AWP 2012 – Prettying Up the Baby (One More Time)
March 2, 2012 § 5 Comments
Ava Chin, Dawn Raffel, and Marion Winik
Disclaimer: This panel did speak about getting published, building an audience, and although at times difficult, making a little money. Or in Marion Winik’s case, a lot of money spread out over a long period of time. As a long-time friend and former student of Winik, the business end of writing creative nonfiction is something I’m familiar with. Still, Ava Chin’s reminder to write the things you’d write even if you were to never get paid was refreshing. And Dawn Raffel’s look into creative nonfiction from the editor’s perspective was instructional. But as a teacher of creative nonfiction, I find myself struggling to define the genre on a regular basis. For me, it is that obscurity, the seemingly endless possibilities of the literary personal essay (which can barely be contained in a definition itself), that makes the form so exciting and worth discovering. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make my ambition to get undergraduate students excited to write personal essays any easier.
The Red Lacquer Ballroom was an airy and elegant space filled with plush chairs and carpet and regal chandeliers. The sessions I had attended earlier were held in overcrowded, claustrophobic rooms seemingly hidden in a labyrinth of dark hallways and hidden doors. They had flimsy-looking plastic chairs that I didn’t actually get to sit in. The ballroom’s high ceilings and eclectic décor seemed to be a great metaphor for all the things I love about the literary personal essay. I felt more perceptive in that room, and that I suppose helped me come closer to finding a new definition for this genre I find so necessary, yet difficult to explain.
“The number of stories is finite, but people and feelings are infinite,” said Dawn Raffel.
Raffel’s point speaks to many of my own frustrations. What makes a topic worthy of writing about? What will readers care about? What hasn’t already been done? Regardless of genre, stories with similar subjects were told long before many of us will sit down to write ours. The personal essay is less about the subject, though, and more about the persona of the author as subject. When asked what she looks for in work, Raffel was adamant that it is not an exceptional plot or subject. What makes creative nonfiction, namely personal essay, important—unavoidable—is voice. Our perception as authors, observers, and emotional beings is what forms a connection with the reader and makes Rafell, “see [her] life in a different way.”
“Style is important too.” To Winik, creative nonfiction writers care deeply about craft. “We are stylists,” she said. The often described connection between poets and personal essayists is no accident. Words matter. Tone and tempo matter. “Readers want to see you, or a person, on the page.” The literary essayist offers an authentic representation of herself on the page. This authenticity, combined with respect, admiration, and deft concern for style make the form relevant.
It may be that a clear definition, one that fulfills all of our needs, can never be had. The form itself is too complex, too malleable. Many of us have come to know what it means to have that freedom, that open door to personal discovery; we get it. For others, like those undergraduate students of mine, the message is less clear. But I did get a bit closer.
The personal essayist takes in and processes through feeling and emotion. The personal essayist then recreates, structures, and shares in the most articulate, authentic way possible. The reader takes in and processes emotionally, as well. Feelings are important. People process and feel things differently. And that’s where the power of the form comes in because, “… people and feelings are infinite.”
Vito Grippi’s work has appeared in The York Review, Nightlife Monthly, Unsung Hero and Fly Magazine, among others. He co-edits the online lit mag, shaking like a mountain.
“What makes creative nonfiction, namely personal essay, important—unavoidable—is voice.”
Dawn Raffel is right on target there. Thank you for taking me into the Red Lacquer Ballroom for this interesting session that I was unable to attend; I find myself longing both for more wisdom from these writers and for a plush chair.
I think you’re spot-on there, Vito: the best thing about Creative Nonfiction as a genre is how wonderfully porous, malleable, and encompassing it is. On the panel we discussed mostly essays and journalism, but there’s also the kind of fractured, achronological writing style of James Agee in “Let Us Now Praise Famous Men” and D.J. Waldie’s memoir “Holyland,” not to mention the wonderful braided essay form. Maybe your students will have an affinity towards one of those?
Thanks for coming down to the panel which was really fun to do and made for a lively discussion.
Thanks Ava, I enjoyed the panel immensely. There was so much more discussed than what I covered here. But this was left ringing in my ear after I left. In any case, it was a pleasure meeting you.
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