Another Piece on Brian Doyle: Turning MINK RIVER into a Play

Oregon Arts Watch just published my piece about a Northwest theater director and playwright turning Brian Doyle’s novel Mink River into a play.  You can read it here: http://www.orartswatch.org/brian-doyle-and-the-language-of-the-stage/

A Writing Residency in China This Fall

In March, after my talk on the ethics of biography at the Associated Writers and Writing Programs conference in Tampa, Florida, a Chinese writer named Dai Fan, who directs the creative writing program at Sun-Yat Sen University in Guangzhou, China, came up to me and invited to be part of a writing residency there this fall.  It’s taken a while for the paperwork to be done but I can announce now that I will be joining writers from seven other countries for four weeks of writing, lectures and readings this October and November.

We’ll have two weeks free for writing in the beautiful autonomous region of Guilin (pictured here), a week of talks and readings in Guangzhou, and a final week of writing in the cultural capital of Meizhou.

I’ll give more details, including the names of the other writers and the countries they’re from, in a future post.

The creative writing program at Sun Yat-sen University is the only one of its kind in English in China.  Students from the program will be our interpreters while we’re there.  I anticipate many interesting conversations with them, as well as the other writers and the program faculty.

An Ethical Starter Kit for Writing About People/Biography — Questions to Ask Yourself Along the Way

When you write about other people, you make ethical decisions from beginning to end.  Here’s a starter kit for making those decisions, in the form of questions to ask at each step along the way:

 

  1. Choosing a subject: Why does this subject appeal to you? Is it someone you can approach fairly and open-mindedly? Do you have a bias already for or against the subject?  If you know the person, are you able to get enough distance from her to go beyond your own preconceived notions of her?  Are you able to be objective even if you find information that counters or even destroys your image of the person?  Are you willing to disclose your bias for or against in some way to your reader?

 

  1. Collecting facts: Do you have access to enough material to feel comfortable creating an image of your subject for an audience? If not, how might you mitigate this problem by the use of other contextual material? Do you have enough time and other resources (money, ability to travel to archives, contacts, etc.) to do a thorough job?  Are you open to whatever material you find?  Are you willing to keep researching, especially interviewing, even when your interest in your subject has flagged?  What are you willing to do to secure potentially important material in the hands of someone skeptical of your project?

 

  1. Interviewing: How will you select those you interview about your subject? How thorough are you willing to be? Will you include people who might have a view of that person different than yours?  What are you willing to do to convince skeptical interviewees to talk to you?  How far are you willing to go with flattery or intimations of friendship?  Can you be honest with interviewees about your views of your subject?  Are you willing to prepare thoroughly for all interviews?  How will you differentiate between interview material that comes from someone you like or agree with vs. someone you don’t like or whose opinion might conflict with yours?

 

  1. Gaps: How will you deal with the inevitable gaps in the story you find? Are you willing to delay moving to publication to try to find more material? Will you disclose them to your reader or try to elide them?  Are you willing to be more provisional in your writing or do you feel the need to write with total conviction?  How comfortable are you with using your imagination to fill some gaps?  How do you decide when you have truly made a good-faith effort to fill gaps?  Are you willing to abandon the project if you encounter too many gaps?

 

  1. Choosing themes: How will you ensure that the themes you choose are truly demonstrable from your subject’s life? If you have a theme in mind when you start, are you flexible enough to let it go or even have it upended? How will you deal with material that doesn’t fit neatly into your themes or even counters them?  How will you make sure your themes aren’t too restrictive or prescriptive?  How will you determine whether your themes are fair and not the result of trendy ideas or what you think will sell?

 

  1. Creating a narrative: Are you able to establish and sustain a narrative that is capacious enough to encompass all of your research? How will you deal with material that doesn’t fit neatly into story form or the sequence of stories you want to tell? How can you ensure that the pictures you create on the page comes from facts only and don’t distort the subject’s viewpoint or experience if they come from sources outside his life?  How will you use stories or juicy material that comes from a single source, particularly if that source is questionable?  How will you convey to your reader what sources you’ve used to construct your narrative (in-text clues, endnotes, bibliography, etc.)?

 

  1. Making claims: How can you keep potentially controversial claims from being libelous? Is everything you claim about your subject based on thorough research? How will you decided what to do with material that might seem an invasion of privacy but seems important to the claims you’re making about your subject?  Are you willing to be less-definitive in your claims to indicate to your reader that the claims are provisional or based on thin evidence?  Have you had enough people of different viewpoints read your work to be sure your claims are broadly valid?  Are your claims based on more than a single source?  Are you able to get outside your own social and cultural context and evaluate your claims from a different viewpoint?

 

  1. Fact checking: Have you asked those with knowledge of particular facts to read them in the context of your work? Have you had enough people read your manuscript to catch errors you might have stopped seeing? Have you checked out questionable “facts” with other sources?  Have you been honest in evaluating your sources?   Have you double-checked later versions of your manuscript against original sources?  Have you been thorough in matching what interviewees tell you against all possible written sources (letters, diaries, official documents, published works, etc.)?

 

  1. Revision and editing: Have you made sure you haven’t introduced errors by taking things out or adding things in? In making your writing more concise or trying to fit a word count, have you been careful not to be reductive or create an unintended connection through juxtapositioning? Have you been careful not to introduce gaps that weren’t there before?  Have you absolutely, thoroughly and repeatedly checked and rechecked every name, place and other type of information that identifies any individual?  Have you checked the work of editors and proofreaders yourself?

 

  1. Publication: Have you thought about the effects of publication on your subject and yourself? How will you deal with the inevitable errors others will find in the published work? What responsibility do you have to the work after it’s out in the world?  How will you deal with information that comes to you after the book or article is published?  Will your writing about your subject end with publication or will you continue to write, speak and blog about her?  How will you deal with the inevitable critics of your work—your researching, your interpretations, your claims, your writing or your integrity?

 

Again, this list is meant only to get you thinking about the many ethical decisions you’ll have to make along the way, with the hope that you’ll make them consciously and well.

© Michael N. McGregor 2018

Looking for a New Read?

For some reason, a number of people I’ve worked with in the graduate program at Portland State University or my summer coaching at the Collegeville Institute have new books coming out right now.  Here’s a list for you to choose from.  All of these people are terrific writers or, in the case of David Naimon, a terrific interviewer AND writer:

*February 26: Crash Course by Julie Whipple, Yamhill Canyon Press–“The true story of a misunderstood airline tragedy that changed more about our daily lives than most people know.”

*March 6: The Gospel of Trees: A Memoir by Apricot Irving, Simon & Schuster–“Award-winning writer Apricot Irving recounts her childhood as a missionary’s daughter in Haiti during a time of upheaval—both in the country and in her home.”

*April 3: Ursula K. Le Guin: Conversations on Writing by Ursula K. Le Guin and David Naimon, Tin House Books–“In a series of conversations with Between The Covers’s David Naimon, Ursula K. Le Guin discusses her fiction, nonfiction, and poetry―both her process and her philosophy.”

+April 10: Tree Dreams by Kristin Kaye, SparkPress–“An eco-literary, coming of age novel relevant for teenagers and adults alike.”

+April 10: The Shadow of Death: A Sister Agatha and Father Selwyn Mystery by Jane Willan, Crooked Lane Books–“A charming and clever traditional mystery debut set at a bucolic Welsh convent.”

May 8: God, Improv and the Art of Living by MaryAnn McKibben Dana, Eerdman’s–“The central principle of “yes, and . . .” in improvisational theater has produced a lot of great comedy. But it also offers an invigo­rating approach to life in general, and the spiritual life in particular.”

And here’s one more–not by someone I’ve worked with but by a marvelous naturalist/biologist and friend:

+January 29: Everyday Creatures: A Naturalist on the Surprising Beauty of Ordinary Life in Wild Places by George James Kenagy, Dockside Sailing Press–“A collection of thirteen simply and elegantly told nature stories, set in time over the course of a naturalist’s lifetime.”

 

*first book

+first book in this genre

 

Kilian McDonnell Fellowship Supports Work On A New Writing Book

In addition to my two weeks as a writing coach at the Collegeville Institute this summer, I’ll be there for another six weeks in the fall as a short-term resident scholar, recipient of a Kilian McDonnell Fellowship.  The fellowship will support my work on a book about writing for a broader audience, intended primarily for those who write from a spiritual perspective but with plenty for anyone who wants to write well for the general public.

The genesis for this book is my summer writing coach work, particularly my presentations to those attending my Writing Beyond the Academy week the past two years.  Of course, my 22 years of teaching creative writing to both graduate and undergraduate writing students have given me plenty of material too.

If you’re interested in attending either of my summer weeks this year, go to the Collegeville Institute Summer Writing Workshops home page.  There’s still time to apply for these all-expenses-paid weeks but the deadlines are in February!

A Professor No More

On Monday of this week, I cleaned out my office in Portland State University’s Neuberger Hall.  On Tuesday, I filed my last set of grades.  On December 31, 2017, my retirement will be official.  After 22 years of university teaching and 17 years at PSU (during which I was fortunate to receive five student-selected teaching awards, one in almost every year I was eligible), I’ll soon be a writer only.  That should mean more time to post on this somewhat-neglected site.

I will continue to lead summer workshops at the Collegeville Institute and the Manhattanville College MFA’s Summer Writers’ Week–for information on either of these, including how to apply, go to my Talks page.

A big thank you to all of the students I’ve had the pleasure of teaching as a college professor.  I figure that over my 22 years at universities, I’ve critiqued more than 4,000 papers.  I’m happy to say that a fair number made it into print here or there.  I hope my comments on the others were at least somewhat edifying.

Look for more thoughts on teaching on this site in the weeks ahead, including some of the things I’ve taught and learned.

On to new pastures…

 

Apply for FREE Summer Writing Weeks at the Collegeville Institute–with Me as Your Writing Coach

In the summer of 2018, I’ll be the writing coach again for two different weeks at the Collegeville Institute at St. John’s University in Minnesota.  These weeks are all-expenses-paid, even your airfare.   The one requirement is that your writing should have a spiritual component.  Details are below:

Wednesday, July 25 to Tuesday, July 31, 2018Writing Beyond the Academy–for academics who want to reach a broader audience–application deadline is: Monday, February 5, 2018.  To apply, click here.

Thursday, August 2-Wednesday, August 8Apart and Yet a Part–for established writers–application deadline is Monday, February 12, 2018.  To apply, click here.

For more about the Collegeville Institute’s Summer Writing Program, click here.

An Author at Last, I Guess

I just received news that my bio is in the 2017 edition of Contemporary Authors (volume 400).  That makes me one of approximately 120,000 American authors they’ve featured.  Not quite an exclusive club but I’m glad to be part of it.  Here’s the link if you have an extra $380 and nothing to spend it on.

I haven’t posted anything for a while but hope to get back into it now that summer is over.  Stay tuned.

 

Working on a Brian Doyle Profile for Notre Dame Magazine

My dear friend and fellow writer Brian Doyle died at 60 on May 27.  Like many people who knew him or had simply read his marvelous books, I felt the loss deeply and wanted to remember him in some way, so I contacted Notre Dame Magazine, the alumni magazine for his alma mater, about writing a piece on him, focusing on his place in the Oregon literary community and at the University of Portland, where, over 25 years, he turned the alumni magazine, Portland, into one of the best magazines of any kind in America.

I’m collecting stories and thought about Brian for my piece now and will be writing it over the next couple of weeks, for publication in the magazine’s fall issue.  If you knew Brian or have had a profound experience with his writing, please send your stories or thoughts to me at mcgregorpdx@yahoo.com

Here’s a link to one of Brian’s many astonishing essays, Joyas Voladoras, about the hummingbird and the heart. It was selected for Best American Essays 2005.

To see Brian talking about his writing and his life, view Oregon Public Broadcasting’s 2015 eight-minute ArtBeat feature on him here.

A Note from A Canadian Reader

I recently received the note below from a Canadian reader.  It expresses so well the kind of response I would hope for–to my book and to Lax–that I had to share it.

“Thank you so very much for writing Pure Act! Like Robert Lax’s poetry it’s a welcoming place to go to as the competition, chaos and anxiety of the 21st century become ever-more overwhelming. At 66, I don’t think I’ve ever read a biography or memoir that is both so enlightening and comforting—one of which I can say, ‘This is thoroughly necessary.'”