Well, ok, who am I kidding, I’m writing from Echo Park, that’s where… But checking in, as if, to talk about story, and history, monuments and tributes to one and the other over three days at AWP in DC, where, if the Lincoln Memorial is beautiful by day, it’s astounding by night, the Gettysburg address etched into marble on one wall, Lincoln’s second inaugural speech on the other—and in between, the giant glows, ever present, ever wakeful, narrator and protagonist, too.
Another kind of story in the Vietnam Memorial, cut into the earth as if marking a tomb: What’s in a name? asked Shakespeare: and, come to find out, just about everything; name after name after name, all those untold stories, together telling a bigger story about war–a monument that honors the dead, and at the same time exposes the senselessness, the tragedy, the waste…
And over at the Phillips Collection with a poet friend, immersed as we were in things AWP, how not to think about art—fine art—as narrative: this painting, of a small dead bird (Albert Pinkham Ryder), felt like a poem—whereas another scene, two girls in the midst of a game of hide and seek (William Merritt Chase)—told a story, for sure. Meanwhile, in a room dedicated to Pierre Bonnard, I sat down in front of an oil of a window, a cat at the bottom of the frame, turned away for a moment, and when I looked back a woman had managed to sneak into the corner of the canvas, huh. For every story we tell, and hear, and see, it would appear there’s another one lurking, yes?
Meanwhile, back at the Marriott, people talking about writing (about stories), about all manner of creative and practical preoccupations having to do with what we do. And lest you think I spent all my time sightseeing (only after hours, I promise), let me quick tell about one such panel: To Tell You the Truth: Strategies in the New Nonfiction with Graywolf’s senior editor, Jeffrey Shotts, and writers Nick Flynn, Ander Monson, and Stephen Elliott, described in the program this way: Creative nonfiction has never been more exciting, as writers from multiple genres explore and define new modes of writing essay, memoir, journalism, and cultural criticism. Four writers (but Eula Bliss didn’t make it—she got snowed in) at the forefront of the new nonfiction discuss strategies for writing and reading these new forms of “truth-telling.” True, that Flynn, Monson, and Elliot are each of them making his splash, but it was Elliot, though he professed to be unprepared, who was most inspiring to me Friday morning, and whose talk seemed most useful in terms of looking at your work and my own. According to him there are three reasons to read a memoir:
1.) Sentences—they should be beautiful! Intentional! Crafted!
2.) Tension—accomplished in any number of ways, but without it the reader will lose interest, and
3.) Honesty, having to do with self-critical analysis, which is always the goal, and never achieved, said the writer, because we are always changing.
He reminded us, too, that the reader has to come first; we write to be read after all—to engage, to connect. The reader is therefore the most important person in the room.
However, he added—insisted, in fact—a writer must have a filter in place in order to know the difference between helpful and unhelpful criticism. And on that note, stay tuned for workshop wisdom (tips, rules, advice) from our very own MPW faculty in next week’s post. In the meantime, check out Elliot’s blog, and other entertainments, at therumpus.net.