March 11, 2013 § 19 Comments
A guest blog from Kathleen Stone:
By the third day of AWP, I thought I couldn’t bear to hear these questions discussed. I thought Lawrence Weschler’s observation about narrative voice and the division of the world between those who know it’s a fiction and those who don’t had been chewed over enough to last me a lifetime. But still, something drew me to the Why Genre Matters panel. Maybe the names of the panelists, or something about the blurb in the conference book drew me in, but whatever it was, I grabbed another cup of coffee and soldiered on.
Nonfictionist and moderator Dinah Lenney led off with her own strong point of view. An author and reader are like two people on a see-saw, with movement and balance between them. When the author doesn’t clue us in, and we don’t know what we hold in our hands, then the see-saw is left with only one person — out of balance and disappointing. There is a diff, and it matters.
Scott Nadelson countered with the oft-made observation that there is no such thing as objectivity. A blurring between genres necessarily follows, and the author can rely on voice and form to tip off the reader to what’s on the page. His recent book, The Next Scott Nadelson, A Life in Progress, may be labeled a memoir, but it comes without a guaranty of accuracy. So maybe there’s no diff at all?
Essayist and critic Sven Birkerts analogized genre to etiquette. Genre distinctions are like rules, necessary for maintaining harmony amid the tensions, but they need not be stultifying, even as please and thank you are not. A psyche that invents and writes about a blue bucket is not very different from a psyche that remembers a blue bucket, but different motivations are at play – – this could have been vs. this happened. Writers of both genres share the act of creation, of giving narrative shape to the work, but for nonfiction writers, the engine is memory.
Poet David Beispiel joined Scott in label bashing. Writers should be free to write whatever they want and label it however they want (or perhaps not at all). Labels exist for the bookseller who wants to know what to order and how to display it, not for the author or reader. I wonder what he thinks about truth in politics – after all, he does write for Politico.
Multi-genre writer Judith Kitchen agreed Weschler was right about narrative voice being a fiction. It’s simply a lens for delivery, involving an aesthetic decision but not a deliberate fabrication. A flood she experienced as a child, which she has repeatedly and variously treated it in her own work, is an actual event seen through different lenses, sometimes intensely and sometimes in passing, but always drawn from memory. Judith concluded with a segue to why we like memoir: it takes the place of gossiping with a neighbor over the clothesline. That clothesline is gone for most of us and we embrace memoir to fill the void.
So, I’m glad I grabbed another cup of coffee and pushed aside my conference fatigue on Saturday morning to hear Why Genre Matters. Or maybe it doesn’t. The panel offered one of the most heady and honest exchanges of AWP.
Kathleen Stone is a writer who lives in Boston. Her work has been published in Points East, a sailing magazine, and she has dreams of many more publications to follow.
March 5, 2013 § 9 Comments
I arrived in Chicago last year for my first AWP with a hazy plan and a suitcase that weighed too much and cornered poorly. I packed stilettos, cigarettes, scarves, and lipstick, but forgot my laptop, cotton swabs, and new business cards stamped with a retro typewriter logo. Forgetting cotton swabs on a trip is a bad omen indeed. My plan was breezy and vague: oh, I dunno—find some authentic deep-dish, go to a few panels, say smart things, be charming, and have literary types fall in love with me. If there’s time, wrangle a book deal.
I’ve never been comfortable networking-as-a-verb, but my skills in this area hadn’t evolved since my 20s — awkwardness masked by flirtation. Incidentally, I gleaned this approach from an Anne Sexton biography that I read over ten years ago and interpreted not as a cautionary tale but as a primer on sex and dating.
I managed to get my AWP tote bag and lit swag, grab a slice served in a cardboard triangle, and check-in to my hotel room, all without incident. But it wasn’t long after I had gotten to my room, scarfed the pie, and lined up my little sentry of toiletries by height, that I found myself overwhelmed and on the verge of panic. The conference hadn’t even started, and this was not my usual existential panic, but an actual can’t-leave-the-room-and-function-in-public panic.
With nothing to do but strip down to my underpants and smoke in bed, I flipped through the 10-pound conference tome and tried to dam the tears with self-ridicule. I’ll spare you most of the rest of my mega-conference meltdown, but I accomplished little and went home an exhausted rube. Unable to navigate logistics capably, I ended up in the wrong panel at least a half-dozen times (each in the wrong genre and with a title more obtuse than the last); told Sven Birkerts his book The Art of Time in Memoir was “cool”; skulked around the book fair like a nervous woodland creature; collected business cards that would ultimately flounder in the bottom of my tote bag; and shouted “Hi!” to Cheryl Strayed in an elevator. (That’s it—just “Hi!” followed by a pregnant ellipsis. I should’ve told her I loved her or thanked her for “writing like a motherfucker”…something memorable.)
On the last night, I got invited—by way of the etiquette equivalent of the service elevator—to a VIP reception. Laureates, Pushcarts, NEA fellows, and National Book Award winners would be there: I was going to that room, the Gatsby room. Once there, however, I bored of the pomp and circumstance and sulked in a corner, popping cheesy poufs and getting hit on by a grandfatherly poet who mentioned his “new and selected” no fewer than eight times.
It’s redemption time now—a new year, a new me. I can do AWP: I just need a better plan.
First, a pep talk. Having spent much of my later childhood and high school years in Boston, I know the language, the land, the people, and customs. Home turf advantage. Also, I come from a military family—my husband, brother-in-law, and father—all no-nonsense types. This can-do competency must live in my muscle memory, right? Early wake-ups, hospital corners, overnight hiking trips in rugged New Hampshire mountains, extensive travel, and scrapping for respect in a big Catholic family: this was my childhood training. Dad was a recon Marine, for chrissakes; I can’t get pummeled by a writers’ conference.
Next, a plan and some rules of engagement. Instead of waiting until there, I grab my planner and Ned Stuckey-French’s “Handy Guide to Nonfiction Panels,” and I highlight. I highlight like a motherfucker. I pick two panels per day and write them into my planner in tidy block print. Anything extra is gravy, but these two are non-negotiable. My schedule is set and reconnaissance complete.
The rules of engagement are simple: no side trips to Fenway Park; no hesitant lollygagging at the book fair (get in, get out—with solicitations and business cards); no window shopping on Newbury Street; no improvised chit-chat with famous writers; no panel reconnaissance on the fly, flipping through maps and schedules while bent over a subway grate; no sulking or crying; and no reading of panelist bios until I am safely extracted and home.
If I seem a little more serious this year, that’s my plan. I am on a mission: do AWP, don’t let AWP do me.
Alexis Paige’s writing has appeared inTransfer Magazine, 14 Hills: The SFSU Review, Seven Days: Vermont’s Independent Voice, Prison Legal News, Ragazine, and on Brevity’s Nonfiction Blog. Alexis was twice named a top-ten finalist of Glamour Magazine’s annual personal essay contest. She received an M.A. in poetry from San Francisco State University and is pursuing an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the Stonecoast low-residency program in Maine. She is at work on a memoir about how 749 days in the Texas criminal justice system taught her to grow up. She lives and teaches in Vermont.
October 4, 2012 § 1 Comment
March 7, 2012 § 2 Comments
By Julie Farrar
R236 What’s Wrong With the Whole Truth / Thursday, Mar. 1, 4:30-5:45 p.m.
S198 Critical Divide: The Personal Essay and the Critical Essay / Saturday, Mar. 3, 3:00-4:15 p.m.
S219 The Lyric Essay: A Collapse of Forms or a Form of Collapse? / Saturday, Mar. 3, 4:30-5:45 p.m.
This was my first AWP conference. I was adrift trying to identify the structure of the at-large writing community, trying to distinguish the term-du-jour, the ongoing issues, and whose voice holds prominence in the critical discourse of the field vs. the literary. I fretted that I didn’t know that black nails was the new black among writers and that I had not a molecule of purple or orange dye highlighting my own hair.
These first date jitters proved unfounded, however, when I realized that many share my same unease over the unwieldy term “creative nonfiction” and all it infers. What no one mentioned was that the essential questions they were asking had been grappled with for centuries.
Let me say up front that I fell in love with Sven Birkerts when he used the terms “belletristic mode” and “polemic” in the same sentence in the session “Critical Divide: The Personal Essay and the Critical Essay.” The question he was addressing when these gems popped out is why such a tension exists between “creative” and “nonfiction.” Why does nonfiction need the reinforcer in front of it? Is the category so vast (on a suggested spectrum of documentary writing at one end, academic writing taking up the middle, and CNF at the other end) that most of it doesn’t even earn the label “creative”?
Fiction and poetry invent; therefore, to the world at large they’re obviously creative. Birkerts argued, however, that creativity in non-fiction has less to do with the “what” and more to do with the “how.” Discovery is creative. Searching out patterns within information and the form writers make out of those facts require imagination or creativity as much as the other genres. Or, as Fiona McRae put it in the same session, CNF is more than just filling in the chronology. And just because a writer uses the “I,” that doesn’t make it creative.
Rebecca Skloot, as part of the panel “What’s Wrong with the Whole Truth?”, asked the same question. The confusion for people about “creative nonfiction,” she said, lay in the implications of “creative,” as in creative-with-the-facts (the John D’Agata controversy was never far from the surface in many panels). If we think about the term only as applying to content, then it’s easy to see how anyone within or without the genre can doubt that any identifiable boundaries exist. It can give those within the genre license to play with “truth” in pursuit of “Truth.” For those outside the genre, well, it makes them wonder what we’re up to over here.
Although no one used the term “rhetoric,” they were more or less positing support for Cicero’s ancient canons – invention, arrangement, style, delivery – as the defining features of nonfiction. Philip Gerard and Peter Trachtenberg channeled Aristotle in the “Whole Truth” session, hammering home the ethical obligations of the writer (his or her ethos) to get the facts right, especially when telling stories about other people. Aristotle schooled us in ethos (the character of the speaker), pathos (the emotional presence of the issue language creates), and logos (the discovery and arrangement of the material). Rhetoric itself covers Birkert’s spectrum with deliberative, forensic, and epideictic speech. Modern rhetorical theory has even broken out of this arrow-straight spectrum, while still maintaining the essential ethos/pathos/logos triangle.
I have more discovery of my own to accomplish by next year’s conference regarding the tension between “creative” and “nonfiction.” However, Ned Stuckey French in discussing “The Lyric Essay: A Collapse of Forms or a Form of Collapse?” came closest to articulating a vision of CNF-as-rhetoric. The qualifier “creative” implies fiction as the norm, he said, like if instead of calling an apple a fruit we called it a “non-meat.” Since all rhetoric engages the imagination in invention, arrangement, et al., perhaps at some future AWP conference we’ll shift from trying to make our nonfiction apple into a palatable non-meat dish fancied up with a bit of “creative” sauce. We’ll claim a straightforward label, saying that all nonfiction employs art in service to facts. Not the other way around.
Julie Farrar earned her PhD in Rhetoric from Purdue University a lifetime ago, taught more freshmen than she can count how to reseach and write essays, and now sits at her computer in St. Louis working on a memoir about raising her adopted children, travel essays, and personal essays. She has much to learn about writing, but recently earned first place in the Travel and Shopping category of Travelers’ Tales 6th Annual Solas Awards.
March 26, 2010 § Leave a comment
Speaking of Reality Hunger (and the ideas contained therein), Sven Birkerts has a worth-the-read-as-always look at Reading in the Digital Age in the new American Scholar, wherein he posits:
“SUDDENLY IT’S IMPOSSIBLE TO IMAGINE a world in which many interactions formerly dependent on print on paper happen screen to screen.”
Birkets is a great thinker and writer, but perhaps more fearful of technology than he need be. Case in point: Over on Facebook, writers Steve Yarbrough, Chris Offutt, and Matt Roberts have an exchange, quotedbelow, which shows perhaps that the interactions and discussions “formerly dependent on print on paper” do “happen screen to screen,” and pretty quickly too.
There is some tongue-in-cheek here, but enjoy:
Steve Yarbrough was struck by the conclusion of Sven Birkerts’ fine essay “Reading in a Digital Age,” which appears in the current issue of THE AMERICAN SCHOLAR: “To achieve deep focus nowadays is also to have struck a blow against the dissipation of self; it is to have strengthened one’s essential position.”
Is there a link to that?
Here you go, Chris:
I think it is hilarious that you have posted on your Fb page about this essay, are then asked by another writer for a link to this essay, to which you readily reply so that he can read it online. That is, on a screen. Is it just me, or does that seem antithetical to Birkets’ point?
Or does this suggest that his point only applies to the novel, to fiction? That is, is nonfiction, the essay in particular, something that is well-suited to “the screen”? And, if so, then does that mean that the novel is a better environment for “losing oneself in” than the essay?
Thanks. that was intended as sort of a joke–the idea that “Reading in a Digital Age” would be online in American Scholar.
Guess as usual, I’m a day late and a dollar short when it comes to technology…
No, Chris. I got the joke. But then Steve complied (even though he likely got the joke, too). And now we’re talking about it. That is, time spent in front of the screen can produce an intellectual response in the reader in much the same way that time spent “losing oneself” in a book can. Don’t get me wrong. I love books and don’t think that they should (or will) become extinct, but I get anxious about the antagonism toward the screen that is prevalent in this field.
I think the American Scholar is a good example of how something appearing onscreen isn’t the problem. It is how we think and feel about what is onscreen that matters. As long as the material being produced is of the same quality as that which appears in print, then what is the problem with the mode of delivery? That the act of reading is competing with easy online access and Fb? When I’m reading at home, that act is often competing with my kids’ requests, the dirty dishes piling up in the sink, and the urgent need to evacuate my bladder. (Although I should point out that at this point I am using Fb to avoid reading my students’ essays, so I should go get lost in reading…)
[Birkets] actually talks about Googling a Nabokov quote that he needed for the essay.