Thursday, June 12, 2014

TCR Great Essays (#1): "Nature Walk" by Stephen Dau

Stephen Dau
The Committee Room inaugurates its TCR Great Essays series, which highlights outstanding works of non-fiction recently published online, with "Nature Walk" by Stephen Dau.

"Nature Walk" was published in Ploughshares (Spring 2014).

Dau, who worked in post-war reconstruction in the Balkans, recalls with masterful detail and a wry sense of humor the absurdities and dangers of everyday life in Sarajevo in the aftermath of war.

"'Nature Walk' is an excerpt from a longer work based around a period of time I spent in Bosnia in the 1990s," Dau explained to The Committee Room. "The excerpt consists of several early sections which have been reworked to make one stand-alone essay. In the book, however, these sections act a little differently, more as scene setting pieces than as a self-contained, free standing story. It comes directly from my experience, and as much as anything it is an effort to make sense of what I was doing there, and by extension what America and the West were doing there after the fall of communism and the Yugoslav wars, and by further extension what America and the West tend to do in lots of places around the world."

Dau is the author of In a Foreign Country (forthcoming) and the novel The Book of Jonas (Blue Rider Press) which was a semi-finalist for the Cabell First Novelist Prize and was named one of the best books of 2012 by Kirkus Reviews and Booklist. He received an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars. His work has been featured on NPR and appeared in McSweeney’s, The Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, and MSNBC, among other places.

"I've been writing on-and-off since I was a child," says Dau, an American who currently lives in Belgium. "But I've been serious about it (by which I simply mean taking a focused and consistent approach to submissions and to trying to improve as a writer) for around ten years."

Dau finds that from a "craft perspective" there is little difference between writing fiction and non-fiction. "In theory, the difference is that in fiction you're describing images and events you imagine, whereas in non-fiction you're describing things that really happened. But it's not nearly as clear cut as that," he says. "When you're writing a personal essay, which is technically non-fiction, you're dealing with memory, which is a notoriously fallible vehicle. In effect you're not writing about what happened, you're writing about your subjective experience of what happened. But you're not really even writing that. The very act of accessing a memory changes it. So you're writing about your memory of your subjective experience of what happened. The line between fact and fiction is incredibly blurry, especially in a personal essay. Maybe because of this, I tend to approach fiction and non-fiction similarly."

When asked to name some of his favorite non-fiction works, Dau says -- "There are so many! I love the kind of comprehensive long-form journalism found in The Believer and The New Yorker and lots of other places. I'm amazed at the quality and thoroughness of some of them. Some of my favorites in book form include Homage to Catalonia by George Orwell, A Moveable Feast, Michael Ondaatje's Running in the Family. As you might imagine I also love work that blurs the line between fiction and reality, like The Things They Carried by Tim O'Brien and The Cat's Table, again by Ondaatje. This is just off the top of my head. There are lots more."

To read "Nature Walk" click here

TCR Great Essays highlights outstanding works of non-fiction published online within the preceding twelve months.

The Committee Room.  Time Spent with TCR is Never Wasted.

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