Sunday, April 1, 2012

AWP De-brief

In my few days at the AWP conference in Chicago this March, I was honored
to see so many writers in person whose work I’ve only read and to be in
the presence of thousands of attendees who love writing as I do. Amongst
the events I attended were a Word Party hosted by Derrick Brown and
some poets on the Write Bloody Publishing team, a Cave Canem legacy
conversation with poet Nikki Giovanni, and a panel on persona poetry from
an anthology co-edited by our very own Oliver de la Paz that featured poet
Patricia Smith. Of the many remarkable panels and readings that I attended,
I will share with you some insights on “From Question to Quest: Redefining
Nonfiction in the Field, in the Classroom, and on the Page” with author and
editor Donovan Hohn, journalist and author V.V. (Sugi) Ganeshananthan,
and novelist Jesmyn Ward. Also on the panel were Jeremiah Chamberlin and
Matthew Power, but my late arrival prevented me from hearing their talks.

I walked into the panel presentation in the middle of a discussion on Moby-
Duck. ‘Moby-Duck? Did I hear that right?’ As I entered the presentation in
media res, I had to imagine what came before my entrance, what context
I was missing. In this way, I was reminded of how I’ve felt when trying to
piece together enough fragments of memory to write a nonfiction narrative—
the uncertainty that usually comes when searching for specific details that
time has often separated from me. My notes that at the time felt sufficient,
thorough, poignant even, are actually choppy at best, and now that I am out
of the Astoria room of the Chicago Hilton, the details are even more fuzzy.
The appearance of notes on a page always seem so contextless. “Moby-
Duck: The True Story...” floats in the middle of my notebook page and at
the time of my writing those four words, I knew little more about the book
than part of the title and my mind was overflowing with questions. ‘I couldn’t
have heard the title of that book correctly, could I have?’ I made a note to
look the book up on the internet and after a recent search on Amazon, I
realize that yes, it is as I heard.

Donovan Hohn, author of Moby-Duck: The True Story of 28,800 Bath Toys
Lost at Sea and of the Beachcombers, Oceanographers, Environmentalists,
and Fools, Including the Author, Who Went in Search of Them
, spoke of
the art of speculation, the usefulness of doubt (“doubtful certainties”), and
the aesthetics of perhaps. For Hohn, “in a good literary quest, the treasure
rarely lies in the ‘X’ on the map.” Quests often begin with the standard Q +
A form, but usually lead to “Q + Q + Q and then possibly A?”. In response
to the frequent question “Why did you feel compelled to chase the toys
lost at sea?” Hohn answers that questions can be like being in a current—
one line of inquiry can lead you to being swept away. As many writers of
nonfiction may be familiar, when writing a narrative, one has to ask “What
do I know?” then “What do I have to imagine?” and then lastly “What might
have happened?”

Picking up on the subject of imagination, V.V. (Sugi) Ganeshananthan,
author of Love Marriage and whose journalism often centers on Sri Lanka
and Sri Lankan politics, spoke on how her work as a journalist informs her
fiction-writing. Ganeshananthan spoke of when she moves from journalism
to fiction-writing, she leaves the world of fact for the one of imagination.
She began with the common sentiment that literature tends to last and
periodicals tend to line pet cages. Because of the shelf-life inherent in
some written word, she poses the question “How are we going to be
remembered?” Instead of focusing on the polarizing debate of journalism vs.
creative writing, Ganeshananthan’s talk centered on what creative writers
can learn from journalists, so what follows are some words of advice: Be
willing to produce things that are bad (the “shitty first draft”). Even in
creative writing, the questions that still need to be answered are “who?,
what?, where?, when?, and why?”. Be ravenous in your search for
information and have the audacity to imagine that you can pursue anything.
Don’t neglect to lean heavily on a solid combination of lived experience,
research and imagination. Ganeshananthan said “Objectivity is a total myth”
and likened objectivity to infinity in that it’s an unreachable goal but is worth
trying for. Lastly, don’t be afraid to pursue an interview, as most people
will want to share their expertise and doing so will help build voice, adding
character to your writing. Her final words were “writing allows us to enter
other consciousnesses,” a sentiment that speaks to the power of the written

Jesmyn Ward whose book Salvage the Bones won a National Book Award
has a memoir forthcoming about five men very dear to her (including a
brother) that she lost in a short span of time. Through writing, Ward, who
is a survivor of Hurricane Katrina, tries to find sense in loss and of this, she
said, “I don’t know how to write a narrative short on hope.” She explains
her turn to memoir by saying that she never tried to write about her loss
in fiction because the grief was too immense to grasp to write in that
medium. Creative nonfiction has a different power than fiction and through
the medium of memoir, she can honor the names of the men that she lost
and allow them to live again on the page. Ward mostly writes about the
south and the subjects in Ward’s writing (systemic racism, poverty, etc.) are
difficult and often easier to ignore, but those systems and victims need to be

I was haunted by Ward’s story and after the panel ended, my obsessive
nature was piqued and I felt compelled to know everything about her writing
and her history. I have visited her Wikipedia page multiple times, have
bookmarked her blog. Ward said that she seeks to allow her five men to live
again on the page and by her speaking of them even in such a summary
way for that short time on the panel, I want to know them. I don’t know
when her memoir will be released, but I know I will read it. Too, I have
bookmarked Ganeshananthan’s website and browsed several of her articles,
and I have read summaries and reviews on Hohn’s Moby-Duck and yes,
am just a bit curious about all of those toys. So is the power of hearing the
voices of authors beyond the blurbs and their still picture on the book flap.

As I left AWP with as many journals and pamphlets as I could carry, I
couldn’t wait to write again, to read my newly purchased books, to borrow
Hohn’s language about the aesthetics of perhaps with my composition class,
even. What was most surprising for me, I think, was that I began to revisit
the question of an MFA degree and if maybe I should pursue further study in
creative writing someday. And yet, I know an MFA is not the only way. Here
I am again in my own current of uncertainty, but what I do know is that
however I proceed from here, I know that I can’t imagine exiting this writing
community just yet.