#AWP17 Conference Report—Teri McDowell Ott on “Following the Thread of Thought”

awp#AWP 17 Panel F248. Following the Thread of Thought.

Description: How do writers follow the thread of a thought through the maze of events in an essay or memoir? What is the art of reflection? Writers of nonfiction may have more latitude than poets or fiction writers to tell as well as show in their work, but the challenge is to keep these ruminations from becoming dull, simplistic, or moralistic. Panelists examine the way writers keep ideas lively and offer techniques for effectively weaving the thread of thought into the fabric of nonfiction.

Panelists: Steven HarveyPhillip LopateAna Maria SpagnaSarah Einstein

Conference Report:

The young grad student seated behind me giggled when Phillip Lopate strolled into a crowded Salon N a minute before the panel was to begin. “I gave him a hug when I saw him earlier!” she squealed excitedly to her friends, clearly enamored with Lopate’s persona. But, seriously, who couldn’t love this man? Dressed in a tweed blazer with wood buttons, a white collared shirt and brown tie to match, he was the wise anchor on a panel of talented essayists who all paid their respects by quoting from his book, To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. When Lopate rose to speak from the notes he had jotted down in a small, red Moleskin, his message was one of encouragement. “Essays are doing well in the marketplace,” he told us. “Reflective essays are uniquely suited and needed in this moment of confusion, chaos and false certainty, a moment when truth itself is seen as only a possibility, a moment of ‘alternative facts.’”

Sarah Einstein expanded on the ways the reflective essay could serve us well in this polarized time. She began by confessing how, as a young person deeply involved in political movements, she used to speak and write in a way that was more about asserting “power over” the other. Now she has grown to more effectively leave gaps in what she wants to say, leaving room to listen before responding. She describes this process as “fragmentation”—or giving the reader space within the essay to do the work of meaning making in concert with the author. This is not to say the author isn’t guiding the meaning making. But Einstein wants the reader to do the work of following along with her. She offered Jo Ann Beard’s essay “The Fourth State of Matter” as an example. Typically, Einstein offered, she would read this essay about the 1991 shooting at the University of Iowa and jump quickly into the debate on gun control. But because Beard crafts the essay through different stories or fragments describing loss (the loss of her dog, the loss of her husband, the loss of control over her house) Einstein was guided to feel the loss of Beard’s colleagues when they were tragically shot.

From a teacher’s perspective, Ana Maria Spagna, shared her students’ repeated question of “But how?” when trying to think on the page. A common problem in her students’ writing was that their reflections were not moving, they were not going anywhere or showing any growth in their thought. Reflective essays are like a knot, Spagna suggested, you have to untangle the knot of your thought and then stretch it out as you write the essay.

Steven Harvey structured his comments around three techniques to deepen or move your reflections forward: disambiguation, ambiguation, and amplification. Disambiguation is the via negativa, or the path of exploring your subject by revealing what it is not. To illustrate, Harvey shared an excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me where Coates explores what being black means by revealing what it is not. Disambiguation is the gift of “No” that leads you to more revealing. Ambiguation, Harvey continued, is the process of taking an idea away from certainty towards complexity and contradiction, oftentimes by applying it to an experience. “Experience is never just one thing,” Harvey said. “It is always far more complicated than any thought we have. Adding experience to an essay, then, disrupts our thought, complicates and deepens it.” Finally, amplification is what Harvey described as the “and yetting” of an idea. Take an idea and then add “and yet.” What I just said is true, and yet what I say next is true too. Following this thread of “and yet” encourages the writer to deeper and more honest reflection.

Lopate concluded the panel by naming what we writers need most in order to write reflectively: courage. It is fear that obstructs us, Lopate said, particularly fear of endlessness and fear of banality. How will I get out of this essay once I start? What if I have nothing interesting or original to say? To overcome the threat of endlessness, Lopate suggested embedding nodes of tension in your essay, or knots (as Spagna offered) that have to be untied. As for banality, Lopate kindly reminded us that thinking on the page is not about big ideas, but about the push-pull of thoughts and insights that come along the way. “So,” Lopate concluded with a smile, “all I’m going to say is just go for it.”

Teri McDowell Ott has written essays for Hippocampus, Mamalode and The Christian Century and she blogs at www.terimcdowellott.com. She is a Presbyterian pastor serving as the chaplain of Monmouth College. Teri, her husband, Dan, their two tow-headed children and their skittish German Shepherd live in the middle of a corn field in Western Illinois.



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