AWP2018: Truer Words Were Never Spoken: On the Challenges of Writing About Family in Creative Nonfiction/Memoir 

Panel Participants: Artress Bethany WhiteSharon HarriganBridgett DavisLori Horvitz

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMDescription: Writers of nonfiction struggle with the ethics of transparency in their work, particularly when discussing family. From fratricide to confronting parental abandonment or making a living from illegal professions, writers must often face their own demons and those of extended family members to tell their stories. Each author will discuss a work of memoir from a published or forthcoming book and then discuss reconciling the transparency necessary for the success of the project.

Six years ago, I began work on my memoir in a class through UCLA’s Writer’s Program extension. For the first assignment, I wrote about my fear of disclosing personal details. I grew up in a political family where I learned to only share information that fit a tightly defined strategy in support of my elected parents. But the story I have been writing exposes addiction and dysfunction in my relationships with family, men and food. While working toward my M.F.A., I removed the shackles. Now, I have a manuscript filled with personal details I wouldn’t have previously considered sharing with the world. Each time I return to the manuscript, I get stuck in scenes with my family. What is necessary for telling my story? Am I showing the whole truth of my characters—both the good and the bad? How will my family respond to the way they are depicted?

My problems are not unique but instead common to most memoirists. In the AWP panel, “Truer Words Were Never Spoken,” four authors discussed how they approached their work while telling family stories.

Sharon Harrigan began her comments by reading from the first chapter of her memoir, Playing with Dynamite. “When my father took my six-year-old sister on a trip to kill a deer, the deer killed him.”

The author explained she wrote her memoir to challenge the stories she told herself in order to find the real truth. As she wrote, she realized there were parts of the story, she had to cut. The author said she was, “Pleased when called ruthlessly honest because (the memoir) was more ruthlessly honest before making the cuts.” For Harrigan, this showed her that as writers we can “Still go deep without revealing everything.”

While she was developing the book, Harrigan wrote details about her mother’s postpartum depression and a time when she went on a date with her uncle. But those were not details Harrigan’s mother asked her to remove. Instead, she asked her to remove details related to other family members. Other family acted the same way, not worried about how they were portrayed but instead worried about how others appeared in scenes.

Harrigan wrote one draft in which she included the mental health struggles of her brother. Then, she cut that. But later, she couldn’t write scenes without showing him and his transformation as a character so she had to add the part she cut back into the story.

A month before publishing, Harrigan’s sister began a campaign against her book. Her brother offered to sit with her and go through the manuscript page by page. Though there was difficulty in telling her story, Harrigan said that ultimately, it brought her closer to her brother and mother, the people she cared about most.

Bridgett Davis read from her forthcoming memoir, The World According to Fannie Davis. In what Davis explained was her first public reading of a family secret kept for many years, the author described listening to her mother on the phone as she ran an illegal numbers game operation. Davis also read scenes about a teacher who questioned the number of pairs of shoes Davis claimed to own and her mother’s response—to take her shopping for more shoes. After reading, the author said that in order to write her book she had to push past the resistance of revealing. She said she wanted to tell the story of a child being implicated by a mother’s crime but also wanted to show her mother using an armor of clothes, or shoes against people. She also wanted to show how her mother’s story is an alternative American Dream narrative because she made it out of nowhere.

Horvitz told the audience about receiving a call from her father. He wanted to know what she was writing. She told him; the call ended. Then, he called again. After a conversation about her book, Horvitz’ sister had called her father to tell him that he was portrayed in a negative way. When Horvitz finished the second call with her father, she edited out some of the detail she originally included.

In an essay that Horvitz wrote about her mother dying in a car accident, she explained why she was the only woman in her family to get a driver’s license. She wrote that her sister failed a driving test and never took it again because she lived in New York City where she didn’t need to drive. After the piece was published, Horvitz’ sister didn’t speak to her for a year.

Horvitz offered two lessons from these experiences. First, she said, you can’t know what will offend people. Second, as writers we must consider the people we love and how they will respond.

Artress Bethany White wrote about almost shooting herself as a toddler. Her story explored how an early incident of violence in her family precipitated other events. She wrote about her uncle who was killed by his brother in 1946. She saw her work as reparative for her family. Her decision to repair overrode the instinct not to tell.

Q&A: After each author told her story of writing and family, the audience had more questions than could be answered, emphasizing the importance of the topic. Additionally, some of the audience members shared their experiences. Below are some of the highlights from that discussion.

On whether or not we need to write the negative aspects of family

Through the process of drafting, editing, and editing again, Harrigan discovered the importance of including both the positive and negative aspects of the characters in her story. She explained that in order to show the growth of a character, a writer must include the negative. If a writer only shows the positive, then she has not provided any context for the reader.

Davis added, “Not everything you write needs to be published.” Davis advised the audience to write what they need to write, then decide what needs to be put into the world.

On whether a character’s death changes how we write

White said she felt safe to write about the person who pulled the trigger because he was no longer living, however, she also said, “You can’t wait for people to expire.”

Harrigan reminded the audience that you can’t know who you will offend while Horvitz stressed the importance of writing with compassion, not revenge.

On making peace when writing about an injustice

Davis talked of the benefit of taking time with the story. She said she worked on her book for two decades and needed the maturity to know what was important. She expressed gratitude for the years that went by which provided perspective. She also stressed the importance of understanding motivation. “Ask, do I have to tell this story? If you have to tell it, then it’s worth the risk.”

On how family will judge us by the details we share

Harrigan told the audience that once her daughter was in her teens, she let her read her book but was worried about what her daughter might learn. Instead, her daughter said, “Oh, mom, you think I didn’t know?” She said that people are pretty compassionate about an author’s honesty and vulnerability. “They connect with that vulnerability.”

On how circumstance may change while waiting to tell the story

Davis said she had notes about her memoir going back to 1989. She said the story you tell is based on what you have to work with at the time. Harrigan added that it’s a process and you don’t know where you will end. She said the work may be hard when you take off a layer to show what’s underneath.

On the possibility of fictionalizing a story instead of telling it as nonfiction

Davis said she tried to write the story of her mother in her fiction but felt like she was hiding. Ultimately, she was motivated to write by asking herself from what was she hiding.

Sheree Winslow received her M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and her B.A. from Vassar College. She’s published journalism in the Orange County Register. Her essays on the intersection between leadership and aunt-hood appear on Born in Montana, Winslow is an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. She lives in Southern California where she’s working on a memoir about her relationship with her body and struggle with food addiction.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

AWP2018: The Historical Women: Reimagining Past Narratives Through the Contemporary Female Perspective

Panel Participants: Chanelle Benz, Amelia Gray, Min Jin Lee, Danielle Dutton

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMDescription:

“Women, if the soul of the nation is to be saved, I believe that you must become its soul,” said Coretta Scott King during the Civil Rights Movement of the 1960’s. What can we learn from reimagined female historical narratives? What is their timely relevance in the current political climate? This panel will also discuss the craft of shaping a nonfiction tale to a modern-day story, and how to create female characters that break barriers and make a history of their own.

In a panel addressing how writers give voice to characters from the past, fiction authors Danielle Dutton, Amelia Gray, and Min Jin Lee provided advice that transcended genre. After each read from her work, moderator Chanelle Benz asked a series of questions about how they began creating their historical fiction works, decisions about point-of-view, research, and why giving voice to historical characters is meaningful now.

On beginning

Danielle Dutton’s novel Margaret the First examined the life of the eccentric Duchess Margaret Cavendish, a seventeenth century poet, feminist, and science fiction writer. Dutton said that when she began writing the book, she was writing about spaces in London. She explained that as she researched, she allowed her fascination to lead her down research rabbit holes about seventeenth century gardens and plumbing but eventually, Margaret Cavendish captured her interest.

Amelia Gray started writing Isadora, a portrayal of dancer Isadora Duncan. In the beginning, Gray planned to write about her life as the “it girl” of her time. But then, the Sandy Hook massacre happened at the same time Gray was reading about the drowning of Duncan’s two children. The author pivoted to focus on how Duncan processed her loss.

Min Jin Lee said she always starts her books with a premise. First, she wants to see if the idea or argument is true. Then, she builds the characters. In Pachinko, Lee was interested in telling the stories of people who were poor and died without having any choice in their path.

On point of view

Dutton started writing in a close third perspective. When others read first drafts of her manuscript, they provided comments like, “The writing is beautiful but I couldn’t get close to the character.” She switched to writing in first person which helped her get to know the character better. But since Margaret the First was the tabloid celebrity of her day and treated as a spectacle, Dutton also needed to keep the perspective of third person.

Gray wrote in first person present but then also wrote from other perspectives. She said research provided backfill.

Lee added that POV is the most important decision but often, the first choice is not the correct one.

On the importance of historical voices in today’s world

Lee said that history is incredibly urgent right now. She said one of the commonalities between most writers she meets is that we care about justice. However, too often, we ignore in our writing the fact that most of the world’s population makes decisions based on religion.

Gray grapples with how someone becomes a vessel for evil or how we look at power, legacy, and religion—all contemporary issues.

Dutton said the story of Margaret Cavendish shows how a woman will be called mad because she is smart and bookish. In spite of her accomplishments, Cavendish was forgotten for two hundred years. Even Virginia Woolf was conflicted by her feelings about Cavendish saying of her that she was like a cucumber that grows in a garden and kills the flowers around it. Dutton said that we need to continue singing women’s lineage.

On being a woman writer

Lee said she likes being a woman writer, a Korean writer, or a Presbyterian writer stating that the characteristics of being a woman, Korean and Presbyterian are her “riches.” She encouraged women to pull up a chair and have a seat at the table.

Dutton said she hates the term women’s fiction because women are writing about diverse topics and are not “a thing.” She also said she enjoyed writing about Margaret and living inside her ambition. As an educator, Dutton has female students who are apologetic when they approach, beginning their conversations with, “I’m sorry but I have a question.” Her male students, she said, never apologize for having a question or needing her to provide a recommendation.

On expertise, or needing to get the details right

Lee said she feels a burden of representation. She also told the audience that she does hundreds of interviews.

Dutton recalled attending a Margaret Cavendish conference where fans assemble every two years. She was nervous that she would be confronted for getting some detail wrong but instead, the attendees were incredibly excited that she had written about one of their favorite subjects.

Gray said that there are a lot of experts who study Isadora Duncan and dance her in a kind of worship. She told of a woman who approached her and asked if she had seen a film in which “they make (Duncan) out to be a lesbian,” as if that weren’t true. Gray said Duncan was known to be bi-sexual as well as a lush. Gray said, “I think the best of Isadora is all of Isadora.”

Sheree Winslow received her M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and her B.A. from Vassar College. She’s published journalism in the Orange County Register. Her essays on the intersection between leadership and aunt-hood appear on Born in Montana, Winslow is an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. She lives in Southern California where she’s working on a memoir about her relationship with her body and struggle with food addiction.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

AWP2018: Singing the Body Electric: Praise for the Disabled Body

Panel Participants: Emily Rose Cole, Jess Silfa, Avery M. Guess, and Jillian Weise

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AM“Set this chair aside; something’s wrong with it.”

Those words hunt me up like a dog hunts a buried bone. During a time when life was simpler, when I didn’t rock the boat, when I did I was told, I was helping to set up for an important meeting. The director handed me a chair and through the words over her shoulder with superiority and impatience. “Set this chair aside; something is wrong with it.”

I looked at the chair with its ragged gaping hole oozing cotton batting. I placed the chair in a corner at the back of the meeting room where any of the meeting attendees wouldn’t see it. Over the years I tried to ignore the words, but they stuck with me like a band-aid to tender skin; like a wad of gum to the sol of an unsuspecting shoe. “Set this chair aside; something’s wrong with it.” My mind kneaded the words like a ball of play dough until they formed the shape of that frustrating question I’d been asking myself all my life – Is there something wrong with me? Is this why I had been set aside so many times in my life?

Cockeyed, blind, coke bottle glasses are just a few of the words I heard daily at school. “Don’t slouch and hold the book close to your face like Katrina,” one elementary school teacher said. “If you can’t see well enough to read the test,” the administrator of a test I had to take for a summer job in high school said. “Then leave.” “Handicap people are some of the worst people to be around,” a coworker remarked to my face when I was in my mid-twenties. Insults to the disabled body delivered from an attitude of confidence and privilege are standard practice.

When I attended AWP18 in Tampa, I chose to attend the panel. R151, Singing the Body Electric: Praise for the Disabled Body because the description of the panel casts a focus on celebrating the disabled body with poetry and prose by disabled authors. As panelists, Emily Rose Cole, Jess Silfa,, Avery M. Guess, and Jillian Weise read their work the power of language in the representation of the disabled by the disabled was transforming.

In her lyric essay What Follows, Avery Grace, a Ph. D. student at the University of South Dakota, explains the difference between dots and holes. “Dots occupy space. Holes exist outside of space.” Through the essay, she weaves the idea of dots and holes with her personal experiences with abuse, bipolar disorder and memory loss. The power in this piece lay in the language narrated by the disabled narrator. Same is true for Cade Lebron’s poem Ode to the Brain Holes. She writes: “You make me hear songs differently; you make me sing worse. But when my mouth closed my brain opened up, and that’s okay. (They say when God closes a door, he’ll be sure to open a few windows in your head.) I am afraid because you are not a hole. You are scar tissue, hardening into something unfillable.”

After the readings, a discussion on how the representation of the disabled in literature. The panelists agree that using ableist’s’ limited view to represent the disabled in literature is unacceptable. It further shames the disabled and presents them as weak. Because it is not the disability that disables us, but rather the narrow, unyielding spaces in which we are forced to navigate, language that suggests shame or cast a focus on the idea of disabled as wrong, needs to be avoided.

This panel was great for me as a disabled writer who struggles with what the ablest idea of what a disabled character can do and the reality of what a disabled character can do.

Katrina Byrd is a student in the Low Residency Creative Writing MFA Program at the Mississippi University for Women. Katrina is a writer and playwright who has received four Artist Minigrants from the Mississippi Arts Commission. Several of her short plays have been performed locally and several of her short stories have appeared in Inflight Literary Magazine, Black Magnolias Literary Magazine and Monkeycyle Literary Magazine.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

AWP2018: The Enhanced Memoir: When It Happened to Me Isn’t Enough

Panel Participants: Kim Brooks, Lucas Mann, Deanna Fei, Kiki Petrosino

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMDescription: This panel will look at the rise of the enhanced or hybrid memoir, the writer who merges a personal narrative with social commentary, cultural criticism, or reportage. As more writers arrive at the memoir after working in other forms, the genre has become less defined by traditional narrative, and more marked by the writer’s willingness to borrow from the novelist’s, essayist’s, or journalist’s toolbox. The panel will focus on the form’s rewards, challenges, and shifting boundaries.

During “The Enhanced Memoir” panel discussion, four authors talked about their experience writing memoir and poetry that utilized personal story, research, and reportage. After introducing themselves and their work, Kim Brooks asked questions to keep the conversation moving.

Kim Brooks was arrested when she left her four-year-old son in the car while she ran into a store. Her memoir Small Animals: Parenthood in the Age of Fear began as a story about what happened and the legal ramifications of her actions. First written as an essay for Salon, Brooks felt her personal narrative wasn’t significant enough so she began doing research and interviewing sociologists, psychologists, other parents and parent rights advocates. The resulting book was a balance between reporting, research, and storytelling.

For Lucas Mann, the entry point to writing is always research first. He believes his story is in service to what he is researching in his books where cultural examinations and memoir intersect. Mann is the author of Class A: Baseball in the Middle of Everywhere, Captive Audience: On Love and Reality TV, and Lord Fear.

Kiki Petrosino was raised in Virginia but now works in Kentucky which was once a part of Virginia. She began thinking about her relationship to Thomas Jefferson when she realized she had lived most of her life in states impacted by his leadership and vision. Then, Petrosino wrote essays for Ploughshares about a close reading of Jefferson’s texts and how his language relates to the language of a poet of color living in America today.

Fei said that writers sometimes say the subject chooses them but she believes that sometimes the form chooses the writer. As a fiction writer with some admitted snobbery toward memoir, she didn’t expect to write creative nonfiction. However, her second child was born in what was termed a catastrophic birth. Paralyzed by the shame of the experience, she began reading memoir as a way of coping with the trauma. Then, the CEO of her husband’s employer made public comments blaming benefit cuts on the expense of her daughter’s birth. The experience made her ask questions about how much a human life is worth and what we value. For Fei, research was a result of asking what her readers needed to know. That question also helped define the arc of the book.

Can we write about the self in the act of research?

Mann said he began to write about Class A baseball but then found that the narrative worked better if it included him as a reporter in the act of learning. For another project about his older brother’s heroin overdose, he needed to interview people who knew his brother better than he did. In the end, going through the experience of seeking understanding was a more compelling story.

Petrosino believes it’s freeing to write with the exploratory eye vs. the authorizing eye. In conducting research, she was frustrated looking at census records knowing the information was incomplete. But she could write about the missing names and which names match up to stories.

Fei said that one of the challenges in writing about herself as she researched was in navigating the voice. “I started to sound like a Sex and the City episode that begins with ‘I started to wonder,’ so I had to find the right way to use my voice.” Ultimately, Fei said, wanting to understand drives the narrative.

Mann followed up by saying that wanting to know more is what he admires when reading so he tries to do the same in his work.

How do we offer readers something that isn’t nihilistic and depressing but also isn’t a pat on the back?

Brooks posed the question to the panel after explaining that some commercial memoir come from a privileged perspective—I had difficulty, I worked through it, now I’m better. “Those memoirs depress me,” Brooks said.

Fei concurred with Brooks. She said that when she was struggling with her daughter’s health problems, the clichés of hope and faith that people offered in support left her feeling guiltier because she wondered why she couldn’t just “get behind it.” In contrast, Fei said, we do a service by sharing true stories with others who need to see that there is something other than clichés.

Mann said he needs to write into the story whether it’s the dark part or the happy part, while examining the complexity of that.

For Petrosino “There isn’t a poem that can redeem the losses my ancestors faced.” The poet went on to say that she can’t require of herself that she tell any particular narrative.

Brooks added that when there’s no hope of minimizing a great suffering, you look into the void anyway.

Fei explained that it was important to tell the raw story of what happened. While the doctors and nurses that saved her daughter are her “forever heroes,” she had to also write the scenes when a doctor comes into the room to bluntly deliver news that sent her spinning.

Sheree Winslow received her M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from Vermont College of Fine Arts and her B.A. from Vassar College. She’s published journalism in the Orange County Register. Her essays on the intersection between leadership and aunt-hood appear on Born in Montana, Winslow is an enrolled member of the Northern Cheyenne tribe. She lives in Southern California where she’s working on a memoir about her relationship with her body and struggle with food addiction.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

AWP2018: Narrative Audio and Podcasting: Crafting Stories for the Ear

Panel Participants: Erin Anderson, Maya Goldberg-Safir, Terence Mickey

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMAs a writer of both stories and songs who has survived the Los Angeles I-405 traffic perhaps only because of This American Life and Radiolab, I should have considered audio storytelling ages ago. Yet, dabbling in narrative audio only occurred to me recently. This panel pulled back the curtains on the genre, revealing craft considerations, gear suggestions, the panelists’ own projects, and work that inspires them. The presentations by three podcast veterans — Maya Goldberg-Safir, self-titled Podcast Therapist and Artistic Director of Third Coast International Audio Festival; Terence Mickey, creator and host of the podcast Memory Motel; and Erin Anderson, multimedia storyteller, audio producer, and Assistant Professor at University of Pittsburgh – delved into the nature of storytelling as an oral tradition, the bridge between writer and audience, the relationship between writing and audio, and the ways that the podcast platform can be used as a creative tool. One major takeaway from this AWP event is best summarized by panelist Terence Mickey’s comment, “Writing is the unfair advantage of audio producing.”

In other words: Writers, this is all about storytelling. If you’re into it, you can do it. The rest is details.

That said, it did help to learn what some of those details are. In her opening presentation, Goldberg-Safir covered the branded roots of podcasting, named as such by Apple in the early iPod days. Writing for audio stories, she noted, is unbound by genre. As examples, she offered a rich list of some of her own favorite narrative audio programs, including The Organist, Paris Review podcast, and Heavyweight, and specific episodes that she recommends, including Chapters I-VII from Brian Reed and Julie Snyder’s serialized novel S-Town, fact-fiction blur “Dead Mom Talking” by Rachel Matlow from, and “The Drywall” a memoiristic piece by Scott Carrier from The Organist.

In explanation of the subtractive editing process, which relates conceptually to writing approaches like erasure poetry, the audience listened to a clip from Goldberg-Safir’s ten-minute story, “The Sitter Dispatch,” which she crafted and carved from audio that she recorded on her phone while working as a nanny. To illustrate different techniques used in podcasting, Goldberg-Safir parsed out general “ingredients” of a podcast creation:

  • Interview tape
  • Voice-over narration
  • Action tape
  • Archival found sounds
  • Composed music
  • Sound design (i.e. drones, percussive hits, etc.)

Terrence Mickey’s story “Message in a Bottle,” from his Memory Motel podcast, cuts between the voice of his lively interview subject and Mickey’s own deadpan narration. As we listened to a clip, Mickey highlighted his voice-over narration against the interview tape, describing the interviewer’s role in boosting an interview subject’s storytelling skill. Draw out details, he suggested, by modeling good storytelling; put them at ease with small talk. The juxtaposition of the two voices served several functions: to keep the listening audience interested (much as a composer might choose a new instrument sound), to quicken the story pacing with summary, to highlight a subject’s lively personality against the narrator’s more measured contour, and to carve a bigger story out of the subject’s anecdotes. This reminded me of Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story, where the podcast producer’s job is to carve out a story from a subject’s situation.

In Anderson’s case, she played clips of her own work that recontextualizes audio recordings, much like found poetry. Her experimental approach to audio storytelling frequently utilizes multiple narrators that create a collage-like audio experience. Her crafting of audio can be compared to the work of a contemporary classical music composer, and, in fact, she played a clip of Glenn Gould’s idiosyncratic “The Idea of North” from The Solitude Trilogy as a basis for inspiration. Much like Gould’s piece, Anderson’s story “Being Siri” drops listeners into an experience without any information for what they’re hearing. The bewildering opening of the piece, which is seemingly unrelated layerings of words, illustrated her strategy for giving the listener something to do, or for inviting the listener to figure something out. The story arose from her experience as “a voice transplant” for someone who couldn’t speak, and explores questions of identity and language.

Some pragmatic take-aways from the panel include further resources:; “How to Make Your Listener Levitate & Other Magic Tricks” by Cathy Fitzgerald for the Third Coast Pocket Conference podcast; and “Sound Design with The Truth’s Jonathan Mitchell and Meet the Composer’s Alex Overington.”

Arielle Silver earned her MFA at Antioch University Los Angeles, where served as editor-in-chief of Lunch Ticket and now teaches in the MFA, BA, and Inspiration2publication programs. Her songs have been licensed internationally for film and television, and her essays have appeared in Brevity, Gulf Stream, Moment, Lilith, Under The Gum Tree, Jet Fuel Review, and others. @relsilver

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

AWP2018: Complex Narratives: A VIDA Voices and Views Disability Focus Interview

Panel Participants: Melissa Studdard, Danielle Pafunda, Lydia X. Z. Brown, L. Lamar Wilson, Lynne DeSilva-Johnson

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AM“You think you look better than anybody here,” a white haired lady said to me at an event where I volunteered a few months ago. I was dressed in a black form fitting dress accented with my black and white feather boa and a pair of fishnet French lace knee highs. Before I could examine her remarks and categorize them as either insult or jealous drunk misspeak, I turned to her and looked her dead in her eye and said, “If I don’t think it, nobody else will.”

It is with this same confidence that I approached the entrance to the Tampa Convention Center on a cool, windy day. My pink boa floated behind me like a feathered string. I was headed to Complex Narratives: A VIDA Voices and Views Disability Focus Interview panel in room 22. As a disabled person, I have come face to face with challenges presented by the disabling spaces of “normal” society. My biggest struggle has been finding balance within the limitations others have placed on me. In the tenth grade, I was viewed as visually impaired and slow. “She’s holding up my line,” the band director complained during a rehearsal when it took me longer to learn a routine than the other band members. By the end of the year, after the band had completed a performance at a competition at Hinds Community College, the director ran out onto the field, grabbed me and yelled, “You’re playing the hell outta that horn!” His excitement frightened me because I had decided I was not good enough.

The disabled having to provide proof of worthiness was a theme that flowed through the works of the panelists. As a writer who features disabled characters in her work, I was moved by all the pieces that were read. It is so powerful to hear narratives about disabled minds and bodies written by those who inhabit those minds and bodies.

After the readings a discussion about whether to use the label “disabled” or “differently abled” occurred. One panelist argued that differently abled defined varied abilities while disable defined the spaces in which we live. Another panelist saw the term differently abled as a comparison of the disabled to normalcy. Though I didn’t weigh in on the conversation, I thought both panelists had good points; but as for me and my label, I’d rather be labeled Katrina.

Katrina Byrd is a student in the Low Residency Creative Writing MFA Program at the Mississippi University for Women. Katrina is a writer and playwright who has received four Artist Minigrants from the Mississippi Arts Commission. Several of her short plays have been performed locally and several of her short stories have appeared in Inflight Literary Magazine, Black Magnolias Literary Magazine and Monkeycyle Literary Magazine.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

AWP2018: Dispatches from Flyover Country: Building Literary Community in Far-off Places

Panel Participants: Silas Hansen, Allison Joseph, Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib, Brian Oliu, Mary Biddinger

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMI wanted to write about this panel because I’m an essayist who, in 2014, moved from Chicago, IL, to Cedar Falls, IA. I’d struggled with the transition: Chicago, with its Humanities Festival, the Newberry Library, the Art Institute…I missed my adopted city fiercely. I hoped that this panel would give me some consolation and also maybe some perspective, and it delivered.

Silas Hansen began the conversation by discussing common myths of so-called “flyover” communities, the most pernicious being that you have to be in NYC or LA to be a “real writer.” What about towns without a university? Many writers matriculate through MFA programs and then return to their pre-MFA communities. What are some strategies to create a thriving literary community wherever you end up? He also wanted to affirm good work that was already happening in many communities, and to offer strategies for strengthening funding for existing initiatives. Silas asked “How many times have you been to a literary event in the city and a handful of people show up?” In his community, readings are packed to overflowing, in part because they are comparatively rarer (and this very much reflected my own experience in Cedar Falls: our Hearst Center readings are often standing-room only). Who gets left out (what kinds of writers are left out) when the literary conversation is dominated by a few places, or by the university? The myth of city-or-bust is both corrosive and inaccurate.

Allison Joseph detailed her own transition from the Bronx to Gambier, OH, and asked a series of grounding questions for people struggling to create community. 1. You can create community by yourself. Allison founded the Yahoo group CRWOPPS (I used and loved this group for years as an aid to researching places to submit. It rivals Duotrope, New Pages, and Entropy’s monthly submission roundups in utility, and I highly recommend it), a one-woman listserv and resource for writers. The Internet offers all kinds of opportunities to serve the community (which is a large part of how you find & build one). 2. Community with others. She asks her students to find a way to teach writing in the community in places where it otherwise wouldn’t happen. This has involved her students bringing in guest writers to read at local high schools as well as holding workshops with K-12 students (the Young Writers Workshop). 3. Make connections with people you don’t know. Libraries and artists working in other media can be great resources. Can you connect up with other artists in your area? Might your library be hosting events, or welcome an event you create? 4. Create community with others you get to know because of what you do. You don’t need a college degree or anything fancy; you just need to say “this is possible” and make something happen. 5. Once you’ve got something off the ground, connect to other communities and let them feed one another. Allison mentioned Kaveh Ackbar’s Dive Dapper (interviews with poets), and especially its Poetry Carnival ( and also SIU’s Writers in Common (an all-ages workshop intended for writers at all levels). “We replicate our warped little community.”

Brian Oliu: He’s from Tuscaloosa, and the South “doesn’t even get flown over,” it’s that ignored by the larger literary community. He talked about learning your place, in both senses of the term. He moved from New Jersey to Alabama, and at first kept trying to set up events on Monday: no one would show (football). Moved the event to Wednesdays; still no one showed (Bible study). He had to learn the rhythms of the place where he’d moved, and even after living there a decade, he said that he wouldn’t claim he truly knew it. He used the metaphor of how maps work in videogames: everything is grayed out until you begin exploring, and opportunities are unlocked only as you explore. Look for voids: what’s absent? What need could your event fill? You want to be in collaboration with your community, rather than asserting what you think it needs. (This comes back to Allison Joseph’s idea of service to a community as a way of building it.) Brian ran an experiential learning class through Slash Pine Press (, and also put on a literary festival. He also recommended themed events; a theme can add cohesion to an event and make for catchier advertisements. He noted that students often leave their communities in search of a literary life but that they shouldn’t be afraid to build one where they live instead. He recommended looking up your town’s Chamber of Commerce and state Council of the Arts; these organizations are often looking for communities and events to fund, promote, and support.

Mary Biddinger read a gorgeous lyric essay in praise of Akron, OH, a “rustbelt wonderland.” It’s almost impossible to capture her love-letter via summary, so here are a few take-away gems from my frantic note-taking (most are direct quotes):

We have blimps and Rita Dove and are the ribs of the modern world. This place IS postapocalyptic YA fiction. A wicked and corrupt power structure serves as backdrop for the arts. The opioid epidemic is here. We’re on the map because of Lebron. Floating beer cans in the ravine. We are resourceful; we still fill out grants. We gather in church basements and that tech place above the thai restaurant. We meet people outside the university who are also activists. Location as asset, not obstacle. The Signal Tree Festival. The Akron Soul Train residency. Crossroads Writers Conference is moving to Akron, unaffiliated with any press. Accomplishments are earned, not given, here.

Harif Willis-Abdurraqib: Came out of the punk scene in Columbus, OH, and described hardcore bands playing in somebody’s house: “Play loud enough and people will eventually show up.” This is his vision of a literary scene. The slam scene in Columbus is among the best in the nation (he mentioned Writings Wrongs: The university (Ohio State) is influential, but for him, he never found community there; slam was his MFA. A contradiction: young people either matriculate and leave, or stay away from the university but remain in the community. “We aren’t real writers,” he was told, but he wants to push back against that. He can’t imagine the Midwest as not memorable. “The work, in my brain, is writing the forgettable community memorable; we know we’re writers because we’re writing, and we don’t look to the coasts.” A failure of the writing world is that we measure writers by production, by the number of things we’ve created rather than the processes that produced them. What community makes you excited to return to the work of the page? What refreshes you? In NYC, the question is, what do you have? In the Midwest it’s, what are you working on? He’s interested in an ecosystem of lineage that has nothing to do with academia. Who’s here by circumstance? Who can’t leave? Can you see yourself into a place? He mentioned the Mosaic center ( as a place where this work is happening. What does “making it” as a writer even mean? Is it having a brick-and-mortar space where your community can gather? He’s proud of writing a book of Columbus and publishing it in Columbus. “Seeing the writer in the city is vital,” he said.

Brooke Wonders is an Assistant Professor at the University of Northern Iowa. Her nonfiction has appeared in Cutbank, Diagram, and the Collagist, among others. She is the nonfiction editor at the North American Review; she also serves as a co-editor at Grimoire Magazine.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

AWP2018: Sum of the Parts: Creating Cohesion from Fragmented Narratives

Panel Participants: Moderated by Lauren Kay Johnson, the panel consisted of Heather Bryant, Sonya Lea, Susanne Paola Antonetta, and Judith Hannan, who joined the panel when Matthew Komatsu was unable to attend the conference.

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How to put it all together?

Lauren Kay Johnson launched the discussion by describing her own wrestling with fragmentation. She’s writing a memoir about her military experience as well as her mother’s, which requires contextualizing the military and rural Afghanistan; incorporating letters to and from; and paying attention to chronology and tone. And then there’s memory, a “rather unreliable narrator.” How to put it all together?

Heather Bryant, who is writing a memoir about growing up with a transgender father, described a scene where her younger self was with her father in San Francisco at a talk given by Ursula Le Guin. She didn’t remember if he had transitioned or not at that point, and it wasn’t until she later saw a program for that event, which pinned down the date, that she knew for sure. In this case, research played a role. Sometimes, though, the writer may not want all the facts, and may want to let her memory and perceptions be the final word.

Susanne Paola Antonetta’s memories always occur in fragments, due to multiple shock treatments received during adolescence. She’s been working on a memoir about this for twenty years and could request her medical records in order to find out more about her treatment, but she has resisted. “My body and mind are the witnesses,” she said. “I’m not going to get the records.” She talked about how authentic memory can get interrupted or challenged or deliberately written over by others; those records are part of the medical establishment’s story about her, but not her story.

When Judith Hannan wrote Motherhood Exaggerated about her daughter’s cancer treatments, she realized she needed to sort out her family history first. As she wrote, she put a series of critical events as happening during her college years, but later found out they had occurred over a 7-year period. She tried to write it the way it happened, but the story kept going back to its original shape She had experienced a bad episode of anxiety and depression in college, and it was as though her memory put everything into “the bad basket” of those years. She also had trouble remembering who was in the story at different points. When her editor asked if she had a husband, and she said she did, the editor then asked, “Well, where was he?” Hannan didn’t remember. And ultimately, she didn’t force it. “Pay attention to the things that you don’t remember,” she advises. “They tell their own story.”

Sonya Lea is the author of wondering who you are, a memoir about her husband’s cancer and a surgery that left him with no memory of their shared-life of more than two decades. Writing about the experience began as a journal about the loss of an identity in which the body remained. Five years later, she moved into fiction writing because “I couldn’t bond to the new person that was emerging in him and keep writing the memoir,” she said. “It was re-traumatizing me.” Eventually, though, the questions she was asking herself drove her back to the memoir: “What would he have become if I didn’t try to make him into the person he was? It was so startling that I picked up that emotion in the book and in life. What is selfhood? He didn’t have perceptions of his life events except the ones his family told him. I’m completely intrigued by this idea of narrativizing our lives – memory as excavation.”

On the role of imagination in their work: Is it ever okay to elaborate?

Lea: “I think we’re making stuff up all the time. I’m not trying to tell a story I didn’t live. But what does it mean to be present to absence in life? Or to express a fragmented grief? It keeps circling around. Pam Houston says it’s 82 percent fiction or nonfiction no matter what you write.”

Hannan: “It’s not necessarily what happened to you but your perception of what happened. If I don’t remember, I pay attention to what I don’t remember.”

What to keep in? What to leave out?

“We don’t want to write 1000-page book,” said Johnson. “We want to cut out the boring parts. How do you boil that down? When you’re incorporating different sources – what’s the risk of getting information from parents? What about research? Getting medical records or not? They can all complicate things, lead you one way or another.”

Antonetta: “I’m ‘research-y,’” she said. When she had information from the EPA for Body Toxic, she broke it down like poetry. “Maybe it’s fact; maybe it’s someone else’s version of poetry.”

Lea: “I have at least a dozen pages of medical notes at the back of my memoir.” They provide a kind of ballast for her lyrical work. Her husband had a rare cancer and what was an experimental surgery at the time. Putting all of that into the body of the memoir would have stopped a reader.

Bryant: “What you’re drawn to is what matters,” she said. She recalled a family box created by her mother, which contained letters and photos, that connected her to the time when her father was still known as David. “What do you feel pulled by – what drives you – the motor underneath the project. That’s what you include.”

Johnson: “Have trusted readers.” She wanted her story to appeal to a military audience but had to contextualize the story for others, so she had multiple readers with different perspectives read drafts.

Tips for dealing with fragmentation

Lea: “First write in collage style, then a linear story with reflections. Circle back around if memory is not solid. If you think you know things, break them down.”

Hannan: “Sometimes you have to sit. You may fear you’re not going to write it well. Break it down: What were you smelling? What were you seeing? Do all that first, then try to write the whole scene.”

Antonetta: “Just let the fragments be fragments.”

Bryant: “Try to get to a place that’s pre-verbal. Draw a map of a childhood home. Sketch it out. Try to access it in another way. Sometimes when we try to put it into words, we trip up. Or switch genres; write it as a poem. Or try it as fiction and see where you find the flow.”

Some texts that may help:

Safekeeping by Abigail Thomas.

The Bright Hour: A Memoir of Living and Dying by Nina Riggs

The Two Kinds of Decay: A Memoir by Sarah Manguso

Sue Repko’s essays have appeared in Hazlitt, The Southeast Review, The Common, Hippocampus, The MacGuffin and elsewhere. Her work has been named notable in The Best American Essays 2016 and 2017. She has an MFA from the Bennington Writing Seminars.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

AWP2018: Memoir as an Agent of Social Change

Panel Participants: Connie May Fowler, Joy Castro, Sue William Silverman, and Parneshia Jones

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMMaking the best of a dysfunctional microphone set the tone to prove that difficult situations are fertilization for some of the best memoirs as panelists delivered an inspiring workshop that focused on using memoirs as a tool for self-exploration, healing, social movement, and inspiring students. The panelists discussed how memoirs help writers tell their truth, take us through a healing journey, and provide a vehicle for social change linking universal stories that can persuade leaders to act toward oppression and social injustice.

Connie May Fowler, author eight highly acclaimed books including two memoirs discussed the unique benefit memoirs have to offer and how memoirs often allow writers to explore and voice social oppression experienced by marginalized individuals. Fowler shared her own experience with writing memoirs and the insight she gained about the impact of domestic violence in her life.

Joy Castro, author of literary thrillers, memoirs and a short story collection and a Creative Writing professor at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln discussed how she applies a systematic approach to inspire her students to write personal essays that are relevant to their political and social views. Students are asked to list three social or political then choose one topic, as a prompt, to write about a relevant personal experience. Castro further encourages students to utilize historical data, library resources, and other forms of research to collaborate their stories with facts while fostering the acknowledgment that their stories are part of a puzzle and may include incomplete information. The personal essays are then shared with the community via social media to promote awareness.

Parneshia Jones, an award-winning poet, discussed how memoirs are a collage of all genre and may offer poets a viable vehicle of self-expression. Memoirists often use tools from other genres such as history, creative fiction, and poetry. Jones encouraged poets to write memoirs, luring poets to inject a layer of poetry into memoirs. She referenced Tracy Smith, author of three books of poetry and author of the memoir Ordinary Light, in the article What Memoir Can Do That Poetry Can’t to state that memoirs can offer poets the freedom to explore their lives in a different light, without the restraints of poetry. A light where prose asks us to keep talking and “threading things together until a narrative unity announces itself”. She reminds memoirists that memory is feeble and it’s important to talk to family members to get multidimensional perspectives of the experiences and be forgiving with ourselves as we recall and write about our memories.

Sue William Silverman, author of several memoirs has offered a lecture on the topic of memoirs as a form or resistance. Her #MeToo: Intimate Politics & Confessional Writing as Resistance (Winter Residency, 2018) lecture at the Vermount of Fine Arts is available on her website. She reminded the audience that memoirs have been a vehicle of social change and a form of resistance since the sixties. The #Metoo movement has been a collage of micro memoirs that have created a united front to expose the misogynist culture. Memoir writing lends itself as a tool for social change because our stories are universal, teaching tool, and these stories are what keep us alive. Memoirs have the potential to create a wall of words because the story of America is created by the union of our stories.

The panelists offered practical strategies for writers to use while writing memoirs. Practices from self-care, interviewing family members to gather information, and conducting research to support your story. And ultimately panelists encouraged writers to practice self-compassion as they write their truth.

Nilsa Rivera Castro’s works have appeared at Miami Lip Services, The Cream Literary Alliance, Inc, 50GS Literary Magazine, and Writing Class Radio podcast, appearing in several episodes. She participated in writing workshops including Miami Writer’s Institute, Eckerd College, and Sundress Publications. Her debut novel, A Raging Need to Kill, follows the life of a human trafficking victim, who after escaping, sets off to kill her captors. For more information, visit her at

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

AWP2018: The World Grows: New Directions in Environmental Writing

Moderator: Diana Owen; Participants: Camille T. Dungy, Ross Gay, Pam Houston, Aimee Nezhukumatathil

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMAfter an introduction by Diana Owen, Managing Editor of Orion, Aimee Nezhukumatathil led the readings to open this exceptional panel with two poems, “End-of-Summer Haibun” and “Necks.” She first reminded us of ­­ Toi Dericotte’s words: “joy is an act of resistance.” Pam Houston then read from her forthcoming nonfiction book. In her excerpt about finding joy and grief intertwined in the arctic, she asks “how to grieve the polar bear without loving it any less,” and describes running with a “conversion” of narwhal. Camille T. Dungy next read an excerpt from an essay and her poem, “Elegy beginning in the shade of Aunt Mary’s mulberry tree,” in which her daughter, a golden retriever, the mulberry, and her aunt’s death intersect: “this too is a way to speak about Thanksgiving.” Roy Gay closed the readings with a short essay, “Get Me to the Nutrient Cycle,” about our collective cultural amnesia that we, too, are made of nutrients.

Diana opened the Q&A by asking the panel to describe an experience in nature that inspired a particular piece of writing. Camille implored us to apply our “animal bright attention” without censorship to all encounters, not only the beautiful ones. Pam explained that her writing involves the act of paying strict attention to the natural world. She shared a story about observing the pain of a humpback whale caught in fishing line, an encounter where this particular whale called for help, encompassing “every sadness in one.”

Diana asked the panel which genre they are writing in, or most excited by. Ross is writing “essayets,” and hasn’t finished a poem in years. He is excited by essays, about their formless, ecumenical nature. Pam just finished a book of essays masquerading as a memoir, and is drawn to the stillness, the “horizontal energy” of nonfiction (like “irrigating”), as opposed to the “vertical energy” of fiction. Camille has also found herself pulled away from poetry to the urgency of essays, where there is a “direct nugget” she is trying to get to. She finds “commission” and “charge” in essay writing when observing the world right now. Aimee wanted us to know poetry is her first love, but her forthcoming book from Milkweed is an illustrated collection of short nature essays. There is “music, wonderment, and metaphor” to be found in essays exploring darkness.

Diana explained that the Orion readers are increasingly concerned with climate change, and asked the panel if climate change has influenced their writing and how. Pam sees her book as elegy, asking the question: do we “drop the earth off at the vet… to give her the shot, or do we stay there and pat her head?” Camille reminded us “it is hard.” She’s inspired that we are not alone in carrying this heavy burden. When Diana shifted and asked if the panelists find their creative voices changing, Camille responded that she is still in the “chrysalis phase,” ready for a transition. Pam answered that she recently has found self-implication in her voice, and relishes the journey toward it. Ross earned a Tweet from Danez Smith for his “disavowal of mastery” in order to privilege comfort “residing in mystery.” Aimee agreed that mastery implies dominion. She seeks a narrative of “love and tenderness” in this current “appetite for destruction.”

Diana asked if the panelists see nature writing trends in the classroom, and in the broader context of environmental writing. Aimee is excited by a “rainbow selection of nature writers.” Camille drew applause for her description of the expansiveness in nature writing. She insists we “de-narrowfy the lens” because the meaning of “widen” has been cheapened. The inclusive concerns of eco-poetics since the release of Black Nature, the anthology she edited, welcomes an intersection where “everybody’s writing gets better.”

At the end of the finest panel I’ve attended in three years at AWP, Diana opened the floor. When Eve Ewing picked up one of Camille’s threads to question the notion that environmental writing is still widely understood as antithetical to political writing, and how to push against this misconception, Ross brought down the house with his answer: “There is an assumption that land has not been taken from people… that’s our myth… [But] land is fucking political… if you feel that land is apolitical, then you feel that land is yours to take.”

Katelyn Keating’s essays have been recently published in Crab Orchard Review, Flyway, Lunch Ticket, and the anthology, In Season: Stories of Discovery, Loss, Home, and Places in Between. She was a 2017 Los Angeles Review of Books / USC Publishing Workshop Fellow, and she now works with The Workshop. She served as editor in chief of Lunch Ticket in 2017 for issues 11 and 12. She has an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and a BA in communication arts from Skidmore College.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!