March 6, 2014 § 3 Comments
Select seat with view of lectern. Check.
Push Voice Memo button on phone. Check.
Scribble panel title in notebook. Check.
I’m ready. So are the five panelists facing me, and so are the 60+ audience members surrounding me. We are the researchers in Room 607.
“It’s a bit of an oddball role,” began moderator Ana Maria Spagna. She described the ethical challenges experienced while researching Test Ride on the Sunnyland Bus, in which she explored her late father’s involvement in the Tallahassee bus boycott of 1957. The various people to whom she spoke had different and sometimes conflicting versions of the story, “as well as their own real lives and real pain,” she said. The crux became how to respect those peoples’ privacy, integrity, and culture: “How could I honor their stories and still tell some version of the truth? How could I characterise my relationship with them, because on one hand, these were friends of my late father, and on the other hand, they were subjects of a potential book?”
Many different writers have faced these challenges, said Spagna. “And they’ve approached them — necessarily — differently, both in terms of craft and in terms of ethics.”
Joe Mackall, author of Plain Secrets: An Outsider among the Amish, describing how he framed his intentions with his insular Amish neighbors — “I told Samuel I just wanted to write the truth as I saw it.” Invoking Gay Talese’s “fine art of hanging out,” Mackall told his Amish neighbors, “I’m going to hang around so much that I’m not going to leave on my own accord. So you need to tell me, ‘enough.’ They never did. I was exhausted.”
Amanda Webster, discussing her work in progress, a book about growing up in a gold-mining town in West Australia, attending school with members of the Stolen Generations, Aboriginal children removed from their families by the Australian government — “In Australia, a white person writing about personal Aboriginal stories is typically taboo. Story ownership was a real issue for me.”
What Webster learned:
- Establish your authority to tell the story, and once established be aware that it’s not unassailable authority.
- Establish your stake.
- Be aware that your role is not to provoke further trauma.
- Be mindful of Aboriginal customs.
- Not to plunder these peoples’ lives and then disappear without a trace.
Webster also explained her rationale for and methodology in paying some of her research subjects — “Ultimately, it came back to the refrain we always hear: as writers we should be paid for our work. Shouldn’t these story subjects be paid for their work as well?”
Both Mackall and Bob Cowser Jr. (Dream Season: A Professor Joins America’s Oldest Semi-Pro Football Team) expressed their reticence to change names during the writing process. They acknowledged it was necessary but preferred to completely finish their manuscripts before doing so. “It breaks the spell for me,” said Cowser, “I don’t know who to care about, or where the ground is under me.”
Jo Scott-Coe, author of Teacher at Point Blank: Confronting Sexuality, Violence, and Secrets in a Suburban School, describing her efforts — “I took a great deal of time to shade identities, particularly with the darker material, of which there is quite a bit,” she said, adding that she avoided names by identifying teaching staff by role, and family members by relation. Despite the camouflage, there were readers who recognized themselves.
What she learned:
- The ethics of where or how to camouflage names
- When people react negatively or angrily, it’s not always to debate. Often it is because you have expressed a connection or perception that they disagree with, or that they find offensive, or that they didn’t expect to be expressed by you.
- Essayists cannot always anticipate these reactions, and they’re not always ours to control or evade.
- We are not always in the service of a predetermined message. We don’t know what we will discover.
All of the panelists agreed that the most important “contract” they had with their research subjects was to let them read and vet what they had written.
“Ultimately,” said Scott-Coe, “our byline is our accountability.”
Ann Beman is nonfiction editor for The Los Angeles Review, and prose reviews editor for the museum of americana. She lives with her husband and two whatchamaterriers in California’s Southern Sierra in Kernville on the Kern River, Kern County. Cue the banjoes.
March 5, 2014 § Leave a comment
Back home from the AWP and still in jet lag mode. First on the agenda—unpack, laundry, sift through mail. The bright lights and colors of the book fair still flash in my peripheral vision. Dust collects on rugs, bedposts, my writing desk. Yeah. About that. The writing desk, I mean. Hello, Mr. Writing desk. How’d you fare while I was gone?
No way I’m sitting in that desk chair right now. I have enough journals (and enough kindling) to torch Rome, enough new poetry collections, memoirs, novels, to keep me busy for a decade. How’s a gal supposed to write surrounded by all that? Simple, my right brain answers: Put your fingers on the keyboard and fly! Okay, but just for a few minutes.
My first written lines—a poem about Hermes checking into the Seattle Sheraton. Then another load of laundry. A second work describing a date between Hera and Jack Nicholson that never actually happens. She stays home and fixes Zeus a casserole instead. As a work, it’s only so-so, but it keeps me entertained. The phone rings. Local hospital asking me to pay a $900 bill for a procedure that was supposed to cost $275. It was only an estimate, the representative argues.
Last night watched Strapped on Hulu while waiting for a call from Urgent Care where my mom had checked in with a fever and palpitations. Very racy movie. Interesting. Dark. Aye Dios Mio! Mom wails into her end of the phone, a few hours away from mine. Christine, don’t let me die. Is this hyperbole? Is she critical? 4AM and they transfer her to a hospital. Pulmonary embolism, they say.
Putting out the trash. Fixing my Wi-Fi connection. Packing a suitcase for a trip to Mom’s. Cancelling Friday’s appointment with the shrink, Saturday’s appearance at the Philadelphia Stories opening for Extraordinary Lives, which features one of my poems. Cold lasagna for breakfast. Two Tastycakes for lunch. Third cup of black coffee today. Folding.
Thinking about that novel I’m working on, set during the Civil War, wherein the main character does or doesn’t commit murder. Thinking about that panel at the AWP discussing how to write about murder. Thinking about how I couldn’t get into the room, because there wasn’t an empty seat in the place. Thinking about murder—how am I suppose to write a murder into my novel? I’m mostly a poet, for godsakes. Thinking about checking in on my second load of laundry in the dryer. In the basement. Is it dry yet? Thinking about how or wtf! or why I should pay that extra $700 to the hospital, when they ef’d up on the estimate. About whether I should shovel snow today, before I drive a few hours to see Mom in the hospital, so I won’t get fined by the township for not shoveling snow off my walkway. And thinking about when, when, I’ll get back home to my writing desk. About whether an entire manuscript might grow from my nascent poems. About writing. About murder. About how to write one as if someone is actually doing it.
Retiring early from the practice of medicine, Christine Chiosi, now spends her time writing poetry and short fiction. Her poetry appears in several journals, including Painted Bride Quarterly, Carpe Articulum , Cloudbank, Sierra Nevada Review, and was featured on-air by National Public Radio. Currently she is enrolled in the doctoral program in Medical Humanities at Drew University, focusing in the area of Narrative Medicine.
March 5, 2014 § 6 Comments
Those who read Suzanne Roberts’ hilarious account of mistaking the poet Richard Blanco for writer Nick Flynn will surely enjoy this follow-up to Suzanne’s embarrassing encounter:
Last year at the Boston AWP, I mistook one writer for another. And since I outed myself on Brevity’s blog, I have learned that this happens at AWP with even more frequency than the name drop. I also learned that if you happen to mistake two writers of the same race, people will call you a racist on Facebook. Lucky for me, I mistook Richard Blanco for Nick Flynn—a Latino for a white guy.
Like we all do, I fretted for a year over my foolish behavior because I didn’t just mistake one poet for another, it was that I wouldn’t let it go, even when the facts before me continued to contradict my error. I was sure that Richard Blanco thought I was a psycho with Turrets who blurted out “Suck City” every chance she got. Maybe he would prepare for this year’s AWP by filing a restraining order against me with President Obama himself?
I was more than a little scared to run into Richard Blanco and even Nick Flynn, who I had never actually met, though for a good 30 minutes, I believed that I had.
I saw Nick Flynn first, and he was with the woman who I had told Richard Blanco was our mutual friend. I felt a weird sort of vindication—See, I thought, Nick Flynn really does know her! We really do have a friend in common, but then I had to remind myself that Richard Blanco was not Nick Flynn.
“I read your story,” the real Nick Flynn said after I introduced myself. “Very inventive.”
“Thanks. But what do you mean by inventive?”
“You must have made that up,” he said. “Didn’t you?”
I shook my head and said, “I’m afraid not.”
The real Nick Flynn laughed and said, “I’m certainly flattered. Richard Blanco is a good-looking guy.”
“So are you,” I said. Our mutual friend, who already knew the story had been true, looked more than a little worried that I might say something else crazy, as I’ve been known to do. So I left it at that and didn’t say a single thing about how I loved City of a Hundred Fires.
The next night, friends of mine offered me an invitation to the VIP party, but it seemed too easy to have an actual invitation, sort of like cheating; plus I don’t feel like much of a VIP, unless of course, VIP stands for Very Inebriated Poets, which at AWP, it does.
So I snuck in. But I had a plan: if I got caught, I would tell the guards I was the poet Camille Dungy, who I happened to know had a bona fide invitation and was on “the list.” If you know Camille, then you already know how very much alike we look. Sort of like Nick Flynn and Richard Blanco.
But faking my identity was unnecessary: I walked past the guards like I owned the place.
And I was in. I could devour as many broccoli florets as I wanted, and at AWP, you never know where your next vegetable is coming from. Most attendees survive on book fair chocolate kisses and off-site party free beer.
I wasn’t even through with my first glass of chardonnay before I spotted him. Would he see me, and alert the guards, maybe have them report me to Obama, thus landing me back on the no-fly list?
I finished my glass of wine and took my chances.
“Aren’t you Nick Flynn?” I asked, trying to be clever. I knew Richard had read my essay because he liked it on Facebook. And I hoped that it had offered some explanation for my otherwise irrational behavior. And didn’t liking it mean he was no longer afraid of me? I couldn’t be sure, but I had to find out.
Richard laughed and gave me a hug. “That was a good one,” he said. I felt a surge of relief at his generosity—I wasn’t going to be manhandled by the guards, at least not this time, which is a very unpleasant experience: one, as you might imagine, I am familiar with.
At that point, Alison Granucci, who represents both Richard and Nick at Blue Flower Arts, introduced herself and said, “Maybe we can have them read together at the next AWP?”
“And I’ll introduce them,” I said. “But I won’t say who’s who. We’ll make people guess.”
“But they never will,” she said. “Because they look so much alike!” She was being ironic here, though I still think there’s a certain two-or-more drinks, too-vain-to-wear-your-glasses, dark bar resemblance between the two.
“You know,” I said to Richard, “I saw Nick Flynn, and he thought I made the whole story up.”
This is where Richard looked at me blankly and said, “Didn’t you?”
“Make it up?” Richard asked.
“Make up what?”
“The story. It didn’t really happen,” Richard said and when I just stared at him, he added, “Did it?”
“You don’t remember?”
Richard shook his head. “I thought you made it up.”
“I’ve been worried for a year about what a fool I made of myself, and you don’t even remember?”
“You said Nick didn’t remember either,” Richard tried.
“But Nick wasn’t there.” I started to think that maybe there was a third writer that I was not yet aware of, one that I mistook first for Nick Flynn and then Richard Blanco. But then Richard rubbed his forehead, as if trying to coax a genie out of his mind and said, “It’s starting to come back. At the last AWP, I was in post-inauguration PTSD. Everything from that time is a total blur.”
“I was beginning to think I had really mistook Elizabeth Alexander for Nick Flynn,” I said. We laughed and parted.
I have always been one of those people who calls or texts everyone the next day after a party, apologizing for something offensive I might have said or done. Just in case. But now I realized how unimportant my foibles are to other people.
My sister recently played an extra in the movie Blue Jasmine. My mother looked for her when she saw the film, but says she never saw her. My other sister says she caught a tiny glimpse of her. Because I’m boycotting Woody Allen, I have not seen the film. But it has gotten me thinking that life is like that—we are all just extras in other people’s lives. Sometimes we flash by; other times, we’re not remembered nor even seen. We fret about the foolish things we have said and done, yet we are the stars only of our very own drama.
Suzanne Roberts is the author of the memoir Almost Somewhere (Winner of the 2012 National Outdoor Book Award), as well as four collections of poetry. She teaches at Lake Tahoe Community College and for the low-residency MFA program in Creative Writing at Sierra Nevada College. More information can be found on her website: www.suzanneroberts.net
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.