AWP 2012 — The Rooted Narrator: Negotiating Time and Narrative Distance in Nonfiction

March 5, 2012 § 9 Comments

By Daniel Nester

F143. The Rooted Narrator: Negotiating Time and Narrative Distance in Nonfiction / Friday, March 2 10:30-11:45am

Many a memoirist has asked the following questions as they look at their manuscript:

Why here?

Why now?

Why you?

Why this story?

Which version of you gets to tell the story?

These, panel F143’s description says, are the “sweet spots” of a memoir. It’s where we root our narrator, after we peg down situation and story, as Vivian Gornick calls it.

It is also what I have been struggling with my own work. Really struggling. I brought a big-ass coffee and my notebook. I wanted some answers. I got that and a whole lot more.

When I arrive at Palmer House’s Grand Ballroom at 10:20am, I spot Stephen Elliott chatting to an attendee from his previous panel (F119. Literature and the Internet in 2012). A couple of minutes later, our panelists—Jill Christman, Debra Gwartney, Sonya Huber, Dan Raeburn, Bonnie J. Rough—step up from behind the riser where they were huddled up. It’s cold up here, Christman mentions, standing at the mic. The idea for their panel springs from Christman’s efforts to find an organizing principal for her memoir, Darkroom: A Family Exposure, as a graduate student.

Her teacher, Christman recalls, raised a straightforward, paradigm-shifting question, written in the margins: “Before the manuscript, there is silence. Why break the silence? Why here? Why now?”

“I had to pull my car over after I read it,” she says. This eureka moment was when Christman realized she needed to root the place where her narrator stands. She found her “pivot point” that gave readers a place to invest themselves, “to show what is at stake” in her work.

I talk about this with students all the time. I also tell them how hard it is to do it. I tell them about Virginia Woolf’s idea of the I-then and the I-now, about “moments of being,” Philip Lopate’s notion of reflection and introspection and the “retrospective voice.” We write in different tenses in our drafts to make this stand out—the present tense for the I-now and past for the remembered self, the I-then.

But what’s tricky, what I have the hardest time figuring out in my own work, is also the question Christman had struggled with. Where do you root the tale’s teller? Which version of yourself tells the story? Where do we say, this is the point where I have enough wisdom accumulated or lessons learned to pivot and tell the tale. Or, as John Locke asks in Lost, “When are we?”

We writers “machete a route” through our stories, the long slog of “and then and then and then,” Christman says, all the while trying not to telegraph the ending. That’s when the next stage of work begins.

In my notes, I’ve got a long line drawn across the page of my notebook. Then: “convince the reader is engaged in an urgent journey of discovery.”

Collections of essays are often grafted into a memoir, Christman says, a tack that often seems obvious or forced. It can’t work without a rooted narrator to do the heavy lifting. She talks about the use of the framing prologue in a collection of essays—the first sentence from Didion’s “The White Album,” for example.

“Life is big, paper is small,” Chrisman concludes. “Why [makes fill-in-blank line gesture]?”


Sonya Huber is next. I have known Huber for a couple of years now, ever since I published a sestina of hers on the McSweeney’s website that is adapted from a letter to the skateboarding magazine Thrasher. I finally met her in person at AWP in 2006 and she’s been an inspiration since, both as a writer and teacher.

Huber begins her talk by name-checking Ned Stuckey-French’s The American Essay in the American Century as a must-read for its points about this “imagined site of the essay.” (I see Stuckey-French later on a lyric essay panel where he read his “Dear John [D’Agata]” letter.)

Huber mentions how her work often centers around “a mess the narrator is going through,” often inside “moments of domestic instability,” of “being alone in public places.” This is certainly the case with her Cover Me: A Health Insurance Memoir, published in 2010, which starts with instability—i.e., having “shitty insurance”—and introduces possible rooting points along the way, with “body and mind in conflict.” Huber invokes Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking, in particular how the book opens—not with a photo album of glamorous Hollywood memories, as one might expect, but the opening of Word document.

Starting with such everyday, domestic details, she says, is so effective in introducing memoir’s “world-split” events, the instigating incidents of memoir.

There is a mention of the importance of providing a “class-based context,” which piques my interest. My memoir’s coming-of-age tale begins in my blue-collar/working class family and it’s been tricky figuring out out how to depict the struggles I’d had dealing with leaving that world behind.

Huber is quick to point out, however, that domestic instability doesn’t mean a hermetic quandary. “A rooting moment can’t be an intellectual decision,” she says. It’s a “spiritual” moment, one that involves memory, body and spirit.

Also in my notes:

“Push against our own assumptions of what is a meaningful moment,” “not epiphanic” necessarily, but “prosaic,” with “waves of struggle and desire.”

Reading itself is “no longer a rooted experience.”

Rooting the narrator often “launches the essaying moment in memoir.”


Daniel Raeburn is next. He’s the author of a monograph on graphic novelist Chris Ware and essays in The Baffler and The New Yorker. These credits prompt a “wow” from a lady behind me when they are read aloud.

Raeburn describes himself as the contrarian of the group, and talks about the “danger” of rooting the narrator in the present tense, which is by now an expected device, often cliché. We all know how these stories begin, he says. “We begin at the end, sitting at my desk, looking at a photograph of my mother.”

Nervous giggles all around. He’s right.

He’s not going for the cheap shots, however. “This is the way many memoirs do begin, to answer this question of this moment of activation,” Raeburn says, and proposes that this might be a “misguided way of actually beginning a memoir.” While good for the writer who is eager to get started, it’s not necessarily good for the reader. The device “seems too self-conscious, even for memoir.” It recalls for him the meta-fiction of the 1970s, self-conscious and self-referential.

“The story is the distance, not the conflating of them.” Making both “I”s seem the same or blent together reminds me of James Wood’s idea of “free indirect style” in How Fiction Works, where a single adjective might indicate an “I” Narrator’s hindsight.

In the margin, I draw a box around a probably awful idea:

“IDEA: I-now in past tense and I-then in present tense?”

Writing in the present tense might “mimic film,” Raeburn says, “and that’s cool. But it’s essentially an adolescent state of being.” I write in margin: “Snap!”

From my notes:

“Are we be in the age of the meta-memoir, where the writing of the memoir drives the rooted self?”

The “Siamese twins of memory and imagination.”

The rooted self as a “booster rocket,” useful for getting one’s memoir-speaker into orbit, must also be jettisoned to make the story work.

Examples of cutting out rooting scenes, of the remembered self.

Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow.

The “I” Character, the subject, “relatively ignorant,” the former self who can’t understand everything, who makes unwise decisions.

The “I” Narrator, the older-wiser remembering self, who has the benefit of hindsight, the real story.


Bonnie J. Rough is next. She’s the author of Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA, which features not one, not two, but three narrators woven and collaged together.

Rough talks about the earlier drafts, often standalone essays, where the narrator appears only as “pearl of wisdom-dropper.” I giggle like a schoolgirl. I’m so freaking sleep-deprived.

A part of Rough’s memoir appeared as a New York Times’ Modern Love column, which addresses what she and her spouse might do if she is found to be a carrier of a genetic disease, ectodermal dysplasia, that claimed the life of her father at 49 years old, when she was only a young child.

I adapt a remark of hers as a question to myself about my own draft: “Isn’t it true that my dad’s story represents my worst fear for my own life, as well as a source of pride and distinction?”


Last up is Debra Gwartney, author of Life Through This: A Mother’s Memoir of Runaway Daughters and Reclaimed Love. Gwartney talks about how she went “back to classic memoirs” to look for remembering, rooted selves among “calcified memories.”

An example is Frank Conroy’s classic Stop Time, specifically its second chapter, “Savages,” which describes both a former self and a current self-in-crisis.

“It’s no longer about how these bad people did bad things to good me,” Gwartney says. She proposes that every current memoir might have the same subtitle: “How I Coped.” Big laughs.

In my notes:

The rooted narrator is “not finished with the past and the past is not finished with me/him/her.”

The “filter of adult self all the way through, often in the prologue.”

Gwartney discusses two prologues that “establish the problem, the state of mind and tone of introspection” in memoir: Geoffrey Wolff’s Duke of Deception and Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family. In these two prologues we “witness the unfolding of events from an inside perspective.”


By the time the panel was over before noon, I had filled up 20 pages in my off-brand Moleskin. I walked up to the podium like an eager fanboy to say how much I loved what they all had to say. I tell Sonya Huber they should compile their written remarks in PDF. Here’s hoping they do.

Daniel Nester is the author of How to Be Inappropriate. He helps run the group blog We Who Are About To Die and teaches writing at The College of Saint Rose in Albany, NY. Follow him on Twitter at @danielnester.

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§ 9 Responses to AWP 2012 — The Rooted Narrator: Negotiating Time and Narrative Distance in Nonfiction

  • Wonderful and valuable. Thanks!

  • Jill Talbot says:

    I have so appreciated all of these AWP panel posts–I’ve been able to attend so many panels here and pass by tables at the Book Fair via Twitter this past week.

    I’m thinking of a question a writer asked me this morning–why the final essay in my current essay collection in progress is the final one. How do I know it’s “done.”: “Is it because it’s the end of a self you are writing about?” Short answer: Yes. Absolutely.

    The rooted narrator for me, is where the roots were first pulled up, so to speak, where I realized the moment one “I” ended, even though I wasn’t aware of it then, and the “I” that would quickly come and follow me for years, ending “here.”

    I’m going to explore this Huberian/Didionesque opening of a quotidian moment, however. Right now, it opens with the search for a photograph never found. Maybe that’s too easy.

    I’m invested in writing not about “How I Coped”–but “How I Avoided Coping.” Thanks again for posting.

  • Kate Fox says:

    Loved this. Excellent mix of info and impression.

  • deetales5770 says:

    Yes. Thank you for the vicarious AWP buzz!

  • My memoir was originally a collection of essays, but no one would publish it, the rejecting editors all saying they wanted a “more cohesive narrative.” I resisted, then forced myself to dismantle each beautifully crafted gem of an essay (many published and several special mentioned for Pushcart and Best American Essays). The thing is, the editors were right. Making a book is different from making a story, and in the process of putting these essays back together again as a roughly chronological narrative, I discovered what novelists, as opposed to short story writers have to discover: what this story was about, and how to weave and juggle the major and minor themes, develop story, deliver conclusion. My memoir turned out to be about class in America and what poverty does to the soul. It took several years of rewriting, but the work was well worth it, and To Have Not: A Memoir is deeper and more satisfying than it was as a collection of connected essays.

  • Jill McCabe Johnson says:

    Thanks, Daniel Nester, for this summary. I laughed out load when I read Jill Christman’s comment, “I had to pull my car over after I read it.”

    Re: the idea of “then” in present tense, “now” in past tense, Anita Shreve did this to great effect in her novel The Pilot’s Wife. The protagonist discovers a host of lies after her husband’s death, and her whole world is turned upside down. The switch in verb tense adds to the sense of disorientation. Not sure if anyone has done this in a memoir.

  • Peggy says:

    Incredibly valuable. Thank you!

  • […] AWP 2012 – The Rooted Narrator: Negotiating Time and Narrative Distance in Nonfiction ( […]

  • […] another post, Daniel Nester recaps a session on “Negotiating Time and Narrative Distance in Nonfiction.” He talks about Woolf’s idea of the “I-then,” the remembered self, and the “I-now,” […]

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