Lessons in Memoir from the PWC

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Vicki Mayk defines truthiness.

By Aurora Bonner

The Pennsylvania Writers Conference was intimate and encouraging, with sessions that were short and intense, but not overwhelming. Facilitators made time for questions and encouraged interaction and individualized feedback.

I write creative nonfiction, so I found myself in all of the nonfiction sessions, listening to the bang-up lineup of Sam Chiarelli (M.F.A. ’16), Vicki Mayk (M.F.A. ’13), and faculty members Laurie Jean Cannady and Kaylie Jones. I already admired Cannady (Crave) and Jones (Lies My Mother Never Told Me) from other speaking engagements. Chiarelli and Mayk would soon become my newest nonfiction heroes.

The sessions I attended focused on craft, because, hey, I am in my drafting semester. I came away with too many excellent craft lessons for one blog post, so I have outlined five major take-aways from the conference.

  1. Writing is like … dinosaur bones.

What do you do when you want to write memoir, but all you have, up there in your brain, are flash memories? Sam Chiarelli encourages writers to “Write what you don’t know.”

Sam Chiarelli at Pennsylvania Writers Conference

Writing memoir is like paleontology, Sam Chiarelli says.

Chiarelli, who writes dinosaur lore, urges you to think of memories as found fossils. In this vein of thought, prospecting becomes brainstorming. Preparation becomes formation—putting together the fossils to create a skeleton. “You’re giving the readers bones, and it’s the way you put all of these bones together that is important. It’s up to the reader to add the skin and muscles.”

When you start in this way, following a fragmented memory, sometimes what you write will come out completely different than what you thought it would be. Don’t fight it. You might just end up with a spinosaurus.

  1. Reconcile the true story with both facts and emotions.

Vicki Mayk is a self-described CNF purist. And a funny one, at that. Mayk channeled the expert Stephen Colbert to discuss the importance of “truthiness”—or in plainspoken English, how to create a factual reality with emotional truth. “Don’t confuse the truth with facts,” Mayk states. If you’re writing creative nonfiction, says Mayk, you’re making a deal with your reader, where you agree to tell it like it is and not how you wish it was.

But sometimes we encounter huge gaps between what we know and what we don’t know—so how do we tell the truth without all the facts? Short answer: research what you can and speculate when you can’t. Mayk offered real, relevant ways to tip your hand to the reader when one of these gaps occurs, and how to use speculation to move from telling to showing.

I tend to be more abstract in my approach to CNF, so it was helpful to see clear, concise examples of how speculation can be used.

  1. Sometimes you have to take your pieces apart before you can put them back together.

Laurie Jean Cannady has this amazing ability to see into your soul and acknowledge your chaos without even knowing your name. “Think of all the traumas and struggles you have experienced in your life as broken pieces of yourself,” says Cannady. She encourages the

Laurie Cannady's CNF workshop at Pennsylvania Writers Conference.

Something’s missing here.

writer to think about how transforming these broken pieces may help readers experiencing something similar.

This session included a hands-on activity with a blank puzzle. We were challenged to label five pieces as our traumas and then take them away. We then had to break up the rest and try to put it back together. Lesson: you can’t just ignore or get rid of those pieces. They’re a part of you. “So transform those pieces into something that heals, not something that hurts,” says Cannady.

Every other day, when I’m working on my memoir, I question why I’m doing this, why anyone cares, and why I thought writing about this crappy time in my life was a good idea. Cannady helped me realize it’s a process of healing, and not just mine. Others have been there, and know the pain you feel—your audience. And that is very motivating.

  1. Creative nonfiction uses the tools of fiction.

“If you’re going to write memoir, you must understand point of view,” says Kaylie Jones. “Think of yourself as an actor putting on a mask to protect you from the fear of undressing in public.”  There are ways to show yourself intentionally and impressively.

This was so helpful for me, because I am usually immersed in the emotions of my personal narrative. I have a terrible time stepping into the narrator mask and separating myself from the character. Of course, I’m never truly apart, because they are both me, but the voice and the vision are completely different.

I had the opportunity to hear Jones again at the Hippocamp conference for creative nonfiction in Lancaster, Pa., this year. Each time I hear her talk about point of view—a tool I once associated with fiction writers only—it becomes more accessible.

  1. Writing is still relevant—in all forms.

Maureen Corrigan asked the audience in her opening remarks whether the book review essay was still relevant. The short of the long answer is—yes. The art of writing is relevant, in all forms. Absolutely, unwaveringly, yes.

aurora_bonner_earth_motherAurora D. Bonner is a writer and visual artist in the graduate Creative Writing program at Wilkes University. She works for a small, liberal arts college in northeastern Pennsylvania, and has published regionally. Follow her @aurora_bonner and find her online at aurorabonner.com.

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