AWP2019: How to Talk About Yourself in Nonfiction

Panel Participants: Philip Lopate, Ana Maria Spagna, Yi Shun Lai, Michael Steinberg, Martha Nichols (moderator)

AWP19ThumbnailDescription: What makes a first-person voice engaging? Conveying yourself in personal essays and memoir is surprisingly hard. The rise of digital journalism has pushed nonfiction writers to be relatable, but many still reveal too little about themselves. Others disclose too much. Great first-person voices, in contrast, strike a balance between personal disclosure and factual context. In a lively conversational format, this panel of essayists and journalists explores the challenge of taking yourself public.


Moderator Martha Nichols opened the discussion by describing how the panel came together. The idea originated from an anecdote in Lopate’s book, To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction, in which one of Lopate’s students insisted she should narrate her memoir as events unfolded when she was young without letting people know up front that she had multiple-personality disorder. Lopate challenged this student: “I cannot wait until page two hundred for the intelligent narrator to arrive. The intelligent narrator must be present from page one onward!”

From this concept of the intelligent narrator bloomed the panel’s driving question: What makes a first-person voice engaging?

“I connect an engaging ‘I’ voice to self-reporting,” said Nichols, calling on her journalism teaching background. “A self-reporter questions her own experiences and biases. She relies on more than memory to verify facts and maintains the right narrative distance.”

Founding editor of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorarions in Nonfiction, Michael Steinberg invoked the late Judith Kitchen. Inspired by her essay “The End,” Steinberg offered the following list of “Strategies for Inner Narrative,” strategies for how a first-person voice can narrate the way we think:

  1. Reflection: thinking things out, searching for meaning
  2. Speculation: playing “what if”
  3. Self-interrogation: asking the hard questions about yourself, the ones you don’t always want to know the answers to
  4. Projection: the unconscious ascription of a feeling, thought, or impulse to someone else
  5. Digression: allowing the mind to wander away from the subject (some of the richest discoveries come from digressions)
  6. Confession: not for the sake of itself, but to serve the larger narrative

Inspired by the book Difficult Conversations: How to Discuss What Matters Most, Yi Shun Lai responded with a list of conversations that creative nonfiction writers should have with themselves: First, she said, is the “What happened conversation,” followed by the “How did what happened make me feel conversation,” and finally, “The identity conversation: How did what happened and how it makes me feel challenge or change or confirm who I am?”

Citing work in the journal she co-edits, Tahoma Literary Review, Lai also encouraged writers to look outside themselves, “to find a deep connection to the location you’re talking about.”

Winging it with characteristic humor, Phillip Lopate emphasized steps to building a writer’s trustworthiness on the page. “One of the ways to convey intelligence on the page is by quoting or referring to other works of literature,” he said. “Not just bringing in popular culture references, but to bring in the full intelligence that you’re capable of.”

Ana Maria Spagna focused on speculation in her response to what makes a first-person voice engaging. She said that reflection is what drives her to read essays and to write them, but that nonfiction writers need to convey more than curiosity on the page. Stretch even further, she said, “into the realm of maybe, if, wishes, and well-earned speculation in order to connect with the world around [you].” Spagna distinguished between “making stuff up” speculation and transparent speculation, “the kind where you cue the reader, where you are clear about wondering what if.” She cited works by Jill Christman, Angela Morales, Mireya Vela, Adriana Paramo, and Alex Marzano-Lesnevich as examples. To close, she read a passage from the late Brian Doyle’s speculative essay, “Imagining Foxes,” the final line of which is, “What kind of world is that, where kids don’t imagine foxes?”

The panel progressed into a Q&A from audience members, first responding to a request for advice to young writers starting out in creative nonfiction and personal essays. Panelists agreed that a writer’s viewpoint has value, whatever the writer’s age. The key is to write with keen insight and honesty. “Accept that to be a writer, you have to be an intellectual. And you can be an intellectual at 18, or 15. It’s an attitude, a perspective,” said Lopate. Nichols added that it’s not so much about chronology. It’s more about “learning that it’s OK to be self-aware, and it’s OK to expose yourself in that way on the page.”

Regarding the difference between self-reflection and self-absorption, the panelists noted that the remedy for being “sick of the I,” is to gain a perspective away from yourself. Learn to like the persona you present on the page. Using a basketball analogy, and why not, as March Madness was in full swing, Spagna said: “Use the world you live in as a backboard. Write about yourself in relation to the world that you live in.”

In discussing how to get students to write about their lives in different ways, Lai suggested asking students to craft from a third person point of view. She also quipped about how her 82-year-old father started the first draft of his autobiography with, “Five thousand years ago in China …”. She then explained that the Eastern way of thinking is that there is no I without the greater cultural backdrop. “So,” she said, “there is no ‘my dad’ without the ‘five thousand years ago in China.’”

Regarding how to get the reader to see themselves in your I voice and story, Lopate invoked Montaigne: “Every man bears the whole stamp of the human condition.” He added, “You have to proceed with some faith that your story is going to have relevance to other people’s stories. However particular or eccentric it is, that may make it even more relevant because then they will feel less alone in their own eccentricities.”

Toward the end of the Q&A session, Nichols noted that an overarching theme had emerged.  “It’s the quality of thought and feeling [conveyed by the writer]. That’s what you’re getting across,” she said. She closed the panel with a relevant quote from Joan Didion’s essay, “In the Islands”: “I tell you this not as aimless revelation but because I want you to know, as you read me, precisely who I am and where I am and what is on my mind.”


Ann Beman is a co-publisher and the nonfiction editor of Tahoma Literary Review and currently chairs the executive board of directors for Red Hen Press. She has been writing a book about thumbs forever. Or at least since she earned her MFA from the dear, departed Whidbey Writers Workshop. Her work has appeared in DIAGRAM, The Literary Review, Bombay Gin, The Mojave Review, and Canoe Journal, among others. She lives in California’s Sierra Nevada with two whatchamaterriers, a chihuahua, and her husband in Kernville, on the Kern River, in Kern County. Cue the banjos.


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