Thursday, March 28, 2013

Guest Blogger Patricia Berry on Finding the Essay at AWP

Patricia Berry, like dozens of literary folk, lives in nearby Montclair, New Jersey. Pat and I were once members of a small writing group for a while, nudging each other on, hatching plans, and laughing around one another's dining room tables. She is an essayist whose work has appeared in several anthologies, including Unbuttoned (Harvard Common Press) and Over the Hill and Between the Sheets (Springboard). Pat is also a creative writing coach who teaches in the Columbia University Summer High School Program; blogs occasionally about books, films and the writing life; and contributes to The Days of Yore, a blog featuring interviews with writers and other artists. She has an MFA in creative writing (nonfiction) from Columbia’s School of the Arts.  
Please welcome Patricia Berry.

Like recent guest blogger Ryder Ziebarth, I attended my very first Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) conference earlier this month in Boston. And like Ryder, I discovered AWP is a heady event—and one designed for sprinters. Since I have not jogged in years, I narrowed my fact-and-inspiration finding to those writing questions that have been nagging me. I circled and starred my way through the program guide, identifying plenty of panels with potential for answers. In the end, only once did I need to dash along the spacious corridors of Hynes Convention Center in search of my next hit of literary intelligence.

Where my work is concerned, there are lately two issues. One is, How do I pitch the project I’ve been laboring over for going on three years? Is it an essay collection or a memoir? I know what I think it is and what I want it to be (essays), and I know what several agents have told me it must be (memoir). Until I’m somebody, the argument goes, that is, an author with so much name recognition that a publisher could actually sell an essay collection with my name on it, I’m stuck with the M word. Not that there’s anything wrong with publishing a memoir. I just don’t think that what I read on my pages adds up to one long and connected personal story. Or should. It turned out AWP had a panel of established writers with whom I could commiserate: The Godzilla of Nonfiction: Has Memoir Swallowed the Essay?

I’ve read Los Angeles Times columnist Meghan Daum regularly since her first book, My Misspent Youth, a collection of individual essays on life as a young professional, was published in 2001. During the Godzilla panel, Daum implied that by publishing essays right out of the gate, she’d snuck in under the wire; the trend toward longer linear narratives had not quite taken hold. She wasn’t so lucky with her most recent book, LifeWould Be Perfect If I Lived in That House (2010). What she wrote as a collection of personal essays around her preoccupation with real estate became memoir when she was informed it would not sell otherwise. Daum applied what she calls “gratuitous connective tissue” to the pieces, ending the book and the property search, a little-too-tidily for her taste, with a wedding. The book, she told us, suffered as a result.

Panelist Emily Fox Gordon’s Book of Days: PersonalEssays (2010) is her fourth book, which I guess makes her somebody. Gordon paid her dues: under pressure from editors, she converted two earlier collections into memoirs. At AWP, Gordon gave a worth-the-price-of-admission tutorial that riffed on the essay as confidence, not confession. The writer should think of the reader not as a judge or authority figure but as a confidante, she said. There is no coercion in this reader-writer relationship. Trusting that the reader is a friend will help write the piece. Gordon spoke, too, of how the personal essay can and, to be more effective, probably should contain memoir-like narrative passages in addition to essayistic analyses of events.

It seems author David McGlynn was unconsciously trying to avoid such passages while writing essays about violence. He expressed ambivalence about having to convert a collection of these essays to memoir, but he admitted that the act of writing scenes and descriptions of long-ago events following the home invasion and murder of a high school classmate gave him a better understanding of himself. It also became the basis of his memoir A Door in the Ocean (2012). In McGlynn’s case, the pushback from his agent that he write a memoir ultimately made for a more meaningful take on a lifelong obsession.

So has memoir devoured the essay? It seemed as though the panel was saying, Yes, but; as though willing essayists in the audience to follow our hearts for as long as we can hold out. It’s a game plan I can live with. Before closing, moderator Debra Monroe offered a sort of end around, a way to avoid the memoir-or-essays tag altogether. Monroe described how author Jo Ann Beard managed this with her 1999 nonfiction work The Boys of My Youth, which bears only a title -- not followed by a colon or subtitle. On its release, reviewers identified Boys (which one Godzilla panelist described as a perfect book) as they saw it, some calling it memoir, others referring to it as a collection of personal stories.

“I am drawn to the shagginess of the essay,” Phillip Lopate writes in the introduction to his latest collection, Portrait Inside My Head (2013). I like this description and I like that he calls his latest assortment of essays a “hodgepodge,” a label I wish I could pull off with my own work. And how perfect that Lopate was in the audience that afternoon. One after the other, the writers at the table acknowledged the master.

The other issue I brought to AWP was teaching. Each year I am an instructor in Columbia’s summer program for high school students, Over three weeks I hope I help them develop their writing, working along a spectrum that begins with poetry and ends with long form nonfiction. As I passed hundreds of convention bookstalls, the challenge of keeping the teaching fresh for “my kids” was on my mind.

Am I the last to hear of Dave Eggers’ 826 National? The enterprising Mr. Eggers launched his writing and tutoring centers in 2002, and now there’s an 826 National book imprint. This YouTube video gives a little more background on one of its titles.

With all the publisher swag at AWP, one could fill a new tote (the editor of Brain, Child handed me a high-quality green and purple canvas number on the last day) without pulling out one’s wallet until lunch. And then I found myself flipping through 826 National’s Don’t Forget to Write, 50 creative writing lesson plans devised by some wonderful writers, including quirky Sarah Vowell (“The First Draft Is My Enemy: Revisions”) and The Daily Show with Jon Stewart contributor Kristen Schall (“How to Write a One-person Show About a Historical Figure”). When I happened on lesson plan # 32, I dug into my bag and plunked down $23. How could I not? That plan is written by Meghan Daum and titled simply “The Essay.”

Pat would be delighted if you followed her on Twitter @patricia_berry


Ryder Ziebarth said...

Patricia, thank you for the shout-out, and I am glad you found some answers and panels for thought at AWP, as I did. I found it particularly interesting that memoir has morphed into a gigantic green eyed monster of a genre and the autobiography has virtually all but disappeared, it seems(except perhaps at Barnes and Noble, who can't seem to get with the book display labeling program of the 21st century). I LOVE essays and always have, having been weaned on some great ones--E.B.White, Truman Capote--and I am enjoying this new genre of memoir. But what I do not like reading is obvious evidence of connective tissue in a string of stories to fashion them into a sort of Frankenstein-esque body for the sake of making money. It's annoying, and I think, harder for the reader to come away with a sense of character, time and place, without feeling a bit duped. As I move along in my writing life, I will be investigating all of this further, if essays and memoirs are still genres and haven't morphed into something else, say, Long- form- short- flash- nonfiction- with micro- personal- narration (how's that for a new genre?!). Thanks again. Ryder

Patricia Berry said...

Hi, Ryder. I really enjoyed your take on AWP, and look forward to going next year and biting off a larger piece of it. As the location is Seattle, this will be a much bigger deal for me than hopping in a car for a few hours. I’ll be forced to plan better.

Agreed re connective tissue. The lack of it is what I liked so much about OLIVE KITTREDGE. My book group had a long discussion about whether to call it a novel or short stories. Larry Dark, overseer of The Story Prize (for short story collections) asked Strout to submit OLIVE for consideration. I don’t know whether she did, but I love that the question of collection or novel was a point of discussion. And why not? Why decide at all?

Personally, I’m not big on labels, especially for nonfiction, often because I can never remember what they mean. I met the literary agents I mention in my post at a reception Columbia puts on for alumni, bringing MFAs together with agents. Talk about one of your more nerve-wracking affairs. But one agent left me with a helpful notion I won’t soon forget. He dismissed identifying my project one way or another. "It’ll be what it is,” he told me. Seems simplistic, and yet I try to keep this message in mind as I write. Simple is better for me. (Yes, I hear the chuckles.) Labels/tags are just too distracting.

Thanks for connecting, Ryder. I look forward to meeting in person—hopefully before AWP '14!

C.M. Mayo said...

Enjoyed this post. I used to be an AWP regular... I lost count (they all sort of mush together) but I think I've been to at least 6 of them. The funny thing is, I spent the first two in the book fair; in fact, the first time, I didn't attend a single panel. Then one year I was on two panels. In my experience the main challenge of AWP is sheer overwhelm... how to pace oneself, yet do all the things, talk to the people to make the effort and expense of attending worthwhile? Ayyyy.