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Making Art or Documenting Facts?

This topic has always felt interesting to me, especially when comparing movies and TV shows to books. There seems to be a much higher standard or sticking to facts with books. A movie or even a show like The Tiger King can say, “based on actual events” and then veer wildly off course. But a book? Not so much.


William Zinsser says, in Writing About Your Life, “To write a memoir you must manufacture a text. You must construct a narrative so readers will want to keep reading. You must, in short, practice a craft. You can never forget the story-teller’s ancient rules of maintaining tension and momentum…give yourself a plot.”

Lee Gutkind, editor of Creative Nonfiction, in You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, is adamant that writers of nonfiction cannot make things up. He  questions time compression and composite characters. He says, “Making stuff up, no matter how minor or unimportant, or not being diligent in certifying the accuracy of the available information, endangers the bond between writer and reader.”

Ann Patchett says that Lucy Grealy said, in Truth and Beauty, “’I didn’t remember it,’ Lucy said pointedly. ‘I wrote it. I’m a writer.’ This shocked her audience more than her dismissal of illness, but she made her point: she was making art, not documenting an event.”

Philip Lopate says, in To Show and To Tell, “In giving it shape, a NF writer may be obliged to leave out some facts, combine incidents or even rearrange chronologies. Fine. I do not think we need aply the strictest journalistic standards of factual accuracty to all literary NF.”

Joan Didion says, in On Keeping a Notebook, “I always had trouble distinguishing between what happened and what merely might have happened, but I remain unconvinced that the distinction, for my purposes, matters.”

fact or fiction, blurring

Roy Peter Clark in The Line Between Fact and Fiction in Creation Nonfiction says, “The nonfiction writer is communicating with the reader about real people in real places. So if those people talk, you say what those people said. You don’t say what the writer decides they said. You don’t make up dialogue. You don’t make a composite character.” And he finishes the piece with this: “So don’t add and don’t deceive. If you try something unconventional, let the public in on it. Gain on the truth. Be creative. Do your duty. Have some fun. Be humble. Spend your life thinking and talking about how to do all these well.” (italics mine because, well, amen to that about pretty much everything I do)

And then there is the ever-controversial John D’Agata who says changing a fact is justifiable if you do it in the name of art, Lifespan of a Fact. If three trees sounds better than eight trees, write three. Even if there were eight.

When it comes to writing nonfiction, should writers be held to the same factual standards as news reporters? Is it ever okay to compress time? To create composite characters? To change names and details? How much does art come into play when writing nonfiction?

If that is too many questions to answer, how about just one: Can a nonfiction writer change anything when writing an essay? and if even that is too much to think about, go read the books here. They are all excellent.

In Case You Missed It

Here are some links to essays and podcasts that come out in the past few weeks, just in case you missed them and are looking for something “else.” You know what I mean.

 

Pleasure and Pain, in The Smart Set

COVID19 and the Expatriate, at A Life Overseas

Creating Community in Djibouti, podcast at The Turquoise Table

Out of Africa, podcast at Worth Your Time

Life at the Crossroads of Faith and Culture, podcast at Grace Enough

 

Enjoy!

 

Two Podcasts and an Essay

I’m pumped to share two podcast episodes with y’all and an essay.

Maybe we need a break from COVID-19 news?

Maybe we need to be thankful for things like podcasts and reading essays – things we can do while in isolation or quarantine to pass the time?

I know what it is like to be in isolation and it can be lonely or boring (though I almost never get bored!) and so maybe these things can help pass the time.

Stay safe, stay healthy, stay kind, stay compassionate, stay generous.

Here you go:

Creating Community in Djibouti, with Kristin Schell of The Turquoise Table podcast and book and community. She has such a lovely vision of creating space in our lives and physical areas to build community. I loved talking, she had wonderful questions focused on what it has been like to find and build community while living in a foreign country.

“Rachel’s story takes us on a beautiful journey from a high rise apartment complex in Minneapolis to a school in The Horn of Africa. Rachel’s story of creating community and connection is one of the most inspiring yet. Relationships that started in her own backyard led her family across the globe to Djibouti.

When she was just twenty-two years old and a new mother of twins, Rachel received hospitality from complete strangers, her Somali neighbors. Her immigrant neighbors befriended her — bringing her food and even offering to clean her house while she rested with the twins. Rachel was overwhelmed by their incredible friendship and a curiosity to know more about their home East Africa was born.

What transpires next is remarkable. Rachel and her family move from urban Minneapolis to a rural part of Somalia. Then to Djibouti. Kristin and Rachel talk about what it’s like to be a Christian in a country that is 99% Muslim and the incredible relationships she’s made with her neighbors. Rachel gives us a brief overview of the Muslim religion and piques our curiosity to learn more. After all, loving your Muslim neighbor is the same as loving your non-Muslim neighbor.”

Life at the Crossroads of Faith and Culture, with Amber McCullough at the Grace Enough Podcast. We dug deep into faith and and how I’m learning to love the stranger primarily through being the stranger. Amber was insightful and her questions made me think! Really enjoyed our conversation and I hope you do, too.

Today, Rachel talks about how living as a minority has increased her empathy toward the stranger and has ceased to label someone different as “NON.”

We talk about loving the stranger.

We talk about what she has learned from Muslim practices.

We talk about faith conversations and a deepening faith that is more about being with God and less about right theology and dogma

This conversation is one that will stretch you. It will lead you to ask questions of how and when and where to step into the uncomfortable places and stop assuming.

Pleasure and Pain, in The Smart Set, a magazine of Drexel University. This essay slightly terrifies me. It gets pretty vulnerable and personal. But I’m also kinda proud of it (if writers are allowed to say that). It shows how I’ve changed and grown, things I’ve learned, while living in the Horn of Africa. Specifically, things about the body, embodiment, contentment, strength, and being kind to our bodies. Here’s an excerpt, starting with the easier body parts…

Body: The organized physical substance of an animal or plant either living or dead, fullness and richness of flavor (as of wine), a mass of matter distinct from other masses (a body of water).

Merriam-Webster

I’ve thought a lot about my legs. I pinched the cottage cheesy bulge that oozed out from my shorts on sticky summer evenings when I sat on the pews in my childhood Baptist church sanctuary. I watched my legs swell during pregnancy. I flexed in front of the mirror when I became a runner and double-checked race photos to stare at my muscle definition. I’m slightly knock-kneed and the fourth toe of my right foot is slowly curling beneath my third toe. If I live to 90, they might meld together.

I’ve thought a lot about my nose. It is big and straight with a slight hook on the end. It is my maternal grandfather’s nose. I’ve picked it, pierced it twice, and broken it once. I needed surgery to fix the break and asked the doctor if, while in there, he could give me a cute little upturn at the end or maybe decrease the overall size. He laughed and put me under. I woke with two black eyes and a cast. Yes, a cast on my face. In high school. My friends in Djibouti tell me I have a beautiful, Arab nose, and this is one of my favorite things about being an expatriate. Not the appreciation for what I considered my worst feature, but the way culture offers fresh perspectives. Now that my grandfather has died, I’m thankful the doctor didn’t change my nose. I see my grandfather every time I look in the mirror.

I’ve thought a lot about my hair. Curly and blond. Perfect in the 1980s when I merely had to run a round brush through my bangs and voila, the frizzy poof my sisters spent hours trying to achieve. Not so perfect when I lived in Somalia and my hair was too slippery to hold a headscarf in place. When the scarf slipped, my curls sprang out, unruly and bold. My hair is neither perfect nor imperfect for Djibouti, next door to Somalia and where I live now. I’ve learned how to tie it up and I’ve learned to be comfortable with it flowing down. The trouble with hair in Djibouti is that mine falls out in handfuls, from the salty water in the shower, from the stress, from the extreme temperatures, constant sweat and sun, and from cancer.

I’ve thought about my breasts. I tried to hide them, tried to accentuate them, used them to feed children, wondered if they will eventually develop cancer and kill me. I was wrong about my breasts. It was my thyroid that got the cancer. It hasn’t killed me, yet.

The body as I saw it, called into question the premise I was raised to believe; that God saw what he had created and called it very good.

The body is weak, prone to breakdown and damage. It is vulnerable. It smells weird and makes awkward noises and doesn’t always look the way I want it to in skinny jeans, or any jeans. The body is infinitely varied among humans and all of us have hair and moles, sometimes hairy moles. We have crooked teeth and lopsided earlobes and butts that sag, jiggle, or form shelves behind us. Is this breakable vessel truly something sacred? Can this thing, capable of murder, theft, lying, abuse, lust, greed, pride, and cruelty be good?

There are other body parts I never gave much thought to until I lived in the Horn of Africa. Parts I earned, ignored, damaged, lost, and neglected. Parts I couldn’t imagine having a role in the deep, creative, beautiful goodness of being human.

But life here, in community with Muslim friends, in the steamy desert, in a world upside down from the world of my childhood, changed the way I look at and think about my body parts. It changed the way I thought about goodness, about the intricate handiwork implicit in the way we live and move and have our being…

The essay goes on to cover everything from hemorrhoids to uvulas, thyroids to skin, and even more personal parts, all of them good. Enjoy!

Djibouti Jones in 2019

2019 was an awesome year and a hard year. I published my first traditionally published book! I got to go an incredible book tour! I signed a second book contract!

I also had cancer treatment and the cancer still came back. Are there upside down exclamation marks? I’d use one there. Here’s my cancer manifesto, which also, amazingly got published as a bookmark by my awesome sister who is a doctor.

Here is the book, the essays, and the podcast interviews I got to work on this year.


The Book

Stronger than Death: How Annalena Tonelli Defied Terror and Tuberculosis in the Horn of Africa.

Find it at Barnes and Noble, IndieBound, and Amazon

More info from Plough Publishing

From Booklist: “Why would anyone leave everything they ever knew behind to travel to a remote Muslim village in northern Kenya, to live among desert nomads dying of tuberculosis? Annalena Tonelli, a self-described ‘nobody,’ was a humanitarian from Italy, and a revolutionary in her own humble way.”

“A searing account of a person, place, deadly disease, unspeakable violence, and, ultimately, faith, love, and sacrifice.”

 

Articles

Making Order Out of Chaos, for the New York Times

Running While Foreign and Female, Christian Science Monitor

Split Me Open, to be included in The Other Journal’s print version

A Muslim, a Christian, and a Baby Named God, chosen for inclusion in the Norton Reader Anthology (I’m listed in the authors right next to Thomas Jefferson, so that’s cool)

Are Missionary Kids Missionaries?, Christianity Today Special Edition

Learning to Love Modern Day Lepers, Christianity Today

What Happened When I Lost My Literary Agent. Twice. Jane Friedman

How (and why) to Tell the Stories of “Quiet” Influencers, Ethical Storytelling

The Most Unlikely Marathoners in the World (Somaliland Marathon), Deadspin

Witnesses of the Kingdom, Plough

A Love Stronger than Fear, Plough

The Wells of Wajir, for EthnoTraveler

12 essays for A Life Overseas

 

Podcasts

 

Another Mother Runner: Running in Djibouti

Between the Desert and the Sea, at Books and Travel with Joanna Penn

Fierce and Lovely, with Beth Bruno

On Outsiders and Idols, at Mom Struggling Well

Taking Route, on living longterm abroad

Taking the Middle Seat

Giving Up Normal, with Jen Howat: Living at the Crossroads of Faith and Culture

Part 1

Part 2

Forties Stories with Christy Maguire: Getting Kids to College and a Diagnosis

The Family Culture Project, about keeping in touch long distance

Expat Focus, about raising Third Culture Kids and creating an intentional family culture

 

Here’s to a healthy and productive 2020.

By |December 16th, 2019|Categories: Writing|0 Comments

Stronger than Death Book Tour Comes to Djibouti

I am so excited to share that the Stronger than Death book tour continues, and it has come to Djibouti.

An international book tour is every author’s dream and it certainly helps that I live abroad! This will be the third country I’ve visited to talk about the book. After a month in the United States, I spent four days in Kenya and spoke to about 8 high school classes about the book, about writing, and publishing, and more. And now, the book discussions are in my “home” country, Djibouti.

If you live here, come on out!

If you can’t make these dates, I’d still love to connect with you about the book. Maybe a local book club? A coffee date to talk writing? A student or school group interested in the writing and publishing process?

Get in touch!


Here’s where the book and I will be this week.

Thursday, November 14, 6:30 pm (1830h) at Ecole Emanuele, sharing with English language learners.

Saturday, November 16, 4:30 pm (1630h) at Villa Camille. Enjoy the beautiful atmosphere of this unique cafe and social space, order delicious food from their menu, and hear about the fascinating life and work of Annalena Tonelli. Book discussion, audience Q/A, and book signing. (There will be books available for purchase).

 

The book is also available for purchase at the International School of Djibouti (and out of the trunk of our Jeep! There are also hard copies of Finding Home and Welcome to Djibouti available).