AWP 2014: The Memoir Today

March 3, 2014 § Leave a comment

awp Sea-HawkThe Peculiar Yesterday: The Memoir Today, an AWP 2014 panel guest-blogged by Jamie J. Barker:

For this session, I made sure to get there early, refusing to spend another hour and 15 minutes sitting on the floor, as I had in the prior session, unable to see anything other than the sweater-covered butt of the woman in front of me. It was a nice enough posterior, but I became entirely too familiar with the patterns of her sweater, and couldn’t begin to tell you what the panelists looked like.

This session that focused on memoir and the “chimeric autobiographies and the cultural implications of literary transmutation” was not as well-attended, but those of us who were there had chosen wisely.

Debra DiBlasi (of Jaded Ibis Press) moderated, introducing the panelists who were there to discuss that “sticky and whimsical thing that is remembering.”

Cris Mazza, author of Various Men who Knew us as Girls (Emergency Press, 2011), described her writing as often being “something she herself needed to read.” She told us a bit of her struggle: “I was trying to say something,” Mazza said. “but it seemed no one could hear me, even myself.”

Most encouraging to this writer (still fumbling around at how I will write my hesitant memoir) was Mazza’s realization that while writing her book, “something happened and it became the book it was supposed to be.”

Jane Rosenberg LaForge, author of An Unsuitable Princess, regaled us with a visual presentation that coincided with her very energetic narrative; we were treated to images of a seemingly random assortment (Cheech and Chong, Led Zeppelin, David Foster Wallace, Wait Until Dark, S. I. Hayakawa and more), though they are not random to her. LaForge began her presentation telling us that “A lot of writing starts with strange, oblique associations.” We learned that the movie Shoot the Moon was about her family (“Sort of”) and that LaForge herself is “more interested in dealing with other people’s demons.”

I found her commentary on the woman who is “vulnerable, so she is attractive” very interesting. Wait Until Dark and Patch of Blue—both stories of blind women who are either victimized or terrorized—were excellent examples of this unfortunate trope. At some point she mentioned establishing herself as “a scholar and a smartass,” and I think she did both quite admirably.

Dawn Raffel described her memoir The Secret Life of Objects, which was a Wall Street Journal bestseller, as an “accidental memoir.” Her illustrated exploration of “items of uncertain origin” had her writing like a house on fire,” and wondering “if this is a book.”

Part of what Raffel wanted to tell her audience is that there is beauty in the ordinary. “I had no extreme trauma in my life, nothing extraordinary about my family,” she said.

Yet her book is quite extraordinary. She writes about the mundane objects that are not mundane because of the emotional connections we have with them, and the stories they bring to our minds. She said she has trouble remembering her father’s voice, but she has his hat. “It holds my father for me,” she said.

As a woman who has her grandfather’s shirt tucked in a drawer, folded neatly into a ziplock bag (to preserve the smell of him), I understood Raffel’s message, and also believe in the treasure and value of those simple objects.

Anna Joy Springer, author of The Vicious Red Relic, Love: A Fabulist Memoir, in contrast to Raffel, said “I could write for the rest of my life about fucking trauma.” I could have live-tweeted so much of what she said, had I not been scribbling away furiously in my notebook to get it all down. “I don’t care about narratives of redemption,” “In narrative land all things happen in the time of the story,” and “There’s a difference between making writing and creating literature,” are just a few of her great quotes.

Springer is a visual artist as well as a narrative writer. She also gave her audience a lot to see and consider with Goldie: A Neurotic Woman, an early feminist comic that bloomed out of the sexual revolution and was not totally loved by feminists, though our audience seemed to enjoy her quite a bit. Springer entreated us to consider that “the way we’ve been using ‘queer’ in literature might not be accurate,” and also to consider the misunderstandings of what is called “the perverse.”

Debra DiBlasi spoke briefly towards the end—we had just about run out of time, which was too bad, because I could have listened to her for a lot longer. She advised us to “follow the book where it wants to go.” She looks for honesty and integrity in writing, which “can sometimes bring [her] to tears.”

When looking for places to publish our work, DiBlasi suggests “finding someone who isn’t just looking at the bottom line,”and to “write out of who you are, and do the work.”

A question was raised from the audience: “Is there ever going to be another word we can use besides memoir?”

DiBLasi laughed. “Trust me,” she said. “I know where you’re coming from. And I don’t know when the labels will go away, but it’ll a long time coming, unfortunately. “

Jamie J. Barker is graduating from Fresno State’s MFA program (home of The Normal School), and is a nonfiction writer working at blending her own story with those of the people she encounters, primarily in the ghetto neighborhood where she has worked for 15 years, and her students in the county jail, who surprise and delight her continuously.

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