AWP 2012: Virginia Woolf and Our Nonfiction Foremothers

March 3, 2012 § 8 Comments

By Renée E. D’Aoust

Modernist Nonfiction: Virginia Woolf and Her Contemporaries / Tracy Seeley, Joy Castro, Marcia Aldrich, Joceyln Bartkevicius

In the midst of panels focused on putting yourself out there in the literary world rather than engaging in the literary world by being a conscious literary citizen, four accomplished creative nonfiction writers presented a refreshingly straight-forward, no-nonsense, and fascinating panel about foremothers of the creative nonfiction form. As Joy Castro said, “VIDA take note!”
The panel began with Jocelyn Bartkevicius’s paper on Virginia Woolf, suggesting the focus on perception and interiority (of the Modernist movement) was always a useful strategy for contemporary writers. Woolf references “that peculiar form” of the essay that has a “curtain that shuts us in, not out.” Bartkevicius first encountered the essay through Woolf, so Bartkevicius thought that all essays were lyric. Suggested readings: Woolf’s “The Sun and the Fish”; Dillard’s “The Totally Eclipse”; Woolf’s collection “The Captain’s Death Bed.”
Panel organizer Tracy Seeley presented a paper on Alice Meynell, suggesting that the personal essay of the 1890s was “associative, anecdotal, and reflective” rather than “story driven”. This type of essay can be difficult reading for contemporary writers/readers because Seeley suggests it is “hard to be invited into the essay”; however, the third-person stance Meynell uses, Seeley argues, “creates a surprising intimacy.” Meynell also found “self-revelation horrifying.” Suggested readings: some of Meynell’s essays are available through Guttenberg online.
Panelist Marcia Aldrich, who is enthusiastic about the ferment of creativity and possibility within the contemporary creative nonfiction form, presented a paper on Louise Bogan. Bogan worked on a memoir for many years and invited the difficulties of the form onto the page. Aldrich suggests this useful strategy for contemporary writers who may not find epiphany. Aldrich argues that Bogan had “no progression to illuminate” and found “the art of non-catharsis.” Suggested readings: Elizabeth Hardwick’s “Sleepless Nights”; Elizabeth Bogan’s biographer was Elizabeth Frank; and, of course, Louise Bogan’s work.
Panelist Joy Castro talked about the “body-centered, life-affirming energy” of the essay and emphasized that women were on the side of the avant garde (in the Modernist period—and I would add now). Castro discussed Meridel LeSueur’s labor movement reportage. The period from 1890 to World War II was a an amazing literary and cultural revolution that offers works often showing tension that is devoid of a narrative that drives the essay, per se. Suggested readings: “The Ripening” volume; Margie Latimer; and the novella “The Guardian.”
All panelists agreed with Adlrich who suggested reading Elizabeth Bishop’s and Marianne Moore’s essays.
Renée E. D’Aoust is the author of the collection “Body of a Dancer” published by Etruscan Press. She will be reading at Women & Children First Books in Chicago on March 8 at 7pm. For more information about reading dates, please

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