Greeting from the NonfictioNow conference in beautiful Iowa City, a town known for its writers. At the moment, I’m writing to you from a café in the renowned Prairie Lights Bookstore, surrounded by literary magazines, with floors and floors of books to explore. As I walked here this morning, my progress was hampered by the literary quotes inscribed on the sidewalk, each one requiring me to stop and ponder before I moved on.
The NonfictioNow conference is the largest gathering of creative nonfiction writers and teachers in the nation. We get a little giddy as hundreds of us converge at the University of Iowa to not only discuss esoteric aspects of our craft, but to reconnect with one another and remember why we’re writers in the first place. Yes, we go to panels with names like “Nonfiction: A Hybrid Genre or a Highly Evolved Form?” or “Holding Back: Privacy and Disclosure in Nonfiction,” but we also go to readings like “Farthest North Nonfiction: Alaska Writers Read” and keynote addresses by such luminaries as Allison Bechdel, Rebecca Solnit, and John Edgar Wideman. We sit at round tables in the Main Lounge and eat mushroom strudel for lunch, or we walk to the Motley Cow and have a dinner while laughing and laughing at the sheer joy of being together.
Not that I’m biased or anything, but one of the most enjoyable events for me was “Literature of Palpable Quality: A Bellingham Review Reading.” The reading was scheduled for 8:45 a.m. on a Friday morning, up against two panels filled with heavy-hitters that I myself longed to see. So I brought with me a box of Bellingham Reviews, hoping to bribe those willing to forego the talking “about” nonfiction and experience some fine nonfiction writing instead.
To my surprise, we did draw a respectable audience, including the one and only Robin Hemley, director of the conference and the previous Editor of the Bellingham Review. Robin was the one to bring the Review under the purview of Western Washington University and to launch the magazine to national prominence, so when I took the reins from him about nine years ago, I was both excited and humbled by the bar he had set. Nine years later, I’m happy to report that we’re still going strong, as evidenced by the reading that unfolded that morning.
I had gathered together Julie Jeanell Leung, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Lauren Smith, and Ira Sukrungruang to represent the wide range of nonfiction we publish in the review. Julie read from her remarkable essay “Moon Snail,” which was a finalist in our Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction. It combines a scientist’s eye for the beauty found in nature, with a sister’s honest ambivalence about her love for her brain-damaged brother. Alexandria’s powerful piece, “In the Fade,” was a winner in the Annie Dillard Award, and it draws on her work as a lawyer for death row appeals, taking cases of those whose guilt is not in question. Lauren’s work as a researcher in Africa, interviewing women who have lost loved ones to AIDS or who have AIDS themselves, formed the basis of her award-winning piece, “The Widow’s Tale.” Ira completed the reading with his beautiful lyric essay, “Thirteen Ways of Looking at Fat,” a poem-like piece that draws us into dialogue with Wallace Stevens while it reveals intimate details about the body.
I knew the reading would be good, but I didn’t know how good it would be, until all four readers enacted their pieces on that big stage, in the dim light, their voices bringing to life the words I had previously only heard in my own mind. It felt as though the magazine, itself, was up there, sitting in one of those hard chairs, pouring water into a plastic cup, nodding in approval as each reader showed us how powerful, startling, and persuasive creative nonfiction can be. As the Editor-in-Chief, I know my magazine intimately, but this reading drew me into a deeper relationship with the journal, affirmed for me that literary publishing does matter.
The audience seemed to agree. Not one person left the room (a rarity at literary conferences, where the sheer number of things to do incites a mass case of attention deficit disorder), and they all applauded warmly at the end, with genuine smiles and interest. One person commented that though all the pieces were quite different from one another, they all had something in common: each narrator was struggling to understand something difficult, something that cannot be reduced to easy answers. That, I realize now, is what I look for when scanning the thousands of submissions that come into our office: the essential struggle, one that we can enter with the narrator and come away changed.
I’m returning home in the morning, my suitcase full of new books, magazines, business cards. But the most important thing I’m bringing home is my renewed sense of faith: faith that writing matters, that small journals matter, and that, most important, we matter to one another.