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.

AWP 2014: Some Notes on Memoir (Mostly) from Fiction Writers

March 1, 2014 § Leave a comment

awp manA guest post from Zach Jacobs on a perplexing memoir panel:

I scribbled, jotted, tried to keep up. And of course, I couldn’t. I couldn’t seem to match stride with the panelists, any panelists. I wanted to simply listen, simply be there in the cramped rooms, smiling, nodding, sometimes laughing. But my primary focus was on notes because I don’t trust my memory. As I sat through three panels on the first day of AWP 2014, I was scribbling, jotting, trying to keep up. Always getting a little too attached to one phrase or sentence, attempting to get it down word for word and, more often than not, failing.

So I was surprised when I attended an afternoon panel called “The Peculiar Yesterday: The Memoir Today.” Moderated by Debra DiBlasi of Jaded Ibis Press, it featured four authors who discussed their experimental memoirs. Cris Mazza presented a description of her book, Something Wrong with Her: A Real-Time Memoir, a work that preserves the process of its own creation, its transformation and the simultaneous effects of its generation on the author’s life and her life on its composition, as she seeks to examine her unfulfilling sex life. Jane Rosenberg LaForge formed her presentation into the structure of her memoir, An Unsuitable Princess: A True Fantasy/A Fantastical Memoir, in which she presents, through oblique association, the “most honest and intimate self-portrait” that she could, the portrait of her imagination as she grew up in Hollywood at the dawn of Hippydom. Dawn Raffel walked us through the process of creating The Secret Life of Objects: A Memoir, a collection of seemingly mundane but meaningful objects that have accreted around her throughout life, which are illustrated by her son, and through which she explores connections, memories, and meaning. Finally, in discussing The Vicious Red Relic, Love: A Fabulist Memoir, Anna Joy Springer delved not only into the impetus for this work—the death of her lover—but also the cultural influences from which she has produced her genre-blurring “grotesque,” a work of “experimental spiritual auto-ethnography.”

But I wasn’t surprised by the experimental memoirs or the processes that led to their composition and publication. I wasn’t surprised that Debra DiBlasi had chosen to publish these books because she found in them “a person, an individual, an honesty, an integrity.” I was surprised that, as I listened to the presentations, I began to take notes not on what was being said, but what was implied about memoir. I began to write things like “memoir as last resort? As springboard for getting other work [i.e., fiction] published?” “Memoir as accidental composition?” Only Anna Joy Springer self-identified as a memoirist, while Cris Mazza, Jane Rosenberg LaForge, and Dawn Raffel were primarily fiction writers, and LaForge had brought up some of the problems and questions I began to write, but the overwhelming feeling that I got as I listened to the first three panelists was that memoir was just what its critics have said about it, and what the first three panelists perhaps unintentionally perpetuated: navel-gazing and self-indulgent, which is to say, less than. Of course this view ignores the fact that memoir has a prominent spot on bookshelves because it is a place to explore the human condition, a point of connection for a kind of animal that is, by virtue of its consciousness, given to loneliness.

I walked away from the panel very much interested in the books that were discussed and in Jaded Ibis Press, but also a bit, well, jaded at the fact that, while none of the panelists openly derided memoir or creative nonfiction as a genre, some of them seemed to do it in the ways that they talked about memoir. But perhaps I’m just being defensive and overly sensitive about a genre that I admire and practice. Perhaps it’s just me.

Zach Jacobs is a Presidential Graduate Fellow at the University of Nebraska – Omaha, where he is finishing his MA in English with a concentration in creative nonfiction. His work has been published in Fine Lines.

AWP 2012 – Prettying Up the Baby (One More Time)

March 2, 2012 § 5 Comments

By Vito Grippi
R171. Prettying Up the Baby: Publishing Creative Nonfiction in a Challenging Market.

Ava Chin, Dawn Raffel, and Marion Winik

Disclaimer: This panel did speak about getting published, building an audience, and although at times difficult, making a little money. Or in Marion Winik’s case, a lot of money spread out over a long period of time. As a long-time friend and former student of Winik, the business end of writing creative nonfiction is something I’m familiar with. Still, Ava Chin’s reminder to write the things you’d write even if you were to never get paid was refreshing. And Dawn Raffel’s look into creative nonfiction from the editor’s perspective was instructional. But as a teacher of creative nonfiction, I find myself struggling to define the genre on a regular basis. For me, it is that obscurity, the seemingly endless possibilities of the literary personal essay (which can barely be contained in a definition itself), that makes the form so exciting and worth discovering. Unfortunately, that doesn’t make my ambition to get undergraduate students excited to write personal essays any easier.

The Red Lacquer Ballroom was an airy and elegant space filled with plush chairs and carpet and regal chandeliers. The sessions I had attended earlier were held in overcrowded, claustrophobic rooms seemingly hidden in a labyrinth of dark hallways and hidden doors. They had flimsy-looking plastic chairs that I didn’t actually get to sit in. The ballroom’s high ceilings and eclectic décor seemed to be a great metaphor for all the things I love about the literary personal essay. I felt more perceptive in that room, and that I suppose helped me come closer to finding a new definition for this genre I find so necessary, yet difficult to explain.

“The number of stories is finite, but people and feelings are infinite,” said Dawn Raffel.

Raffel’s point speaks to many of my own frustrations. What makes a topic worthy of writing about? What will readers care about? What hasn’t already been done? Regardless of genre, stories with similar subjects were told long before many of us will sit down to write ours. The personal essay is less about the subject, though, and more about the persona of the author as subject. When asked what she looks for in work, Raffel was adamant that it is not an exceptional plot or subject. What makes creative nonfiction, namely personal essay, important—unavoidable—is voice. Our perception as authors, observers, and emotional beings is what forms a connection with the reader and makes Rafell, “see [her] life in a different way.”

“Style is important too.” To Winik, creative nonfiction writers care deeply about craft. “We are stylists,” she said. The often described connection between poets and personal essayists is no accident. Words matter. Tone and tempo matter. “Readers want to see you, or a person, on the page.” The literary essayist offers an authentic representation of herself on the page. This authenticity, combined with respect, admiration, and deft concern for style make the form relevant.

It may be that a clear definition, one that fulfills all of our needs, can never be had. The form itself is too complex, too malleable. Many of us have come to know what it means to have that freedom, that open door to personal discovery; we get it. For others, like those undergraduate students of mine, the message is less clear. But I did get a bit closer.

The personal essayist takes in and processes through feeling and emotion. The personal essayist then recreates, structures, and shares in the most articulate, authentic way possible. The reader takes in and processes emotionally, as well. Feelings are important. People process and feel things differently. And that’s where the power of the form comes in because, “… people and feelings are infinite.”

Vito Grippi’s work has appeared in The York Review, Nightlife Monthly, Unsung Hero and Fly Magazine, among others. He co-edits the online lit mag, shaking like a mountain.

AWP 2012 – Prettying Up the Baby: Publishing CNF in a Challenging Market

March 1, 2012 § 1 Comment

By Allison Schuette

R 12:00-1:15  Prettying Up the Baby: Publishing CNF in a Challenging Market

Ava Chin, Dawn Raffel, Marion Winik

I’m sitting here at the Corner Bakery not far from the Palmer House, trying to refuel for the second half of the day.  On my left, a woman is negotiating with someone about adoption (going that way, with the whole enchilada, would be too expensive); on my right, another woman eats salad while reading the news.  (She looks like another AWP attender, at least of one sort: sensible shoes, loose scarf, soft turtleneck, ah, yes, and the ubiquitous lanyard.)  I’m eating my own salad: spinach with oranges, grapes, strawberries and goat cheese.  I tried to order this salad as a combo, you know, like they serve at Panera.  No deal.  You want the half sandwich, you’re stuck with just greens.  And I’m a sucker for goat cheese, so I went with the salad.  But now I wish I’d just gone with the Panini.  The salad doesn’t live up to its name.

That’s almost how I feel about Prettying Up the Baby.  What I expected: a panel on how you take your CNF manuscript and tweak its cheeks into a ruddy complexion that publishers will coo over.  If not that, then a panel on how you think commercially without selling your soul.  Instead I got a panel on how the field of freelance writing has changed.

I blame myself.  I didn’t read the description in the big AWP book, only the title from the easier-to-manage planner.  Maybe I should have spent a little more time with the menu at Corner Bakery as well.  That doesn’t mean, however, I left totally unsatisfied.  Here are a few morsels.

  • ·      The market today presents far more opportunities for writers (good news!), but at less pay (bad news).  In addition, the stuff you love to write doesn’t earn the kind of money that service pieces do (advice columns were mentioned twice).  Winik recommends asking for more than you think you should ask for; editors won’t hang up on you.
  • ·      The opportunities of the Internet have had a positive impact even on print.  Readers expect personalities online and this has transferred to the page; magazines don’t edit down to the house’s voice.  You get to keep a bit more control over your work.
  • ·      Online presence is absolutely necessary now.  Publishers and editors will ask how many friends and followers you have.  You need an online brand to push and promote your materials—use Twitter, Facebook, a blog.
  • ·      All the writers affirmed that you should write what you love and persevere in it.  This commitment will lay the path for where you need to be, and it will keep your soul alive.

And now I think I’ll go order a cookie.

 —
Allison Schuette teaches at Valparaiso University.

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