#AWP17 Conference Report — Penny Guisinger on “But That’s Not How It Was: Memoir Writers on Pushing Back Against Expected Narratives”

awp#AWP17 Panel R156: But That’s Not How It Was: Memoir Writers on Pushing Back Against Expected Narratives

Description: When we’re writing about hot button topics such as sexual assault, domestic abuse, and poverty, there are often expectations about how the story should go. These common archetypes can be deeply held not just by general readers and publishing’s gatekeepers, but also by our inner selves. The writers on this panel share strategies for sorting out how society thinks we ought to have responded to trauma from how we actually did, and when and how to resist the pressure to conform to an expected line.

Panelists: Zoe Zolbrod, Lynn Hall, Alice Anderson, Laurie Cannady, and Wendy Ortiz

Conference Report

Wouldn’t it be nice if our lives followed some Hollywood-esque formula? If life’s events lined up in a chronological order that made a clean narrative arc; if it was clear who the good guys are and the bad; if people engaged in consistent and predictable behaviors; if we knew enough not to open that basement door and shakily descend into the darkness below? Wouldn’t that be especially nice for us memoir writers? Not only would the writing be easier, but marketing plans would practically implement themselves, and we would all retire early after selling the movie rights.

This is a nice fantasy, but it’s not what happens. It’s not how life happens. And it’s not how great memoir happens either.

The five panelists participating in But That’s Now How It Was at AWP 2017 shared stories of living, writing, and publishing stories that stubbornly did not follow the formula. Zoe Zolbrod, Lynn Hall, Alice Anderson, Laurie Cannady, and Wendy Ortiz each authored memoirs that captured their lived realities, which are more complicated (and harder to sell) than other, more predictable plot tropes. Panelists shared stories of being people first, writers second, and marketable commodities third, all in the face of pressure to prioritize differently.

Each author’s experiences in the writing and publishing of their book was different, yet also alarmingly the same. Zolbrod’s book, The Telling, tells the story of being the victim of child sexual abuse. She was asked (or told) to recast it as more of a recovery book to make the marketing easier. She resisted pressure to depict this part of her life as a “Gothic horror story” because “life is more nuanced than that.”

Anderson’s book, Some Bright Morning, I’ll Fly Away, about the “unraveling of a violent marriage in post-Katrina Louisiana,” similarly pushed back against publishing categories. She thinks of her book as a love story; one that is funny, beautiful, and about a family. “The story was all of these things,” she said. She ended up turning down a potentially lucrative publishing contract in favor of one that allowed her to tell the story as she experienced it: with nuance and depth.

Laurie Cannady was admonished by a visiting lecturer in her MFA program for having a life that fit “every possible stereotype of a black girl growing up where you grew up.” Further, she was informed that her abuser’s choice to abuse both children and adults was something that just didn’t happen. “What I heard was that my story didn’t exist.” Her book, Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul, says otherwise.

Lynn Hall’s experience of publishing Caged Eyes: An Air Force Cadet’s Story of Rape and Resilience was similar. On the road to publication she was asked to leave out the fact that she was sexually abused as a child. “This is a story of repeat victimization,” said Hall. “The book has three perps. People didn’t like that.” She has also had interviewers chop up her sentences and put them together in ways that make it sound like she blames the Air Force Academy far more than she does. “Markets like good and evil.”

Wendy Ortiz found that choosing a small press was one way around these pressures. Her book, Excavation, is about childhood sexual abuse she experienced as a teenager. But her teen self, refusing to be a trope, thought she was having a love affair, and did not see herself as a victim. That’s the story Ortiz wanted to tell: one with complications and honesty. She did not use the words victim or perpetrator, and larger publishing houses had a hard time with the idea that something we all know is terrible could be, in fact, not that kind of terrible. “I’m not supposed to be ambivalent about this,” said Ortiz. “But I treasure ambivalence.”

Because women’s experiences of violence have become politicized narratives, each of these writers had to navigate conversations with an entire industry that exists to make money first and art second. And while smaller presses can have more latitude, offering shelter, the messages also come from agents, workshop leaders, family members, friends, and the psyches of the writers themselves. Anderson talked very specifically about the internal pushback she created against her own story and the need to address it before she could even write the book.

There’s certainly no single way to get around the problem, but Cannady offered five very specific pieces of advice to anyone at any point in the journey who hears anything that sounds like, “You don’t get to have that story” from any other person. Ready?

  1. Fuck ‘em. (This was especially appreciated by the audience, and truly – in the heart of this Assay guest blogger – set an important standard for dropping of the F-bomb at this year’s AWP.)
  2. Write beneath the stereotypes. Go beyond what’s “expected.”
  3. Write in a way that attacks those stereotypes if they appear in your story.
  4. (Also received a lot of nodding and knowing noises of agreement from those present.)
  5. Let go of shame. Shut out the voices telling you not to share. Accept questions, but don’t accept berating. (She gave the audience permission to resort to use of mace or hand-to-hand combat, as necessary. We all fucking wrote that down.) (See?)

In her introductory remarks, Zolbrod posed questions that came up for her across the eight years in which she prepared for and wrote the book. They were questions that, it seemed, everyone on the panel had to face at some point during the process. There’s the struggle with the ugliness of associating oneself with one particular life event and its associated labels and connotations. There are questions about who might launch an attack as a result of the story being told. There’s the fear of being called a liar. Further, there’s fear of what happens if the story is not told. What if writers everywhere caved to the pressure and were either silenced or forced into those Hollywood-esque narratives? What if all our recorded stories actually followed that easy-to-follow narrative arc?

Maybe that’s not such a nice fantasy after all.

Suggested Reading List:

Every title by every one of these panelists. Every. Title.


Penny Guisinger is the author of Postcards from Here. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Guernica, the Brevity blog, Solstice Literary Magazine, and others. Pushcart nominated, a Maine Literary Award winner, and twice named a notable in Best American Essays, she is the Founding Artistic Director of Iota: Conference of Short Prose and an assistant editor at Brevity. Penny is a graduate of the Stonecoast MFA Program. 

#AWP17 Conference Report — Rachael Hanel on “Attempting the Impossible: Strategies for Writing Creative Biography”

awp#AWP17 Panel S280: Attempting the Impossible: Strategies for Writing Creative Biography

Panelists: Sarah Blake, Sarah Domet, Kelcey Parker Ervick, Kathleen Rooney, Anthony Michael Morena

Description: Traditional biographers aspire to get out of the way of their subjects in order to render objective portraits. These panelists take the opposite approach, emphasizing the impossibility of ever creating such a portrait and using this not as a failure but as an opportunity for imagination and interactivity. At this event they present examples, research and writing methods, and mixed media techniques for adapting history into literature, offering new modes of presenting the past and the people in it.

Conference Report

One piece of advice from David Shields helped Kelcey Parker Ervick re-envision a biography she was writing: The notes are the book.

When she came across that advice, Ervick was struggling with telling the story of Božena Němcová, a 19th century Czech writer of fairy tales. Ervick wanted to write about Němcová’s complicated relationships, but so much was unknown. After coming across advice from Shields, Ervick’s focus became clear. Instead of trying to write a more traditional chronological narrative, Ervick decided to look at her notes and realized she could use found texts, handmade images and postcards written by Ervick to Němcová to create the story. The result was The Bitter Life of Bozena Nemcova, published in 2016 by Rose Metal Press.

I attended the panel as someone who is writing a narrative nonfiction biography, but not all of the panelists write nonfiction. Blake is a poet, Domet is a novelist, Rooney is a novelist and nonfiction writer, and Ervick and Anthony Michael Morena use essay to bring characters to life. Still, I found value in all of their approaches to biography even if the end result was fiction.

Blake described her process of researching information on Kanye West to develop Mr. West (2015, Wesleyan Poetry Series). She became intrigued with West when she learned that his mother died around the same time that Blake’s grandfather died. Blake’s primary method of research on West was daily Google news alerts on the singer. Blake noticed parallels between her experiences and West’s, and she responded to those parallels in poetic form.

Kathleen Rooney took an ekphrastic approach to biography when writing about the Belgian artist René Magritte. She’s been a lifelong fan and translated his selected writings in a 2016 book (René Magritte: Selected Writings, University of Minnesota Press). Now, Rooney is telling the story of Magritte through his work, his wife, Georgette, and his dog, Lulu.

“From pictures, we learn how to see and how to be,” Rooney said.

Sarah Domet used the life of St. Agatha to inform her novel, The Guineveres (2016, Flatiron Books). She said her end goal was not simply to retell St. Agatha’s story, but to use her story to develop themes in her novel of the female body and desire. Often, the stories about the lives of saints were told in a way to highlight their goodness as Christian women and to serve as an example. In her novel, Domet offers more ambiguity regarding St. Agatha’s life. She wanted to create an internal portrait of St. Agatha, to get into her mind and speculate on what she was thinking.

“I wanted to wrangle the story from white male Christian biographers, to restore her to her full complexity and humanity,” Domet said.

Anthony Michael Morena also wrote about a saint of sorts, the “secular saint” Carl Sagan. The Voyager Record: A Transmission (2016, Rose Metal Press) is a mix of poetry, flash fiction and essay that tells the story of 1977 recording that was sent out into space to represent the whole of the human experience. Morena said he focused on the “extremely boring details” of Sagan’s life, for example, lunchtime at home with his wife. Most biographies of famous people leave out those mundane activities, even though it’s those details that people will identify with. Morena used Cosmos, a 13-part TV documentary about space produced by Sagan, for inspiration.

Morena and Ervick included themselves in the biographies they wrote. Morena folded his experiences as a New Yorker into Sagan’s experiences growing up in Brooklyn. Ervick found similarities between her life and Němcová’s and wanted to write to Němcová to highlight those parallels. For example, Němcová was not happily married and took many lovers. When Ervick first discovered Němcová, Ervick was in a failing marriage. As she continued to write and research, her marriage dissolved and she fell in love again.

She wanted to explore “the dialectical relationship between two lives and the new possibilities that emerge” from that, she said.

When an audience member asked the panelists how they decided to insert themselves into the narrative of others, Morena said we’re always writing about ourselves, even when it seems that we’re not.

“Even when we’re trying to be altruistic, we’re always drawing that line back to ourselves,” he said.


Rachael Hanel is an assistant professor of mass media at Minnesota State University, Mankato. She is the author of We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter (University of Minnesota Press, 2013).

#AWP17 Conference Report — Tara Betts on “The Written Orality of Hip Hop Lyricism”

awp#AWP17 Panel F134. The Written Orality of Hip Hop Lyricism

Description: From the early rap record liner notes to the annotation explosion of Genius.com, hip hop artists and audiences have always engaged the written as well as the oral textuality of rap lyrics. However, treating hip hop lyricism as written literature is a fraught proposition. Locating rap at the crossroads of written and oral traditions of African American culture, the panel evaluates rap as a written art that is symbiotically wedded to oral culture.

Panelists: Victorio Reyes, Derik Smith, Tara Betts, Jonah Mixon-Webster

Conference Report

Tracie Morris, former slam poet, author, performance and sound artist, professor and Coordinator for Performance + Performance Studies at Pratt opened the panel by drawing connections between her essay in An Exaltation of Forms (edited by Katherine Varnes and Annie Finch about 15 years ago) and the study of poetics and hip hop. Her opening comments made thoughtful insights about the papers by four panelists—three of them poets in their own rights, two of them Ph.D. candidates, and two of them professors, all of them deeply interested in hip hop. The clear through-line found in the panelists’ varied approaches would be that the voice serves as a vessel for poetry and embodies a number of texts that are subversive, rich, and full of historical contexts.

When Victorio Reyes Asili opens the panel, he discusses how hip hop not only has connections with the ancient oral legacies of global cultures, but that hip hop also has ties to the internet’s beginnings via the transcription of hip hop lyrics, so hip hop is not just performed, but also read. Asili particularly discusses how Regina Bradley notes the close timing of OHHLA being started in the early days of the internet and how the poetry of hip hop has been transmitted via technology:

“Think of all the word doc files, notepads, mp3s, and 8-track recordings, a nearly limitless ocean of compositions all sharing one thing in common; they are all composed in a related poetic verse. And these verses that we experience as listeners to a poetic, musical performance are also verses that we seek out as text, text that we read, share, and annotate. When we read these texts, we honor the lyrical skills of Hip Hop’s craftspeople. As the legendary Rakim put it: ‘I like to be read.’”

In making these connections to past oral traditions and the perpetuation of hip hop through technology, Asili sets the stage for Derik Smith to discuss the parallels between the presentation of hip hop artists with Black Arts Movement poets and preachers. He begins by mentioning “figures like Baraka, Gil Scott-Heron, The Last Poets, Ntozake Shange and Nikki Giovanni, who in the Black Arts era created populist poetics that was meant to help conjure a social and cultural revolution” but quickly references Kanye West and Notorious B.I.G. sampling Gil Scott-Heron and The Last Poets respectively. Rather than relying on the same underlying disdain of “porkchop preachers” and the Black church as a pacifying force, Smith articulates how hip hop artists find another approach in the work of preachers:

“Instead the poems needed to vibrate with the Dionysian power that was best exemplified in the oral artistry of the black preachers—and so, in their Oedipal battle against the patriarchs of the black church, BAM poets became versions of the preachers they sought to overthrow and replace.  They did this because they wanted to connect with the black folk classes who had for so long ignored the black artist-intellectuals who were wrapped up in the tar-baby of the Alabaster page. Listen to what Baraka wrote in 1970, “Simple faith, like church people say, that’s what we want—hard rock emotional faith in what we are doing. The same way your grandmama used to weep and wring her hands believing in Jeez-us, that deep deep connection with the purest energy, that is what the Nationalist must have” (Raise, Race 143). Realizing that it was the ritual and inspirational power of the church that galvanized the masses, these new intellectuals committed themselves to an ecstatic, liturgical and eminently oral poetics that emulated the art of the preachers in its moans, repetitions, elongated vowels, antiphonal cadences and additive oral formulas.”

This idea of how the poetry sounds impacts the narratives and how they are received. It also makes them easier to remember, so when Jonah Mixon-Webster discusses the power of ad-libs as a onomatopoeic device and a method to make side commentary or create rhythm. Mixon-Webster describes ad-libs as “Those glancing quips that peek through a moment of pause between a lyricist’s bars. The little phrases echoing from the background, the ones you find yourself waiting to chant along with,” and mentioned several examples, most notably Lil’ Jon known for “YEAH!” and “Okaaaaaayyyy!” However, the overarching idea of crafting memorable moments paired with concrete details and pleasurable sounds is more prominent in his talk:

“Now moving forward to what is also pleasurable about the adlib, we see that has much to do with its manipulation of the written and oral/aural textures of a phrase. Though as we’ve witnessed, many rappers may utilize similar lexicons, yet it remains that rappers are still able to use the affirmative in a way that can be felt and nuances.”

Tara Betts concluded the panel by beginning with an anecdote while writing and working in a coffee shop where she is listening to Nicki Minaj and Beyonce in October 2016. During the same time period when Nicki Minaj bowed down to Ms. Lauryn Hill as an act of deference. In doing so, Betts frames her essay with discussing how women’s voices in hip hop have been limited in some ways, but these two women found success that is not only empowering for young women, but also subversive in their rhyming bars and their sung vocals. Betts discussed how both women assumed different roles, and in the case of Minaj, different characters and personas. She then drew connections between their functions as emcees with Roland Barthes’ essay “The Grain of the Voice” and other Sound Studies scholar Adriana Caraveros’ essay “Multiple Voices.” In doing so, Betts explains how Barthes’ feminizing of the voice limits the capacities of women like Hill and Minaj who have expanded the possibilities for the female voice in hip hop. She mentions how Morgan Parker and Barbara Hamby have referenced Beyoncé and Lil’ Kim, so there is an emerging thread of women raising their voices in this genre’s craft.


Tara Betts is the author of “Break the Habit” and “Arc & Hue” as well as the chapbooks “7 x 7: kwansabas” and “THE GREATEST!: An Homage to Muhammad Ali.” Tara holds a Ph.D. from Binghamton University and a MFA from New England College. She currently teaches at University of Illinois-Chicago.

#AWP17 Conference Report — Marissa Landrigan on “Imagining the Essay”

awp#AWP17 Panel R169: Imagining the Essay

Description: Imagination, which might be defined as unfettered curiosity, a hunger for inner adventure, and a willingness to incarnate in the other, is at the heart of the essayist’s craft. On this panel, four essayists/teachers of the form (representing personal, lyric, narrative, and hybrid subgenres) discuss ways to imagine into one’s work by reconceiving structure and time, inviting contradictions and collisions, attending to the strangeness of fact, and moving aurally and physically with language.

Panelists: Rebecca McClanahan, Lauret Savoy, Lia Purpura, Ander Monson

Conference Report

I’ve always loved talking, thinking, and writing about the essay’s imaginative power, and the four writers serving on this panel are among my favorite practitioners of the form, so I was incredibly excited to attend this panel. Then, Ander Monson walked into the room wearing a Predator mask. I knew this was going to be good.


Rebecca McClanahan (the panel’s moderator, or, “liberator” as she said she prefers) began by declaring that, contrary to any perceived threat, “the imaginative essay is very much alive.” I certainly wouldn’t argue otherwise after leaving this panel, wherein each writer articulated and reflected on the vital, pulsing, wriggling nature of their work.

McClanahan focused on what she called the primary element of the essay: movement. She said that, in investigating what she admired about some of her favorite essays (citing Barbara Hurd’s “Moon Snail” as an example), she discovered the most of the shifts and turns in a good essay could be described using active verbs. The essayist may pivot, collide, zoom in or out, straddle expanses, and more. In a piece of writing not driven by plot, McClanahan said, “the rocky landscape and terrain of the mind” is more than enough to create movement. She encouraged us to welcome “ifs, ands, and buts” into our essays to create this kind of dance, and ended by saying that the most important question an essayist can ask herself is “at what point am I most divided?”

Next up was Lauret Savoy, who brought to the podium a stone and began: “I’d like to say a few words about ghosts and silence and race and the fugitive pieces of memory and history.” Savoy characterized her own work as uncovering the strata of history, told and untold, and spoke to the imaginative necessities that work often entails. She reminded us that, though we all know history is a privileged narrative, this means some stories have been intentionally eroded and obscured. The imaginative act, then, is to uncover and excavate and put the eroded world back into language.

It was during Savoy’s presentation that my sense of what this panel could be about began to shift. I came largely for craft ideas, and McClanahan’s discussion of movement was an excellent exercise I tried in my class the following week. But Savoy, and then Lia Purpura, reminded me of the larger world and the role the essayist can play in our culture.

Purpura began with a statement that underpinned most of the conference: “Well, everything’s changed, hasn’t it?” She continued by admitting to a recent struggle with the question of how and why we teach the imaginative essay in a cultural and political climate that seeks to decimate language and truth, and spent her time discussing some specific strategies she has found to guide her teaching since the U.S. presidential election. Namely, Purpura said she has been worked to make explicit a discussion of the values we uphold by writing creatively.

Living like a writer, Purpura reminded us, means resisting passive reception, and unchecked consumption; what, in the era of Trump, could be more important? But beyond simply knowing these values are a part of her class, Purpura discussed the idea of teaching specific practices that feed her students and develop their minds. She spoke, for example, of the practice of keeping a journal, not just for the purpose of strengthening one’s writing ability, but as a place to experience and explore shades of perception, to questions of oneself, to welcome doubt and uncertainty. Purpura also spoke of learning to work with art time — the slow, meandering progress of a mind creating — rather than urgent striving for simple production.

Overall, Purpura said, the values at the heart of imaginative behavior are the very things that make us human, and can therefore be a form of active resistance, a “place where the deepest roots of civically important values — empathy, curiosity, questioning — are planted.”

I scribbled like crazy during Purpura’s segment of the panel, grateful for the sense of significance she lent to our writing and teaching work. And even the panel’s closing speaker, trickster Ander Monson, walking to the podium with a mask on his head, continued to reiterate the importance of what we do.

Early in his presentation (after being forced to remove the mask so he could breathe and be heard), Monson spoke about the cinematic technique from the original 1987 Predator film wherein the camera periodically occupies the perspective of the Predator. This, he said, is the central technique of the essay: imagining ourselves into another’s perspective. He praised the “cognitive work it takes to imagine yourself inside another,” to see as another, to speak and tank a different way. And, ultimately, he reminded us that when we occupy these different imaginative spaces in an essay, we are really just exploring playing different versions of ourselves.

What could be more important, in a world that seeks to shun and silence any form of difference, than finding a way to maneuver ourselves into those silenced spaces? Of giving voice to the other and working to build empathic connections across divide?

I left feeling inspired and invigorated, to be sure, but also charged with a sense of responsibility, a reminder that the essay’s imaginative power — always valuable — may be a crucial element to preserving our humanity in these dark times.


Marissa Landrigan is the author of The Vegetarian’s Guide to Eating Meat (Greystone Books, April 2017), and her essays appear in numerous journals including Orion, Guernica, Creative Nonfiction, and elsewhere. She is currently an Assistant Professor of Writing at the University of Pittsburgh – Johnstown.

#AWP17 Conference Report — Katie Hatcher on “What Writers of Color Want White Editors To Know”

awp#AWP17 Panel S142: What Writers of Color Want White Editors To Know

Description: In 2017, what message does an all-white masthead send to writers of color? Beyond the content of their work, what issues must these writers contend with in publishing? Four writers of color and one white editor explore real and perceived tokenism, the pressure to change a story or voice to fit an editor’s racialized assumptions, the continued erasure of writers of color in the canon and awards systems, and the highs and lows of working with editors in the face of these and other challenges.

Panelists: Deesha Philyaw, Dennis Norris II, Patrice Gopo, Lisa Factora-Borchers, Jennifer Niesslein

Conference Report

In 2017, we’re all working together to become a more unified, supportive world. So when I saw that AWP was hosting a panel entitled “What Writers of Color Want White Editors To Know”, I knew it was something I needed to hear. The result was a candid, frank, and necessary discussion that gave some insight to this young, white aspiring editor as to how to cultivate not just diversity for diversity’s sake, but how to work to create an industry where the marginalized are made central and mastery of voice is paramount.

The panel was made up of four writers of color, one of whom is also an editor. These are people who know what they’re talking about, who have experiences that they draw from in dealing with the mostly-white world of publishing.

The panel was proposed and intended to be moderated by Jennifer Niesslein, editor of the web magazine Full Grown People, who unfortunately was unable to attend. The idea for the panel came out of Jennifer’s desire to better understand the needs of writers of color. She could see that writers of color are often tokenized and marginalized, and she wanted to amplify their voices. In Jennifer’s absence, one of the panelists, Deesha Philyaw, stepped up to moderate.

Deesha is a freelance writer; her book, Co-Parenting 101: Helping Your Kids Thrive in Two Households After Divorce, was co-authored with her ex-husband. She is a Kimbilio Fiction Fellow and contributes to The Rumpus. Her co-panelists were Patrice Gopo, whose work can be seen in The New York Times and The Washington Post, Dennis Norris II, whose fiction has been published in Smokelong Quarterly and Apogee Journal, and Lisa Factora-Borchers, a writer and editor of the anthology Dear Sister: Letters from Survivors of Sexual Assault and has written for Refinery 29, The Feminist Wire, and Bitch Media.

In light of the subject of the panel and subsequently this article, I feel I should also identify myself. I am a white woman in my mid-twenties. I was born and raised in Mississippi before moving to London to get an MA in Publishing. I now live in Pittsburgh and intern for the literary magazine Creative Nonfiction. I feel the need to explain my background in order to expose and acknowledge my own biases and privilege. It’s the reason I attended this panel: I am aware of my privilege and I want to understand ways in which I can use it to amplify the voices that aren’t always heard.

The panel opened with a question that white writers don’t often have to consider when submitting their work to a publisher: What message does an all-white masthead send to you?

Dennis was the first to answer. When he sees that a magazine, journal, or publishing house’s leadership is mostly or entirely white, he’s “going to take a long pause” and consider whether he wants to send his work there. He feels that it signals that there is less space for his work at these publications and doesn’t want to waste time and energy by sending his writing to them.

Patrice agreed. When she sees that the leadership for a publication is all white, or even that they’re just a list of unidentifiable names on the publication’s website, she feels it’s likely the submission won’t be successful and that she won’t have anyone on her side, especially in a large company.

Lisa has sat on both sides of the desk, as a writer and as an editor. When she is looking for somewhere to submit, she is “strategic and protective” of her work. “It’s a form of self-care and pride,” she said. Lisa asserts that the writer has to believe in their work and find an editor and publisher who believes in it too, so the writer knows they’re making every effort for them.

As an editor, Lisa understands that an all-white masthead does send a message, even if it’s unintentional. If a company doesn’t make it clear that part of their vision is promoting diversity and equality, then they are “missing out on complex writing” and their talent will be “watered down”.

Fortunately, there is a way to communicate to writers shopping for places to submit their work that your publication is on their team. On your website, you should be intentional in your mission to inclusion and equality. Craft your mission statement to reflect this. If you do have people of color on your leadership team but the page introducing your masthead is a list of names, include head shots next to everyone’s name and title. And, especially, highlight your writers of color and what they bring to your publication.

As one might imagine, the writers on the panel all had experiences to share in which race came to bear, and most of the anecdotes were not particularly positive. Each writer agreed that often they were called on to be the “black perspective” on a subject, or that their work was chosen to be published merely to fulfill a quota for diversity in a publisher’s list. But they also had positive experiences to share.

Patrice gave us three characteristics that are helpful for a white editor to have.

  1. A willingness to collaborate. She said that she has had authors push their perspectives on her work and attempt to change her writing to fit the narrative they want to portray. This is not helpful to the writer, nor is it helpful to the reader, who won’t be getting an honest representation if the editor has his or her way. Being willing to truly listen, collaborate, and provide a platform for the writer is imperative to being a good editor.
  2. A sense of humility. White editors should acknowledge their bias and the fact that they won’t always understand the perspective of the writer.
  3. Show that you value the work. Whether with monetary compensation (equal, of course, to the amount paid to white writers), or with nominations for awards and distinctions, show that you didn’t publish the work because the writer isn’t white, but that you truly find their work inspiring, exemplary, and worthy of recognition.

Lisa suggested that, when working with white editors, writers of color try to work exclusively with intentional editors who will be helpful in guiding them through the editorial and publishing process. Her experiences with editors such as these were positive because they “payed attention to the promise of [her] work” and gave her “thoughtful comments” and constructive critiques to help really improve her work. On the flip side of this, she’s had experiences where the editor gave her almost no feedback, simply telling her, “This is great”. Lisa noted that not only did this not help her hone her craft, but it made her feel like she was ticking a “diversity” box on their list and that her work wasn’t really valuable to the publication for anything other than that.

Another suggestion from Patrice, which all the panelists agreed with, was to read broadly. Step outside of your comfort zone with books. Dennis brought up the many reading challenges that have been circulating daring readers to read books that push their boundaries and broaden their understandings. Reading is known to increase empathy, and reading about experiences that differ from your own helps you better understand someone else’s worldview.

A question came from a writer of color who has become frustrated with all of the time and energy she has spent explaining privilege and prejudice to white people, in particular to publications with white leadership and white editors. She wanted to know how to handle these questions in the future and, half-jokingly, asked if she should start charging for the service. The answer from the panel was simple and unanimous: Just stop. It should not fall to people of color to constantly explain white privilege and the systems that keep it in place. In 2017, white people have white people for that. If the questions are coming from a sincere place, it is likely that the questioner has white friends who can answer them and guide them through their privilege—and there is always Google. There are multitudes of articles and think pieces like this one, this one, and this one, that can help you understand your own privilege, what to do about it, and what to do with it.

The overall lesson from the panel was this: Try. Try sincerely. Make an sincere and open effort to seek not only diversity, but strong voices to tell a strong story. At any publication, it’s the editor’s job to curate and cultivate the list they publish. Therefore, it is the responsibility of the editor more than anyone else to be intentional about finding writers of color with honest, powerful voices that deserve to be heard.


Katie Hatcher is an avid reader, somewhat reluctant writer, and aspiring editor. She currently interns for Creative Nonfiction Magazine and has an MA in Publishing from Kingston University.

#AWP17 Conference Report — Kim MacQueen on “Digital Pedagogy for Beginners”

awp#AWP17 Panel: F124. Digital Pedagogy for Beginners

Description: From podcasts to Twitter essays to .gif novels, digital storytelling is on the rise. This panel is aimed at instructors interested in experimenting with this fascinating and challenging material, but unsure of how to begin. Panelists work to demystify the world of digital pedagogy by offering their experiences integrating new media into writing classes. Panelists also suggest examples, assignments and discussion topics appropriate for literature, creative writing and composition courses.

Panelists: Aubrey Hirsch, Faith Adiele, Brian Oliu, Adriana Ramirez, Erin Anderson

Conference Report

Five faculty members currently teaching digital storytelling in various forms at different institutions shared stories of both success and failure during this lighthearted, completely engaging Friday morning panel. If any one tagline can be said to encapsulate the discussion — which seemed designed to simultaneously pique instructors’ interest and calm their fears about the daunting amount of software they might have to learn in order to float a great digital storytelling class — it would be this one: Put the writing first.

“Remember who you are,” said Adriana Ramirez. “You are not animators, you are not documentary filmmakers. You are not graphic designers. Your focus is writing. Remember who you are and what your students want from you, which is to learn how to write.”

When she was first getting into digital pedagogy, Ramirez said, she “wanted to be all of these things. I would sit down and do all of the online tutorials for all of the software and I wanted to be able to do everything. And it’s not possible to do all of that and be a writer who writes.”

One way to stay focused, she suggested, is to avoid trying to achieve mastery of the tools students use to create their digital projects.

“Keep in mind that your classroom is a space where you’re teaching writing. It’s not a space where you’re teaching students how to use software. I give my students an audio clip of Sylva Plath reading ‘Daddy’ and I give them the piece of software Audacity, and I say, ‘Okay, you’re going to remix this. You have an hour.’ And they have no idea what they are doing. I throw them into the pool, into the deep end.”

The approach, she said, makes the classroom space feel like a place for play, breaks the tension and lowers the stakes.

“I find that play opens up all creative possibilities,” she said, adding that “some students will find that one effect that makes Sylvia Plath sound like a chipmunk that I did not know existed, and it brings me great joy.”

Still, Ramirez noted, sometimes things don’t go that well.

“Some of your students will not take to this. We have this idea that anyone born after 1995 must be a computer wizard. It is not true….” she said. “They’re people. Just because just because they’ve been glued to an iPad since birth doesn’t mean they know how to make things with it.”

Erin Anderson described assignments she uses in her flipped Pitt classrooms to introduce students to video essays in the style of Eula Biss and John Breland’s “Dust Off,” and other digital projects.

“I think there’s a bit of a danger when we approach the media as this tool that we just import our writing into,” Anderson warned. “Audio doesn’t really work quite the same way. Writing for the page is very different from writing for the ear.”

Writing for the page, Anderson said, allows the reader to go back and look at what they’ve seen a few pages ago. But someone listening to an audio essay ideally should be led “to follow you along the path as you’re going through an audio piece. It involves a lot more signposting.”

Aubrey Hirsch noted she was first drawn to digital storytelling after seeing Dinty Moore’s Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge, an essay told entirely through Google Maps, first published in The Normal School in 2010.

“I thought, wow. I didn’t know you could make a story like that,” Hirsch said.

She talked about the importance of helping students to realize what they’re learning about digital writing as they’re learning it, rather than emphasizing successful completion of projects that not all students are ready for. She advocated assigning written reflections on “the process of their creation, how they feel like their story and their chosen form for the story work together.”

“I ask them to tell me about their triumphs and pitfalls, because sometimes they’ll go pretty far down a road with a certain platform and it’ll completely fall apart, and they’ll have to start over and do something completely different. Which I think is great,” Hirsch said. “I want them to have that trial and error, and then I want to give them credit for having done that.”

Brian Oliu described elegant efforts toward his intention to educate students about literary citizenship using social media.

“My goal for my students is to make them recognize that the writing world is an active place that they are welcome to join,” Oliu said. “We don’t wish our students to write as a means to an end, or simply to get a good grade in a course.”

Oliu’s students actively engage in social media, whether they’re tweeting lines of stories in progress, publishing poetry on Yelp.com or following Augusten Burroughs while he live-tweets HGTV shows. The medium helps students educate themselves about their chosen vocation and realize the most celebrated writers are often just like them: “They too struggle with writing. They too order pizza. They too watch sporting events.”

Faith Adiele brought the panel home with a reminder to all writers that digital storytelling can and should reframe the whole writing and reading experience not just for teachers and students in classrooms, but for everyone, globally.

“New media ain’t new,” she said. “New media allows us the opportunity to return to ancient forms of storytelling, which are rooted in the global self.”

“I’m really trying to make my students feel that these are types forms of storytelling that resonate with what we learned around our mothers’ kitchen tables, and that they do belong to all of us,” she said. “This stuff interrupts nonlinear, Western modes of storytelling. So it’s an opportunity to really question what is storytelling about, who’s your audience, and how does writing in digital spaces then change how we’re read as well as how we craft our narratives?”


Kim MacQueen lives in Burlington, Vermont. She is currently a student in the Bay Path University MFA in Creative Nonfiction. She serves as a faculty advisor in Champlain College’s Communication and Creative Media division, teaches in the Professional Writing program and is managing editor of the Champlain College Publishing Initiative. She is the author of the novels Out, Out and People Who Hate America. She has published short stories in The Southeast Review and Creative Loafing Atlanta; her essays have appeared in The Morning News, The Fiddleback and The Stonecoast Review.

#AWP17 Conference Report — Kristine Langley Mahler on “Home: A Four-Letter Word”

awp#AWP17 Panel: F119. Home: A Four-Letter Word

Description: Home is a loaded word, a complex idea: it’s a place that’s safe, sentimental, difficult, nourishing, war-torn, and political. It’s a place we escape and a place we create. This panel of women writers discuss the ways in which they confront home in their work, including writing within and rebelling against the idea of home as a woman’s place. What choices do we make to reveal, deconstruct, and imagine homes for our characters? In what ways do our homes inform our real and imagined selves?

Panelists: Sonya Chung, Rachel DeWoskin, Kelly McMasters, Hasanthika Sirisena, Elissa Washuta

Conference Report

9:00am, on the second full day of AWP, in a little room tucked in the corner of the basement warren of the Marriott Marquis, Kelly McMasters moderated this panel of four women, all of whom are contributors to the forthcoming anthology Wherever I’m With You (Seal Press), which should be available in November 2017. McMasters commented on the wide variety of approaches that these writers took when discussing what “home” means—the essays all look at home, but acknowledge that it is a complex concept.

Elissa Washuta introduced herself in Cowlitz, naming her mother and father and her grandmothers, and reminded the audience that we were currently on occupied Piscataway land. Washuta read from her piece for Wherever I’m With You and spoke about the difficulty she faces in attempting to identify a home when her lineage is full of fractures. Washuta is an enrolled member of the Cowlitz tribe of Oregon/Washington, though she grew up on the East Coast. When Washuta moved to her current hometown of Seattle, she found that by being closer to the land her ancestors have learned from, land had become a source of knowledge for her: when she calls Seattle home now, it’s because the ancestors are there.

Hasanthika Sirisena chose to speak extemporaneously about home, which is a conflicted subject for her, saying, “I made a conscious decision not to have a home.” Sirisena is Sri Lankan and grew up in North Carolina, knowing many people who were in America only because their homes had been taken by the governments of their home countries. The twenty-five year civil war in Sri Lanka caused enormous upheaval and a mistrust of home for Sirisena since home was used as the building block of a nationalist ideology—Sirisena reminded the audience that home isn’t necessarily the safe space we think it is. Later, Sirisena spoke at length about how her mother was “the bravest person I know” for creating a home in North Carolina that did not sacrifice her mother’s identity.

Sonya Chung confronted the idea that a woman’s place is in the home—and that home is not always a happy place. Chung’s parents left their homeland and experienced the trauma of settling into a new place, which reverberated through Chung’s childhood in various permutations. Chung incorporated her unsettled feelings about home into the main character from her novel Long For This World—the woman is a photojournalist who only feels at home when she is between places. Chung spoke about the search for home which had plagued her, and the necessity she found to transgress boundaries in order to find a version of “home” which suited her—Chung found it “unusual to live somewhere without pining for another place,” but her current neighborhood is at a crossroads between two neighborhoods, and she finally feels satisfied.

Rachel DeWoskin shared her experience living in Beijing as a child and how she viewed her “house [in America], which had been so central, like a tiny green Monopoly house—so insignificant” in reality. That distance between perception and realizing one’s smallness in the vastness of the world remained with DeWoskin, who noted that if you stay somewhere too long, you can’t see where you are anymore—she said she had to leave both America and China in order to see what her home was. DeWoskin starred in a Chinese soap opera called “Foreign Babes in Beijing” (which cracked the audience up), and DeWoskin told a story about how the directors wanted her character to wear a long fur coat—though she was supposed to be an American college student. When DeWoskin mentioned this disconnect to the producers, they told her that it was, in fact, what the audience thought American college students wore, and DeWoskin realized that “If 1.6 billion people have an idea about my home, even if it isn’t how I see it, that has value.” DeWoskin noted the moral nuance of having been an insider—a Beijing resident—while playing a conspicuous interloper, and ultimately concluded that her “home was contained in the English language.”


Kristine Langley Mahler has nonfiction recently published or forthcoming in Quarter After Eight, Sweet, Rock & Sling, and Tahoma Literary Review. Her work was awarded the 2016 Rafael Torch Literary Nonfiction Award from Crab Orchard Review, and she is currently researching a grant-funded nonfiction project about immigration/inhabitation on native land. Kristine is a nonfiction editor at Pithead Chapel and a graduate student at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.

#AWP17 Conference Report — Sophia Kouidou-Giles on “Looking Outward: Avoiding the Conventional Memoir”

awp#AWP17 F203. Looking Outward: Avoiding the Conventional Memoir

Description: All too often, memoir falls into a familiar, conventional pattern of confession and redemption. But how do you tell a personal story when life doesn’t conform to that shape? And how can a writer with a variety of interests incorporate those subjects into a personal narrative? Three Graywolf Press nonfiction authors discuss their approaches to writing about life—and subjects as disparate as infertility, nature, friendship, science, grief, and art—in personal and intimate detail.

Panelists: Steve Woodward, Paul Lisicky, Belle Boggs, Angela Palm

Conference Report

Moderated by Steve Woodward, associate editor at Graywolf Press, three award-winning authors—Belle Boggs (author of The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood), Angela Palm (author of Riverine: A Memoir from Anywhere but Here), and Paul Lisicky (author of The Narrow Door: A Memoir of Friendship)—took turns reading excerpts from their books to illustrate their craft and address the moderator’s questions. Their work could be called memoir but also fits into other forms uniquely suitable to their individual stories.

Themes that emerged highlight how the authors trusted and followed the demands of their narrative rather than the expectations of form. That approach did not lead them to the traditional, redemptive outcomes of memoirs. They were more interested in interrogating their topic, engaging with questions as they arose, and maintaining some polarity. They considered this approach more natural to life. Palm sought to explore violence, Boggs focused on infertility, while Lisicky told of his experience of losing an old friend to cancer.

Each pushed back on the traditional expectations of memoir by integrating outward events and influences of their environment into their stories. Boggs utilized her experience of seeking fertility treatments, the natural world, and science. Living in North Carolina’s Research Triangle, she has access to scientists and has benefited by observing their ability to explain complicated and challenging concepts, creating figurative language to explain their work. She wanted to write in a way that pushes against ideas that are stereotypical on topics like infertility. She intentionally used stories of other people. Her aim was to maintain some suspense and complexity, showing that infertility was not the end-all in her life. Childless people lead journeys that have other aspects to them and the author did not want to alienate the reader who was still on that journey.

Palm used her experience of rural Indiana, poverty, farm deprivation, and moneyed people to explore violence. Her research included farmland economics, the historical context, and welfare, and she used mapping to knit together her story in a fluid way. The author viewed the world around her as a collage, knowing that no experience happens in a void. She borrowed techniques and repurposed tools to build character and create dialogue.

Lisicky, trained as a musician, worked with poetic sensibilities. He was guided by the dimensionality of harmony, chord, and dynamics, and as he wrote he noticed repeats, harmonic patterns, and observable sounds in his manuscript. The author disclosed that he never thought of this book as memoir. As he was near publication, his editor suggested using the word as part of the subtitle. Maybe that is the reason he was not confined by the form. As for structure, he strove for tension in telling a year-long story while remaining attentive to feelings of the moment. He trusted that “the book had more to tell than the author knew.” In writing it, he sought to find some comfort for himself and his readers.

This group of authors pushes past memoir in their own unique ways. They enrich their manuscripts by bringing other subjects in and giving them space in well-blended narratives. As the moderator summed up: the force comes from the circumstances of each author’s life, contextualized by their outer world of experience rather than form.


Sophia Kouidou-Giles, born in Thessaloniki, Greece, resides in the USA. She has published her work in “Persimmon Tree,” “Voices,” “Assay,” and in an anthology entitled The Time Collection. “Transitions and Passages” is her poetry collection published in a chapbook. She is currently working on a memoir.


#AWP17 Conference Report — Ryder Ziebarth on “The Long from the Short: Turning Flashes pieces into a Novel, Novella, or Memoir”

awp#AWP17 Panel: R132 The Long from the Short: Turning Flashes pieces into a Novel, Novella, or Memoir

Description: Intimidated by the daunting feel of a longer project? Or simply looking for a different way to craft a full-length project? Novels in flash and memoirs in flash are growing in popularity as a perfect marriage of the conclusion of stand- alone pieces and the narrative possibilities of full length books. Authors and editors of the form offer tips on conceptualizing and crafting a longer work-in-flash, highlighting examples, as well as advice on publishing, marketing and teaching the form.

Panelists: Abigail Beckel, Kelsey Parker Ervick, Lex Williford, Tyrese Coleman, Tara Laskowski

Conference Report

Abby Beckel, an editor of My Very End of The Universe, an anthology of five novellas-in-flash from Rose Metal Press opens her remarks with an introduction to flash fiction, mentioning its various hybrids: micro, nano, epistolary, lyric essay, poetic memoir, prose poetry, performative, and pictures made of words. Length of a flash piece is usually between 500-1000 words, and  shorter for more hybrid forms.

“Flash fiction and nonfiction writing is all about the punch and the compression of the piece,” she says. “Compression, immediacy and tension are the building blocks for all flash work.”

In writing a novella-in-flash, she explains, the stand-alone nature of the stories is what set them apart from traditional chapters of a novel. The concession and the snap of flash combine with the sustained narrative that connects and builds into a novella or a memoir makes it an ideal experience for a reader—you can read it on one sitting, or make your way through each carefully crafted and arched piece over time. There is less filler and explanation in a flash novella; characters tend to show up more often and big leaps in time and setting can occur which makes for a more alert and challenging reading experience. Writers can use a variety of techniques to create a narrative arc, such as non-linear time structure, or centering entirely on one character.

“If I had to give you a visual example of a flash novella, I would tell you to look you at the stars; each star is a part of larger universal picture, deep with possibilities.”

Lex Williford is the winner of the Rose metal Press Fiction Chapbook Award for Superman on the Roof, and his book, Macauley’s Thumb, was a co-winner of the Iowa School of Letters Award for Short Fiction. Currently he is the chair of the bilingual MFA program at the University of Texas.

Williford used an excellent visual example for his presentation—a necklace of safety pins. He explained that he wears this so his students can see that writing is painful and can sometimes draw blood. The pins, when left open can hurt, but all readers must be made to feel something, or there is no point to the work.

“The stuff that is memorable, usually hurts,” Williford said.

“These safety pins represent closure; chapters tend to be open ended, and flash tends to be more finished, with an image or dramatic moment that turns the story back in on itself. In the novella-in-flash, each one of these moments are linked to the next, creating a necklace of stories, a fully completed piece—each closed but connected.” (Williford)

The trick in writing flash, he concludes, is when to open, and when to close the story and at what point.

Tyrese L. Coleman is the fiction editor for District Lit, an online Journal of Writing and Art. She is a Kimbilio fiction Fellow and a Virginia Quarterly Review Nonfiction Scholar. She has a writing background in poetry, flash-memoir and flash-fiction. Her writing voice, she says, is a cross between fiction, prose-poetry and memoir, and she is currently working on a memoir-in- stories—a chain of linked ideas that give the reader an idea of who she is. She carefully chose certain elements and scenes from her life that don’t necessary connect, but relate tangentially.

Tyrese stress that the style of flash is immediate, verbally impactful, punchy and when it’s done, makes the reader cock her head and say, “Wow, I want to read more of that.” It is less, she says, of a stripping down in its brevity, then a building up of tension with every sentence and word pulled as tight as a wire. Tyrese says:

“But the combination of verse and prose is difficult to maintain in longer stories. I carefully distill the poetic voice and figurative language and use the character of flash to combine the prose into a longer story, drawing a fine line to hold the reader’s stamina and interest in the piece.”

Kelcey Parker Ervick, a teacher at Indiana State University, is the author of The Bitter Life of Bozena Nemcova, a hybrid work of biography, memoir, and art. She is the author of two award winning works of fiction, For Sale by Owner, and Liliane’s Balcony.

Ervick is a fan of the fairy tale, and while on a recent journey across the country, she utilized what she called “The Post Card Method” of epistolary writing to record a series of events while traveling. These individual stories were written in the short segmented form—each one on a separate postcard—to no-one person. The cards had no formal structure and were just random thoughts with no timeline, asking the reader to question where she was in time and space. Utilizing Sue William Silverman’s Voice of Innocence and later, Voice of Experience, she could prioritize clarity over form in this writing experiment, and eventually by journey’s end, produce a memoir-in –flash from her collection of work.

Tara Laskowski is the author of Modern Manners for Your Inner Demons and Bystanders. Her fiction has been published in numerous journals magazines and anthologies. She is a SmokeLong Quarterly Kathy Fish Fellowship award winner, and an editor of that journal. She also co-writes the column Long Story Short at the Washington Independent Review of Books.

Tara believes using flash is a great way to “trick yourself” into working toward a longer piece. She asked all the participants if they felt using flash in this way worked for them and why? Here are their answers:

  • “It’s less intimidating to use smaller scenes written separately then putting them together later. It makes the events more powerful, natural and organic if I don’t have to worry about a time line in the moment I am writing.” (Williford)
  • “You can take a character that is too big for one entire book and distill her down into a flash piece.” (Coleman)
  • “It allows novella not to be exhaustive for the reader, and it allows me, the writer, more play in my work.” (Beckel)
  • “Flash allows for multiple narrators. I like that aspect of it.” (Ervick)

Finally, the panelists agree teaching novella-in-flash is the wave of the future. This contemporary writing method, all panelists agree, teaches their students to “eliminate the boring stuff” from their work. Setting a watch for fifteen minutes and having them write only that long from simple prompts get the students to dig into the kernel and heart of their story—a very effective way to teach modern writing.


Ryder S. Ziebarth is a recent MFA graduate of Vermont College of Fine Arts and an Associate editor of Tiferet Journal. Her work has appeared in Brevity, N Magazine, The New York Times, The Writer’s Circle, Tiferet, and many other other blogs, newspapers and online journals. In May, she will begin co-teachiing a series of short prose nonfiction workshops for Tiferet Journal

#AWP17 Conference Report — Heidi Fettig Parton on “The Craft of Empathy”

awp#AWP17 Panel Report: F151 The Craft of Empathy

Description: Writing with empathy in mind, especially in nonfiction, can create texture in our work and be transformative for both writer and reader. On this panel we explore various angles of perspective: scenes where narrators show empathy toward other characters—especially ones who are unlikeable—and vice versa, reflections that suggest empathy of a memoirist for a younger self, as well as techniques for showing empathy, as a writer, for the reader, and from both reader and writer for the nonhuman world.

Panelists: (moderator), , ,

Conference Report

“Empathy is the deeper understanding that we’re all working towards as readers and writers,” Ana Maria Spagna told the audience of the #AWP17 Friday morning panel she moderated. Spagna referenced a 2013 study, which revealed that those who read fiction are more empathetic than those who don’t. Spagna suggested this was also true of creative nonfiction readers.

Kate Hopper, author of Ready for Air: A Journey Through Premature Motherhood, said something that could be heralded as the ultimate message of #AWP17: What we’re doing now as writers—employing empathy—has never been more important. As an editor, Hopper often encounters vilified family members in writers’ early drafts. This results in an “unreliable” narrator because no character is all bad. The use of empathy, however, helps create well-rounded characters.

Over the past few years, I’ve become somewhat of a regular at Hopper’s writing retreats. It’s not just the great food and company that keeps me coming back, it’s Hopper’s highly effective writing prompts and exercises. At Friday’s session, Hopper suggested that writers spend 15 minutes making a list of positive moments shared with a difficult character. She also suggested first writing about that character in his or her best, or most natural, element. Even in cases where empathy proves impossible, such as those involving perpetrators of abuse, detailed observation of the character might still provide a semblance of well-roundedness.

Returning to the microphone, Spagna suggested “giving” scenes to a supporting character as a means to develop empathy for difficult characters. The use of dialogue is one way that views, outside those of the narrator, can bubble to the surface. Interaction between characters can also be used to build empathy for a narrator’s earlier self. Spagna used a scene from Hopper’s Ready for Air as an example. Spagna revealed how Hopper visited her daughter in the NICU and thought, I don’t want this tiny yellow thing to be my baby. In this scene, the narrator’s husband displayed gentleness and understanding towards Hopper’s lack of maternal feelings. Mary Karr employs a similar technique in Lit: A Memoir when, just two days sober, she doesn’t let herself off the hook for her past behavior. Instead, she gives the scene to her four-year old son, creating empathy towards her son instead of herself. This allows the reader to trust Karr as a narrator.

Spagna then introduced Adriana Paramo, a Colombian born writer and cultural anthropologist. Paramo writes social memoir based on stories gathered from fieldwork. Paramo read from Looking for Esperanza, her book of stories about undocumented female farmworkers. Paramo’s discussion focused on her efforts to evoke empathy in readers towards those she writes about. If, after finishing Looking for Esperanza, readers contemplate which undocumented worker has put the salad on their plate, Paramo has done her job. She admitted, she doesn’t always succeed.

Paramo once spoke at a book club comprised of expats living in Qatar. Two white South African women—daughters of apartheid—wanted to know why Paramo was defending “illegal” workers in Looking for Esperanza. Paramo realized she’d unwittingly ended up in unfriendly territory. She first asked that these workers be referred to as undocumented rather than illegal. She then explained how these women had crossed the border to make better lives for their children. Paramo left us with the understanding that, while writers cannot control the reaction of readers, they might still raise their readers’ awareness.

Lewis and Clark professor, Kim Stafford, discussed 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: How My Brother Disappeared, written about his brother’s suicide. Stafford’s family members had strong reactions to this book, both before and after it published. Stafford realized that he had challenged the unspoken family code of not talking about his brother, of not even saying his name. Stafford concluded that what killed his brother was his family’s inability to talk about difficult things.

Readers have told Stafford that they’ve purchased this book for their sons, as a preventive measure against masculine silence. Stafford’s own son once said, “Dad, we didn’t become human when we invented tools . . . we became human when we looked across the fire and told each other stories.” In writing about tragedy, Stafford concluded, “a writer looks across the fire into the eyes of another. A writer lives by tropism toward the difficult, where the well-lit problem begins to heal.”

After the panel, Stafford gave out copies of his new book, The Flavor of Unity: Post-Election Poems. One of the poems, Practicing the Complex Yes, provides a guide for engaging in civil conversations with those of differing political views. This poem, Hopper suggested during the Q & A, also serves as a blueprint for building empathy.


Heidi Fettig Parton is a MFA candidate in Bay Path University’s creative nonfiction program. She’s written for Angels Flight, literary west (AFLW), Rebelle Society, St. Croix 360, The Mighty and others. She’s currently an editorial intern at Agate magazine and is writing a memoir that requires great empathy towards all her previous selves.