>The Dark Night of a Memoirist’s Soul

>After months of planning, the 2010 Creative Nonfiction Conference in Oxford is about to become a reality—beginning next Thursday, November 11! With nearly 100 people registered and almost all the pre-conference workshops full or quickly filling, my fellow co-directors, Neil White, Kathy Rhodes and I couldn’t be happier. And I also want to say a great big thanks to Carroll Chiles Moore (who works for Neil at Nautilus Publishing) for all her hard work helping with the registration, web site, mailing, and countless other things.

It’s been exciting to “meet” the 9 participants in Kristen Iversen’s pre-conference manuscript critique workshop. As co-director for the conference, one of my enjoyable duties has been to gather, format, and pass these manuscripts on to Kristen, and to “introduce” the participants to one another. They’ve had a lively group email going, getting to know each other before the conference, and even making plans to meet for dinner the night before their critique workshop. Writers are often introverts, but I think this group is anxious to hang out together. (I’ve heard from Kathy that Dinty Moore’s group is also doing some pre-conference bonding, especially on Facebook.) It’s been rewarding for me to read some of the manuscripts for Kristen’s workshop (which I participated in back in 2008—she’s a great workshop leader!) and get to know some of these folks a bit through their writing.

One is writing a memoir about healing from post-traumatic stress syndrome after her husband died of cancer. Another (she’s in the MFA creative writing program at the Vermont College of Fine Arts, for Pete’s sake) is writing about a traumatic event in a dear friend’s life. Also writing about her husband’s death, a third participant is chronicling his story as a pioneer in the US aquaculture industry, where he set out to bring hope and jobs to the poverty stricken flatlands of Mississippi and Alabama.

A fourth participant already has one book published—she woke up from a coma because she was worried about her dog, and so she wrote (and published) a breed study about Labrador Retrievers. Now she’s writing a memoir about her coma experience.

And then there’s the one who was working in a refugee camp in Tanzania and met a woman named Gisela Morini while on R&R on the Island of Zanzibar. Can’t wait to read that one! Another memoir-writer in the group gave a reading at Square Books from her chapbook (poetry) years ago and has an ongoing love affair with Oxford (don’t we all?).

Reading their stories reminds me of something conference director, Neil White, loves to share at book signings for his terrific memoir, “In the Sanctuary of Outcasts.” He was at a writers’ conference years ago and during the pitch fest, he stood up and basically said he did time (for kiting checks) in a minimum-security prison that doubled as a leprosarium, and before he could sit down an agent came running across the room saying, “Have you signed with anyone yet?” The point of the story was that writers of creative nonfiction have a huge edge if they have a colorful personal story to tell, because, as they like to say over at the CNF Journal and web site, “You can’t make this stuff up.” My favorite memoirist, Mary Karr, has lived a life more colorful than mine, as have some more of my favorites, including Haven Kimmel, Anne Lamott, Kim Michelle Richardson, and Augusten Burroughs. It’s not that I wish there had been more pain and suffering in my life, but it’s great fodder for memoir. And then of course the writer must get up and above the tragic life she has lived and spin her story as art, and not just as confession or therapy.

Last week, I received the November/December issue of Writer’s Digest in the mail. I brought it with me on my month-long writer’s retreat here at Seagrove, and it’s been invaluable during my breaks from writing. I’ve entered several WD writing competitions in the past, with no success, but this issue contains a terrific “Winner’s Spotlight” from the 79th Annual WD Writing Competition. Michael Palmer’s essay, “Night,” was chosen from more than 12,300 entries in 10 categories.

Palmer writes about the accidental drowning of a group of his closest friends. The memoir focuses on his own grief, and his memories of one of the friends in particular, as well as that friend’s mother.

You can read the entire piece here.

When WD asked Palmer what he thought the biggest challenge of writing memoir was, here’s what he said:

“I love memoir, but it comes with a stigma of being a self-indulgent genre, and countering that can be a challenge. Memoir is far more complex a genre than a self-mythologizing narrative or straight-up confession—which is how some people think about it. In some ways there is pressure not to trust your own story, or to feel that your own story is too petty or that telling it is narcissistic.”

Well said, Michael. And here’s wishing all the participants in Kristen and Dinty’s memoir workshops great success with their works-in-progress!

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