Tuesday, April 5, 2016

John Calderazzo: Notes on Writing "Accident"

by Susan
I was beyond excited when I found out John Calderazzo was one of the presenters chosen for the Wyoming Writers, Inc. 42nd Annual Conference coming up in Riverton June 3-5. I had the great joy of working with John in a small group setting and found him to be an incredibly insightful teacher -- gentle, but not afraid to push us. When our time with John concluded, we each wrote to him about "Why I Write." From mine:
I write to find that red­hot core, that “aboutness.” John, I cannot look at a piece now without hearing your voice: “What is this about?” You never let me off the hook. You never let me play around the edges and skirt the subject. You forced me to put myself in my own stories.
Working with John took my writing up a level. I am forever grateful for that time I had with him, and I'm looking forward to learning more from him at the conference workshops.

We asked John if he would share some of his work and his thoughts on writing with us. He has provided the short nonfiction piece, "Accident," and his notes on writing it. Both were originally published online in Brevity. We hope this will give you a taste of what you might learn from him in Riverton.


by John Calderazzo

Not really looking as I crank the engine and start downhill for town, I tilt my head out my window in a rush of wind to take in winter stars and sweep away the fumes from a petty argument at home.  My escape velocity: not fast enough, but faster than I should be going.

Right away I pass a pickup and a jeep parked oddly on the road.  My headlights wash over a car upturned in a field and people trotting towards it.

I pull over on stiff grass.

In a wavering of flashlights: no dents or shattered glass. But hurrying through mashed down weeds and settling dust, I see the car bottom up, naked in the glare of strangers and the Milky Way, a flipped turtle, legs flailing.  In the passenger seat a woman hangs upside-down.

She pounds the dash with a fist and wails at the dumbstruck sky, “What have you DONE to me?”
She’s unbuckled, lowered, and pulled out, crying.  Then a man crawls from the driver’s side, his left hand bleeding, his right holding a bottle sloshing with something clear, vodka or gin.  He stands and slings it into the dark.  A far off thump.

“You tried to KILL me!” she yells from where she’s sitting now, a jacket heaped over her, then a child’s comforter.

Hot metal ticks.

I smell dripping gasoline and duck fast to check the back seat.  “IS THERE ANYONE ELSE?” I call out.

“NO,” she calls back.  “But where’s my shoe?  I’m COLD.”

The stunned man is suddenly mumbling at my side, “Gotta get that shoe . . . .”  Then lurching towards the car he tries to light a cigarette.

“HEY DON’T!” I shout and dive away, rolling.

In my mind’s eye: WOOF!  A pillow of orange heat blowing him back.

Soon enough he staggers up and starts to wander in a circle.  “That shoe . . . .”

We stand around and watch.  I think about an eyebrow I might no longer quite feel, the woman’s face shining wet in flickering firelight.

Finally, sirens in the distance.

From just uphill I hear our two dachshunds, bodies tensed at the backyard fence,
snouts lifted straight up, sky howling, as they tend to with coyotes and every ambulance that sprints out from town.  I imagine my wife coming out to stand beside them, then looking down at all the lights and thinking, OH JESUS IT’S HIM.

So I take my leave.  Driving home, I tilt my head into cool night air and wonder if that upturned woman, as she hung briefly in the dark, noticed how much space there is between the stars and how quietly they burn.

John Calderazzo on writing "Accident"

A funny thing happened to me a few years ago as I sat in the back row of a beginning creative writing class taught by a Colorado State University graduate student of mine. He’d invited me to observe him so that I could write a letter of recommendation that spoke to his teaching skills. So I sat in the back, in silence, taking notes and doing whatever he asked the class to do. Which on this afternoon was to write a poem that grew out of some very good sound exercises he had just run us through.

Once, in my twenties, I considered myself a poet, and I’d even published a chapbook from those intense and confused young man days. Then I decided that prose was my bag, the natural register of my writing voice. First it was fiction and then, overwhelmingly, nonfiction, and I had been writing magazine pieces, essays, and books ever since. “Ever since” meant a good twenty-five years.

So I have to say that I was shocked to see, and then feel, the poem that I dutifully started morph line by line and image by image into something that I could feel with my entire body. It was like watching a muscular stallion clop tranquilly by, then climbing on and taking off with him over the countryside, leaping ditches and flying towards the horizon, even though I barely knew how to ride. Scribbling very fast, I wrote right past the bottom of my legal pad and onto the desk top—well, maybe I put another sheet of paper down first (I’m writing nonfiction here, after all). But it sure felt like I’d flown off the page.

The next morning I was up before 5, writing more poetry. Same thing the next morning and the next . . . and now, a couple of years later, I have a poetry manuscript, culled from about 200 new poems, that I’m about to send out. I am still shocked by this.

But I’m not shocked that, along the way, a few of my poems came out sounding like narrative nonfiction. I mean especially some of the ones in which the “I” is “really” me and the facts are all verifiably true. This was almost the case with “Accident.” Based on an incident that occurred about two weeks before I sat down to write, I conceived it as poem. All the facts were true except one: the overturned, gasoline-smelling car never burst into flames. In my poem I made it do that because that was exactly what I thought might happen at the time. So if I wanted that car to burn, it would burn.

But when I decided to see what the piece looked like in paragraphs and then decided to make it nonfiction, I had to douse those poetic flames, so to speak. Thus the phrase, “In my mind’s eye . . .”

And thus this nonfiction short-short for Brevity.


John Calderazzo helped build the undergraduate and M.A. Creative Nonfiction writing programs at Colorado State University where he has won a Best CSU Teacher Award and many other honors. He also teaches scientists around the U.S. how to communicate with the public by using traditional story telling skills. His essays, poems, & stories have appeared in hundreds of publications, including Audubon, Georgia Review, High Country News, Orion, and North American Review. His books include Writing from Scratch: Freelancing, a poetry chapbook, a kids science book and, most recently, a collection of linked travel essays, Rising Fire: Volcanoes and Our Inner Lives. He has won a 2012 Traveler’s Tales travel-adventure gold medal for an essay about getting bitten by a dog in Bhutan, and his work has been cited in Best American Short Stories and Best American Essays.

He will conduct workshops at the Wyoming Writers, Inc. 42nd Annual Conference in Riverton, Wyoming on June 3-5, 2016. Learn more about the conference at www.wyowriters.org/conference.


  1. I have liked John's work since I wrote a companion book , For Business,in the Writing From Scratch series, edited by long-time teaching associate John Pratt at CSU. I still have John C's Writing From Scratch: Freelancing.

    I wrote to a friend this morning that a poem in Writer's Almanac felt more like a prose piece with line breaks than a poem. The line between poetry and good prose can be rather murky, as John writes of so nicely here. I have several prose poems that started life as poems. I am still wrestling with the differences between them and have decided it's mostly feel for me, how the piece feels and looks on the page.

    Again, as with last year, I'm torn between sessions at WWI. Such great choices again. And then there are editors too.

    1. I am torn myself, mostly between John and Lori Howe. Maybe if you and I go to different sessions the same time period, we'll have to compare notes.


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