AWP 2014: Find Your Voice, Get Naked

March 6, 2014 § 7 Comments

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An AWP panel report from Jennifer Ochstein

Exposure is risky, a little embarrassing, but part of the contract. It’s not simply dropping your robe to reveal a bare shoulder or allowing strangers a peek at your thigh. Creative nonfiction requires a stark naked pose.

As panelist Dinah Lenney put it during the Saturday afternoon discussion, The Naked I: Nonfiction’s Exposed Voice, the creative nonfiction writer has to “get naked, stand up and turn around. Slowly.” The effect might cause some to avert their eyes, others to be overcome with desire or jealousy or revulsion, but the authenticity of the exposure is crucial. Without it, creative nonfiction might as well disappear into the self-help section of the bookstore and call it quits.

The creation of the panel stemmed from Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction, edited by Margot Singer and Nicole Walker. In it, Singer points to the self-reflective narrative voice that is the living ‘I’, the body of the author. There is no objectivity, only an odd, bracing mix of hubris and humility. While Singer could not attend the discussion, panelist Judith Kitchen explained that the narrative stance in creative nonfiction profoundly influences the voice of the writer. “Creative nonfiction creates a complicit contract with the reader,” Kitchen said. “The voice represents a self so close to the inner self it’s like hearing yourself in the mirror.” That voice is the “stamp of the individual in a world of conformity,” she said. It asks, “Who am I,” in that world and how to find that self within the community.

While the panelists, who also included Barrie Jean Borich, Paul Lisicky, and Ira Sukrungruang, offered up stale dictionary definitions of voice, they proved how useless those definitions are in helping young writers discover their own voices. Sukrungruang, who teaches at the University of South Florida, tells his students they each have at least five voices. By way of example, he points toward his own: French, Thai, Thai-lish (his family language, a blend of Thai and English), the private language between him and his lover, the safe, professional language he uses with his colleagues at university, and the “insecure fat voice” of a man who struggles with weight. Each voice reveals a separate piece of him, but they are wholly him. Those voices are always evolving, different within each narrative journey because each deserves a unique hearing.

Borich referred to this evolution as resistance and desire of the push and pull patterns that present themselves within each narrative. But how to explain it, asked Lisicky? To him, the beauty of exposure is not the full, naked body. The sexiest bodies, he said, are in different stages of undress and concealment.

Creative nonfiction is not a vanishing act, Lenney insisted. “I don’t write to disappear. I write to locate myself.” That location may be as mother, writer, teacher, wife, friend, or other. Locating herself in the narrative allows her to use language to sing for her reader. And perhaps this is where the paradox of the Naked ‘I’ unveils itself. While Lenney said she only feels authentically present in the creative nonfiction genre, she can control the impression readers have of her. “I don’t want to fool you,” she said. “I only want to sing for you in the key of my choosing, the best way I know how.”

Jennifer Ochstein is a writer and teacher who lives in the Midwest. Her work can be found at Brevity, Connotation Press, Hippocampus Magazine, and Hothouse Magazine as well as in The Lindenwood Review and Evening Street Review. Follow her blog at jenniferochstein.com.

 

 

Memoir as Map Art: Body Geographic

March 20, 2013 § 4 Comments

BodyGeoCOVERFrom Brevity contributor and VIDA-issue co-editor Barrie Jean Borich:

Midway through the writing of my memoir-essay hybrid Body Geographic (University of Nebraska Press/ American Lives Series 2013) I became obsessed with maps, so much so that I came to consider my book a variety of map art—my own quirky attempt at counter-mapping my American body against the “true and accurate atlas” any woman of my place and generation was supposed to follow. Yet this project did not begin in the literal form of an atlas. Rather this writing began as fragmented essays about the intersections of place and the body, most particularly the juncture of my body and the far southside Calumet Region of Chicago inhabited by both sides of my family for as long as they have been Americans.

Maps don’t solve the mystery of why environment and human longing are so intricately intertwined, but something of the way maps bring together embodied landscape, documentary inquiry and artistic subjectivity has worked to enhance, and make corporeal, my understanding of all my places. Similarly, the act of lyric and narrative mapping brings me closer to an understanding familiar to any personal essayist or memoirist, which is that renderings of the self are no more than attempts or—as critical cartographer and map artist Denis Wood describes maps—propositions. The best we can do as literary artists is map in a manner that embodies the invisible beauty of spatial comprehension. The four-minute slide show below is an “atlas” of the maps, map-like images and quotations I included in Body Geographic, along with the captions I wrote to both contextualize the images and cast them as another kind of essay, woven through the length of the book.


Excerpted from Body Geographic by Barrie Jean Borich by permission of the University of Nebraska Press. ©2013 by Barrie Jean Borich. Available wherever books are sold or from the Univ. of Nebraska Press 800.848.6224 and at nebraskapress.unl.edu. For more information on Barrie Jean Borich and Body Geographic, visit http://barriejeanborich.com.

The Non Now, Aussie Style

November 26, 2012 § 1 Comment

A guest post from Barrie Jean Borich:

NonfictioNOW 2012, the Melbourne Edition, ended yesterday, and as I reflect back over the last few days, from my hotel room with its bird’s eye view of the northwest side of this mod glass city, I find that can’t separate form from content.

By form I mean the multi-racial, multi-national, graffitied central city of Melbourne, as well as the Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology campus where where the conference took place this year.  RMIT is a design and technology university, situated (in-part) in the center of Melbourne. The nonfiction program that hosted us, the nonFictionLab, of the Nonfiction Research Group at RMIT, is located, interestingly (to anyone who has been a part of conversations regarding where to put creative writing in the university) in the School of Media and Communication, which aligns writing with design, digital media, film and television, media studies, cultural studies and photography.

The place and space detail of this year’s conference matters because such is part of the purpose of this gathering I’ve long affectionately referred to as NonNow. How might we relocate nonfictional artistic form, on and beyond the page? At this moment where digital communication has changed how many of us think, work and exist, and where the technology of the book itself, not to mention the contemporary city, shifts daily, where we hold these discussions may be a marker of what we’re talking about.

NonfictioNOW has always used such language as “myriad of forms,” a descriptor that is the reason I’ve been to every single one of these gatherings since the inception. But what is form if not a kind of spatial experience? I spent much of the three days of this year’s conference, as always when suspended in conference-time, chatting with friends and colleagues, some of whom I  see only in the country of conferences, listening to now familiar discussions (though perhaps here, at RMIT at least, framed with even greater attention to cross-disciplinarity) about genre boundaries, the unknowability of reality, and the ways to make or unmake our own places and bodies on the page. What differed this time was seeing my life’s work, and that of nearly everyone in those rooms, from the liberating angle of the other side of my known world.

The atmosphere of central Melbourne is made of intense immigration, particularly from Asia, as well as innovative and environmentally informed architectural design. A note back to my Minneapolis architect friend Paul Mellblom confirms what seems true walking around this city. “Melbourne is quite the architectural happening place,” Paul tells me. “Very experimental and thoughtful design [such as] double skins are much in vogue, due to building codes that mandate energy and especially water efficiency.”

At dinner last night at a glass-swathed eatery serving a mix of Asian cuisines, hidden within one of the Melbourne City Centre’s many interior-exterior spaces, my spouse Linnea and I agreed that Melbourne feels pleasingly geometric, like living within a Mondrian painting. Part of this feeling comes from the hours I spent on the RMIT campus, the highly designed building renovations of Storey Hall, visually stunning, with great attention paid to shape and lighting, from the polished asymmetry of the flooring to the ruffles and curves of the ceiling and overhangs, embedded shapes one local told me were meant to represent the Suffragettes who used a previous iteration of this space as their meeting hall.  Every journey to the restroom was a wandering into distinctly green-lit corridors, illuminating passageways as if into labyrinth of essayistic revelation.

Others have, and will, report some of the finer details and critiques of what conferees discussed at this years’ panels, and my own post-conference discussion questions are the same any observant participant might ask.  Why is the city of Melbourne so much more racially diverse than the panel audience, and why do so many more women then men come to NonNow?  Are there more queer writers who might come to this conference, but don’t, and if so, why not? And consider the question a Koori shopkeeper at the Vic Market asked Linnea and me after showing us her cousin’s memoir—will there be Aboriginal writers at your conference? Which leaves me curious to hear the backstory to explain why every conference keynote began with homage to Aboriginal people (which I assume is formal reconciliation statement of some sort) when Aboriginal writers did not appear in the program. I ask these questions fully admitting I come here knowing little about how these issues play in Australia overall, nor what it took to pull off this event at RMIT, but also hoping the diversity panel I was a part of is the start of a discussion that grows and becomes much more complex in the NonNow’s to come.

The questions I come away with for my own work are best described as familiar but newly nuanced.  Do time-sensitive and polemical nonfictions fit fast-acting internet forums better than others, and will we continue to require the printed page?  Are the characters we make of our own lives revelations of (in Cheryl Strayed’s words) the second heart we must rip from our chests, or (in Xu Xi’s words) “face-blankets,” second skins not unlike those of Melbourne architecture, designed to both express and protect? How do we forestall synthesis in order to sensorially experience new places before committing spatial description to the page? Is it fair to insist that the novel is dead and the fact irrelevant when conversing with writers from countries where writing narrative realism has landed them in prison?

The Americans will carry these questions back over twenty-something hours of travel, and rephrase them in our work and in our classrooms. And while I am still sad over the loss of this year’s biannual conference to a generation of  Midwestern American creative writing grad students, not to mention many teachers and writers from all over the USA who did not have access to either time or institutional resources to travel all the way to Australia, I wrap up this year’s meeting deeply grateful to DePaul University in Chicago for supporting the conference portion of my trip this year. Having taken on this long journey, despite reservations about the relocation, I must admit I’m transformed by the experience of internationally reframing of our conversation. Thoughtfully made spaces are themselves the re-creators of form, and when these spaces remove writers from familiar ground, reground us in a new contextual frames, the conversation can’t help but burst its previous container.

The purpose of conferences are to burst our containers, reframe our works, re-landscape our understanding, move us from the parochial and static into what may well be called the Non Now. One of my last conference conversations this year was with the essayist Patrick Madden, a writer I met first in the middle of the night a few NonNows ago, at the printer in the lobby of the conference hotel in Iowa City, both of us printing out our newly revised conference papers the night before our panels. This time we finished our conference saying “Will I see you at AWP in Boston this year? Oh right, we’re on a panel together.” And then we laughed about the oddity of this country we conferees populate, the people we see again and again, in rooms all over the world yet never in the Not-Non-Now of our actual lives. The new work will rise from the intersection of these spaces.

Barrie Jean Borich is the author of Body Geographic forthcoming in the University of Nebraska Press American Lives Series, and My Lesbian Husband, winner of the Stonewall Book Award. She was the first nonfiction editor of Water~Stone Review and recently joined the creative writing faculty at DePaul University. Barrie splits her time between Chicago and Minneapolis.

Brevity’s VIDA Issue: Nineteen Days Remain

April 11, 2012 § 4 Comments

The clock is ticking for those of you planning to submit to Brevity’s themed September 2012 issue .

Here, again, is the issue’s focus:

Numbers, as the introduction to the 2010 VIDA count of gender disparities in publishing puts it, don’t lie. The under-representation of women in English language letters proves remarkably consistent, with dismal numbers found everywhere from smaller literary journals to publications like the Atlantic. Susanne Antonetta, Barrie Jean Borich and Joy Castro—three members of the VIDA Genre Advisory Committee for Nonfiction (shown here with graduate student interns Kate Ver Ploeg, Sarah Montgomery, and Nuria Sheehan at AWP 2012) —are working together to guest-edit an issue of Brevity that aims to go beyond  regretting the numbers and find work by women, including transgendered women, that will further the conversation. Titled “Ceiling or Sky: Female Nonfictions After the VIDA Count,” this issue will foreground the women’s writing we have not been seeing and the lingering reasons behind its persistent absence.

Submissions accepted between November 1, 2011, and May 1, 2012 and authors will be paid a $45 honorarium for work selected.

Submit here:  http://www.creativenonfiction.org/brevity/submissions.htm

Brevity Special Issue: Female Nonfiction after the VIDA Count

November 1, 2011 § Leave a comment

We are happy to announce that our September 2012 issue will be guest-edited, and uniquely focused:

Numbers, as the introduction to the 2010 VIDA count of gender disparities in publishing puts it, don’t lie. The under-representation of women in English language letters proves remarkably consistent, with dismal numbers found everywhere from smaller literary journals to publications like the Atlantic. Susanne Antonetta, Barrie Jean Borich and Joy Castro—three members of the VIDA Genre Advisory Committee for Nonfiction—are working together to guest-edit an issue of Brevity that aims to go beyond  regretting the numbers and find work by women, including transgendered women, that will further the conversation. Titled “Ceiling or Sky: Female Nonfictions After the VIDA Count,” this issue will foreground the women’s writing we have not been seeing and the lingering reasons behind its persistent absence.

Submissions accepted between November 1, 2011, and May 1, 2012 and authors will be paid a $45 honorarium for work selected.

Submit here:  http://www.creativenonfiction.org/brevity/submissions.htm

Two Flash Nonfictions We Really Like …

February 16, 2011 § 3 Comments

2… but didn’t get the chance to publish.  (Insert sad face.)  Here are excerpts. Click on the titles to read the full text:

Slow Burn / by Erin Murphy

The day my brother nearly burns down the house, I am sitting on the living room floor.

Correction: it’s not a house but an apartment, my father’s first since the divorce.

I am playing with Lincoln Logs on the burnt-orange shag carpet, building and rebuilding a perfect house with a green roof.

Correction: I’m not playing; I’m killing time until we’re returned to our real home with our real toys and our real parent.

The dog on the Calumet Expressway was no discernible breed, a good runner the size of a Doberman or Greyhound, sleek and short-haired, dark with russet markings. No collar. The dog ran toward my car as I wound around the exit ramp toward the old East Side, where I was headed to pick up Little Grandma. The dog sped toward the rumble of rusted sedans and semi trucks, into the far southside industrial speedway. Naked was the word that kept coming to mind. Where was that dog headed, so naked, so exposed, her flanks heaving?

AWP Nonfiction Cheat Sheet: Friday Afternoon

January 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

If you’ve been following along, you  know that by now we’ve all fainted in the lobby:

Friday Noon to 1:15 pm

Nathan Hale Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level

F148. Literary Science Writing: Don’t Be Scared. (David Everett, Nancy Shute, James Shreeve, Christopher Joyce) Many nonfiction writers either don’t understand or are afraid of the challenges of writing about science, medicine, technology, or other complicated subjects. But this panel of experienced writers argues that the best science writing can be as ambitious as the best literary writing on any subject. Good science writing, in fact, may be more challenging, because it requires a journalist’s regard for accuracy plus the ability to explain complex subjects with grace, passion, and literary skill.

Executive Room
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

F160. Memoir, Spirituality and the Self in the Narcissistic Culture of Our Time. (Elizabeth Kadetsky, Rodger Kamenetz, Farideh Goldin, Julia Spicher Kasdorf) If one believes the detractors, memoir bears responsibility second only to reality TV for fomenting this “narcissistic” age, in Christopher Lasch’s term—an era of therapeutic jargon that celebrates not so much individualism as solipsism, justifying self-absorption as “authenticity” and “awareness.” Here, we consider quests for self-knowledge as linked, rather, to a spiritual project. How can memoir point to places beyond the self—to transcendence, insight or affiliation with human community?

Friday, 1:30 to 2:45 pm

Ambassador Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

F179. Stranger Than Fiction: The Choice Between Fiction and Nonfiction. (Robin Romm, Kerry Cohen, Pam Houston, Cheryl Strayed, Richard McCann) Most every writer has a personal story to tell. But with memoir comes potential harm—for friends, family, and themselves. Writers often wonder if they could simply change their stories to fiction. How do authors choose between fiction and nonfiction when telling their stories? Can the same story be both fiction and memoir? Five authors who have made such choices will discuss the reasons behind their decisions, and the ramifications of having done so.

Friday, 3 to 4:15 pm

Thurgood Marshall North Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

F195. Flinging the Ink Pot: Resisting Messages About Off-Limits Subjects in Memoir. (Jill Christman, Kate Hopper, Paul Lisicky, Joe Mackall, Sue William Silverman) This panel of memoirists will consider what happens when we write about subjects that are commonly lumped together and dismissed by the publishing industry. It seems we shouldn’t talk about abuse, addiction, or parenting of any stripe. Why are certain subjects seen as played out, clichéd, and sensational? We will consider whether we can avoid categorizing giant facets of human experience as literary no-nos, and find our way back to the serious writing of the stories we need to tell.

Friday, 4:30 to 5:45 pm

Harding Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

F210. What the Narrator Doesn’t Know: The Importance of Speculation in Narrative. (Jill McCabe Johnson, David Huddle, Dinah Lenney, Lee Martin, Lia Purpura) Should narrators admit what they don’t know? Does ignorance discredit the nonfiction author? Listen to four writers discuss how they use speculation to openly investigate questions, uncover the narrator’s vulnerabilities, delve more deeply into narrative, and intensify plot. Learn how not knowing can build credibility and open possibilities for the author, while inviting the reader to embark with you on a journey of exploration.

Diplomat Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

F223. Interviewing In My Underwear: Adventures as a Female Memoirist. (Wendy Sumner-Winter, Barrie Jean Borich, Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, Kerry Cohen, Brenda Miller) We’ve all heard that confession is good for the soul, but how about for a woman living in the real world? Six memoirists discuss the familial, professional, social costs and benefits—and everything in between—of being a woman who writes candidly about her body, her physical life, her sex life, her carnal appetites. We will talk about what it is like to navigate our various social and political worlds having told, literally, the naked truth.

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