Writers to Read: On Compression by Taylor Brorby

As Polonius reminds us in Hamlet, “brevity is the soul of wit.” But when dealing with geological time, this might seem oxymoronic. When reading about earth’s time periods millennia need dozens, if not hundreds, of pages—and let’s not even begin to discuss the amount of pulp needed to begin writing about millions of years. Yet compression seems to be the best ingredient in Barbara Hurd’s compact 712 word essay, “Fracking: A Fable.”

Hurd’s lush and vivid language put Earth’s time into human language:

“Rain fell for centuries, and millions of years after that, the ancient Appalachian Basin just west of what is now the East Coast spent even more millennia becoming a sprawling, shallow bowl. And then nothing much happened. Another million years passed.”

Hurd takes our understanding of time and, like rolling a piece of play-doh, condenses it and presses it smaller. Millions of years are rendered in short sentences. With a flick of a phrase, time—time beyond human understand or concept—is whisked away:

“More tens of thousands of centuries passed while the water sloshed and the undersea mud thickened, and in all that time, no human ever stood on its shores, no blue crab ever scurried in the ooze.   There were no witnesses. And even if there had been, who could have stood the boredom of watching that slow, barely breathing world?”

What many readers might consider monumental in Earth’s history, Hurd renders in pithy sentences: “A few continents collided, some peaks rose, some valleys sank.” No big deal. And part of the reason the movement of time is no big deal in Hurd’s piece is that the main focus is on the precious energy source our lives depend upon: oil. Hurd’s piece is not strident, doesn’t chastise, and is not what we might call typical “activist” writing. Yet there is a lurking concern in her layered approach—subtly, Hurd urges the reader to think of time, what the scale of time looks like—the reader might dig deeper to understand how humans have manipulated Earth’s processes for our own benefit, our own dominance.

Halfway through the essay, Hurd’s pacing shifts. The sentences pick up tempo, and we start to blaze across the page at lightning speed. Look at this:

“We developed with lightning speed—geologically speaking—our brains and vision and hands, our fast and furious tools, our drills and ingenuity, and all the while that ooze-become-rock lay locked and impenetrable, deep in the earth, farther than anything, including anyone’s imagination, reached, until in the split second that is humankind’s history on this planet we pushed a drill with a downhole mud-motor a mile deep and made it turn sideways and snaked it into that ancient rock speckled with evidence of another eon, and a few minutes later we detonated small explosives and blasted millions of gallons of slick water—sand and water and a bit of biocide in case anything was alive down there—into what hadn’t seen water or light for four hundred million years.”

One sentence. Compression does not necessarily mean short sentences; it can also mean rapid, quick-moving, and lucid thinking—this, undoubtedly is one of the hallmarks of Hurd’s piece (which writers might also turn to for vivid language, rich imagery, or the play of mind-bending concepts of time). In this way, Hurd mimics the geological compression throughout Earth’s history. The writing condenses, is layered, and has staying power like a geological period.

By the end of the essay Hurd alludes to the risks of fracking—not by commentating on spills or radioactive material—but through our understanding of story:

“And when the slick water was withdrawn from the fissures and small slither-spaces and that prehistoric bedrock was lickety-split forever changed, no one could predict the impact, not even we inventive humans whose arrival on this planet is so recent, whose footprints, so conspicuous and large, often obliterate cautionary tales.”

Eventually, Hurd’s sentences do shorten. Her final two paragraphs are each single sentences: “And soon the unpredictable, as always, occurred.” Disaster? Biocide? The reader’s mind is left to its own devices. “And now, in no time at all, not everything takes forever any longer.” The reader, pushed along a continuum of time, now understands just how quickly we inventive humans have compressed the timescale of the world.

Like a smooth river stone, Barbara Hurd’s “Fracking: A Fable” is smooth and round, something to carry in your pocket, pull out, examine. It is bedrock. Enjoy the language, the imagery, but enjoy too its precision, it’s compression. After all, it speaks to a practice that places us and the future of ecology in peril.

***

ContributScreen Shot 2014-10-08 at 11.07.44 AMing Editor Taylor Brorby is currently pursuing his MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University. A fellow at the Black Earth Institute, he is currently working on a poetry collection related to the Bakken oil boom, as well as an essay collection and editing an anthology of creative writing on fracking, “Fracture,” for Ice Cube Press, due out this winter. Taylor is a regular contributor to Assay’s “In the Classroom” series, and he is the book review editor at Orion Magazine.

A Moveable Feast #PorteOuverte by Jen Palmares Meadows

When you hear of the Paris attacks, you read what you can from your computer, of the urgency to apprehend shooters, to save hostages, to care for victims. You have never known war, but know that in instances of despair, stories of hope and heroism will begin to emerge. You search for them amongst the carnage, and they come, without fail. A man pulling wounded from Bataclan Concert Hall. Taxicabs shepherding people home without fare. Parisians offering shelter to strangers, with the hashtag #PorteOuverte, meaning ‘open door.’

You don’t know anyone in Paris, nor have you ever been. In your mind, Paris is breathtakingly beautiful, but what you know of it is croissants and berets, and the Eiffel Tower and the Louvre. Still, because you are a narcissist, you imagine yourself in Paris, imagine the absolute fear. As a writer, as a human, this is often the first step one takes towards empathy, towards understanding…

Her tweet would have read:

27 rue de fleurus. My salon is open. #porteouverte

Gertrude Stein would have opened her doors to you. Her voice would have carried in the darkness, her thick hand pulling you inside, leaving only a moment to slide locks into place. “Come away from the windows,” she might say, motioning you deeper into her salon, where others have sought shelter.

“Don’t let them in. They might be one of the terrorists,” a shadow calls from behind a hat stand.

“Are you mad?” Another voice. “We must let them in! We must!”

“Here,” Ms. Stein says, pointing to the wall farthest from the street, and you join those huddled on the floor. Ms. Stein hands you a coat, one she says was left by a patron. It is itchy and durable, smelling like oranges and the sea.

In the dim light, some read news updates on their phones, and text their mothers. Others use their phones to illuminate the pages of books they have taken from Ms. Stein’s shelves. You see her collection is massive, having grown over many decades. There are new works, you had not expected, but should have known would be there: Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, and Eula Biss’s Notes From No Man’s Land. And there is work from Svetlana Alexievich, Junot Diaz, Carole Maso, Sherman Alexie, Chinua Achebe. Books, so many books.

You pull from the shelf, A Moveable Feast. You first read Ernest Hemingway’s short memoir, of his years as a struggling, young, expatriate in the 1920s, when you were in graduate school, and you loved it then, loved wandering Paris with Hemingway and hobnobbing with Gertrude Stein, Picasso, F. Scott Fitzgerald.a-moveable-feast

In the safety of Ms. Stein’s salon, you read, and your heart is with Hemingway and Paris. You drink with him at La Closerie des Lilas and watch fishermen along the banks. Looking over the water, Hemingway tells you, “We should live in this time now and have every minute of it.” And you agree, because this Spring cannot be everlasting.

You chat with Sylvia Beach at Shakespeare and Company, and borrow books from her lending library. You “ate well and cheaply and drank well and cheaply and slept well and warm together and loved each other.” You attend horse races, drinking champagne, and calling obscenities from the stands. Hemingway displays much of his famed chauvinism, sharing odd conversations with Fitzgerald and Ford Maddox Ford. His overt sexism is obnoxious, particularly when he describes his falling out with Ms. Stein.

“There is not much future in men being friends with great women although it can be pleasant enough before it gets better or worse, and there is usually even less future with truly ambitious women writers.”

After that, you wonder why you are on this walk with him at all. Despite countless oysters, countless bottles, with Hemingway, your thirst and hunger is never assuaged. You and he wander Paris with a lasting dissatisfaction, an endless hunger, so common to the lost generation to which Hemingway belonged.

Shouting from the street frightens you. A look around Ms. Stein’s salon reveals that many others have begun to read A Moveable Feast as well. Now, they too ramble along with you and Hemingway, a veritable Parisian cafe crawl.

Of the crawl, there is much to enjoy, much to learn about writing. Hemingway shares his theory of omission, in which, “you could omit anything if you knew that you omitted and the omitted part would strengthen the story and make people feel something more than they understood.” You see merit in his theory, see how it applies well to flash fiction and micro essays.

“What is that?”

“You would like it.”

“I did not know how I would ever write anything as long as a novel,” he admitted. “It often took me a full morning of work to write a paragraph.”

There is comfort in this.

And throughout, Paris is with you, its trees and its rivers, its landscape. When Hemingway describes a Paris spring threatened by rains, you become silent:

“Sometimes the heavy cold rains would beat [Spring] back so that it would seem that it would never come and that you were losing a season out of your life…But you knew there would always be the spring, as you knew the river would flow again after it was frozen. When the cold rains kept on and killed the spring, it was as though a young person had died for no reason.” (Here you begin to cry.)

“In those days, though,” he went on, “the spring always came finally but it was frightening that it had nearly failed.”

Later, A Moveable Feast will make the French bestseller list, a half century after its publication. Adam Biles, the current manager at Shakespeare and Company, will call A Moveable Feast, “a symbol of optimism…a symbol of Paris as Paris should be. It’s a symbol of cafe culture. It’s a symbol of literary culture…It’s everything that, in many ways, was attacked.”

“This is a love letter to Paris,” the woman next to you says, clutching the book to her chest.

Still reading, you rub the wet from your face, and agree.

***JanPalmaresMeadows

 

Jen Palmares Meadows writes from northern California. Her work has appeared in Brevity, The Rumpus, Denver Quarterly, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Memoir Journal, Kartika Review, Essay Daily, and in other places. She is currently at work on a collection of Vegas stories, where she writes about sex, gambling, and church, not necessarily in that order, but sometimes all at once.

Assay@NFN15: You Lived Through It; Do We Have to Read About It?

Editor’s Note: Sejal Shah’s panel report concludes our coverage of NonfictioNOW. Thank you, all, for your generous contributions, which made it possible for those unable to attend to take part. See you at AWP 2016!

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Sandi Wisenberg (Moderator), Elizabeth Kadetsky, Thomas Larson, and Janice Gary

Panel description: Much has been written about the therapeutic benefits of writing for survivors of traumas such as war, disasters, slavery, disease, rape, incest. Writing is generally agreed to be good for the mental health of the amateurs. When does nonfiction writing about trauma rise to the level of art? What makes some artful, and others, self-serving? The answers are subjective, but we will explore the questions and hazard some answers. Speaking as writers, readers, and editors, we will examine successful and unsuccessful creative nonfictions and tease out our reasons for making those judgments.

 

Sandi Wisenberg:

The title of Sandi Wisenberg’s piece is “Notes on Distance and Density.” In it, Wisenberg looks at Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” an essay (“The Mother, the Daughter, and the Holy Horse: a Triology”) by the writer Judy Ruiz; Wisenberg also mentions Toni Morrison’s writing about slave narratives “as a form of autobiography”—and says that within this genre, Frederick Douglass is able to convey an “exploration of inner life.”

Wisenberg asks, “What if, in describing your desperation on the page, you fought against revealing this desperation on the page?” Joan Didion “famously recorded the despair of her twenties in ‘Goodbye to All That,’ but “her distance contains her feelings of crisis.” Didion writes, “I was not yet then guilt-ridden about spending afternoons that way [beer can cut, gazpacho, crying, etc.] because “I still had all the afternoons in the world.” Wisenberg describes Didion’s iconic essay as an elegy for the single life and the time we all had then.” She notes, “The analysis makes the piece. Didion knows even her feeling of being unique is universal.”

Wisenberg also mentions writing letters (blue aerogrammes!) when she was in Paris at 20 (and “miserable as usual”) and later keeping a blog when she was diagnosed with breast cancer—and about both of these forms of writing (letter and blog) as places where there is both emotion and also opportunity for writing that is not only in the midst of the suffering; she suggests there is more of opportunity in the blog than in the aerogram, but does not dismiss the aerograms and what can be found there, as well.

 

Thomas Larson:

Tom Larson began his talk, “My Trauma, My Deconstruction,” with a discussion of his memoir, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, in which he wanted to “chart the psychological and relational rapids of [his] three heart attacks, which struck between 2006 and 2011.” He discussed the transformative power of the trauma memoir. “I believed (and still do) in the transformative power of the trauma memoir.” He asks himself, “Why was I chosen? Perhaps once I write the story, I’ll have a better idea. Which, at best, can only be inconclusive. Trauma is that experience which should have killed us but didn’t.” Larson says his audience is less of those “who are from where I am now and more of those who lie with my pre-heart-attack self.” As examples, Larson brings up Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, The Drowned and the Saved, and The Leftovers, and describes them as “death-obsessed.” “We authors,” he explains, “often mistake making it through as proof of a cracked or purposeful design.”

Larson asks, “Where was my book when I needed to read it? If I wouldn’t have read me, why did I, why do I, expect others to follow suit?” Larson says, “I do know memoir as preventative medicine often does not work… our lives are slumbers, we see in retrospect.” Larson says he does not know why some “tragic/redemptive stories” work on readers and others don’t. He quotes Carl Jung, who said most people seek self-knowledge, but they fail because they start out too late and run out of time. Larson wants to think “the trauma memoir might be of assistance in this awakening.”

 

Elizabeth Kadetsky:

In her talk, “Flash Memories and Misery Memoirs,” Elizabeth Kadetsky spoke first about the stigma and popularity of what historian Ben Yagoda termed “the misery memoir.” She also discussed the more reputable tradition of memoir “as testimony—documents of a communal justice.” This category included ethnic American and African American autobiography and Holocaust memoirs—some of the most popular titles include Eli Wiesel’s Night and Malcolm X’s autobiography.

Kadetsky said that during the 1980s the “impetus to testify about one’s individual versus communal trauma began to win respect.” Kadetsky attributes this in part to the trauma studies movement. She mentioned Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s book, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, Judith Herman’s essential Trauma and Recovery and the idea that in order to heal, the one who has undergone the trauma must speak and must be heard. Kadetsky uses the example of Eli Wiesel—in Night— who asks the question ‘How does one describe the indescribable?’ She said, “This question—how to describe the indescribable—is the task set forth for the writer who seeks to rise above the misery memoir.” She suggests that the answer lies perhaps in the actual definition of trauma, which has been medicalized as a syndrome in the DSM as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Kadetsky says that trauma is “experienced in an immediate way that bypasses the narrativizing constructs of the brain that give context and meaning to most experience.” She said that it seems some of the success of successful trauma memoirs may be owed to moments that “mimetically illustrate the experience” of PTSD by “using elements of writing craft such as…insistent images from the past, intrusive thoughts that disrupted chronology, and even a kind of deflection or avoidance.” As examples, Kadetsky lists Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, JoAnn Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Kadetsky notes that Didion successfully invokes the state of grief through repetition, fragments, and disconnected memories, artfully rendered.

In her own experience, Kadetsky has written three essays about an episode that led, in the six months after, to her mother’s death and her sister’s homelessness. Kadetsky said that she kept the question, “Why would your story matter to me?” in mind when writing and recreating her own experience.

 

Janice Gary:

Janice Gary’s presentation is titled, “Given Sugar, Given Salt: On Trauma and Memoir.” Gary begins with these lines: “You work with what you are given,” from a Jane Hirschfield poem in Hirschfield’s collection titled, “Given Sugar, Given Salt.” Gary addresses the sense we as writers might have (quoting an agent)—once there’s a great memoir in the field—there doesn’t need to be another one on the same topic written. Gary says, “As nonfiction writers, as writers of memoir, we work with the shapeless, clay-like material of our life. Given sugar, we write about sugar, given salt, we write about salt.” She made the point that “given trauma, we write about it- not because we think it is sensational material, [but] because we cannot not write about it.”

Gary points out that there is a “very high bar set for memoir—especially those dealing with trauma—and a lot of prejudice…. A writer has to be willing to face their own reluctance and societal pressure not to tell just to get it on the page.” Gary discussed her own memoir, Short Leash. She was afraid no one wanted to hear about her rape or read another memoir with a dog in it. But then Gary also read “beautiful memoirs about difficult lives” including Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face; Gregory Orr’s The Blessing; Richard Hoffman’s Half the House; Katherine Harrison’s The Kiss. Gary said, “In all of these books, it was the writing that held me in thrall, not the subject matter. These books and authors transformed life into art.” She cited Dani Shapiro in Still Writing: “The thing you’ve been writing is not a diary…contrary to the notion you have …you have chosen every single word, you’ve crafted each sentence.”

Gary said she has read many moving and beautiful memoirs. In one memoir she found to be not as successful, Margo Fraguso’s Tiger, Tiger, there was too much scene, scene, scene, and not enough reflection. “The what happened—trauma itself—is not what a memoir should be about.” Gary quoted John Updike who said, “Literature is the most subtle self-examination known to man.” The writer examining her life, attempting to “discover who they are in relation to what has happened to them—that’s what I look for in a memoir—trauma or no trauma. Writing about what is supposed to be kept silent is not only a literary, but also a political act.”

At the end of her remarks, Gary answered the panel’s question (asked in the panel’s title), “You Lived Through It; Do We Have to Read about It?” She said, “No, you don’t have to read it. Just don’t tell me not to write it.”

 

Q &A: Included Hope Edelman asking about reader response in the age of Internet criticism—the ability to reach us easily; cyber violence against female memoirists. One of the only kinds of bullying allowed now. Criticisms often posted online became personal attacks.

 **

Sejal Shah’s writing has been nominated for Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize. Her lyric essays and short stories have appeared in various places including Brevity, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Kenyon Review, The Literary Review, and The Marginsas well as being featured in The Huffington Post. She lives in Rochester, New York. www.sejal-shah.com.

Assay@NFN15: “Writing the Difficult Other”

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 Sarah Tomlinson, Liz Prato, Sarah Einstein

Sarah Tomlinson: wrote memoir about her eccentric, mentally-ill father – everyone but him realized he was delusional – but her hope was that she had rendered him with enough compassion that people would understand her dad. She says that there was no abuse, but lies, neglect, and abandonment – and notes that people’s reaction was that there wasn’t enough abuse to matter so much

Liz Prato: had written a memoir about her dad’s and brother’s descent into addiction and mental illness, and their suicides within a year of each other, and thought she was done with them. Then, while clearing out father’s house, she found 2 things: a list of all the people he’d had sex with, including the name of her brother, and a list of definitions of words related to pedophilia. How to write about her father now? The father she knew was not a bad man, but molesters and rapists are bad men. How to make sense of this? She read Emerson’s essay “Compensation,” in which he says every evil has its good. She came to a place of compassion – not, “my father is a monster,” but “my father has a monster in him.”

Sarah Einstein: wrote a book about a relationship with a homeless, mentally ill man with whom she had a friendship. How to represent on the page his delusional reality and let it exist as a voice, as his own truth, and not in a way that makes a spectacle or gimmick of it? During a conversation where he’s convinced his sister has died, he mentions he molested her when they were young – this moment was the most tense moment of their relationship, and the book. Einstein wondered whether to omit it, and did for a while, but realized he had said it and it was his to say, and she needed to allow him to speak for himself.

[then turns to roundtable discussion, including audience]

LP: It’s too easy to write the “everyone pick up your pitchfork” piece – there are no pure villains or heroes.

SE: How can you capture moments of tenderness or genius – make these people as well-rounded and complex as possible so readers don’t reduce these people to what they think they already know about molesters/homeless/mentally ill/etc.

LP: example of Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

SE: If the person is a sociopath, if there are very negative qualities (cruelty, lack of empathy, etc.), you don’t need to label the person – just put that behavior on the page and let the reader perceive that for themselves. But also ask, in what ways is the person bigger or more than their sociopathy or dysfunction, so we’re not focused on the pathology, but on the bad behavior and its effects on you and others.

ST: her background was in literary fiction and NF, but it was working in ghostwriting that helped her write difficult characters – usually, these were traumatic stories of drug abuse, violence, trauma, and it helped her to help them find the compassion/empathy/complexity, and this in turn helped her with her own memoir.

LP: autobiography is a research-checked factual account, but memoir is the story of what you remember – it might not be totally accurate, but do your best to get it right.

SE: The people who have harmed you have forfeited the right to fact-check you – the fact that they’ve harmed you will inform the reader that the harm has affected how you remember the events.

__________

Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing in Angle, Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal.  She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

Assay@NFN15: “Crafting True: The Complementary Worlds of Narrative Journalism and The Essay”

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  • A bullet point summary by Angele’ Anderfuren @AngeleOutWest

Panelists:

  • Megan Kimble @MeganKimble
  • Lisa O’Neill @LisaMOneill_
  • Katherine E. Standefer @girlmakesfire
  • Hattie Fletcher of @cnfonline

Topics:

  • The intersection of journalism and creative nonfiction.
  • The differences in reporting a story and telling a story.
  • The telling of our truths, of a truth, of another’s truths.
  • Objectivity and perspective.

Defining the topic:

Journalism is…

  • Reported material
  • A story based on verifiable facts
  • Not usually first person, but could be in some instances
  • The destination

Creative Nonfiction/Essay is…

  • Stories with less of a formal structure
  • Often first person in the story
  • The experience of discovering truth
  • Story out of what’s really happening
  • Using the devices of fiction to tell a true story

 

How journalism can help or hinder the form:

Katherine, comes from a fiction and poetry writing background before being a journalist:

  • Journalism helped me limit my scope and make sure the right stakeholders are involved in the conversation
  • Projects start personal and grow outwards
  • I became a better nonfiction writer by examining how other peoples’ stories related to my story
  • Asks, how do I bring a reader into the sensory world, how do I making meaning associatively?
  • One thing journalism has to offer is clarity of purpose in the story

Lisa, was a general assignments reporter for small newspaper in Louisiana, then did PR for a nonprofit:

  • I came to writing as a way to make sense of the world
  • I wanted to be a journalist because I saw journalism as a way to create change
  • I loved the diversity of the job
  • I found myself frustrated because I had opinions about things and felt that objectivity in journalism was limited and not entirely true
  • I was aware how I was shaping stories by who I was putting first
  • One thing I think about is: How much I need to be in the piece?
  • What do I have to offer as a narrator versus a witness?
  • It is really important to me to include other people’s voices

Hattie, Managing Editor for Creative Nonfiction magazine:

  • We don’t always talk about the history of creative nonfiction
  • There are two strands to the history:
    • St Augustan and Montaigne
    • An evolutionary strand from journalism and new journalism
  • Journalism was assumed to be authoritative knowledgeable, objective, just-the-facts writing
  • But a lot of writers came to say that is crap
  • There’s been a steady infusion of first person journalism, not the front page but in the features
  • CNF the magazine comes more out of that second thread, the new journalism thing
  • We have a preference for information-based narrative.
  • But we try to provide spaces to accommodate more of the genre.
  • We do more fact checking than most; we draw the line on calling people’s family members.
  • There’s enough of a debate in CNF already, so you must verify what’s verifiable. If you don’t, that undermines the credibility of the story that is being told.

Differences in craft…

Megan:

  • First real job out of school was as an assistant for the LA Times. Was told, if your sentence doesn’t contain a paragraph’s worth of information, it is not a good sentence.

Hattie:

  • Creative Nonfiction magazine and the Atlantic article – a comparison

·      Recently Joe Fassler had his essay “Wait Times” published in CNF (4500 word version) and a shorter (2500 word version) published in The Atlantic with the title “How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously: When my wife was struck by mysterious, debilitating symptoms, our trip to the ER revealed the sexism inherent in emergency treatment.”

  • The CNF version of the story has some reflection, about the medical system, what it is like to see someone you love in pain
  • The Atlantic had a better title, more grab-able and sharable, tons of comments
  • Fundamentally the same story
  • Joe preferred the longer version with the space to reflect, artistic space
  • “A lot of the nuance of the story got lost”
  • “It is a completely different reading experience.”
  • Internet journalism, it’s kind of about fanning the flames.
  • You’re not expecting to be surprised

Ethical obligation as journalists/writers of CNF…

Katherine:

  • Similar to the way a reader is going to show up differently, I show up differently depending on the piece that I am working on
  • I am sort of a character along the way but I don’t know what way I will appear in the story, how much will get cut out

Lisa:

  • Relationships are the priority in my writing
  • My time in public relations is really helpful
  • Some journalists would come in with no sense of the complexities of a person’s stories
  • I come out of that with a need to feel authentic and recognize the power dynamic at play
  • I consider when I bring in a voice recorder and when I don’t, putting in time with people
  • Who I am is really clear in the persona

What about the I…

Megan:

  • Absence vs presence of the narrator changes the piece
  • I always have to ask, is this person necessary here?
  • The “I” can help guide readers and show them how to get there

Hattie:

  • Information rich writing also needs to be personal
  • The reporter needs to be present in some way
  • I don’t want the solution to be “put yourself in it,” but that is often what we need to answer, why you are writing this story.
  • A personal investment has to be shown in the narrative.

Lisa:

  • What is the lynch pin of the story?
  • Does something in my life or experience illuminate something in the story?
  • Can it bring something to the reader?
  • Will it be about me in a way that is distracting from the story?
  • Will it compromise what the story is truly about?

Kati

  • Book rec: Katherine Boo – Behind the Beautiful Forevers
  • http://www.behindthebeautifulforevers.com/
  • The final section of the book is on her research
  • She interviewed the same people multiple times to check out the story, interviewing other witnesses
  • She didn’t need her presence in the story to be credible
  • Including myself becomes this tool, it is credibility from recognizing the reporting of the reporting
  • What are ways in which I have to acknowledge my privilege and my understanding of the place or lack of understanding

Megan:

  • Filtering the information that is the truthiness journalism through personal experience
  • What can any one person do with big issues?
  • Who am I to write this?
  • The I can be an accessible way into a daunting, big topic
  • Bringing readers along on that journey with you

Assay@NFN15: “The Essayist as Human”

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Kirk Wisland, Sarah Einstein, Cesar Diaz, Steven Church

Kirk Wisland:  Blogging is satisfying because the immediacy of what is published most closely resembles who we are when we wrote what was published. Wisland is worried that the previous versions of documents from 1997 MS Word might no longer be available because of technological advances. Also, worried that in the desire to write more meaningfully can lead to a desire to seek out the traumatic experiences. Was secretly grateful for writing inspiration after a friend had passed away.  Questions whether it’s fair to write about the dead, because it’s easier than having the reactions from writing about the living. “Maybe it’s the maybe,” he said. By being an essayist, we inherently question ourselves thereby redefining ourselves.

Sarah Einstein: Einstein said she made a mistake. A piece she wrote for an anthology was republished in Salon, with a new headline. When she wrote the piece, it was for an intended audience of an anthology and not for a perhaps less literary crowd. While she received support (and at times inappropriate support), her husband received backlash at a time when there was a death in the family. While she doesn’t regret that she wrote the piece—she had her husband’s permission—she regrets that she published something that would turn out to be so painful to someone she loved. For her, the question about “essayist as human” means learning about your mistakes. Before, when she saw a published piece, she felt comfortable saying whether a person ought be writing or working in academia based on what they’ve written. “I feel like we’re at a moment that we’re we need to think about the essayists humanity.”

César Díaz: Memoirist’s challenge is to gain a reader’s trust , which turns out to be difficult based on the placement of the reimagined world. The memoirist actively manipulates past experiences but readers track at how the writer arrives that the truth in the memoir. How does the memoirist do this? Díaz especially felt that he had to uphold the truth after an MFA workshop likened his life story as a migrant farm-working child as “myth-making” and an elevated way of detaching from reality. He attempted to return to his memoir using only facts. In his research, he discovered that everything he knew was wrong. Finally, he adopted Ondaajte’s idea of the constructed self: that narrative through improvisation. Gornick sees the memoirist’s responsibility as shaping their experience any way so long as the intent remains genuine. This mindset has set him free.

Steven Church: The last couple of chapters of Church’s collection of essays, “Ultrasonic” deal with challenges he faces as a writer. The chapter he reads is called “It Begins with a Knock at the Door.” In the narrative, an elderly neighbor comes to his house asking for help to pull out her older boyfriend out of the bathtub where he fell. After pulling him out of the tub, he feels he clumsily relates to the man by showing off a scar on his leg from his twenties. The elderly man shows off a scar on his leg from surviving war. After feeling that this man’s story is worth more than perhaps writing about flatulence, he accepts that who he is as a writer. 

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Patti Wisland is a prose writer and the managing editor of New Ohio Review. 

Assay@NFN15: “Rewriting Those We Love”

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Margot Singer, Lee Martin, Dinah Lenney, David McGlynn, Ann Peters

Margot Singer: This panel examines the balance of big subjects and the personal – when does the personal become too personal? Is it possible or fair to tell the truth? What will happen when you do? She cites the cautionary tale of Mark Doty’s “Return to Sender,” in which his father won’t acknowledge him after the publication of Firebird.

Dinah Lenney: She cites the two opposite impulses of how to deal with this issue: “go tell the story, but tell it with love” versus “fuck ‘em.” She notes the usual things to consider: what are your motives in telling this story? anger/resentment/blame? are you trying to be the hero/victim? All you can do is get it as right as you can get it. But if you don’t wait until everyone’s dead to publish it, what are your rules? She notes that what ends up hurting or pissing off people often is not what you think they’re going to be hurt about, so you can’t always predict. But she says that if art legitimates cruelty, it isn’t worth it – art should strive to be kind – if it isn’t, it isn’t art.

David McGlynn: memoirists tend to write about families because they note that their family stories tend to trump their friends’, because they’ve had a front-row seat to dysfunction. Families so often are held together by silence and “forgetting.” Ask, is the blowback something I can handle? The consequences are rarely as catastrophic as we fear – even when people get pissed, they move on. There’s something inherently hostile and violent about writing about other people, but I will do it again. What matters the most is telling the truth, and a memoir is only good if it’s well-written.

Lee Martin: When you write about the family, you’re trying to make family members come alive again on the page – if you do it with resentment or nostalgia, both are untrue and a betrayal to the people we want to portray. The best path is to practice empathy, to make no more or no less of a person than they are, to try and understand a person from the inside. Strategies to increase empathy and therefore honesty (and thereby decrease betrayal):

  1. move the narrative camera somewhere outside the situation being portrayed.
  2. write about yourself in 3rd person to allow for some more detachment or objectivity.
  3. imagine the other person as a child to see how it changes your understanding of them.
  4. pose a question and speculate on the answers (phrases like “Maybe…,” “Perhaps…,” and “I like to imagine” are your friends here).

Do this writing activity: think of someone who hurt you (a small or a big betrayal) and write about it from your POV as the one who suffered. Then shift the camera using one of the strategies above to see how it changes your understanding of the event.

Ann Peters: Why is it that, when we write about family, they become flatter characters? She shares the experience of writing about her father, a Frank Lloyd Wright-inspired architect and developer, whom she did not want to reduce to an easy dyad or cliché. But we’re often more generous with a literary text or memory than we are with a person in real life, so turning them into characters paradoxically allows them more latitude.

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Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing inAngle,Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal.  She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

Assay@NFN15: “It’s a Family Affair: The Exciting/Perilous Task of Writing About our Relations”

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Speakers: Lucas Mann, Mieke Eerkens, Honor Moore, Maggie Nelson and Hope Edelman

Lucas Mann, who wrote about his brother’s death from drug overdose (Lord Fear: a Memoir), read an essay that revealed an aspect of family memoir that then echoed through the presentations that followed. Writing family onto the page changes reality, changes relationships, becomes a kind of death itself. As Mann put it: “I don’t know if I remember my brother anymore. That’s a loss that I’ve only just begun to acknowledge. I think that the act of writing him, of making him, has become the memory.” In this way, writing about the truth subverts the truth itself.

Mieke Eerkens, the panel organizer, spent five years researching her family for a book and what she uncovered changed her perception of her parents. She could see her father’s workaholism as an extension of survival mechanisms he developed as a child in a men’s prison camp and this understanding let compassion replace a sense of personal neglect she had felt as a child. Eerkens also stressed the importance of fairness in exposing flaws, arguing that if she writes of her mother’s dumpster diving then she must equally expose her habit of recycling dental floss. “We must make ourselves vulnerable as well,” said Eerkens.

 Clarifying the divide between the situation and the subject creates space to tell difficult family stories. “The situation is not the story,” said Honor Moore, author of The Bishop’s Daughter, a memoir that exposes truths about her father’s sexuality that she had no knowledge of while growing up. To get to the story, she gave herself the task of imagining her life without this secret, to consider how the truth might have influenced her own choices.

All this altering of family relations begs the question if these stories need to be written. Books by Maggie Nelson, particularly Jane: a Murder, cross into territory that she admits force “a reckoning that maybe nobody needed to have.” Nelson shared that her partner describes the effect of such scrutiny (for the writing of The Argonauts) as that of “an epileptic with a pacemaker being married to a strobe light artist.” So telling family stories carries with it great responsibility, sacrifice and impact.

 The last speaker, Hope Edelman, offered five practical steps for navigating the murky waters of family memoir. 1. Don’t assume anything about what a family member will feel shame for. 2. Don’t assume anything about what a family member will object to. 3. Be clear about your intentions. “Revenge is a powerful motivator of human behavior, but a lousy reason to write a memoir,” writes Edelman in her takeaway flyer. 4. You have more power than you realize, so you can be thoughtful about what you include and what you leave out. 5.You have less power than you think, because your publisher’s legal department has some as well.

Collectively the panel offered thoughtful insights on the challenges specific to writing family memoir. What resonated the most for me was the revelation that writing about loved ones can obscure your memories and relationships. The writing itself becomes part of the reality between you and your family. This is part of the genres horror and allure.

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Rebecca Fish Ewan teaches landscape architecture at Arizona State University, where she earned her MFA in creative writing. Author of A Land Between, her work has also appeared in Brevity, LA magazine, and Hip Mama. She has just completed a free verse cartoon memoir on childhood friendship cut short by murder.