Things I Picked Up from NonfictioNow 2015

I went to this conference a couple weeks ago, and then had a visit from the goon squad (i.e. my parents). Only now getting to think about it. It’s a brief list. The biggest lesson I learned is that if you organize a panel where you come prepared with some new ideas, minimal slides to project so folks have something to look at, and a Q&A format that loosely lets panelists talk casually about their ideas and what interests them, strangers for days afterward will come up to you in hallways to thank you effusively for not making them sit still for 75 minutes listening to academics read short papers.

Other lessons, some of them dubious:

  • When it comes to the question of what’s not allowed in nonfiction, the only answers I can satisfactorily come up with are behavioral. Or attitudinal. You can’t patronize or talk down to the reader. You can’t think you’re smarter than the reader. You can’t be boring. Etc. When it comes to what you can say or how you can say it, everything is fair game.
    • I’m not, then, interested in conversations about what writers should or should not do in an essay, or how other writers grappled to justify their formal or semantic choices.
  • Every journey?be it a travelogue or a tour through memories?is a journey into the unknown. Otherwise it’s a commute.
  • In conversation with someone, Lawrence Weschler reportedly said, “The job of the writer is to remind the reader of something.” As though we’re all pieces of string around the finger.
  • Other than preparing you for a job in the professoriat, what a PhD in nonfiction is great at is narrowing the scope of your writing to someplace highly specified, and encouraging you to talk about that writing in academic terms, not aesthetic ones.
  • A misfire happened sometime in the 1980s (or whenever AWP first started), where writers?wanting, like at MLA, to meet and share their work and scholarly developments on the craft of writing?adopted the academic conference as their model for doing so. The 75-minute panel where 4 or 5 people read papers on new research (i.e., the academic conference) is a quick and easy way for academics to absorb that research. Academic papers in print would take hours to read aloud and are, by necessity, dull and full of citations?in comparison, a panel talk is a treat. An injection of new ideas. Writers, though, don’t publish their research on craft or aesthetics in academic journals (AWP’s Writers’ Chronicle being the notable and often-dull exception), but for whatever reason the default at a writers’ conference is to read pre-written papers.
    • I have a series of questions. Why, if we’re creative writers, are those papers so dull and hard to listen to? And why, if we’re writers of nonfiction, aren’t we better at writing this kind of nonfiction? Can’t it, also, be creative? And what, in the end, is it about the academy that it could lead hundreds of writers?i.e. creative types?to get so uncreative when it comes to the model it adopts for its (bi-)annual meetings?
  • I saw all of one mile of Flagstaff, Arizona, and feel qualified to say it’s a great town. Gorgeous and full of good people.
  • More on academics: the biggest nonfiction books this year, at least on my radar, were Coates’s Between the World and Me and Rankine’s Citizen. I don’t think I heard a single person mention these books in the three days of panels. I did hear Montaigne’s name mentioned several dozen times each day, though. “NonfictioNow 2015” proved a misnomer.
  • Georgia Review and Passages North are some pretty great places for essays. Now, let’s start a Kickstarter to help the latter become a thinner semiannual.
  • Rumors are the next conference will be in Reyjavik, which means attendance chiefly from tenured academics whose universities will subsidize that pricey trip, which given the state of the academy will probably translate to even less diversity than I saw this year.

Perhaps a name change is in order. NonfictionAgo-Go? NonFrictioNow?

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