Day 2 Chicago

I am directed through the revolving door. I am sent to the Bell Captain. I am assisted with my registration. I am pushed to the S line, given my token book bag. My REI Valhalla frame pack is taken to The Grey Room (funny, no one else seemed to be “wearing” their luggage). Down the hall, dizzy from the mirrors and chandeliers and over 5,000 faces, I find my way to the elevators. Writers cram, scram, and shimmy through giant brass jaws that swallow them whole, only to spit them out so many hundreds of feet above the city streets and into the orbit of this year’s AWP Writing Conference.

There is Rebecca McClanahan, Donald Hall. Round the corner there is Hilda Raz, Stephen Kuusisto, Scott Russell Sanders. Kim Stafford, Phillip Lopate, Lee-freaking-Gutkind. Hello fame. Hello nominations. Hello novelists, playwrights, and general people of amazingness. I am here, at AWP, and this time I am ready. My face says I am listening, eyes that blink back tears of eagerness through a cheek-cracking smile. My walk is confidence, my pen the sword of determination, my purse swinging in perfect cadence with my Pumas.

R104. The Meandering River: An Exploration of the Subgenres of Nonfiction. (Sue William Silverman, Judith Kitchen, Robin Hemley, Joe Mackall, Rebecca McClanahan) The genre of nonfiction is a long river with many moods and currents, flowing from straightforward narratives into narratives subverted or fractured. This panel of five established nonfiction writers and teachers will explore this continuum, which includes such subgenres as immersion writing, personal, meditative, and lyric essays, and memoir. We will also discuss how the subgenres flow one into the other, crossing boundaries, resulting in a myriad of hybrid forms.

Of immersion or obsession writing, Robin Hemley sites Into the Wild and The Orchid Thief, journalism and A Year of Living Biblically. While some of these are deemed as high concept or gimmicky, the truth is that no matter what, they provide an entertaining way to discuss serious issues relevant to all.

Of memoir writing, Rebecca McClanahan offers six misconceptions. First, the misconception that all memoir is autobiography. Of course, we know the former crafts a story from a tapestry of relevant experiences and the latter can leave nothing out. “Memoir assumes the life and ignores most of it,” she says. Second, the misconception that memoir is recapturing a life. This is not the case, as life doesn’t happen in words and therefore any written attempt to literally “recapture” it will always fall short. “All writing is a failure when you hold it up against the flesh and blood of real life.” Third, the misconception that memoir is a less literary form than other genres or even other subgenres of nonfiction. This is not the case, as memoir requires memory, then destruction of the memory, then re-memory, then the birth of the memoir. Memoirists must destroy the givens, and create the new out of the pieces that still shimmer on the sidewalk. Fourth, the misconception that a memoir is one book, propelled by narrative. Fifth, that memoir is only about the past. Rather, every good memoir must propel us forward into the future. Sixth, that memoirs are self-centered. In fact, the “I” can reveal itself as the “eye” or lens through which something is interpreted. Psychic distance is employed in crafted ways to make meaning of certain events.

Of the personal essay, Joe Mackall reminded us that we can choose the right persona for each essay. “You have a multitude of ‘I’ pronouns to choose from.” Furthermore, personas can be in first, second, or third person.

Of the meditative essay, Robert Vivian explained that it uses the self as a booster rocket to ignite a narrative, then it falls off into orbit around the Earth, though it has a way of coming back in near the end. The details of the essay point to something beyond the self. The impetus takes its cue from the personal but often leaves it behind. The ground zero of the meditative essay is nowhere and everywhere , yet there is almost always the presence of a question and a sustained moment of stillness.

Of the lyric essay, Judith Kitchen says that the lyric writer is not constrained by narrative action. The psychology of this writer is more in the mode of poets, where essays move from image to image. The lyric essay can also be a meditative esay, but the question mark has gone underground. The lyric essay uses image or sound to create meaning, where stories may be metaphors without a climax or theme. Lyric essays never explain or confess. “A lyric essay elucidates through the dance of its own telling…it is a stilling of the moment that yields clarity.” The lyric essay functions as an entity and can be held in the mind by the glue of melody. It has a desire to exist in and of itself while it also connects everything to everything else. Finally, the difference between the lyric essay and the lyrical essay is that any essay can be lyrical or have elements of lyricism in it, but the lyric essay is a subgenre all its own.

Of the hybrid forms, Sue Silverman (whose excellent booklist is a href=” “>here) reminded us that various part of “the meandering river” of nonfiction can be explored. While form and content are forever linked, we write what needs to be written first, and, only if we must, label it later.

(THAT WAS ONE SESSION OF SIX for the day, more tomorrow morning after I’ve SLEPT.)

Finally, after the myriad small joys of realization from a day stuffed full of information, I settle into my hotel room. But what’s this? A suite? A view of the lake? As it turns out, the friend who I was going to share the hotel room with cancelled at the last minute. When I checked in, I explained I would only need one bed, so if they needed to free up a room with two beds for somebody else, I’d be happy to switch. I didn’t get a break in the cost (or an increase), but hell if I didn’t end up in a room the size of a mobile home. See pics on my website by clicking href=””>here and then to the sidebar.

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