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Lit Scene: The Truth, The Whole Truth and Nothing But the Truth

Write This Down

Just three days–November 4th, 5th, and 6th–and just 400 people estimated to attend, NonfictioNow is intentionally smaller than other well-known conferences, such as the annual AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs) conference. Though small, NonfictioNow still brings big names: cartoonist Alison Bechdel, of the comic strip Dykes to Watch Out For, whose memoir Fun Home was a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award; Rebecca Solnit, the recipient of many awards, including a Guggenheim Fellowship and two NEA Fellowships; and John Edgar Wideman, recipient of a MacArthur Fellowship (known as the Genius Award) and the only person to win the International PEN/Faulkner Award twice, will all be presenting and reading for the conference.

All events are located at the IMU, unless noted.

Thursday, November 4:
8:45–10:15 a.m. | Keynote Address with Rebecca Solnit
5:00–6:00 p.m. | Reading(s): Sarabande and River Teeth 10th Anniversary
8:30 p.m. | Reading: Alison Bechdel

Friday, November 5
8:45–10:15 a.m. | Reading: “Literature of Palpable Quality”: A Bellingham Review Reading with Brenda Miller, Julie Jeanell Leung, Mardi Link, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Lauren Smith, Ira Sukrungruang
1:45–3:15 p.m. | Panel: Irish Perspectives on Creative Nonfiction with Jim Rogers, Karen Babine, Shawn Gillen, Brian Nerney
3:30–5 p.m. | Reading: Contemporary Australian Nonfiction
8:30 p.m. | Reading: Rebecca Solnit

Saturday, November 6
5 p.m. | Reading: Farthest North Nonfiction–Alaskan Writers Read |
5 p.m. | Reading: Between Song and Story: Essays for the Twenty-first Century
8:30 p.m. | Reading: John Edgar Wideman

“NonfictioNow” to me was a question: What is nonfiction (now)?

There was not one answer. Asking a group of graduate students from the Nonfiction Writing Program yielded all different responses:

“The only genre defined by what it is not.”

“Fiction with a prefix.”

“There’s only one thing it isn’t, though often it is.”

Nonfiction may be true, but not true like math, not one-right-answer true.

Maybe the slogan for the conference–“exploring the past, present, and future of nonfiction and its myriad forms”–is also a way of repeatedly, disparately answering the question. The schedule of the conference perhaps does too, with its broad range of offerings: performances, readings, and panels by songwriters, graphic memoirists, small presses and visitors from far off places–Ireland, Australia, Alaska.

Like the “past” the slogan references, creative nonfiction is old, though it hasn’t always been called by that name. It’s writing familiar across time and place–to Seneca, in Rome, during the first century; to Sei Shonagon, in Japan, around the year 1000; to Montaigne in the French Renaissance; to Borges, from Argentina, who died at the age of 86 in 1986–and it’s familiar to pop culture, with Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and Frank McCourt’s Angela’s Ashes as examples. It has not always been labeled “creative,” however, and sometimes it’s been hiding:

“In my parents’ day, ‘memoirs’ didn’t exist,” Robin Hemley, Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program (NWP), told me. “They were called ‘first novels’.”

Hemley finds “creative nonfiction” a tortured term: in fiction and poetry, “creative” is always assumed.

Maggie McKnight, an organizer for the conference, admits that it can be “tricky” to explain.

“It’s like the difference between a good documentary film and an instructional film on how to install a garbage disposal,” she said. “In documentary, obviously there is a filmmaker, whereas watching an instructional video you don’t wonder, ‘How did they make that decision?’”

“You can’t help but make stuff up,” Hemley said. “Every time we lay down words, we try to do so honestly, but there are different perspectives on what honesty is.”

Past

Ye woods that crown the clear lone brow of Norman Court, why do I revisit ye so oft, and feel a soothing consciousness of your presence, but that your high tops waving in the wind recall to me the hours and years that are for ever fled; that ye renew in ceaseless murmurs the story of long-cherished hopes and bitter disappointment; that in your solitudes and tangled wilds I can wander and lose myself as I wander on and am lost in the solitude of my own heart; and that as your rustling branches give the loud blast to the waste below–borne on the thoughts of other years, I can look down with patient anguish at the cheerless desolation which I feel within! Without that face pale as the primrose with hyacinthine locks, for ever shunning and for ever haunting me, mocking my waking thoughts as in a dream; without that smile which my heart could never turn to scorn; without those eyes dark with their own lustre, still bent on mine, and drawing the soul into their liquid mazes like a sea of love; without that name trembling in fancy’s ear; without that form gliding before me like Oread or Dryad in fabled groves, what should I do? how pass away the listless, leaden-footed hours? Then wave, wave on, ye woods of Tuderley, and lift your high tops in the air; my sighs and vows uttered by our mystic voice breathe into me my former being, and enable me to bear the thing I am!–The objects that we have known in better days are the main props that sustain the weight of our affections, and give us strength to await our future lot.

-from Table-Talk, William Hazlitt (1821)

Present

Most stories are travel stories, and in traveling our lives begin to assume the shape of a story. It may be because a journey is so often a metaphor for life itself that journeying is satisfying. In motion it seems that time is not slipping away from us but we are pursuing it, measuring its passage in the rhythm of the road, the metaphor become literal. Perhaps if we didn’t imagine life as a journey rather than some other metamorphosis–the growth of a tree, for example–roads would not seem like destiny itself, but we do and they do. To move along the road is to encounter all the loose elements, the dangers and possibilities, to slip out of a settled destiny in pursuit of stranger fates. The road is a promise as simple as what lies ahead, never failed and never delivered, and the road is a strange country itself, longer than all the continents and narrow as a house, with its own citizens, its own rules, a place where the solid and settled become fluid.

-from A Book of Migrations, Rebecca Solnit (1997)

Nonfiction may be true, but not black-and-white true.

The word “true” is not really black-and-white, except when typed out onto newsprint. There is the “true” you hope your sweetheart will be, the “true” paired with blue that has nothing to do with hue. There is the truth you stand for. Once, in New York, I watched a panel discussion on the topic of nonfiction. An historian in the crowd stood up and pontificated with magnanimous gestures about the truth (not everyone agrees). There is the truth you can’t handle, so Jack Nicholson yells.

Writing it, sometimes nonfiction can become a different question: Is this nonfiction now? Even Hemley, the author of eight books and certainly not an amateur, has been lost in the gray.

“The form of the story is a fairly regulated form–with exposition, climax, denouement–but with nonfiction, that’s all out the window,” said Hemley, who graduated in 1982 from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop with a Fiction M.F.A. “It in many ways mirrors the way the mind works.”

“I just had the odd experience of finishing an 18 page piece after five years,” Hemley told me. Originally supposed to be an essay on marriage, the piece eventually began to look more like a work of historical fiction. “I kept wondering what it was, but I decided I didn’t have to decide.”

It’s perhaps in this deciding-not-to-decide way that NonfictioNow is like the “future” it aims to explore: we are all still deciding, today and the next day.

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