The Innate Shape of AWP Reality

March 9, 2013 § 8 Comments


Another look at AWP’s Nonfiction Conclaveawp2013b, from Alexis Paige:

I am thrilled to report that on Thursday I met my nonfiction idol, Phillip Lopate, and while name-dropping and in the interest of full disclosure, I will also share that David Shields stopped his auditorium reading just to address my friend and me specifically. Fine, so it didn’t happen exactly that way, but since this is both the age of genre-bending and look-at-me social media, it could have happened that way, or it may well have happened that way, or perhaps it even did—in a fictionalized-accounting-of-nonfiction-event-in-pursuit-of-a-higher-truth sort of way. (The higher truth, of course, being that I am special and so are my friends.)

I sat like an excited schoolgirl in the front row with my writing cohort, Nina Gaby, for the I Essay to Be reading of four generations of essayists: Lopate—60s, Shields—50s, Amy Fusselman—40s, and Elena Passarello—30s. Nina and I are disastrous classmates: she, the animated instigator, and I, the giggly sidekick. On my own I can pass for well-behaved, but with her I am a goner—a grown woman with appallingly-little self-control, who has to sit on her hands and bite her cheeks to keep from losing her mind and bladder.

David Shields introduced the reading with a suggestion that its arrangement along generational lines might allow us to see how the essay “tumbles forth” over time. ‘Tumbling’ proved the perfect verb, as the event romped, sang, whispered, boomed, cried, and looped back again, in a chorus that illustrated the form’s elasticity and capacity for wide-ranging structure, subject, and tone. The experience served as a reminder of the essay’s expansiveness, how it holds room for pretty much everything, even nagging examinations of truth itself—where and how truth fits and what it even is, which I realize is a non-assertion assertion that makes me sound like a douchebag.

Through Lopate’s softly-assured and funny reading about genre concerns, to Shields’ deadpan delivery of “Life Story,” a riff on cliché via bumper stickers—from fill-in-the-blank “On Board” to “Sober and Crazy,” or my favorite, “Die With Your Mask On,” Nina and I (and most of the audience I would guess) were overcome—howling with laughter in some moments, wonder-struck in others. Next came Amy Fusselman’s essay on time, parenthood, and pedophilia, all rendered in a pitch-perfect collage of musing and narrative, and then Elena Passarello, from her new book  Let Me Clear My Throat. What is there to say about a writer who looks like a starlet herself, belts like Judy Garland, reads in a husky almost-drawl, and writes crackling prose that compares Garland’s voice to a “a disturbing emotional vertigo” and the way she sings as “like a dram of Armagnac”? Spellbinding.

But back to what did or didn’t happen: I sat close enough to Lopate to touch him and weep into his blazer, but I didn’t. I might have, though, if I could be sure the gesture would come off not as stalking, but as guerilla marketing. In fact, I was merely star struck, and so naturally I stared at him with a frozen serial-killer smile and said nothing.

When Shields read, my friend howled with such consistency and enthusiasm that I became a giggly noodle in my chair, and Shields paused and motioned to us, “this woman [Nina] is really enjoying this essay.” I felt quite proud to be singled out, but then waited for us to be removed and put into the hall. Maybe we were removed,  I can’t remember.

Lopate says that facts and their implications reveal “the innate shape of reality”; he describes his as the “vanguard position” and concedes that Shields’ blurrier view of fiction vs. nonfiction while fundamentally different, is as valid—even healthy for the form. This acknowledgment seems right to me, the essay itself so flexible, the conversation should be too. My own position is closer to Lopate’s, not because I have a crush on him or a pre-contemporary aesthetic or am somehow more abjectly truthful than my contemporaries, but because I am sentimental. I believe, as Lopate does, that “facts matter,” in part because they encode the DNA of emotional resonance that I try to render as a nonfiction writer. I believe in William Carlos Williams’ dictum “No ideas but in things.”

What I was wearing; how it smelled like banana and lemon oil; the isosceles triangle of light that hung over the readers; how Passerello arched like a cat when she broke from reading into song, “When You’re Smiling!”; that Amy Fusselman was late, through no fault of her own I am sure; and that David Shields’ hands shook a bit as he read: these things mattered. I wish I could tell you how much they mattered, but I wasn’t there.


Alexis Paige’s writing has appeared inTransfer Magazine, 14 Hills: The SFSU Review, Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice, Prison Legal News, Ragazine, and on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. Alexis was twice named a top-ten finalist ofGlamour Magazine’s annual personal essay contest. She received an M.A. in poetry from San Francisco State University and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Stonecoast low-residency program in Maine. She is at work on a memoir about how 749 days in the Texas criminal justice system taught her to grow up. She lives and teaches in Vermont.

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