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Sam van Zweden

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NonfictioNOW 2015 Day 2 & 3 Notes

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.

Day 2:

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.

Storify: Read the Storify compilation of Day 2’s tweets.

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Day 3:

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 WorkFulcrumEntropyBrevityThe 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.

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

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]

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

Guest Post on The Emerging Writer Online Journal

Today I’ve got a piece up over on the Emerging Writer Online Journal. It reflects on the process of coming to see myself as a nonfiction writer, and how the recent NonFictioNow Conference made me think even more.

The Emerging Writer Online Journal is a fantastic opportunity for emerging writers. Karen, who edits the journal, is keen to hear pitches for just about anything concerning writing, the writer’s life, process… Etc. It’s a great way of getting your name out there, of having a paid writing gig, and of building up your publication folio. I can’t recommend this organization highly enough, so go make the most of their generosity!

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!

NonFiction…NOW!

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.

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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