Summer Reading: My 10 Essential Books of Creative Nonfiction

In Book Reviews, Recently Reviewed on July 20, 2021 at 1:11 pm

Take a look around these days and you’ll see just about everyone has a list of must-read books. There’s no shortage of material – the selection of topics encompasses every possible genre and category. With this vast range of subjects competing for our time and attention, where does one start?

Reading in the field – scanned 1881 engraving

This personal list of essential creative nonfiction books is specifically for writers. It incorporates key examples on how to craft creative nonfiction (CNF) plus stellar illustrations where writers used form and structure in unique ways throughout their memorable works. If writing CNF is an art, these manuals demonstrate the tricks of the trade or simply inspire because of their artistry.

  1. Tell It Slant: Creating, Refining, and Publishing Creative Nonfiction by Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola. Miller and Paola are both English professors and present the nitty-gritty of writing and research basics. Different CNF forms are detailed and explained, from personal, lyrical, braided and hermit-crab essays to sketch portraits, collage and graphic memoirs, to mixed media and digital works. It’s no surprise this resource has become a standard reference in many CNF courses and programs.
  2. Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction by Jack Hart. If you’re looking for succinct advice on how to craft narrative nonfiction, Hart clearly dissects and defines each element, from story, structure and point of view, to action and dialogue. He explains these principles in a no-nonsense, easy-to-follow style you would expect from an award-winning journalist and teacher. Hart’s helpful tips can immediately be applied to writing both shorter magazine pieces and longer book-length narratives.
  3. The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative by Vivian Gornick. After attending a funeral and hearing many tributes, one struck Gornick as particularly memorable. The difference, she realized later, is that it had been composed, organized and structured. It raised the question: How do we tell our stories? Utilizing her years of teaching MFA programs, Gornick decided to tackle this question by showing readers how to recognize truth in writing, which she believes is the essence of what makes good writing.
  4. The Byline Bible: Get Published in Five Weeks by Susan Shapiro. Writers who yearn to be published take note – Shapiro promises fast results and cites five weeks or less. With more than 20 years of experience as a writing professor, she has tutored thousands of students using her popular “instant gratification takes too long” technique. For both emerging and experienced writers aiming to get past the slush pile, Shapiro’s results-driven approach is the how-to guide.
  5. The Writing Life by Annie Dillard. Another highly touted and often quoted tome by an award-winning author, Dillard uses this memoir as a vehicle to impart sage advice and motivation. She encourages writers to establish positive working routines, and to include activities such as regular reading and ongoing writing. She also cautions students not to save or hoard what they deem “good” passages for later use but to continue pushing ahead with the writing.
  6. A Mind Spread Out on the Ground by Alicia Elliott. Elliott excels at using highly personal braided essays to explore complex issues within the Indigenous community. Within this construct, the Tuscarora writer examines how the trauma of colonialism has resulted in generational cycles of poverty, obesity and disease. In easy-to-understand prose, she outlines how this cause-and-effect sequence continues to shape her community’s experiences and environment today. Any writer unfamiliar (as I was) or contemplating utilizing a braided essay format, this instructive work provides tremendous insight on the design and assembly.
  7. Birds, Art, Life by Kyo Maclear. In describing a difficult year, Maclear takes the reader on a month-by-month bird-watching adventure. Sparely written, she masterfully combines minimalist prose, expressive metaphors and philosophical musings to express her grief and anxiety over her father’s illness and resulting artistic slump. The writer and children’s book author contrasts this presentation with unusual stylistic conventions such as including lists and drawings. Filled with an ample array of writing methods and strokes of innovation, Maclear is sure to provide any CNF writer with imaginative ideas to consider.
  8. Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents by Mark Sakamoto. This memoir recounts the hardships of the Second World War from the different perspectives of Sakamoto’s interned Japanese Canadian grandmother and his Scottish grandfather who became a prisoner of war. These traumatic events provide the backdrop to the biracial writer’s own upbringing while skillfully interweaving Canadian history with themes of culture, ethnicity and identity.
  9. How to Be a Good Creature: A Memoir in Thirteen Animals by Sy Montgomery. The idea for this beautifully illustrated memoir sprang to life after a TV interview. Montgomery, who has travelled the world and spent decades researching, writing about and living with animals, realized she had many life lessons to share. In introducing the reader to different species, she interweaves themes of loss, grief and depression. Through these creature portraits, she provides a window into her own troubled upbringing.
  10. Walden by Henry David Thoreau. Scan any number of essential book lists and you’re likely to stumble upon this title. Thoreau’s account of his time spent in the solitude of nature, living in semi-isolation and near self-sufficiency, is viewed both directly and indirectly as a vast contribution to CNF. With his skill for prose, Thoreau is regarded as one of the greatest American writers, and is credited for his enormous influence on scores of seasoned writers in the areas of social reform, philosophy and the environment.

When it comes to not-to-be-missed recommendations, this list of essential craft and inspirational CNF works is only the tip of the iceberg. All writers can reap their benefits. Whether it’s a specific process to glean or an inventive example to emulate, there’s much we can all learn from these fellow writers and the wisdom they impart. Happy reading! – S.H.

Traditions lost: My virtual graduation

In Food For Thought on June 11, 2021 at 1:33 pm

For parents and students alike, there are few milestones in life as eagerly anticipated as graduation day. Whether you’ve completed high school, earned a college certificate or university degree, it’s a time of celebration and a day to mark your achievements. 

As someone who just received a master of fine arts, I realize I’ve come to the end of one road, but it’s the start of a new journey. Like all recent grads, I hope it leads to greater job and earning prospects in this ongoing pandemic economy. As writers, we can all dream. 

Yet somehow as I settled down in front of my computer, and navigated the various Facebook live and YouTube links, by the time they called my name, it all seemed very anti-climactic.

It certainly wasn’t the graduation I had envisioned when I signed up for grad school at the University of King’s College two years ago. As a finale, it was the opposite of my undergrad years at Ryerson decades ago. I still remember that sunny day: Nervously I rushed to pick up my gown at the assigned time and meeting point. Each graduating class lined up in alphabetical order and shuffled off to our seats where we patiently waited. Before it was our turn to parade across the stage and collect our parchments, there were bagpipers playing and inspiring speeches. A day filled with formalities – the epitome of pomp and ceremony for the benefit of all the students who had persevered with their studies, and friends and family who came to witness this acknowledgement of our accomplishments.

Without the companionship or comradery, one would expect for such an important ceremony, there’s something surreal about a virtual graduation. It felt like a symbol of traditions lost. There was no procession in academic regalia, no skyward tossing of mortarboards, no barrage of outdoor photos, no after party. It seemed strange to join hundreds of casual onlookers who tuned in live when I did, while others like my mom watched the replay. Did these fellow students huddle alone before their screens? Were they lacking a crowd of supporters and like myself informally outfitted in sweatpants? I wondered. 

In any case, the online event managed to inspire a sense of reflection and I found myself in quiet contemplation afterwards. On completing the arduous task of achieving our graduation goals, no doubt some students felt triumphant, refreshed and invigorated, while others may have felt cheated, and instead experienced melancholy and sentimental thoughts. 

If this pandemic has taught us anything, we have learned that even the loftiest of ivory towers can dismantle their centuries-old models and re-envision new practices. If one of the oldest academic institutions in Canada can pivot to an online learning model in record time, there’s no telling what other shifts can be made to affect important reforms. Although virtual classrooms are not for everyone, they have created more opportunities to access education without the additional costs of travel and residence. While affordable tuition continues to be an issue, these feats alone are worth celebrating. 

During my degree some of the most memorable moments happened outside of the classroom before lockdown interfered with the lives of countless students. Unexpected expanses of knowledge were somehow absorbed through osmosis, distilled through an opportune coffee break or chance meeting. Though I would have preferred to continue participating in person rather than be holed up inside my home office and tethered to a digital portal, I’m forever grateful to the university faculty, my mentors and classmates – fellow seekers on a voyage through reading, writing and higher learning.

I plan to return to those halls of academia sometime in the near future – if only to revisit the place where this journey began. Of course, this experience won’t be forgotten any time soon (my student loan payments will provide an ongoing reminder). Despite all these disruptions our eyes have been opened to limitless possibilities. Education has been our conduit to new ideas and innovation. Will we leave behind a legacy of positive change or a lasting impact for the better? It’s something to consider as we rush out into the future.

Celebrating Asian Heritage Month

In Book Reviews, Recently Reviewed on May 16, 2021 at 5:34 pm

For our Saturday evening movie night, the family watched Keisuke Kinoshita’s 1958 version of The Ballad of Narayama. Based on the novel by Shichirō Fukazawa, the Japanese folk tale explores the practice of abandoning our elders. Resembling a kabuki stage production, it features incredible music and dramatic pre-CG scene changes. I had seen Shōhei Imamura’s 1982 remake of the film, but that was so many years ago, and I only had vague recollections of this story of sacrifice and honour.

Photo by Photography Maghradze PH on Pexels.com

In celebration of Asian Heritage month, I’m sharing reviews of works by three Japanese Canadian writers and encourage you to delve deeper into their writing.

Rediscovering Japanese Canadian Identity: A Journey Through Creative Nonfiction

Who am I? Where do I belong? We’ve all asked these fundamental questions of existence and identity at some point in our lives. From the earliest days of civilized living, philosophers have been trying to provide answers: From Descartes, Cogito, ergo sum–“I think, therefore I am,” to Socrates, “The unexamined life is not worth living.”

Even if we feel secure in our identity, challenges or milestones can cause that sense of self to shift or change. And when faced with unexpected events that unhinge us or reopen old wounds, we may find ourselves questioning the very essence of our being. As Psychology Today reports, “…major life upheavals, such as divorce, retirement, or the death of a loved one, often lead people to explore and redefine their identities.”

Examining three Japanese Canadian (JC) memoirs, we meet Kyo Maclear, Joy Kogawa and Mark Sakamoto during difficult periods in their lives. Each author is on a metaphorical journey to regain their identity. Informing the writing are repeated themes: duty and responsibility; the complex child/parent relationship; and inherited traits. Questions arise, throughout their struggles, regarding ethnicity and its influence. While Maclear and Sakamoto are of mixed race, all authors share Japanese heritage, which creates an underlying thread of experience. Despite these commonalities, the structure and style of each memoir is completely different – and each writer follows their own unique path to resolution.

Flight of Fancy: A Whimsical Journey

If you wanted a summary of Birds Art Life by Kyo Maclear, the subtitles: “A Field Guide to the Small and Insignificant” or “A Year of Observation,” provide telling clues to the content although depending upon the edition, they’re not always included. On some covers, the title Birds Art Life is listed in three separate lines, and one wonders if it’s meant to be a loose reference to haiku since it succinctly summarizes the work and sets the tone with its sparsely written but explanatory text. 

The memoir introduces Maclear in a state of grief and anxiety after her British father suffers two strokes. She’s feeling lost and unnerved by her father’s illness, and has fallen into an artistic slump. Looking for inspiration, the writer and artist undertakes outside distractions and immersive hobbies, which allow the creative to take flight. Birdwatching provides a calming activity­­–a walking meditation punctuated by long periods of quiet watching and waiting. Maclear mirrors this in her deeply introspective compositions. Peppered with insightful observations, it’s an opportunity for Maclear to pose esoteric questions on identity and reflect upon the human condition. 

This whimsical and nature-inspired excursion through quirky lists, side notes and hand-drawn illustrations benefits from its heavily structured format. Divided into sections: first by seasons and then by month, she covers the period of an entire year beginning with a Winter prologue and moves full circle with the epilogue. The book is neatly organized by the London (UK)-born writer who grew up in Toronto where most of the story is set. Each season is afforded a double-page photograph, and each month begins with an artfully presented title page and succinct summary–an effective method for creating separation and grounding the occasionally flighty content. 

Maclear visits an aviary in “January / Cages,” inspiring discussions on freedom and responsibility. As an only child, she often longed to run away, “I was running away from a story about dutiful daughters. I returned because I didn’t know where I would go or who I would be without these ideas. ”Strained relationships emerge beginning with her Japanese mother: “My mother is a mystery to me. Between us is a barrier of language and disposition. She does not divulge or publicly introspect.” Reflecting on this relationship, Maclear realizes she created the imagined narrative: As a failed artist, her mother chose to tolerate an unhappy marriage and to maintain family responsibilities instead of pursuing a creative life. Years later, her mother finally leaves her father, and he soon becomes ill. Her mother, in regaining her independence, becomes what Maclear terms “defiantly unnurturing.” But through fresh insight gained from birding, Maclear acknowledges she had imposed her own expectations upon her mother. Forced to assume a new identify as caregiver to her father, she embraces her role reversal, “I stepped in to fill the breach and discovered I had a talent for it.” A caged bird continues to sing.

Although Maclear doesn’t make large references to her Japanese heritage, in “February / Smallness,” she defends her preference for safety in the small: 

“Good girls are taught to make ourselves small until there is very little of ourselves left in the world, even as our hunger expands. If we are also ‘minorities,’ embracing smallness is a less mutinous and more predictable route. Little, petite, modest, delicate, submissive, soft-spoken, docile, cute, feminine, tidy…Asian women are not assumed to be particularly magisterial, with the exception of Yoko Ono, who is frequently and predictably belittled for her artistic hubris and over-the-top voice.”

The writing style has a Zen-like quality with its ability to poetically convey meaning through minimal details. Like many Japanese Canadians (JC), who grew up with systemic racism and distanced themselves from their community and culture, Maclear similarly keeps an arms-length distance from the reader: most characters remain anonymous, only known by their personas such as “the Musician” or “the Doctor.”

She also masterfully employs parallels to seemingly unrelated topics. In “August / Roaming” she credits the writers and poets who were her early influences. This inspires a shift to her mother the artist and her father the writer, where she concedes: “From my mother, I inherited my sometimes crooked humour and independence. From my father, curiosity about the world, a desire for seclusion.”

In her quest to find meaning again in her life, Maclear winds up her thoughtful expedition with many lessons learned: 

“There are no big reasons to live. Just little reasons. Make leeway for chance. Sometimes you don’t want to be driven to a point. Sometimes it is exactly when we lose our bearings or take a detour that life really gets going.”

Journey into Darkness: Return to Light

The idea for Joy Kogawa’s memoir was sparked by a physical place: “The title arrived as Gently to Nagasaki, and I had no idea what that meant. But what I know now, is that it’s my own personal hell.” This guidepost, as the title alludes, points her towards uncharted territory, a direction to follow as she embarks upon this spiritual pilgrimage.

Kogawa confesses it was extremely difficult for her to write this powerful chronicle: “My story is from the belly of the dark. I am forbidden to tell it and commanded to tell it. I am told that to speak is to slay and not to speak is to slay.” The first section takes us to Nagasaki, cataloguing the many effects of radiation and health consequences suffered by atomic bomb survivors. It’s a long preamble before Kogawa’s crushing revelation: 

“The truth was that the person I loved and admired more than anyone in the world, the one with whom I most identified with, the one who told stories and made life fun, who was tender and generous and wept and laughed and sang, who was good and did not give up, the one in whom I could see no wrong and who saw no wrong in me, my father, a visionary and charismatic priest in the Anglican Church, a man who had served his scattered flock and his people without letup: my adored father was a paedophile.”

Through the depths of her grief, Kogawa becomes physically ill and is filled with a displaced sense of guilt. In the wake of coming to terms with these harsh realities, she travels through the decades tackling other serious issues: her fight to preserve her family home in Vancouver that was seized during World War Two, the atrocities committed by the Japanese Imperial Army in Nanking and meeting some of her father’s victims. Stories she needed to recount, telling Image magazine, “Writing Gently to Nagasaki was a scream for mercy.” 

Divided into five parts, there is no table of contents or titles, only numbered chapters. It begins with a quote from the bible on healing, and ends with a poem of forgiveness, giving thanks for homecoming waters. Some chapters flow effortlessly into the next, others end suddenly. The Endnotes section requires careful study to decipher as there are no clear indications within the text and no footnotes included at the bottom of the pages. To contrast the weighty content, the book’s liberal use of white space acts as a momentary pause and breath of fresh air.

Kogawa’s writing style is as intense as the subject matter it covers yet the lyrical language reflects her background as a poet. Her straightforward approach of naming names and providing specifics is juxtaposed by cloaked references, which include a multitude of scripture citations, biblical stories, and Buddhist mythology. This density infuses the work with layer upon layer of meaning–some cryptic and others obvious, which might make some passages difficult to navigate for readers without a Christian upbringing or understanding of religion.

“Do we write to be free of our ghosts or to welcome them?” Kogawa asks us. Faced with criticism from the JC community for preserving her family home and coupled with her need to apologize for her father’s wrongdoings, she reclaims a sense of self in her absolute tenets: truth, love and trust. As her trek nears its completion, she visits her father’s ancestral home in Japan and wonders if she can symbolically leave behind the burden of guilt she’s carried throughout the years. Once there, the gentle culture returns her to her origins: 

“I was flung back to earliest childhood and Japanese motherhood: the solicitude, the quiet matter-of-factness, the way of knowing needs, the non-judgment, the slight indirection in the angle of the head. The deep trust established between mother and child is, I think, the foundation for the extraordinary trust in one another that exists in Japanese society.”

By exploring larger abstract questions, Kogawa pushes past narrow definitions of identity and embraces a higher perspective of oneness:

“We need to share our vulnerabilities — all humans are vulnerable — and come to our common humanity . . . . I think we need healing circles, like those of indigenous people. We need to see each other’s eyes, and see each other through each other’s eyes.”

Journey Through the Ages: Injustice Revisited 

For anyone seeking an epic odyssey, Mark Sakamoto is waiting to take you there in Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents. Beautifully told with the easy-going narrative of a seasoned storyteller, Sakamoto weaves the story of his grandparents: from their early beginnings, to how they survived the trials and tribulations of war and hard-scrabble living. It unfolds as an incredible drama that one could easily see portrayed on the big screen.

When his alcoholic mother dies after years of addiction Sakamoto, overcome with guilt and shame, falls into a state of depression. “I told friends and family I had found solace. I lied: I felt neither grace nor solace. I felt fear. I felt a mighty undercurrent and I was petrified it would sweep me under.” He finds his way back by returning to the history of his grandparents, remembering how they endured great suffering and injustices, and the forgiveness that followed. 

Sakamoto begins with a modern-day visit to his grandmother’s house, setting the scene in the prologue. From there he launches us back in history where the voyage starts afresh. Methodically divided into four parts with subchapters within them, he then skips back and forth between the lives of his Scottish grandfather and Japanese grandmother. This rising action skillfully leads us to Sakamoto’s crisis. He returns to the current time, and quickly summarizes his own role and involvement in the story. The epilogue provides the conclusion and consists of a personal thank you note to his grandparents for sharing their stories.

Filled with gripping reports and evocative scenes vividly told, other voices emerge, and Sakamoto successfully transports us into another time and era steeped in culture: 

“Yosuke tried to make life easier for his community and Mitsue tried to make life easier for him. The focus of family life was to assist and to be obedient, to make their parents proud. The sense of duty was constant.”

Towards the end of the novel, Sakamoto switches back to his own narrative and abruptly ties up all loose ends in what feels like a sprint to the finish. Three months after his mother dies, Sakamoto remains in what he calls a dull fog, not sleeping and paralyzed by fear, acknowledging he’s hit rock bottom. His partner tells him, “‘Remember what you’re made of,’ she said. I cried tears of gratitude. For her. For Grandma Mitsue and Grandpa Ralph–for showing me a way out.” And after that, he simply bounces back. Compared to the earlier accounts, it’s less emotionally charged and lacks the same depth of reflection found in previous chapters – almost too quick and tidy a summation to the events so movingly portrayed before. Writer Jack Hart would term this classic falling action or denouement, “Intensity faces. The pace slows. Things wind down.” Yet one wonders if Sakamoto has run out of steam by the time we get to his story or whether he’s using this approach to distance himself. 

In the final chapter, aptly titled “Journey’s End,” Sakamoto spreads his mother’s ashes in a symbolic act of closure signally he’s ready to move on. He resurfaces from the punishing ordeal with new-found philosophical insight: 

“Life happens one decision at a time. You have no idea where each will take you. Maybe it is fate. Maybe it is God’s will. Maybe everything does happen for a reason. All I know is you have to find a reason in it. The reason is usually the future.”

Grappling with life’s existential questions of identity is never easy, even during the best state of mind. How do I deal with trauma? Do these events define who I am? Am I the sum of my parent’s lives? Maclear, Kogawa and Sakamoto all faced similar questions on the road travelled back to self. Triggered by crisis, they all sought to rediscover their identity and using CNF were rewarded with rich metaphors for exploration. Each found resolution by taking a different route.

Maclear, Kogawa and Sakamoto may have gone in completely opposite directions in terms of style and structure, but managed to cover some of the same ground. We walked with them as they survived their parents’ broken marriages and experienced their role reversal when the child became caregiver to the parent. With both pride and ambivalence, they revealed how ethnicity had influenced their lives and in their shared Japanese heritage, all experienced feelings of displacement; an internal and external journey through diaspora and resettlement. They found themselves in the little things, the big things, the meaningful gestures. 

For those who have never experienced tragedy or loss, the incomprehensibility of grief and mourning, and the forms they take can be unrecognizable; the depths unfathomable. Maclear, Kogawa and Sakamoto are deeply reflective as they emerge from their dark nights and impart lasting words of wisdom to the reader. In regaining a semblance of order again in their lives, each author finds profound redemption – a triumph over adversity as a resilient identity emerges forged from fragments of the past.

Works Cited

Alexander, Daryl Royster, New York Times Word for Word/90-Second Philosophy; In Bite-Size Portions, The Wise Men Made Easy,” May 14, 2000,

Boers, Arthur and Braun, Connie T., Image magazine, Issue 95, “A Conversation with Joy Kogawa.”

Hart, Jack, Storycraft: The Complete Guide to Writing Narrative Nonfiction, The University of Chicago Press, 2011.

“Interview with Joy Kogawa,” George Stroumboulopoulos Tonight, CBC, July 12, 2013.

Kogawa, Joy, Gently to Nagasaki, Caitlin Press, August 2016.

Maclear, Kyo, Birds Art Life, Doubleday Canada, January 2017

NAJC and Province of British Columbia, “BC Redress Community Consultations” paper, 2019.

Psychology Today website, “Identity,” accessed Oct. 31, 2019,

Sakamoto, Mark, Forgiveness: A Gift from My Grandparents, HarperCollins Canada, 2014.

Savage, Candace, Literary Review of Canada, Beauty and the Accidental: In watching birds, a writer finds solace, and lessons for the creative life.”