October 04, 2012
(+++) GET REAL
If I Have to Tell You One More Time… The Revolutionary Program That Gets Your Kids to Listen without Nagging, Reminding, or Yelling. By Amy McCready. Tarcher/Penguin. $24.95.
You Can’t Make This Stuff Up: The Complete Guide to Writing Creative Nonfiction from Memoir to Literary Journalism and Everything in Between. By Lee Gutkind. Da Capo. $16.
Amy McCready is founder of an organization called Positive Parenting Solutions, and wow, would most parents like a few of those. McCready’s objective in If I Have to Tell You One More Time… is to offer some and also explain why many other approaches, including those that worked on today’s parents when they themselves were children, are no longer effective. To that end, she starts by showing why two specific ways of handling discipline – time-outs and counting to three when insisting a child do something – do not work. She then sets forth a series of precepts or beliefs grounded largely in the thinking of Alfred Adler (1870-1937), an early colleague of Freud who broke with the Freudian system out of Adler’s belief that the determining factor in human development is the infant’s feeling of inferiority – and that the basic, common movement through life of every human being is one of overcoming, expansion, growth, completion and security. Technical arguments aside – McCready wisely does not offer any – what If I Have to Tell You One More Time… offers is a series of recommendations with such titles as “Mind, Body & Soul Time,” “The Calm Voice,” “Encouragement” (which she says is not the same as praise, although it can be hard to tell the difference), “Take Time for Training,” “Choices,” and so on. Many of these approaches are scarcely new, although the titles alone do not always show what McCready is getting at: “Choices,” for example, does not mean allowing a child to pick which of two things he or she must unwillingly do, but instead “are best used throughout the day either to offer opportunities for your child to gain positive power, or to ward off power struggles (or both).” There are 23 of these “Toolbox Solutions” in all, and applying all of them as McCready recommends is flat-out impossible: some are to be used “all the time when you’re around your kids,” some “whenever you feel that your child is ready to take on a new task of responsibility,” some “when you want to reduce repeated misbehaviors,” and so on. Each “Toolbox Solution” comes with a set of implementation instructions, and McCready deserves praise for trying to show parents how to do what she recommends, not just making the suggestions and leaving the how-to for time-pressed, stressed parents to figure out on their own. But actually doing what she suggests will require, for many parents, superhuman feats of memory and emotional control. For example, McCready urges the use of “I feel” statements “to communicate clearly during high-stress situations” and “to work through and defuse power struggles,” and she explains how important it is to make a comment such as this: “I feel upset when you wear your shoes in the house because it tracks mud everywhere and I’m left to clean it up. I wish you would take them off as soon as you come inside.” Philosophically (or in the terms of Adlerian psychology), this makes perfect sense, but asking a tremendously stressed parent who may be juggling multiple children, some work crises and a number of adult family issues to respond this way when the clean carpets in the house are suddenly filled with dirt is requesting the patience of a saint. Not that there is anything wrong with requesting such patience – but expecting it and making it the basis of a program of child-rearing is something else again. If I Have to Tell You One More Time… has a series of particularly well-thought-out approaches to the everyday dramas and struggles of family life, and McCready’s desire to show parents how to use her ideas is admirable. Parents will, however, find it much, much more difficult to do more than a few of these things more than a portion of the time – which is unfortunate, since the constant and consistent implementation of the “Toolbox Solutions” lies at the heart of McCready’s whole approach. The ideas here are certainly worth a try, but parents who come up short in using them should not be too harsh on themselves – since they and their children alike are, after all, only human, and as far from behavioral perfection as the term “human” implies.
Writers are only human, too, and many an author has described his or her works as “children.” But the process of birthing prose and bringing it to maturity is quite different from that of raising children – although the two do have parallels. The necessity of creativity, even when writing nonfiction, is one resemblance. And it is a particularly close parallel one when writing “creative nonfiction,” which is a specific form of communication that is based on facts but takes liberties with presentation in order to produce a more-compelling narrative. Readers familiar with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood know one famous example; those who have read Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe know an older and even more famous one. But other instances of creative nonfiction have more notoriety than fame, such as Clifford Irving’s phony biography of Howard Hughes and Janet Cooke’s Pulitzer-Prize-winning fake portrait of a nonexistent eight-year-old drug dealer for The Washington Post. Lee Gutkind is founder and editor of a magazine called Creative Nonfiction, so of course he believes in the form and has a number of axes to grind in its support. He divides You Can’t Make This Stuff Up into two parts, the first devoted to explaining what creative nonfiction is and the second, longer section detailing how to go about producing work of this type. Even writers who want to get started in the field immediately would do well to read both parts of the book, since Gutkind has a specific definition in the first part that informs all his recommendations in the second. Essentially, what he does is draw a distinction between facts and truth, the former being objective and the latter personal. This is more than a matter of semantics, as police and attorneys know well when they try to find points of conformity and difference in eyewitness statements. Indeed, Akiro Kurosawa’s classic movie Rashomon brilliantly explored the difference between facts and truth more than 60 years ago. Gutkind has a number of ways for interested creative-fiction writers to understand and tap into both facts and truth. The first part of You Can’t Make This Stuff Up, for example, includes a series of exercises, such as an “immersion” in a specific location – such as a coffee shop for an hour a day, five days a week, writing sketches about people and taking note of their conversations; or daily reading of three newspapers – one local, one national and one chosen at random from a different small town each day. Integrating these techniques into online services such as Google Alerts is supposed to help writers come up with material and learn how to process it. Then Gutkind gets into the nitty gritty of creating creative nonfiction, including ideas such as finding a symbol to follow throughout a story, using intimate detail to “allow the reader to hear and see how the people we are writing about reveal what’s on their minds,” and using a series of additional exercises to deconstruct and reconstruct a variety of notes and scenes that Gutkind himself presents. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up is a useful workbook for a specific writing niche, and people wanting to break into the field – especially those parts involving Gutkind himself or influenced by him – would do well to go through the exercises and recommendations in some detail. The book falls short as a general-interest title, though, primarily because Gutkind, who is committed financially and as a career to creative nonfiction, pays little attention to the ethical issues raised by the field, making it seem as if the examples he gives of people who clearly stepped over the line are enough to show other writers where not to go. Things are not that simple, though, and it is arguable whether creative nonfiction is in fact nonfiction at all, or merely a form of fiction built around a set of facts that are molded to fit a particular narrative – like a so-called “docudrama.” Readers concerned about the blurring of the lines between fact and truth should look to other books for informed discussion of the serious issues posed by this type of writing; those interested mainly in being able to accomplish the blurring with greater skill will do very well with Gutkind’s.