AWP2019: The Landscape of Memory: Writing Places That Don’t Exist

Panel Participants: Kelly McMasters, Miranda Weiss, Emily Arneson Casey, Jericho Parms

AWP19ThumbnailDescription: While setting is often seen as the purview of fiction writers, place has become its own sub-genre in the creative nonfiction community. Whether tracking breaking stories in situ or casting generations into the past, the writer’s job is often to create the landscape of memory out of the ether. How, aside from Proust’s madeleine, can we gain access to places to which we no longer have access, and landscapes that are essentially make-believe? How do writers render a remembered landscape real?

“For a few years, my life was perfect,” moderator Kelly McMasters told the audience, describing the farmhouse on ten acres in northeast Pennsylvania where she once lived and wrote. Her husband made art in the converted dairy barn. They ran a small bookstore in town. She planned to raise her babies cocooned in that idyllic place. And yet, she said, “the marriage fell apart, the bookshop closed, the house sold.” Now, when she tries to conjure that era from the vantage point of her suburban Long Island life of “full time university work, Target runs and elementary school obligations,” she wonders, “Did it ever really exist?” Co-editor of the essay collection This is the Place: Women Writing about Home, McMasters invites the panelists to weigh in. “What is memory but imagination? How do we build place on the page, and why are we compelled to do it?”

Miranda Weiss spoke about Alaska, the landscape that imbues her work. After attending a reading of Arctic Dreams in the late nineties, Weiss asked author Barry Lopez if he had any advice to offer her regarding her imminent move north.

“Pay attention,” he said.

Weiss heeded his advice. When she settled in Homer, a fishing town on the edge of Kachemak Bay, she paid attention to “how the tides cut the day into quarters” and how the Dunlin, Black-bellied Plovers, Western Sandpipers and tourists migrated through. Weiss recalled how when she left to pursue her MFA in New York, she got stuck while writing an essay about Homer. Her professor said, “maybe you haven’t forgotten enough”. Weiss agrees, must “forget quite a bit and ignore quite a bit to figure out what the story is about”. Weiss read an excerpt from her gorgeous essay Cold Comfort, which appears in This is the Place: Women Writing about Home. In it, she imparts her deep love for her visiting mother and the Alaskan landscape she cannot leave to live closer to her.

Next, Emily Arneson Casey described how her move to Vermont created deep nostalgia for her childhood woods of Northern Minnesota. Casey sees the imaginary “as its own landscape and parallel universe”. She talked about how the imagined narrative comes into play in her essay, Woodland Bound which appears both in Windmill Magazine and her forthcoming book, Made Holy: Essays. “As creative nonfiction writers…there is a lot of attention to what is true and what is real…yet, there are times I’m drawn to imagining. I think of it as playing…as a dimension in landscape.” Casey read an excerpt from Woodland Bound. In it, she is running in the forest and imagines taking flight from the mundane things of our lives and embracing an extraordinary reconnection to nature. “All you need to do is write I imagine, and see where it takes you,” she suggests.

For Jericho Parms, art serves “as her trees and horizons”, providing “a surface to lean on and return to.” From there, “the essay can roam, wonder, imagine and speculate.” The act of profound observation becomes a portal through which memory and emotional experience can be accessed. Parms read from her lovely essay A Theory of Substance which appears in Windmill Magazine and her collection of essays, Lost Wax.

McMasters noted that all three writers talked about juxtaposition. Parms added that the use of external information can further threads of personal experience. “Be willing to follow crumbs,” she said.

Madeleine crumbs, that is.

Anna Ilyin McClain is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts, at work on a memoir about her Russian American emigre father and his Cold War experience. @annaimcclain

Visit Assay’s Spring 2019 issue for more!

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