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I’ve just discovered the site Skillshare– a place where you can learn (or teach!) about any subject from photography to writing to cooking.  There are two levels of membership:  one is free, and you can choose to take free classes or pay a fee for classes that are not free.  The second is a 9.95 monthly fee and all the classes are free. 

I joined after seeing Susan Orlean tweet about a class she’s teaching on Creative Nonfiction.  Sold! As a staff writer at The New Yorker, and publisher of nonfiction titles such as The Orchid Thief, she is the perfect person to teach creative nonfiction.  This is probably my favorite genre, both as a reader and a writer.  

I just began the class but am super excited.  Squeee! 

I mentioned in an earlier post that there were several books from the past decade that changed me as a writer. Books that turned my head to a new direction.  Books that showed me I could write the book I wanted to write.

The memoir fits into the category of literary or creative nonfiction.  Prior to 2000, I hated biographies/autobiographies due to the flat chronological narratives, the factual and cold writing, the lifelessness of the genre.  Prior to 2000, I’d read a few holocaust memoirs, diaries, but did not dare venture further.  Thankfully, that changed ten years ago.

I’ll begin with Dave Eggers.  Now I know from personal conversations and from reading reviews of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius that not everyone loves this book.  Some have said the writing is self aggrandizing and self serving, and that Eggers does a lot of annoying name dropping.  True, there are parts of the book that I could have done without– namely, the interview for the Real World.  I skipped it entirely.  Yes the book has it’s flaws, as many books do.  HOWEVER:  during the entirety of my reading of this book, I had NO idea whether it was a true story or if it was fiction.  When I found, after finishing the book, that it was a memoir, I was incredulous.  A non-fiction narrative that reads like fiction?  I ate it up.  I wanted more.

AHWOSG was the book that really showed me I could write the book I wanted to write:  a narrative that was non-linear, creative, and went where I wanted it to go, without concern for convention or chronology or any other constrictions.  No, my memoir is not anything like his, nor does it read in the same way.  But this was the spark, the catalyst. This book was a platform of sorts for me.   Shortly after reading Eggers’ book, the film Girl, Interrupted was released.  I didn’t read the book until years later, in grad school.  Another heavy influence on my own memoir, due to Kaysen’s matter-of-fact style, and her ability to talk about very labile, tense situations with seeming calmness.  I also loved the kind of shock value held by the publishing of her own medical records:  not so much bragging as documenting.  This book reminds me of how truly new modern psychology is, and how treatment of mental illness changed drastically in just 100 years.  This book did not have the emotional impact as, say One Flew Over the Cuckoo’s Nest does, but it is stark and bare and revealing.

Then came an onslaught of non-fiction that just bowled me over.  Maus changed me as well– not as a writer, but as a person.  I love how Spiegelman took his parents’ Holocaust experience and put it in such a non-conventional form, and how doing so made the narrative even stronger than could be imagined.  Powerful.  Had I any artistic talent, I would next have drawn out my own memoir as well.

On the heels of this, I was introduced to another cartoonist, Marjane Satrapi, author of Persepolis. This woman is UNbelievable.  I saw her speak early in 2009:  she was smart, witty, exuberant.  And yes, I DID stand in line to get her autograph.  She was just lovely.  And her story, amazing.  A fantastic book (and animated film as well).

On the recommendation of a friend (thanks again, Marjorie!), I also read Susan Orlean’s much touted and talked of book The Orchid Thief.  I really did not think I would be interested in this book; it sat on my shelf for some time before I actually read it.  I’m not sure if it’s because it was a non-fiction book about orchids, or the fact that it was about (or, at least, I assumed it was about) orchids.  A non-fiction book about plants.  (As opposed to fictionalized books about plants??)   I had read some of Michael Pollan’s Botany of Desire and found it appealing, but… still.  A book on plants.  I really did not think I would be engaged.

Ha.  Now is the time that all of you who have read The Orchid Thief can laugh at me.  I really had no idea what I was in for.  I was really stunned by all the information and history of the orchid; I was amazed at all the varieties and names and the lengths that collectors will go to.  The smuggling.  The thieving.  The money involved.  Not to mention the characters involved.  And the history of Florida and the swampland.  I’ve had many obsessions and while orchids have never been one, I  felt I had been immersed into a world in which it could have been a possibility.

This was a decade full of books that changed me as a writer.  What were yours?

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