Sam van Zweden



creative nonfiction

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. 


That’s not the official branding- the official branding is “NonFictioNow”. See what they did with the ‘N’ there? Tricky.

I’ve just registered for the 2012 NonFictioNow conference, which is coming up on November 21-24. The four-day conference is being hosted at my home away from home, RMIT. The original plan was to coast in on a ‘volunteer’ pass, but I realised that this would reduce the amount of time I could spend David Shields spotting (and leaping-upon), so I decided to register and ATTEND EVERYTHING.

Having just printed the program, I’m already having a small crisis. I’m hoping that a more in-depth program is released that explains beyond the names of the panels and its guests (“Picturing the Essay” versus “Swap Shop: Panel”?).

The main thing I have discovered about my writing self throughout my studies is that I love creative nonfiction, and that it’s what I ultimately want to be writing. The guests at 2012 NonFictioNow include some literary heavy weights such as David Shields (swoooooon), Robin Hemley and Helen Garner, but also some of my favourite locals – David Carlin (who also posted on NFN today on Overland), Francesca Rendle-Short and Jessica Wilkinson among them. Actually, that “favourite locals” list could be way longer, but I won’t bore you, you can look at the program yourself. Other than this, I know next to nothing about how the conference will operate. I attend RMIT and I don’t even know where one of the listed venues is. Will there be a book store involved? Will I end up spending as much as I did at MWF? Will I have an opportunity to blurt my admiration at Robin Hemley or David Shields, like I did at poor old Lee Gutkind?

I did just discover this brilliant collection of audio recordings from 2010, which will give an idea of the kinds of things that might be discussed at this year’s conference.

There’s nothing like a festival to get my creative juices flowing, and they’re a brilliant opportunity for so many things – to find something new to read, to get inspiration toward your own writing, and to meet like-minded writers. I hope I’ll see some of you there to share in the excitement with me. If you can’t find me, I’ll most likely be located hanging off David Shields’ pant-leg as he drags me behind like a small child, from panel to panel.

The Luminous Quality that Memory Bestows

Saturday’s MWF program was all about non-fiction for me. First I went to the session Memoir: Fact or Fiction?, followed by one called Fact, Fiction, Truth. Both sessions were concerned with the line between fact and fiction in memoir and creative non-fiction. The day finished with the launch of the Australian-themed issue #46 of Creative Nonfiction magazine.

In Memoir: Fact or Fiction, panelists discussed their motivations for writing memoir. Sydney Smith’s memoirs help her “put … life in perspective”, with the process of writing uncovering deeper feelings that she wasn’t even aware she had. Barry Dickins expressed an enviable kind of euphoria that he gets from writing his story – “It’s too delicious not to write,” he said. All panelists agreed that therapy precedes writing, with memoir successfully happening after the cathartic process, not as an instrument of it.

Both the Memoir: Fact or Fiction panel and Fact, Fiction, Truth discussed the unreliability of memory. Claire Bidwell Smith recalled being told that her memories differed from those around her, while Sydney Smith talked about “the luminous quality that memory bestows.” I love that idea – and I’m sure you know what Smith meant. That strange glowing realm where everything in the past exists in a memory-haze.

The disjuncture between memory and reality was a concern for both panels. In Fact, Fiction, Truth, Robin Hemley talked about an exercise he does with creative writing students, where he gets them to close their eyes and describe the room to him. Often, he said, students would miss things that were very obvious, or recall things that were never there. One student swore there was a flag-pole and flag in the room, when there was no such thing present. Research is a proposed way around this unreliability of memory – go back and check facts from your life, corroborate your story with other people. In the Memoir session, however, Claire Bidwell Smith rejected this method, prioritizing the authenticity of her own lived experience and rememberances. “I didn’t want the ‘facts’,” she said, “I only wanted memory.”

This idea of ‘authenticity’ was raised in Fact, Fiction, Truth also. Kate Holden used this notion of ‘authenticity’ when talking about the fact that memoirs can’t really be fact-checked. While characters and situations might be conflated, what really matters is that the story is authentic. Because memoir is a construction, and because it focuses on an individual’s experience, the space between ‘fact’ and ‘fiction’ is inherently blurry. As long as the story does itself justice, as long as it’s “the emotional truth”, as long as it’s authentic – that’s what a memoirist owes to their readers.

This line between fact and fiction is something that really interests me. It’s frustrating that the only answer to it all seems to be, “It’s complex”. Yeah, it is complex. What’s most exciting is writing that’s willing to splash around in the grey area. Hopefully readers can suspend their expectations about “The Truth” for long enough to really enjoy that kind of writing.

The Double Obsession

“There’s a double obsession,” says Gutkind. “The obsession of the people you write about, and the obsession of the writer.”

The obsession of Lee Gutkind of clearly visible in the way he can’t help but go off on tangents, the way he feels the need to stand up and demonstrate his stories using his whole body, and the way he introduces robots like he would an old friend. (“Oh, my God! [delighted…] This is Grace!”)

To write the way he does, Gutkind spends large amounts of time with people and projects to really understand what’s going on, on a human level. The focus of today’s panel is Gutkind’s book, “Almost Human: Making Robots Think”. In it, Gutkind writes about the things he learnt during his time “immersed” in the lives of various robotics experts.

Flicking through a series of slides, Gutkind does verbally what he is so admired for doing in his writing – he acts as a go-between, translating incredibly difficult ideas into stories for the lay man. Just like the audience today understand Gutkind’s words more easily aided by his slide show, Gutkind sees his job as a writer as “creating word-pictures” for his readers, bringing dry facts to life. By spending so much time in the world that he’s writing about, Gutkind manages to “figure out what’s really going on.”

He shows us a picture of one roboticist from the 1970s, and talks about the capabilities of robots he built. The story is humanized, though, by the kind of detail that only a writer might glean: the fact that, for 8 months, this guy slept in the ceiling vents of his lab and survived on Cheerios, bananas and chocolate milk that his friend brought him. It’s this kind of detail, these humanizing stories, the bring Gutkind’s material to life.

For those looking to write in this “immersive” style, like Gutkind, his advice is this – “Think globally, act locally.” While Gutkind’s concerns stretch as far as Curiosity on Mars, he accessed the stories he needed by talking to people involved in the robotics operations close to his home, approaching them and saying, simply, “I’d like to spend a lot of time with you, because I believe that what you’re doing is important.” This attempt at human connection is often enough. I’m sure the fact that he’s Lee Gutkind doesn’t hurt when he’s trying to get a foot in the door.

However, the double obsession is really what makes his articles and books hit home. Gutkind’s obsession, which reaches equal proportions to that of his subjects, is what makes his stories worth reading.

Lee Gutkind is still quite the Man About Town at the MWF this weekend, with plenty of opportunities to be caught before he jets back home. Saturday morning sees a seminar, “Creative NonFiction: A Movement, Not a Moment,” at the Wheeler Centre, “Fact, Fiction, Truth” on Saturday afternoon, the launch of Creative NonFiction, and a workshop on Creative NonFiction on Sunday. 

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