AWP2015: Fashioning a Text: Discovering Shape and Form in Nonfiction

If you arrived at the AWP panel “Fashioning a Text: Discovering Shape and Form in Nonfiction” looking for a blueprint or some hard-and-fast rules for how to structure your next book or essay, you’d be disappointed. All the panelists admitted that most often they stumble on form through trial and error. For me — and I suspect for nearly all the 300 or so attendees in the standing-room-only crowd — this came as a huge relief.

Thank God, we thought, it’s not just me.

Mike Steinberg, founder of Fourth Genre, and a fellow who knows a thing or two about creative nonfiction started the conversation by describing the process of finding a form for his memoir Still Pitching. Fittingly, since it’s a baseball story, it was a three-strike kind of thing. He knew from the get-go the book had something to do with the intersection of wanting to be a pitcher and wanting to be a writer (Aside: Trust your inciting vision turned out to be universal advice) but took three complete drafts before finding its form.

Michael Downs, the author of House of Good Hope, told the crowd that Mozart claimed to see entire symphonies in the sky, but he sees “only clouds.” Downs focused on idiosyncratic nature of form, how it’s different for each individual writer.

Elyssa East moved the conversation from abstract to edible-tangible with the example of a bowl of knock-off Starburst candies. She knew her memoir Dog Town had several threads, a ton of them, but it wasn’t until she took the colored candies, labeled them, and started moving them around her desk, that the idea started to gel.

[Digression: At this point in the panel, Elizabeth Wiley read the presentation that Robert Root had intended to give since Root couldn’t attend. Ms. Wiley seemed lovely, but this was the second panel of the day where a proxy read aloud the paper by a missing panelist, and I have to say it’s awfully hard to concentrate in those cases.]

Patrick Madden, the voice behind Quotidiana – the fabulous collection and the website, too — anchored the team with an overview of several successful “hermit crab” essays – including an Ebay auction, a Google Maps, a syllabus, a Trivial Pursuit card, a pain scale – to prove that found forms can work if they fit the theme just right.

The overall takeaway: structure arrives in unexpected ways. East provided Steinberg with a great last line: “I don’t have a bowl of candy for everything I do.”

Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in the North Cascades. She’s the author of five books including 100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (As We Know It), and she teaches at Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.

Visit Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies to browse our recent issues (Fall 2014 and Spring 2015), explore our classroom resources, and to subscribe to the journal (it’s free!).

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