NFN18: “Hauntings in Nonfiction”

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Panelists: Philip Graham, Kate McCahill, Michele Morano, Audrey Petty, & Mimi Schwartz

Graham opened the panel with a reading of his essay “I Believe in Ghosts.” “Every person’s life story contains within it a series of hauntings. Sometimes it can take years to realize how deeply we are affected.” Graham discussed people and places that have haunted him, but also takes a moment to remind the audience to consider the people whom we have haunted. “I realize how easily a mentor can haunt a student.”

Morano read from an essay where she considers people and events that continually visit and revisit memories and “how the past infuses the present, the way an embarrassing moment from 10th grade returns when I’m walking the aisles at the grocery store.” She considers the question of Montaigne—what do I know—and asks instead, “when do I know, or rather, what is the when that I know?” She concluded with the idea that “story telling is the closest thing we have right now to time travel”

McCahill recounted two books that had a profound impact on her understanding of hauntings: The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion and I, Rigoberta Menchu by Rigoberta Menchu. “All writers are haunted,” she explained as she described the story of her deceased grandmother as a companion during her travels while writing her own book, Patagonia Road. “I felt a visceral sense that she was with me.”

Petty discussed her time as a writing teacher at Statesville Prison. These experiences still haunt her, especially as she navigates the world in which she is able to leave the prison and her students must stay, some for life sentences. She encouraged writing “excavation” exercises by having students write about personal objects. For one exercise, she shared “Biography of a Dress” by Jamaica Kincaid to help students write about their first piece of clothing they remembered. Another exercise for Halloween asked students to write about a time where they wore a mask or a costume, literally or figuratively.

Schwartz shared an excerpt from her book When Histories are Personal. She realized that as an adult, she “thought, read, and wrote about the Holocaust, but without putting myself in the Holocaust.” It was through writing that she realized she “avoided taking the train to summer camp, because who knew where those trains would go.” As a writer, she began to understand how both told and untold narratives shape us as individuals.

The authors offered some additional thoughts on how to write about these “hauntings”:

-If a memory seems odd, but we keep returning to it, it means she should try to write about it;

-Create (or return to) a daily writing ritual (McCahill recommended Morning Pages, which allowed her to write through her reoccurring dreams every morning);

-Write memories in the present tense, which helps us stay with the memory (Morano);

-Insist on staying in difficult moments and pay attention to the feelings of resistance (Petty); and

-Turn off the phone and internet! (McCahill)

All the writers agreed that it is essential to write through difficult memories. “You don’t have to share it,” Graham reminded the audience. But “you really do have to write about it, even if afterward, you just burn it or put it away in the drawer,” Schwartz agreed.


Stacy Murison is a contributing editor at Assay.


Visit Assay’s Fall 2018 issue for more!

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