March 5, 2014 § 1 Comment
Jody Keisner guest-blogs on “Planning for Surprise: Teaching the Unexpected in Personal Narrative”:
Panelists: Michael Steinberg, Renee D’Aoust, Thomas Larson, and Desirae Matherly. *Note: Patrick Madden was unable to attend. His work was read by Thomas Larson.
In short, panelists cited examples from their personal essays and discussed the surprising ways their essays have evolved. Ideas for their writings-in-progress came to them when they were jogging, at the bus stop, showering, engaged in conversation about something else, and sleeping. Writing begins with thinking, and to some extent, obsessing about subject matter. Let the brain turn an idea over and over, they coached, and let the story tell you where it wants to go. Be especially open to essay writing—the exploration of an idea or a question (versus memoir writing—the exploration of an event that has already been experienced and thus, has some predetermined finality).
Things They Said: In 13 Tweets #AWP14
- I’m teaching gorilla English. *Attributed to Alex Pollack
- Teaching is a subversive, humanitarian act.
- Assigning personal narrative requires the instructor to witness.
- My writing time is spent mostly not writing, but searching.
- The hard part about writing isn’t the writing, it’s the thinking.
- The great joy of writing is getting my mind to do something it hasn’t done before.
- Give yourself time to re-see.
- Dream and imagine in alien shapes.
- Write to generate, not to confirm, a purpose.
- Hunters and members of the Rodeo Club know how to be close observers.
- A careful first draft is a failed first draft.
- The book and I co-partnered.
- Your prose begins at the first moment you startle yourself.
Two exercises for disrupting traditional, linear narratives:
- Begin by writing about something seemingly quite boring, like grocery shopping, sleep habits, or bathing. Keep writing and then write some more. Your mind will be forced to move sideways and out of narrative mode.
- Write on any subject of your choosing and then switch your paper or laptop with another writer. Pay attention to the subject matter selected by the other writer. Now write on the emerging themes, and write creative nonfiction. Switch again. Once your paper is returned to you, marvel at where your subject went when it was let loose and into the wild.
Jody Keisner teaches writing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama; Third Coast; Women’s Studies; Brain, Child; and elsewhere.
March 5, 2014 § 2 Comments
Panelists: David Robson, Nancy McCurry, Paul Pat, Lloyd Noonan
As a teacher of therapeutic and wellness writing workshops, primarily in the cancer and domestic violence populations, I’d been thinking about expanding my practice into the world of the elderly. But every time I moved toward that community, something made me stop, as though my gait froze up like a Parkinson’s patient. Then, when I attended this panel at AWP 2014, I understood what my problem was.
The panelists discussed the various challenges a teacher might encounter when working with this older population: poor hearing and vision, limited mobility, cognitive impairment, vanishing memory, fear of computers, crippled hands, intolerance of others, and overall poor health to the point that workshop participants might very well drop dead in the middle of a writing series. While these challenges might be enough to frighten away many a teacher, these weren’t the problem for me–not exactly, anyway.
The panelists also offered a variety of interesting formats for senior citizen workshops. Lloyd Noonan gives his students exercises ranging from current events to grammar lessons. Paul Pat assigns profiling projects wherein the older student researches and tells the story of another person and, in so doing, enters into a new world. Nancy McCurry, who lives in Phoenix “where we grow old people,” prompts her students with simple nouns and verbs that represent every day life: from bells to utility bills to bananas. And David Robson relies on curiosity and inference, encouraging his students to observe others, whether in historical photographs or real life. All of the approaches used by the panelists were creative and innovative, and my notebook quickly filled up with ideas to add to my own arsenal of lesson plans. But, the thing is, a lack of teaching ideas was not the reason I’d been dragging my feet to the old folks’ homes.
It was when Lloyd said he first sought out teaching seniors as an opportunity that something clicked for me. He admitted that he’d been afraid of old people, as though they were demons, and by teaching them he learned to see them in an entirely different light. Nancy beamed about how much she had learned from her senior students. Paul’s all-time favorite student was Bonnie, an older student who used creative writing as a path to reinvent herself. And David pointed out that creative writing was a fantastic “alternative means to activate and engage seniors and bring out the best in them.”
Eureka! Even with an elderly mother in an assisted living home, I had failed to see the older population as people who still want to re-invent themselves. For some reason I’d assumed that, once you reach a certain age, you’re done growing and changing. You might watch Wheel of Fortune or play Bunko or listen to the news on TV, but you aren’t still trying to make sense of the world.
How incredibly wrong, and foolish, I’ve been. I’d failed to remember that Alice Munro and Toni Morrison and Tom Wolfe were still writing well into their elderly years, still making observations about life. And I hadn’t made the connection between them and the average elderly man or woman when, as we all know, you don’t have to be a Pulitzer Prize winner or a New York Times bestseller to have something to say.
My view of the senior world was like an old sock with a hole in it: functional but flawed. I don’t like to wear socks with holes, so I didn’t want to shuffle into the senior world unprepared. But now, thanks to this panel — and the enthusiastic audience as well — I’m ready to go. In fact, I’m anxious to go, to meet with them and learn from them and give them the opportunity to affirm their lives, their beliefs, and their hopes through writing.
G. Elizabeth Kretchmer is a Seattle-based fiction, freelance, and essay writer. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, High Desert Journal, Silk Road Review, and numerous other publications. Her debut novel, The Damnable Legacy of A Minister’s Wife, will be forthcoming shortly.
March 4, 2014 § 3 Comments
Sonja, a panelist, painted it for us with words. Naked railroad tracks under empty sky. Trains roaring past in stink and noise. Sonja parked down there, because who’s going to pay to park on campus? So every work day she walked past it, the saddest place on Earth. Beside the tracks. A squat, windowless, cement-block building. Its parking lot cracked and fissured. A blood-bank; a place to sell your blood. Scattered across the busted asphalt, dented cars, where people sat with a window, or maybe a door, wide open, music wafting, waiting their turn to sell their blood. Across the parking lot, Scutties. Walking past, one glance told you Scutties sold beer and lotto tickets. Convenient.
Sonja Livingston walked on, to the writing workshop she teaches. One morning, as the group sat sipping take-out coffees, waiting for workshop to begin, a student mentioned the blood bank. And it seemed someone did pay to park on campus, because a second student asked, “blood bank?”
“You know,” Sonia put in. “The saddest place on Earth.”
A third student looked up from her paper cup. “I know that place,” she said. “When I was a single mother, I used to go there to sell my blood.”
Sonja sat there kicking herself in the butt until the start of workshop let her be busy and in charge. “I’m telling this story now,” she told us, shame still in her face, “because I used to be Catholic, and I still love to confess.”
The place she had dismissively called the saddest place on Earth belonged, in a deep and intimate way, to somebody. That place was a complicated place, full of memory and resonances. A place a single mother might sit in a dented car, if she had one, maybe thinking about her little one left with a neighbor, maybe leaving with enough to get by until payday.
Locate beauty in the hard places, the panelists reminded us. Resist easy labels. One panelist recalled pearls of moonlight seeping through outhouse walls. Light and shadows on a single sunflower. Dialect? Yes, use it—to create poetry.
Panelist Karen Salyer McElmurray told us, “The first time I was a hidden population I was in 4th grade.”
Her 4th grade teacher asked the class to write about their family and their house. What is the name of the street you live on? What is your Mama’s name? Your Daddy’s name? asked the 4th grade teacher.
So great was her dread, the shy child slipped up to the teacher’s desk, desperate for a way out of the assignment. Yes, she had a mama and a papa. No, she didn’t mind telling the name of the street she lived on. But she didn’t want to tell her mother’s name. None of the others would have a mother’s name like that. A mountain name. A back-woods name.
“Don’t get above your rasin’,’” one panelist was told. But others were told: You can do anything, be anyone, in this world.
“Grandpa told me I could do anything,” blogged a student who had given permission to a panelist to share her story. “But what he didn’t tell me is that if I did it, if I made it, I would be angry almost all the time.”
Angry to be the only student at the mandatory 5 am dorm meeting called to impress upon students that dishes need to be returned to the kitchen. Her dorm-mates instead paid a $25 fine, and were sleeping blissfully. Angry as day after day she carried others’ dishes to the kitchen. Angry that the other girls never seemed to wonder, or notice, how dishes magically clean themselves away.
Angry that her classmates went to poetry readings in the evenings, as she headed to one of her jobs. That her classmates applied for unpaid editing internships while she spent the summer waiting tables and cleaning houses.
And back home? “No one wanted to hear about someone who made it out,” she wrote. Back home was a lot of anger too. Things stolen, friends gone cold, even punches thrown. Anger, she concluded, is the unspoken side effect of social mobility.
Panelist Lee Martin told us the rural working class /poor whites may be the most under-represented population on America’s elite campuses. He asked: how can we be deliberate in adopting a pedagogy of inclusion? Do we want literature to be filled with outsiders? Then start by making the writing workshop a safe place.
First generation college students, children of the working class—for whom hard work may be one of the highest values—often must deal with deep skepticism from their communities of origin that learning is truly work. “Writer” is an identity their families may not recognize or understand.
Have you ever been tempted to “pass” as some who has always had a subscription to the New Yorker? How much greater this pressure on writers from the working class, and/or below the poverty line. These writers may face even more difficulty than most of us in claiming our identity.
The rural poor, just like [insert population of your choice here], wish to be neither ridiculed nor mawkishly romanticized. Instead, as in all good writing, celebrate complexities and contradictions.
As a writer, the greatest challenge for me, and I suspect for many of us, is to both claim and critique our own heritage. If this is hard for us, how much harder might it be for a quiet woman beside us in workshop who, we may never have suspected, has sold her blood to pay the electric bill.
The panelists turned the question back to us: How do we live in a broken economy?
Creative writing, the panelists reminded us, can be that rare place of meritocracy. So invite outlaws into the classroom, they said. Kill the silence around social class. Create, says Claire Watkins, a culture of inclusion within this structure of exclusion.
One panelist recalled the ache in her legs after standing all day on hard, cold cement, bent over trays in a greenhouse. A five-dollar-an-hour ache. Exhausted, she did not write at the end of those days. Still, she saved up the stories.
Back then, she says, the question she stood on every day was never “is this worth my time?” The hard, cold, but strangely untrue question that defined her everywhere she went and every choice she made was: “am I worth it to spend this much money?”
Sitting in the audience, we had the opportunity to wonder, to notice, whether we are worth it. What might it mean for us as writers to be worth it? We sat there, silent for just less than the time it takes to poke one hole in the greenhouse tray and slip one seedling inside, pondering the worth of one human story. And of stories about places, of the human home, our planet. Of moonlight through outhouse walls, of rage, of the saddest place on Earth.
All the panelists in the “Hidden Populations” panel R223 were fabulous, and I can’t wait to get hold of their books. Dorothy Allison was unable to attend. Nonfiction panelists: Sonja Livingston (award-winning Ghostbread). Authors of both nonfiction and fiction: award-winning Karen Salyer McElmurray (memoir: Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey) and Pulitzer finalist Lee Martin (latest memoir: Such a Life). Fiction panelists: Claire Vaye Watkins (award-winning Battleborn) and Carter Sickles (award-winning The Evening Hour).
Jacqueline Haskins is a biologist of wild wet places, from cypress swamps to glacial cirque swales, and has a forth-coming essay collection, Eyes Open Underwater. Her nonfiction has received a Pushcart nomination and been a finalist in Oregon Quarterly’s Northwest Perspectives Contest. Her non-fiction, fiction, or poetry appear in Cordite Poetry Review, Raven Chronicles, Cirque Journal, and elsewhere.
March 4, 2014 § 7 Comments
It feels like everyone goes to AWP looking for something.
Perhaps it’s a check mark on a list, one of those must-haves that we’re told we must shore up before our careers will take off. An MFA, an agent, a Tweet that nabs you 1,000 followers. Then there’s my demographic, those who are beginning to lose faith at one of the dozens of steep inclines in the process, and wander the convention center imploring each room for a sign.
When I sat for the panel “Breaking Silences: Women’s Memoir as an Act of Rebellion,” I was doubting my memoir manuscript. It’s being shopped, and over the past few weeks there’s been a harmonic chord of the same no: what great work! Too bad there’s not enough platform. I was doubting the validity of my experiences and their relevance. I hadn’t promised my boyfriend that I’d make him 300 sandwiches for an engagement ring, and I wasn’t on “The Office.” A tendril of shame was rooting in my heart; the embarrassment of sharing stories that weren’t good enough. That my life on the page wasn’t worthy.
There was a humming, static verve in Room 607. The energy of a packed house fed up with expectations and niches and double standards, impatient for stories to be elevated by bravery and beauty and merit rather than the shelves of gender, race, and age we’ve been forced to inherit. Each woman on the panel had fearlessly written her own truths, despite the anger, discomfort, and squeamishness they’d caused the patriarchal literary establishment. The collective hunger for a revolution was electric.
When Anna March implored us to give up shame for telling stories, I felt my heart’s hinges squeak open. “Don’t get pushed into an arc,” she said. Women’s memoir is an internal journey that we share, and doesn’t have to be Julie and Julia-style or Lifetime special-ready. “Life is a lot messier than that.” Reading women’s memoir makes women and their lives visible no matter the commonality or grandeur of their experience, which is a powerful act.
Kate Hopper echoed the sentiment when she described her obstacles of writing about motherhood, a subject big publishing does not often consider worthy of literature. It’s shoved into patronizing genres like “mom-oir” and we begin to believe what we’re told about our stories not mattering. She felt fear blossoming as the shame of her experience—a woman’s experience—set in. The same noxious weed I felt inside of myself. “We become shameful, not shameless,” she warned.
Connie Mae Fowler, in the panel’s closing, pointed out that there is no section of the bookstore called “men’s lit” or, to the room’s delight, “dick lit.” No man describes his work as “confessional.” He doesn’t have to. As women memoir writers, it’s essential to keep kicking out of the box, the narrow shelf, to refuse to shut up. “Victims must keep secrets. Rebellion and ascension require storytelling.”
Although I had another 48 hours left in Seattle, I could have left AWP on these warrior writer’s words and had exactly the reawakening to continue the fight. Judging from the panel’s delirious applause, I was hardly alone. I refuse to apologize again for my book, even in my head. I will keep churning out words and reading those of other women writers. I will kick until my legs fall off.
Tabitha Blankenbiller is a graduate of the Pacific University MFA program who currently lives in Tucson, Arizona. Her work has been featured in journals such as Hobart, Barrelhouse, and Brevity, and her memoir-in-essays Paper Bag: Tales of Love, Beauty, and Baggage is represented by Penumbra Literary.
March 4, 2014 § 3 Comments
The last session block on the last day of AWP. What was I thinking, choosing this time slot to blog? My feet are hurting, I’m lugging an ungodly amount of free and purchased books in three separate bags, and I’m tired from two late nights with too many adult beverages. To leave the still crowded book fair where cake, cheap beer, and clandestine cigarettes were actively being pimped to milling throngs of writerly-types, was in a word, difficult. It’s clearly the end of the conference, I say to myself, as I glance around room 3-B at a scatter of twelve diehard AWP’ers. It takes courage to be a last session.
But as it’s been said, sometimes the best is saved for last.
The Power of Perspectives: Teaching Memoir and Creating Community Among Older Writers, delivered case-study depth despite the session time coinciding with cocktail hour.
60 million baby boomers in the world today, Boston 60+ year-olds the targets for the Memoir Project. What can we all do to replicate projects like this in our communities?
The Project started eight years ago and has since reached 16 neighborhoods, 185 participants and enabled four anthologies. The final Boston neighborhoods will be reached this year, encapsulating stories of seniors from the whole city.
What are the challenges?
Seniors may not have the money to take the class, be able to travel, have energy, have disabilities. There are often cultural barriers, medical conditions, and a range of how comfortable the seniors are talking about themselves.
The ultimate goal: Create community in the classroom.
City of Boston, the Elderly Commission, and Grub Street worked in collaboration to find participants. The class, notebooks, and lunch are provided free.
That means finding funding for a project like this is important. So is finding locations and volunteers to make it happen. And money. Lots of money.
How is it done?
Morning classes go for 4 week. The first class always start with the prompt: “My mother never…” They are asked to share after every prompt because sharing creates the community of writers and gets them comfortable.
The teacher’s job is to praise the work, identify narrative craft are working and encourage them to keep going. Participants get strong friendships, a writing practice, and a new perspective on their life experiences.
And what else makes it work?
The coaching aspect. Coaches work 1:1 for a month after class ends to help the seniors find a story that is interesting to them, their family and community. The key to coaching? Meet people where they are, wherever they are.
Finished essays, bios, and photos are assembled into print anthologies and are sold in the communities, put in libraries, passed down to family.
The Memoir Project proved an excellent case-study for anyone wishing to start up a similar project. What there wasn’t time to touch on? How the work in this specific project could be translated into other teaching efforts working with seniors? This session was targeted to those replicating this nonprofit project than for individual educators looking to enhance their skills in working with a senior community.
Survival. Work. Love. Loss. War. Stories that bring neighborhoods together. And writers. Worth missing a cheap cocktail and hanging at AWP for the final session of the conference.
Marie Hartung (@MarieHartung) is an double-MFA candidate for Poetry and Nonfiction at the Northwest Institute of Literary Arts. She’s also Poetry Editor for Soundings Review. Marie works a day-job as a Realtor and is proud her home houses seven different species of domesticated pets plus her two children, all of whom she loves.
March 4, 2014 § Leave a comment
Saying that a subject is missing can mean different things to different people. That fact is well represented by the panelists, Christa Parravani, Brian Castner, Warren Etheredge and Sonya Lea. Their missing subjects range from an identical twin sister who died of a drug overdose, to a bomb technician who talks to his dead friend, Ricky, to a woman whose husband has lost his memory to a man who lost himself and now helps others find themselves.
This panel was organized by Sonya Lea, whose husband suffered a brain injury and lost his memory of their life before that event. She says they have rebuilt a life, but he will not regain the memory of the life before. Because she is writing a memoir about that experience, she wanted to gather together writers who wrote from the perspective of their subject being absent in some way.
Christa Parravani says she wrote Her in order to be able to spend time with the sister, Cara. The loss of her sister, as one can imagine was like losing a piece of herself. She likened it to the loss of a limb, calling it the phantom-twin syndrome. Before her drug overdose, Cara had been raped. Christa believed this to be a mitigating factor in her sister’s drug addiction and eventual death. Knowing she would be unable to do justice to the story of Cara’s rape, she found a manuscript of a memoir that Cara had been writing and alternating Cara’s voice with her own, she overcame that obstacle.
Brian Castner’s point-of-view, in his book, The Long Walk is a little crazy. He says he sees his dead friend Ricky – hears his voice. So there is a kind of ghostly quality to Ricky. Because of this, Castner decided not to put quotes around dialogue, since it was going on in his head, and he wasn’t sure how much he could trust what was actual or even what he remembered.
Warren Etheredge says that at one point in his life he felt he had lost himself – he even felt like he had never existed. Now he helps combat vets who suffer from PTSD. He spoke about the difference between facts and truth, and how the ultimate goal should be an emotional truth. He also had difficulty with the word ghost, stating that all of those people, even though they’re gone, are still very real – very present.
The best universal truths that came from this panel were:
- When honoring a person, don’t ignore the warts. Get specific to get at the truth.
- The actuality is that some memories are clean and some aren’t.
- Do not follow the old adage, write what you know. Instead, write what you’re desperate to know.
Erin C. Arellano, is pursuing her MA in English at the University of Nebraska – Omaha, where she is completing her MA in English with a concentration in creative nonfiction. She received her MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska in 2008. Her essays have been published in Fine Lines and A Prairie Journal.
March 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
Panelists: Holly M. Wendt, Kathryn Henion, Claire Hero, Deborah Poe, Virginia Shank
In the best introduction I heard at AWP this year, moderator Holly Wendt suggested this panel would think about ways in which “work that puts significant distance between the speaker and the writer” can assist in “reimagin[ing], challeng[ing], and expand[ing] the writer’s or narrator’s persona.” These five writer-teachers think about persona across gender, historical time, and/or language. Practical exercises “to write those other voices well” provide transfer points between the classroom and the writer’s own work.
Why think about persona? Because creating persona helps a writer “get out of her own head space,” according to Virginia Shank. Shank affirms “authenticity comes from specific details” and stresses the effort to get past the student impulse to resist art (or artifice) by insisting, “But that’s what happened!” Teaching students to build a persona between themselves and readers is helpful to get away from that imperative insistence on “what happened.” One can “write as a pop culture figure” or a in the “persona of a cartoon character” (for example, Elmer Fudd’s brother) as a concrete (and fun) way to think about language and voice. The suggestion is to “write in another voice, so when you return to your own voice, you will recognize it.”
Kathryn Henion discussed “persona as it relates to multiple narratives with different points of view.” Persona can help move a writer, or student, “outside her comfort zone… to consider, understand, and convey multiple viewpoints.” Henion focuses on the psychology of character through the use of a “rotating third person with a limited point of view.”
Deborah Poe has a beautiful example of “empathy as a feeling into” character. Persona used in this manner weaves compassion through narrative, a sense that persona as “mask/character/role” can help a writer “empathize or feel into this character.” Poe suggests that the creation of persona, or character, can bridge gaps—between the writer and the creation of text, between the reader and the artifact of text. Poe conceives of “empathy as a simultaneous gesture of proximity and distance,” and this compassionate writing can help “move beyond binaries and ethically rendered characters.”
Holly Wendt presented on a character’s grammar and how the issue can undermine rather than support the creative mode when used too freely. (In other words: Establish the way a character talks early on, but don’t use those contractions or apostrophes throughout. Establish the sound early on and then avoid distracting spelling of a character’s language.) Used judiciously, to establish character, the upside of a character’s grammar is that it provides clues to where the character disconnects. Annie Dillard: “One language does not code for another. We must change the way we think.” Wendt thinks of persona as an “exploration into the space between the reader and the writer—a space where persona can be created…. Persona can give the writer objectivity of and from the self.”
For Claire Hero, the second person “you” opens “a relationship between writer and self… that establishes an awareness of audience because of the artificial nature of ‘you’”. According to Hero, “all personas help ask and answer the question: ‘Where does the person fit in the larger world.’” The use of the present tense, and “you,” is useful in creative nonfiction as a means “to explore rather than to emote.” In this construction, the “you” can “privilege exploration over emotion.”
On this panel, we find a “reaching toward empathy,” as Deborah Poe terms it, and “a moment that is lost upon the lyric ‘I’”. Through persona, we explore a “weighted melancholy without risking melancholy.” The writer-teachers provided a handout with excellent examples and exercises for further inquiry. Each provided examples from their own published works and works in progress.
I hope VIDA will take note of the five powerhouse intellects and writers on this panel!
Renée E. D’Aoust is the author of Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press), a finalist for ForeWord Magazine’s Book of the Year in memoir. At AWP 2014, she presented on two panels: “Switching Genres Midstream: Finding the Right Match” and “Planning for Surprise: Teaching the Unexpected in Personal Narrative.” For more information, please visit: www.reneedaoust.com.
March 3, 2014 § 5 Comments
People sat in the aisles, crowded into the doorways, and filled the back of the room. Clearly, this Friday’s panel at noon was a popular topic; in a nutshell: how to write about our deeply personal and often controversial experiences in a way that benefits others? Or perhaps it was the presence of truth-telling goddesses like Lidia Yuknavitch (author of A Chronology of Water and Dora: A Headcase,) or Sy Safransky (editor of The Sun) that drew in the masses. In any case, the room was abuzz with anticipation.
The opening remarks of the moderator, Krista Bremer (associate publisher at The Sun), set the tone of transparency when Bremer confessed her ambiguity towards the title of the panel. In memoir writing, it’s not the writer’s job to provide “full disclosure,” Bremer expressed. Memoir is not autobiography nor a dossier; we must omit whatever parts of our lives do not serve the story at hand. It’s not about spilling your guts– that’s for your diary. We must, of course, revise and refine before we have something that’s publishable or useful to the world.
And what about the “making a mess” part of the title? “Memoir thrives on stickiness, ambiguity, nuance,” Bremer continued. “Mess is actually unavoidable… if you’re doing your job–telling the truth– you will make others uncomfortable.”
Yuknavitch agreed. “The title also freaked me out” (especially the making a mess part), she said, before sharing how writing her own memoir sometimes involved “breaking it down about 100 times to get it right.” And a big part of this “getting it right” for Yuknavitch related to the discovery that the form we choose to tell our story through is just as important as the content. She spoke of how saturated we are through our media and as a culture with pathos, “trained to hit the highest force of pathos in 45 minute episodic segments.” How can we challenge ourselves to redistribute pathos differently in our writing, she probed, how can we find the “2014 version”? Indeed, if you’ve read A Chronology of Water, a non-linear memoir full of short, lyrical chapters, you can wee how her ideas about “redistributing pathos” are at play in her work. “Memory itself is a lie,” Yuknavitch went on. “Memory doesn’t work in linear form in our bodies.” She encouraged writers to let go of the concern for, “I must tell the truth!” and instead to liberate ourselves “from the tyranny of truth and shoot for the efficacy of experience.”
Safransky also weighed in on this question of truth in memoir, expressing the importance of holding the intention to adhere as closely to the truth as we can. But he also spoke about how “imposing any conceptual framework on our lives is tricky,” and how elements of truth can be compromised for the sake of trying to impose a narrative arc on our story. Safranksy also disliked the panel’s title, (which made me wonder, who conceived of it?), although he did attempt to address the ‘how to’ part of it, mostly by reminding us to not rush to publish something too early.
The key theme that all of the panelists touched on, however, was the importance of connecting with your readers by touching on universal truths. We are not just writing for ourselves, Safransky emphasized; there are many reasons why we yearn to tell our stories of suffering and we need to allow room on the page for everyone who isn’t you. Bremer likened her relationship to writing as “a call to service,” and spoke of the large degree of humility that one needs to “deal with the mess,” whether that “mess” is the ineffability of memory, the temptation to cater to one’s ego, or the vulnerability of exposing one’s self or close relations through their work. One should always treat others with dignity, work to rectify stereotypes, be harder on one’s self than others, and never write to settle scores (she quoted Lopate here). Yuknavitch agreed; you need to “de-ego yourself,” she said, to remember that your story is not the most important story out there, and that’s not why you’re telling it. Instead, “You’re writing your story to bridge to everyone else.”
Cary Tennis shared how he began to reveal intimate and potentially shameful details from his own life through his advice columns (i.e. “Since You Asked” formerly on salon.com), in order to highlight the commonality of his reader’s fears or experiences. Tennis’s writing shifted from writing articles that mostly sought to “entertain,” to more personal and vulnerable writing after he realized he had to stop drinking, and in turn grew experienced listening to others “spill their guts.”
“Memoir is an underground railroad of information about what people really do,” Marion Winik (author of many books, including First Comes Love) said. Of course, she went on, we get that glimpse of raw and real life through novels too, but in memoir, we’re standing behind it saying we did it, which gives it an extra power. Winik reminded us that we can’t control how people are going to react. For those who won’t be able to relate to certain extreme aspects of our story, it might feel like we’re sharing too much information. But for others, it might be exactly what they need to hear. There’s no “objective TMI,” Winik said. “It’s all who’s hearing it.”
Regardless of how any one person might respond to our work, you know that “when you hit the point away from ego and toward all of us together writing the story of how to write about surviving life,” said Yuknavitch, you know you are on the right track. “Everywhere I go now I try to convince people that there’s no such thing as memoir, that it should be called we-moir,” she proclaimed.
And indeed, that is why so many of us love memoir: it helps us touch upon the essential truths of our own experiences; to find commonality with others; and to know that we are not alone. Not every memoir is going to move us, and not everyone is going to approve of what we disclose. But if we keep striving to write what is raw, brave, and true, alongside engaging in the hard work of copiously rewriting, finely crafting, and compassionately rendering our experiences, we may well alight upon that higher calling: to write in service of the world.
Anne Liu Kellor is a Seattle-based writer and teacher who has received support from Hedgebrook, 4Culture, Hypatia-in-the-Woods, and Jack Straw Productions. Her essays have appeared in publications such as the anthology Waking Up American: Coming of Age Biculturally (Seal Press), The Los Angeles Review, and on her blog: heartradical.blogspot.com. Anne’s memoir, SEARCHING FOR THE HEART RADICAL, follows her quest for language, love, and belonging as she migrated between China and America during her twenties, and is now in search of a publisher.
March 3, 2014 § Leave a comment
For this session, I made sure to get there early, refusing to spend another hour and 15 minutes sitting on the floor, as I had in the prior session, unable to see anything other than the sweater-covered butt of the woman in front of me. It was a nice enough posterior, but I became entirely too familiar with the patterns of her sweater, and couldn’t begin to tell you what the panelists looked like.
This session that focused on memoir and the “chimeric autobiographies and the cultural implications of literary transmutation” was not as well-attended, but those of us who were there had chosen wisely.
Debra DiBlasi (of Jaded Ibis Press) moderated, introducing the panelists who were there to discuss that “sticky and whimsical thing that is remembering.”
Cris Mazza, author of Various Men who Knew us as Girls (Emergency Press, 2011), described her writing as often being “something she herself needed to read.” She told us a bit of her struggle: “I was trying to say something,” Mazza said. “but it seemed no one could hear me, even myself.”
Most encouraging to this writer (still fumbling around at how I will write my hesitant memoir) was Mazza’s realization that while writing her book, “something happened and it became the book it was supposed to be.”
Jane Rosenberg LaForge, author of An Unsuitable Princess, regaled us with a visual presentation that coincided with her very energetic narrative; we were treated to images of a seemingly random assortment (Cheech and Chong, Led Zeppelin, David Foster Wallace, Wait Until Dark, S. I. Hayakawa and more), though they are not random to her. LaForge began her presentation telling us that “A lot of writing starts with strange, oblique associations.” We learned that the movie Shoot the Moon was about her family (“Sort of”) and that LaForge herself is “more interested in dealing with other people’s demons.”
I found her commentary on the woman who is “vulnerable, so she is attractive” very interesting. Wait Until Dark and Patch of Blue—both stories of blind women who are either victimized or terrorized—were excellent examples of this unfortunate trope. At some point she mentioned establishing herself as “a scholar and a smartass,” and I think she did both quite admirably.
Dawn Raffel described her memoir The Secret Life of Objects, which was a Wall Street Journal bestseller, as an “accidental memoir.” Her illustrated exploration of “items of uncertain origin” had her writing like a house on fire,” and wondering “if this is a book.”
Part of what Raffel wanted to tell her audience is that there is beauty in the ordinary. “I had no extreme trauma in my life, nothing extraordinary about my family,” she said.
Yet her book is quite extraordinary. She writes about the mundane objects that are not mundane because of the emotional connections we have with them, and the stories they bring to our minds. She said she has trouble remembering her father’s voice, but she has his hat. “It holds my father for me,” she said.
As a woman who has her grandfather’s shirt tucked in a drawer, folded neatly into a ziplock bag (to preserve the smell of him), I understood Raffel’s message, and also believe in the treasure and value of those simple objects.
Anna Joy Springer, author of The Vicious Red Relic, Love: A Fabulist Memoir, in contrast to Raffel, said “I could write for the rest of my life about fucking trauma.” I could have live-tweeted so much of what she said, had I not been scribbling away furiously in my notebook to get it all down. “I don’t care about narratives of redemption,” “In narrative land all things happen in the time of the story,” and “There’s a difference between making writing and creating literature,” are just a few of her great quotes.
Springer is a visual artist as well as a narrative writer. She also gave her audience a lot to see and consider with Goldie: A Neurotic Woman, an early feminist comic that bloomed out of the sexual revolution and was not totally loved by feminists, though our audience seemed to enjoy her quite a bit. Springer entreated us to consider that “the way we’ve been using ‘queer’ in literature might not be accurate,” and also to consider the misunderstandings of what is called “the perverse.”
Debra DiBlasi spoke briefly towards the end—we had just about run out of time, which was too bad, because I could have listened to her for a lot longer. She advised us to “follow the book where it wants to go.” She looks for honesty and integrity in writing, which “can sometimes bring [her] to tears.”
When looking for places to publish our work, DiBlasi suggests “finding someone who isn’t just looking at the bottom line,”and to “write out of who you are, and do the work.”
A question was raised from the audience: “Is there ever going to be another word we can use besides memoir?”
DiBLasi laughed. “Trust me,” she said. “I know where you’re coming from. And I don’t know when the labels will go away, but it’ll a long time coming, unfortunately. “
Jamie J. Barker is graduating from Fresno State’s MFA program (home of The Normal School), and is a nonfiction writer working at blending her own story with those of the people she encounters, primarily in the ghetto neighborhood where she has worked for 15 years, and her students in the county jail, who surprise and delight her continuously.
March 1, 2014 § 2 Comments
A guest blog on the Brevity Reading that was not a Brevity reading by Denise Low
“Brevity is huge.” “Micropiece Theatre.” “Microscopic fiction.” “Flash.” These are some of the ways panelists at the Brevity Reading, AWP 2014, described their form. Moderator Jane Ciabattari defined the scope of the shortest fiction genre: “Stories told in under 1000 words”
She opened with a nod to the journal Brevity: “I want to plug Brevity, edited by Dinty W. Moore. The word ‘Brevity’ has become so associated with Dinty’s magazine that most AWP people consider the two synonymous. As Dinty puts it, ‘I didn’t invent the word Brevity, but I guess it is becoming a brand.’” This AWP reading was brief fiction, not writers sponsored by the magazine.
Flash fiction can “flare” for only six words, like this story told in six words by Sherman Alexie, published in Narrative magazine”
The Human Comedy
Flash fiction tests the limits of how few words can be used to create a narrative.
Ciabattari went on to describe how “Flash is perfect for the digital age, for reading on phones, at night, on the train. It is perfect for stories published by New World Writing, formerly known as Blip, and by Electric Literatures.” Flash slips comfortably into the 140 character limit of Twitter.
The panelists were skilled practitioners: Ciabattari herself (my sister, full disclosure here), Bobbie Ann Mason, Meg Pokrass, Pamela Painter, and Grant Faulkner. Each read works from 100 words (Ciabattari and Faulkner) to a slightly longer duet-flash “Tweeting War and Peace” co-authored by Mason and Pokrass. The story’s conflict was how to reduce the Tolstoy epic for digital age paraphernalia and attention spans. The authors declared it could be done in “ten million micro-tweets” and “repackaged” in “bundles.” This was a tour de force that had the audience roaring.
My “take-away” (to use a techno-term) was: flash fiction, tales told in brief, is a flourishing, emerging form. The topic drew a packed room.
This panel had one of the best Q & A sessions, as passionate practitioners shared publishing opportunities as well as variant flash genre options. Journals that feature flash fiction include, 100Word Story, Flash Fiction Forum, Electric Literature, PEN/Guernica—these all have weekly flash online. Smokelong Quarterly, Flash Fiction Chronicles, Apocrypha and Abstractions, Metagen, and Camroc are other venues.
Form affects content. Just as the first recordings of Robert Johnson’s blues changed a long, improvisational form to the length of a wax cylinder, so smart phones are changing literature. This panel demonstrated how the form can still create literary epiphanies.
Denise Low, Kansas Poet Laureate 2007-2009, has been writing, reviewing, editing and publishing literary and scholarly articles for 30 years. She is the author of ten collections of poetry and six books of essays, including Natural Theologies from The Backwaters Press 2011, and a biography of Langston Hughes (co-authored with Thomas Pecore Weso).