Podcast

Welcoming Fictionalization into Experience: 5 Questions for Nan Cuba

Authors like Chekhov, Austen, Mansfield, Dickens, Faulkner never studied writing in an academic program. Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing quit school at the age of thirteen. These masters learned craft by analyzing the work of celebrated authors. My advice is to read widely like they did, and notice craft features: word choice, a sentence’s musical replication of a character’s action, the convincing accuracy of an idiosyncratic voice, the tension and pacing of a scene, the symbiotic nature of the story’s elements. When you love something you’ve read, figure out why.

— 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, June 4th, Nan Cuba is teaching a class for the WLT called “The Truth Told in Slant: Personal Experience Turned into Fiction. In this class you’ll learn how to allow fiction to influence personal experience to create a moving narrative.

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: I began my writing career as a freelance journalist, even interviewing a serial killer. I talk about that experience in the Netflix docuseries, The Confession Killer. I’ve published poems, essays, and short stories, but now I focus on novels. My first one and the one I’m finishing are autobiographically based. Why fiction? Because the writer doesn’t discover anything new in a description of facts; she already knows the ending, while freeing her imagination could reveal an unexpected emotional truth. I came to writing late, in my mid-thirties. My husband said, “Why don’t you write a book? You read more than anyone I know.” I laughed, thinking how short-sighted, how silly. Then I sold my first article and four years later enrolled in a graduate writing program. He made the impossible seem possible.

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?

NC: Writing is hard. At this point in my career, I know my weaknesses and bad habits (too much set-up, too much summary, shallow characters, predictability, wordiness, sentimentality, overwriting, and more). I allow myself to make these mistakes in early drafts, but I’m vigilant about correcting them. Genders change, characters misbehave, scenes disappear. As the English writer Sir Arthur Quiller-Couch advised, I murder my darlings. A friend once said, “You revise like a bulldog.” Yes, because I need to, but also because that’s when the magic happens. I dig and cut and rework until my story, like a hologram, shows me what it’s about. That thrill keeps me working.

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: The first time this happened, I was writing the umpteenth revision of a short story during my first semester of an MFA program. The initial draft captured a dream I’d had about my recently deceased mother, but when I allowed myself to fictionalize the two characters, playing with their history and relationship, I knew I’d made a breakthrough. I still believe that was a turning point, moving from my journalistic impulse to freeing my imagination. But I was a novice, making the usual mistakes, struggling to master craft. I’m still trying.

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

NC: Authors like Chekhov, Austen, Mansfield, Dickens, Faulkner never studied writing in an academic program. Nobel Laureate Doris Lessing quit school at the age of thirteen. These masters learned craft by analyzing the work of celebrated authors. My advice is to read widely like they did, and notice craft features: word choice, a sentence’s musical replication of a character’s action, the convincing accuracy of an idiosyncratic voice, the tension and pacing of a scene, the symbiotic nature of the story’s elements. When you love something you’ve read, figure out why. Do the same when a piece of writing doesn’t work. Graph the time frame, take notes, check definitions, references, allusions. Then practice what you’re learning.

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

NC: Hopefully, a student will experience the satisfaction of accessing her subconscious when her imagination plays with facts. Peter Taylor would take a family myth—those tales of past incidents we repeatedly tell each other around the kitchen table—and fictionalize it to understand its deeper meanings, uncovering personal insights that became universal.

Thanks, Nan!

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

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