some notes on margot livesey’s “how to tell a true story”

Months back I began making notes on the book Bringing the Devil to His Knees: the Craft of Fiction and the Writing Life. My hope was to use the book in my Lit 150 class in place of Burroway’s Writing Fiction: Guide to Narrative Craft. I’ve never used a collection of essays and have always used more of a textbook so this term should be interesting. Don’t want to over think the course but for some reason I’m beginning with the last essay in the book called “How to Tell a True Story” by Margot Livesey. I’m beginning here because I always begin Lit 150 with a non-fiction assignment. Always begin with a focus on factual essays and memoir type pieces. I think it important students begin utilizing their own lives for their fiction that will come later in the term.

And I suppose it fortunate the essay come in the section called Facing Up to the Reader. Teaching students to decide on the narrative strategy in moving from essay writing or working on and reading creative non-fiction. Trying to encourage my students to figure how their own lives will play out in their fiction. How their own human failures will play out in the drama and conflict of their own work. I always find it important that my favorite non-fiction writers are my favorite fiction writers. Tobias Wolff, Joan Didion and Denis Johnson to name a few. I guess I feel this way because I enjoy the ways these authors convince readers of their fiction the events they write on are true. Perhaps this comes from their skill with non-fiction. Perhaps it is because as Livesey explains the work is “messier, more confusing, in other words more lifelike.” She calls this anti-fiction.

And I guess I begin with non fiction because I am trying to push my students towards this style of writing because this is more or less my style of fiction writing–or rather anti-fiction writing. Livesey also explains how she believes that most writers make this decision or thought process unconsciously. And I guess I do value memory over imagination in my own work. And she argues we value author’s “credentials” over their creativity. The narrative authority coming from the real world of facts and the details of their lives over creative license. But I do want them to find out the line between themselves and the book. I do want them to think of how their lives and identity find their way into the work.

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john paul jaramillo

John Paul Jaramillo’s debut story collection The House of Order was named a 2013 Int’l Latino Book Award Finalist, and his most recent work Little Mocos is now available from Twelve Winters Press. In 2013 Latino Boom: An Anthology of U.S. Latino Literature listed Jaramillo as one of its Top 10 New Latino Authors to Watch and Read. He is currently a professor of composition and literature at Lincoln Land College-Springfield, Illinois.

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