The Truth Told Slant: 5 Questions for Nan Cuba

“Dig deeply and convey what you find with objectivity. Be Chekhov, who said his only job was to know what questions to ask.” -Nan Cuba

Nan Cuba is the author of Body and Bread, winner of the PEN Southwest Award in Fiction and the Texas Institute of Letters Steven Turner Award; it was listed as one of “Ten Titles to Pick Up Now” in O, Oprah’s Magazine and was a “Summer Books” choice from Huffington Post. She reported on the causes of extraordinary violence in LIFE, Third Coast, and D Magazine. Texas Monthly included Cuba in its group of “Ten to Watch.” She is the founder and executive director emeritus of Gemini Ink, a nonprofit literary center (www.geminiink.org) and teaches in the MA/MFA Program in Literature, Creative Writing, and Social Justice at Our Lady of the Lake University, where she is writer-in-residence. Her website is www.nancuba.com.


On Saturday, September 16th, Nan Cuba is teaching a class for the WLT called “The Truth Told Slant: Personal Experience Turned into Fiction.” In this class, you’ll learn how to craft better fiction by using memory and experience.

Here’s what Nan had to share with us:

Scribe: Tell us a little bit about yourself. What do you write? How did you come to writing?

Nan Cuba: One summer when I was in fifth grade, I bought a spiral notebook and a packet of pencils and sat each day at the kitchen table copying in my best handwriting favorite passages, the volume’s facts and photographs speaking like an oracle. After filling a notebook page, I turned it over and ran my fingers across indentations made by my pencil’s sharp lead point. In the end, I’d written what I called a book, and the pressure of those backward words proved it.

The next summer, I used thirty dollars I’d saved over the year to buy a turquoise Royal typewriter I’d seen for months in Woolworth’s window. Back on my bench at the kitchen table, I pressed a key that descended into the machine’s belly, barely leaving a mark on the piece of notebook paper I’d inserted on the ribbon spool above. I pushed the key again, my finger stretching low, the metal arm rising slowly, then stopping like a warning flag. This time, when I pounded, the black letter announced itself on the white paper. I tried more keys, using other fingers, the mess of letters appearing, some smudged or faint, the result a coded message about my clumsiness. After days of practice, I pulled out the encyclopedia, deciding to type a favorite passage. Even though I pecked diligently, glancing between the slick page and keys, wanting with a dedicated heart to play it like a piano, I gave up, the process too slow, too confusing, and shoved the typewriter back into its turquoise case then onto a closet shelf. That was my first lesson that writing was not easy. But I persevered, and now I publish essays, short stories, and novels.

Scribe: In your own work, how do you approach overcoming the challenges that come with writing, be it writer’s block or craft or business-related challenges?

NCWhen I’m not teaching full-time, I am so self-disciplined I spend anywhere from five to eight hours a day writing. If I’m fighting a deadline, my husband brings me meals on a tray. I haven’t had writer’s block (thank goodness), but I have lost confidence and felt discouraged (who hasn’t?). If that happens, I read something well crafted, analyzing as I go, admiring tour de force word choices, phrasing, and psychological insights; sometimes, that leads to a book review. I might exchange a manuscript draft with a writer friend, who helps me see my work from a new perspective. My friends also talk about their disillusionment, proving we’re not alone in the struggle. I’ve been working on my latest novel for ten years, and during last year, I lost my agent, and the manuscript has been rejected by others. So, I showed it to a friend (naturally), who shared a suggestion that has helped me revise once again. James Baldwin said, “Talent is insignificant. I know a lot of talented ruins. Beyond talent lie all the usual words: discipline, love, luck, but, most of all, endurance.”

 Scribe: Has there been a moment of epiphany in terms of your work, when you thought, “This is it! Now I know what I’m doing?” How long did that feeling last?

NC: Writing is a process of discovery. My eventual publisher of Body and Bread at first said she wouldn’t accept the manuscript without a revision. While completing that, I realized the narrator’s brother had a different mother, a woman who was the grandmother’s housekeeper. I had been working on that story for almost twenty years, and not until that revision did I see the clues and recognize what they were telling me. I phoned my daughter, who had read the manuscript multiple times and given great feedback, to ask whether she thought this made sense, and she agreed. Then I added narration and scenes to make the revelation more apparent, but when the publisher accepted the manuscript, she removed my additions. The truth had been in the story all along and didn’t need explaining. I tell students that writing fiction is like moving the Ouija hand plate across the board from letter to letter, tending to craft issues—language, dialogue, pacing, etc.—then magically seeing the message your story has revealed. My subconscious Ouija had spoken.

Scribe: What piece of advice do you find yourself giving to writers again and again?

NC: My teacher Robert Boswell said I should use my most sensitive memories and emotions as material for my fiction. That’s what readers are most interested in reading about. Be honest; don’t sensationalize, sentimentalize, or cover over (what John Gardner called “frigidity”). Dig deeply and convey what you find with objectivity. Be Chekhov, who said his only job was to know what questions to ask.

Scribe: What is one thing that people will take away from this class?

NC: Writing an autobiography to replicate real-life experience is writing to explain, not to discover. What’s missing when relaying actual events, or literal truth, is empathy. Instead, the piece describes what happened with controlled emotion. But a fictionalization of those events encourages the writer and reader to be transported as they identify with and suffer with the characters. When writing a factual telling, the author likely knows the core idea and shapes the story around it, while a fictionalization reveals the meaning as the author writes. That way, she discovers an emotional truth. The ironic result is that more reality and truth can be found in a memory’s fictionalization.

Thanks, Nan!

Click here to learn more about Nan Cuba’s upcoming class.

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