of students who have very painful stuff to write about, but it's too raw. You have to let things compost in order to serve the reader."
"As a writer I like to avoid the overuse of figurative language. What I love best is to make associations, to make connections, but arrange them so I don't overwhelm." She also believes crossing the genres is good for writing. "If you want to be a better prose writer, write as much poetry as you can, and likewise. Writing across genres strengthens any writer's ear."
Seligman has a good ear for dialogue and can remember most conversations. "Dialogue is a trust process between the reader and the writer. Even if the word order isn't exact, I think what's important is to honor someone else's voice. I want to use other people's words as responsibly as I can. As a reader, if the dialogue doesn't ring true, the tale probably won't ring true." When her mother read this piece, she told Seligman, "That's not exactly how it happened, but that's not really important. All that matters is that is how you remember it."
Seligman advises writers to find personal editors. "I couldn't exist as a writer without two or three trusted writer friends. Sometimes it takes other people to tell you what your writing is about."
Criticism is often hard to take, but Seligman says, "the sooner you get a thick skin, the better. We just want desperately to hear "oh that's fabulous", but I would not have gotten better as a writer without people saying "Ok, Leaf this does work, but this doesn't."
She uses her old work as a gauge on how she improves as a writer. "When I read my early work, I realize they were really broth, not stew. It's really humbling and gratifying to reread something six months later and see how you could make it better."
Some final thoughts from Seligman: "Whatever is most pressing will scratch at the door and it will tell you when to let it in, and out. Write what compels you most and find the time and space to do it. Make everything you write a love letter to the world."
The Five 'R's of Creative Nonfiction
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