Edna Staebler Personal Essay contest is on! You may submit essays of any length, on any topic, in which the writer’s personal engagement with the topic provides the frame or through-line. There is no restriction on essay length or subject matter, but the author must be a Canadian citizen or resident. $1,000 prize for the winning essay; all submissions will be considered for paid publication ($250) in the magazine. Entry fee: $40 per submission. Each submission includes a one-year Canadian subscription (or subscription extension) to The New Quarterly.
Deadline: Sunday, Feb. 2015
We are seeking NonfictioNOW 2015 panel proposals that bring together a group of three to five people to engage insightfully with some of the rich and vibrant contemporary debates around nonfiction
Northern Arizona University, Flagstaff Arizona, 28 – 31 October, 2015
NonfictioNOW is one of the most significant gatherings of writers, teachers and readers of nonfiction from around the world.
NonfictioNOW 2015 will be hosted and presented by Northern Arizona University, with co-sponsors RMIT University’s nonfictionLab and The Writers’ Centre at Yale-NUS College, Singapore. 2015 Keynote speakers include Maggie Nelson, Brian Doyle, Michael Martone and Ander Monson.
We are seeking NonfictioNOW 2015 panel proposals that bring together a group of three to five people to engage insightfully with some of the rich and vibrant contemporary debates around nonfiction. Panel submissions are due on 15 February 2015.
These questions include, but are not restricted to, explorations of:
• Genres and their boundaries and tensions: the essay in its myriad forms (personal, narrative, lyric, collage, interdisciplinary), memoir, forms of immersion writing, history, literary and long form journalism and reportage, travel writing, food writing, hybrids of fiction and nonfiction
• Forms beyond the strictly literary: for example documentary, radio, video and networked (online) essays, graphic memoir
• Regional characteristics and issues in nonfiction writing
• Historical threads of influence, style and discourse, from the long tradition of nonfiction connecting, for example, Seneca, Montaigne, Woolf, Orwell, Geoff Dyer, Chris Marker…
• Issues such as truth and authenticity, fakery and lies, trust and ethics, politics and power — the creative tensions between ‘art’, ‘facts’ and ‘truth
• The poetics of nonfiction
• Representations of self and other in nonfiction
This is an invitation for nonfiction practitioners both within and outside the academy – a rare chance for discussion to extend across these boundaries!
All submissions should be 300 – 750 words, and also include a 150 word précis, and 50 word bio that can be used in the conference program.
When submitting your panel, please include the details of fellow panellists you have already been in dialogue with. Please also think carefully about the chairing of your panel: whether yourself, or another panellist will also chair the session, and clearly state if you need help in finding a chair.
Please also let us know if you do not have fellow panellists in mind, but are interested in becoming a panellist, along with the topic you are interested in exploring as part of a panel. One of the things we hope to do is encourage international connections within panels, so we may be able to link you up with potential fellow panellists from another country.
There will be opportunities to publish coming out of the conference
Prospective panellists are also encouraged to submit more than one proposal, though no more than three. Individuals may appear on a maximum of two panels or readings during the conference. Prospective panellists will be responsible for securing the commitment of fellow panellists to attend the conference if the proposed panel is selected. We will send confirmation to your fellow panellists to confirm their attendance.
Please note that the conference will not be able to pay for the travel or accommodation of panellists. Travel costs will need to be covered by the panelists.
Email submissions to: firstname.lastname@example.org
[Photo: Nicholas A. Tonelli]
The holy trinity of creative nonfiction, I told my students recently, is SCENE + RESEARCH + REFLECTION.
Most of my students get the first scene piece: since high school, they’ve doubtless heard the mantra “show don’t tell.” Generally speaking, showing is not a problem for them, especially those who come from a fiction background.
The third point of the trinity (we’ll come back to the second momentarily), reflection, is more complex and requires an intellectual leap: writers must not only recount the past, but think on the page and interpret the meaning of what they create as they do so. Thus far, the most eloquent argument I’ve found for the necessity of this process in memoir and other forms of CNF comes from Phillip Lopate in “Reflection and Retrospection: A Pedagogic Mystery Story” (Fourth Genre 7.1, 2005, pp. 143-156.) I highly recommend it — so much so that I keep foisting this essay into the hands of all my students.
The question is: how do you get from SCENE to meaningful (non-navel-gazing) REFLECTION?
My answer: RESEARCH
By research I mean anything that helps further your understanding of whatever it is that you’re trying to figure out. It can be book or scholarly learning, like exploring the history of Négritude as one of my students has done or by reading Anne Sexton’s archive, as another did (I’ll return to the importance of library research shortly), but it can also be something like going on a train trip to watch how the landscape changes. It can be having a conversation with someone who knows more about a topic than you do (for a example, with a historian or a scientist) or simply standing in front of a painting in a museum. I, for one, have traveled to places where the people I’m writing about once lived: weird little Siberian villages or forgotten industrial towns in France, for example. This past summer I walked through Lithuanian forests in search of mass graves; I stood and contemplated the house that once belonged to an important “character” in my manuscript.
I think of this kind of work as environmental or perhaps experiential research, but often it is this human gaze and journey and reality (everything on a human scale) that gives CNF energy, gravitas, life, and beauty.
Even if you’re writing about the past, or perhaps especially if you’re doing so, revisiting sites from that past can be incredibly powerful. When I venture to these kinds of places, I spend my time gazing at a building; I collect stones and put them in my pockets to bring home; I pay attention to the insects that buzz around me; I talk to cows; I think about and note change, impermanence; I ask what remains; I watch those around me; I chat with strangers about their lives and homes; I accept every invitation to tea or a meal; I photograph everything I can; I contemplate the sky; I take tons and tons of notes.
To me, all this staring, wandering, and chatting is as valuable as a trip to the library (where I spend a great deal of time too): the trick is to pay attention and record all the details along the way.
But be warned: all this staring and wandering and chatting may only be the first level of research. For example, I have a student who has recently returned from a life-changing trip to Iceland, and he’s now starting to write about it. His first level of research is complete, but more work lies ahead. The second level and stage of research might mean his going to the library and reading tons about sagas and Icelandic history until this writer has mastered his subject enough to distill and retell with energy and spontaneity. Once this learning starts to belong to him in some way (as family history does) — that is, once he’s achieved a kind of deep learning — then he’ll likely find organic ways of engaging with the necessary literary-historical material and, in turn, of teaching his reader.
When I’m talking about this process of deep learning, I tend to call it “digestion.” You have to let the facts and history work their through you, I say (though I try not to follow the metaphor through to its logical ends, ahem). The research has to become part of you so that you can put it back out onto the page and into the world in a form that won’t fight the story that you’re trying to tell.
This, I believe, is the most difficult aspect of writing good CNF: figuring out how to teach the reader; how to give enough background history, facts, and evidence but without deadening your text.
Once you do the research, you reflect and figure out what the research tells you about the primary journey you’re on: for one of my students, the question is what Anne Sexton’s archives can teach her about a mother’s death. For another, the question is what the slave ships of Nantes have to do with her search for home and belonging.
Research will help you interpret the scenes you write and details you put to paper and it will help you get closer to an answer to whatever question drives you and makes your text vibrate. It will deepen your text and make it larger than your sad little story of loss (I don’t mean to minimize, not at all; we all have these). Most CNF undulates in some way between the big and the small. The writer’s sad little story is the small of the piece: all our mothers will die one day. The reflection and understanding that grows out of research (in whatever form it might take) will constitute the large. It is in going beyond ourselves, beyond our own smallness that we can learn something and then give that lesson over to a reader — what is the big thing that I can learn from my smallness? That’s the great question, gift, challenge, and mystery of CNF.
Kim Dana Kupperman is the author of the award-winning I Just Lately Started Buying Wings. Missives from the Other Side of Silence (2010) and the lead editor of You. An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person (2013). She is the founding editor of Welcome Table Press, an independent nonprofit devoted to publishing and celebrating the essay, and the editor of the press’s periodical pamphlet series Occasional Papers on Practice & Form. She has received many awards and honors, including fellowships from the Pennsylvania Council on the Arts, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts, and the New York Center for Book Arts. Her work has been anthologized in Best American Essays; Blurring the Boundaries. Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction; and An Ethical Compass. Coming of Age in the 21st Century and appears regularly in literary periodicals. She teaches in Fairfield University’s low-residency MFA Program in Creative Writing.
About You: Up close and personal, this first-of-its-kind collection showcases contemporary essays that explore failure, planetary movement, and love, among a variety of topics. The candor of these autobiographical, lyric, personal, and segmented narratives is tempered by the distance, intimacy, humor, and unsentimental tenderness that the second person point of view affords both writer and reader.
Julija Šukys: Kim, thank you so much for agreeing to do this interview. The subject of the second-person voice came up a number of times during my seminars this year – especially my graduate seminars. I, for one, really like the second-person voice and have used it at least twice, in two different essays and I’m always interested to see what others do with it. It’s a tricky thing to pull off, and it turns out to be a little bit controversial. Some readers/writers see the use of the second-person voice as contrived or too cute. Some find it distancing. I’m so interested to hear what you have to say about all of this!
Kim Dana Kupperman: I’d like to make a distinction before we begin: when I say “second-person point of view,” I’m mostly referring to the grammatical pronoun you; this somehow feels different to me than “second-person voice,” though I think I know what you mean, or, at least I interpret what you mean as “tone,” or “effect,” or, even, “mood,” all of which can be evoked by using a second-person point of view.
That’s a really helpful distinction: point of view vs. voice. I like the precision of the former.
Tell me what drew you to the idea of pulling together this anthology of essays devoted to the second person. Were most of these pieces commissioned for this collection, or did you draw from the world of literary journals?
As a reader, I’ve been very interested in the second-person point of view, from its obvious and historic epistolary use, to the briefer asides to the reader in prose (nonfiction and fiction), to longer works such as the stories in Lorrie Moore’s Self Help and Junot Diaz’s This Is How You Lose Her, to Stewart O’Nan’s novel A Prayer for the Dying, to name three examples. There was no anthology—at least not one in print that I knew of—that collected essays devoted to the second person, written by contemporary writers. In fact, I’m not sure there are any anthologies that have collected such essays by writers in any century. As an editor and publisher, I sought to fill that gap; most of the pieces were solicited in a call for submissions as well as direct requests to writers and editors whose work the three of us—Heather Simons, James Chesbro, and myself—admired.
I was interested to find that in many of these pieces, the “you” appears to stand in for the “I.” By this I mean that the “you” is really (and often quite clearly) the narrator. I’d say this is the case with pieces by Natashia Déon, Susan Grier, Brenda Miller, and others. What is to be gained by switching from “I” to “you”? How does the second-person point of view change the way that we read these otherwise first-person narratives? Or am I being too simplistic and mischaracterizing them?
“You” often stands in for the “I,” but sometimes, “you” masks the “I.” I like to think of this particular usage of the second person as one in which the narrator is writing to a self who no longer exists, which is the case with all three of the examples you mention: Natashia Déon’s here-and-now narrator is addressing her adolescent self at moments of great reckoning; Susan Grier’s narrator is standing on a threshold of understanding her role as the mother of a child who will become transgendered; and Brenda Miller’s speaker is in the midst of undertaking a transformation. So in some ways, it’s as if these particular narrators are recording messages to be placed in a time capsule: “See who I was,” the you says in these instances, of a specific instance or time. Perhaps that’s why we might call this usage “diaristic”: just think of those moments when you examine a diary in which what you wrote was written by another iteration of yourself: it is a kind of first person removed. As Joan Connor puts it, “The I creates a you; the you creates an I, in a Mobius strip of recursive identity.”
There are, of course, a number of pieces here that play with the question of who exactly “you” is. For example, Michelle Auerbach wonderfully satirizes how-to books and advice columns in “How to Screw Up a First Date.” Becca Lee Jensen Ogden’s “Nothing Good Happens after Forty-One Weeks” plays with the form of online pregnancy journals digests (It starts: “Hello Becca! You are now thirty-eight weeks! Your baby is now considered full-term”). I found Ogden’s piece particularly moving. It’s a very effective use of the second person in part because the target or referent of the “you” shifts subtly partway through the piece. Her “you” is both a voice addressing the narrator from outside as well as from inside. Among other things, it’s a wonderful metaphor for the experience of pregnancy. Do you see the “you” working in other ways that I’ve perhaps overlooked?
In the introduction to the anthology, I mention specific uses of the second person: first, the you as I (i.e., the “diaristic”); second, the epistolary, in which the writer creates a rhetorical apostrophe, or an address to someone who is absent (or who cannot—yet, and for whatever reasons—read what is being written, as in Brian Hoover’s “A Rock Snob to His Infant Daughter”); and third, the note-to-self or how-to manual. We’ve included essays in this collection that feature the more traditional use of the second person, a direct aside, or invitation, to the reader, though the essays are unconventional in their approaches (for example, Amy Leach’s “You Be the Moon” and Sarah Stromeyer’s “Merce on the Page”).
As I mentioned above, some of my students have commented on the distancing effect of “you” – especially when the “you” stands in for “I.” For me, intimacy returns (? I’m not sure this is the right word…) when the “you” addresses someone as one might do in a letter. This is how I’ve used the second person, and it’s how a small number of your contributors have used it. For example, Elizabeth Stone addresses her late father in “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Blackguard” (another piece I found to be very strong). I wonder if you have any thoughts on narrative distance and intimacy and the use of the second person. Do you see it as potentially (if perhaps productively) distancing? Do you see ways of creating intimacy using this pronoun, as I do?
The second-person point of view has the ability to distance and create intimacy at the same time. Intimacy, as you so accurately point out, is created especially in the epistolary usage, in which a reader may feel addressed directly by the narrator, even though the narrator is writing to a specific person (e.g., Kim Adrian, Marsha McGregor, Elizabeth Stone); distance is achieved when the you stands in for I; or, perhaps, a certain remoteness is created, which takes the I out of the equation and allows the writer to scrutinize, perhaps more closely, the subject at hand.
Next: a question on form. I was very interested and intrigued by the brevity of some of most of these pieces. Amongst my favorites is Eduardo Galeano’s “Dreams.” It’s a tiny jewel of a text, only two paragraphs long, with a “you” that refers not to the narrator himself but out to an unnamed interlocutor. The text itself is dreamlike and imagistic. Another text that struck me was one you’ve mentioned, Sarah Stromeyer’s “Merce on the Page.” It is a tiny text about text: about the effects of layout and font choices and the physicality of letters on a reader. (The “you” here seems to address me, the reader, in perhaps the most direct sense of all the pieces.) What do you think is it about the use of the second person that cultivates brevity?
This is a terrific question. Perhaps part of the answer has to do with the seemingly experimental nature of the second person—readers will tolerate the schism between distance and intimacy only to a degree (although Stewart O’Nan manages to sustain the second person for the duration of an entire novel). Think about reading Gertrude Stein, and the kind of suspension—not only of disbelief, but of narrative expectation—required to enter into some of her texts; the effort is well worth it, but it requires a certain readerly stamina.
What is the greatest hazard of using the second person?
When you use it to be clever. Cleverness is not a hallmark of the second-person point of view. Or, at least, it shouldn’t be.
And conversely, what can it achieve that a simple first-person (or third-person) point of view can’t?
As we’ve noted, the second-person point of view distances the writer from what might be painful to write. In a way, the you becomes the ultimate persona—or, if it doesn’t, it serves as a process that might help developing writers better understand persona. This speaks to, perhaps, what you have called the “second-person voice”: voice is an element that is part of persona, the disguise adopted by a narrator to tell a story. And by using the second-person point of view, the narrator assumes a mask—distance, in this case—that infuses how s/he sounds with a kind of remote quality that cannot be achieved with first person (but certainly can be realized, without the dual edge of intimacy offered by second person, using third-person omniscient).
Which texts in this collection surprised you most in terms of what they were able to achieve through the use of the second person?
That’s a tough question… I think I was more surprised, in the acquisition process, by writers and editors we encountered who felt that the second-person point of view was too trendy, misused, or, simply, not their cup of tea. Certainly, there are instances of misuse with every experimental form. Some of the work in this anthology may have been better rendered in first person. But the writer stuck to the second-person point of view and had reasons to stick to it. In some ways, that stubbornness surprised me. In other ways, I find it charming.
Kim Dana Kupperman, thanks so much for doing this and for putting together the anthology. I know this conversation will find a place in future seminar rooms and in readers’ hands.
September 4, 2014
I love a good reading list.
The student in me still wants to know what she’s missed and what she should be reading next, whereas the teacher in me is always looking for resources to use and pass on to her students.
So, when Silas Hansen casually posted this great CNF reading list on Facebook, I asked if I could share it. He points out that it’s not an exhaustive list, nor does he love every book on it. For my part, I often tell my students that reading books that you don’t love can be really good for you too: authors and books with whom I have a combative relationship often stay with me longer than the ones I eat up like candy.
All this is to say that the list is a start. I predict you’ll find something of interest on it. Happy reading, and thank you, Silas. You can learn more about Silas Hansen here.
The List (in no particular order…):
Notes from No Man’s Land by Eula Biss
Waist-High in the World by Nancy Mairs
Neck Deep and Other Predicaments by Ander Monson
The Partly Cloudy Patriot by Sarah Vowell
Take the Cannoli by Sarah Vowell
Half Empty by David Rakoff
Bad Feminist by Roxane Gay
Portrait of My Body by Phillip Lopate
Somehow Form a Family by Tony Early
Such a Life by Lee Martin
Notes of a Native Son by James Baldwin
The Empathy Exams by Leslie Jamison
The Boys of My Youth by Jo Ann Beard
Men Explain Things to Me by Rebecca Solnit
Neither Here Nor There: Travels in Europe by Bill Bryson
My Misspent Youth by Meghan Daum
From Our House by Lee Martin
Between Panic and Desire by Dinty W. Moore
Men We Reaped by Jesmyn Ward
Planet of the Blind by Stephen Kuusisto
Wild by Cheryl Strayed
The Last Street Before Cleveland by Joe Mackall
The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion
Hitless Wonder: My Life in Minor League Rock and Roll by Joe Oestreich
Fever Pitch by Nick Hornby
Songbook by Nick Hornby
The Day After the Day After: My Atomic Angst by Steven Church
Carrier: Untangling the Danger in My DNA by Bonnie J. Rough
A Strong West Wind by Gail Caldwell
Let’s Take the Long Way Home by Gail Caldwell
Drinking: A Love Story by Caroline Knapp
Road Song by Natalie Kusz
Brother, I’m Dying by Edwidge Danticat
Talk Thai: The Adventures of Buddhist Boy by Ira Sukrungruang
One Hundred Demons by Lynda Barry
Fun Home by Alison Bechdel
Another Bullshit Night in Suck City by Nick Flynn
Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt
The Truth Book by Joy Castro
Butterfly Boy: Memories of a Chicano Mariposa by Rigoberto Gonzalez
I’m Sorry You Feel That Way by Diana Joseph
The Color of Water by James McBride
The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White, Anglo-Saxon Jew by Sue William Silverman
Brothers and Keepers by John Edgar Wideman
This Boy’s Life by Tobias Wolff
Townie by Andre Dubus III
Colored People by Henry Louis Gates Jr.
Stealing Buddha’s Dinner by Bich Minh Nguyen
Full Body Burden: Growing Up in the Shadow of Rocky Flatts by Kristen Iversen
Friday Night Lights: A Town, a Team, and a Dream by H.G. Bissinger
Assassination Vacation by Sarah Vowell
Slouching Toward Bethlehem by Joan Didion
The White Album by Joan Didion
Salvador by Joan Didion
Pulphead by John Jeremiah Sullivan
Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence, and the Last Lynching in America by B.J. Hollars
The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks by Rebecca Skloot
Spook: Science Tackles the Afterlife by Mary Roach
Stiff: The Curious Life of Human Cadavers by Mary Roach
Salvation on Sand Mountain by Dennis Covington
Motherless Daughters by Hope Edelman
The Spirit Catches You and You Fall Down by Anne Fadiman
The Orchid Thief by Susan Orlean
In Cold Blood by Truman Capote
Killer Stuff and Tons of Money by Maureen Stanton
A Supposedly Fun Thing I’ll Never Do Again by David Foster Wallace
Consider the Lobster by David Foster Wallace
“The most difficult thing for me is a portrait. You have to try and put your camera between the skin of a person and his shirt.” — Henri Cartier-Bresson
“Every portrait that is painted with feeling is a portrait of the artist, not of the sitter.” — Oscar Wilde
It’s a snow day in Missouri, so I’m taking a few moments to return to the blog and share some impressions from the new semester. This time around, my grad students and I are contemplating and soon will be trying to produce effective portraits in creative nonfiction. Questions we’re asking of texts (ours and others’) include:
How does an author paint a compelling and true portrait of a person in words? What are the elements that make a portrait come alive? What are the pitfalls? Why do some of our attempts fall flat and produce lifeless caricatures rather than the intimate, complex, and nuanced texts we aim for? How do we deal with what we don’t and can’t know about our subject? What should or might the relationship between author and subject look like?
And in addition to writing flash portraits and full-length pieces for workshop, we’ll be reading Gertrude Stein’s Autobiography of Alice B. Toklas, Dave Eggers’ What is the What, Ryszard Kapuscinski’s The Emperor and more. It’s all big stuff: long, hefty books. Perhaps not the best way to set our terms.
Our first order of business (yesterday) was to see what we could glean from small portraits and to begin assembling a set of hypotheses about how successful portraits work in CNF. I asked each of my students to choose an excerpt (or entire portrait) that could be read in under 5 minutes and to come to class prepared to defend the selection in what I called “The Battle of the Shortcuts.” After each reading, we pinpointed what we thought the text was doing successfully, and I filled the whiteboard with our ideas. This was the result:
Contenders included portraits by: Thom Gunn, Salman Rushdie, Sara Suleri, Mark Jenkins, Lynda Barry, Eula Biss, Mike Latcher, and Jeff Sharlet.
A vote determined the “best” choice (the battle, of course, was simply a device to frame and motivate our conversation). The winning student, whose portrait the group selected, got a coffee card to a café on campus.
Contrary to my predictions, we needed no second or third ballots to determine the victor. Michele Morano’s essay, “In the Subjunctive Mood” from Grammar Lessons handily won in the first round for its use of filters, frames, and the second-person voice to render the unbearable bearable. (I know this essay is available online somewhere, legally, but I can’t find it. If you come across the link, please send it my way so I can share it!)
There are more fun and games are to come, since I’ve decided to use my imagination and stretch the bounds of the usually staid and serious format that is the writing workshop. I’ll try to share more reports from the seminar room as we progress.
If you’re also leading CNF workshops and want to share some ideas, do chime in and let me know what you’re up to.
Here’s to a day of catching up with writing and editing and the drinking of tea. Stay safe!
[Photos: Paulgi and Eric Scott]
Joy Castro http://www.joycastro.com is the author of the memoir The Truth Book (Arcade, 2005) and the New Orleans literary thrillers Hell or High Water (St. Martin’s, 2012) and Nearer Home (St. Martin’s, 2013). Her essay collection Island of Bones (U of Nebraska, 2012) is a PEN Finalist and the winner of an International Latino Book Award. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Seneca Review, Brevity, North American Review, and The New York Times Magazine. An associate professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, she teaches literature, creative writing, and Latino studies.
Essays by twenty-five memoirists explore the fraught territory of family history, analyzing the ethical dilemmas of writing about family and offering practical strategies for navigating this tricky but necessary material. A sustained and eminently readable lesson in the craft of memoir, Family Trouble serves as a practical guide for writers who want to narrate their own versions of the truth while still acknowledging family boundaries.
The 25 distinguished, award-winning memoirists who contributed to Family Trouble come from a wide array of cultural backgrounds and family configurations. They include college and university educators, many of whom have published craft texts.
The contributors, with links to their author websites, are listed here: http://www.joycastro.com/FamilyTrouble.htm.
Julija Šukys: Joy, I’m so happy to have the opportunity to discuss your recent edited anthology, Family Trouble. I myself am working on a project that tells the story of my family’s history, and I’m grateful for the chance to have a conversation with you about it here and with the authors whose works you gathered via the pages of your book.
Tell me a bit about yourself. What is your writing background, and how did you come to want to put together this collection about the challenges of writing about family? How did you find the contributors to this book, who are many and varied?
Joy Castro: First of all, thank you so much for your interest in this book. I’m grateful. I hope Family Trouble will help many writers, aspiring writers, and teachers of writing as they think through these tricky issues.
I’ve published two books of memoir, The Truth Book (2005) and Island of Bones (2012), both from University of Nebraska Press, which also brought out Family Trouble. I’m also a writer of literary thrillers: Hell or High Water (2012) and Nearer Home, both set in New Orleans and both from St. Martin’s Press, and they’ve been optioned for film or television. I publish essays, short fiction, and poetry. At the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, I teach fiction and creative nonfiction in the graduate program.
The idea for this particular collection began to grow when I was touring with The Truth Book. After I read, audiences always wanted to know how my family felt about the revelations it contained. That surprised me. I knew how carefully I’d thought through those issues of respect, privacy, and artistic license, but I hadn’t realized that anyone else would be interested.
At the AWP conference in 2008, I coordinated a panel on the topic—mostly due to my own curiosity, and so that I could hear what the other four panelists thought about it. I thought 20 or 30 people might show up. But over 400 came. I knew then that I’d stumbled onto something that was an issue of real urgency for many people, so I decided to try gathering a collection of diverse views on the topic.
A few of the contributors were memoirists I knew personally whose work I admired. Others were writers whose work alone I knew and admired, and I e-mailed them with an invitation to contribute. A very few, like Paul Lisicky and Susan Olding, were writers whose work I didn’t previously know but who were recommended to me by contributors whose work I’d already accepted, and their essays were really great and fit the collection’s topic well. In one case, I went after a published essay I’d read online, the piece by Alison Bechdel, because it spoke so beautifully (and succinctly) to the topic.
In gathering the pieces, I wanted to include memoirists whose opinions, aesthetics, and strategies diverged significantly, so the collection could examine the issue from a variety of perspectives. No easy consensus emerges, and I think that’s a healthy, lively, challenging thing for readers to experience.
I also wanted other kinds of diversity: cultural, sexual, racial, class, family itself. There are several pieces by memoirists who occupy positions in the adoption triad, for example. These social, experiential factors inflect how we approach the issue of writing about family, so I wanted to try to include a broad range of standpoints.
Writing about family, just about everyone agrees, is problematic because it involves telling the stories of others. There is almost a necessary appropriation that happens in the writing of family stories, since families are, by definition, networks of relationships and of love, resentment, competing memories, and allegiances. “The details might be a part of my story,” writes Ariel Gore, “but it is not my story alone” (65). Similarly, Heather Sellers suggests in the last essay in the collection: “To write about family is to plagiarize life. I believe it can be done with grace. I believe, in my case, it has been the right thing to do. But it’s still stealing” (211). What do you think of Sellers’ use of plagiarism and theft as ways of talking about the theme at hand? Is writing about family always transgressive?
I was happy to get to write the introduction to the collection, which gave me the opportunity to lay out my own point of view on these matters at length. Here, I’ll just say that I respect, have learned from, and enjoy all the different essayists’ perspectives, but my own is that writing memoir is a search for understanding. For me, if I’m immersed in answering urgent questions that move and hurt me, and I include nothing irrelevant to those questions, nothing gratuitous, then the work is not transgressive or exploitative.
I understand, though, that the people about whom I’ve written may take a different view.
And to be frank, I understand that. When I’ve seen myself written about (as in a newspaper, for example), I often cringe a little, feeling as though a partial, and thus distorting, portrait has been drawn. This has come to seem perhaps inevitable, since we humans intersect with each other in such incomplete ways. Yet I still often find those public depictions uncomfortable and inaccurate. So I understand that people who’ve found themselves depicted in memoir might feel quite the same way—and even more strongly, since memoir often reveals painful material.
I wholly support writers’ right to explore such material, but I also empathize with people who don’t like seeing themselves in print.
I’m now entering the last weeks of my first semester of full-time teaching. (For those of you new to this blog, I recently started a faculty position in Creative Writing at the University of Missouri’s English Department). Moving from utter solitude and a focused life of writing to a busy schedule of classes, meetings, and constant human contact has been exciting but challenging. This weekend, for example, I was so tired that I collapsed on the couch for a full two days. Only now, after a lot of sleep, some yoga and a movie, can I face the computer and my books once again.
The upside is that, along with my students, I feel like I’m learning and advancing at breakneck pace. As a result, the issue of how much we can learn and how fast we can do it has been on my mind.
The fact is, truly good writing takes time. Sometimes it takes insane amounts of time that few non-writers would predict. My essay, “Pregnant Pause,” for example, was three years in the making. That’s the kind of time that few grad students can afford: there are seminars to finish, comprehensive exams to write, theses to complete, and CVs to build.
Now that I’ve been at it for a few months, I’m starting to see that there are two kinds of time at play in the creative writing program context: writing time (when an essay naturally takes three years to complete) and institutional time (when said essay needs to be handed in ten days before Christmas).
While it would seem that the more “natural” writing time would be liberating and productive (and therefore the obvious winner in the contest between the two), it can also be yawning and oppressive in its formlessness. Writing time can kill you with its endlessness, foster procrastination, and kill hope. Institutional time, on the other hand, in its very arbitrariness, can be weirdly good for a writer. There’s nothing like a deadline to boost productivity. Fear of public shame works well too — our students regularly present work to their peers, and none of them want to share work that’s crappy. They work with urgency and energy that can only come from outside strictures. And yet, I find myself once again going back to writing time, and reconsidering its merits, because for all the umph that institutional time provides, it cannot duplicate the insight, reflection, perspective and polish that writing time affords.
The trick to fostering good writing and what I think of as “real” writing within the university context, is to find a way to adhere to institutional time without ever losing sight or feel of writing time. The tension between them is undeniable, but perhaps productive and energizing too.
If you teach in a university context, how do you negotiate writing and institutional time?
[Photo: Damian Gadal]
I was honoured to be chosen as a reader for the Canada Writes creative nonfiction competition for 2013. Over the winter months, I sifted through hundreds of submissions that arrived at my door every few days in fat yellow envelopes. Now, at long last, the shortlist and winner have been announced.
Last week, I talked to Anne Malcolm, host of The Monday Morning After at CKUT Radio in Montreal, about creative nonfiction in general and about being a Canada Writes reader in particular. Even though I have a bit of a phobia of hearing to audio of myself, I took the plunge and sat down to take a listen to the interview and decided it wasn’t so bad.
First Prize: $1,000 and publication (Winter 2014)
Runner-up (if applicable) will be considered for publication
Judge: Scott Russell Sanders
Deadline: All submissions must be entered by March 15, 2013
Fourth Genre will seek the best creative nonfiction essay for its ninth annual Fourth Genre Steinberg Essay Prize. Authors of previously unpublished manuscripts are encouraged to enter. All submissions will be read blindly, readers and editors will not see the contestant’s name or cover letter. All manuscripts must be no longer than 6,000 words and previously unpublished. Multiple submissions are accepted. Entry fee of $20 for EACH submission. Winner and runner-up (if applicable) will be announced at the end of April.
Full submission guidelines: Fourth Genre Steinberg Essay Prize
Thanks to Dinty W. Moore at Brevity for this.
[Photo: Leo Reynolds]