AWP2015: The Truth, the Whole Truth, and Nothing but Your Speculations: The Use of Speculation and Other Imaginative Techniques in Creative Nonfiction

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMPanelists: Sean Prentiss (moderator), Nancer Ballard, Robin Hemley, and, in spirit, Judith Kitchen

 I’ll just say this to start with: the absence of Judith Kitchen gave this panel a palpable sense of loss. At the same time, she was overwhelmingly present in both spirit and influence, giving the event a rich sense of joy and celebration, as well.

The main question of the panel can be summed up as follows: What role can speculation play in a genre that purports to tell the truth? And the answers to this question, as you might expect, were many and various.

Nancer Ballard, a writer who meanders effortlessly between literary, educational, and scientific realms, discussed many ways that speculation can be used to enrich creative nonfiction and gave examples of authors who use it well. She argued that speculation can, for instance, fill in for imperfect memory, and as an example she offered James Baldwin’s Notes of a Native Son’s speculative descriptions of a father the writer barely knew. Speculation can also be used, she said, “to enrich sensory detail that is unknown or not remembered,” as in the case of Maxine Hong Kingston’s China Men, or “to enhance the intimacy between the author/narrator and the reader,” as happens in Virginia Woolf’s Sketch of the Past. Altogether, Ballard delineated 21 ways that speculation can be used in nonfiction, demonstrating that it’s not only possible, but essentially inevitable, to speculate in fact-based writing.

Sean Prentiss – who edited, with Joe Wilkins, The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre: An Anthology of Explorations in Creative Nonfiction (Michigan State UP, 2014) – read Kitchen’s essay, “Gone A-Sailing: A Voyage to the Edge of Nonfiction (In Which I Follow My Own Exercise for Writing About a Photograph),” which appears in the anthology. Kitchen’s essay takes as a starting point a list of seven writing prompts – all of them dealing with a photograph. Here’s the first prompt, for example: “Begin with a photograph – one that has some personal meaning: maybe a photo of your mother before she was married; an odd snapshot from the box on the shelf, someone vaguely familiar, but who?” The prompts progress through an ever-deepening interrogation of the photograph, its subject matter, its physical existence, and its context. Ultimately, they culminate in the creation of a narratorial voice: “By directing your attention to the object itself,” her prompt says, “you have emerged as a narrating sensibility. By speculating, crossing that intricate divide between fiction and nonfiction, you have found those thousand words that might be worth a photograph.” In her essay, Kitchen takes on the challenge of these prompts with a photo of her mother, and the resulting essay is at once moving and instructive. Speculation and truth, she shows, are bound indelibly – and sometimes heartbreakingly – together.

Finally, Robin Hemley tackled issues surrounding speculation with a discussion of a piece he’s writing about a scrapbook he bought at an estate sale. He learned it had belonged to Mary Wilson Hilliard, born in 1919 – on, coincidentally, the same day as Hemley – and it represented the years from 1940 to 1946. “A scrapbook is a quote from memory,” said Hemley, and this one was filled with ephemera: stockings, newspaper clippings, playbills, a button from a military uniform, a voter registration card, a birth certificate, a menu from a New Orleans restaurant. Hemley described the project of recreating the story of these objects, and of Hilliard’s life, as one akin to archaeology. “Do I want to reconstruct her life?” he asked. “In part, yes. But I’m just as interested in the artifactness of the scrapbook.”

The panel generated a lively discussion about point of view, how to effectively use signal phrases, and the hybridization of fact and fiction. Ultimately, it raised more questions than it answered, but that proved fitting for what was, after all, an investigation of guesswork, inventiveness, and imagination.

Vivian Wagner lives in New Concord, Ohio, where she teaches English at Muskingum University. Her work has appeared in the Kenyon Review Online, The Pinch, Zone 3, Silk Road Review, McSweeney’s, and other journals, and she’s the author of Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music.


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