October 7, 2016 § 3 Comments
By Hannah Koerner
Over the past month I’ve been on a binge of queer nonfiction, devouring Eileen Myles’ Cool for You and Inferno and Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts, annotating the latter until ink from my pen took up more space per page than printer ink. The attraction isn’t just the quality of the writing—though stunning—or the presence of queer female writers—though still, disappointingly, too rare—but that those works deal in constant, staggering revelations. What I mean is that Eileen Myles’ and Maggie Nelson’s writings live and glory in excavating ambiguities: including, but not limited to, the ambiguity of being queer—what does queerness mean? and what does it mean for my art?
As a queer writer, both questions exist close to my heart. What I come across again and again in my own writing is a frustration with form; surely, one wants to do more than regurgitate heterosexual stories and gender-swap the love interest. At the same time, writing—or at least, writing with an eye towards publication—cannot be entirely free from the pressure for universal appeal. Nor can it be free from the structure of everything that came before it, a structure which is overwhelmingly heterosexual.
Both Myles and Nelson wrote glowing blurbs for Michelle Tea’s new book Black Wave, which meant I pre-ordered it a week in advance of publication. When I got to read it, I found Tea dealing with that same frustration, those same structures and traditions, in an immensely satisfying way: she throws up her hands, and destroys them, ending her memoir in a pre-millennial, all-consuming apocalypse.
Black Wave opens on familiar territory for Tea: 90s San Francisco, drug-swept and drowning under the high-tech takeover of Silicon Valley. It remains a straightforward account of the author’s sex and drug fueled twenties until, during her move to Los Angeles midway through the book, Michelle turns to her then-lover, Quinn, and declares,
“This [. . .] Is My Memoir.
Memoirs are true, Quinn, also a writer, pointed out.
This One Is Part True And Part False. All That Stuff I Just Said, About When We Dated, Is True.”
But, it turns out, it won’t be strictly true for over a decade past the book’s setting: Tea did not in actuality meet Quinn until long after the move to Los Angeles. Black Wave, she reveals, is her attempt at catharsis after an eight year relationship’s messy end—the catch being that her ex-girlfriend requested not to be written about.
In working around its subject, replacing the ex-girlfriend with a series of stand-ins ranging from Quinn to actor Matt Dillon, Black Wave disintegrates in its own hurtle towards conclusion; like the dream collapsing around Leonardo DiCaprio in Inception, Michelle-the-character’s world self-destructs as Michelle-the-author realizes the limitations of her memoir. The once-familiar Californian landscape decays beyond the effects of pollution and poverty, rushing towards the end of the world.
Perhaps equally impossibly, Black Wave remains, at heart, a memoir. It is poetic nonfiction in the style of Myles’ Inferno, riding on the surge and crash of drugs, alcohol, and doomed relationships. In keeping with that tradition it excavates its own ambiguity: a nonfiction account which edges closer to the truth the more absurdist it turns.
Michelle—both the character and the author—finds that the story she wants to tell will not fit into a traditional pattern. That’s not only out of respect for her ex, but because the content itself is profoundly marginalized. “If Michelle had gone to college she was certain she’d have been taught how to write from the perspective of a straight, white, middle-class man,” Tea writes. Hers is not a universal voice. She must do something different for appeal.
Seemingly at odds with the memoir form, queer art has a longstanding relationship with anonymity: for reasons of censorship, of authorial safety, and, as author Szilvia Molnar recently wrote in LitHub, of an embrace of fluidity: “the creator [. . .] can detach themselves from judgment that can be easily associated with a sex/sexuality or characteristics.” Although Black Wave is deeply personal and revealing of its author, it shares in that detachment when the emotional content of one relationship is foisted onto many, and many-gendered, other characters. It is a work that will be cathartic for any writer who struggles with the balancing act of remaining truthful while not impinging too acutely on the privacy of people they love or once loved. Tea manages to describe her breakup in all of its excruciating, frenzied, desperate emotion without mentioning the relationship itself more than a handful of times.
The result is an appropriately queerly-formed quasi-memoir, explosive and purgative, and exactly the break in form I’ve been itching for.
Hannah Koerner studies English at Ohio University, where she works for New Ohio Review and Brevity. She has previously written for MobyLives!
November 2, 2015 § 1 Comment
An illustrated NonfictioNow round-up from Rebecca Fish Ewan:
“Stories are food!” Brian Doyle shouted right before we all broke for lunch. Stories are food. He said this throughout his keynote address with the urgency of a preacher in a revivalist tent. In fact, his message was not unlike a religious one.
“Nonfiction is everywhere!”
“Every part of your life is an essay!”
Can I get an Amen?
As he spoke, I thought back to the last NonfictioNow conference I attended and why. I had just gobbled up Reality Hunger by David Shields and had developed a huge crush on his brain, so I submitted to be a panelist at the conference just to hear him deliver the keynote. Not very spiritual of me. That was Melbourne, 2012.
Now the leaves shimmer golden in the brilliant light of Flagstaff, Arizona, and I can sense change in the air, specifically with regard to form. As I move from session to session, my own panel included, a clear thread begins to emerge, though it goes by varying names—visual memoir, blended genres, side-stepped boundaries, hybrid essays. Stories are food and while truth is still on the menu, the variety of dishes now expands beyond traditional bounds of language.
Amen to that.
Never one to feel at the center of anything, I love witnessing the erosion of borders—between poetry and prose, between word and image, sound and story itself. Story-telling is embracing a synesthetic sense of the world, something Shields hinted at three years ago, but that now feels deep in the DNA of nonfiction. Panels include: Music and Writing, Making (Radio) Waves, Performing the Essay, Of Visual Essayistics, Mix It Up, Adventures in Poetic Biography, CNF and the Hybrid Form, the Poessaytics of Form, and my own Mixed Media Memoir. “One art form can explain another,” said Harrison Candelaria Fletcher while using Cornell’s shadow boxes to illustrate his thoughts and experience with the hybrid essay. “Writing is a script that can only be heard in the ear,” Will Jennings said as he discussed his interests in the link between music and memory. “Food is a mode of storytelling,” said Samantha van Zweden of using the lyric essay to write on memory, food and mental illness.
Brenda Miller offered calming options in talking about her experiments with poetic forms applied to the essay. “I have always believed that rules and constraint can be liberating,” she explained as she presented her prose villanelle about two cats and pantoum on ectopic pregnancy and her college roommate Francisco. Another structured approach to genre bending comes through pairing. “The most interesting thing is the technique of juxtaposition,” said Michael Martone in the session on creative facting with Dave Madden, Tim Denevi and Maggie Nelson. Martone later illustrated the richness of juxtaposition in the keynote on keys he performed in duet fashion with Ander Monson. Juxtaposition is one way that a writer can apply what Madden called the “nonfictive imagination.” Nelson talked of “modes of assembly” as a way to reach into this species of imagination to find the story.
But what about truth? Is all this fuzziness a kind of magician’s slight of hand to enable the writer to lie? These questions circle back to Doyle’s story sermon where he implored us to use our gifts to “catch and share” the stories that are out in the world. “Witness is the greatest single thing you can do with your work,” he said. A witness is not a fabricator, but any witness perceives with his or her particular lens and recounts the story with his or her unique voice. I return as well to Kafka’s 63rd reflection on sin, suffering, hope, and the true way, where he reminds us that “our art is a way of being dazzled by truth.”
I was curious how the event affected a newcomer to the conference. My co-panelists, Amy Silverman and Deborah Sussman, both seasoned nonfictionalists, had never attended a NonfictioNow conference. “I was struck by how much experimenting is going on,” said Silverman, “I love seeing that visual art and poetry are making more appearances, even though my own work blends memoir with journalism. It was a nice time to get out of the writing cave and hear what others are working on.”
The collective wisdom and experience shared over these past three days has been astounding. The organizers, an army led by Robin Hemley, David Carlin and Nicole Walker, amassed a humbling assembly of authors. After reading through the speaker bios, I felt both honored and intimidated to be among such a group of writers. Nicole Walker senses the gladness of this entourage of talent that permeates the air in Flagstaff. “I thought I was doing this to bring people together for collaboration and conversation,” said Walker, “I didn’t know how much joy people would get from the conference and that makes me very happy.”
Amen to that.
Rebecca Fish Ewan teaches landscape architecture at Arizona State University, where she earned her MFA in creative writing. Author of A Land Between, her work has also appeared in Brevity, LA magazine, and Hip Mama. She just finished her hybrid memoir (free verse + cartoon) on a childhood friendship cut short by murder and is launching a mixed form zine, GRAPH(feeties): true stories of walking. More on her work and submission info at: www.rebeccafishewan.com
April 30, 2015 § 1 Comment
Micah McCrary interviews Maggie Nelson, author most recently of The Argonauts, in The Los Angeles Review of Books, delving into her thoughts on the difficulties of tone, her use of ‘autotheory,’ and control and surrender in the writing process. Below is an excerpt followed by a link to the full interview
Which brings us back to the subject of autobiographical writing. How do you personally know what to aim for when writing about the self, as opposed to writing in order to react to what you’ve read or seen?
I don’t make a big distinction between writing about “myself” and writing about “larger issues.” (Maybe I’m Emersonian in that way, or just feminist.) I guess I treat myself as a sort of mystery or microcosm or materialized fulcrum for the larger issues in a project, be they justice, fear, spectacle, voyeurism, heartbreak, sadism, masochism, happiness, perception, pain, privilege, injustice, etc. I focus on aesthetic problems as I work, rather than on psychological ones. Because in my experience, if you resolve the aesthetic issues in any given piece, you’ve also worked out the psychological ones, albeit through the back door. For some reason I keep thinking of the great ending of Fred Moten’s poetry collection The Feel Trio: “when the water come I come to the unprotected surge / and division in my old-new sound booth. I am fmoten.” The use of his name makes a claim on the political and has also become pure music. This kind of autobiography, I like.
March 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
The next iteration of the popular NonfictioNow Conference will be hosted by Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ, from October 28-31st, 2015. The conference began in Iowa City in 2005, repeated twice in Iowa, and moved to Australia for 2012. This year’s conference – the fifth in an irregular series – is discussed by conference organizer Nicole Walker, in an interview conducted by Erica Trabold:
Erica Trabold: NonfictioNow is a relatively new conference for nonfiction writers. What do attendees typically find most appealing about the conference?
Nicole Walker: Although this conference is centered around nonfiction, nonfiction itself is a somewhat hybrid, inclusive, bending genre. Fiction writers, poets, essayists, and journalists gather to really consider what is nonfiction and how nonfiction is shaping and defining itself as its own genre and in a conversation with other genres. So in some ways, its exclusive title is just a tricky way to be incredibly inclusive. This conference, too, is working on establishing an international understanding of the genre— writers will be attending from Hong Kong and Singapore, among other places.
ET: In the call for proposals, you expressed interest in work that focuses on genre boundaries, tensions between art/facts/truth, and “forms beyond the strictly literary.” What can you tell us about the proposals you’ve read so far and, perhaps, selected?
NW: We haven’t selected proposals yet. We’re still compiling them. We’re received over a hundred panel proposals for about 50 spots, so the competition will be stiff this year. Still, glancing quickly at the spreadsheet that my MFA student and conference-organizing-assistant Stacy Murison has put together, I see excellent titles like “The Beasts Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating The Animal World,” “The View from the ‘Slush Pile’,” “Author Versus Narrator,” “Rewriting Those We Love,” “Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Perspective, Agency, and the Tools for Getting Both on the Page.”
ET: What might attendees recognize about this year’s conference, and what will be brand new?
NW: As in the past, we’ll have keynote speakers who are as diverse in content as they are in form. Roxane Gay, Ander Monson, Maggie Nelson, Tim Flannery, Brian Doyle and Michael Martone will bring their unique vision of what nonfiction is to the conference. We will have panels during the day and readings around town at night, integrating the town of Flagstaff with the conference, as happened in Melbourne and Iowa City.
For the first time, we are hosting a book fair. We’ve limited the book fair to 20 tables so attendees aren’t overwhelmed by the vast number of lit mags and presses out there. Those exhibitors will be able to promote their books, magazines, and commitment to publishing contemporary nonfiction.
We’ll also host a game show night— which happened before but will be a little more formal this year— with Patrick Madden and Elena Passarello. On opening night, Alison Deming and Joni Tevis will kick off the conference with a reading sponsored, we hope, by the Arizona Arts Commission. It’s going to be nonstop nonfiction, but, even more inclusively, we’ll have discussions about how fiction and poetry are informed by nonfiction.
ET: What part of this year’s conference has you the most excited?
NW: I’m incredibly excited how many speakers we have coming to the conference. Six! Plus two more on Wednesday. And readings hosted by Milkweed, Diagram and Hotel Amerika in spots around town. And the influx of editors from magazines and presses will add a new dimension to the conference. We’re hosting the conference in the High Country Conference Center, which is attached to the Drury Hotel, where a number of our guests will be staying. It will be great to have a centralized space for everyone to convene and hang out and attend the panels and the keynote speaker sessions. The conference center is only a couple blocks from downtown so it will be easy to connect Flagstaff businesses and restaurants with the conference, making it a destination conference as well as a professional one. And true to form, I care most about the food, so I’m excited to bring a number of local restaurants on board to help sponsor the conference by advertising their restaurants and offering deals to visitors. I want people to know how excellent Flagstaff’s restaurants are. (Hmm. That was a lot of “ands.” It was too hard to pick just one.)
Brevity blog readers can visit nonfictionow.org to register for the conference and learn more about confirmed panelists and speakers as information becomes available.
Erica Trabold’s (@ericatrabold) essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Weave, Seneca Review, Penumbra, and others. She writes and teaches in Oregon, where she is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction.
Nicole Walker is the author of the nonfiction book, Quench Your Thirst with Salt which won the Zone 3 creative nonfiction prize, released in June 2013 and a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). She edited, along with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction, published by Bloomsbury Press in 2013.