March 10, 2014 § 4 Comments
“You think you’re yourself, but there are other persons in you.”
-John Barth, “Lost in the Funhouse”
Blogging about an AWP panel on how to craft an appropriate nonfiction narrator feels a little like stepping into a funhouse hall of mirrors.
Writing this post, I find myself becoming more self-conscious than usual about what all nonfiction writers have no choice but to do: put together narrators that are, while at the same time aren’t quite, true versions of ourselves.
As I type this, I feel hyper-aware of myself writing in a voice. (But which one, which me this time? The earnest, Latinate word-using one from university? The cheerful, forthright, service journalist one? The just-the-facts-ma’am, board meeting minutes-taking one? The introspective, image-filled, personal essay-writing one?)
And as I review all that took place in that conference room in Washington State Convention Center the last week, I also find myself thinking about the distinctive voices of the panel’s four presenters: Michael Steinberg, Lia Purpura, Phillip Lopate, and Robert Root, all extraordinarily accomplished, yet contrastingly different, nonfictionists, each using a unique voice to describe his or her own distinctive approach to, yes, nonfiction narrative voice.
It’s all kind of dizzying.
But now it’s time for this “I” to step aside and become an “eye.” Here’s a little sampling of what each panelist said:
1. Michael Steinberg: Where to sit? Center stage–or off?
Moderator Michael Steinberg explained that Elyssa East, who played a key role in the planning and development of the panel, recently had a baby and wasn’t able to attend the conference. Steinberg talked about East’s book Dogtown, which is largely a work of investigative journalism, but includes a very personal section about what drew her to her subject in the first place. Steinberg said the book got him thinking about why some narrators are situated center stage, while others sit in the periphery, offstage. How do we, as writers, choose?
Steinberg offered this quotation from David Shields: “Find the form that releases your best intelligence. Find what you do exquisitely well and play it to the hilt.”
2. Lia Purpura: Step away from the self
Lia Purpura pointed out some of the pitfalls of being overly self-conscious as a writer. She acknowledged that “a strong voice is a powerful idea-delivery system,” but warned that “talking about voice an awful lot as a creator, and too early on in the process may put pressure on the writer to compose in a certain way, that is, to be led by attitude, to foreground a personality–at the expense of recognizing other generative gestures.”
She suggested that a writer might do best to stay alert and open to the new, the unexpected, and the mysterious during the process of writing, rather than adhering to a pre-determined voice. But she also acknowledged the paradox of any attempt to truly sidestep one’s own self: “I move through everything I write as, well, me.”
3. Phillip Lopate: Focus on your contradictions and conflicts
Phillip Lopate traced the roots of his own interest in narrator as character back to an early love of Dostoevsky. He recalled how much he enjoyed the voice of the ranting, first-person narrator of Notes from Underground, quoting the novel’s opening lines: “I am a sick man….I am an angry man. I am an unattractive man. I think there is something wrong with my liver.”
He also cited the cheekily provocative tone used by the philosopher Nietzsche, as well as Browning’s self-revealing, unreliable narrator in the poem “My Last Duchess” as other early influences. He advised writers to focus on their own internal contradictions and conflicts as a way of building narrative tension and interest. He encouraged us all to embrace what Frank O’Hara once called “the catastrophe of one’s personality.”
4. Robert Root: Approximate your authentic self
Robert Root listed some of the many hats he’s worn as a writer: “rhetorical-slash-literary academic, a composition-slash-creative nonfiction teacher, a radio commentator, an en plein air essayist, a memoirist,” and described some of the problems of hopping from genre to genre. He recalled how he was once taken to task by an editor for including a joke in an academic article, then later criticized by a book reviewer for being too academic when he used the word “persona” in a book he wrote about E. B. White. Root spoke about the importance of, as writer of creative nonfiction, transcending the conventions and expectations of genre and remaining true to one’s own authentic self.
He wrapped up the afternoon’s discussion with these final words:
“In creative nonfiction, we not only have the freedom but also the necessity of being narrative and expository or experiential and reflective in the same work, to simultaneously be both the I and the Eye in the same essay, even in the same paragraph. For me, that involves listening to myself and being alert for signs of a split personality, making sure I am the first person who is speaking, keeping myself—even when I’m offstage—the matter of my book.”
Nora Maynard‘s work has appeared in Salon, Drunken Boat, the Ploughshares blog, and The Millions, among others. She recently finished her ninth marathon and first novel. Visit her website at http://www.noramaynard.com/.
March 7, 2014 § 2 Comments
Last day of AWP, afternoon session. Panel title includes the words “surprise” and “unexpected.” I’m hoping for cake or cosplay characters or unfurling tooty horns, at the very least. I have failed to note the apple symbol next to the event description. Apple = pedagogy. Pedagogy = the least likely event type to feature cake or cosplay characters or tooty horns. Just goes to show. Expect one thing, and you will get something entirely different. Something unexpected.
For instance, there’s the woman in the second row. She distracts me from the authors — Michael Steinberg, Renee D’Aoust, Thomas Larson, Desirae Matherly — at the front of the room. I’m digitally recording the panel, so I cease taking notes and become obsessed with describing the shade of purple illuminating this woman’s long hair. The hue reminds me of Twilight Sparkle, of My Little Pony fame. Which is odd, because I don’t recall where this imagery could be coming from. I don’t even have children. I take a different tack, deciding it’s a brave purple. Better yet, a Radiant Orchid, the color of 2014, according to Pantone. Yet another association out of left field. Where am I getting this stuff? Further examination is in order.
Oddly enough, these surprising associations feed into what panelist Desirae Matherly is saying about subtext. She talks about the surprises in finding something to write about and encountering the “aha”, or “whatever underlies the piece we sit down to write.” She talks about learning to recognize and work with the unexpected material generated in an essay.
Similarly, Tom Larson speaks of outlines, of making plans where none existed. “The shitty first draft is the plan,” he posits. “And the outline it manifests is the surprise.”
Yes, I think. Sound the tooty horns. All hail the shitty first draft. Let it go where it wants, and see where it takes you. All hail the purple hair in the second row.
PS: After the panel ends, and I literally bump into the cosplay Ork with the battle axe coming off the escalator, I am only a little surprised.
Ann Beman is nonfiction editor for The Los Angeles Review, and prose reviews editor for the museum of americana. She lives with her husband and two whatchamaterriers in California’s Southern Sierra in Kernville on the Kern River, Kern County. Cue the banjoes.
March 5, 2014 § 1 Comment
Jody Keisner guest-blogs on “Planning for Surprise: Teaching the Unexpected in Personal Narrative”:
Panelists: Michael Steinberg, Renee D’Aoust, Thomas Larson, and Desirae Matherly. *Note: Patrick Madden was unable to attend. His work was read by Thomas Larson.
In short, panelists cited examples from their personal essays and discussed the surprising ways their essays have evolved. Ideas for their writings-in-progress came to them when they were jogging, at the bus stop, showering, engaged in conversation about something else, and sleeping. Writing begins with thinking, and to some extent, obsessing about subject matter. Let the brain turn an idea over and over, they coached, and let the story tell you where it wants to go. Be especially open to essay writing—the exploration of an idea or a question (versus memoir writing—the exploration of an event that has already been experienced and thus, has some predetermined finality).
Things They Said: In 13 Tweets #AWP14
- I’m teaching gorilla English. *Attributed to Alex Pollack
- Teaching is a subversive, humanitarian act.
- Assigning personal narrative requires the instructor to witness.
- My writing time is spent mostly not writing, but searching.
- The hard part about writing isn’t the writing, it’s the thinking.
- The great joy of writing is getting my mind to do something it hasn’t done before.
- Give yourself time to re-see.
- Dream and imagine in alien shapes.
- Write to generate, not to confirm, a purpose.
- Hunters and members of the Rodeo Club know how to be close observers.
- A careful first draft is a failed first draft.
- The book and I co-partnered.
- Your prose begins at the first moment you startle yourself.
Two exercises for disrupting traditional, linear narratives:
- Begin by writing about something seemingly quite boring, like grocery shopping, sleep habits, or bathing. Keep writing and then write some more. Your mind will be forced to move sideways and out of narrative mode.
- Write on any subject of your choosing and then switch your paper or laptop with another writer. Pay attention to the subject matter selected by the other writer. Now write on the emerging themes, and write creative nonfiction. Switch again. Once your paper is returned to you, marvel at where your subject went when it was let loose and into the wild.
Jody Keisner teaches writing at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her work has appeared in Literary Mama; Third Coast; Women’s Studies; Brain, Child; and elsewhere.
April 30, 2012 § Leave a comment
Essayist/memoirist and founding editor of the literary journal, Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction, Michael Steinberg has entered the brave new world of blogging. You can visit his blog here.
Listen a moment to Mike discussing the changes he has seen in the genre:
… as the genre continues to change and grow, it encourages us—writers, editors, and teachers alike–to rethink our preconceptions of what creative nonfiction is. In other words, it expands our boundaries and creates new possibilities, such as, the short prose pieces that use language and form in most unexpected ways; essays and memoirs that combine personal narrative with analysis, research, and reportage; and some forms of personal journalism and cultural criticism (Tracy Kidder’s Strength in What Remains, and Alyssa East’s Dogtown, for example), where the “I” isn’t at the center of the narrative, yet the writer’s presence and point of view clearly inform the narrative.
February 24, 2012 § 3 Comments
Chautauqua’s spring contest now open — flash fiction, micro-essays, prose poems. Send us your best work in 750 words or fewer. Remember our theme: journeys and pilgrimages. Journeys and pilgrimages mean more than tales of travel and the open road. We are seeking works that explore what it means to encounter difference—of personal, social, political, spiritual, and aesthetic importance. $20 fee. Submit through April 15, 2012. Prize $1000.00 and publication. Judge: Luke Whisnant
See website for more information: http://www.ciweb.org/literary-journal
SOLSTICE: A MAGAZINE OF DIVERSE VOICES announces ia new Nonfiction Prize, $500, donated by Michael Steinberg. Final Judge: Jerald Walker, award-winning author of Street Shadows: A Memoir of Race, Rebellion and Rejection. Winners and Finalists published in our Summer Awards Issue.
Deadline: April 5, 2012. Reading fee: $15. www.solsticelitmag.org .
February 8, 2011 § Leave a comment
Michael Steinberg Essay Prize Submission Guidelines
About the Award
Fourth Genre will seek the best creative nonfiction essay/memoir for
its sixth annual Michael Steinberg Essay Prize. Authors of previously
unpublished manuscripts are encouraged to enter.
The winning author receives $1,000, and the winning entry will be
published in an upcoming issue of Fourth Genre. Runner-up entry will be
considered for publication.
January 28, 2011 § 2 Comments
Saturday 9 to 10:15 am
Wilson A, B, & C Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level
S116. Moving Pictures, Moving Words: Essays in the Digital Age. (Ned Stuckey-French, Marcia Aldrich, Rebecca Faery, Doug Hesse, Philip Metres, Wendy Sumner-Winter) This panel will examine the impact of the digital revolution on the essay. We will address the following questions: How are the new media changing the ways we write, read, and teach essays? What can essayists learn from poets, novelists, filmmakers, bloggers, web designers, and hackers about what the digital future may hold? What problems and possibilities do these new essays present to magazine editors, anthologists, and book publishers?
Saturday 3 to 4:15 pm
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby
S201. Shaping a Life: Voice, Structure, and Craft in Memoir. (Janice Gary, E. Ethelbert Miller, Ben Yagoda, Dustin Beall Smith, Meri Nana-Ama Danquah, Michael Downs) While fiction writers create entire worlds from scratch, those working in the nonfiction genre of memoir must struggle with the bulky material of an existing life. Like a sculptor working with a block of stone, the memoirist’s task is to shape and reveal, fashioning a well-formed text out of a lifetime of experiences. In this session, writers of memoir will discuss the challenges of the form including where to begin, structure and voice, material selection, and other craft considerations.
Saturday 4:30 to 5:45 pm
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby
S222. The Unfolding Story: Narrative Possibilities in Creative Nonfiction. (Steven Harvey, Joe Mackall, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, Bob Cowser, Michael Steinberg) Stories emerge in works of creative nonfiction in a variety of ways. Sometimes they are told in a straightforward manner, but often they are truncated, muted, or implied—and each choice has consequences. What are the possibilities for storytelling available to the writer of nonfiction? What effects do these choices create? Does the genre place any limits on narrative possibilities? A panel of writers and editors will examine these questions about the tales we tell in creative nonfiction.
February 2, 2010 § Leave a comment
Fourth Genre is looking for the best creative nonfiction essay/memoir for its sixth annual Michael Steinberg Essay Prize. Authors of previously unpublished manuscripts are encouraged to enter.
The winning author receives $1,000, and the winning entry will be published in an upcoming issue of Fourth Genre. Runner-up entry will be considered for publication.