March 3, 2014 § 5 Comments
People sat in the aisles, crowded into the doorways, and filled the back of the room. Clearly, this Friday’s panel at noon was a popular topic; in a nutshell: how to write about our deeply personal and often controversial experiences in a way that benefits others? Or perhaps it was the presence of truth-telling goddesses like Lidia Yuknavitch (author of A Chronology of Water and Dora: A Headcase,) or Sy Safransky (editor of The Sun) that drew in the masses. In any case, the room was abuzz with anticipation.
The opening remarks of the moderator, Krista Bremer (associate publisher at The Sun), set the tone of transparency when Bremer confessed her ambiguity towards the title of the panel. In memoir writing, it’s not the writer’s job to provide “full disclosure,” Bremer expressed. Memoir is not autobiography nor a dossier; we must omit whatever parts of our lives do not serve the story at hand. It’s not about spilling your guts– that’s for your diary. We must, of course, revise and refine before we have something that’s publishable or useful to the world.
And what about the “making a mess” part of the title? “Memoir thrives on stickiness, ambiguity, nuance,” Bremer continued. “Mess is actually unavoidable… if you’re doing your job–telling the truth– you will make others uncomfortable.”
Yuknavitch agreed. “The title also freaked me out” (especially the making a mess part), she said, before sharing how writing her own memoir sometimes involved “breaking it down about 100 times to get it right.” And a big part of this “getting it right” for Yuknavitch related to the discovery that the form we choose to tell our story through is just as important as the content. She spoke of how saturated we are through our media and as a culture with pathos, “trained to hit the highest force of pathos in 45 minute episodic segments.” How can we challenge ourselves to redistribute pathos differently in our writing, she probed, how can we find the “2014 version”? Indeed, if you’ve read A Chronology of Water, a non-linear memoir full of short, lyrical chapters, you can wee how her ideas about “redistributing pathos” are at play in her work. “Memory itself is a lie,” Yuknavitch went on. “Memory doesn’t work in linear form in our bodies.” She encouraged writers to let go of the concern for, “I must tell the truth!” and instead to liberate ourselves “from the tyranny of truth and shoot for the efficacy of experience.”
Safransky also weighed in on this question of truth in memoir, expressing the importance of holding the intention to adhere as closely to the truth as we can. But he also spoke about how “imposing any conceptual framework on our lives is tricky,” and how elements of truth can be compromised for the sake of trying to impose a narrative arc on our story. Safranksy also disliked the panel’s title, (which made me wonder, who conceived of it?), although he did attempt to address the ‘how to’ part of it, mostly by reminding us to not rush to publish something too early.
The key theme that all of the panelists touched on, however, was the importance of connecting with your readers by touching on universal truths. We are not just writing for ourselves, Safransky emphasized; there are many reasons why we yearn to tell our stories of suffering and we need to allow room on the page for everyone who isn’t you. Bremer likened her relationship to writing as “a call to service,” and spoke of the large degree of humility that one needs to “deal with the mess,” whether that “mess” is the ineffability of memory, the temptation to cater to one’s ego, or the vulnerability of exposing one’s self or close relations through their work. One should always treat others with dignity, work to rectify stereotypes, be harder on one’s self than others, and never write to settle scores (she quoted Lopate here). Yuknavitch agreed; you need to “de-ego yourself,” she said, to remember that your story is not the most important story out there, and that’s not why you’re telling it. Instead, “You’re writing your story to bridge to everyone else.”
Cary Tennis shared how he began to reveal intimate and potentially shameful details from his own life through his advice columns (i.e. “Since You Asked” formerly on salon.com), in order to highlight the commonality of his reader’s fears or experiences. Tennis’s writing shifted from writing articles that mostly sought to “entertain,” to more personal and vulnerable writing after he realized he had to stop drinking, and in turn grew experienced listening to others “spill their guts.”
“Memoir is an underground railroad of information about what people really do,” Marion Winik (author of many books, including First Comes Love) said. Of course, she went on, we get that glimpse of raw and real life through novels too, but in memoir, we’re standing behind it saying we did it, which gives it an extra power. Winik reminded us that we can’t control how people are going to react. For those who won’t be able to relate to certain extreme aspects of our story, it might feel like we’re sharing too much information. But for others, it might be exactly what they need to hear. There’s no “objective TMI,” Winik said. “It’s all who’s hearing it.”
Regardless of how any one person might respond to our work, you know that “when you hit the point away from ego and toward all of us together writing the story of how to write about surviving life,” said Yuknavitch, you know you are on the right track. “Everywhere I go now I try to convince people that there’s no such thing as memoir, that it should be called we-moir,” she proclaimed.
And indeed, that is why so many of us love memoir: it helps us touch upon the essential truths of our own experiences; to find commonality with others; and to know that we are not alone. Not every memoir is going to move us, and not everyone is going to approve of what we disclose. But if we keep striving to write what is raw, brave, and true, alongside engaging in the hard work of copiously rewriting, finely crafting, and compassionately rendering our experiences, we may well alight upon that higher calling: to write in service of the world.
Anne Liu Kellor is a Seattle-based writer and teacher who has received support from Hedgebrook, 4Culture, Hypatia-in-the-Woods, and Jack Straw Productions. Her essays have appeared in publications such as the anthology Waking Up American: Coming of Age Biculturally (Seal Press), The Los Angeles Review, and on her blog: heartradical.blogspot.com. Anne’s memoir, SEARCHING FOR THE HEART RADICAL, follows her quest for language, love, and belonging as she migrated between China and America during her twenties, and is now in search of a publisher.
March 2, 2012 § 5 Comments
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.
March 1, 2012 § 1 Comment
By Allison Schuette
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.
June 23, 2009 § Leave a comment
Marion Winik, author of the brilliant memoir First Comes Love, writes thoughtfully and specifically about the difficulties of memoir, especially when the memories involve past illegal behavior.
When I published my first collection of essays in 1994, lawyers marked every “actionable” sentence, every instance where I mentioned someone else’s drug use, homosexuality or criminal behavior. There were a lot of them. I have a memo dated Sept. 9, 1993, which includes the following bullet points:
p. 11 I suggest we omit a specific street address. It invites trouble from owners or landlords (called a junkie on page 13.)
p. 41 If Carolyn Mahoney is a real name I suggest a change since she appears several places and here we described her taking drugs.
p. 129, 130 Nancy and Steven. Steven is dead so no problem. Nancy’s privacy is being invaded. We should get her consent even if we change her name since as the author’s sister she will be identifiable anyway.
p. 155 Anita should be disguised completely due to heavy drinking and lesbianism.
Anita, Carolyn Mahoney and my sister Nancy all read the manuscript and signed releases. The address of the building was omitted. And Steven was dead — so no problem!