The Right Place at the Wrong Time

I’ve mentioned a few times that I’ve taken quite a few memoir-writing courses. In five or six courses, the instructors assigned “The Fourth State of Matter,” an essay from JoAnn Beard’s memoir The Boys of My Youth. I had to read it over and over. But there’s a reason why so many instructors assign it. Wow, what a piece of creative nonfiction! I’ve written about it in a previous post. What occurs in the story is what happens when Beard was in the right place at the wrong time.

I’m not trying to be cryptic or coy. It’s best to let the essay speak for itself and take you by surprise.

This book is actually a collection of essays, but I call it a memoir because the essays are memoir pieces loosely placed together. Oddly, the effect is that of a more traditional memoir, although the book does not give the impression of one complete story.



From this book I learned that memoir can be shaped the way the story needs to be told, rather than following a predetermined format. A memoir can be a story collection. By constructing a book out of publishable essays, a writer can send her pieces out without waiting for the entire book to be complete.

From “The Fourth State of Matter,” the stunning essay at the heart of the book, I learned that several story threads can be woven together to create a rich tapestry. If you write creative nonfiction, be sure to read this essay!


Filed under Book Review, Books, Creative Nonfiction, Essay, Memoir, Nonfiction, Research and prep for writing, Writing

25 responses to “The Right Place at the Wrong Time

  1. My “to read” list is growing, thanks to you!

  2. The reviews on Amazon are pretty great, Luanne. I just added it to my “Wish List.” I’d love to read it and I write fiction.Thanks for the recommendation!

    • Luanne

      I actually think Beard’s book would be valuable for a fiction writer. Maybe much more so than a lot of memoirs (not that they don’t all teach a lot about writing in general). Her essays remind me of fictional short stories by Bonnie Jo Campbell, Alice Munro, Stu Dybek, etc.

  3. Wilma Kahn

    You have drawn the reader into a mystery…I’m hooked!

  4. I loved Boys of My Youth and, as you said, remember some of the lessons it taught when writing fiction as well. (p.s. I’m featuring your blog on my “Blogs of Strangers” series – I’ve much enjoyed following you)

    • Luanne

      Ellen, what an honor! Thank you so much! I’m so glad you loved the book and that it was useful for fiction writing for you!!

  5. Thanks for this info.

  6. I have always hated that term “creative non-fiction.” An oxymoron if I ever heard one.

    • Luanne

      Really?! Wow, Anneli, not for me! Well, I would say that it’s not the most graceful term, for sure. But non-fiction is surely creative for memoir writers! And I think for many other nonfiction writers, too. But then you know that. Maybe you’re responding to it as an ugly name ;).

      • Yes, it’s the idea that we are supposed to be writing non-fiction (which, to me, means facts – true things) and then we get creative with it and put in things that we only imagine are true. I can live with fiction “based on a true story.”

  7. Another growing TBR list… 😉

  8. Alerting you to a typo above, the title of the essay is Fourth State of Matter. And I couldn’t agree more about it’s significance to CNF writers everywhere. 🙂
    -Chris at

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  10. I read this book many years ago, as I was at the University of Iowa as a student when Gang Lu committed those murders. It’s one of those events that stays at the edge of my mind about the randomness of life, as I was in the building shortly before he shot the administrative personnel.
    I don’t recall this particular essay, so I’ll have to give it a second look.

    • Luanne

      I can imagine it would! stay in your mind! Wow, Michelle, I’m so glad you had left the building!!! Please let me know what you think about the essay after you read it. I’d love to see your take on it since your were so close to the circumstances.

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