A Failure to Express Myself

How often in life do you get an idea that you can’t express verbally or in writing?  Often a flash of insight will feel whole and obvious, but like dreams, when you try to explain them their logic falls apart.  Expressing one’s thoughts is hard.  Finding words to explain how you feel is even harder.  Whether talking with your soul mate, best friend, or writing an essay for a bunch of unknown and unseen strangers, putting the exact words together is major work.  It takes persistence.

How often have you not said anything rather than struggle to find the words?  How often have you seen a fantastic movie that moved you at a very deep level, but when your friends asked you about it, all you could say was, “I loved it.”

That happens to me all the time.  And since I blog I’m always trying to express an idea that feels obvious to me but one I fail to give whole to my readers, or even to myself when I read what I’ve written months later, after I’ve forgotten the original inspiration.

What we have here is a failure to communicate, as a line in an old movie goes.

Friday I read a series of articles in Scientific American about new educational techniques and my initial feeling was a kind of revulsion.  I immediately jotted down some notes, and yesterday I wrote an essay about how I felt.  The results aren’t what I intended.  That essay was too generalized.  If I tried again, how could I approach it differently?

The first essay doesn’t convey the revulsion of my initial reaction.  I had A Clockwork Orange kind of image of educators forcing kids to learn.  I imagined teaching machines that literally forced data into children’s minds, overstuffing their little heads until they were ready to puke words.  At what point does K-12 education become cruel and unusual punishment, or even brainwashing?

Part of my initial reaction was to ask:  Are we requiring kids to learn too much?

The secondary reaction to that initial reaction is:  What is enough education?  What information should everyone have at immediate recall to make them a good and useful citizen?

Another part of my reaction is personal experience.  I read a lot of books.  I’ve read thousands of books, and tens of thousands of essays and watched thousands of documentaries, and one of the things I feel at 61 is I haven’t processed that information very efficiently, and maybe learning about reality could be more systematic and concise.

We can never know everything there is to know.  Not even close.  But K-12 and undergraduate curriculums try awful hard to give students a good approximation of all knowledge.  And part of my gut reaction to those articles in Scientific American was a criticism of not how we teach, but what we teach.  But to get into that topic would require writing a book.

I guess the feeling I wanted to communicate whole about my reaction to what I read was this:  Can our education system teach more by teaching less?  Can’t we teach kids to be self-educators, to become highly efficient autodidactics that are hungry to learn on their own?  Shouldn’t we reevaluate what the standard curriculum should be so that it’s a toolkit for learning and not a vast database?

JWH – 7/24/13

Why Blog?

This will be my 671st post.  I must be approaching or just passing my millionth word written, so I think it’s time to evaluate why I blog.  When I started I wrote whatever I felt like and didn’t worry if anyone read what I wrote.  Sometimes I’d ask my wife Susan or a friend to read something, but for the most part I considered my blog a diary that I left around opened.  I’m interested in a lot of things my friends aren’t, so I used blogging as an outlet for discussing various topics I had no one to talk about with.  I guess that might mean I use blogging as kind of therapy.  Blogging is also a great way to practice writing, organize thoughts, and learn to research – sort of junior journalism.  All of these various purposes are great so long as I don’t think too much about being read.

During the last year I’ve been getting more readers.  Mostly by accident.  Sometimes I write about a subject that people are researching on Google, like encrypting files for Dropbox, or science fiction books from the 1950s.  I have a few friends that actually follow what I write, but you can count them on one hand.  I do have 468 followers on WordPress, but I think that’s mostly due other bloggers wanting to attract readership themselves.  But it does make me think about what I write.  If I hit the publish button and hundreds of people get an email then what I write can be an annoyance or entertainment.  That thought has made me delete most of the posts I’ve written lately.

My friend Annie has even been critiquing my posts, with comments like, that one rambled on for far too long, or you didn’t stick to your point, or that topic was boring.  I don’t disagree with her assessments either.  If I’m going to write something people will be reading then I have a responsibility to make it worth reading.  And this presents some problems.

There are three kind of readers on the internet:  browsers, subscribers and searchers.   Some people get to my pages because writers link to me, others subscribe and get everything I write, but most people read what I’ve written because it’s something they Googled or Binged.  Just look at my stats.  (You might need to click on the image to make it large enough to read.)

stats

I get the most  hits for writing about something specific, like a Toshiba netbook or LG Blu-ray player.  But I also write about a lot of topics few people are interested in.

stats2

Most of my favorite essays I’ve written get few readers.  That’s because they are personal and personal essays don’t get hits.

If I want lots of readers then I’d need to write about something that lots of people want to read about.  Well, that doesn’t actually work either.  Writing about what everyone else is writing about gets damn few hits.  The key to getting search engine hits is to write about something few people have written about, but enough people want to read about.

The key to get subscriber hits is to always write about a specific topic and find fans for that topic.

I don’t do ether.  I write about whatever interests me at the moment.  That’s good for me but bad for regular readers, and gets few search engine hits.

What I need to do is decide what kind of writer I want to be – at least when it comes to blogging.

JWH – 6/25/13

Novel Ambitions

When we were young we’d all dream of growing up to be in the movies, or rocking out on stage, or flying F-16s, or writing great novels, or rocketing to Mars – the kind of careers that look exciting when we don’t know much about how the world works.  Few kids achieve their childhood ambitions.  Most of us get regular nine-to-five jobs, and just daydream about the ways we’d really like to be spending our hours.

I always wanted to be a science fiction novelist.  Because I loved reading science fiction books I assumed I’d love writing them.  As a teen I didn’t know just how wrong that logic was.  I should have wished to grow up and become a professional reader.  Even as a teen I knew kids who compulsively wrote stories.  I didn’t, but I assumed one day I’d get an urge and start.  I should have known better – the only time I wrote was when I took a creative writing class in high school or college and deadlines forced me to write.

Around 1971 or 72 I went to my first science fiction convention in Kansas City, The Mid-America Con.  I was about 20 at the time and I met a lot of writers there.  But the one that impressed me the most was this kid who looked about my age who told me he had just sold his second story.  He was George R. R. Martin.  I was so impressed and jealous at this very young writer.  I felt like Comet Jo from Empire Star by Samuel R. Delaney, when he first met Ni Ti.  Comet Jo was a naïve rube with dreams that met a guy that had already done everything Comet Jo’s dreamed of doing. 

That was a revelation at that convention – writers write.  And if you want to grow up to write giant bestsellers you’ve got to start young and practice.  Delany was also a writing prodigy, and he dealt with the subject somewhat in Empire Star.

empire-star 

Those early experiences meeting writers should have convinced me to stop daydreaming about writing, but fantasy ambitions aren’t that easily destroyed.  And wanting to be a novelist is different.  Some people don’t start writing until late in life, so I figured I had plenty of time.  If I had wanted to be a football player, fire fighter or astronaut, I’d have known I was over the hill when I turned thirty.  Now that I hope to retire next year, my old fantasy ambition is returning.  I’ll finally have the time.  Probably lack of time wasn’t the real reason I never wrote, and it will be brutally revealed to me soon.  I have to be self-aware enough to recognize that wanting to write and not might be my natural state for my whole life.  But not giving up also seems to be a trait that never goes away either.

Lately, I’ve been thinking about what it means to be a novelist, the grittily specific job details.  I came across “Good Writing vs. Talented Writing” by Maria Popova over at Brain Pickings.  She quotes About Writing by Samuel R. Delany,

Either in content or in style, in subject matter or in rhetorical approach, fiction that is too much like other fiction is bad by definition. However paradoxical it sounds, good writing as a set of strictures (that is, when the writing is good and nothing more) produces most bad fiction. On one level or another, the realization of this is finally what turns most writers away from writing.

Talented writing is, however, something else. You need talent to write fiction.

Good writing is clear. Talented writing is energetic. Good writing avoids errors. Talented writing makes things happen in the reader’s mind — vividly, forcefully — that good writing, which stops with clarity and logic, doesn’t.

This is very telling. The obvious reason why I’m not a writer is the lack the talent.  But what is talent?  Is it a gene?  Is it being born with a muse?  I am reminded of a book, Talent Is Overrated: What Really Separates World-Class Performers from Everybody Else by Geoff Colvin.  Talent is mostly hard work.  If I lack talent its because I’m lazy.  But we also know that some people work very hard and never succeed, even if they put in their 10,000 hours of practice.

But even this isn’t the issue I want to explore.  What skills are really required to write a novel?  Every time I try to write fiction I hit a brick wall.  Writing fiction requires having imagination the size of Jupiter.  I don’t know if you have ever wanted to write novels, plays or movies, but have you ever thought about what goes into creating a great story?   I’ll use movies and television shows for example over books because they are more familiar to people.

Let’s think about of some of the poplar shows on TV like Breaking Bad or The Game of Thrones and dissect how they are put together, and what makes them successful.  Both stories are incredibly addictive.  I believe each has all the elements that make for great fiction.  Maybe not Shakespeare great, but great for seducing people into their story worlds.

Story World

The first aspect of great fiction is creating the story world.  This goes way beyond setting.  And I’m not talking about the world building of fantasy and science fiction, but the creating of a whole fictional reality.  Even when a story is realistic like Breaking Bad, or To Kill a Mockingbird, its creating a whole story world, time and place, with endless defining details.  As much as we’d like to believe that To Kill a Mockingbird is an accurate portrayal of the past, it isn’t.  Every written story involves two imaginations, the writer and the reader.  With movies and television shows, the director, the actors, set designers, cinematographers, costume makers, special effects wizards, also add their imaginations to creating the story world.  But with novels and short stories, the author suggests everything in words, and the readers bring their own imaginations to decode their version of the story world.  Watching The Game of Thrones, meanings most everything has been envisioned for the audience, but readers of the book all imagine something different.

The reason why the Harry Potter books are so great is because of the complete story world that J. K. Rowling created.

If you ever think about becoming a writer, do this experiment.  Each time you read a book or watch a movie, try and list everything that had to be invented by the imagination of the writer.  Most stories involves thousands of imaginative decisions, and stories like The Game of Thrones or the Harry Potter books, involve tens of thousands of mental creations, maybe even hundreds of thousands.  These novels run 100,000-200,000 words, or more.  Thinking tunic or sword are small decisions, but thinking up the details of Quidditch takes some real work.

Characters

It’s hard to say which comes first, characters or story world.  Often writers create characters that generate their story worlds.  Other writers start with the story world first and then create the characters that belong in that story world.  Either way, creating characters is very hard work.  And the best stories seem to have lots of characters.  Would The Game of Thrones or Breaking Bad stories be so compelling if they only followed a handful of main characters?  Walter White is a tremendous creation, but the depth of his character works because of his relationship with Skyler, Jesse, Hank, Walter Jr., Saul, Gus, and so on.  Think about every detail that went into creating Gustavo Fring?  Does thinking up those kinds of character details come from genes, muses or what?  Most great writers are great observers of people.

One of the hardest things to create for your characters is their dialog.  Bad writers make all their characters talk like themselves.  Great writers make all their characters sound like diverse people from all over the world.  Listen to audio books, especially the ones that have narrators who do voices for each character.  It’s not just the sound of the voice, or the accent, but how each character phrases their words.

Each character has to have their own background and history, but more important than that, each character has to have their own motivations and desires.  When we read novels generally they are driven by one or two people’s stories.  But every character that walks into a scene has their own agenda.  Bad writers create minor characters to show off the main characters, but great writers create minor characters that want to make the story their own.  Every character should be trying to steal the scene for themselves, because in reality, every person thinks they are the center of the universe.  Nobody wants to be a red shirt.

Plot

Plot is what drives the story forward.  Will Walter make enough money to leave his family secure before he dies of cancer?  Who will take the Iron Throne from Joffrey Baratheon?

Writing a plot requires imagining a beginning, middle and end.  However, modern binge worthy TV shows have no end, but are sophisticated soap operas.  Readers want a satisfying conclusion at the end of the book, even if its part of a series.  Readers love feeling the need to keep turning pages hoping to find out what happens next. 

Standalone stories, like non-series novels, and movies, have plots that lead to a satisfactory resolution of a problem revealed at the beginning of a story.  Soap opera like stories depend on a series of conflicts that get resolved from time to time.  Great stories will bring the story to a climax, and present an epiphany. 

I saw Star Trek Into Darkness yesterday.  It has the same plot every time.  Kirk and Spock play out their now famously cliché character traits while battling a almost impossible-to-beat foe, with all the minor characters also getting to reinforce their now standardize character traits.  And we love this because it reinforces the familiar and nostalgic essence of what we think of as Star Trek.  Sometimes plots involving giving the audience exactly what they want.

On the other hand, new stories must give readers and audiences something they never seen before.  Shows like Breaking Bad, Big Love, Deadwood, Shameless, Girls, etc. find ways to present new and very different plots.  Let’s face it, some of us are very old and have been consuming fiction for a very long time, and getting jaded to routine plotting is all too easy.

Conflict

Even though I greatly admire The Song of Fire and Ice for its story world, I have to nick it for stretching to the story out too long.  It’s one giant potboiler, generating a steady stream of conflicts and cliffhangers.  My favorite character is Arya Stark, who gets involved in one misadventure after the next.  She never seems to get anywhere, but she always has something life threatening to deal with.  But that’s how you keep readers and watches involved.  Characters need conflict to drive them forward in the story, and creating imaginative conflicts is another trait of a good writer.

To me, the masters of fictional conflict are the creators and writers of Breaking Bad.  Not only do they keep their characters busy, but they create original, unpredictable conflicts that we never see coming.  When I think Jesse is going to have a standard shootout with a villain, Walter shows up at the last second and runs the villain over with his car.  The cliché feeling is to want Jessie to kill the guy.  We the audience are aching for Jessie to kill the guy.  And then out of nowhere Walter runs him over.  That’s great plotting and creative conflict resolution.

Summing Up

I don’t know if creating imaginative story worlds, great characters, compelling plots and satisfying conflicts requires an innate talent.   Is it an ability that can be acquired through long study and practice?  Most books are not that creative.  Thousands of novels are published every year that don’t sell or find fans.  Many of them are competently written.  Delany might be right, that good writing is common, but bad, and talented writing is special.  Or it could be all those mundane story tellers just didn’t work hard enough to be distinctive.   Maybe creativity comes after ten rewrites, or twenty.

I feel all the stories I’ve written so far fail because I didn’t push myself hard to enough to be more creative.  I would like to know if I could push myself to work harder would I be more creative?  I have a novel I’m working on now and I feel it doesn’t even achieve 1% of what it should do.  And I have a sick feeling that even if I worked a hundred times harder it might only succeed at the 10% level.  Maybe if I had a natural talent for story telling I could achieve 90% success with far less work.  But I tend to think talented people are just people who wrote dozens of practice novels and earned their skills at faster creativity.

I have two challenges to test.  First, can I learn to write after I retire, when I have more time to work harder?  And second, is it possible for someone in their sixties to become creative late in life?  I’m not delusional, I know I’m in physical and mental decline.  I’ve already decided that writing a novel is too ambitious for this test, and that I should aim for success with short stories.

Since 2002 I’ve had a renaissance with my love of fiction because of Audible.com and audiobooks.  I have discovered that listening is the best way for me to study great writing.  Listening is like having a powerful magnifying glass for studying fiction.  And in the past year, I’ve gone back to studying fiction with eye ball reading.  What I learned from hearing lets me see words in a new way.  The more I study, the more I realize how little I knew about how fiction is put together.  I might have discovered that in my teens if I had actually tried to write fifty or a hundred stories back then.  You can’t understand fiction completely until you write it.

I don’t know if having all my time free is enough to find success at writing fiction.  Whether I succeed or not, the attempt will be a great learning experience.

JWH – 5/27/13

How to Take Notes in the Shower?

For some reason my mind just races in the shower and I get all kinds of good ideas for blog essays while scrub-a-dub-dubbing in the shower.  However, I forget most of them.  I try to hang onto at least one idea, so that after I get out of the shower, dry off, get partly dressed, exercise, get completely dressed, eat breakfast and back at the computer, I can write it down.  Often even that single idea doesn’t make it to the more permanent memory of  my word processor.  I really should learn to type in the nude while wet.

So I did a couple of Google searches, “writing notes in the shower” and “how to write in the shower?”

As you can see, I’m not the only one with this problem of wanting to take notes in the shower.  It seems showering is well known for stimulating ideas for writers.  Karen Woodward made a homemade scuba writing tablet with materials from Staples in “How To Write In The Shower.”  However, Amazon has a ready made Scuba slate that’s cheaper than Karen’s put together solution.  The problem with both solutions is erasing the board.  But one of the customer reviews at Amazon suggested a Mr Clean Magic Eraser, which my wife has been buying lately, erases the slate well.  Amazon also offers a larger Scuba slate.  I ordered the smaller one for $7.78 with free Prime shipping.

The little scuba slate turned out to be good enough for now.  Capturing my thoughts usually only takes 2-3 lines, and the small slate, about the size of of a trade paperback, can handle 4-5 notes on each side.  I write with water streaming all over me and what I’m writing.  Pretty cool.  Problem solved.

However, I noticed there were other good solutions, include Aqua Notes, a waterproof notepad specifically designed for the shower.  It’s $7.00 plus $3.99 shipping at the site for a 40 page pad, or $10 at Amazon.  I’m going to try this next if the slate doesn’t work out in the long run.  This solution could get expensive.  However it has an advantage over the slate in that you can pull off a page and take it to the computer.

I expect the scuba slate to solve my immediate problem, but I’d like more elaborate permanent solution.  I need a system for taking notes all the time, and from any location.  My iPod touch has a good voice recorder app called Recorder.  I used to own an Olympus digital recorder for dictating notes until I rocked on it with my La-Z-Boy.  Digital recorders are great for in the middle of the night note taking, but I wouldn’t want to take one into the shower, or even a steamy bathroom.

But wouldn’t it be cool to have a smart home that constantly listened to me?  Or even talked to me?  Over the years I’ve seen various science fiction movies where houses had AI butlers built into them.  Now wouldn’t that be cool?  Of course I might go crazy talking to my house all the time.  In the future they might have personal robots that I could chat with and they’d take notes, and be my very own Dr. Watson, but I can’t count on that now.

I created this blog to record my thoughts and called it Auxiliary Memory because I wanted to record my thoughts.  I forget too easily, and I’m forgetting more all the time.   I often reread my older blog posts amazed at forgetting ever writing them.  There is even a movement called lifelogging to record everything a person does in their life, see “Lifelogging 101:  How to record your life digitally.”

Gordon Bell and Jim Gemmell wrote a book Total Recall:  How the E-Memory Revolution Will Change Everything.  Bell was a researcher for Microsoft that became the subject of MyLifeBits, an early lifelogging project.

Now, I’m not actually interested in recording my whole life.  I want to record ideas.  I often write in my head thinking I’ll get up and write it all down later, but I don’t.  What I’d really like is a brainstorming recorder.  I just searched “brainstorming recording” on Google and got hits.  See, everything I think about has already been thought of before.  It’s nice to know I’m not the only one with these crazy ideas.

Ultimately I’d like a transparent way to record my thoughts, then mind map them with XMind, research and collect additional information and store that research in Evernote, and finally write it all up in an essay.  Sooner or later some savvy young inventor will invent an app that does all those things at once.

JWH – 9/26/12

Full Body Burden: Growing up in the Nuclear Shadow of Rocky Flats by Kristen Iversen

I’m going to review Full Body Burden by Kristen Iversen in a strange way – by the way the Kristen Iversen taught me to write.  I took her Forms of Creative Nonfiction and Creative Nonfiction Workshop back in 2003, and even then she was telling the class she was working on a book about Rocky Flats, a secret government site near where she grew up, that built nuclear bomb triggers.  I haven’t seen Iversen in all those years but I’ve been waiting for her book.  And it was worth the wait – it’s a disturbing story about seeking the truth – the best kind.

I discovered Full Body Burden was out when my sister-in-law, Natalie Parker-Lawrence, a more recent student of Iversen’s creative nonfiction classes, told me a month ago.  Natalie was so excited about Full Body Burden that she convinced our nonfiction book club to make it our book of the month.  It’s a great book and now I want to convince others to read it, but to review it requires my own personal story.

FullBodyBurden

I had never heard of Creative Nonfiction before taking Iversen’s class.  On our first day of class she had us write 10 minutes about the first memory that came to mind, in a quick in-class writing assignment.  I wrote about fishing on a seawall in Biscayne Bay in Miami when I was 12, while staying with my grandmother.  My grandmother managed an old apartment building populated mostly by retired people and I had found an old fishing tackle box in an apartment I helped clean out.  In the fishing box was a switch-blade knife which I wrote about for my memory exercise.

Now here’s the thing about what I’m writing now.  I can’t accurately remember the exact assignment or words Kristen told us that day.  Nor can I remember exactly what I wrote, nor when I was writing the exercise, was I sure of my memories of that night on the seawall and the knife.  Kristen was using various kinds of writing exercises, memoir, personal essay, travel, etc., to teach us about creative nonfiction.  And there’s a real problem trying to distinguish creative nonfiction from regular nonfiction as a separate genre. 

Creative nonfiction goes beyond reporting the cold facts.  It makes them personal, but it risks the appearance of being subjective about objective reporting.  It pushes the limits of truthful accuracy, to tell the story in such a way, that feels even more true.  I still argue with my sister-in-law Natalie, who got her MFA in Creative Nonfiction about what exactly is creative nonfiction.  I’m a MFA dropout, so I have less authority, but I’m going to give you my take as part of this essay.

I don’t believe a story can be called creative nonfiction unless the story is pushing the boundaries of narrative techniques, otherwise it’s merely nonfiction, the old kind we’ve always been used to.  To understand creative nonfiction, think In Cold Blood by Truman Capote or The Right Stuff by Tom Wolfe, or more recently The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot or The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson.

My hard-to-put-into-words definition of creative nonfiction I acquired from Kristen Iversen is based on how the narrative is told, and I latched onto one particular technique as the defining style of creative nonfiction writing – and that’s when the author puts themselves into the story, and they reveal how they came to write the story as the story is being told.  I’m sure this is an extremely limited definition of creative nonfiction, but it just so happens to be how Full Body Burden is written.

Full Body Burden is a real bargain of a book, because you get two books in one.  First is Kirsten’s memoir of growing up and coming to terms with her alcoholic and distant father, and second, its the history of Rocky Flats, a dirty little skeleton in our government’s closet.  Either story is outstanding on its own.  Each is a compelling read.  Because Kristen grew up next door to Rocky Flats it might seem natural to tell the two stories together, and it totally is.  But in the old days of reporting a story like Rocky Flats, writers worked very hard to be impartial observers.   One of the revealing truths about creative nonfiction is learning that writers aren’t impartial, and letting the reader see our biases is very creative.

I love a category of story writing called meta-fiction.  Meta-fiction is fiction about fiction.  It’s recursive and self-conscious of its own techniques of telling the story.  I consider the best creative nonfiction to be meta-nonfiction.  One of the great themes of Full Body Burden is the impact of plutonium on our environment, and whether or not Rocky Flats is causing a rise of cancer and other strange diseases to the people who live near the plant.  Kristen can’t be impartial, because she and her three siblings all have strange diseases and cancers.

Iversen weaves her own personal biography into the history of Rocky Flats.  She even worked at Rocky Flats.  She interviews people that worked there, or so I would assume.  In every creative nonfiction narrative, how does the author get the information they state in the sentences they write?

This is one aspect of Full Body Burden where I wanted more, and this might be unfair to mention in this book review.  I still need to express it because writing this review explains why.  I wanted the full meta-nonfiction treatment.  Kristen is very open and revealing about her personal life, and she talks about becoming a writing teacher while all the events go on in this book, but she doesn’t tell us how she interviewed the people and how the book was written while the other two stories were unfolding.

We know why she wrote Full Body Burden because Rocky Flats is the biggest story in her life.  We know why she’s in the book, because if she had grown up in New York City or Miami as a different person, Kristen Iversen of Colorado would be a perfect person to interview for the story.  She’s actually a good character to tie the story around.  But I wished Iversen had gone one layer deeper.  She’s a fantastic writing teacher, so I wished she had covered how a writer writes about such a great story.  Of course she might have assumed most people aren’t interested in the mechanics of writing.

We know she worked on the story for 12 years.  That’s got to be fascinating by itself.  Am I asking too much by wishing I had gotten three books in one?   I do have Iverson’s Creative NonFiction textbook, Shadow Boxing: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction.  If you’ve never heard the term “Creative Nonfiction” and read Full Body Burden and fall in love with it, you might want to pick up this book to understand why Full Body Burden is so good.

In class we often discussed how to be factual in nonfiction, how to tell the truth, when our memories, and the memories of the people we interview, are so vague.  Do we really know what we’re writing is true and factual?  How often in recent years have we heard about writers getting into trouble for fudging facts?  Because of Iversen’s lectures, the whole time I was reading Full Body Burden I kept thinking how did she get the quotes she gave.  How did she recall her family memories.  How did she know about what her sister was doing when she was on a date.  Did she remember what her sister told her at the time, or did she interview her sister decades later?  To many readers, this might be too tedious, but because I was Iversen’s student, I wanted to know.  But like I said, this is my own hang-up, but it’s a fascinating aspect of creative nonfiction, where telling the story becomes part of the story.

Iversen brings page after page of startling facts about how our government lied to us.  How it covered up its lies.  Most of the story is about the operation of Rocky Flats and  sinister dangers the Department of Energy (DOE) allowed to be inflicted on the citizens of Colorado.  The other story, and just as gripping to me, is how Iversen reveals a steady stream of deeply personal facts.  Her own coming of age in the 1960s and 1970s was so revealing that if the Rocky Flats story hadn’t been included, I would still consider Full Body Burden a great read.

Now again, I must reveal my own personal connection to justify that appraisal.  Kristen reveals how her father was emotional distant, about his decades of alcoholism and how it affected her mother and herself, how her dad almost killed her and her siblings in a drunk driving accident, how her lawyer father was regularly in trouble with the law for drunk driving and fighting with cops, how he ended up living alone driving a cab.   My parents were alcoholics.  My mother almost killed me and my sister in a drunk driving accident.  My father was distant and hard to know, worked all the time, and never made much contact when he was home.  My father also had run ins with the cops and ended up living alone driving a cab.

Not only do I have personal overlaps with Kristen’s story, I also have some overlaps with the plutonium story.  I was born in 1951 the year Rocky Flats was planned and conceived.  The year the Iversens moved to Colorado to live next to Rocky Flats, my family moved to New Ellenton, South Carolina to live near the Savanna River Site, another nuclear weapons site run by the DOE.  We also were told everything was safe there, but years later I learned that wasn’t true.  Growing up I was very pro-science, but in the mid-1970s I turned anti-nuke, attended lectures, joined No-Nuke groups, and read books on the dangers of living with nuclear power plants and weapon manufacturing.

It will take decades, if not centuries to learn all the consequences of our experiments with nuclear weapons and energy production.  Full Body Burden is just the tiniest tip of the iceberg, but it’s ever so scary.  Growing up I was told plutonium was among the most deadliest substances known, but from Full Body Burden we learn that potentially over a ton of it is missing and maybe spread around the Denver area, with similar radioactive pollution happening to many other sites around the country.  And all these sites still have huge stockpiles of radioactive waste that we just can’t deal with properly.

Full Body Burden is about the U.S. government covering up its mistakes with the justification of national security.  However, how many Americans will die from being nuked by their own government? Rocky Flats was a kind of dirty bomb.  So why isn’t this on national news?  That’s a good and tough question.  The insidiousness of plutonium is very hard to quantify.  I assume if data miners comb the medical records in America and compared them to all the people living near nuclear processing plants, they would eventually find statistical correlations that would show the impact of this poison, but for now the stories are all hearsay.

Full Body Burden is convincing evidence, but its like the legal cases Iversen reports on, not conclusive evidence.  Why aren’t there millions of cases of cancer directly linked to plutonium released around processing plants in America and the rest of the world?  Why isn’t Denver a hot zone?  Why aren’t people living near Rocky Flats all wearing dosimeters?

Well it’s all part of our huge experiment with impacting the environment.  How hot can we make it?  How much radiation can we add?  How many poisons can we add to the fish tank we all live in?  How many species can we push to extinction?  Just how much of the Earth can we trash before it all collapses?

If I didn’t have these overlapping experiences and beliefs would I love Full Body Burden as much as I do?  I don’t know.  It’s all about being creative nonfiction reader.  Not only do we need to know how the writer involved themselves in the story, we need to know what we the reader brings to the story when we read it.  I’m trying to be honest about why I liked this book.  If you’re coming from a different headspace you might not like this book at all.  On the other hand, the reviews have been pretty outstanding, just look at the quotes at Amazon.

Now there’s another aspect of creative nonfiction I should mention that makes it a more appealing read.  One of the techniques of creative nonfiction is to use writing techniques novelists use to write fiction.  This has gotten more pervasive in nonfiction writing as creative nonfiction techniques have spread to general nonfiction writing.  Look at this sample page:

Full Body Burden Sample 1 

It looks and reads like a novel.  For nonfiction, writing like this makes the story more gripping and appealing to read even though it’s presenting a lot of facts.  This is why The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot and The Warmth of Other Suns by Isabel Wilkerson are such wonderful books to read – they use the same creative nonfiction techniques.  All three of these women spent over a decade writing their books.  They could have used the same material to write novels, or journalistic, just the facts, nonfiction books.  Do you see what I mean when I say telling the story becomes part of the story?

Rebecca Skloot and Isabel Wilkerson each have websites that tell more about how they wrote their stories and this is very fascinating to me.  Not only can you read and watch videos about how the books were written, but you can follow along with reports of their successes.  Kristen Iversen also has such a web site and I expect it to grow as Full Body Burden becomes a huge success.  These three women have written the best books I’ve read in recent years, and strangely two of them, Skloot and Iversen, worked at the same English Department at the University of Memphis for awhile, teaching creative nonfiction.  Many people do not believe the creative nonfiction is a separate genre, but their success seems to prove otherwise.

JWH – 7/30/12