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Graduate nonfiction’s Wood, Sunstein swirling the language

BY CAROLINE BERG | APRIL 23, 2009 7:29 AM

Cutter Wood feels safe in Iowa. This is mostly because it resembles his home state of Pennsylvania.

Wood’s home may not have mind-numbingly vast fields of corn resulting in a gigantic mass of edible gold. Instead, what Pennsylvania shares with Iowa is the topographical quality of “a nice solid chunky sort of state,” Wood wrote in an e-mail. This is the quality that originally drew him to Iowa.

“I trust none of those states that have thin parts or handle-ish features,” Wood wrote. “If I pick a state up, I want to have to hold it in my arms, like a bear or an enormous soda.”

Wood, a graduate student in the UI’s Nonfiction Writing Program, and UI English professor and seasoned author Bonnie Sunstein, are teaming up to present their work at the UIMA event Word Painters (formerly known as the UIMA’s Writer-in-Residence program). The event starts at 7:30 tonight in the Old Capitol Senate Chamber, and admission is free.

“The goal of the program is to have a more integrated interaction in the arts and humanities on the UI campus,” UIMA Director of Education Dale Fisher wrote in an e-mail of Word Painters.

As format goes, four UI Nonfiction Writing students are annually awarded a 3-month residency to work on writing projects, including a mandatory art-based essay, alongside established UI faculty writers. This Friday is a celebration of Wood’s creativity with readings from his book of short stories Things I Don’t Like, and Why.

Wood classifies his writing as a very distinct brand of nonfiction. Some people, himself included, know it as “bullshit nonfiction.” This seemingly crude genre of literature, put more conservatively as “made-up” nonfiction, is nonetheless a methodical approach to writing.

“I see a thing (a person for example, about to pee on an electric fence, or fall in love), I get confused (‘That seems like a dumb idea.’), and then I write about being confused (‘I’m pretty sure, in the final assessment, that was a dumb idea.’),” Wood wrote of the “bullshit nonfiction” method. “Sometimes that person is someone else, [but] mostly it’s me.”

Sunstein will read selections from her professional writing that illustrate how a nonfiction writer tries to render clever reflections of real life without losing his or her own voice.

When asked about being matched with Sunstein, Wood wrote, “I think they probably paired us up mostly not because of our writing abilities (which in her case are substantial) but because they thought we were cool.”

Despite his way with the written word, Wood is disappointed with his native language. This dissatisfaction is so potent it moved Wood to write an essay on the “Twelve Failures of the English Language,” which he will most likely read at the show.

Wood is particularly peeved by the confines of English syntax. He compares his bond with English to a failing relationship with a significant other. Wood finds that as time goes by, the luster of the partnership fades, but “you’re getting older and your parents like him or her so you just end up sticking with this partner.”

Nevertheless, in his short story “Kykkeliky,” Wood writes, “ ‘Je suis Cutter. Il fait beau.’ I am Cutter. It is beautiful. It is.”


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