FREUDENSCHANDE: PRIV(AC)Y — by Heidi Czerwiec

FREUDENSCHANDE [1]: PRIV(AC)Y

Is there a word for the unsettling sensation of sitting down on an unexpectedly warm toilet seat, because someone used it just before you and sat there for a good long while? Maybe something in German?

Unheimlichgesitzenüberraschung [2]

Usually the cool, even cold, of a seat is itself startling, which is why our society has installed carseat heaters in vehicles, or why the tricked-out Japanese toilets like the Neorest 600 feature pre-warmed seats to accommodate your commode comfort. Accommodating. So, if we prefer warmth, why is this experience so unnerving?

Schrecklichwarmsitzplatzgefühl [3]

It’s unnerving anywhere, but never more so than in a public restroom – a sudden, unwanted reminder that we’re all sharing the same facilities, as much as we try to ignore it or pretend otherwise. The tear of a tampon wrapper. The multiple unspoolings of toilet paper, indicating a number two, a code brown. A strategically-timed sniff or cough to cover a fart. Stinks that arise, that you feel implicated in, even if you weren’t the instigator, when a newcomer enters to a wall of smell just as you’re washing your hands.

Unerwartethindenhitze [4]

The public privy is an uncomfortable, even unwanted reality check on the illusion of privacy. An odd communion in reverse, based not on breaking bread together, but on shedding it. And the unexpected seat warmth is a weird intimacy physically imposed upon us by strangers. A stranger’s private space has intruded upon ours, a stranger’s privates previously pressed to the same place as our privates. Deprived. A piracy of privacy.

Heißefremdenhinternsitz [5]

And yet, this physically-imposed intimacy is physics. More specifically, thermodynamics. In conduction, heat energy flows from the warmer to the cooler object, the faster-moving hot molecules colliding with slower, colder molecules until they arrive at the same temperature together, vibrating in unison.

Unbequemischintimität [6]

It’s not that different from nonfiction – sharing intimacy with a stranger. Whether you’re the writer or reader, intimacies and empathies and energies are flowing between you, across the text, connecting you in ways neither of you expected. Only connect.

Restroom

But “intimacy” isn’t quite right, either. It’s too pretty, with its connotations of a welcome secret, an inside joke, a delicious confession/confection shared between friends, intimates. In much of nonfiction, we are welcomed as confidantes, or at least allowed as sympathetic eavesdroppers.

Belichtungschande [7]

No, what I’m describing is exposure at our most vulnerable. A sense of shame. Some nonfiction shares its author’s shame, a shitshow we’re invited to witness – not always well-done, not always as welcome. Shock is not shame, nor necessarily confession. But when done well, we feel blessed by the gift of shame shifted to us, a shared burden therefore lessened. We call it brave and we mean both of us, writer and reader, for facing it. We find its face human.

Both experiences – nonfiction and toilet seat – can be weird, even gross. But ultimately human, even sublimely so.

Which is why I praise you, unseen sitter, unmoved bowel mover who, in the course of your courses, shared your warmth with me, intentionally or no. I praise the warmth itself, offered freely, uncommodified, proof of your movement, moving me at the molecular physical level, and at the metaphysical. And I praise you, reader, with whom I in turn share my warmth, breaking the illusion of privacy, breaking the fourth (stall) wall, to convey this, a love commodious, to you.

[1] Joyful-shame

[2] Weird-sitting-surprise

[3] Horrible-warm-butt-feeling

[4] Unexpected-butt-heat

[5] Hot-stranger-butt-seat (not in a good way)

[6] Unwanted-intimacy

[7] Shame-of-exposure

 

***

HeidiHeidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent chapbooks — A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, and Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle — and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis, where she teaches with The Loft Literary Center and the Minnesota Prison Writing Workshop, and works with Motionpoems. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com.

 

Megan McInerney writes about Charles Bowden’s “On the Edge with Edward Abbey, Charles Ives, and the Outlaws”

* Note: Bowden’s essay originally appeared (in excerpted form) in High Country News (2014), and was published as a chapter in the book Abbey in America: A Philosopher’s Legacy in a New Century (2015) by John A. Murray. It is recommended that readers listen to Ives’ first piano sonata before reading Bowden’s essay.

AbbeyinAmericaCover

Charles Bowden was one of the fiercest literary voices to emerge from the American Southwest. Readers and aspiring writers alike stand to benefit from careful attention to the way he weds form to content in this essay and the qualities that lend his voice such a powerful presence on the page. The essay blew me away the first time I encountered it. It grabs me in a visceral way, sweeps me up in its discordant musicality, its painstaking questioning, its vivid, haunting imagery. It leaves me feeling as if I’ve been hit with a brick of truth, the magnitude of which I can’t quite absorb.

This was one of the last essays Bowden ever wrote and it brings his talent as a writer and voice of harsh truth into high relief. It’s about dissonance, about the impossible predicament we’re in as a species on this planet, and about the search for meaning and beauty in the midst of so much noise and chaos.

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In just under 2,000 words, Bowden crafts an essay with rhythmic language and form that mimic Charles Ives’ first piano sonata. His powerful metaphors draw connections between the human and natural world, revealing Bowden’s complex questions and insights about the moral dilemma facing us as individuals, as a nation, and as a species.

Dissonance refers to a lack of harmony among musical notes, a tension or clash resulting from the combination of two disharmonious elements. On a thematic level, the notion of dissonance is integral to Bowden’s essay; he invites the reader on a journey through the Southwest landscape and his own mind as he struggles to make sense of two conflicting desires: to help immigrants along the Mexico border, and to protect the wildlife and natural habitat that suffer from a swelling human population. Bowden realizes that he can’t do both at once, but like a wolf trapped in a snare, he wrestles with how to escape this predicament.

In the essay’s opening lines, Bowden confesses that he’s decided to give American composer Charles Ives a second chance. Despite the fact that “for years, I heard nothing but noise,” he wants to know whether he still disagrees with his friend Ed Abbey, who saw brilliance in Ives’ music. This is an important rhetorical move to set up the essay, because as readers we, too, are suddenly keen on discovering whether there’s something worth hearing.

Bowden goes on to discuss an essay of Abbey’s that “begins with a roar” and “gets louder, railing against all immigration and its contribution to overpopulation.” Bowden says, “Ives blasts in my head, and I can hear Ed’s voice chastising me.” By setting up these comparisons at the beginning, the reader understands that Bowden is searching for meaning in Ives’ music, and that in doing so, he’s also examining whether he agrees with Ed Abbey, whose stance on immigration was based on what Bowden calls “an argument without a heart.”

Like Ives’ music, Bowden’s essay opens slowly and softly, in a quiet voice, and roots us in scene near the Sonora/Arizona border, a place of human migration and drug trafficking for “the drugs humans need to face their dread.” He establishes a tone of despair, and he’s introspective as he wanders along the creek, armed with ‘binoculars and a bird book.” Yet Bowden’s voice — and the essay — grow steadily louder and more desperate throughout the piece. We hear Ives’ music and Abbey’s voice blast in Bowden’s head as he wrestles with the fact that when it comes to human migration, drug trafficking and trying to protect grizzly bears or beleaguered wolves, “things are not simple.”

Three quarters of the way through, Bowden’s essay erupts into a chaotic crescendo, in the section that begins “I am crazed about cranes.” The rhythm changes as Bowden’s tone and syntax become increasingly urgent, almost panicked, in the lines describing the inevitable knock on his door:

The wingbeats, Ives, I think, Ed, you were on to something with this Ives stuff, and the cranes beat overhead, and there is a knock at the door, and this is not heaven’s door, no, this is my door and a poor face looks at me with hunger eyes and my God there is no room in the house and I look past the face at a battered land, the ground on fire, the streams boiling, the sky black with dread, birds falling dead from the heavens and I should say no.

At this point, Bowden’s voice is blasting in the reader’s head. His sentences grow long and chaotic, mimicking Ives’ “hard low notes” that clang and a sound that “flows but halts and then leaps, marches then ambles.” This creates a heightened emotional experience for the reader, who can hear and feel the discordant notes of Ives’ music and the brimming urgency of the questions Bowden grapples with.

After the crescendo, the calm arrives. In the first lines of the next section, music lingers in Bowden’s mind and “the door is open, a summer breeze rustles the cottonwoods, the ash, the sycamores along the creek.” It’s a serene, quiet moment where beauty sneaks in: “Then, amidst the clatter of the sonata, I hear the quiet and watch a full-grown bobcat stroll past the French doors as if nothing exists save his beauty.” Bowden’s essay — his coda — falls to a fading note, with Bowden standing in a valley near the border, remembering the region’s last wolf run and lamenting that “everything I need and love is now an outlaw.”

There’s a sense of vanishing, of disappearance, of a desperate last attempt to save what’s worth saving. In the essay’s final lines, this is precisely what Bowden tries to do, against all rational argument and reasoning. With Ives still banging away at the piano in the background, Bowden confesses, “My God, he’s good. Ed, you were right. We gotta get Ives into the lifeboat” and of the migrant woman knocking at the door, Bowden says, “Move over, Ed, she’s climbing aboard.” It’s a definitive statement and moral stance.

As for the significance of Ives’ music in the essay, the answer takes shape for me in the following lines, where Bowden compares Ives’ piano sonata to sandhill cranes passing overhead — “a measured thing against eternity.” The sonata and the cranes — which have the oldest fossil history of any bird — represent a contrast to the ephemeral quality of human life. Ives music is “a noise that becomes notes and then somehow becomes beauty with warring chords banging against each other, old hymns erupting and vanishing again” and what emerges is a pattern delineating human civilization on the earth as if from a birds eye view. We’re in the eruption phase, Bowden would argue, with the world’s population spinning wildly out of control, and the result is a discordant mess. Ives’ music embodies the reality of discordance, of harsh truths, of beauty and death, all at once. There is no justice for the wolf or the Mexican girl.

Music relies upon measured pace and rhythm — like good writing, like sustainable population growth. Ives and Bowden seek meaning and beauty in dissonance, but the lingering question we’re left with as readers is whether there’s any hope to be had for a dissonant world. Even Bowden himself, who devoted his life to writing, admits, “Look into the eyes of a frightened Mexican girl in the desert trying to reach her people in some small town in America and all the clever words fall into the dust.” Bowden forces his reader to consider the role of words and writing. It’s important to note that the essay ends not with a thought or a lasting image, but a concrete action: “Move over, Ed, she’s climbing aboard.”

Eerily enough, after writing an essay that concludes with a rhetorical move acknowledging the possibility that the lifeboat he’s on may sink, Bowden himself passed away.

Bowden brought dissonance and uncomfortable truths to the page. It seems only fitting that he chose to frame this essay with a piece of music that many, including Bowden at first, cringe upon hearing. Why do we listen to music? Often, it’s to escape or indulge in pleasant sounds. Music makes us feel good. We tend to ignore what we don’t like or want to hear. The same might be said, at times, about writing. It’s no wonder Ed Abbey and Charles Bowden, two writers committed to bringing their raw, abrasive voices to bear upon American society, found beauty and brilliance in Ives’ clanging, clattering sounds.

Like Ives’ piano sonatas, Bowden’s essay will haunt me for some time to come.

***

1-Megan Bio Pic 2Megan McInerney is a writer and educator currently living in Missoula, Montana, where she is pursuing an M.S. in Environmental Studies. She holds a B.A. from Reed College and an M.A. in Literature from the Bread Loaf School of English. Her work has also appeared in Camas: The Nature of the West and Flyway Journal of Writing & Environment.

 

Assay Interviews Deborah Poe

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Deborah Poe w/ Serra / Photo credit Karl Bode

Several years ago, I had the pleasure of hearing poet and professor Deborah Poe speak on a panel at AWP with five fellow women writers-professors-scholars. I wanted to interview Deborah for Assay, so that we might benefit from Poe’s creative process, writing, scholarship, and work as a creative writing professor. [Read my brief report for Brevity on that AWP2014 panel, “Another Voice in My Mouth: Persona in Poetry and Prose” with moderator and panelist Holly Wendt, and panelists Kathryn Henion, Claire Hero, Deborah Poe, and Virginia Shank.]

[Renée asks] Deborah, in your talk in the panel I mention above, you discussed researching and crafting your full-length poetry narrative Hélène. It’s an extraordinary poetic novella where a woman in a factory-convent uses her imagination to escape the confines of manufacturing silk in western France (in the 19th century) by pretending she is in China. Hélène imagines she is elsewhere. Poetry can take us elsewhere, but it can also teach us to live right here. In Hélène, your heroine finds a level of personal freedom through imagery. I’m packing so much into this question, forgive me, but here’s a quote from Hélène:

In mythology, little tragedy. The dead function like the living, only with greater

power: order, regularity, organization—oracle bones and artifacts.

Might you talk more about what this quote means to Hélène, to you? How might the dead function like poetry?

[Deborah answers] It’s funny that you bring up that talk, because I just devoted an entire class to research, empathy, and character in my flash fiction course in the Fall 2016 term. I gave the same talk, adapted a bit for fiction. After giving the talk, I then had them do their own research. We watched a video on the White Helmets in Syria as well as Before the Flood (Stevens 2016)—the new film about climate change narrated by Leonardo DiCaprio. Using that research and taking the details they found most significant, they then wrote drafts. Some beautiful work emerged.

For Hélène, I want to include the entire page from the book, which will help me answer your question and contextualize for readers.

I find no portraits of kings, of high officials, men.

In old designs I make out the eyes—more animal in shape—

not men. Powers. Presence in an abstract way

Pragmatic, existential.

In mythology, little tragedy. The dead function like the living, only with greater power: order, regularity, organization—oracle bones and artifacts.

Hélène has had exposure to both French and Chinese art and has had time to register their differences. (I imagined this access through books within communal areas like the office of the factory convent in which she works.) She finds the lack of portraits of kings and high officials in Chinese art emblematic and a differentiating factor between east and west. In the east, as she perceives it, there is not only more of a focus on the natural world but less of a focus on ego.

I see Hélène as deeply observant and intelligent. She is not limited in her thinking and imagination, despite the abysmal working conditions within which she finds herself. I wanted this book to hold both east and west in it without exoticizing the east.

I suppose if we think about this particular passage you cited, the dead function like poetry in that poetry is language. The living language has power. Through the patterns of this living language, there is order, regularity, organization, and experience reflected back to us in script and art.

helene.jpeg

[Renée asks] You have a unit in your creative writing courses called “Revisions and Preoccupations.” Could you tell us about that unit and why you developed it?

[Deborah answers] I provide many opportunities for revision, and consideration of rewriting, throughout the term. But having such a unit in my creative writing courses allows me to underline the importance of revisiting and revising work.

If you’re a creative writing teacher, you undoubtedly find a significant number of students that resist revision—some quite fiercely. “Revisions and Preoccupations” gives us a set aside time to look at revision strategies—whatever the genre—and to consider ways to simplify tackling work again with the same kind of editorial eye and engaged reading that students utilize in workshopping their peers and in discussing published authors.

In poetry, for example, I provide a handout which begins with quotes from acclaimed authors about their own revision process. Then I have various questions for elements of poetic craft for them to help guide rewrites. With point of view, for instance, I ask students if they have tried the poem in first or third person if it’s written in second, or second if they write a lot of their work in third person. Questions like these urge students not to just copy edit their work but to really think about how to make a piece the best piece it can be.

“Preoccupations” is related to “Revisions.” Perusing their work over the semester, students begin to recognize what themes or concepts they return to again and again. That in itself is helpful and often compelling. But recognizing their preoccupations can also provide a lens through which to think about revision. For example, J— realizes in looking through her semester’s collection of writing that she writes a lot of poems with speakers yearning to return home. Using that yearning to return home as a lens through which to study a particular draft helps her think about how she can enrich the description in her piece about the speaker’s beautiful island home, or what is truly at stake in a sense of loss or displacement and if what’s at stake is coming through, or about how changing diction might better serve the tone or mood of the piece.

[Renée asks] In what ways do these “Revisions and Preoccupations” impact your own writing practice?

[Deborah answers] I am highly creative and analytical and am fairly systematic in my approach to revision. I use very similar ones myself in the rewriting phase to the poetry strategies I mention above.

[Renée asks] Would you name a teacher who had a particular impact on your writing practice and your teaching methods? Why was that influence unique? How do you bring that influence into how you teach in your creative writing classrooms?

[Deborah answers] Dr. Bruce Beasley, my professor at Western Washington University during my first two years of graduate school, is the best teacher I ever had. He always took the time with my work. That enabled him to provide suggestions for readings and tools to deepen my particular strengths and challenge my weaknesses. He did not try to impose his own aesthetic on me either. (I am vehemently opposed to teaching that does so.) I endeavor to bring that openness to work, to take the time with students’ work for thoughtful feedback, and to suggest writers they read whenever I think it fitting.

Thank you for your time and answers and body of work! We so appreciate you visiting Assay’s “In the Classroom” series.

****

Deborah Poe is the author of the poetry collections keep (forthcoming from Dusie Press), the last will be stone, too (Stockport Flats), Elements (Stockport Flats), and Our Parenthetical Ontology (CustomWords), as well as a novella in verse, Hélène (Furniture Press). Associate professor of English at Pace University, Pleasantville, Deborah directs the creative writing program and founded and curates the annual Handmade/Homemade Exhibit. She has also taught at Western Washington University, Binghamton University, SUNY, the Port Townsend Writer’s Workshop, Richard Hugo House, and Casa Libre en La Solana in Tucson. Deborah served as Distinguished Visiting Writer for Seattle University during Winter Term 2016.

Listicle: A Brief International Women’s Day/Day Without a Woman Reading List:

In honor of International Women’s Day/Day Without a Woman, here is a brief reading list:

Listicle: Resources for Teaching Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter”

I visited several creative writing courses last week, and Jo Ann Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter” was mentioned several times.

  • Find the original essay, published in The New Yorker, here.

Here are some resources for teaching and reading this essay:

  • Find Lynn Kilpatrick’s piece for Assay’s “In the Classroom” series, here.
  • Sarah M. Wells’ article, “The Memoir Inside the Essay Collection: Jo Ann Beard’s Boys of My Youth” (on the entire book), here.
  • Find Ned Stuckey-French’s commentary on the author, the essay’s form and context, including additional reading resources, here.
  • Find Jill Christman’s reflections in Essay Daily, including classroom exercises, here

If you have other resources, please let me know and I’ll add them to this page.

Thank you!

-Renée

#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 — 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.

monson

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 — 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?”

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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 — Anne Pinkerton on “Tell the Truth & Lie to Me”

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PM#AWP17 Panel R129: Tell the Truth and Lie to Me

Description: What happens when a novelist obviously mines from her own life, or a nonfiction writer invents whole scenes that never occurred, or a poet convinces the reader of bearing witness to a fabricated experience? Is there an ethical agreement between reader and writer that dictates these parameters or does art conquer all? In this panel, writers from three different genres read from their own work and discuss how factual accuracy shapes their writing.

Panelists: Meghan DaumLisa GlattDavid Hernandez

Conference Report

During this first panel of the first day of my first AWP, I experienced my favorite presentation of the entire conference. I make it sound like the sessions were all downhill from there, which isn’t true. But this one, as a nonfiction writer who struggles with memory and accuracy and the problem of missing pieces — plus the desire to present the truth but also write a compelling, well-rounded story — really spoke to me.

At 9:00 a.m. sharp, in marched our three hosts, representing the three main literary pillars: nonfiction, fiction, and poetry — and all, we were told right away, close friends. The warm connections between them emanated into the room, giving a comfy, lighthearted vibe to our bunch of introverts avoiding the front row. The topics discussed weren’t particularly lighthearted, however. Ranging from a medically-induced coma to a bodily collision with a car to a brother attempting arson, the subject matter was as dark and real and as, well, true as it gets.

I’ve been a genuine #FanGirl of Megan Daum, our moderator, ever since I read her memoir My Misspent Youth, back in 2001, and even more so since she edited the collection Selfish, Shallow, and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. Daum, who was as funny and wise as I’d hoped, opened by mentioning “the uneasy coexistence between real experience and writing,” a concept I’d never thought about in those words, but which made perfect sense once she said it.

She talked about the phrase ‘inspired by true events’ — “meaning we lifted real things and turned them into fiction,” she said, as well as the opposite notion, where writers fold made-up elements into a true story. Appropriately, Daum mentioned that this slippery slope is particularly relevant in terms of our current political system with its fake news, alternative reality, and “truthiness” coined by Stephen Colbert. “We’re not working as journalists, after all,” she said. “So what does this mean for literary writing? To be believable for the writer of creative nonfiction,” with our tendencies toward embellishment, toward that notion of “the truth as we see it.”

Poet David Hernandez read three of his pieces, beginning with the aptly titled, “Remember it Wrong,” which included poignant lines like, “memory is a murky thing/always changing its mind.” He would later mention the famous poem “In the Waiting Room” by Elizabeth Bishop, in which she references photos in a specific 1918 issue of National Geographic that turned out not to appear in there after all. Bishop would later confess she must have misremembered. But after all, she had stated in the piece that she was only seven years old, and that “you are an I, you are an Elizabeth,” providing a disclaimer of sorts that the perspective on the truth was her own and only her own.

Before cracking open her book, The Nakeds, novelist Lisa Glatt told us in the audience, “I really was hit by a car.” She then read an excerpt in which her young protagonist undergoes the same thing. Knowing that the event was drawn from personal experience while listening to the scene unfold was surely more eerie than reading it while thinking it fiction. Nonetheless, we got the point.

Daum finished the presentation by recalling an essay she wrote in which she attempted to recreate an actual event in which was ultimately rendered unconscious by a violent brain infection. Seemingly impossible, since despite the thing actually happening to her, she wasn’t entirely there, she told us how this might be done: by talking to her husband and friends who witnessed the occurrence, by inserting her few foggy recollections, and most fascinating, by inserting doctors’ notes from her 500 plus pages of medical records. “I mean talk about an unreliable narrator!” she joked. But because her narrator was also honest about what she did and didn’t remember, she felt utterly trustworthy.

In the energetic Q & A period, issues around James Frey’s now legendary lying in his memoir swirled around, as did the concerns raised by friends and family members about whether the writers in their lives will use them in their stories. Glatt’s brother once threatened to sue her if she did! Interestingly, in other AWP panels I attended, I would hear story after story about people who actually felt left out.

In the end, the genres and particular rules were proposed: In creative nonfiction, the writer has a contract with the reader; in fiction, one has to make things as true as possible while lying like crazy; and in poetry, Hernandez said, “I am more interested in emotional truth.”

Still, Daum ended, “there’s a spectrum of rules,” and “we’re drawing from real life,” she said, just this side of “inspired by true events.”

[Editor’s Note: Read a piece about Meghan Daum’s Unspeakable by Amanda Page in Assay’s “In the Classroom” series.]

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Anne Pinkerton is a communications professional and a contributing writer for the Mount Holyoke College Alumnae Quarterly. She holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Bay Path University, and her work has appeared in riverSedge Literary Journal, Write Angles Journal, and others.

Waveform #AWP17 Reading and Panel

waveform

We recently interviewed Marcia Aldrich about the new anthology Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women.

Waveform has a Wednesday reading in D.C. and a Saturday panel as part of #AWP17. Please attend; let’s support this anthology! Here’s that information:

#AWP17 Off-site event: Waveform Book Launch, Reading, & Discussion

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When: Wednesday, February 8, 6:30PM – 7:30PM

Where: Kramerbooks & Afterwords Cafe

1517 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, District of Columbia 20036

For full information, see kramers.com/waveform

Waveform celebrates the role of women essayists in contemporary literature. Historically, women have been instrumental in moving the essay to center stage, and Waveform continues this rich tradition, further expanding the dynamic genre’s boundaries and testing its edges.

 

#AWP17 Waveform Panel Information:

When: Saturday, February 11, 2017, 10:30am to 11:45am

Where: Marquis Salon 1 & 2, Marriott Marquis, Meeting Level Two
(Jocelyn Bartkevicius, Marcia Aldrich, Barrie Jean Borich, Kyoko Mori, Jericho Parms)
In 2014, The New York Times asked if it’s a golden age for women essayists. Cheryl Strayed gave a qualified yes. But while a wave of women’s essays is shaping the literary scene, women are underrepresented in journals and the standard-bearer, Best American Essays. Our panel explores the literary fallout from this paradox, the shape-shifting nature of essays, why it’s tricky to identify as a woman writer, the effects on our work when asked to write as women, and the complications of invisibility.
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Useful links and further resources:

Find more information and to purchase Waveform from the University of Georgia Press, here.

Use Waveform in your courses. Teaching resources and much more information can be found at the Waveform site, here.

Read Aldrich’s excellent interview with Essay Daily, “Riding the Wave: Marcia Aldrich on Diversifying the CNF Anthology,” here.

The full list of contributors: Marcia Aldrich, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, Chelsea Biondolillo, Eula Biss, Barrie Jean Borich, Joy Castro, Meghan Daum, Jaquira Díaz, Laurie Lynn Drummond, Patricia Foster, Roxane Gay, Leslie Jamison, Margo Jefferson, Sonja Livingston, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Brenda Miller, Michele Morano, Kyoko Mori, Bich Minh Nguyen, Adriana Paramo, Jericho Parms, Torrey Peters, Kristen Radtke, Wendy Rawlings, Cheryl Strayed, Dana Tommasino, Sarah Valentine, Neela Vaswani, Nicole Walker, Amy Wright.