More About Day 3 in Chicago

I’ve been emailing back and forth a bit with Pacific University’s beloved JfD, fiction writer and teacher extraordinaire. He write me yesterday that a woman walked up to him in a bar last night—a total stranger—and kissed him on the lips, then walked away. I sent him my reply after attending a panel discussion on flash fiction:

The hardest part is standing up.

She takes her first step and when she hears the clack-smack of her high heels hitting the hardwood floors of the bar, she knows she will go through with it. It is the fact of his sunglasses, even at night. It is the fact of his all white from forehead to chin. It is the fact of drinking alone, the fact of why not, the fact of feels good. It is the fact of–a fluke, she knows, but still–“Tainted Love” playing over the satellite streamed radio which reminded her of college and kissing Thomas Halloway in the ally behind Pangea Coffeehouse, which, had it been a postcard picture, would have been captioned: “Wish you were here?” Yes.

He is not Thomas Halloway but she is just two paces from the corner seat where the brim of his hat flirts with the dim table light and she is driven now by something larger than nostalgia. When a woman kisses a perfect stranger in a bar, wordless save the poetics of flesh, it is because she thinks he needs to be kissed. If she is a woman of conscience, she understands it is also because she wants to believe it will always be this simple.

The man is stuck in the kiss, long over by now. He didn’t see her face when she turned to leave. A broken smile, almost mothering–toward herself or him, same difference in this story–and when she exits onto the pavement beneath the buzzing pub sign, she can feel its electric pulse twinging beneath her skin. She can see her breath caught in the neon light, exhaled into soft clouds of dragon’s flames. She can hear something louder than herself, rumbling along the tracks in the distance and she lets herself leave with sound of it.

Onward to the sessions I attended on FRIDAY.

F105. The Art of Interviewing. (David Everett, Tim Wendel, Cari Lynn) Perhaps the most useful way to gather information or build dialogue for nonfiction or fiction alike, interviewing is a learned craft just like any other. This interactive panel of experienced interviewers will demonstrate beginning and advanced techniques, then let the audience join in or watch. Our theme: Creative nonfiction writers sometimes forget that the overwhelming mass of factual writing published today is not about the author—it’s reported or researched.

I attended this because of the Lost Crossings footbridges project. As we interviewed most of our subjects, time and time again I hit a wall because of the lack of facts about our project and because of the age and fading memory of most of my interviewees. While much of this panel felt like review for me, no writer should ever complain about a refresher course.

There was emphasis on getting the cadence and syntax correct when creating dialogue. Some writers interview people for their freelance jobs and if they are particularly struck by the way a person talks, they listen to the tapes over and over to study how the words flow or bump up against each other. That cadence comes out later in the form of fiction, where a character perhaps won’t resemble the real life subject in any way but for the stolen—yet wholly authentic sounding—voice.

Another tip was about sensory detail. Much of our memories are rooted in the senses, especially the memories of childhood or traumatic or ecstatic events. Ask people what they saw, heard, or felt. Ask them where they were and what others were saying. Ask how they felt in their body at the time, and how they felt afterwards. Finally, if interviewing older subjects, remember that you will be asking them to recall things that they might not have thought about for over forty years. Bring photos to job their memory, even if they’re simply period photos with no one specific to that person’s life in them.

As an interviewer it is important to know the line between you and your subject. In certain circumstances, you will be called to give of yourself, too, and that may be appropriate in order to befriend somebody. In other cases, keeping the distance will be crucial. Either way, do your homework before an interview. Look up the subject on Google and You Tube and study past publications about the person or the person’s field. Consider if you are interviewing a public or private figure, and list your questions with that in mind. If you are interviewing a public figure, try not to interview him/her on his/her turf, unless it is the person’s private home, in which case the intimacy will be disarming in the best of ways. Arrive early to the interview on purpose to watch how the subject interacts with others in his/her daily life.

F122. Why Would You Say That?: Issues of Nonfiction and Fiction in Young Writers’ Lives. (Mark Winegardner, Joshua Kendall, Jeanne Leiby, Jocelyn Bartkevicius) Panelists discuss current trends in nonfiction—including several pitfalls for young writers to avoid: spending their capital instead of their interest in terms of life experiences; writing autobiography/memoir without any critical distance or self-reflection; rehearsing “disease of the week” stories, ripped fresh from day-time television. Instead, our panelists—editors of literary presses and journals, as well as practitioners in all genres—offer advice to young writers on ways they can make the most of their life experiences by using them to inform their fictive works of imagination.

Ninety percent of The Southern Review nonfiction submissions are, according to the editor in chief, “self-centered, myopic, disease of the week, and boring.” She wishes the submissions she received were narratives that take on something larger than what was lived and use beautiful prose to do so. In other words, essays that have a unique point of view that no one else could have. The work needs to invite the reader into a world and put it in context, rather than show off an experience and exclaim that the reader can’t possibly understand it. “It boils down to narrative attitude,” said the editor. “Writers need to bring in external threads and work with scale to find the right form and size for the right climax of each piece.”

Authors to check out include Dave Eggers’ (A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius), Jeanne Leiby’s Down River, “Silent Dancing” (a chapter) by Judith Ortiz Cose (?). Also, look at Patricia Hampbell, who has published 6 memoirs, each going beyond her life and exploring different facets of her experiences.

A fiction writer on the panel discussed how the short story form functions as an indirect way for him to write memoir. He couldn’t ever seem to approach the trauma of his father’s suicide in creative nonfiction without getting too emotional or cliché, but he could in fact write a short story about tropical fish that wound a deeper metaphor which nodded in the direction (for the writer, at least), of that traumatic experience.

F138. The Duty of a Writer. (Jackson Taylor, Marie Ponsot, Paul Muldoon, Sapphire, Major Jackson) In America, we legitimize a creative writer by noting commercial success—but what is often left unnoticed is that the creative writer performs a very important job in society—the recording of truth as he or she sees it. With truth, the writer hopes to engage the conscience of people—and perhaps get them to ask their own questions. William Blake weighed out that without contraries there is no progression—and one of the duties a writer performs is to present contraries—questioning authority in order to discern that which is ethical and legitimate. This panel will explore the duty of the writer, particularly from the perspective of a student, discuss the potential for literature to affect social change, ask if literature is an alternative to consumer culture, and explore why so many writers find their way into exile.

What a truly fascinating panel, despite its arrogant exclusion of all genres except poetry! I will quote Marie Ponsot here at length, as she was totally inspiring and said everything that needed to be said on the subject in the most succinct and eloquent of ways.

“The welfare of the poem: that is where our field of duty lies.”

“If you have writer’s block or one of those other fancy maladies, ignore it and act to write the poem. It is only the action of making the poem that makes us poets.”

“Anxiety about subjects is useless. It is a question for the craft class, not for the working poet. We have heads full of chemical alchemy, the code of memory is whatever we have as our master language.”

“As we evolve, we see the lie we’re trying to tell ourselves and others. Getting under that is really liberating…It would be my great dream to tell a truth.”

“Language is our field of duty, acting in that field is our duty.”

“There is one safe power and that power is skill. Skill give you power over yourself, where you need it most.”

“Noticing lets you see the real, ruinous world…Above all, noticing shapes the subterranean efforts of our writing.”

“The greatest poet of all is master of a realm invisible to most…It’s our job to have this kind of good time.”

Other speaker had things to add, though I found their answers during the Q&A more informative than their prepared speeches. Peter Muldoon reminded us that writers have the duty of citizenship, where we must make sense of our lives as writers and of society. “It’s important to stand up and be counted as a citizen writer,” he said. Major Jackson said, “We also have a duty to read and to invest in writing that serves.”

Then the two rock star lights and smoke and glam shows with dancing punk rock cheerleaders and gymnastic trombonists (I’m not kidding) that I went to were:

F174. The National Book Critics Circle and the Chicago Tribune Celebrate NBCC Fiction Award Winners and Finalists. (Jane Ciabattari, Marilynne Robinson, Aleksandar Hemon, Bharati Mukherjee, Elizabeth Taylor) The National Book Critics Circle and the Chicago Tribune host a fiction reading by National Book Critics Circle Award Winners and Finalists Marilynne Robinson (Winner for Gilead), Bharati Mukherjee (Winner for The Middleman & Other Stories), and Aleksandar Hemon (finalist for Nowhere Man). Hosted by NBCC President Jane Ciabattari, welcome by Elizabeth Taylor, Literary Editor, Chicago Tribune.


F215. ZZ Packer, Joe Meno & Dorothy Allison. (ZZ Packer, Joe Meno, Dorothy Allison) A reading by ZZ Packer, Joe Meno, and Dorothy Allison, featuring a performance by Mucca Pazza.

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