Sam van Zweden




NonfictioNOW 2015 Day 1 Notes

Today, 500 people came together to kick off the conference at NonfictioNOW 2015. With five conference rooms, 193 panelists across 3 days, and a book fair running the length of the (quite long) conference centre, this feels like a dream world. Some promised land for nonfiction writers who don’t quite fit into clean definitions, and who perhaps don’t particularly want to.

The book fair tables running the length of the conference centre.
The book fair tables running the length of the conference centre.

Still kicking against jetlag as hard as I can, and still failing at that fairly badly, I’ve put together a Storify that collects my favourite tweets/moments from the panels I attended.

Just a note on the ‘Hydra-headed Memoirs’ panel, where speakers looked at how they approached their work’s form – is it an essay? An essay collection? A memoir? I feel like this session has helped me immeasurably. I’ve been trying to push my long essay into a book for a while now, and every time I try, I shrink away from it – I wasn’t sure why. I thought maybe I was lesser for not being capable of writing a full-length book. But have a look at what Joe Mackall and Steven Church have to say about essays being essays in the Storify below.


[View the story “NonfictioNOW 2015 Conference Day 1” on Storify]

This trip was kindly supported by the UNESCO Melbourne City of Literature travel fund. 

The Line Between Book and Life: On Public Personas

One of the panels on the Thursday of NonFictioNow was called Writ Large: On Living The Lives We’ve Made For The Page. The panel featured Cheryl Strayed, Ira Sukrungruang, Mira Bartok and Barrie Jean Borich – all memoirists, talking about how they negotiate writing from life, and continuing to live that life when it’s been written.

Are we always wearing masks? Are we always mediated?

One thing that emerged as a common experience for all of these writers is that of having readers confuse the constructed, written memoir with the actual, lived life.

“[Readers] don’t see the book as an artifice,” said Sukrungruang, “they see it as your life.”

All of these authors had been approached by readers and spoken to in a way that implied that there was no gap between author and work; between the story and the world. This kind of simplistic view of memoir (that it’s a process of slapping life down on a page) is simplistic, and worrying. It concerns me that readers are expecting verbatim information – it’s fraught for so many reasons. Writing is a creative process, it’s filtered through perspective and memory, it’s forcing something non-linear or sensible into a linear narrative with… a point. As a writer, I am aware of this when reading any piece of writing that comes from life.

In a later conversation with fellow blogger Alice Robinson, we considered what kinds of personas we create online for ourselves. I feel like this blog is reasonably transparent, and that there isn’t a large gap between myself (lived) and myself (written). But there is a gap, no denying it.

I’ve had people recognize me before. “Oh! You’re Little Girl With a Big Pen!”

…Am I?

This Writ Large panel really made me think about where that gap lies for me. I won’t bother to explain it here; those who know me well no doubt can see the space far better than I myself can.

It could be a site of tension, if I let it be. I refuse to let it be that though, I just know that it’s something I’m very interested in. I find the decisions I make in crafting myself interesting, both in blogging and in my current memoir project. I also find it interesting to hear about how people understand those decisions, and whether the divide between public and private, written and lived personas is a problem.

Maybe it’s similar to the way that we all wear different masks in different situation. No situation is maskless, life being a constant performance. It’s just that when it’s written, it’s more static and dissect-able.


NonFictioNow Day 1

“Collage can save your life,” said David Shields in yesterday’s NonFictioNow keynote speech. He was only half-joking.

For Shields, collage opened up a world of possibility, remixing thought and material to say something entirely new.

“I found a way to write that seemed true to the way I was in the world,” he said. This is a big statement, so ripe for interpretation. Fragmented? Borrowed? Repurposed? How are you in the world, David Shields?

One thread that kept returning throughout the day was that of not forcing form upon a work, and how freedom with form can be a revelation for both writer and content, and I think this is part of what Shields was getting at in his morning keynote.

In the panel Writ Large, Mira Bartok, Cheryl Strayed, Ira Sukrungruang and Barrie Jean Borich talked about (among other things), how their stories seemed possible only as nonfiction, though most of them had moments of doubt: would fiction more easily reach the emotional truth of a situation? Would the label of ‘nonfiction’ result in hurt for people involved in their stories? This was especially relevant for poor Ira, who found Facebook in the months leading up to the publication of his memoir, and was met with communications from people he thought he’d never see again in his life.

Likewise, later in the day Bret Lott’s paper was thoroughly brilliant, especially when Bret made a square-peg-round-hole analogy about nonfiction as form. Form needs to come about from necessity, not function. A square peg doesn’t know that it’s square, nor the round hole that it’s round. The folly lies not with the hole or the peg, but with the person who insists of forcing them to fit one another.

NonFictioNow strikes me as a little strange, probably because I’m having a lot of new experiences. I’ve never been to a writing ‘conference’ before, filled mainly with academics (I can’t figure out if NFN is mainly academic because of the types of people attracted to the form, or because it’s run by universities), with what seems like a majority of international guests, both speaking and attending. I’ve never been surrounded by so many open notebooks while listening to a writer – usually it’s just me and an old lady. But here, most people are jotting things down. What does this indicate? Is nonfiction more easily taught and learned? Do we have more confidence in the ability to strengthen skills in nonfiction, whereas fiction writing is seen as some kind of strange alchemy?

While the conference is very full of international guests, I’m so proud to be Australian and RMIT alumni. Seeing the absolute capability and admirable brains of people who’ve taught me, or who I’ve worked with, is great – America still seems like a strange universe where nonfiction is a much more possible form, but this really underscores the bravery and strength of Australians who are pushing the boundaries and trying new things.

The days are long, and I feel myself starting to get sick, but I’m loving it. I’m about to head back into the conference now, and I’ll bring you more in the coming days.

Making Decisions

Today’s post is brought to you by the theme, “Making decisions”. It seems to be something I’m struggling with today.

I woke up at 4.30am all full of words, so I snuck out of the bedroom and sat in lamplight scribbling away for about an hour before heading back to bed. It was something of a breakthrough in a piece I’ve been avoiding writing, because I have such high expectations of myself, and for it. Having just read back over my notes from last night(/this morning), I was struck by how entirely hyperbolic and essentially unhelpful this wee-hours ‘breakthrough’ was. What’s defeating me, in getting this piece written, is that as soon as I start writing it, I start to close down the many possibilities of what this piece can be. I’m sharing this angst with you because I know that I’m not the only writer who suffers from this paralyzing fear of writing unintelligent drivel.

Realization: writing something and then pitching it is endlessly easier than pitching something and then writing it.

The other decisions I’m struggling with are about which events to attend. NonFictioNow starts tonight with its opening show at Storey Hall. The big decisions start tomorrow, after David Shields’ keynote speech, which will be the highlight of my program. Normally, writers’ festival events cover broad enough topics that I only desperately want to attend one event, two if the timetabling gods look unkindly upon me. But with NonFictioNow, I’m finding that most timeslots have two events or more that I want to attend, because it’s all about nonfiction!

Oh, decisions.

It’ll be less difficult to decide what to blog about in the coming days, as I’ll be furiously note-taking for the rest of the week, and covering as much of NonFictioNow as is humanly possible!

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