Category Archives: Blog

Approaching Creative Nonfiction

Posted by Alison DiCesare, Creative Non-Fiction Head for Issue 10.1

When I began my studies in creative writing, I had a solid grasp on fiction and poetry as genres with specific rules and expectations – I had never heard of creative nonfiction. I had heard of memoirs, of course, and academic essays, but it had never occurred to me that nonfiction could really be creative. Since then, it has become one of my favorite genres to work with, and I understand that it has limitless possibilities. I know many fellow writers, especially students, also aren’t familiar with the genre, so I’m going to attempt here to introduce you to the possibilities of creative nonfiction as well as give you some tips on how to approach writing it yourself.

Creative nonfiction, at first glance, can seem restrictive; if everything in an essay or story must be true, how can a writer really be creative? Or what if you don’t have any inherently dramatic or profound stories to tell? While there are certainly people who can glide by on the uniqueness of their experiences alone, you don’t have to be the most interesting person who ever lived to write compelling nonfiction. There is a great amount of debate about how much bending or changing of the truth is too much for creative nonfiction, but many writers will champion telling a compelling narrative over a story being strictly and entirely factual. Memoirist David Mura, for example, frames the issue by saying “The line between memoir and fiction still did not seem clear. But the line between dull and interesting writing? That was a line I wanted to cross.” In Mura’s book, Turning Japanese, he not only rearranges and omits personal events, he also writes scenes about his parents’ and grandparents’ childhoods. Even with these creative liberties, it is still decidedly nonfiction.

This argument about truth also extends into the use of different forms for creative nonfiction. Often nonfiction involves research and facts, like academic essays, but that’s not all you can do with the genre. The narrative essay – which makes up most of our submissions at Gandy Dancer – often aims at a more personal truth, a subjective truth. Writer Gwendolyn Paradice has talked about the clash between strict nonfiction expectations and the subjective truth by discussing how her disability impacts her reality. Her disability shapes her reality, and to her that reality is more important than if other people would call it the truth. She supports speculative nonfiction as a form that allows space to capture her own experience, “a liminality wherein a writer is not concerned with binaries of truth and un-truth, writing that eschews ‘perhapsing’ in favor of drawing on the speculative aspect of speculative fiction, which for me, produces nonfiction more representative of who I am as a disabled person.” Another popular creative nonfiction form is the hermit crab essay, which create similarly flexible spaces by borrowing form from other types of writing like recipes or obituaries or anything else you can think of in order to shape a piece. Form can be an incredibly useful tool in crafting creative nonfiction because it can build upon the content through the context of presentation, just like metaphors use comparison to create new meaning.

I asked SUNY Geneseo Professor Sonya Bilocerkowycz to give some advice about getting started, and she said, “I think it’s helpful to consider the form of the literary essay, and especially the etymology of that word ‘essay,’ which comes from the French verb essayer, meaning to try or to attempt. Therefore, an essay is an attempt at understanding, at communicating some truth. The literary essay invites us to explore our most burning questions, but it does not require that we produce answers for all of those questions. Rather, the emphasis is on the attempt itself. So, what is a question that keeps you up at night? Something that obsesses you, though you don’t understand why? That’s probably a good place to start.”

At Gandy Dancer, our consensus is that what you write about is not nearly as important as writing with purpose and focus. Before starting a creative nonfiction piece, it’s always useful to consider what you’re trying to say with your piece that goes deeper than the literal story. If you have a clear purpose in your writing, it’s a lot less likely to read as aimless or be bogged down by superfluous details. Almost any form, voice, or style can work in creative nonfiction, so it’s important to put thought into how your language can build your meaning.

Anyone has the potential to produce a great creative nonfiction piece if it comes from a passionate place in the writer. To go back to Professor Bilocerkowycz’s wisdom, “The creative nonfiction essayist is kind of like a child who asks a grownup why the sky is blue, and then refuses to be satisfied with the answer.” It can be hard to start writing, so next time you’re staring at a blank document waiting for inspiration to strike, find that inner child and ask them a question.

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You Miss All the Shots You Don’t Take: Literary Opportunities Available to You in College

Posted by Liz Roos, Fiction Head for Issue 10.1

“You miss all the shots you don’t take,” is a bit of cliché, overused advice—but I wanted to begin this post with that advice because it is a phrase that I have repeated to myself again and again when sending an application to an internship, or an email to a professor, or a Google form to a writing contest. A key addition to that advice is, “If there’s no detriment, then why not?” If there’s no submission fee to submit that short story to that literary journal, then why not submit? The only cost is your free time—which is a precious commodity in itself. However, it has been my experience that the fifteen minutes it might take you to submit an application or send an email is worth the experiences and connections that might come out of that application or email.

 

During my time at SUNY Geneseo, I have been a remote literary agent intern, creative writing teaching assistant, remote editorial assistant intern, English honor society chairholder, writing tutor, student publishing assistant, and currently, for our wonderful Gandy Dancer, a head fiction editor. I have won three awards and an honorable mention for two short stories, a screenplay, and a creative nonfiction essay respectively. And after doing all of that I have learned a valuable lesson: the reality of it is, really, that passion, determination, and professionalism will get you a long way. Show the people you speak to that you care for your work.

That was a lot of ambiguous advice. Let’s get to the helpful stuff.

The goal of many people who look for opportunities is to beef up their résumés. That was my goal. To start with, many résumés are broken down by education, professional experience, and additional experience. Professional experience includes anything you’ve worked or interned for, and will almost always be extracurricular; like the literary agency internship that I speak about below. Additional experience includes anything you couldn’t be paid for, but contributed to, and can be semi-curricular. I have chosen my literary agency internship to talk about during this post, but what is important is that all of the experiences that I mentioned doing above are available to you as a student as well. While professional experience might be more interesting to your potential employer, all kinds of experience are important to have on you résumé. 

 

 

I interned remotely with Dystel, Goderich & Bourret LLC, a literary agency based in New York City, from August to December, 2020. I was a sophomore, and first learned about the opportunity from a creative writing professor, Professor Kristen Gentry. I highly recommend developing close relationships with your professors; if it weren’t for my connection with Professor Gentry, I would have never learned of the internship. On August 1st, Professor Gentry sent me an email with a link about the application and the internship coordinator—a Geneseo alumni herself, Amy Bishop. The application process was rigorous; after sending in my résumé and cover letter, I was accepted into the next wave of the process and was assigned to read a 300-page manuscript and complete a reader’s report within a set time limit. I did, and sent in the report, and was finally offered the internship position, which I accepted—the only undergraduate out of a group of five. 

I was able to do my internship with Dystel for academic credit; even though the internship was unpaid, I received three credits under the ENGL 395 title. If you are accepted into an unpaid internship as an undergrad, make sure to look up academic credit for your internship, especially if it takes place during a semester. During my time with Dystel, I was assigned rigorous work. This is to be expected of many publishing-related internships. Working from 10:00am to 5:00pm three days a week reading “slush piles” of 20+ query letters to narrow down what queries were good enough to send on to the agents, in addition to reading a 300-page manuscript every week and writing a reader’s report, was a lot of work on top of the courses I was already taking. It is here that passion and determination for what you do comes through; if you aren’t passionate about what you’re doing, it’s hard to do the work.

Hard work, but good work. I learned so much about the field I intended to enter after graduating from Geneseo. I spoke to literary agents who had connections with many large publishing houses, including Simon & Schuster and Penguin Random House. I received master classes on how the publishing industry worked, and what the literary agent’s role was within it. And, looking back on the experience now, it’s funny to think about how I thought applying to this internship was a pipe dream, and that I shouldn’t even bother. It’s also funny to think about how out-of-depth I felt while completing the internship—surrounded by professionalism, the only undergrad among five other more suitable graduate students. But my advice to you is keep on going. Submit that application. Send that email.  You’re not out of your depth; you’re not going to lose anything.

At the bottom of this post I’ve included some links that have helped me find the opportunities that I’ve been able to add to my résumé, including a link to Dystel’s internship webpage. Best of luck!

Literary opportunities available to Geneseo students:

Literary opportunities available to all college students:

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Exploring Writing as Activism through Amanda Gorman’s Poem: “The Hill We Climb”

Photo by Chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff on Flickr

Posted by Hailey Cullen, Poetry Reader for Issue 9.2

On a gloomy January day, before the start of my 2021 Spring Semester at SUNY Geneseo, I sat down to watch the inauguration of Joe Biden. There were many highlights (Michelle Obama’s fabulous monochromatic outfit was one), but I found myself especially moved by Amanda Gorman’s role in the ceremony. America’s first national Youth Poet Laureate, Gorman recited her poem, “The Hill We Climb.”

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Writing with Mental Illness: The Value of Acceptance

Syed Ali Wasif from Flickr

Posted by Anthony Lyon, Fiction Reader for Issue 9.2

This past year, I took a stay in a mental health institution for my severe depression. While I was there, I spent many hours thinking about my life, and talking to others about the crossroads where they had found themselves. How should I continue? I would ask myself. How should I continue when nothing else has worked?

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Victorian Literature: The Genius Beneath the Bias

Photo From Canterbury School of Humanities

Posted by Sarah Sharples, Poetry Reader for Issue 9.2

One of the saddest truths I have had to come to terms with over my literary life is the tainted light in which we tend to view Victorian literature.

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Rejection Is Not Failure: The Necessity of Finding the Right Literary Magazine for You

Posted by Kathryn Capone, Fiction Reader for issue 9.2

The feeling of rejection is not a pleasant feeling. It leaves a person to wonder, “where did I go wrong?” When submitting a piece to a literary magazine, writers are hopeful that their work will be rewarded with publication; rejection only makes them feel like they didn’t do something right and that they have failed. However, it’s important for writers to learn that not every piece is right for just any literary magazine. Researching a literary magazine before submitting a piece is the best way for writers to determine if their work would fit in well with the magazine as a whole.

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The Geneseo Literary Magazine Project

Cover of The Experimentalist, 1955 by Alice Doorley

Posted by Lara Mangino, Creative Nonfiction Reader for Issue 9.2

I’ve been involved in literary magazines at SUNY Geneseo since my freshman year. In fact, I selected Geneseo because it housed two different literary magazines. However, despite being very involved in publications here, I knew so little about their history. Gandy Dancer may have its entire history documented here on our website, but what about MiNT Magazine? What about Opus or Our Time or The Experimentalist? Who is documenting their history? Continue reading

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The 1619 Project: Our Disavowed Ancestry

Credit: https://neaedjustice.org/the-1619-project-resource-page/

Posted by Marissa Filipello, CNF Editor for Issue 9.2

Do you like sugar in your coffee? In your tea? Have you ever thought about where that sugar originated? Today at Domino Sugar’s Chalmette Refinery, sugar is made at a rate of 120 bags a minute, 24 hours a day, seven days a week. But originally this work was done by enslaved Africans working under horrendous conditions. Sugar cane was a heavy crop, that had to be pulled by hand, then immediately ground before spoiling in a day or two. It was sharp to touch and would leave small cuts in enslaved Africans hands when accompanied with perspiration. Sugar became known as ‘White gold,’ as it fueled the wealth of the European and British nations. Yet, it’s rarely acknowledged that the excessive sugar today came at the expense or exploitation of enslaved Africans. This is just one fact of many found in the 1619 Project.

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by | April 28, 2021 · 2:39 pm

Things to Consider When Writing Diverse Characters:

Source: https://www.gandydancer.org/wp-content/uploads/2021/02/writing-1209121_1280.jpg

 

Posted by Sara Devoe, GD Managing Editor for 9.1

When writing fiction, we travel into a world with no limits. The writer is both the navigator and the passenger on a journey to which they may or may not know the destination. This destination most always, though, starts with a character. Most writers of fiction, including professor Rachel Hall with whom I took a workshop focusing specifically on writing characters with, will tell you that plot comes from characterization. A character must want something in order for there to be a story. But this raises the question–how does one go about writing a character? Sometimes, we can mine our lives for characters, but other times, the story calls for a character who is unlike us or who has experienced different things than we have.  Continue reading

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by | February 22, 2021 · 3:26 pm

The Dos and Don’ts of Writing a Cover Letter for Gandy Dancer (and other Literary Magazines)

Image source: https://pixabay.com/photos/red-cakes-flowers-fondant-286197/

Posted by Rebecca Williamson, GD Managing Editor for 9.1

As a fellow writer, I understand that submitting your work can be scary. You’ve probably revised and edited many drafts. You’ve poured countless hours into making sure each word, each punctuation mark, is perfect. All writing, even if it’s fictional, is personal. Now that I’m on the other side of the submission button, I’m recognizing that there’s more to submitting your work than just pressing the button once you have your final draft. One thing that writers need to consider is their cover letter. Continue reading

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