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A Journal That Makes Sense

January 22, 2013

By Pepi Ronalds

On my first morning in Paris, I awoke to the sounds of suitcase zippers and rustling plastic bags. A couple of girls whispered to each other as they brushed their hair and sprayed their too-sweet deodorant about. My mouth tasted of yesterday’s airplane. At first I was disoriented. So I lay for a while, wrapped in my sleeping bag and taking stock. Once my fellow backpackers left I eased my feet down the bony metal bunk-bed ladder and onto the not-quite-sticky carpet.

At the arched window, I drew the curtain. The room was on a pretty Parisian street. A few people passed on the pavement below. Pot plants filled with geraniums flowered on the balcony next door. I saw a Boulangeriea few doors over. Around me were classic white buildings, each – like mine – three or four stories high. In the one immediately opposite a young man appeared in the full-length window holding a mug in his hand. He was dark, and handsome. He was also completely naked. ‘I’m in Paris!’ I exclaimed to myself.

A decent travel journal can evoke the senses long after you’ve been somewhere. This is from my time in Paris.

The truth is, there’s only one part of those paragraphs that I remember with any certainty (the naked man, of course). The rest is made up from my fading, unreliable memories and images of Paris I picked up over the years. I could never publish those pars as non-fiction – and even if I tried, I think I’d be called on it. There’s a certain authenticity missing from my descriptions.

Had I kept a better journal I may have been able to take you into that room. But (like most of my travel journals since) my notes were about what I did, ideas, events and occasionally frustrations. I’ve always known that I’m a bad travel-journaller but it wasn’t until Natalia Rachel Singer’s presentation at NonfictioNow that I realised where I was going wrong. Singer is the Craig Professor of English at St Lawrence University in the USA, Contributing Editor to The North American Review and writer of a memoir, Scraping by in the Big Eighties. She was presenting a paper in the session, Immersion Writing, and her advice was this: keep a journal of the senses.

‘A good journal… allows you to be alive in the moment, to experience it fully through your five senses, your mind and heart, and then to record it in such a way that you’ll be able to relive it again and again,’ she writes in a brief for her students (whom she takes to India and France). ‘What I’m asking you to record is not so much what you did…as to what your body experienced there: visual impressions, colours, textures, smells, sounds. What it meant to be alive there. How the place got under your skin…’ she tells them.

Sensory memories can call us back to a place for decades to come says Singer. For Marcel Proust it was a madeleine. For me, it’s the smell of freshly cut grass which, still reminds me of visiting Australia from my childhood home of Hong Kong (even though I’ve now lived in Australia for over 30 years).

Singer writes that, ‘when you take your body somewhere to learn something about the world it is your instrument, your compass, your astrolabe, your archive, library and memory palace… It all depends on being alert, being a good listener and recorder, being attentive, and finding the means, through language… to gather enough sensory material to make the piece you write feel authentic, vivid, lived in, true.’

I have so often eschewed journal-writing during travel for the promise of truly being in the moment. (I had all but given up on the idea of writing travel stories). But now I am starting to think that a journal of the senses will put structure to my travel notes. It will enable me to write lists rather than prose when I’m so inclined. This is how I research and take notes for my non-travel stories (I allow myself to be in those moments as a writer). Somehow up until now I’ve seen travel differently.

As Singer tells her students, this model of journaling has wide benefits, ‘Part of what a good piece of journal writing can do is capture, evocatively, a mood which can be just as fleeting as the passage of a cloud… If you’re really being attentive, your journal of the five senses will help you find an epiphany or central metaphor for a piece of writing.’

Over the years I have learned to document the facts of travel (things like addresses, telephone numbers, prices, times, dates, opening hours etc.). I kept paper artefacts in my journals for purely aesthetic reasons. They included ticket stubs, brochures, business cards, maps, coasters and wrappers. As Singer notes, keeping these things can save time detailing costs and basic facts. A glue-stick will go nicely with your journal of the senses.

I wonder how much better my description of Paris would be, had I documented my senses rather than the events. It’s the sensory details we forget over time. They’re the ones that journaling can rescue decades later. As Singer says, I should now consider my travel journal as a, ‘passport into time and place, a way of capturing moments as they shimmer past.’

Singer’s presentation was part of a panel on Immersion Writing that included Peter Doyle, Robin Hemley and Kate Rossmanith. An audio recording will be available on the website in early 2013.

Follow @futurelongform on Twitter (or its writer, Pepi Ronalds on Facebook) for more stories about writing and publishing long form non-fiction.


Xu Xi writes about NonfictioNow 2012

December 5, 2012

Read here in Ploughshares Literary online Magazine about author Xu Xi’s experience at the NFN conference! Xu Xi has written and published nine books of fictions and essays and is Writer-in-Residence at the Department of English, City University of Hong Kong.

Editorial Roundtable

November 27, 2012

By Gemma de Choisy


When I learned to swim, I broke the rules.

I’m not speaking abstractly here. I remember the red print on a white board hanging off a chain link fence surrounding the Wagner, South Dakota public pool. The sign clearly commanded all children under the age of ten who had not attended swimming lessons to wear “floaties” – horrible little orange bubbles that fit like blood pressure cuffs around the sunburned upper arms of an entire town’s worth of youth. I felt nothing but contempt towards those monstrous inflatable symbols of summertime killjoy and so, with the kind of dramatic flair only seven-year-olds can muster, I tossed them to the concrete poolside and dove into the deep end of the water.

Okay, so it wasn’t a dive, in any real sense of the word. It was a bona fide belly flop.

But that’s what happened. I belly flopped, and I kicked like mad, and I swallowed a good amount of chlorinated water before a lifeguard fished me out. And then, I did it again. All negative reinforcement to the contrary, I got to be fond of that “sink or swim” feeling, of the challenge of trying my hand at something new and trying again and again until it worked.

This past summer, I jumped into another pool of sorts, and have been treading water there since. In August I signed on as the Senior Editor of Criticism for The Essay Review, a brand new, as yet in-the-works journal dedicated to the literary criticism of nonfiction writing.The Essay Review will be the only journal focused solely on the exploration of realities, confusions and identities within the genre of nonfiction in general, and the essay in particular – a topic near and dear to the last panel I attended this past Saturday at the 2012 NonfictionNOW conference in Melbourne.

The Nonfiction Editors Roundtable, moderated by Julianne Schultz, founding editor of the Griffith REVIEW, and featuring Overland’s Jeff Sparrow, The Iowa Review’s Russell Valentino and The University of Iowa’s own Robin Hemley, senior editor of Defunct, contended with the role of essay in the modern literary journal circuit and the role of the editor with regards to the essay.

“A magazine can take on the personality of its editor,” said Hemley, explaining the influence of editorial preference on the character of a literary magazine as a whole. “It’s essential to have a clear idea of what you want,” he added, as the magazines that last and have a lasting effect on literary culture do so because of their strong and singular identities. Sparrow had a similar but flipped perspective: “If you look at the essays in Australian literary magazines, it’s the essays that define them,” he said. But how do those identities form now, in “these changing times,” as Schultz put it, when many literary magazines and journals are shifting from traditional print formats to incorporate an additional online presence, or – as will be the case with The Essay Review – to exist on primarily on the Web, if not exclusively?

There is a call and response that happens within and around an essay between and editor and writer, as there is between a finished text and its audience. The subjective interpretations, observations, and conclusions put forth in an essay may be agreed or disagreed with, and augmented or amended depending on who interacts (read: reads) it. Valentino noted that, because many print journals are affiliated with universities -The Iowa Review included- they are often used pedagogically. Graduate students fill the masthead (all the better to learn the craft and keep abreast of contemporary writing) and account for the majority of readers, those brave souls who scale the unfortunately named slush pile to cherry pick the better submissions. Online magazines, on the other hand, have the obvious advantage of paying far less in production costs and might therefore have a better shot of surviving without institutional sponsorship or agenda. “Being online has given us this freedom of presence that lends us an international flavor,” Hemley said of Defunct, which has featured writers from the Philippines, Australia, and Europe in addition to American contributors, thus adding a transcultural component to the magazine’s ongoing conversation.

“As John D’Agata has said, fiction is ultimately a form of entertainment, while essays, along with poems, are a journey, a pursuit of knowledge,” says Elliott Krause, Nonficiton Editor for the Iowa Review, adding: “Thus a nonfiction editor must decide not only which deserves publication but also which conversations, which journeys he wishes to shape and cultivate.” How then, do those editors who work at magazines with a mixed media presence decide which essays fit the journey traversed within its pages? For Defunct (subtitle: A Literary Repository for the Ages), the conversation is clearer than most: What has gone the way of the Dodo, and wherefore do things go that way? For Sparrow’s Overland, the deal is politics, and left wing politics, specifically. As for The Essay Review, I wonder if the journal won’t become an essay in and of itself. Granted, I might be biased – we’re partial to the essay at Iowa, and I’m in this, the editorial jive, for love, not money – but doesn’t “What, and of what use, is the essay?” sound like the start of an essay to you? How about “Why do we write nonfiction?” Doesn’t that sound like the very question addressed by this entire conference?

These questions aren’t rhetorical. I’m asking in earnest; I don’t have the answers. Maybe that’s why I joined the masthead without having served on one before, because the questions themselves felt unanswered, and possibly unanswerable, but central to what it means to belong to a community of writers.

Of all of the topics attended to on this panel – the limitations of print, the dichotomy that exists between the artistic and the academic in nonfiction, the importance of publishing in a literary journal for a writer’s career – the one thing that was not talked about was the social contract between editors and between literary magazines. Maybe it was left out because it’s a less than congenial topic. We all happen to be in competition with one other for the best writing out there. We bid for the best essays, the best travel writing, the best memoir, with our prestige (Would you rather be published in a brand new journal or The Paris Review?) and what payment we can offer (Would you settle for a smile and a handshake?). For new and online-only lit mags, our only leg up might be the power of dissemination we wield by virtue of our medium and our staff’s technological savvy, by which I mean the speed and pervasiveness with which we can cast a contributor’s work out into the social media ether. In that regard, we newcomers to the literary magazine scene have our work cut out for us. It’s a sink or swim situation, only – and this is if we’re lucky – we’ll have bodies to carry besides our own.

As graduate students at the University of Iowa, which we all are on the masthead of The Essay Review, we’ve got a crack crew of lifeguards to pull us out of the pool if we get in over our heads with schoolwork. (We call them professors, and they know what to do if they see us drowning in high diction.) As the staff of a fledgling journal we’re swimming sans supervision, and the sensation is closer to the feel of wading out into the ocean, wider and deeper than any single one of us can know, than it is to dipping a toe into the town pool.

But perhaps an ocean isn’t the best comparison. Perhaps we’ll find ourselves mistaken in time. Perhaps we’ll come to regard the literary journal circuit like the entire body of literature as described by Jean Rhys.

“All of writing is a huge lake,” she said. “There are great rivers that feed the lake, like Tolstoy or Dostoyevsky. And then there are mere trickles, like Jean Rhys. All that matters is feeding the lake. I don’t matter. The lake matters. You must keep feeding the lake.”

Feeding, yes, and diving in. And kicking and kicking until kick becomes swim.

“Wild” author Cheryl Strayed at the Nonfiction Now Conference

November 26, 2012

By Debtaffa


On my first day in Melbourne I walked from St. Kilda all the way into the city. The walk took half the day.  I lost my way several times and had to ask strangers for directions. My colleagues were, perhaps, a bit surprised by my desire to head off alone, but getting ‘lost’ was part of my intention for this trip. It isn’t often that a mother of five has the chance to solo travel. Prior to leaving Iowa City, I had been thinking a great deal about female strength. I had been thinking about behavior in relation to life stages: the time for seeking, the time for establishing a household, the later years when a woman comes into her own as an elder.

The elder stage, a period that implies responsibility, is a period I am undoubtedly moving towards now. This reflection is part of the reason I decided to interview female writers at the Nonfiction Now Conference in Melbourne: middle to late age women whose writing reflects the wisdom they have accumulated along their journey in life. A bit of relevant information in terms of my intention for this trip: The University of Iowa requested that my colleagues and I travel to the Nonfiction Now conference as a group. We were booked on the same flight from Cedar Rapids to Melbourne. Rather than be disappointed by this arrangement, I tried to engage and be excited. Once on the ground I could go off alone and make my own discoveries. During the planning phases, I would be helpful; six of my colleagues were interested in staying at the hostel I located during my research.

My colleagues and I broke in half in terms of accommodations, according to age and station in life. The more established students–older, married, desirous of quiet, abundant sleep, and private bathrooms–opted for private hotels, family, or friends as hosts. I was the only older student who decided to stick it out with the younger crowd: five hip and fun-loving twenty-somethings that could (almost) be my own children.

I’ve always thought it important to shy away from the physical comforts that come with an established age. Physical comfort can be dangerous; the body has lessons that can only be absorbed with manual labor. Cheryl Strayed’s memoir “Wild” is a wonderful example of what the body can do for the mind and the soul. The “blazingly honest”  memoir is the story of a young woman who has lost her mother and her marriage. In her brokenness she embarks on an eleven-hundred-mile solo hike to recover and strengthen herself. I came to the interview with Strayed as a lover of outdoor adventure. I told her I admired her unique intelligence, her natural and intuitive knowing in relation to how to heal herself. Strayed responded, “I always . . . eventually . . . veer towards the light.”

This observation is apparent in Strayed’s memoir. She reveals herself as a woman who is willing to go to dark places to confront her deepest fears. “It doesn’t mean that the fears disappear,” she tells me. “It means that you confront and therefore learn to live with them.” Somehow going to the dark places illuminates her life.

The courage that Strayed displays is evident in the decisions that put her, alone, on a thousand-mile hike. Any young woman who would go to such extremes in an effort to confront her wounded soul, is a comrade of mine. The admiration I bring to the interview is less about her artistic accomplishments than it is about this remarkable act. If I had told Strayed that I related to her story, if I said I left my home to backpack around the world the day after I turned eighteen, she would have laughed. It’s a cliche to imagine I know a famous writer by reading some of her work. In fact, the cliche was a portion of Cheryl’s panel. A topic she spoke on just before I interviewed her.

Yet nonfiction does give the illusion of closeness. What does it mean to be close to someone? Landing in Melbourne with my colleagues forced me to confront how little we know anyone. Who were these people I would be living in close proximity with during my stay at the conference? How did Cheryl manage to bond with so many strangers in the woods, as portrayed in her memoir, and why does anyone submit to such lonely, strange encounters?

It is easy to imagine that my decision to stay at the hostel with my colleagues represents a fear of being alone. It may suggest a desire to be with familiar faces. A hotel is private. A hostel isn’t. It’s a given that a traveler will meet outgoing people at a hostel. The Irish carpenter, the French and Italian kids looking for work in Australia because their economy back home has collapsed; I’ve met more people as a result of my decision to stay at a hostel.

Habits. Stagnancy. The internal landscape we develop as we wander through our familiar lives, staring at the same four walls. The thing I appreciate most in Cheryl Strayed is the recognition that the foreign is necessary to get outside of the self. As Ms. Strayed and I talk, I don’t take notes. I observe and listen. She laughs about her encounters in “Wild.” She tells me she has been traveling so much for her book that she intends to stay in Australia for a much needed vacation with her family. Perhaps it is my life in academia, but narrative work like Strayed’s memoir is sometimes derided among my friends. Half of my colleagues love Strayed’s work, the other half would never read it, such is their knee-jerk reaction to memoir in general. I’ve heard them make the argument that the memoir should be pronounced MEmoir.

Somehow the act of disclosing personal anecdotes, of centering the self as a prominent character in the work, suggests solipsism or ego. Omitting the “I” is admired; it suggests the writer lacks vanity or cares about the world. I have always listened to this argument with incredulity. How can writers not see that everyone in our field is, in essence, vain? The very act of writing, in a world overrun by publications, suggests that “I” have an idea worth listening to. Acting as a lens rather than placing oneself in the viewfinder does not subtract the author from the text. Some authors refuse to reveal themselves, yet expose others with such zeal I find them sacrificial; it’s like watching Abraham strap Isaac to the altar, I can’t help but pray the main character will survive.

Using the “I” isn’t such a great sin when the wisdom the reader receives is hard won, as it is in Strayed’s memoir: in the size of her backpack, in the manual labor involved in her destination. If Cheryl Strayed sacrifices anyone on the altar of truth it is herself. Her blisters, her aching body, the keen eye she uses to dissect her life, her pain, and her foibles, she makes the narrative act look easy.

David Shields is known saying, “Find the form to release your best intelligence.”

The memoir owes a debt to Cheryl Strayed. “Wild” reminds us that there is room for the memoir, that it is a valuable genre. She brings a razor to her life, slices away the coy, and rests in her decisions with responsibility.

Silly but true, walking into Melbourne from St. Kilda is a paltry comparison to hiking the thousand mile trail. I didn’t go on the walk with the interview in mind. I turn this walk towards this intention in retrospect: the walk is is a small effort, an offering, a way to pay respect to Strayed, to her strength and her wisdom. It is a way of finding my own path to wisdom and voice and independence.

Interviewing Strayed after her panel, I found her incredibly accessible. “My mother was an amazing woman,” she told me. “She was so kind, it annoyed me. She had so much…optimism.”

Strayed’s childhood was not affluent. She says her mother always emphasized that they were “rich in love” despite being poor. It was the language, simplistic, reductive, that made an intellectual child react with a cringe. It wasn’t until her mother died that Strayed happened a deeper appreciation and a voice that reflects this appreciation.

“My mother taught me to be kind. When I encounter people who are broken I wonder about their story. How do we essentially, compassionately, discuss the most broken damaged parts of life?”

Suddenly the connection was personal: two women remembering their own broken damaged parts.

“I’m not interested in judgment,” Strayed said. “Judgment isn’t interesting to me at all.

The generosity Strayed shows for her past mistakes, for the confusion she experienced as a young woman, does not imply a lack of responsibility. Rather it represents a hard won understanding about human nature and a desire to happen on the correct road. It is an outgrowth of the girl, an early reader who felt the pain and beauty all around her, with such intensity she knew she would be a writer as a small child.

“I was always emotionally vulnerable,” she said.

It’s this vulnerability that gives Cheryl Strayed eyes to see. It is this vulnerability that reveals Strayed’s strength, a strength that can’t be faked.

Reflecting on her experience in the MFA process, Strayed tells me, “Attending the MFA taught me to defend myself and to articulate my ideas with greater care.”

While the idea of defending oneself reminds me of armor, interviewing Strayed made me think that the greatest displays of strength often appear soft and vulnerable, able to absorb the world’s blows.

Why the Hunger? NonfictioNow Day 1

November 24, 2012

By Alice Robinson

As a literary event, NonfictioNow seems to fall somewhere between a writers festival and a more academic conference and I think the balance works beautifully. There was a sense of collegiality in the air yesterday that I haven’t experienced at many writers festivals, where audience members are just as likely to have hand picked events to attend as they are to have a comprehensive pass; on day one of NonfictioNow I got the distinct impression that we were all in it together. Perhaps it was the fact that everyone wore name tags. Perhaps it was that the panelists became engaged audience members when they stepped down from the stage. Perhaps it was that whoever I happened to be sitting next to in a given session kept introducing themselves. Even in the lift a woman grinned and struck up a conversation with me. “Having a good conference?!” The positivity and welcome was overwhelming, as was the literary calibre of the attendees I spoke to: namely writers of one kind or another, lecturers, teachers, students, readers. Whatever it was about the design and execution of the conference, it worked. I came away feeling entirely buoyed up, energised in the way that finishing a great book can energise. Afterwards I felt subtly changed, for the better.

Of course, a large part of this feeling must be attributed to the panelists, whose provocative conversation – sometimes generated off the cuff, at other times carefully planned with supporting powerpoint slides – was really responsible for the success of the day. When Anne Manne said, “Why the hunger at the moment for nonfiction? For memoir? For true stories?…It seems the eros has gone out of fiction. The frisson is around true stories. The desire is to have one human heart talking to another”, I couldn’t help but feel as deeply impressed by her articulate summary of a literary climate I had perhaps sensed, but not articulated to myself, as by her lovely, poetic turn of phrase. Cheryl Strayed said of writing memoir:“It’s not about confession, it’s about illumination”, and that, “Bravery comes from going to the dark places…but bravery is only part of the work we do”, explaining that the choices a writer makes about what to include in a autobiographical work stem from the requirements of the work itself, not from any particular or implicit courage the writer embodies. Such simple statements, so powerful in their simplicity. I found the most affecting panel Sonic Writing: Radio Nonfiction, in which each writer not only discussed the many ways in which sound can be used, manipulated and experienced, but provided carefully chosen examples from their own work to illuminate their points. While listening to several of the excerpts I found myself self-consciously dabbing tears from my eyes. Kyla Brettle explained her interest in sound like this: “Radio is a particularly good medium for stories we can see…sound is very fleshy and visceral to work with…sound fills a room like light does”, but it was the recording of the emergency 000 call that really drove her point home; the sound of one man explaining to the another over the phone that his friend had just overdosed and wasn’t breathing. Fellow panelist Siobhan McHugh talked about the “aerobic practice of listening” she must employ when interviewing for radio. It is the sound of a person’s voice, she told us – the timbre, tone and evident emotion – even more so than their words, that invite the listener in to a “pact of intimacy” with the speaker on air. But the suckerpunch of her presentation was the excerpt she played from Minefields and Miniskirts, her work on women in the Vietnam War. We sat together in darkened Story Hall, listening as a woman, Jan Graham, described how she had cradled a dying Sergeant, a man meant to be on his way home to his family. He lay bleeding in her arms, legs blown off. Graham’s voice cracked. She told McHugh, us, that the man believed in those last minutes that she was his wife. He told her how much he loved her. She held him and watched him die for fifteen minutes.“It felt like five or six hours,” she said. The auditorium was silent. Collectively, we held our breath. If anyone doubted the place or validity of true stories before – particularly of those told in the subject’s own voice – there was no way to ignore the immense power of them now.

Flexibility and the Creative Process

November 24, 2012

By Debtaffa


My first two blog posts for the Nonfiction Now conference were meant to illustrate the mental leaps and emotional risks essential to the act of essaying. As I imagined the trip to Australia last week, I let my mind wander. What assumptions came to the surface when I thought about Melbourne? Furthermore, what did these associations say about me?

Samuel Johnson famously referred to the essay as “a loose sally of the mind.” Petrarch wrote about the essay as an exploratory ramble up a never-climbed mountain. Phillip Lopate once told me, “It is important for the essayist to imagine he has something in common with the world and then to track those obsessions and reveal them to the reader.”
All three of these writers interpret the essay as a type of movement, a mental journey across an internal landscape; the writer’s thoughts must pass through foreign terrain. Imagine the essayist’s mind as a creature tracking down its own scent. The writer hunts the edges of her own identity, the elusive and coy self that guards itself from knowing because an education always wounds.

No writer is raised in a vacuum. It is precisely where we rub up against society, in particular against the foreign, that our edges are revealed. The most memorable material exists in these edges, in the sharp side of us that is quick to bristle, the part we are taught to hide in favor of polite behavior. Successful writers must unlearn good manners in order to speak. The exposure may frighten us but its the only way to access the punctum.

The punctum conveys the emotion of personal experience with a precise image. Even after the book is set down, the image haunts the receiver. People read and travel in order to encounter these sharp moments; they make us feel less alone. The fact that scribbled letters, ordered correctly, can communicate and wound a reader across time is mysterious as it is difficult. When a writer accomplishes this task it makes the reader feel alive, connected to humanity in a way that alleviates grief and loneliness. Perhaps seeing the emotional life of another, gaining access to their internal landscape, shrinks a reader’s pain by redistributing the weight of personal burden. I know when I encounter a writer who is willing to bleed on the page, I always feel blessed. The willingness to share is admirable.

The ground I stand on when I begin an essay is the same ground I stand on when I pack for a trip to a foreign country. My vantage point at the beginning is limited. I cannot see my final destination. It lies down the trail in the future, stretches around the first blind curve and disappears. Though it is necessary to imagine where I would like to end up in an essay when I start writing, I must be flexible and humble,  and willing to backtrack if I get lost. I must respect the unknown nature of the journey if I am to arrive at an unanticipated conclusion.

Case in point, last week I set out to compile a list of my mental associations with Australia. Though I knew my limited perspective would be obvious in my first two blogs, I forged ahead anyway. My preparation for the trip to Melbourne would mimic the rough draft. My arrival in Australia and my time at the conference would offer the resolution. I was embarking on a trip to learn something new about my writing, my life, and my mind; no shortcuts were possible. The encounter had to be experiential. In this way, I trust the writing process and craft. By riffing on the topic of Australia, by groping blindly, I gain perspective. I become aware of my ignorance, discover an entry point for inquiry, and stagger towards an eventual discovery.

Preparing for a journey we take notes, buy guidebooks, conduct research and draw upon cultural references that deal with an imagined point of arrival. Before embarking on an essay the writer asks: what do I think I know about my topic?

Self-awareness is essential to nonfiction writing. Here are some questions I like to ask:

1. How important is memory or identity to the essay’s topic? Will the piece be journalistic, lyric, or personal in nature? (For the blog I decided to convey the following: I am well-traveled, a mother of five, and a non-traditional graduate student.)

2. What revelations are needed for clear self-representation, a unique voice, and a trusting relationship with my reader? (In the spirit of full disclosure I acknowledged my Native American heritage, my subaltern upbringing, and thus my political tendencies.)

3. What historic moments and/or existing literature feed my authorial presumptions about the destination? (“Our Country’s Good” and “Rabbit Proof Fence” were the titles I referred to.)

4. Am I sufficiently aware of my own bias, privilege, and subjectivity? Am I willing to amend an opinion if necessary? (Melbourne is a modern, diverse city and it is not fair to rely on those titles; the choice reveals more about me than it does about the city.)

5. If a writer develops a guiding philosophy, I’m thinking about my “time travel” thread, and follows up by compiling a list of things she wants to achieve or include in her narrative based on this philosophy, how does she avoid a didactic tone? (Though I believe a controlled direction is essential to the writing process, a lack of spontaneity can be harmful.)

Of course, the Melbourne I imagined back in Iowa City is not the Melbourne I encountered on arrival. No amount of reading could have prepared me for the reality of the actual destination: the black swans I spotted while walking around Albert Park yesterday. The tags they wore around their necks. The school children I passed on the playground wearing identical broad-rimmed hats for some celebration I couldn’t imagine. It wasn’t until I asked a teacher that I realized the kids here are supplied school hats because the sun’s strength is a very real danger in Australia.

Without these unexpected discoveries, the journey would lose its vitality. The writer’s voice depends on a sense of wonder.

Flexibility is central to the creative process. By letting my mind wander, by writing tangentially on my subject at the start, I can confront my own intent. My “associations,” as I referred to in my last two blog posts, can be dangerous if left unexamined. They can masquerade as meaning, seduce me with simplistic resolutions. They are often habitual, an attempt to control the story or guide it towards a lesson that pleases only me. If I continue with what I want to accomplish in my piece, if I stay blindly committed to the meaning I conceived of prior to sitting down, all is doomed.

As Brett Anthony Johnston, writing instructor at Harvard, said on his recent to trip to Iowa City, “At best, such [authorial] desire smacks of nostalgia and, at worst, it betrays agenda.” Why explore a topic if it is nailed down and immovable in the mind?

Just as expectations are a part of travel, they are a part of the writing process. Each time I sit down to compose I am seeking a relationship to a foreign place. What tools are involved in the initial scaffolding? How do they or weaken or help the frame in the end? The longer I write the more I believe that learning to cut and shape is the source of quality nonfiction. When one sees endless connections and limitless possibilities, the mind is working at its best. Yet art relies on selection and arrangement. When done correctly the essay reveals all that we DON’T understand about the place we thought we were going. Thus, at the start of every project I must loosen my grip, listen deeply, and keep my eyes open.

How is Melbourne not what I expected? How are my life, my persona, and my assumptions not what I expected? I must retain the ability to laugh at the limited nature of my own understanding.


Scraping by in the Big Eighties

November 22, 2012

By Alice Robinson


I know it sounds rather insular to say so, but I just don’t care for politics. Which isn’t to say that I’m not political. I just find electoral politics a bit deathly. I was probably a bit slow to come to nonfiction books for the same reasons that I find listening to politicians speak – and watching the news – tedious. It’s a deep and abiding fear of all those dry facts. A fear of being bored. I once argued heatedly with a friend who went on to work in Canberra that the personal is more interesting (I believe I went as far as to say it is more important, too) than the political. What I was driving at, the basis of my argument, was that I would much rather read about a family’s or individual’s experience under the Khmer Rouge, or in Hitler’s Germany, or post 9/11 or during the Great Depression than I would read or listen to an overview of the politics of each situation. I find the domestic, personal, human narratives of each circumstance far more engaging and illuminating, far more telling of the bigger political picture, than the other way around. (I know this is not necessarily a popular view. My husband for example disagrees, but he reads what I call “boring books”). Perhaps my proclivity towards certain kinds of narratives, certain ways of talking about the world, is to be expected; I’ve founded my life in receiving and absorbing human stories, in emotion, inner lives and thoughts. For much of my life I’ve gleaned these through fiction. There is a richness there, a lusciousness, that I don’t find in, say, in political analysis and agenda. I was afraid of missing such lusciousness in nonfiction writing too. Perhaps reading all those brittle text books in high school, yawning all the while, set up particular expectations about what nonfiction could be. I know better now. In fact, when I look back over my reading of the recent past, a majority of it has been not fiction, but nonfiction, namely memoir. It stands however that the nonfiction I love the most is work that combines all the richness of fiction writing with narratives of real lives. I’ve written extensively about the ways in which, for example, This American Life manages this combination so masterfully, and I wager that most successful memoirs and biographies do the same. Natalia Rachel Singer’s 2004 memoirScraping by in the Big Eighties certainly does, although I admit I was worried about the book to begin with, due to the fears and biases I’ve outlined above. Was I really going to read a book about the Regan era in America? Could I stomach all the politics? I needn’t have worried. Singer sets out to do something wonderful, delightful, something that ultimately accords not only with the kind of reading experience I enjoy most, but with my attitude to politics. In this funny, fascinating memoir, Singer highlights the intersections between the personal and political, arguing that the personal is political, deeply so. Feminist Carol Hanisch wasn’t necessarily referring to electoral politics when her paper The Personal is Political was published in 1970, but what I like about Singer’s work is that it demonstrates how electoral politics are personal – they impact citizens after all – as well as how the lived experience can be political. She shows how the two relate to one another across as life.

I began to suspect on the very first page that perhaps I had the wrong end of the stick when it came to Scraping by in the Big Eighties. Singer’s prose is so funny and self-depricating, not at all what I feared a book set against a decade of severe Reganomics might sound like. Opening with a description of her arrival in Seattle in 1979, on the run from what she believes to be the follies of the goal-orientated life she has been taught to desire, Singer writes on page one:

To our left on the front porch, a balding, blond man in his late twenties was sprawled out in a hammock reading a book called Life After Death. I half hoped he’d leap up to help us move in, but he stayed horizontal….Having denounced the Midwesterners of my past and their colour schemes – my mad mother in Cleveland (polyester stretch pants in red), our career-obsessed classmates at Northwestern (crew-neck sweaters in navy, tray, or pastel) – I could learn to like purple if it would help me mellow out. That was exactly what I’d moved out west to do.

The book continues like this throughout: acutely observed, humorous, at times poignant, even sad. Ultimately it is the host of weird and wonderful characters (Singer included) that make the memoir so pleasurable to read. There are plenty of them, each a little stranger than the one that came before. There is no doubt that Singer’s young adulthood was eventful, if not a little bit misguided and difficult, as most tend to be.

Scraping by in the Big Eighties is an account of the somewhat tortured decade Singer spends heartily trying to ‘mellow out’, to change, to leave behind her troubled suburban childhood – and in particular her mentally ill, abusive, controlling mother – and become a better person living a better life. This journey leads her to a variety of dead-end jobs, astrology classes, disturbed housemates, problematic lovers, aerobics classes and encounters with counter-cultural world-views across the States, Mexico and France. While Singer tries valiantly to find her place, to escape her past and to do some good honest writing – as she imagines the new and improved version of herself would in the best of circumstances – what she ultimately finds is that everywhere we go, we unfortunately take ourselves along for the ride. A location or vocation may be changed, but the person engaging with each, at the core, frustratingly remains the person they have always been.

Singer’s pilgrimage of self-improvement, an often painful journey, plays out against Regan’s reign over the nation, although this is not so much a book about the many ways Regan screwed the nation’s needy in favour of supporting the already wealthy – at least, that is only part of the story Singer tells – as much as it is about the relationships between Singer’s personal experiences and the experiences of her nation during this particularly dark political period. Other reviewers have criticised this aspect of the book, arguing that the relationships between Singer’s personal story and the nation’s political narrative are unclear, perhaps unnecessary. I disagree. Not only does Regan’s reign provide a firm structure against which Singer can contextualise her own story, but in presenting the two disparate narratives together, they serve to illuminate one another, demonstrating the many ways in which they are not disparate at all, but intertwined. That is, Singer’s past – and so her self – has been profoundly shaped by access to many of the services Regan’s administration does away with, just as her burgeoning politicisation in adulthood is shaped by the very awareness of this fact.

I began to think about all the other ways beyond immediate survival that the War on Poverty had sustained me in my childhood: the well-stocked public libraries…the school trips to see Shakespeare and hear Motzart performed by the Cleveland Symphony Orchestra, paid for in full by federal arts programs; the free Cleveland Art Museum…Without all this I would have never caught a glimpse of the beauty to be found beyond the peeling walls of our cramped basement apartment, the enduring human values that ultimately saved my life…Although Regan insisted these cuts wouldn’t “hurt the poor”, 70 percent came fro programs that supported the poor. With one stroke of the pen, almost every social service that had sustained me or people I’d known was cut back sharply or disappeared.

As a moment of particular political power, this period sees, as Singer and many of her friends and acquaintances perceive it, a sharp decline in the quality of life for many Americans, the degradation of many of the social structures that make the nation great. It is a period clouded by a sense of powerlessness and hopelessness – one that has been, unfortunately, all too familiar to those who endured the terms of George W. in America and John Howard in Australia. In this respect, Singer’s political commentary is not only of a time, but eerily contemporary too.

There is a lot to like about this memoir, particularly the captivating writing. Despite myself, I ripped through Scraping by in the Big Eighties in a few short days, could hardly put it down. Thanks to Singer, I might just have to change my tune about politics after all.

Natalia Rachel Singer will be speaking at NonfictioNow alongside Robin Hemley and Australian crime writer Peter Doyle on Thursday 22nd of November.