AWP2015: Stranger than Fiction: Personal Essay in the Age of the Internet

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMStranger than Fiction: Personal Essay in the Age of the Internet. (Ben Tanzer, Megan Stielstra, Jamie Iredell, Wendy Ortiz, Anna March) What does it mean to write a personal essay in the age of the internet? And how do we decide what is truth when we as writers are expected to tangle with the pressure to create public personas? The personal essayists on this panel will discuss how they maneuver through these challenges–building brand, navigating social media, defining creative nonfiction, and yes, finding the truth in our writing, when the truth is filtered through the endless platforms that comprise our lives today.

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The theme running through the panel “Stranger than Fiction: Personal Essay in the Age of the Internet” was that the internet has changed the game, especially for essay writers. Several of the panels ruminated on this theme during the presentation and expressed different ways the internet has created greater opportunities for essay writers.

Megan Stielstra (Once I Was Cool) started by describing reading Richard Wright’s Black Boy when she was young and how that experience helped her realize how “close” writers can get to readers. She explaining how she developed that closeness first through oral storytelling while working behind a bar: “I wrote them to tell out loud – mostly to people in bars, to deliciously inebriated people.” She described always striving to connect with an audience and, as the popularity of the internet grew, she found a new medium to develop this closeness between writer and reader. “The internet is people,” she said, and the internet has allowed her to truly get closer to people.

Jamie Iredell (I Was a Fat Drunk Catholic School Insomniac) focused on how the internet has allowed him to create “a persona that jumps off the page.” He used the example of writing about drinking from ashtray beers at parties to describe how writing on the internet allowed him to create a mythology around his persona while also telling the truth. The internet allowed Iredell to meet friends, find readers, and build a community.

For Anna March, the internet was a place to be curious about herself and allowed her more space to explore her ideas. She started by describing selling her first essay to Salon, in the early days of online essay writing, for $1,500. She sold her second essay to Salon for $600 and now sells pieces to Salon for $150, which shows how writing on the internet has grown. Even though March has published everything online, she stresses that where her work is published is not important: “It’s important to think about what we’re doing on the page and not where it appear.”

Wendy C. Ortiz (Excavation) discussed posting a comment on another piece, which got the attention of a publisher, resulting in her sending the publisher her manuscript. She also used social media to promote her first book: “I have a lot of fun on social medial. I’m conscious about the information I put out there.”

Ben Tanzer (Lost in Space) started by describing growing up in a household without a lot of rules and his rebellion was to create rules, which has carried over into his writing. He described being very rigid with his writing and how he is constantly toggling between what he’s embarrassed about and what he is comfortable publishing, using the example of writing about his son’s penis to illustrate his point.

The panel ended with questions from the audience, where one audience member asked if panelists were concerned about safety when posting online. March answered by saying that she doesn’t hold back when writing online: “I don’t want to live in fear.” Stielstra added her own story about people showing up at the UPS address with their own submissions and saying that more people need to have the courage to stand up for their ideas: “Whatever I put out there, people will comment on it. So, I’m going to put out shit that matters.”

Bronson Lemer is the author of The Last Deployment: How a Gay, Hammer-Swinging Twentysomething Survived a Year in Iraq. His work has appeared in Blue Earth Review, The Reykjavik Grapevine, & Twentysomething Essays by Twentysomething Writers. He lives in St. Paul.

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