AWP 2014: Write What You Are Desperate to Know

March 4, 2014 § Leave a comment

Seattle AWP Starbucks logoA guest blog on the panel, Ghost Lives: Writing and Teaching Memoir When the Subject is Missing, by Erin C. Arellano.

Saying that a subject is missing can mean different things to different people. That fact is well represented by the panelists, Christa Parravani, Brian Castner, Warren Etheredge and Sonya Lea. Their missing subjects range from an identical twin sister who died of a drug overdose, to a bomb technician who talks to his dead friend, Ricky, to a woman whose husband has lost his memory to a man who lost himself and now helps others find themselves.

This panel was organized by Sonya Lea, whose husband suffered a brain injury and lost his memory of their life before that event. She says they have rebuilt a life, but he will not regain the memory of the life before. Because she is writing a memoir about that experience, she wanted to gather together writers who wrote from the perspective of their subject being absent in some way.

Christa Parravani says she wrote Her in order to be able to spend time with the sister, Cara. The loss of her sister, as one can imagine was like losing a piece of herself. She likened it to the loss of a limb, calling it the phantom-twin syndrome. Before her drug overdose, Cara had been raped. Christa believed this to be a mitigating factor in her sister’s drug addiction and eventual death. Knowing she would be unable to do justice to the story of Cara’s rape, she found a manuscript of a memoir that Cara had been writing and alternating Cara’s voice with her own, she overcame that obstacle.

Brian Castner’s point-of-view, in his book, The Long Walk is a little crazy. He says he sees his dead friend Ricky – hears his voice. So there is a kind of ghostly quality to Ricky. Because of this, Castner decided not to put quotes around dialogue, since it was going on in his head, and he wasn’t sure how much he could trust what was actual or even what he remembered.

Warren Etheredge says that at one point in his life he felt he had lost himself – he even felt like he had never existed. Now he helps combat vets who suffer from PTSD. He spoke about the difference between facts and truth, and how the ultimate goal should be an emotional truth. He also had difficulty with the word ghost, stating that all of those people, even though they’re gone, are still very real – very present.

The best universal truths that came from this panel were:

  1. When honoring a person, don’t ignore the warts. Get specific to get at the truth.
  2. The actuality is that some memories are clean and some aren’t.
  3. Do not follow the old adage, write what you know. Instead, write what you’re desperate to know.

Erin C. Arellano, is pursuing her MA in English at the University of Nebraska – Omaha, where she is completing her MA in English with a concentration in creative nonfiction. She received her MFA in writing from the University of Nebraska in 2008. Her essays have been published in Fine Lines and A Prairie Journal.

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