NonfictioNow 2012 in Melbourne: Is Writing Better Than Sex?

November 22, 2012 § 13 Comments

Brevity contributor Rebecca Fish Ewan guest blogs from Melbourne, Australia, on the first day of NonfictioNow 2012.  (By the way, you can click on any of her impressionistic sketches below to see them in a better size.)

I’ve always been a slut for words, but now I can say I’m officially a word groupie…having traveled halfway across the planet, because David Shields was speaking at a conference. Well to clarify, his name is what caught my googling eye months ago and inspired me to submit a proposal for a panel at the NonfictioNow 2012 conference where he is a keynote speaker. I had heard him read at another gathering of writers two years ago and then promptly gobbled through Reality Hunger. What can I say…I’m a sucker for dry wit. Or maybe it’s his hair. No, it’s the words and the mind behind the words. Here’s bullet list of wisdom from Shields’ talk today:

  • Collage is accentuated by editing
  • Writing can be appropriative
  • Pound was playing cover versions of other poets
  • If you want to be able to write serious books, you have to be willing to break forms
  • Time always wins
  • Art can be landfill

Of course, I’m paraphrasing. The image that lingers most for me is of a writer who gnaws incessantly at what he called the thin membrane between life and art.

After the first full day of sessions, the largest revelation for me has been how wide writing is being cracked open. Genres seem almost quaint and the boundary between the literary and visual arts blurred. What is also clear is that for everyone here writing may in fact be better than sex, or whatever else people find excruciatingly necessary. Below are a few sketches from my notebook and selected comments from the panels I attended. The conference is organized (and the program very clearly color-coded) along thematic threads. I attended sessions on radio essays, place (as a panelist), memoir, and writing and images (still and film). Although these sessions were grouped in separate themes, common ideas emerged, particularly regarding form (break it), time (bend, compress, reverse it), genre (bust it) and truth (tell it, always). For all of these umbrella concepts the speakers seemed to be testing the edges, except for truth. The consensus seems to be against lying in any way. As I listened to each writer talk about their work, I could also sense writing as a spatial art. Language has volume and can be moved through and sculpted. This is not news to me, but I’m comforted to see how pervasive this perspective is among the writers here.

I enjoy listening to people talk when they say something that has never occurred to me or they make me laugh. When they can do both, I’m hooked.

My day began and ended with two very funny men.

  • David Shields, who said “I don’t want to bore you with citations.”
  • Brandon Schrand, who’ll have a new book out in March 2013 called Works Cited.

I would enjoy listening to them have a conversation:

In the session on Picturing the Essay, Kathryn Millard said an essay takes an idea for a walk while an essay film takes an image for a walk. Ross Gibson extended the function of the essay beyond responding to the question of what do I know to pondering what do I sense. I will always think of chickens (chooks) scratching when I think of the nature of the essay, because of David Carlin.

One last thing. I learned a new Aussie word: daggy. From the multiple contexts in which I heard it used, daggy might mean dorky or turd-like. Perhaps both. Perhaps neither. Either way, I don’t think it’s good to be considered daggy.

For words from others at the conference, check out the conference blog.


Rebecca Fish Ewan, author of A Land Between and graduate of the creative writing MFA program in poetry at Arizona State University, teaches landscape history and is currently working on a memoir in lyric essays. She lives in Tempe, Arizona, with her family, and makes pilgrimages to the Pacific Ocean whenever life permits.

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