The truthiness obsession at AWP

High interest in creative nonfiction swamps small rooms.

Way Out x

Guest Post by Janice Gary

The AWP is always such an exhausting, exhilarating and mind-blowing experience. Home now and coming down from the high, I’m overwhelmed with writing ideas and new ways of thinking about writing and appreciation for my writing colleagues—both those I reconnected with and those I met along the way. We are all each other’s teachers, and nowhere is that more evident for me than at the AWP Conference.

As always, there were too many panels that I couldn’t attend, too many programs and presses and journal booths I missed. FOUR HUGE exhibit halls worth of Bookfair – so many it would three days worth of the conference just visit every booth. This year, I saved my energy and didn’t even try to cover it all. But I did find some great little journals I never knew about, and even bought two: Image: A Journal of Art, Faith and Mystery and So to Speak: a feminist journal of language and art.

Nonfiction was well represented on the panels, although it did seem that many of the topics were redundant. Truth in nonfiction was an especially popular subject. The first (and one of the best) of these panels was Looking for Real Life Humberts: The Unreliable Narrator in Creative Nonfiction. Although I stumbled in late for the 9 am session, I got there in enough time to hear much talk about unreliable narrators in nonfiction. In the end, the general consensus was that if we write in this genre, we need to be as reliably truthful as possible. Surprise!

And here I will make a terrible confession: I cannot find my notes on the panels I attended. I am sitting here in abject horror thinking back to taking the notebook out in the hotel lobby while waiting for my airport shuttle and wondering if I ever put it back in my bag. If it’s gone, I’m left with a personal tragedy comparable to the burning of the library in Alexandria.

But I do have the program, and a quick glance shows the other panels dealing with “truthiness”: Nothing but the Truth: Perspectives on CNF”; Options of “I:” the Post Memoir Memoir (dealing with experimental forms as well as issues of truthfulness);  The Truth of Nonfiction: Bringing Students into the Conversation; Why Genre Matters (addressing conflating, configuring, twisting, embellishing).

Why Genre Matters brought together some of the finest minds in creative nonfiction (including Dinah Lenney, Sven Birkets and Judith Kitchen) for a fascinating discussion on truth and the way it is presented. And there were varying opinions – although all agreed that the heart of the matter is the emotional truth investigated as honestly as possible.

Another confession: I only caught the end of this session. For some reason, I ended up the wrong room and found myself at a session on experimental and short form cnf (which was quite good). But once I realized I wasn’t at the session I wanted to be, I was trapped, huddled in the very back of the room on the floor, knee to hip with other packed nf enthusiasts and not able to move until enough of the floor crowd left to leave a trickle of trail out.

This happened a lot during this conference (not the room confusion, although that happened often enough), but the appalling lack of space for nonfiction panels. Over and over again, nonfiction sessions were placed in rooms way too small for the audience. It seems to me that the AWP planners and proposal judges still can’t wrap their minds around how many writers are engaging in nonfiction.

I think it’s time for the AWP (and the literary community) to move past the truth/not truth obsession (almost every nf panel agreed the heart of the genre is the artful and truthful rendering of the author’s experience) and realize creative nonfiction is on the cutting edge of contemporary literature today. Writers sense the limitless opportunities in nonfiction to write the truth slant by stretching form and structure and tone and voice. This is great part of the appeal of the genre to contemporary writers. It is form well suited to those trying to understand not only from their own lives but of the world around them during a time of great changes.

In the halls, you hear folks asking each other “poetry or prose?” It’s funny, because my question is usually “fiction or nonfiction?” But poetry or prose is good question for those of us in creative nonfiction, because this is exactly where the genre is growing and going, existing in the intersection of possibility, the exciting new worlds of making art from life.

So next year, AWP, bigger rooms for nonfiction. More panels on what we can do with the genre and the process of wrangling the truth on the page and not so much on whether or not we’re telling the truth. Sure, there might be a few bad apples in the barrel, but in general, I think nonfiction writers are acutely aware of what the “non” in nonfiction stands for.

And if anyone finds a black five subject notebook in the downstairs lobby of the Westin, it’s mine.

Gary, Janice, Goucher 04 Grad x

Janice Gary lives and writes in Annapolis, Maryland, on the shores of the Chesapeake Bay. Her book, Short Leash: A Memoir of Dog Walking and Deliverance, is due out from Michigan State University Press in 2013.


Filed under creative nonfiction, honesty, teaching, education

23 responses to “The truthiness obsession at AWP

  1. Janice, I don’t know that I agree with you regarding the quantity of panels on the same topic. After all, if we all went to the same single panel on truth, only a fraction of the people interested in it would be able to fit in the single room. Besides, a few people are still not convinced that truth is what makes nonfiction not fiction.

    That said, I went to nothing about truth. I heard nonfiction readings, attended panels about the intersection of music and writing, health and writing, and science and writing. I was at a food panel, a Terry Gross interview with a music critic, and heard about living it up to write it down.

    My guess is the overlap is specifically to address the issue of popularity that you discuss. They can’t make the rooms bigger, but they can make similar panels available at different times. So they did.

    • You are certainly right in that the truth in nf is and will continue to be something that needs to be addressed. It’s just frustrating to me because I suspect part of that obsession is inditing an entire genre the few writers who exploit it. Your experience at the conference sounded great. I wish I had time to attend all the panels I was interested in. As for room size and not anticipating the interest in CNF {esp. craft panels and memoir), I still think the planners are not choosing their spaces as effectively as they can, especially since this problem has apparently been going on for awhile.,

  2. Daiva Markelis

    I wasn’t able to attend AWP this year, but reading your posts was the next best thing. Last year in Chicago most of the nonfiction panels were held in too-small rooms as well. I remember coming to the panel with Lee Martin ON TIME and having to stand in the hallway with my neck craned into the room. And I suspect the question of truth in memoir is going to be a hot topic for some time. Again, at one of last year’s panels–well, it almost came to fisticuffs. I love your admissions about coming in late, forgetting notes, etc. I am also that woman.
    Thanks for a great post, and I look forward to reading your book!

    • Yes, Davia, I suspect you’re right. This discussion will be going on and on for some time. I think part of the problem can be explained in Meyers-Briggs terms. Some people are more T or J and left-brain oriented (logical/black and white analytical) and F’s like me are more comfortable with the gray areas. I believe you need to be true to what you remember and not make things up, but I’m not so concerned with “facts.” The nature of memory is not a recollection of facts, but of truth, which our psyche delivers to us through metaphor, symbols and often a skewed perception of real life events and experience. I think this is where the “truthers” have a problem. I don’t.

  3. “Never let the facts get in the way of a great story.”

    Is this where we’re headed in the name of “creativity” — a la Lehrer? Count me out. My memoir stated clearly in the introduction that nothing was exaggerated or changed or made up. There were no false or composite characters; only the names were changed. I’m old school and fine with it.

    What percentage of truth will authors now offer in NF — and how much credence do I then accord them?

    • I agree that we need to keep to the truth — the truth as we remember it, which can be a little slippery at times. When I find myself lured into writing something that I did not remember, I either delete it or let the reader know this is what I imagine or hoped had happened. I do think we cnf writers have a responsibility to the reader to be as truthful as possible. For me, that also mean informing readers up front if their are composites or name changes, etc. I don’t see why someone would not do that if they are writing nonfiction.

  4. Is livid too strong a word? Many people like Birkerts and Hampl we couldn’t get to hear because of small rooms for CNF/memoir, my panel too. Rebecca McClanahan has a great idea: when the schedule goes out, AWP solicits our top three panel picks, then takes info and arranges room size accordingly. Please tell your AWP friends to forward this idea to the board. Tom Larson

  5. Janice, thanks so much for this post! I learned recently that it’s the opinion of some non-CNF writers that CNF doesn’t even have a place at AWP. I’m glad we have articulate people like you to champion the genre.

    I was at Tom’s panel and it was great! But you’re both right—my friends and I missed panels with Dinty Moore and others because the rooms were simply too small. (There also seemed to be a few panels on other topics that skewed the opposite way: a small audience in a laughably large room.) The planning of the conference should definitely be more interactive to determine who wants to go to which panels.

  6. I’ve never been to AWP, so I rely on reports like this one to provide a window into what must be an incredible event. Thanks. I must say, the conditions, both this year and last year, do not sound attractive. Perhaps the biggest draw is for grads of the various MFA programs to reconnect?

    Is there any benefit to go there right before or right after publishing a book?

    Finally, a story about “truthiness” from our family lore. Once one of my husband’s uncles, a farmer, broke into a conversation with the question, “Is that truth or poetry?” We’ve been quoting him for the last forty years.

    • Shirley, although it might sound crazy at AWP, it is worth it for any writer to go– at least once. And it is a very good idea to attend after publishing a book. Even right before. I had hoped to have my book out by this time, but the publisher pushed it back to August. Going to the conference gave me a lot of insight into the marketing process and connecting with writers who have been through it was extremely helpful.

  7. Thanks for this report, Janice. I focused only on CNF and social media panels. I did not attend any of the panels related to truth in CNF–I feel pretty comfortable that I know the main arguments and debates after studying the issue for several years.

    The one panel I was turned away from because it was overflowing was one on literary journalism. I was surprised that it was packed, especially since it was framed as “journalism” and not CNF per se. I consider myself a journalist and figured I would be in a very small minority at AWP. Either I was not, or people are looking to break into literary journalism. Instead, I decided to go to the essay reading with Philip Lopate, David Shields, Amy Fusselman, and Elena Passarello. I was blown away by Passarello. And I learned that Lopate was signing later that afternoon so I was able to chat with him for a bit. Then, the next morning at the hotel elevator, he remembered my name! That was my AWP celebrity moment 🙂

    So sorry to hear about your notebook. I guess you will get a chance to mine the recesses of your short-term memory!

  8. Literary journalism is considered CNF, in fact, that is the form that Lee Gutkind et al started that began the whole CNF phenomena. I wanted to go to the Essay session with Lopate and Fusselman. Now I wish I did!

  9. Just Mary

    My AWP experience was two years ago in Washington, DC. I commuted in on the Metro everyday. I was unsuccessful in connecting with any of my fellow MFA graduates but I did encounter many writing friends from Maryland Writer’s Association and who teach/taught at Anne Arundel Community College in the Writers’ Workshops.

    The rooms were either nearly empty with only two rows of seats filled or packed to the brim as you described. I was envious as I read others posting about heading off to AWP this year. Truth be told, I still am as I would have loved listening to some of my favorite writers. At the AWP in DC I heard Joyce Carol Oates read, got to meet her, and she signed several of her books that I’ve had for some time.

    It surprises me that we are still beating the drum for truth in CNF. Twenty years ago, I taught my first memoir course and lectured on the “emotional truth.” I still talk about truth in CNF but usually only to those just starting out. Otherwise, the discussion comes up when a student writer has a truth they are reluctant to tell.

    Thank you for a great article. Maybe next year I will get to AWP again.

    • Mary, many years ago, you were the one who taught me my first important lesson about cnf. “Even though it’s true, it has to believable.” That has stayed me with as I write personal narrative. It forces me to try and convey the truth as honestly as I can (yes, even the emotional truth). I thank you for that simple but strong lesson.

  10. Judith Kitchen

    Well, I have to say it again. The “emotional truth” for Binjamin Wilkomirski is that he is a child survivor of the Holocaust, but that doesn’t make it so. Facts DO matter, and especially in cases like this. And the more we tell students to “write slant,” the less we’re telling them to write well. If that makes me a hard-liner, then that’s what I am. But I’m a hard-liner who has experimented with departing from facts a whole lot, and I know ways to get back to them.

    • How nice of you to weigh in here, Judith, and for someone of your stature to take this clear position. I was rather surprised that more cnf leaders did not come forward when the D’Agata issue of artistic fabrication (not sure what to call what he does/did, changing basic facts because a different name or date or sequence suited him better) broke—though I recall that you did.

    • I actually agree with you Judith and that’s what I mean when I say that non-fiction writers should know what the “non” stands for. However, I think we may perceive certain terms differently. For example, I have trouble believing that Binjamin Wilkomirski’s “emotional truth” is that he survived the Holocaust. He might have empathized or vividly imagined what it would be like, but unless he is so mentally unbalanced that he is hallucinatory, I don’t see how this could be his “emotional truth.” Perhaps we are parsing semantics here. Making stuff up is not what I am mean when I refer to this term. Nor is it when I think about writing slant. But that’s me. I disagreed with some of your fellow panelists when they said they were OK with Vivian Gornick placing her mother on the street with her when she realized she had grown old with the local homeless man. I still don’t understand why Gornick didn’t simply write that she could hear her mother say “You’re growing old together,” couldn’t see the metaphor it presented of how her mother lived on inside her. When I feel tempted to write something I am consciously aware of never happening, I ask myself why. Almost always, it reveals a deeper truth that guides me to explore the emotional truth of what I do remember. Then I write what really happened in a deeper way. The truth is always more powerful.

  11. The comments are as juicy and informative as the main post with exciting ideas all around. Thanks to all of you for sharing insight on an event I have yet to experience. Janice, my heart aches for you about the loss of your notes! I hold a vision that some angel will email to ask where to send them!

  12. Since we’re dealing with truth here, I want to tell you that I found the notebook shortly after writing this initial post. It had shifted in a black bag so it was under all my stuff. Which makes this a good metaphor for writing truth: Pay attention. Look and look again.

    • Just Mary

      And the truth is under all your “stuff.” Good advice. I love this story and with your permission will share it in the classroom.