Sunday, April 13, 2014

Festival of Books 2014 - Nonfiction: The Art of the Personal Story

Meghan Daum: moderator, The Unspeakable: And Other Subjects of Discussion
Leslie Jamison: The Empathy Exams
Dinah Lenney: The Object Parade
Leo Braudy: Trying to be Cool: Growing Up in the 1950s
Pico Iyer: The Man Within My Head

Random thoughts on writing about oneself

Iyer: Growing up in England, you’re taught to be as impersonal as possible. Through the mask of the impersonal, you reveal things you wouldn’t normally share.

Braudy: I grew up in the 1950s. There was an impersonality in general.

Jamison: When gazing at an object outside the self, it brings the self to bear. When I rise up to meet the external thing, everything I’ve ever lived is part of that. I started off writing fiction. I follow where the energy feels, what my heart has something to say about.

Braudy: Stick to emotional certainty, if not factual truth. I had to free myself to get at emotional truth. (Events are out of order. Characters are blended.) I gave all my friends different names.

Iyer: Memoir is always fiction. Nonfiction takes liberties with facts, and fiction tends to draw from real events and real emotions. The personal parts are slippery. That doesn’t matter. Emotional truth matters. The destination is the imagination of the reader. I didn’t want this book to be categorized. It’s not nonfiction or fiction. (He took out the original subtitle after a year of debate because it made it sound like a nonfiction book.)

You do a lot of “maybe,” “perhaps,” and “my mother would say it differently, but…” Watching someone’s mind at work is a nonfiction enterprise itself. I catch myself when I start to make things up. You do have a contract to uphold.

Jamison: Presenting the self on the page is presenting a character. Writing nonfiction is different from writing fiction. I believe more in the ‘bookshelf definitions.’ Collaborative memory/memory itself is an event.

Lenney: Tobias Wolff said, “Memoir is not written by committee.”

Daum: Your parents are not the committee.

I’m not the bearer of good news. [Writing about other people] is a case by case basis. But, write a draft without any thought to a committee.

Braudy: I’m writing about fifty years ago, so I don’t have to worry too much about other people. (Someone told him after reading his book, “You put the movie theater on the wrong side of the street.” He replied, “I don’t remember what side of the street it’s on.”)

Daum: Where do you put the movie theater?

Iyer: (About going back to a childhood location) I misremembered every last detail. It humbled me. A writer is powerless before the responses.

Lenney: I don’t write fiction. I don’t know how. I write nonfiction, so I have control over what I share. I don’t write about my husband and my daughter very much. I want them to continue to speak to me. But for some reason, my parents feel like fair game. In some cases, I’ll pull back. It’s a risky business either way (writing fiction or nonfiction). Either way, they (the readers) come after you.

Jamison: You have to surrender control about how people respond. I can think of a piece as an homage, and people will be offended. (However, in one instance, she pulled something from publication because the feelings of a person were more important than publishing the story. Her publisher said, “It’s you’re right to publish this piece.” She agreed, but chose to pull it anyway.)

Iyer: I’ve only written about one family member, departed actually. (He once had a monk he wrote about threaten to call his lawyer because he was so upset. A couple months later, he wrote, “Do you whatever you want.” Iyer said about the change of heart: Maybe he was practicing being a monk, or maybe his lawyer retired.)

Braudy: I was a character in someone else’s writing. (His ex-wife wrote about their marriage and divorce.) I got a lawyer. I insisted our cat’s name be changed.

Writers tend to respond differently to being written about. There’s an intense generosity.

Lenney: My students write about me. I never like the way I sound. I said that? I said it like that? It’s awful to be written about, and yet we do it.

Jamison: I wrote an essay about being a medical actor, the experience of becoming a character. It was a formal experiment. It didn’t feel like straight up narrative. Playing with form can crack open an experience [to show] new facets. How do we make our own pain legible?

Lenney: (About writing her latest book) What would your life look like if you wrote about the objects around you? What if I had chosen other objects?

Braudy: The ideas take over, create a rhythm, almost musically. There’s something between the past that will be written and the past that will remain unwritten. If memoirs aren’t in some way embarrassing, what is the point?

Iyer: (He called his book “very strange and unreadable.”) Sometimes people we’ve never met understand us more than our own family. (He wrote about Graham Greene as a father-figure.) Every son tries to rebel against his father until he realizes he has become his father.

Lenney: Guide a reader as to how to read your book and then stick to that structure. My editor said, “You wouldn’t serve a beautiful meal, then not give them silverware.”

Braudy: If you think about the market when you’re writing, you’re doomed.


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