Wednesday, November 28, 2007

Readings are great. But not all the time.

Back to the NonFiction Now conference I attended in early November at the University of Iowa. You can read my other two posts here and here. [Warning – long than usual post ahead.]

Did the conference live up to expectations? Yes and no.

The positives: It would be hard to think of a venue (except maybe for AWP) where so many leading lights in creative nonfiction are under one tent. The names on the program, readings reminded me of when I was a freelance sportswriter and an amateur (and quite average) horse show competitor, I was assigned by an equestrian magazine to cover the selection trial jumping events leading up to the Olympics: Every single one of my riding idols was there, up close – talk about a personal moment gift-wrapped in a professional ribbon. The kicker, of course, was that I was free – entitled – to walk right up to any one of them and ask questions. I usually engineered my questions about their performance that evening to also elicit information I could use once back on my own horse in the practice ring the next morning…

So it was in Iowa. Flummoxed about writing of personal tragedy? Chat up Sue William-Silverman over lunch. Wondering if it’s ever okay to blur the truth a little in nonfiction? Ask Philip Gerard. Need ideas for integrating creative nonfiction into the freshman comp curriculum? Nab Robert Root for a moment. You get the idea. Because the presentation rooms and reading venues are all in close proximity, and especially because everyone has their (included) meals buffet style in an airy ballroom, it’s relatively easy to locate and engage in informal conversations with icons, colleagues and newcomers.

So what’s not to like?

Writers who conducted their presentations with heads lowered, eyes fixed to their printed lecture and READ each and every word. Often with little or no emotion, emphasis or eye contact. Many presenters did this, and frankly it’s boring. It’s tiring. It’s uninspiring. And it’s sort of rude.

With fellow attendees (writers and teachers of writing), I speculated why this was so and here’s what we came up with: Teaching writers, who put in the time and work necessary to put together an interesting and topical (and often original) presentation for a major conference, will want to get it published, and rightfully so. Thus, the ready-to-publish printed-out, 5,000 word craft article masquerades as a “presentation,” instead of the presentation serving as a springboard for the future article.

Some presenters tailored their “performances” so that those printed-out tomes were merely outlines to guide their oral presentations. I won’t name here, of course, those who surprised me by reading, from first word to last, their entire presentation, without even one aside, or unplanned anecdote, digression, or other nod to the live audience. Frankly, it’s just too frustrating.

But I will mention a few whose lively, relaxed, engaging, audience-friendly presentations were worth the two airplane flights. Some had their papers in front of them too, but didn’t read word-for-word, and remembered that there were other humans in the room. They looked up, they paraphrased. They were comfortable off the printed page.

Gregory Martin, (author of Mountain City). Gregory brought props and did a terrific job of integrating them into his talk – the paper bags, scraps of paper, receipts and other papers on which he took notes while working for a year in his grandparents’ grocery store in the Nevada mountains. His students at the University of New Mexico are lucky.

Mike Steinberg, (author of Still Pitching), who can talk about teaching creative nonfiction probably for days without a script, and it’s fresh and personal and interesting each and every time. Readers of The Fourth Genre, and MFA students at Pine Manor already know this.

Roy Kesey, (author McSweeney’s China Dispatches), the closest thing to a stand-up creative nonfictionist as you’re likely to find at an event like this. Funny without really trying, and a unique take on most any aspect of his craft.

Hope Edelman (writer and editor of popular anthologies), had a willingness to point out her own mistakes, and little need for a script. She and her fellow panelists all talked from experience – that would be Dale Rigby, Patricia Foster, Daniel Jones and Faith Adiele.

Michele Morano, (author of Grammar Lessons). Here’s an example of someone who worked from a prepared piece, in fact she probably even was reading from it, but her ability to connect with the people in the room made it palatable.

There were others, too. These I’ve mentioned because they stuck with me, five minutes after I left the room, and now, three weeks later.

Another gripe: 4- and 5-member panels who turned presentations into readings instead of teaching-and-learning opportunities. It’s one thing to read a short passage or two from their own or another’s work to illustrate a point on topic. It’s quite another to fill a room with 30 or so paying conference attendees who think they are going to hear a discussion about some interesting facet of creative nonfiction, only to find that everyone on the panel plans to “illustrate” the topic by reading for their allotted 15 minutes from their own just-released book.

So here’s my message to conference organizers of all writerly events. Thank you for all the painfully-detailed and often uncompensated work you do to make these events happen. Really, I’m a big conference fan. But, please: Just because writers have tremendous respect for the written work of our colleagues and icons, does not mean we want to listen to them read, when they should be presenting. There is a difference. Encourage presenters to give a presentation. Unless of course, it’s billed as a reading. In which case, I’m there – lots of inspiring readings took place at NFN. Just don’t call it a presentation or a panel discussion, and don’t expect that after one has spent hundreds of dollars, taken one cab, two airplanes, a shuttle bus, and walked a half-mile across a windy campus to get there, a paying conference attendee will be happy.

Of course, panels and presentations run concurrently, so I could see only one out of three or four simultaneously running events. Perhaps in the other rooms, things were different. I doubt it, however, since my six writing buddies, who had differing interests than I, and attended a number of the other seminars, came away with similar impressions.

Perhaps the problem is this: I thought NFN was for nonfiction writers who write, but maybe it’s really intended primarily to reach nonfiction writers who write and who also teach nonfiction. Someone did point out that at other strictly academic conferences, presenters typically read their papers. I’m all for nonfiction faculty exchanging ideas and promoting their profession, and of course, I came away from NFN with pages of notes, ideas and new connections. And I’ll probably even take those cabs, planes and walks again in 2009 when NFN re-convenes. Because I did learn something while interviewing Leslie Burr and Michael Matz way back in 1984: You’ll never get anywhere if you don’t get back in the saddle the next time.

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