Assay@NFN15: Weird Places and Particular Spaces

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Bill Carter, Tim Flannery, and Annette McGivney, with Jane Armstrong moderating

Panel description: Our panel will demonstrate the nonfiction narrative’s unique ability to provide an intellectual and imaginative space in which the author can describe, explore, analyze, contemplate, interrogate and speculate upon his or her relationship to specific places. Our panelists, all of whom have journeyed widely to places real and imagined, close to home or distant and dangerous, employ the nonfiction narrative as a mode of transportation to carry readers far afield to foreign lands or ever deeper into the richly contoured landscape of the individual writer’s mind, showing, ultimately, the dynamic and recursive relationship between self and place as the writer builds an environment on the page while the environment simultaneously shapes the writer.

The conversation began with Jane Armstrong riffing on the panel description, noting the humor of a self-described “shut in and hermit” moderating a panel of wilderness obsessives. She went on to expand the definition of the wilds to include one’s own backyard, explaining how defamiliarization was the nonfictionist’s technique for making strange even the most familiar of places. “All writing is place-based writing,” she said, because we can’t extricate ourselves from our biography. Defamiliarization asks us to imagine that we can. Jane gave a brief lecture on the X and Y axes of nonfiction, where X is the external world and Y is the internal self—one could plot any essay or book on this graph. The other axis governing nonfiction: timespan, which could range from brief to geologic. Jane expressed an interest in liminal spaces where time moves oddly. Her example? The airport. “Every flight is a continuation of every other flight.” She then read a brief essay that explored how place could warp time, using a childhood memory of the first time she flew on a plane to meditate on the loss of her mother: Loss warps time just as flight does. The flight perpetually delayed mirrored the narrator’s desire to endlessly defer her mother’s death.

Annette McGivney took a different tack, describing how she used the wilderness as a space to contemplate how humans work. Her research focused on wild places that have returned from the brink of destruction at the hands of humans, wild places that were “all-consuming and clearly in charge.” She discussed the difficulty of writing about wilderness as the task of narrating the act of “living in the moment; of capturing a process of unfolding.” She read a chapter from a book set in Twilight Canyon wherein the narrator hikes with an inexperienced friend and they nearly run out of water before stumbling on an oasis made all the more lovely by their brush with mortality. “Go in without a safety net,” she said, and the piece revealed how life is often like hiking in inhospitable terrain: the Canyon just makes this truth obvious and visible. “I know how to find my way in the wilderness,” Annette wrote, but “not in the so-called civilized world.” The wilderness can be healing, she said, especially from the trauma of an abusive childhood.

Bill Carter began by reading an excerpt from his book, in which he has a dream that he’s drowned in a fishing net. His work is interested in places where “no one belongs; where nature is violent without apology. Where no one drinks green tea and reads self-help books.” He talked about travel as a good way to jumpstart writing. “Books are about doing things. So keep involved in things.” Of his first book, on the Bosnian War, he said “it was a beautiful place during a horrific time.” He felt that hard labor had always been a cure for him (much as Annette talked about the wilderness as healing). “Exhaustion was healing after the brutality of war.” He was especially focused on honesty in nonfiction: “There are so many ways to disguise human emotion,” Bill said. “I try to cut through all that.”

Tim Flannery talked about attempting to write place through the lens of geologic time, to tell “history in deep time.” He claimed that “you can’t understand a place until you can think expansively about time,” and went on to offer dozens of beautifully wrought examples. One particularly lovely one involved the salt flats in Australia. Digging beneath the surface to excavate bones, Tim noticed the distinct smell of rainforest, a “humus” smell, moist and completely at odds with the arid landscape until he recalled that the salt basin in which he stood was once a lake some 30 million years prior. He pointed out how seeing the familiar (in this case, a smell rather than a sight: the scent of hums) when you are far away makes you see it differently. “The world is inexplicable without time,” was how he ended his talk.

The Q&A was brief: Jane asked how distance (in terms of time, but also space) from one’s subject helped (or hurt) one’s nonfiction writing. How far must you be from an experience (in terms of the axis of distance versus proximity) before you can write about it? Tim suggested focusing on longing: he tries to figure out why he longs for a given place, and why he longs to write about it. This is his way in to the work: understanding why and how a place affected him.

Another question asked about the use of metaphor to describe a place, and the panelists all felt that finding the right metaphor (Annette’s piece imagined the Grand Canyon as a woman, for example) was key—the right metaphor “helps me conceptualize what I want to do,” said Annette. Bill noted that the right metaphor wasn’t clever and instead “honored the place” it described. Tim ended the panel by answering a question posed by Brian Doyle about nature and culture, and how we’re used to viewing human consciousness as being embedded in culture rather than nature. Tim pointed to a book by Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth) on aboriginal land management as an example that complicated this dichotomy.


Brooke Wonders is an Assistant Professor at the University of Northern Iowa. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Collagist, Diagram, and Brevity, among others, and she has reviewed for American Book Review, Essay Daily, and Entropy Magazine. She is about to step down as Nonfiction Editor at The Account: A Journal of Poetry, Prose, and Thought. She will soon join the North American Review as Nonfiction Editor.

One comment

  1. Thank you, Brooke, for attending the panel and making me sound much smarter than I was.

    All of us at NAU are so proud of you and your impressive accomplishments. Best of success with your new positions at Northern Iowa and North American Review. They are fortunate to have you!



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