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Sam van Zweden

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david shields

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.

Super-Early Heads Up

As you’ve probably gathered from previous posts and publications, I find non-fiction challenging and fun.

The most recent creative non-fiction I’ve read that excited me was by David Shields – his Reality Hunger blew my head clear off my shoulders, and The Thing About Life is That One Day You’ll Be Dead really made me think about family legacies and storytelling, as well as mortality and the way we write and speak about our own experiences. David Shields is exciting to read, and he’s exciting to watch speak. He has exciting ideas, and he presents them in new and exciting ways.

With all this love I’ve got for David Shields and his writing and his practice and his entire being, I screamed when I found that he’s a keynote speaker for RMIT’s  (November) 2012 conference, NonfictioNow. As an RMIT student I’m hoping to smuggle myself in backstage and get to meet the man. And if not, I’ll at least be able to drool on his brain from a distance.

So an early heads up – I’ll post again in a year when the conference is actually happening, but until then – get onto David Shields’ work so you’re all caught up by the time he’s in town.

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