A Good Day for Nonfiction

June 2, 2012 § 4 Comments

Oprah has revived her book club and chosen Cheryl Strayed’s Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail as her first selection.  Let there be cheers.

AWP 2012 – Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction

March 1, 2012 § 25 Comments

By Patrick Ross

R148: Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction / Thursday, March 1, 2012 – 10:30-11:45 am

“If you’re going to show anyone’s ass, it’s going to be your own.”

Cheryl Strayed doesn’t think much of Joan Didion’s assertion that writing memoir means selling others out. Her contrarian position resonated from the podium at AWP’s session “Selling Out Everyone You Love: The Ethics of Writing Nonfiction.” The Pushcart Prize-winning Strayed told a packed ballroom of 300 writers that she didn’t aim to embarrass her ex-husband when writing about her failed first marriage. In nonfiction, she said, “I show more about myself.”

There is no way to control the reaction of another to appearing in your prose, however.

“If you were to see yourself through your friend’s eyes, you wouldn’t recognize yourself,” said The Rumpus founding editor Stephen Elliott. Even when a subject grants permission for you to portray them in, print, they may be hostile to the result. “They don’t mean,” Elliott said, “‘You can write about a side of me I don’t know I have.”

Hostility can come from any source. “My father threatened to sue if I ever wrote about my family again,” The Sun associate publisher Krista Bremer said. A few days after the publication of an essay about her parents that revealed no dark secrets—no incest, no abuse, no pathology—Bremer found herself sitting on sizzling asphalt beside her mailbox, digesting the “furious scrawl” of her father’s handwriting.

“’Congratulations,’” Bremer said a writer friend told her. “‘If you pissed your family off that much, you got it right.’” Bremer said her father only disputed one fact—her mother drank tonic water with vodka, not gin—but it was what was unspoken that rocked him. “The spaces between the words,” she said, “had been the most difficult for him to contemplate.”

It’s important to remember, said multiple memoir author Lee Martin, that “you volunteer to be a character in your memoir, but others don’t.” Martin first disguised his memoir writing as fiction, but that didn’t lesson the frustration of family. After writing a short story about an anecdote regarding his father that was shared with him by his aunt, his source of information dried up. Martin had betrayed his parents, the aunt said, informing him that “’I’ll never tell you another story about the family again.’”

Yet all of these writers continue to craft and publish memoir. They seek to examine the human condition by telling the truth about others and themselves, as best as they can recall.

There are other reasons to write memoir, said essayist Poe Ballantine.

Years ago a short piece of fiction Ballantine wrote based on his life paid $300, but a subsequent story paid only $200. The publisher informed him the first essay paid more because they thought it was an essay. “‘Oh, you pay more for essays,’ I replied.”

Ballantine’s essay-writing hasn’t stopped, he said. “I have an inexhaustible catalogue of suffering and failure.”

Patrick Ross is a writer and an instructor with The Writer’s Center in Bethesda, Maryland.

Memoir: It’s All in the Art

February 2, 2012 § 9 Comments

Shanna Mahin at the Pen Center blog makes an impassioned defense of the too-often-maligned memoir genre.  Like Shanna, we wonder why these same attacks and questions come up time and again.  To our critics: try writing a strong literary memoir.  There isnothing easy or therapeutic about it:

Here’s the thing: good memoir adheres to the same guidelines as good fiction. It needs plot, story, well-developed characters, a solid through-line, all of it. And a memoirist has to do it with one hand tied behind her back. She can’t conflate a time period (although, allegedly, Vivian Gornick might argue that point) or create a dramatic scenario to illustrate the angst of the human condition (ditto, James Frey, et. al.) She has to do it with the raw materials at hand. It’s all in the art. You get no credit for living. I didn’t say that, V.S. Naipaul said it … I’m talking about all the amazing books that have earned their place on the shelves of literature, work by writers like Nick Flynn, Tobias Wolff, Mark Doty, Lauren Slater, Abigail Thomas, Dani Shapiro, Mary Gordon, Patricia Hampl, Kathryn Harrison, Stephen Elliott, Cheryl Strayed, and … Samantha Dunn. I defy you to read any of their books and then tell me that fiction is somehow more relevant as art, or that any of these writers should learn the lost art of shutting up.

… If you’re an aspiring memoirist and you’re participating in a workshop or a conference or a class somewhere, PLEASE let go of the idea that this is some sort of therapy for you. You’re not helping the cause. I’m not insensitive to the notion that you might need some therapy. I think we can all use some therapy. I’m a big fan. But the classroom is not the place for that. Your first clue is that there’s no couch.

… Which is not to say that the writing process isn’t therapeutic or that you won’t have realizations on the page, but if you’re telling a story that sounds like a soap opera, with angels and demons and someone who bears more than a passing resemblance to Snidley Whiplash, well, you’re probably doing it wrong.

Shanna Mahin’s full three-part rant can be found here.

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