What's the Story #7
When I was a teen-ager, my mother always assured me that I wasn’t fat; rather, I was big-boned. And I had a very slow metabolism. Both observations were probably true, but not the main reason I weighed 220 pounds (my suit size was 44 husky when I graduated high school)—too fat for the Marines or the Air Force. I assumed that by enlisting in the U.S. Coast Guard, the only service that would accept me at my weight, I would have an easy time of it, physically. After all, they were the shallow-water sailors. Little did I know that because we were operating mostly on the coast (guarding our shores from enemy aggression), we were always running like hell.
A favorite drill in basic training (boot camp) was triggered by a certain signal on the bell tower—three staccato chimes. At that moment, we recruits, wherever we were standing, whatever we were doing, were obliged to grab our pieces (M-1 rifles) and bayonets and dash to the water to meet an invading enemy and do combat. Traditional Coast Guard boot camp was 12 weeks, versus the Army’s nine-week stint. But even after 12 weeks of basic, I was the only member of my company not allowed to graduate and join a unit. I had lost a good deal of weight at this point—and was certainly as fit as I ever had been—having been forced to march endlessly and run and dive maniacally through the Marine-style obstacle course. But I could not seem to pass the rope test. This was a rope, 50 feet high, with knots spaced evenly for handholds; you needed to climb to the top, and then control your descent. There were other ways of boarding an invading ship, but if a rope is the only answer, a Coast Guardsman must be physically able to do it. Every night after supper I was tested, and every night I failed.
During the day, I worked with a maintenance crew inside an abandoned boiler, chiseling away at the burnt-in soot and debris for hours on end without seeing natural light between breakfast and lunch or lunch and supper. At that time, masks were unheard of. You breathed in the coal dust in the morning and coughed it out at night. By day’s end, I lacked the energy and determination to climb the rope or even to work out with free-weights to strengthen my upper body. Not wanting to remain in boot-camp limbo for the rest of my hitch, I started to get up early in the morning and do hundreds of push-ups and sit0ups before reveille. At lunch, instead of eating or smoking, I would take long walks around the compound. Or I went into the men’s room and practiced pull-ups on the toilet stall doors. The guys with whom I shared boiler-cleaning duty were in detention because of some criminal act they had committed, not because they were too fat or couldn’t pass the rope test. They would not have taken kindly to my “public” display of extra physical training. Their attitude was that we had plenty enough P.T. in our own routine.
Under my secret regimen, however, no more than 10 days went by before I surprised myself and my instructors by literally bounding up the rope from floor to ceiling, which I touched with one sure hand, then skittering down again without using my feet. When I got the bottom the first time, I showboated by going up again and back. It was triumphant moment, not just because I succeeded, but more so because of the ease with which I pulled it off.
A few years later, I realized that my struggle to climb the rope as a Coast Guard recruit—and my eventual success—was also my first significant step toward the writing life. I had always been a voracious reader, and the library, wherever I was stationed on active duty, became a haven of privacy and comfort. The library is where I first began writing long letters and journal entries that eventually turned into essays and short stories. But my triumph climbing the rope led to my understanding and appreciation of a writer’s real secret of success: discipline—an attempt to be creative and productive on a regular basis. Virtually every writer I have ever known or read about, regardless of genre, lifestyle or location,, write or “works out” on a regular schedule. From William Styron to Joyce Carol Oates to John McPhee, writing regimentation is a key to success.
Each day, seven days a week (for the past 20 years), I climb out of bed at 4:30 a.m. and am at work at my desk within 30 minutes. I can get a lot done when the phone doesn’t ring and the horns don’t honk. When I get jammed up with work, I have learned to push the time back—I get up earlier. When you are on my kind of schedule, it doesn’t matter if you awaken at 4:30 a.m. or 3:45 a.m. Obviously, you might have to go to sleep earlier, but five hours a night is more than enough for my needs. As I said, all successful writers will write on a regular schedule and in a disciplined way. But creative nonfiction requires an even more focused discipline because we are not only writers but also reporters and researchers who utilize literary techniques to capture and portray real life and to investigate significant moral and cultural issues.
This issue of Creative Nonfiction contains excellent examples of the potential of the genre and of how much can be accomplished with focused commitment and unwavering dedication. It is also a perfect model of the varied points of view achievable in writing creative nonfiction—from the distance of immersion/reportage to the personal closeness and intimacy of poetry. In Issue 7, Sherry Simpson, a journalist, not only concentrates on the heart of the debate in Alaska concerning harvesting (killing) wolves but also takes us deep into the backcountry so we can understand the depths of belief on all sides of the issue. Mark Bowden (“Finders Keepers”), also a journalist, captures in intimate detail the seamy side of life in Philadelphia and the frustration and despair of people who live on the fringes of society, while Brenda Marie Osbey portrays the tragic story of the talented but unappreciated musician from New Orleans, Buddy Bolden. David Hamilton, editor of The Iowa Review, ponders Robert Frost and the impact of poetry, while Maxine Kumin discusses the discipline required by gardening and the joy of growing things. David Gessner’s “June Journal” of the final days of his father’s life provides an interesting and evocative contrast to the warmth and joy displayed in Charles Simic’s “Dinner at Uncle Boris’s.” Both Maxine Kumin and Charles Simic, incidentally, are recipients of the Pulitzer Prize in poetry.
You will see that these writers are very different in voice and approach—points of view. But if you ask them, they will all tell you about the regimentation under which they usually work: a disciplined, regular schedule, morning, noon or night, day after day, through most of the year. This is how writers become writers. They may write an impeccable essay, seemingly with ease, just as I passed the U.S. Coast Guard rope test as if I were an accomplished athlete. But I trained hard to be able to scramble up 50 feet, just as writers labor in the privacy of their solitary spaces with disciplined regularity in order to produce a memorable literary effort. We often don’t think about writing as a deliberate act of discipline, but that is exactly how the artful essay begins.
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Most Read in 2016
We don’t publish a lot of lists here on creativenonfiction.org. But at the end of every year we do like to take a look back at the stories that resonated with our readers.
In that spirit, we’ve compiled the most-read pieces published on our website in 2016, as well as the most-read work from our archives.
And for good measure, we’ve pulled together a few pieces worth an honorable mention; CNF content that was published elsewhere on the Internet; and the best advice, inspiration, and think pieces from some of our favorite publications.
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Top Stories from 2016
- I Survived the Blizzard of ’79
As the snow falls ever heavier and the temperature drops ever lower in the author's hometown, she ventures out into a world of white // BETH ANN FENNELLY
- In the Grip of the Sky
If you're wracked with joint pain, you don't need a weatherman to know which way the wind blows // SONYA HUBER
- The Math of Marriage
One simple equation compels the author to take a fifth trip down the aisle // ELANE JOHNSON
- Finding Truth in Technology
Five memoirists share their favorite tools for re-creating scenes and setting //SEJAL H. PATEL
- The Marrying Kind
Married for twenty years, happily divorced for six, the author vowed never to wed again—except in the role of officiant // JANE BERNSTEIN
- Before We’re Writers, We’re Readers
Fifteen contemporary writers of creative nonfiction discuss the nonfiction books they remember best from childhood and which influenced them as writers // RANDON BILLINGS NOBLE
New York Times obituary writer Margalit Fox has the last word // JANE MAHER
- How the Mind Works
The better we understand the brain's processes, the more artful our writing can be // DAVE MADDEN
- Writing Motherhood
Parenting blogs and magazines have become ubiquitous, but is the literature of motherhood still undervalued? // MARCELLE SOVIERO
- A Story We Tell Ourselves & Others
Finding inspiration in marriage memoirs // RANDON BILLINGS NOBLE
Top Stories from the Archive
- Picturing the Personal Essay
A visual guide // TIM BASCOM
- The Line Between Fact & Fiction
On borrowing the tools of novelists // ROY PETER CLARK
- How to Write Like a Mother#^@%*&
A conversation with Cheryl Strayed // ELISSA BASSIST
- The Same Story
Two young women, pregnant at the same time by the same man // SUZANNE ROBERTS
- Poetry & Science
A view from the divide // ALISON HAWTHORNE DEMING
- The “Five R’s” of Creative Nonfiction
Breaking down the essentials of the form // LEE GUTKIND
- True Empathy or Understanding Is Rare
A conversation with JUDITH BARRINGTON
- Believe It
Narrative credibility is in the eye of the beholder // SARAH SMARSH
- Man on the Tracks
When you watch a man on the tracks before an oncoming train, that’s exactly what you do: watch // ERIKA ANDERSON
- A Genre by Any Other Name?
The story behind the term creativenonfiction // DINTY W. MOORE
- Nature Mothers
From Rachel Carson to Cheryl Strayed, what women writers have found in the wild // VIVIAN WAGNER
Work originally from CNF but appearing elsewhere in 2016
- Hidden Stories and Historical Half Truths
Lies your ancestors told you // On history, heritage, and whitewashing // LITHUB
- The Suicide Memoir
True crime, mystery, and grief // A brief look at a dark genre // LITHUB
- I Invited Twelve People to Write about Their Mental Illnesses for the First Time
Here’s what happened next // WASHINGTON POST
- Pulling Your Hair Out Is Actually a Mental Illness
Here’s how I learned to stop doing it // WASHINGTON POST
- The Life of a Supermodel Sounds Glamorous
But I lived it—and it made me severely depressed // WASHINGTON POST
- On the Ethics of Writing About Your Children
Four nonfiction writers discuss how to navigate writing parenthood // LITHUB
- Dangerous [Language]
A young teacher tires of hearing “boys will be boys” // BRAIN, CHILD
- How I Helped Tell a Soldier’s Story
Jane Bernstein on finding the human detail in a memoir of war // LITHUB
- The Hidden History of Gas Station Bathrooms
By a man who cleans them // NARRATIVELY
- Larimer and Orphan
How the last Italian store on a forgotten street in Pittsburgh found a state of grace // PLACES JOURNAL
Our favorite stories from around the Internet
ADVICE & INSPIRATION
- How to Cultivate the Art of Serendipity
On finding what you’re not seeking // NY TIMES
- Can Confessional Writing Be Literary?
On the challenges of writing about trauma // BREVITY
- What You Read Matters More Than You Might Think
Want to be a better writer? Read better // QUARTZ
- If You Just Keep Writing, Will You Get Better?
It’s complicated // JANE FRIEDMAN
- Can the Academic Write?
A conversation about style // THE AWL
- How to Be a Writer
Joy, suffering, reading, and lots and lots of writing // LITHUB
- Essay Is the New Black
What I learned from veteran writers at a panel on essays // THE WRITER
- Seven Ideas to Inspire and Improve Personal Essays
Advice from the NY Times // NY TIMES
- The Need to Read
Reading books remains one of the best ways to engage with the world, become a better person, and understand life’s questions, big and small // WALL STREET JOURNAL
- Consider the Lobster Mushroom
A brief theory of the craft of creative nonfiction // BREVITY
- Choose Your Own Memoir
Comic // GRANT SNIDER
THE STATE OF NONFICTION
- Print is the New “New Media”
On the resurgence of print publications // COLUMBIA JOURNALISM REVIEW
- How Stories Deceive
A look at the uses (and abuses) of narrative // NEW YORKER
- How to Win an Election
How candidates use the art of storytelling to help swing elections // NY TIMES
- Fiction v Nonfiction
English literature’s made-up divide // THE GUARDIAN
- Confessions of a Reluctant Memoirist
Why has an entire genre come to be defined by its worst iterations? // LITHUB
- Can the “Literary” Survive Technology?
Sven Birkerts on our changing brains and what comes next // LITHUB
- Do You Suffer from Memory Blindness?
The influence of others on what we remember // SCIENTIFIC AMERICAN
- Where Are All the Women Writing Longform?
Roy Peter Clark checks the history of the Pulitzer Prizes // POYNTER
- The Dark Side of Longform Journalism
On waiting for the bad to happen // LITHUB
- When You Write a Memoir, Readers Think They Know You Better Than They Do
Dani Shapiro on the loneliness of the long-distance memoirist // NY TIMES
- Dealing in Uncertainty
The essay may be the perfect form for our time // LA TIMES