AWP 2014: Writing Feminism in Creative Nonfiction

March 6, 2014 § 4 Comments


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A lot of folks are talking about feminism right now, especially in writing and publishing. And a lot of folks are talking about creative nonfiction, the wayward fourth genre that’s finally asserting itself in classrooms and literary journals. But we aren’t talking much about the intersection of feminism and creative nonfiction. And we ought to be.

Sarah Lenz’s AWP panel on ‘Writing Feminism in Creative Nonfiction’ featured five women who have spent a lot of time thinking about the feminist issues unique to nonfiction writing: Lenz, Marcia Aldrich, Kristen Iversen, Sonja Livingston, and Mary Kay McBrayer. Rather than report on each panelists’ talk, let’s just dive in to the most urgent and interesting ideas.

Creative nonfiction is a genre of de facto feminism:

“I’m a de facto feminist,” Lenz said, opening the panel. “I write from a woman’s perspective because I can’t escape my own identity.” Regardless of their initial motivation or agenda, all women writers of creative nonfiction address issues relevant to feminism.

Sonja Livingston (author of Ghostbread) pointed out that creative nonfiction is an inherently inclusive, democratic genre: “I love this genre in particular because it says, ‘Your life matters,’ which I interpret to mean, ‘All lives matter.’” In this way, CNF can provide a space for those whose voices are often marginalized.

There’s a unique relationship between the fourth genre and the second sex:

Livingston spoke about how, at writing workshops or conferences, nonfiction writers “always felt pushed off to the side.”

“The genre itself was not seen the same way as other genres,” she said. “The opportunities are the not the same.” She began to wonder if this had anything to do with the fact that so many women were in these workshops.

Livingston’s comments reminded me of an observation from Joy Castro at another AWP panel: “Scorn for memoir is one way [people] express their anxiety about who gets to speak.”

Notions of “the voice” in writing are often distinctly masculine:

Marcia Aldrich spoke about how education often privileges voices that are impersonal, public, and masculine. “Teachers kept talking about ‘the voice’ as if it were disembodied,” she said, “but I felt that my voice came distinctly from my body.” Aldrich pointed out that we’re taught to distrust voices that are intimate, interior, or domestic.

We equate the personal with the feminine, and give “personal” writing less authority. Aldrich struggled with these limitations as a poet, but in writing her first essay, she found a voice that was embodied, personal, and also powerful.

Problems of labeling plague both feminism and memoir:

Kristen Iverson (author of Shadowboxing: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction) said that words like feminist, activist (and, my addition, memoirist) are often misunderstood because they are stigmatized or poorly defined. She told a story about finding one of her books in the “women’s stories” section of a bookstore, pointing out that because creative nonfiction often lacks an appropriate shelf in the bookstore, it can easily be marginalized, misplaced, or ignored.

Nonfiction writers, teachers, and publishers are uniquely positioned empower women and minorities and to broaden the spectrum of voices that are valued and ultimately published:

In an excerpt from her essay “Crying and Fighting,” Mary Kay McBrayer pointed out that women are taught to follow specific social conventions if they want to be taken seriously. One way we can respond to the burdens of expectation and convention is simply listening to and valuing others’ stories. The panelists agreed that teachers and peers can encourage women to see their stories as both personal and as part of larger historical, social, or cultural issues.

Mandy Len teaches memoir and creative nonfiction at the University of British Columbia. She’s an active member of CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts). You can read more of her writing about genre, feminism, and the dangers of love stories at thelovestoryproject.ca.

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