Exploring the Fringes of Nonfiction

March 2, 2013 § 5 Comments

blurring boundariesA guest post from B.J. Hollars, editor of Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction:

One day I woke troubled by the hard fact about facts; that is, that their factuality is often in flux.  Sure, the world is round today, I reasoned, but hadn’t that observation once nearly cost Galileo his life?  And more recently (and perhaps more troubling to my own understanding of the universe): Wasn’t Pluto once a planetWhat the hell happened to Pluto anyway?

My heart broke further upon learning that not even photographs were as factual as I gave them credit for.  Take National Geographic’s 1982 cover photo—the one of the Pyramid’s of Giza—which, as a child, was solely responsible for hurling me headlong into my mummy phase.  Imagine my surprise when I learned, decades later, that those pyramids weren’t exactly as they appeared.  That those pyramids were, in fact, the victims of a digital alteration.  Apparently, an overzealous layout editor had crammed them tightly together so the photo could better fit the magazine’s frame.

If we can move an ancient pyramid with the click of a finger, I reasoned, who’s to say how far we’ll go?

As my grumbling grew louder, I began to realize that my frustration with facts was far less productive than my exploration of their unreliability.  And I figured if anything could put truth in a headlock and wrestle it into submission, it was the essay.  Not just any essay, mind you, but an essay that understood the value of the surprise attack, one willing to get the jump on truth by coming at it in a new way.

And so, weighing in at 268 pages, I humbly present to you Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction—an anthology of genre-bending essays that (at least according to the back cover copy) continually toe the line between “truth and memory, honesty and artifice, facts and lies.”  Rather than whining ad nauseam about pyramids and Pluto, I asked 20 of today’s most renowned writers and teachers to help me put truth on trial by fiddling with form, fragmentation, structure, sequence, and all the other traditional conventions essay writers hold so dear.  I was seeking a new definition of nonfiction—or at least a renewed debate on the matter—and I was grateful for the legion of intrepid explorers who dared enter into the wilderness alongside me.  Writers like Marcia Aldrich, Monica Berlin, Eula Biss, Ryan Boudinot, Ashley Butler, Steven Church, Stuart Dybek, Beth Ann Fennelly, Robin Hemley, Naomi Kimbell, Kim Dana Kupperman, Paul Maliszewski, Michael Martone, Ander Monson, Dinty W. Moore, Susan Neville, Brian Oliu, Lia Purpura, Wendy Rawlings and Ryan Van Meter.

Not only did they embark into this wilderness by offering their essays, but they even provided helpful maps in the form of mini-essays—each of which sought to give the reader new insight into the writer’s own explorations of genre.  Add to this pedagogically-practical and thematically-linked writing exercises, and readers now had a complete guidebook for this burgeoning terrain.

Taken together, these essays challenge and confound, but it’s my hope that they might also create a new space for the essay form, or at least encourage other writers to assist in mapping a landscape we know little about.

Who among us will put the pyramids back to scale or return Pluto to its planetary state?

Or more importantly, who will subvert what we think we know by showing us what we don’t?

AWP 2011 / To Tell You the Truth: Strategies in New Nonfiction

February 8, 2011 § 1 Comment

Another report from guest blogger Margaret Kimball, reporting on the panel To Tell You the Truth: Strategies in New Nonfiction at the most recent AWP Conference:

I just left a panel featuring the writers Stephen Elliott, Nick Flynn and Ander Monson, introduced by Graywolf editor, Jeffrey Shotts. Eula Biss, notably the only woman scheduled to speak at the panel, was snowed in in Chicago, alas. Here are my notes, by author.

Introduction (Jeffrey Shotts)
Nonfiction moves beyond reportage into the territory of tangents, dead-ends, errancy and wonder. Just because an essay is pursuing something, doesn’t mean what it’s arrived at is what it’s gained; the form is an alternative to judgment. A question we need to ask ourselves is: do we read nonfiction to experience art or to learn information? An essay, an illustration, a design is fixed in time and space and artifact; the essay is thinking, frozen. A virtual space the viewer/reader can inhabit for a while.

Stephen Elliott
Strategy, part of the title of the panel, implies we as creatives know where we’re going; but strategy only enters the process after the thing is written or made. A filter is a critical utility in order to determine feedback that is helpful from that which isn’t. This relates to aesthetic vision; without a personal vision, you cannot write, cannot make. There are three reasons a person will read a memoir:

  1. Perfect/beautiful/really nice sentences.
  2. Tension.
    This is built while maintaining story and character and narrative. Themes that digress from the narrative can only emerge if enough tension is built. The self is the thing around which the tension and everything else exists.
  3. Honesty.
    This is not about not lying. Lying requires intent but honesty is bordered by self-knowledge…in order to write honestly, you have to evaluate yourself intensely, honestly.

The reader is the most important person, needs to be the first concern of the author. By making characters singular (e.g. only good or only bad), you’re hiding something from the reader. By worrying about someone’s feelings, you’re putting something ahead of the reader. This cannot happen.

Stephen ended gloriously, “I don’t know. I just came up with this.”

Nick Flynn
People hear what they want to hear. They project their needs and desires and lives onto your work. So one of our functions is to create a screen that others can project onto in order to make meaning from their experiences. We are not writing from the soul; instead, we need to uncover our deeper purpose. Why do we cling to the stories we’ve told ourselves? What is behind them? What do the stories hide? The stories are important only as a threshold to cross. Here is the formula (to which he then said, a la Van Wilder, “Write this down.”:

  1. Hear the stories you tell yourself about yourself. The stories you always tell.
  2. Start with a random image and discover its meaning.
  3. Ask yourself what you think you know and how long you’ve known it.
  4. Let the story lose its thread and push further into the unknown.
  5. The point where language breaks down is a useful edge, revealing to us the space between the familiar and the unknown.

The story (the essay, the book) is not about what happens to us but how we perceive what happens to us. The process of writing is more about what we don’t know, is more about discovering the hidden pattern beneath the world. Something happened; some things actually do happen. We need to come up against the reality of the world and perceive them.

Ander Monson
Essays are technologies are designed to handle infinity; they expand and allow us to expand into them, outward from them. They chip away at the stability of the self. What is interesting is the limitless; what is interesting are the limits. The interiors of our brains are the most readily available infinities. Look at Billy Idol’s album, Cyberpunk, album cover which came with a floppy disc and instructions to use with a color Macintosh. 1993.

This is a document of what we thought at one point the future might have been. In other words, this is a document of the way Idol’s brain worked at one point in time; it’s a mind we can enter into. The essay-the text, the form and the white space-are places to study, to imagine, to illuminate the dark spaces of our minds. Through essays we illuminate the world around us, editing it down so facts and ideas get their own tiny spotlights.

From the Q & A
What are other ways to think about tension?

  • Tension can be generated by: waiting for something to happen; between two people in a room (keep them in the room together as long as possible); syntax/diction; the tension between the unknown and the known and how it gets discovered; tension emerging from subject-switching and disconnection.

Any new mediums you’re using?

  • The website for Vanishing Point is used to interact with the text, to undercut what’s happening in the book. There’s a critical element of play important [to the process of discovery]. The web pages constantly erode/modify/self-edit the original; in this way, the web is a performance. (Monson)
  • The written word can be as fluid as the stuff on the web. It can contain a kind of archive of information uncontainable in the book . (Flynn)
  • The Rumpus is a space in which creative energy is spent in writing emails. We pass along information (about the self, about the world) this way. As writers, we have a smaller audience but create deeper connections with them. That’s what this is about. (Elliott)

AWP 2011: Playing for Keeps: Intensity and Creativity in the Lyric Essay

February 7, 2011 § 2 Comments

Guest blogger Margaret Kimball, a Tucson-based multidisciplinary illustrator/designer, reports on a lyric essay discussion at the most recent AWP Conference:
Playing for Keeps: Intensity and Creativity in the Lyric Essay
Panelists: Steven Harvey, Kathryn Winograd, Robert Root (in absentia), Rebecca McClanahan
In a standing-room only space amidst a largely and perhaps notably female audience, a group of AWP-goers gathered to discuss the lyric essay: what the name means, what it is, what it might be. Here are my notes from the conversation, delineated by speaker.
Introduction (Steven Harvey)
The lyric essay was first named by Deborah Tall in 1994, then-editor of Seneca Review, in a note to John D’Agata. What she said was that he was looking for a form not by information but by possibility of transformative experience. You are talking about the lyric, she’d said. Then Steven asked: but what does a definition matter? Rather, we should ask: when is a lyric essay good? The lyric is a license to experiment, to play with language but must always contain a sense of intensity, level of passion and intelligence. (Throughout the intro, names were dropped: Eula Biss, Lia Purpura, D’Agata and one affectionately named nay-sayer, Philip Lopate.)

Thirteen Ways of Looking at the Lyric Essay in 15 Minutes (Rebecca McClanahan)
  1. Something Like Music in My Head
    • – Not all music is melodic (atonal, minor key)
    • – Change a note or two and the essay is a different key
  2. Beauty is as Beauty Does
    • – Subject need not be pretty poetic or musical or serious
    • – Humor is almost never discussed with lyricism
    • – Does not have to be large or on the surface important
    • – Absolute attention is prayer
  3. Close Cover After Striking
    • – Need two or three elements to start something
  4. Lyric Essay as Time Travel, or Move Fluidly In and Out of Time
    • – Elements of the essay existing on independent and colliding time tracks
  5. How Many I’s Does It Take to Change an Essay
    • – Speaker as I
    • – The I might be absent at first
    • – There might be multiple variations on self (past, present)
  6. Caution: Contents Under Pressure
    • – Every word matters
    • – What is the musical score running beneath essay
    • – Subject must fit its container
  7. Say It Again, Sam
    • – Tone poems, repeating phrases/sounds/mantra
    • – Repeated loops or braids (In nebraska, ted)
  8. Take a Breath
    • – Music only exists because of silence between the sounds
  9. Right Here, Right Now
    • – Feeling of immediacy, of a mind is discovering its subject even as words appear on page
  10. Ride the Train of Thought or Language All the Way to Meaning
    • – Language (leaps of thought), engine that pulls the train of meaning
    • – Balance between music and meaning
  11. Imagine There’s a Heaven or Hell
    • – Speculate, wonder, imagine, the gift of perhaps
  12. Go Ahead and Wear the Crazy Hat
    • – Be weird, idiosyncratic structure
    • – Hat alone isn’t enough; object of affection/true subject
  13. Get Out While the Getting’s Good
    • – Endings as openings; allow reader to complete transaction; reader supplies final chord
This is Not a Lyric Essay (Robert Root, read by Harvey)
The lyric essay might be considered as a kind of blurting of words: unplanned, spontaneous, first and final draft, charged. It has a kind of inadvertence. The lyric can be felt in the blood. Place is a lyric essay. Deborah Tall said of the lyric it partakes of the essay in its weight, in its desire to engage with facts, in its passion. The form is simultaneously essay and poem and music; attends language with precision and rigor but with a different vision from poetry about what it might achieve. The lyric is an entity in itself; embodies a sense of wholeness; is an essence; is not decorative. As Lia Purpura says: the form is a necessity of thought.
How Important White Space is in Poems and the Lyric Essay (Kathryn Winograd)
In a poem, white space is everything on the page unmarked. It has the power of juxtaposition; is the poet’s unspeakable; it is movement mapped out. Essays speak of the vertical movement of the essay (verticality through associative memory, descriptions); they contain intersections of consciousness and unconsciousness, of associations. For a poet, white space is what they cannot or will not say, it is their essential unsayable; that which is understood only on intuitive level. Beneath everything I am writing is absence. The ultimate tension in writing, in white space: what is written v. what is not.

Unmaking of the Made-Up Self (Steven Harvey)
Harvey found the lyric after becoming weary of his own voice. After he realized the self as top hat and cape of imagination. The lyric offers a breakdown of the persona, a kind of portal in which the self comes apart, in which the process of disintegration is seen. In the lyric, the voice is absorbed by subject matter and the self-assured persona is liberated. In Mark Doty’s Still Life With Oysters and Lemon, we witness an insistently low-key self, a weary voice in transformation. In this voice, the I is enlarged by becoming part of something bigger than itself; the self does not have the last word but blossoms, allows itself to be transformed by bumps and texts and countertexts and new information.

AWP Nonfiction Cheat Sheet: Friday Morning

January 28, 2011 § 2 Comments

Really, when are we supposed to breathe?

Friday 9 to 10:15 am

Harding Room

Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

F105. Pedagogy Forum Session: Nonfiction. This session is designed to give contributors to the 2011 Pedagogy Forum an opportunity to discuss their work, though all are welcome. The papers themselves will provide a framework to begin in-depth discussion in  creative writing, pedagogy, and theory. A pedagogy speaker will contextualize the discussion with some brief remarks before attendees break out into small discussion groups. These groups will be facilitated by trained pedagogy paper contributors.

Virginia B Room

Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level

F113. Where Science and Justice Meet: The Necessity of Environmental Writing. (Nancy Lord, David Gessner, Gretchen Legler, Kathleen Dean Moore, Catherine Reid, John Calderazzo) Beset by global warming, habitat loss, and industrial waste and pollution, today’s “natural world” demands more than observation and reverence from writers. This panel of established nature and environmental writers will explore the need for scientific accuracy, political acumen, the pursuit of social justice, and at least occasional humor in shaping literary responses to environmental threats and change.

Friday 10:30 am to 11:45 am

Thurgood Marshall East Room

Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

F128. Women on Wanderlust: Travel Writing. (Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Elisabeth Eaves, Alison Stein Wellner, Johanna Gohmann) Contributors of Best Women’s Travel Writing 2010 will debate the role gender plays in their trade. What safety precautions do they take on their solo expeditions? Have they ever used their perceived vulnerability to their advantage? After exploring the ways gender can impact a journey, they will reflect on how it influences prose. Is there a feminine style of travel writing? What is the market like post-Eat, Pray, Love, and how can new writers break into the field?

Wilson A, B, & C Room

Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

F134. To Tell You the Truth: Strategies in the New Nonfiction. (Jeffrey Shotts, Nick Flynn, Eula Biss, Ander Monson, Stephen Elliott) Creative nonfiction has never been more exciting, as writers from multiple genres explore and define new modes of writing essay, memoir, journalism, and cultural criticism. Four writers at the forefront of the new nonfiction discuss strategies for writing and reading these new forms of “truth-telling.”

Another Normal Contest

December 20, 2010 § Leave a comment

We like The Normal School and we like The Normal School’s annual contest, with noteworthy judges and — always, always — that odd Normal sensibility:

The Normal Prize in Fiction, Nonfiction and Poetry

Fiction: Susan Straight |Nonfiction: Eula Biss |Poetry:  Nick Flynn

Guidelines Right Here.

Winners will be announced before the Fall 2011 issue via email.
All entrants will receive a complimentary issue of The Normal School.
All entries will be considered for publication.
$1,000 and publication for winner in each genre

In Defense of the Young Memoirist: A Summer Reading Guide

July 13, 2010 § 5 Comments

A guest post from our friend Joey Franklin (not pictured below):

Recently, the editors at Oprah’s O Magazine published a snappy summer reading guide called “O’s Declaration of Reader Independence”—a freedom-ringing ten-point manifesto against summer reading “group-think.”

The list includes such liberating notions as

  • #2: the right “to see the movie first,”
  • #7: the right to “be miffed if your friend doesn’t like a book you recommend,” and
  • #9: the right to “declare yourself unmoved by the existential struggles of vampires.”

While much of O’s manifesto feels right, I’m a little skeptical of #8, the right to “ignore memoirs by people who have barely cracked their 30s.” Certainly readers have that right, and certainly anyone can understand why Oprah’s magazine might encourage its readers to avoid young memoirists (particularly the recovering drug addict types), but the many babies thrown out with that bathwater deserve a little more consideration than the article suggests.

So to Oprah’s readers and to anyone else who may be feeling a little wary of young memoirists, I offer five books that challenge the notion that twenty- and thirtysomething writers have little to offer the reading public:

1. Notes from No Man’s Land, by Eula Biss. Winner of the Graywolf Prize for Nonfiction and a National Book Critics Circle Award for criticism. David Shields called Notes “An utterly beautiful and deeply serious performance.”

2. For You, For You I am Trilling These Songs, by Kathleen Rooney. Katherine Boyle wrote, “Echoing Joan Didion’s The White Album, Rooney’s personal essays turn into a freeze-frame of life in the U.S.”

3. Opa Nobody, by Sonya Huber. Shortlisted for the Saroyan prize. Lee Martin said, “Opa Nobody is a brave book of politics, history, and love—a book filled with an irrepressible embrace of humanity.”

4. Neck Deep and Other Predicaments, by Ander Monson. Another Graywolf Prize winner. Steven Poole of the Guardian wrote that Monson “has a miniaturist, free-associative humour, which is what you want in an essayist.”

5. What Becomes You, by Aaron Raz Link and Hilda Raz. According to Floyd Skloot, “What Becomes You is a radically strange, deeply moving, unique book, a mother and child story like none you’ve ever read.”

And, of course, there are many, many more.

Do you know one that should be on this list? Let us know.

Happy summer reading.

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