Hundreds of AWP-attendees streamed into Auditorium # 1 Friday afternoon to listen to four powerhouse women speak about innovations in recent creative nonfiction: Eula Biss, Leslie Jamison, Maggie Nelson, and Claudia Rankine were joined by Graywolf publisher Fiona McCrae to talk about their respective newly published books and the success surrounding them.
McCrae moderated questions for the panelists, first asking how the writers saw each of their books relating to one another. Biss, author of On Immunity: An Inoculation, stated that what she enjoyed about each of her panelists’ respective books was a common theme—“the body being claimed as an intellectual space.” Rankine, who has just been named AWP ‘16’s keynote speaker and is the voice behind Citizen, stated that “each book negotiates what it feels like to be overwhelmed” by the swarm of information we encounter every day.
Sitting in the audience at this panel was also overwhelming, beyond just sitting in the presence of four incredibly talented individuals: before the previous session had even ended, groups of people practically banged down the door to get into the auditorium. AWP-ers of every age, background, and genre crowded into the room, sat on the floor in front of the panel, and took over every inch of spare space from doorways to staircases in order to listen to Graywolf’s star writers speak on their new books.
After a few thematic and structural comparisons between the manuscripts, and a lot of shuffling around on the part of audience members trying to find floor space or doorway-space to occupy, the panel quickly moved towards a discussion of craft. In regards to writing her collection of essays, The Empathy Exams, Jamison offered, “the only way to access truth was to treat the boundary [between mind and body] as porous.” Nelson, author of the memoir The Argonauts added that nonfiction writers must “offer up [their] body as a guinea pig to talk about culture.”
In terms of structuring her investigative memoir, Biss said “these thirty chapters can’t merge because they’re bodies and they have their own edges, though their related.” Like the physical bodies humans occupy, Biss seems to be saying, the chapters in her book are both dependent and independent—both related and separate. Jamison added that “formal structure is the way [into a manuscript], but the piece comes alive where form fails” and the author “admits that failure.”
On writing lyric essay in particular, Rankine stated that the point is “to get a something that has everything and nothing to do with [the author].” Biss also added that, in constructing her research-based memoir, she drew on whatever source or source material that intrigued her: “haven’t I lived history, doesn’t history live in me?” she questioned aloud. “All this historical material feels personal to me.”
And on having a first-person authorial presence in research-based nonfiction? Jamison said, “I showed up [in the book] because I was there.” It’s as simple as that. Adding onto this observation, Biss stated “you’re supposed to triangulate yourself [in the text] so your audience knows what lens you’re looking through.” In this way, Biss seems to be arguing, first-person narratives are more objective because they own up to their biases.
So is there a conclusion to be drawn from this panel? Well, one thing is clear: women are killing it when it comes to creative nonfiction, and in a time where CNF still isn’t even being universally taught at the college-level, it was fantastic to see nonfiction draw such a huge crowd. As Rankine said during the Q&A, writing nonfiction is seeing “Our selves behind our selves concealed”—and there’s nothing more authentic than revealing those selves on the page.
Kathryn Waring is an essayist living in the Rochester, NY area. Her work is forthcoming from Gandy Dancer and she can be found on Twitter.