#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.]


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.

Don’t Say It: Meghan Daum Writes It in “Unspeakable” by Amanda Page

We may not talk about the topics Meghan Daum covers in her most recent essay collection, but reading about them is a pleasure and a practice I return to again and again.

It’s rare that I wait impatiently for a book to be released. During these times, I watch online bookstores for the release date only to then drive in frenzy to the local bookstore and pounce on the first available copy I can find. Once it’s in my hands, I don’t let go–not even to let the clerk scan it. I’ll have one hand on it at all times until it’s been read through to the end. Then, the obsession wanes, and I can relax back into my detached indifference to the onslaught of new titles delivered to the world daily.

It was in one of these frenzies that I got myself to the bookstore and purchased Meghan Daum’s essay collection, Unspeakable. I read her first collection, My Misspent Youth, when I was busy misspending my own youth. It was enough to make me a fan, but it wasn’t until I read Daum’s memoir, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House, that I thought, “She gets me.” The number of kindred authors in my life is a low one. I keep an eye on their upcoming work. When Unspeakable hit the shelves, I was happy to sit down with a familiar voice. Daum is a writer who works in subject matter relevant to my life: debt, house obsession, childlessness, and as she states in Unspeakable, being a member of Generation X, that “passing thought” of a generation, that “minor player” of a demographic.


In the introduction, Daum confesses that all of the essays in the collection were written with the sole purpose of being essays in that specific collection. She states that writing about oneself is a specialty, albeit a lazy one. I nod my head in agreement and understanding. One thing I must emphatically state about my relationship to Daum’s work is this: I relate.

I relate to her take on her personal life, when she refers to engaging in online dating as “field work.” In “The Best Possible Experience,” she refers to her engagement in one particular romantic relationship as “anthropological curiosity.” Daum continues to date a man who sounds self-absorbed and even a little creepy, all because she’s interested to see what will happen. I think of this as a tenant of a writer’s life. We do an awful lot, and we extend ourselves and our comfort to stay in strange situations, just to see where the story takes us. This particular trait isn’t discussed enough, I think. But therein lies the point of Daum’s title (and entire collection.)

The book is called Unspeakable precisely because she is discussing topics that often do not make it into the dinner conversation. Or, for that matter, the conversation with best gals over brunch. The subject matter on the table is hard to talk about. Daum takes it on and makes it digestible for those of us willing to read it.

Daum’s collection begins with the death of her mother, includes an essay in which she explains how she will never be a mother, offers thoughts on her life as a dog owner/mother, and then ends with her own brush with death. Maybe it is the product of being composed for the sole purpose of existing in this collection, but the order seems deliberate, careful, and eases us into each new unspeakable theme.

The topics themselves are not unspeakable. We lose our mothers. We may not have children. We may prefer raising dogs to raising kids. It’s what is said in each of the essays that bring the theme – and the title – to life for the reader. In “Matricide,” Daum tells of the experience of packing up her mother’s apartment – while her mother is slowly dying in said apartment. She tells of the watchful, maybe judgmental eyes of the hospice workers. She tells us what she loved about her mother and what she didn’t. It may seem strange to offer words of resentment or frustration in an essay about your dying mother, but while reading it, the content doesn’t seem cruel. It seems honest.

In another essay from the collection, Daum claims to be an “honorary dyke.” She tells of spending a lot of time with lesbians when she was a young woman, even though she never questioned her heterosexuality. She dressed like a lesbian and preferred music by lesbian artists. She took on the most basic, stereotypical traits associated with lesbians, and therefore sought to call herself (or be called by lesbians) an honorary member of a tribe. This essay that seems young and naive – maybe better suited for her first collection, though I don’t think of any of the essays from My Misspent Youth as young or naive. It’s not the voice of “Honorary Dyke” that’s young, it’s the desire for the title that seems juvenile to me. But, maybe that’s the point. The desire for such a thing might come from an immature or unidentifiable place, but that doesn’t mean it should not be spoken.

I can’t tell if that’s the collection’s greatest strength, or a trick of the title. The essays get away with being confessional or revealing a naive or cruel thought of the author, but since we’re dealing with what is often unspeakable here, it’s all fair game. We’ve been warned–on the cover. The writer isn’t dealing in “appropriate” material here. And that’s the point.

Daum isn’t dealing with unspeakable acts, either. She hasn’t dealt out cruelty that she must confess or defend. I can’t think of a single defensive line in the entire text. She’s simply revealing some thoughts you may not feel comfortable with having, let alone admitting. For instance, in “The Dog Exception,” Daum writes about the connection some humans have with the canine kind. She describes the loss of her dog, Rex, and how in a lot of ways, that loss is harder than losing a human loved one. She states what only a few seem to understand or are willing to say, and those few often get demonized for it.

That’s why those few often don’t say it, and that’s why we need Daum to do it.

Daum had an edited collection of essays enter the world less than a year after Unspeakable was released. Though she doesn’t offer an essay of her own to the anthology, her essay from Unspeakable, titled “Difference Maker,” about how she is comfortable with being a child’s court appointed advocate and that’s as close to being a mother as she ever needs to get, is a handy precursor. The anthology is called Selfish, Shallow and Self-Absorbed: Sixteen Writers on the Decision Not to Have Kids. For a long time, the words “selfish, shallow, and self-absorbed” have been used to describe willingly childless adults. Those words were not, somehow, unspeakable. I’m eager to see if the authors she selected were able to defend their decision with the same stoic sense of absurdity and honesty that Daum presents the unspeakable themes of her collection.Selfishcvr

I like an honest conversation. I also like to get to the deep stuff quickly. I’ve been told that I “get deep fast.” I don’t have a lot of patience or interest in small talk. Strip away the niceties and I can get to know you. This is what I like most about Daum’s collection: I get to know her, and in doing so, I get to know myself a little more, a little better. I relate.

She opens a door, and I make a mad dash through it, much like I make to the bookstore when an author I admire (or to whom I relate) offers up a new piece of work. While I’m waiting for the next one, Daum’s Unspeakable makes for an excellent re-read.


AmandaPageAmanda Page is an assistant professor of writing and humanities. She lives in Ohio with her two dogs and various drafts of personal essays. When she’s not writing, she’s hiking. You can find her musing about the essayist life at amanda-page.com.