It’s been a week since the NonfictioNOW conference, and I’ve been travelling non-stop. I thought I’d get a chance to compose my thoughts in the days immediately following the conference, but I’m starting to realise that I need to write in the short moments of down-time. There won’t be an afternoon spare.
The Poessaytics of Form: (Brenda Miller, Paul Lisicky, Linette D’Amico, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, Barrie Jean Borich). Leaning on the academic side of the weird academic/festival boundary that NonfictioNOW teeters on, this panel presented papers on the playfulness of form and possibilities of the ways that poetry feeds into nonfiction. “Differences in mediums and genre don’t have to be dividing lines – they can be intersections” suggested Fletcher. Borich’s paper stood out. “I have always believed nonfiction begins with a poem” – I believe this too. I find that reading poetry before essaying is generally much more useful than reading other people’s essays. Open up the poem in the essay. Celebrate the intersections.
Tim Flannery’s Keynote: I am a proud and an ashamed Australian. Proud because Tim Flannery is one of ours. Ashamed because he’s someone whose work I’d never previously engaged with. I’d understood it to be important (climate change, anthropology, science), but never of particular interest to me. My eyes have been opened! Thanks, NFN programming. This keynote stood out as different from the conference’s other keynotes – Flannery took a conversational approach, spinning tales and keeping the whole room captivated. The conference did a good job of programming discussions of nonfiction built to leave the page, or to use page space in interesting and new ways. Flannery’s keynote reminded me how pleasurable it can be to hear a good story, told out loud – the old-fashioned way. I’m converted. Tim Flannery is a truly wonderful storyteller.
Creative Facting: (Dave Madden, Michael Martone, Tim Denevi, Maggie Nelson). This panel was conducted festival-style, with chair Dave Madden entering into a discussion with panellists – it came as a welcome change after a day and a half of papers. Not that papers are bad, but my brain needed a break. The problem the panel was to discuss, as Madden put it, was how to bring ‘facts’ out of their passivity, and into the writer’s own voice. He suggested “Using facts in a way that doesn’t just resonate with our heads, but also with our hearts and our guts” – a kind of writing I’m sure we all aspire to, and a kind of writing I know I felt particularly keenly when reading Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. Madden referred to “the nonfictive imagination” as the source of movement for facts. Nelson reflected on this idea as “the modes of assembly that make new things happen”. I thought of Nelson’s words in an interview I read recently about how juxtaposition and arrangement are the main actions of nonfiction writing. This is the thing about facts, isn’t it? They can bolster a piece, but they need to be put in the right place, in the right order, between the right other things.
Michael Martone noted that the drives behind narrative and lyric writing work in different ways – the written medium lines up, ie, words move left to right. By its nature, it wants to move forward. However, the lyric form makes words stand still. The poetry of the form creates an illusion where we’re taking in all the words at once. (Aside: Martone’s excited method of execution on this panel was infectious. Watch the guy talk and just try not to get excited about writing nonfiction.)
The panelists were asked for their go-to resources for facts. Denevi prefers the library. Nelson retypes things she likes – retyping allows her to live the syntax, understanding the words from the inside out.
When a Writer is Born Into a Family, the Family is F’d: (David Carlin, Sue William Silverman, Amanda Webster, Amy Monticello, Catherine Therese). You can read my coverage of this panel on the NonfictioNOW blog.
Some honesty about Day 3 – I skipped the first session. I woke up as a puddle of nerves, and decided to practice some self-care: coffee. Breakfast. Breathing. So, we kick off with the session I was lucky to present as part of. For the rest of the day, I took less notes than I’d have liked, in my post-panel daze and later, when the altitude got the better of me and I took myself home early (missing out, also, on the last event). So apologies if this one’s a little bit sparse. And apologies to the new friends I didn’t get to thank and say goodbye to – I had no idea that altitude could wreck a body like that.
Unusual Foods and Edible Guests: (Amy Wright, Elena Passarello, Matthew Gavin Frank, Joni Tevis, Sam van Zweden). My fellow panellists were amazing – they each read about strange foods, and my god, there are some strange foods in the world! Their beautiful words slowed those foods down, paused the foods, rewound the foods for further consideration – because what we put into our bodies says so much about what matters and how we engage with the world. When I was asked to be part of this panel, I was humbled. And then terrified. And then I did it, and I felt affirmed and more confident in what I have to say. During question time, someone asked what the strangest foods we’d eaten were. “I’m not really interested in unusual foods so much as the unusual effects of mundane foods,” I said. I felt less interesting but honest. Mundane or strange, food means so much, and is worth interrogating for that importance.
Is this a Golden Age for Women Essayists?: (Brenda Miller, Amy Wright, Nicole Walker, Marcia Aldrich). All my notes and my brain retained from this panel – other than Brenda Miller’s fantastic analogy about hermit crabs and form (let form dictate) – was recommendations of publications which the panellists believe represent women’s voices well: The Writer on Her Work, Fulcrum, Entropy, Brevity, The Rumpus.
The Essayist as Human: (Steven Church, Sarah Einstein, Cesar Diaz, Kirk Wisland). There’s the page and there’s the person. The two don’t always gel. Also, who is that person? How do they move about in the world? At each festival/conference I go to, there’s always one person who stands out as the person I’ll keep an eye out for in future. This conference, that was Steven Church, who defined the person behind the page in a way I related to strongly: “Writing isn’t so much a job as a pathology,” he said. “A uniform you never take off.”
Props go out to Sarah Einstein’s strength on this panel, in sharing the story of a difficult fall-out in the wake of a particular essay being published. Because that’s part of being human too – stories continuing beyond the page, the people we love reacting to our work, or being caught up in its discussion, for better or worse.
I wish I had more to share from the conference – I wish the conference could go forever! I want to send out a massive thanks to the NonfictioNOW team for programming such a wonderful weekend, and for including me both as a panellist and giving me access to their social media to wreak havoc at will. I can’t wait for the next one! Thanks also to the RMIT contingent, who took me under their wing and made me feel at home in a weird environment. I want to also thank the Melbourne City of Literature Office for helping me get to the conference. It’s contributed to the way I think of myself as a writer, it’s helped me make connections, it’s opened my eyes. It’s done all the other things I said it’d do on the grant application, so thank you.
This trip was kindly supported by the UNESCO Melbourne City of Literature travel fund.