Making Room for Both the Reflective and the Narrative Essay
June 26, 2017 § 34 Comments
By Lynette Benton
I often get excited about a call for submissions, especially if I have an essay in my files waiting, I feel, for just that opportunity—until I notice that only narrative personal essays will be accepted. It seems an increasing number of the personal essays published lately are narrative in form; some publications actually specify personal narratives, rather than simply personal essays.
What are we talking about when we describe a personal essay as narrative? It’s a first person essay that’s also a true story. Like a fictional story, a narrative personal essay can “recount a string of events,” as essayist and editor Joseph Epstein writes in his Forward to The Best American Essays 2014. As in a fictional story, a narrative personal essay includes an inciting incident (or catalyst), conflict, obstacles placed in the path of the main character (or, in the case of a personal essay, the narrator), a climax, and a resolution.
Oliver Sacks’ gripping personal essay, “Bull on the Mountain,” is narrative in form. Sacks describes his face-to-face encounter with an enormous white bull seated on a path in front of him when climbing a mountain alone in Norway. Sacks tried to flee “in blind, mad panic,” and in so doing, seriously injured himself. The essay contains an inciting incident (the meeting with the bull), obstacles confronted by the narrator (getting himself, despite his bum leg, back down the mountain before darkness and extreme cold set in), a climax (just as it seems Sacks will pass out and in all probability die, hunters catch sight of him), and the tale is resolved (Sacks is rescued).
On the other hand, a reflective personal essay is true first person writing that explores a topic or idea, without being required to follow a narrative arc, include a climax, or come to a conclusion. In fact, it is notably inconclusive. Essayist Phillip Lopate, editor of The Art of the Personal Essay, considers personal essays the “incomplete or tentative treatment of a topic.”
He goes on to point out the personal essay’s “digression and promiscuous meanderings,” which I consider the hallmark of reflective personal essays. Roaming in the wake of the writer’s seemingly disordered thoughts, even down blind alleys towards apparent dead ends, feels comfortably like my own mental journeying. In the narrative form the essayist tells what happened—instead of inviting readers to make of his mental journey what they will.
A major difference between narrative and reflective personal essays could be that the former appears incident driven, the latter, idea driven. That’s not to say that either form excludes the other; narrative personal essays explore ideas and reflective personal essays frequently contain anecdotes—stories, like small gems—nestled in the platinum of the wandering prose. In Zadie Smith’s “Joy,” originally published in New York Review of Books in 2013, Smith departs from her contemplation of the differences between pleasure and joy to tell a story about an evening she spent on drugs in a night club. She circles back to conclude that one has pleasure, while one enters joy.
In narrative personal essays, I often feel rushed to arrive at and over that pesky narrative arc that looms like a hurdle on an otherwise level path; There’s the unfolding of the plot and the determined trot towards the climax and resolution. An email from an editor made it clear where his interest lay. “I’m looking for stories where something happens,” he wrote. [Italics mine.] The writer of the narrative personal essay is discouraged from wondering, meandering, or doubling back to poke at inchoate thoughts, or to reconsider questions that refuse to be easily, even glibly, settled.
In “The Personal Essay: A Form of Discovery,” His introduction to The Norton Book of Personal Essays, Epstein writes “Literary forms, like stocks, rise and fall, not in value of course, but in prestige.” Might the reflective personal essay be on its way out? Will there no longer exist room in our nonfiction universe for both narrative and reflective personal essays? Though I’ve enjoyed many narrative personal essays, such as the chilling “Angry Winter,” by Loren Eiseley, my deepest appreciation is reserved for the reflective personal essay. Am I to be deprived of this type of essay, which I not only enjoy reading, but write? I guess I’m also asking: Has the personal essay evolved beyond me? Is it time for me to pack up my pen and go home?
I cut my teeth on reflective personal essays written in the 1930s through the 1960s, decidedly less hurried times. Essays from that era feel relaxed and loosely structured, like the casual suits men wore in nineteen forties movies set in Hollywood or Havana.
Among my favorites is Natalia Ginzburg’s He and I, first published in 1962. In it, Ginzburg employs repetition, counterpoint, and hyperbole to describe the ways in which she is inferior to her almost preternaturally astute and accomplished, though rather imperious, husband, only inserting glimpses of his weaknesses after we’re just about convinced he possesses none.
A more recent reflective personal essay that I cherish is Daphne Merkin’s, My Kingdom for a Scarf, first published in The New York Times in 1991. In this essay, Merkin has left a favorite scarf in a New York City taxi she’s just alighted from. Her efforts to retrieve or replace the scarf are unsuccessful. Losing the scarf leads her to new insights. She writes, “[I]t should be clear …that we’re not talking scarves. We’re talking loss.” The scarf only symbolizes that idea. So does a glove she lost. The heart of the essay lies in her memories of and tallying up of losses in her life. Merkin offers no climax or resolution. She simply tells us at the end, “When I am dead …I suppose I shall not care about the red suede glove I dropped in Central Park 15 years ago.” Then, emphatically, “Meanwhile, I want everything back.”
I like the way reflective essays begin in one place, and we readers have no idea where they might take us, and I bet that sometimes the author might not know either. The text is a winding road, with unexpected detours and surprises around corners that once were hidden from view. Joan Didion said, “I write entirely to find out what I’m thinking, …and what it means.”
And yet a writer and writing coach, who specializes in nonfiction informs me that some essayists confess that, “their essays mimic the randomness of thought, while they structure the essay during the revision process…deliberately to achieve this effect.” That may be true, but the reason I apply my pen to reflective personal essays is that, like Didion: I’m not sure what I think or what I mean until I write it out.
Why is the narrative personal essay in vogue right now? Is it because of a belief that readers (and perhaps editors) abhor a state of uncertainty, preferring to be led along a discernible path to a firm conclusion? If so, shame on the writer if she’s not at all sure of the answers to the questions she’s implicitly raising in her essay.
Is this preference, if it is a preference, for narrative personal essays a result of our shortened attention spans? We no longer have the leisure of previous centuries, as Dinty W. Moore notes in his Crafting the Personal Essay. Do readers want us writers to just get on with it? Or is it simply that we humans are “wired for story” as Lisa Cron writes in her book by that title?
Perhaps I have reason to be hopeful. Many fine publications remain open to either treatment—narrative or reflective. But I still wring my hands over my personal essay writing. Perhaps what I fear is not only the demise of the reflective essay. It’s possible my apprehension stems from the way I experience my own life. Like reflective essays, my life’s got enough doubt and doubling back to evade all my attempts to force it into anything remotely like orderly certainties.
Lynette Benton’s essay, “No More Secrets and Silence,” was awarded first place in the 2016 Magic of Memoir Contest and subsequently published in the Magic of Memoir anthology. Excerpts from her memoir, My Mother’s Money, earned finalist status in the 2014 memoir writing contest sponsored by She Writes Press and Serendipity Literary Agency. Her nonfiction has appeared in numerous print and online publications.
Learning to Write Memoir
January 31, 2022 § 12 Comments
By Sherry Mendelson Davidowitz
I woke with a start, sweaty and frightened. It was the same anxious dream I’d had since retiring after thirty years as a psychiatrist. I was back in medical school unprepared for an exam when suddenly I remembered that I was already a physician and a psychiatrist. What was I doing taking an exam after having earned my degree? I was relieved to realize it was only a dream.
After I retired, I’d experienced waves of emptiness that remained with me for months. There were days when I wandered my house, overwatering plants, cleaning closets, and straightening my bookshelf. Finally, when I tired of putting off the inevitable, I considered my way forward.
Reflective by nature, I decided to join a memoir writing class. At first, I felt uncertain; was this a skill that could actually be taught or one that I could learn? I wondered if I was creative enough for the work or if I had anything to say.
One evening, I sat in writing class, listening to Farrah, a classmate, present her work. As she read I skimmed my own pages that Leslie, our teacher, had returned. In the margin, she’d written, “I can see that flag waving. You don’t need the next sentence.” I’d liked my analogy of the flag waving “like a beauty queen.” Probably too cute, I surmised. Overwritten. Where was my authentic self? Likely hiding beneath superfluous analogies and other yet to be discerned defenses.
As Farrah, who’d fled her homeland of Iran, shared her pages, my attention turned to her. Statuesque, with jet-black hair, dark eyes and olive skin, her voice quivered as she read about her escape from an abusive husband. She’d left her baby daughter in Iran with relatives. When she finished reading she said, “No one can know how hard it was to leave my child behind.”
I thought about my own background. My life stressors paled in comparison. Did I have a story worth telling? I’d chosen memoir because I wouldn’t have to make up a plot and characters. Yet, I had a hard time figuring out what to say and then how to say it.
When I began writing, the last thing I wanted to explore was anything related to my career in psychiatry. I’d understood from class that an important aspect of constructing a memoir is to ask a meaningful question and write the answer. Yet I wracked my brain for something unique to tell. All that “wracking” brought up an intriguing question for me. How did a girl like me, who grew up in the 1950s and 1960s, a girl who only wanted to become popular at a time when women were mostly stay at home moms or teachers; how did that girl choose to become a doctor, a profession dominated by men? The answer became the centerpiece of my personal story.
As I wrote I learned that, instead of merely reaching a goal, I had to observe specifics along the way—scene details, word choices, tone, voice, narrative arc, all in the service of the story, all new and complex skills to learn. Yet, I liked the peace that I felt when I wrote, so despite my apprehensions, I continued.
I received comments back from Leslie like “slow down,” “unpack this, “more scene work.” I’d never realized that my mind sped through life, glossing over its details to reach an imaginary finish. Scene work exposed my inner life, making me feel vulnerable, which was frightening at first. Then, I felt known, which hooked me.
I observed similarities between writing and psychiatry. In psychiatry, I worked with a patient, picking at emotional scabs to open up wounds for understanding and compassion between doctor and patient, beginning the healing process. With writing, there is the picking at emotional scabs by the writer herself, to expose and understand traumas, the purpose being to connect with others. Slightly different from medicine, yet similar.
So, writing, which had started as a break from my profession, had circled back to it with a new focus—explaining how I discovered my calling, revisiting my struggles, and bringing to light what the process taught me. It was ironic to me that doctoring was not that different from writing. That repetitive dream of being in the classroom after already earning my medical degree had come true in a new way—through the process of learning to write. When I discovered my story, I found my way.
Sherry Mendelson Davidowitz is a writer and psychiatrist living in the Los Angeles area with her family. She graduated UC Berkeley in 1973 with a major in the Department of Medical Physics. She earned her medical degree from the University of California, San Francisco School of Medicine in 1977 and completed a residency in psychiatry at the same institution in 1981. She has a private practice in psychiatry in the Southern California area. Her literary work has been published in The Jewish Journal, Antigonish Literary Review, Litro Magazine, Wilderness House Literary Review, and performed and published by The Braid Theater in Santa Monica California. She recently completed a memoir, REAL DOCTOR, the story of how she found her calling in medicine and psychiatry, professions dominated by men at the time.
A Writer’s Pact with Readers
May 31, 2021 § 5 Comments
By Chelsey Drysdale
I’ve been thinking about the pact between a memoirist and her discerning readers, including those about whom she writes, an unspoken agreement that what is on the page comes from a genuine place of curiosity, exploration, and a valiant attempt at reflective self-awareness. Trust is at stake. Is the writer narrating her own story without a self-serving agenda? From my experience as a reader, the answer is yes in almost every case—but not always. This is not to say memoirists are ever 100% reliable narrators because memory is faulty and conveying impactful experiences effectively is hard. The key lies with intent. It’s not the writer’s job to dictate how a reader feels; it’s up to the writer to tell her emotional truth the best she can and let a reader feel how she feels. If a memoirist does her job, her actions are recounted on an equal playing field with those of the other “characters” from her life. If a writer airs dirty laundry, her clothes better make up the bulk of the load. I strive for this, but still worry I’m failing.
I have a 15-page personal essay in the upcoming summer issue of The Coachella Review that I thought I would never put on the internet. It’s an eyebrow-raising story of my six-month marriage in 2005. I started writing it when I was still emotionally invested. I finished it as a different person who has no attachment to it at all. I’m a firm believer in getting words down when events are fresh and editing them from a temporal distance. In early drafts, I struggled with how to tell my story without sharing details of my ex-husband’s childhood that fell squarely under Not My Story to Tell. As a conscientious human, I knew I had to leave it out, and ultimately I didn’t need it. Sometimes brutal honesty is just brutal, and as a mentor explained, it doesn’t matter why my ex acted the way he did, only that he did. In the end, the essay is equally about my own illicit mistakes—many to which my ex still isn’t privy (Yikes!). Sometimes, what’s noteworthy is what a writer doesn’t say—the magical white space that leaves room for the reader’s own experiences and imagination. Also important is how the author presents her life choices: the tone, the structure, the attention to detail, and the relevance of each scene to the larger picture. (What does it all mean?) Often the memoirs with the trickiest ethical questions are the most empathetic—my favorite nonfiction to read. While editing my marriage essay, if I’d still been indignant or melancholy—or my intentions had been vengeful (gasp!)—the implicit agreement with readers would crumble, and they would notice.
It’s a rare occurrence when I read nonfiction that strikes as disingenuous or includes extraneous passages that make me question the author’s intentions. In most cases, I blame the editor. (How did he let this happen?) But, as much as we’re told to read meticulously crafted, thoughtful literature to grow as writers, I also find dubious work to be an instructive reminder of what not to do. (I hope my manuscript doesn’t sound this off-putting! Does that scene really need to be in it?) One of the most reassuring aspects of having an unpublished memoir manuscript seven years in the making is knowing I can always improve it. I haven’t upset readers yet, and, when I inevitably do, it won’t be deliberate, and that’s the key.
Before the pandemic, I loved book signings, especially when I’d already read the book being signed. Having a two-minute opportunity to heap praise on a memoirist and make a connection as a fellow writer who understands the hard work that went into creating her book always feels meaningful. I want nothing more than to read a memoir and immediately tell my family, friends, and other writers, “This is so good. You have to read it!” Even better, I love when I finish a book and am so in awe of its flawlessness, it pisses me off I didn’t write it. Holding a just-read memoir to my chest, shaking my head with my eyes closed, and thinking how did she do that? is my version of going to church. My biggest hope is one day, at least one reader will have a fraction of that response when she finishes reading my memoir, and that will be a good day.
Chelsey Drysdale’s essays have appeared in The Washington Post, The Manifest-Station, Bustle, Brevity, Ravishly, Green Briar Review, Black Fox Literary Magazine, Luna Luna Magazine, Reservoir Journal, The HerStories Project, Book Lovers: Sexy Stories from Under the Covers, and other international publications. She is a Best of the Net Anthology nominee and has been twice nominated for the Pushcart Prize. Her latest essay will appear in the summer issue of The Coachella Review.
A Review of Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me
January 4, 2016 § 4 Comments
By John Alexander
On July 3 of this year, “dream” held an array of rich connotations for me. From open imagination to the urgent longing toward social justice, the word was evocative, engaging, comfortably owned. On July 4, I read the excerpt in the Atlantic of Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates, and through his beautiful eyes and his nuanced, authentic voice, my definition expanded and opened a wealth of questions still resonating five months later, leading to discussions of it among faculty, staff, and students, and writing my own ongoing, probing reflection. Coates tilted my world and left me swooning on the floor.
How can one day and one book make such a difference? The answer, I discover, may lie in four R’s: Reading, Writing, Reflecting, and Relating.
Reading. I read reflectively, making personal meaning as I read. I have so long practiced this approach that it is a habit more deeply ingrained than its predecessor—reading analytically, in my head, as though my logical mind existed independent of spirit and body—in a state of perpetual disambiguating logic. Reading Coates was a revelation to me, a maelstrom of personal meaning-making, and engagement.
Writing. In an interview with The Root, Coates says that he writes for a black audience, refusing to dumb down or cut anything back for white readers. Whether he is writing about the case for reparations or the many ways we as Americans dream through our reflections on race and justice, he exudes deep understanding of the lived black experience in the U.S. I accept and celebrate the truth of this, though I am white. In half a century of unlearning my own forgetting, I find Coates extraordinarily helpful, writing with clarity, depth, and self-reflection.
Reflecting. The mirror Coates holds up startles and confounds me. It wakes me from my own forgetting. Reflection is like that, an opening, a candle-lit cave, revealing a room dim and an end in itself until a new opening looms.
Relating. I have spent decades understanding, reading, writing, and reflecting on these matters of race and class at this unfolding moment in the U.S. And yet, I remain blind, deaf, and dumb even to my own reality. I had grown smugly comfortable with my ignorance. Then Coates insists that we talk of racism and white supremacy rather than “privilege,” and he startles me into myself and reality anew.
To read Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me is to savor a nuanced, layered paradox that rhymes disturbingly with the complicated reality in which we live. The Dreamers, Coates’ metaphor for people who “believe they are white” and are living the good life, have forgotten the cost and have forgotten, in fact, that their dream is a luxury paid for by the suffering of others. The Dreamers, Coates asserts, are extraordinary engineers of their own forgetting, stopping America’s heart in the process. I am that Dreamer, deluded that I am that disembodied insight even as I reassure myself that I am wholly here now. And as I read, write, and rediscover the Dream, my own reality shifts. I breathe. Stretch. Feel my thighs press the chair, my feet press the soles, my eyes itch, and my gaze lift.
This embodiment gives me hope even as his message is so dire. For although his experience is dark, and he unflinchingly catalogues the vicious racism in our culture, I feel that Coates, too, is hopeful—able to tell the whole truth, to “…not cut anything back” and in many surprising ways to be deeply heard—necessary preconditions for hope.
CPR. The relentless clarity of Coates’ beautiful eyes, his steady, unflinching gaze, his loving, gentle arm around his son…and his reader, these insistent pulses call breath back to my body, back to where I wake on the cold ground. Rising like Lazarus, I gather my realizations like chicks, warmed and protected before they extend themselves and me, in chill morning air.
Just as Coates quotes Wright, I see that something was also thrust between the world and me. Dreams reveal new perspectives. The camera has a nauseating sweep as I re-orient, my head still wet with the morning dew.
John Alexander writes fiction and creative nonfiction, which has been published in a variety of journals. He is currently working on a book of reflective writing that explores such meaningful items as his totem animal, the tick, and his four-year-old fashion breakthrough of smearing his hair with tar.
AWP 2014 :The I or the Eye
March 10, 2014 § 4 Comments
Guest blogger Nora Maynard reviews the panel, “The I or the Eye: The Narrator’s Role in Nonfiction”
“You think you’re yourself, but there are other persons in you.”
-John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”
Blogging about an AWP panel on how to craft an appropriate nonfiction narrator feels a little like stepping into a funhouse hall of mirrors.
Writing this post, I find myself becoming more self-conscious than usual about what all nonfiction writers have no choice but to do: put together narrators that are, while at the same time aren’t quite, true versions of ourselves.
As I type this, I feel hyper-aware of myself writing in a voice. (But which one, which me this time? The earnest, Latinate word-using one from university? The cheerful, forthright, service journalist one? The just-the-facts-ma’am, board meeting minutes-taking one? The introspective, image-filled, personal essay-writing one?)
And as I review all that took place in that conference room in Washington State Convention Center the last week, I also find myself thinking about the distinctive voices of the panel’s four presenters: Michael Steinberg, Lia Purpura, Phillip Lopate, and Robert Root, all extraordinarily accomplished, yet contrastingly different, nonfictionists, each using a unique voice to describe his or her own distinctive approach to, yes, nonfiction narrative voice.
It’s all kind of dizzying.
But now it’s time for this “I” to step aside and become an “eye.” Here’s a little sampling of what each panelist said:
1. Michael Steinberg: Where to sit? Center stage–or off?
Moderator Michael Steinberg explained that Elyssa East, who played a key role in the planning and development of the panel, recently had a baby and wasn’t able to attend the conference. Steinberg talked about East’s book Dogtown, which is largely a work of investigative journalism, but includes a very personal section about what drew her to her subject in the first place. Steinberg said the book got him thinking about why some narrators are situated center stage, while others sit in the periphery, offstage. How do we, as writers, choose?
Steinberg offered this quotation from David Shields: “Find the form that releases your best intelligence. Find what you do exquisitely well and play it to the hilt.”
2. Lia Purpura: Step away from the self
Lia Purpura pointed out some of the pitfalls of being overly self-conscious as a writer. She acknowledged that “a strong voice is a powerful idea-delivery system,” but warned that “talking about voice an awful lot as a creator, and too early on in the process may put pressure on the writer to compose in a certain way, that is, to be led by attitude, to foreground a personality–at the expense of recognizing other generative gestures.”
She suggested that a writer might do best to stay alert and open to the new, the unexpected, and the mysterious during the process of writing, rather than adhering to a pre-determined voice. But she also acknowledged the paradox of any attempt to truly sidestep one’s own self: “I move through everything I write as, well, me.”
3. Phillip Lopate: Focus on your contradictions and conflicts
Phillip Lopate traced the roots of his own interest in narrator as character back to an early love of Dostoevsky. He recalled how much he enjoyed the voice of the ranting, first-person narrator of Notes from Underground, quoting the novel’s opening lines: “I am a sick man….I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver.”
He also cited the cheekily provocative tone used by the philosopher Nietzsche, as well as Browning’s self-revealing, unreliable narrator in the poem “My Last Duchess” as other early influences. He advised writers to focus on their own internal contradictions and conflicts as a way of building narrative tension and interest. He encouraged us all to embrace what Frank O’Hara once called “the catastrophe of one’s personality.”
4. Robert Root: Approximate your authentic self
Robert Root listed some of the many hats he’s worn as a writer: “rhetorical-slash-literary academic, a composition-slash-creative nonfiction teacher, a radio commentator, an en plein air essayist, a memoirist,” and described some of the problems of hopping from genre to genre. He recalled how he was once taken to task by an editor for including a joke in an academic article, then later criticized by a book reviewer for being too academic when he used the word “persona” in a book he wrote about E. B. White. Root spoke about the importance of, as writer of creative nonfiction, transcending the conventions and expectations of genre and remaining true to one’s own authentic self.
He wrapped up the afternoon’s discussion with these final words:
“In creative nonfiction, we not only have the freedom but also the necessity of being narrative and expository or experiential and reflective in the same work, to simultaneously be both the I and the Eye in the same essay, even in the same paragraph. For me, that involves listening to myself and being alert for signs of a split personality, making sure I am the first person who is speaking, keeping myself—even when I’m offstage—the matter of my book.”
Nora Maynard‘s work has appeared in Salon, Drunken Boat, the Ploughshares blog, and The Millions, among others. She recently finished her ninth marathon and first novel. Visit her website at http://www.noramaynard.com/.
AWP 2013: A Handy Guide to Nonfiction Panels
February 28, 2013 § 21 Comments
Ned Stuckey-French, fearless champion of the essay form and friend of Brevity, put together and shared this extremely handy guide to nonfiction-related panels at the upcoming AWP Boston 2013 Conference. This is not to say that we don’t have a lot to learn from the other panels: on poetry, fiction, literary citizenship, editing, politics, gender, teaching, etcetera, but if nonfiction is your chosen bag, this is the perfect way to keep track.
Thursday, March 7
9 – 10:15
|Room 110, Plaza Level||R111. Looking for Real-Life Humberts: The Unreliable Narrator in Creative Nonfiction. (Elizabeth Kadetsky, Tom Larson, Mimi Schwartz, Michael Steinberg, Daniel Stolar) If creative nonfictionists build a persona, can persona-building also become a source of conflict and dynamism in writing? Can building a less-than-reliable persona be a deliberate strategy, much like the use of unreliable narrators in fiction, such as Nabokov’s Humbert Humbert? Or does any kind of unreliability in the narrator undermine the entire premise of creative nonfiction? Five nonfiction writers brainstorm creative ways for writers to make themselves unreliable narrators—no doubt with playful, conflicted, and imaginative results.
|Room 303, Level 3||R122. “The Poem of Creation is Uninterrupted”: Writers Respond to Walden and Walden Pond. (Lindsay Illich, Sandra Castillo, Scott Temple, Kristen Getchell) Readers will present original works of poetry and prose responding to Thoreau’s Walden and to the geographical site of Walden Pond near Concord, Massachusetts. From the perspective of ecopoetics,Walden serves as a centrifuge for nature writing, but the readers will also explore more subversive readings of the work and the geographical site through verse and prose.|
10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.
|Room 111, Plaza Level||R137. I Didn’t Know I Had It In Me: When Fiction Writers Turn to Memoir. (Marie Mutsuki Mockett, Joanna Smith Rakoff, Porochista Khakpour, Carlene Bauer) We always thought we would write fiction; we never intended to write memoirs. But here with are with our memoirs. What happened? Was it the money? Was it a newfound sense of political passion? Or did we simply realize that certain stories—our stories—would work better as memoir? Come find out, and you may be surprised to learn that you too have a memoir in you.
|Room 208, Level 2||R145. The Artist as Activist: On Seeing and Saving the Natural World. (Tom Montgomery Fate, Alexis Rizzuto, Jennifer Sahn, Jeffrey S. Cramer, John T. Price) In the 19th century, inspired by Emerson’s essay, Nature, Henry David Thoreau initiated a tradition of the nature writer as observer-artist. Today, that tradition continues, but amid a natural world that has been nearly devastated by our own species. This panel of writers and editors will explore the evolving role of the nature writer as artist and activist—how seeing the world and saving the world are part of the same work.|
12:00 noon to 1:15 p.m.
|Room 109, Plaza Level||R164. Epistolophilia: Using Letters and Diaries in Creative Nonfiction. (Julija Sukys, Elsie K. Neufeld, Gabrielle Burton, Joan Sohn, Shannon McFerran) Each panel participant has used collections of letters and diaries to write nonfiction. Topics for discussion that have arisen for us in our work will include: What are the challenges of having a handful of letters to draw on versus mountains of them? What is the role of chronology in this kind of work? How do we fill in the gaps that personal writings inevitably leave? What is the author’s responsibility to her subject? What possibilities open up when working with such rich visual material?
|Room 209, Level 2||R175. What About Literary Journalism? (Mark Kramer, Clara Germani, Dan Grossman, Ayesha Pande, Robert Stewart) Despite the decline of magazines, newspapers, and book publishers’ budgets, the climate for literary journalism has never been better. Print is trending downwards, yes, but digital is spiking. Book apps, e-books, multimedia—new opportunities for this genre are continually emerging. In this moderated Q&A session, two journalists, two editors, and an agent discuss the possibilities and share ideas about how to develop stories and publish them.
|Room 302/304, Level 3||R177. I Essay to Be. (David Shields, Phillip Lopate, Elena Passarello, Amy Fusselman) This reading traces the lineage of contemporary essay-writing by embodying it: Phillip Lopate reframed and revivified the form decades ago. David Shields looks back to the tradition Lopate articulated and forward to a group of younger literary collagists, including Maggie Nelson and Amy Fusselman. Each generation builds off of and pushes away from the previous one; each of these five essayists finds his or her own way into the form.|
1:30 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.
|Room 104, Plaza Level||R189. Nothing but the Truth: Perspectives on Creative Nonfiction in the Classroom and Beyond. (Catherine Cortese, Michael Martone, Diane Roberts, Robin Hemley, Debra Monroe) Creative nonfiction continues to grow in popularity among readers and students of writing. The genre, however, lacks a standard definition. Some believe the slippery nature of perception affords writers infinite liberties, while others see the genre as one that artfully deploys stable facts. This disparity makes the genre tricky to write and trickier to teach. The writers on this panel will discuss the freedoms and constraints of the genre in their classrooms, as well as in their own work.
|Room 107, Plaza Level||R191. Five Years of Normal: Anniversary Reading for theNormal School. (Steven Church, Adam Braver, Beth Ann Fennelly, Ann Hood, Joe Bonomo) In 2007, the Normal School published its first issue. In just five years, the magazine has achieved national distribution and a strong reputation for publishing high-quality literary fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. This reading will celebrate our first five years of publication with readings by the panelists. Moderator and founding editor Steven Church will introduce the readers and moderate discussion afterwards.
|Room 200, Level 2||R196. From Parts to a Whole: Turning a Bunch of Essays into a Unified Book. (David Giffels, Chuck Klosterman, Sean Manning, Chuck Klosterman, Meghan Daum) Why do some books of essays feel like collections of B-sides, outtakes and orphans, while others carry the thematic and narrative satisfaction of a good concept album? Drawing from their own experiences, this panel of successful authors discusses vital techniques for conceiving, organizing, developing, and enhancing a collection of creative nonfiction essays into a unified whole. We will address how to balance recurring themes, maintain voice and tone, how to build bridges, and other topics.|
4:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.
|Room 200, Level 3||R255. Thoreau’s Granddaughters: Women Writing the Wild. (Suzanne Roberts, Cheryl Strayed, Pam Houston, Gretchen Legler, Li Miao Lovett) Do women approach writing both the wildness of the land and the wilderness of their own bodies differently from men? Do women have a uniquely feminine vision of what it means to be wild? Are they judged by a different set of aesthetics? These five women panelists, including memoirists, novelists, and poets, will discuss their literary influences, the joys and challenges, and the internal doubts and external criticism they face in writing the wild.
|Room 209, Level 2||R263. Bending Genre. (Margot Singer, Nicole Walker, Robin Hemley, Dave Madden) The hot debate over ethics in creative nonfiction has sidelined important questions of literary form. Hybrid, innovative, and unconventional, nonfiction is arguably the most exciting area on the literary scene today. But how does nonfiction actually work? How does it recombine and transform elements of other genres? What techniques distinguish nonfiction from other kinds of prose? Contributors to a groundbreaking new anthology of critical essays share their perspectives and ideas.|
Friday, March 8, 2013
9:00 a.m. to 10:15 a.m.
|Room 110, Plaza Level||F112. Progression by Digression: Multiple Narrative Lines in Creative Nonfiction. (Deborah Lott, Paul Lisicky, Hope Edelman, and Ned Stuckey-French) Laurence Sterne’s iconoclastic 1760 novelTristram Shandy can be seen as a forebear to contemporary works of creative nonfiction. In this panel, three creative nonfiction writers look at other works that progress via digression, with their main narrative arcs illuminated, enhanced, commented on, and deepened by other threads. The panelists will examine how seemingly digressive narrative lines can open up a work’s temporal frame, enlarge its perspective, provide metaphoric resonance, and add to its intellectual complexity.
|Room 207, Level 2||F119. The Art of the Nonfiction Idea. (Lisa Dierbeck, Pagan Kennedy, Alissa Quart, Katie Orenstein) In this panel, we discuss the anatomy of a successful nonfiction idea. Perfect Storm, Freakonomics, Seabiscuit—each of these books began with a powerful premise. How does an author identify a winning concept? And which ideas are most likely to attract the attention of editors? The session includes an Idea Hospital: audience members will have a chance to pitch their projects to the panelists.|
10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.
|Room 200, Level 2||F142. Essaying the Essay. (David Lazar, Phillip Lopate, David Shields, Lia Purpura, Reda Bensmaïa) This panel will speak to the essentially self-reflective nature of the essay: the ways essays have, historically, insistently talked about themselves. All the panelists have work in the newly released anthology Essaying the Essay, from Welcome Table Press, which presents essays on the essay from Montaigne to the present; they will read portions of their work and reflect/revise ways their views of the essay have modified over time.
|Room 310, Level 3||F158. The Person Behind You: A Reading of Essays in the Second Person. (Kim Dana Kupperman, Michelle Auerbach, Brian Hoover, Dustin Beall Smith, Rachel Yoder) The second-person point of view can be alluring and tricky, confrontational and seductive, confessional and evasive. What impulses compel us to write in second person, and what challenges does it present to the writer and/or reader? This reading, presented by Welcome Table Press, will feature essays that use the second-person point of view as distancing reflection of a past self, instructional voice, invitation to the reader, and epistolary address. An author Q&A will follow the reading.|
12:00 noon to 1:15 p.m.
|Room 110, Plaza Level||F169. Living it Up to Write it Down. (Michael Pearson, Philip Gerard, Joanna Eleftheriou, Christopher Sawyer-Lauçanno) For Thoreau, living in his cabin in the woods for two years was an experiment in living. Such experiments are not uncommon for nonfiction writers—who engage in an experience to make a story. James Boswell, E. B. White, Hunter S. Thompson, George Plimpton, William Least Heat-Moon, Sue Hubbell, Joan Didion, Bill Bryson, David Foster Wallace, Ted Conover, and many others could be part of a long list of writers who at one time or another made an experience in the hopes of shaping a narrative. The writers on this panel—through examples from their own writing—will discuss or dramatize how such experimentations can lead to story.
|Room 210, Level 2||F180. The Urge Toward Memoir. (Elisabeth Schmitz, Jill Kneerim, Michael Thomas, Jeanette Winterson, Lily King) Novelists Jeanette Winterson, Emily Raboteau, Michael Thomas, agent Jill Kneerim, and editor Elisabeth Schmitz discuss the writer’s urge toward memoir. What defines memoir and is it any more “true” or less creative a process than fiction? Panelists will talk about a favorite memoir and the forms they invented for their own.
|Room 105, Plaza Level||F194. Creative Nonfiction Pedagogy: New Findings from the Field. (Suzanne Cope, Christin Geall, Jan Donley, Stuart Horwitz) This panel features a recent study of approaches to teaching CNF in undergraduate, graduate, and community-based classes. Moderated by Dr. Suzanne Cope, lead researcher in the first participant-based study of CNF instruction for adults, panelists will reflect upon their pedagogy and influences. The conversation will revolve around the findings from the study, including the benefit of mentors and communities of practice, and the adaptation of instruction for various groups.
|Room 107, Plaza Level||F195. A Reading by the 2011 AWP Award Series Winners.(Marcia Aldrich, Kirstin Scott, Laura Read, Corinna Vallanatos) A reading featuring AWP’s 2011 Award Series winners Marcia Aldrich, Laura Read, Kirstin Scott, and Corinna Vallianatos.|
1:30 pm to 2:45 pm
|Room 111, Plaza Level||F199. Turning in Their Graves: Researching, Imagining, and Shaping Our Ancestors’ Stories. (Rebecca McClanahan, Lee Martin, Mary Clearman Blew, Suzanne Berne, Sharon DeBartolo Carmack) Five authors, including a Certified Genealogist, share their varied experiences of writing about family and ancestral roots, offering suggestions for every stage of the journey: accessing archival sources; sifting through the facts to discover meaning, theme, and universal truths; deciding if and when to invent or fictionalize; shaping the material into an artful text; and dealing with the consequences of the published work.
.F208. Editors as Readers as Writers. (Laura Julier, Leonora Smith, Brenda Miller, Richard Hackler, Kimberly Tweedale) As manuscript reviewers for Fourth Genre, we find some essays particularly appealing because they strike a writerly chord, inviting us to read as writers, and to enter into conversations by writing our own creative nonfiction for which these manuscripts are touchstones. Two essayists whose work will appear in Fourth Genre will read; members of Fourth Genre’s editorial board—a faculty member and an undergraduate—will make this conversation visible by reading the pieces that were thus inspired.
3:00 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.
|Room 108, Plaza Level||F227. Write Short, Think Long: Exploring the Craft of Writing Flash Nonfiction. (Kathleen Rooney, Sue William Silverman, Peggy Shumaker, Judith Kitchen, Ira Sukrungruang) In celebration of this popular emerging genre, as well as the publication of The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers, edited by Dinty W. Moore, five of the book’s twenty-six diverse contributors gather to discuss what makes good flash nonfiction memorable and unique, and to offer up ideas and techniques for writing, publishing, and reading the brief essay form well.
|Room 303, Level 3||F242. Making Emerson Matter. (Lowell White, John Domini, Lindsay Illich, Amber Foster) The writings of Ralph Waldo Emerson have been profoundly influential in American literature. But do his words still matter? What does it now mean to be self-reliant? How do we participate in Nature? Is it possible today to transcend anything? On this panel, four writers will discuss Emerson’s 21st-century legacy, and the ways in which his ideas can be used as a springboard for new writing and thinking.
|Room 306, Level 3||F244. The Godzilla of Nonfiction: Has Memoir Swallowed the Essay? (Debra Monroe, Emily Fox Gordon, Meghan Daum, David McGlynn, Madeleine Blais) While creative nonfiction is a growing, vibrant component of most literary journals, most agents and trade presses shy away from essay collections. There is thus a publishing tension between the shorter, not-necessarily chronological, not-necessarily confessional essay and the longer, largely chronological, often confessional memoir. This panel discusses the tension between the short and long forms and offers pragmatic advice for writers working on book-length nonfiction works.|
4:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.
|Veterans Memorial Auditorium, Level 2||F250. Alison Bechdel & Jeanette Winterson: A Reading and Conversation, Sponsored by Emerson College MFA.(Alison Bechdel, Jeanette Winterson, Elisabeth Schmitz) Alison Bechdel, author of the graphic memoir Fun Home and the ground-breaking comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, and Jeannette Winterson, author of Written on the Body and the memoir Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal?, present readings from their work followed by a discussion moderated by Elisabeth Schmitz, Executive Editor at Grove/Atlantic, Inc. The events will be introduced by Emerson College’s Steve Yarbrough, author of the novels Safe from the Neighbors and The End of California.
|Room 110, Plaza Level||F259. What’s That Book About, Anyway? or, The Stealth Memoir in All Its Guises. (Michelle Herman, Scott Raab, Steven Church, Deb Olin Unferth , Joe Mackall) Get out of your own head. Call it a stealth memoir, or memoir-plus—or, as Scott Raab says of his own recent book, The Whore of Akron (about basketball player LeBron James’s defection from Cleveland to Miami), call it a Swiss Army knife of a book: nonfiction with subject matter other than the author’s life that reveals as much as outright memoir can. Five writers who practice the art of the slantwise, roundabout, research-driven, or journalistic approach to memoir talk about how and why.
|Room 207, Level 2||F267. What We Write About When We Write About Music.(Laurie Lindeen, Rick Moody, Will Hermes, Jen Trynin, Jacob Slichter) All art aspires to music because it touches our hearts, souls, senses, and imaginations This panel of writers, musicians, and writing instructors loves, appreciates, knows, and plays music. They have written passionately about music in memoirs, essays, novels, songs, poetry, and blogs. Each individual on this panel would like to share his or her unique path with prose and music, and share their collective beliefs in the emotional, rhythmic importance of musicality when writing and when teaching writing.|
Saturday, March 9, 2013
9:00 a.m. to 10:15 a.m.
|Room 105, Plaza Level||S108. The Truth of Nonfiction: Bringing Students into the Conversation. (Lee Gulyas, Kelly Magee, Rachel Wood, Zackrie Vinczen) The topic of truth in nonfiction is an old one; only the players change. What’s new is asking students what they hear in classes, what they hear in the cultural conversation, and how they make sense of this issue when considering their own ethics, limits, and creative work. Two instructors, one undergraduate student, and two graduate students will consider how the line between fiction and nonfiction informs their classrooms, their writing, and their participation in the larger literary community.
|Room 206, Level 2||S118. Literary Nonfiction and Social Activism. (Helene Atwan, Marianne Leone, David Chura, Courtney Martin, Michael Patrick MacDonald) This panel explores the craft of writing nonfiction that is both literary and socially relevant. Panelists include writers who, while seeking to make significant contributions to the national conversation on the issues they are writing about, are first and foremost writers of literary nonfiction. Writers and editors on the panel discuss ways to balance the political goals of the activist with the aesthetic imperatives of literary writing and the financial demands of trade publishing.
|Room 209, Level 2||S121. What Do You Mean, I Have to Change That? Creative Nonfiction Editors Explain Logistical Challenges Writers Face along the Path to Publication (and Offer Some Tips for Avoiding Common Pitfalls). (Hattie Fletcher, Stephanie G’Schwind, Laura Julier, Andrew Snee) In a perfect world, your essay quotes a song, describes your neighbor’s late-night orgies, or details your sister’s grisly battle with cancer. It’s a terrific essay… but you might not be able to publish it—at least, not as is. Editors discuss their procedures related to creative nonfiction—what and how we fact-check; why you need to get permission, and how we can help; when (if ever) we suggest disguising identities—and offer concrete tips for anticipating and working around such challenges.|
10:30 a.m. to 11:45 a.m.
|Room 111, Plaza Level,……
Room 102, Plaza Level
|S137. The Art and Craft of Short-Form Nonfiction. (Sarah Einstein, Joni Tevis, Brian Oliu, Chelsea Biondolillo) Can you write an essay in 140 characters? In 750 words or fewer? And can you get it published once you have? Join the managing editor of Brevity, two authors of short-form collections, and a graduate student working in this exciting new form as they share techniques and strategies for writing and marketing short-form nonfiction—from the lyric to the expository…
S129. Why Genre Matters. (Dinah Lenney, Sven Birkerts, Judith Kitchen, David Biespiel, Scott Nadelson) Writer Lawrence Weschler once said, “… every narrative voice—and especially every nonfiction narrative voice—is a fiction. And the world of writing and reading is divided into those who know this and those who don’t.” If so, how do we distinguish between memoir and novel, essay and story, poetry and the rest? And why should we care? Panelists will address conflating, compressing, twisting, and embellishing, and the ongoing debate across forms about memory versus imagination and truth versus fact.
12:00 noon to 1:15 p.m.
|Room 108, Plaza Level||S160. Essayists on the Essay. (Ned Stuckey-French, Lynn Bloom, Jenny Spinner, Patrick Madden, Barrie Jean Borich) A new anthology, Essayists on the Essay: Montaigne to Our Time, collects four centuries of commentary, theory, poetics, and celebrations of the essay. Tapping into that resource, this panel explores the form of the essay as described by its practitioners. How have essayists defined the essay? What have they said about what the form allows? What does the essay ask of its writers and readers?
|Room 111, Plaza Level||S163. Memoir Beyond the Self. (Jeffrey Shotts, Leslie Jamison, Brigid Hughes, Benjamin Nugent, Colleen Kinder) This panel will focus on narrative nonfiction that pushes the boundaries of traditional memoir by weaving personal experience into broader explorations of literature, history, and culture. What are the possibilities for a precarious first person, neither oppressively dominant nor entirely dissolved? How can memoir escape the bind of solipsism by looking outward at other people, places, and eras? How can private life become a medium through which the external world is articulated?|
1:30 p.m. to 2:45 p.m.
|Room 306, Level 3…
.Room 109 Plaza Level
|S204. How to Lose Friends and Alienate Loved Ones: Exploitation vs. Documentation in Creative Nonfiction.(B.J. Hollars, Roxane Gay, Marcia Aldrich, Ryan Van Meter, Bonnie J. Rough) Not every story is flattering, nor is every character. Nevertheless, nonfiction writers continue to document their lives and the lives of others, often at the risk of violating personal relationships. How should writers navigate between revealing the true nature of their subjects without alienating the people themselves? Join four writers as they explore the fine line between documentation and exploitation, among other ethical dilemmas inherent in writing of friends, family, and loved ones..S188. Found in Translation: Great Nonfiction. (Sandi Wisenberg, Faith Adiele, Patrick Madden, Susan Harris, Vijay Seshadri) Much of the creative nonfiction published in literary magazines, anthologies, text, and trade books in this country is written by US writers. We seek to broaden the conversation. We introduce, discuss, and read excerpts from exemplary and significant essays, memoirs, and other nonfictions that excite us—by such writers as Eduardo Galeano, Clarice Lispector, Milena Jesenska, Frantz Fanon, Goli Taraghi, Peter Fröberg Idling, Zbigniew Herbert, Nawal El Saadawi, and more.|
3:00 p.m. to 4:15 p.m.
|Room 206, Level 2….
.Room 110, Plaza Level
|S224. It’s Complicated: Memoir-Writing in the Political Sphere. (Liza Monroy, Kassi Underwood, Nick Flynn, Anthony Swofford, Matthew Parker) Writers of political memoirs tell personal stories that intersect with issues of social consequence: Abortion. Gay marriage. Torture. How can we avoid accidentally writing a polemic? Are we trying to solve a problem by telling our stories? Can we? We will explore the unique opportunities and challenges of this sub-genre, focusing on how writers can take advantage of the tension that exists when one person’s experience both illuminates and subverts its larger political context..S217. My Son Is Perfect: Writing (Honestly) About Your Own Kids. (Marybeth Holleman, Hope Edelman, Lisa Couturier, Caroline M. Grant, Kate Hopper) As more mothers find time and courage to write about motherhood, we face unique challenges, especially with nonfiction. One that looms large is how to write honestly about our own children, for whom we have unconditional love and no small amount of adoration. How do we find the distance to write more than the idealized version, to portray our children as the complex characters they are? How do we walk the fine line between telling stories honestly and protecting our own very real children?|
4:30 p.m. to 5:45 p.m.
|Hynes Ballroom, Level 3||S235B. Tracy Kidder & Adrian Nicole LeBlanc: A Reading & Conversation, Sponsored by the Pine Manor College Solstice MFA Program. (Tracy Kidder, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, Richard Todd) A reading and conversation by two noted literary journalists, the Pulitzer Prize-winning writer Tracy Kidder, author of Strength in What Remains and Mountains Beyond Mountains, and Adrian Nicole LeBlanc, a MacArthur Foundation fellowship recipient and author of Random Family: Love, Drugs, Trouble, and Coming of Age in the Bronx. The event will be moderated by magazine and book editor Richard Todd, author of the memoir The Thing Itself, and introduced by Anne-Marie Oomen of the Pine Manor College Solstice MFA Program.|