AWP 2014: The Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family

March 13, 2014 § 2 Comments


Linda Joy Myers  on the AWP 14 panel “Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family”:

I’m a family therapist and a memoirist, so I was looking forward to hearing writers talk about the intersection of family and memoir in the workshop “Family Trouble” moderated by Joy Castro. She is the editor of Family Trouble—The Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family. The panelists included Joy Castro, Ralph Savarese, Sue William Silverman, Faith Adiele, and Stephanie Griest. The crowd filled the room and spilled out the doorway.

Joy Castro, author of the memoir The Truth Book, introduced a topic fraught with “trouble” for memoirists. “We are on a voyage of discovery to personal truth and family as we write memoir, and may be dealing with ‘self-erasure’ due to trauma.” Memoirists struggle with what to write and whether they should give themselves permission. We break the “family rules” when we write memoir—”don’t you dare tell anyone about THAT.” We have to decide what to leave in and what to leave out to serve the story.

Ralph Savarese continued the theme about choice as he discussed how he negotiated with his autistic son what details to include and the important threads in their memoir Reasonable People.  Writing a memoir means we have to ask ourselves what right we have to material that includes intimate details in other people’s lives. How much do we weigh their privacy with our need to express ourselves? He shared his writing process with his son, whose voice became more prominent over the course of writing the book. Together, they crafted a story that belonged to both of them.

Sue William Silverman writes to understand herself, and is unwilling to hold back her hard-won truths. In her book Love Sick, she revealed details that upset her ex-husband. “I wrote the story the way she needed to.  My honesty is more important to me than my ex-husband’s anger. We write to no longer hide behind our secrets.” The issue of silence looms large in the narratives of people who are abused and traumatized. An abused child lives in a world of silence, as adults do too, until they are able to break out and speak the truth. This can become our life’s work. “Writing my life gives me power.” Her advice? No matter what family thinks or wants, “break through your barriers and write anyway.” Figure out how to handle your family later.

Faith Adiele, author of Meeting Faith, has a Nordic-American mother and a Nigerian father. She’s spent her life learning about her global family, and exploring identity and belonging. She says one of the goals of writing memoir is to “free the family of shame.” She discussed the topics of betrayal, loyalty and silence in the work of Patricia Hampl and the poetry of Sharon Olds. “Writing family members on the page requires great compassion. Each memoirist’s voice is part of a larger song and we each have to decide where our songs begin, over and over again.”

Stephanie Elizondo Griest writes to discover the bonds of family in Mexican Enough—My Life Between the Borderlines she explores belonging, identity, and how we call ourselves family. She visited Mexico to try to find her roots, and saw how quickly we disappear—“the etchings on the grave stones were worn smooth by the rain.” She spoke with passion how we must explore the questions that drive us, and write our discoveries so we articulate the voices of our ancestors and leave a legacy. “Memoir is the best way I know of perpetuating us.”

The feeling in the room was one of hunger—to understand the “rules” of memoir, and to find answers about the conflicts that haunt memoir writers about family, truth, and finding voice. The panelists fed that hunger by speaking about their struggles, demonstrating that you can write a book about family and live to tell about it.

Linda Joy Myers, president of the National Association of Memoir Writers, joins speakers for monthly teleseminars at to discuss tools, topics, and questions that drive memoirists crazy. She is the author of Don’t Call Me Mother—A Daughter’s Journey from Abandonment to Forgiveness, The Power of Memoir, and the Journey of Memoir. She co-teaches the program Write Your Memoir in Six Months.

AWP 2012 –Creative Nonfiction and the Possibility of Post-Orientalist Travel Writing

March 2, 2012 § 6 Comments

By R.B. Moreno

R180: East and West: Creative Nonfiction and the Possibility of Post-Orientalist Travel Writing / Joshua Schriftman, Faith Adiele, Fred D’Aguiar, Elizabeth Kadetsky, Oona Patrick / Thursday, March 1, 2012 — 1:30-2:45 p.m.

“Travel writing is the beggar of literary forms: it borrows from the memoir, reportage and, most important, the novel. It is, however, pre-eminently a narrative told in the first person, authenticated by lived experience. It satisfies a need. A need for fiction answerable, somehow, to the world. Or perhaps I’ve got it wrong. Perhaps it’s a need for a world answerable to our fictions.”

This was the highlight, for me, of panel no. — oh, hold on. Sorry. I’ve transcribed the wrong notes. That’s Bill Buford. He’s introducing Granta 10: Travel Writing back in 1983, when AWP first took Chicago by storm. (Actually, that was 1986, but the 1983 conference in St. Louis didn’t have quite the same poetry. And with apologies to Rebecca Skloot, I’m not sure there was a storm that year.)

Anyway, the genre feels just about the same, right? Well, except for that part about the world being answerable to our imaginations. Consider this passage from Jonathan Raban’s “Sea-Room,” which Buford placed after Gabriel García Márquez but before fellow (white, middle-aged) wanderers Colin Thubron, Bruce Chatwin, Saul Bellow, and Paul Theroux, among others:

“On a sunny morning, you could easily believe that nothing essential had changed among these avenues of plane trees and tall, white stucco mansions. Even now, there were nannies to be seen — solemn Filipino women, who pushed their pramloads as if they were guarding a reliquary of holy bones in a religious procession.”

In fact, something essential has changed — is changing — about the genre: increasingly, it answers to Edward Said’s postcolonialism (e.g. Orientalism), rather than to Granta’s stable. Five travel writers said as much on March 1 in a Hilton Chicago banquet room whose electroliers and possibly-oriental carpet looked like something out of Raban’s mansions. That I was seated on this carpet in an overflow corridor with a dozen other (young, nonwestern) globetrotters is one measure of this change.

Let’s get through a few introductions. Joshua Schriftman, who organized this panel, turned heads in 2010 with “On Silence,” an essay for Ninth Letter whose columns and graphics look much like the essays we hope our grandchildren will write. Faith Adiele’s nonfiction can be found in The Best Women’s Travel Writing and books such as Meeting Faith: The Forest Journals of a Black Buddhist Nun (2004). Her challenge to those teaching the genre: get the Joseph Conrad out of your students. In other words (channeling Helen Gilbert and Anna Johnston): “traces of imperial endeavor haunt the very vocabulary, grammar, form, and subjectivities available to the Western traveler.”

Elizabeth Kadetsky went to India to study under B.K.S. Iyengar, a renowned yogi, and came home with First There Is a Mountain: A Yoga Romance (2004). In her remarks, Kadetsky admitted to not-ironically pinning quotations from the likes of Conrad on the wall of her office at Penn State (but also to protesting vigorously the subtitle that adorns her memoir). Then there was Fred D’Aguiar, a poet and novelist whose work focuses on Guyana, where he spent much of his childhood. D’Aguiar had two wishes for his audience: that we read widely (Aimé Cesaire’s “Essay on Colonialism,” Bruce Chatwin’s In Patagonia) and that, in an effort to bewilder passersby, we clap spontaneously and uproariously for 5 seconds. (The latter wish was immediately fulfilled.)

I’ve run out my word limit already, so I’ll leave you with Oona Patrick, the Cape Cod writer who left the most lasting impression on this writer. Patrick calls her work a “cautionary tale” about her native Provincetown, where her Portuguese ancestors stepped off a whaleship from the Azores some 150 years ago. “You have a lot of guts to be here,” Patrick was told more recently, when the local showed up at Provincetown’s storied colony of (mostly visiting) artists.

On Thursday, this soft-spoken woman in black delivered a biting critique of Cape Cod’s luminaries (Henry David Thoreau, Eugene O’Neill, Tennessee Williams, Normal Mailer, Mary Oliver, Mark Doty, Annie Dillard, the list goes on) and their descriptions of what is to many sacred ground. In concluding her remarks, Patrick singled out (perhaps unfairly) the following excerpt from Doty’s “Breakwater.”

“Here, curving out to the farthest reaches, / the breakwater’s a causeway of huge stones. / Hard to think these were placed, / these drowsy, inland boulders / awakened, all century, by the seawater’s / moon-driven alarm. Who piled them, / one atop the other, / into this enormous arc?”

“Who piled them?” Patrick repeated, incredulous. “They’re not crop circles!”

R.B. Moreno’s other work can be found at Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, The Normal School, Phoebe, and NPR. He is nonfiction editor of South Dakota Review and a doctoral student of creative writing at the University of South Dakota.

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