AWP 2015: The Past is a Place: Former Minnesotans Remember

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMPanelists: Maria Damon, Barrie Jean Borich, Amitava Kumar, Cheryl Strayed

 Maria Damon, moderator, briefly introduced the panelists and explained that had been asked to return to Minnesota and write about a fraught place.  It was later revealed by the panelists that the work they had read was brand new – all of them had been writing late the night before and had had exchanged encouraging emails cheering each other on.  Even without knowing this, the work they read was astounding.

 Barrie Jean Borich said that she had lived here for thirty years and had been gone for only three.  She came of age here – “so everything is fraught!”  She then blew the lid off the room with a powerful piece about the lovers (with names like Daddy Bear and The Woman I Couldn’t Stop Fucking) she had had while living at a particular Minneapolis address.  Here she had had “the first glimpse of the woman I’ll marry but I won’t see her again until I move away form this address.”  Borich read about her desire to strip the windowsills in this apartment, and how it became a “Sisyphean task” but she just couldn’t stop.  In fact, “I just can’t stop” became a theme of the piece: she couldn’t stop fucking The Woman I Couldn’t Stop Fucking, she couldn’t stop windowsill stripping, and then she couldn’t stop shoplifting paint stripper with which to strip the windowsills.  When her current self began to reflect on her past experiences the visit became “a tribunal.”  But when she drove by the place where so many of these events had occurred it was “just an open space,” fenced in, “where anything could have come to pass.”

 The lid stayed blown off as Amitava Kumar read.  He began with the quote “Orgasms of twenty years ago leave no memory,” and then recounted some of his memories of his fraught Minnesotan places (and later flipped the quote to say that some orgasms of twenty years ago do indeed leave a memory).  His writing was in the third person, and quote-laden, both of which made it a pleasure to listen to but difficult to record for this post.   But one scene stood out, because it took place within the last few days at an AWP party.  A famous essayist walked by and a student said, “She writes the way Maggie Gyllenhaal acts – like she just [had sex].”  “Yes,” our hero sighed, “with a mix of exhaustion and elation.”

 When Cheryl Strayed stood up to read she admired the work already read and warned us, “Prepare to be underwhelmed.”  But we were not underwhelmed.  Strayed started by quoting a terrible email she had received in which the sender said brutally insulting things.  This inspired her to start a list of “things I will not do because I hate doing them.”  Among these things are canvassing, which she did years ago to raise money for the Sex and violence Center of Hennepin County.  A van would drop her in a particular neighborhood, and she would go door to door, asking for donations, trying to make her $110 a night quota.  One man said, “I am a perpetrator,” and stared at her until she backed away.  Another time a woman who had been a prostitute invited her in and gave her a glass of water and a check for $300.  One evening, Strayed had to use a bathroom desperately but no one was home at house after house and she was miles from any public facility.  Finally she crouched by a flowering shrub that offered no real cover and shit “like a raccoon.”  Just yesterday she took a cab to this same neighborhood and tried, unsuccessfully, to find the flowering shrub.  Then she added one more thing to her list of things-I-will-not-do-because-I-hate-doing-them: return.

 The audience then applauded for all three panelists for what felt like a very long – and completely deserved – time.

 Here are some memorable moments from the Q&A session:

  • Will Cheryl Strayed ever write anything mild?
  • How can we propel our writing from mild to wild?
  • Telling the truth is the most terrifying thing … but it’s also the most relevant and interesting thing.
  • The thing you’re afraid of writing is a gateway.
  •  Loneliness is more shameful than shoplifting.
  • The place was full of ghosts that no one could see but me.
  • I’m surprised at how often my memory was wrong – but some places invoked completely forgotten memories that were totally clear.
  • You get to the universal through the specific, and the specific is bound to the place.
  • I couldn’t see Minnesota until I left.
  • Go back to the places you’re writing about – but also leave them. 
  • “The one liberation about having a dead mother is that she belongs to you.”

 Cheryl Strayed answered a question with a story that bears recounting in full.  When she lived in northern Minnesota she learned to drive in a town with only one stoplight.  When she moved to Minneapolis she kept running red lights.  She wasn’t a bad driver – she just couldn’t see them and that made her think about where she was looking.  In the country you watch the road, but in the city you also have to look up.  One of the things that has influenced her writing was understanding that there are different ways of looking and different places to look.

 Finally, at the very end, I asked a selfish question: “Do you have any plans to publish this writing – separately or together?”  (I wanted to experience it all again, and on the page, where I’d be less likely to miss anything.)  They laughed a bit – because the work was so new.  But Strayed said that she was thinking about editing an anthology on shit – because everyone has a funny shitting story.  Borich said they could go in on an anthology about canvassing.  Kumar said they could have called their panel “Oh Crap,” and then thanked me for giving them the idea for their next panel.

 AWP 2016, you’re welcome.

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, The Millions, The Georgia Review, Shenandoah, The Rumpus, Brevity, Fourth Genre and elsewhere. She is a nonfiction reader for r.kv.r.y quarterly and Reviews Editor at PANK. You can read more of her work at


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