So good evening, everybody Thank you all for being here for the second in our great nonfiction writers series lectures, tonight, by Sandi Wisenberg Sandi began her writing career at the University of Iowa Writers’ Workshop, where she earned her MFA She is now the co-director of the masters and MFA program in creative writing at Northwestern University She’s also the author of the nonfiction book, The Adventures of Cancer Bitch, as well as the essay collection, Holocaust Girls; History, Memory, and Other Obsessions, and the short story collection, The Sweetheart Is In She has received a Pushcart Prize and awards and fellowships from the Illinois Arts Council and Fine Art Sports Center in Provincetown She was a feature writer at the Miami Herald, and has taught at Northwestern’s Medill School of Journalism Her work has appeared in dozens of anthologies, as well as magazines such as The New Yorker, Bell Shares, The Michigan Quarterly Review, and Creative Nonfiction Writing She is the creative nonfiction editor of ACM, or Another Chicago Magazine It is her exquisite blend of journalistic investigation with lyric eye that we want to honor tonight She has said that journalism forced her out into the world, taught her how to master a subject quickly through deep research and interviews But mostly, she learned that before she could explain something, even from her own life, she had to investigate it like a journalist In the face of hard, she is bold and widely funny She began her essay, “Holocaust Girls,” singing, “I am a Holocaust girl,” to the tune of The Wizard of Oz’s “Lollipop Guild.” And of course, she titles her book, The Adventures of Cancer Bitch I use her work in my classes to help my students push the boundaries of propriety in the genre Tonight, she will tell us some of the ways and reasons she does what she does so well Sandi? [APPLAUSE] Hi I’m going to make sure the mic is in the right place Is this right? I don’t need to move? Fine Thank so much, Beth I told Beth, when she emailed me out of the blue– [HITTING THE MIC] Oh! Sorry I just want to get the time here, so I won’t go over When Beth emailed me out of the blue, I told her that I wanted her to do a favor for me I said that when I was in high school, I had applied to Brown, and I was put on the waiting list, and I wondered if she could look up and see what number I had on the waiting list And she didn’t do that But anyway, what I’m going to do is present something in 13 parts, unless I counted wrong But I think it is 13 And so I will start, and it’s called “Creative Nonfiction Without the I.” One I do not lecture I’m up here at the podium, but I need some responses from you later I’m telling you at the beginning, so you can get used to the idea This is called, “Creative Nonfiction Without the I So often in experience, writers use a shorthand They say, creative nonfiction means if your sweater was red, in the true story you’re writing about your childhood, but you wish it were black, then you can make it black And it’s like journalism, but you put yourself in it Well, no and no Maybe you tell the reader that you wish the sweater had been black, and then tell why That could be interesting, or that your mother remembers it as red, and your sister, black, and it looks grey in photos And what does all that mean about your family dynamic? That could be interesting But that’s CNF, with the I, so they’ll leave the sweater behind And one aspect of personal or literary journalism could mean the presence of the writer, which excites some journalists very much They say, you mean I can say I was there? The conceit is that the writer was there at the interview, his apartment, or office, but you never come out and say it You might go as far as writing, he told the reporter that, or he told the visitor that So yes, dear reporter, you could say that you were there But the most important thing, what makes literary journalism interesting is that the writing, and voice, and point of view, and structure are original and artistic I tell my students that CNF is whatever I say it is, and the “I” changes all the time, so that the “I’s” are teachers
Some are also writers, or editors, or publishers, or talk-show hosts, or the Twittering masses All around the country, writers are exchanging definitions and arguing over them and the [INAUDIBLE] of the genre And there’s some overlap, but not complete overlap My definition is factual writing that makes it clear to the reader what has been documented, and what, if anything, is speculation It’s important to my sanity that I know it really happened, even if I’m receiving an admittedly subjective report And CNF is creative in the way it is presented; the point of view, voice, choice of subject, mix of subjects, meaning, rhythm, structure, language, dialogue, and so on What it is not is formulaic unless the writer is using a fixed form, using a structure that goes against the subject matter, so that the juxtaposition is funny or meaningful For example, in The New Yorker, there was a guide to the author’s bathroom using the format of a travel guide book My favorite piece of– I guess it’s short fiction though, that plays with a fixed form is called, “My 57th Recommendation Letter,” this week, by David Gallup, which begins, To admissions committee, I think But this is not that Two And so it began Eduardo Galeano is a writer from– anybody know? Uruguay He writes that he never liked history, and that he’s written books about history of South America, anyway In voices in time, he is very clipped His writing is simple, profound, prose poem-like He writes in Spanish and consults with an English translator I’ve heard him read and speak in English This is the first page of that book The title is Time Tells “We are made of time We are its feet and its voice The feet of time walk in our shoes Sooner or later, we all know the winds of time will erase the tracks Passage of nothing, steps of no one The voices of time tell the voyage.” And there’s in a way, a similar piece that comes next, and it’s called “Footprints.” “A couple was walking across the Savannah in East Africa at the beginning of the rainy season The woman and the man still looked a lot like apes, truth be told, though they were standing upright and had no tails A nearby volcano, now called Sadiman, was belching ash The rain of ash preserved the couple’s footprints from that moment through time Beneath their great blanket, the tracks were made intact Those footprints show that this Eve and that Adam had been walking side by side At a certain point, she stopped, turned away, and took a few steps of her own Then she returned to the path they shared The world’s oldest footprints left traces of doubt A few years had gone by The doubt remains.” So he is extrapolating He sees the footprints maybe in a book, or maybe on-site, and he surmises what happened There’s a short narration They’re walking There’s the volcano There are their tracks The last paragraph is interpretive Three, do you know the voice of Andrei Codrescu Yes? No? (WHISPERING) OK Emma Oh, sorry [LAUGHTER] See, I was afraid I would knock someone out Anyway, he was on public radio all the time He’s originally from Romania, and he lived in New Orleans, and maybe Houston there This piece is from The Devil Never Sleeps and Other Essays It begins with two phenomena “Two new establishments have opened to the neighborhood, both of them emblematic of a new status quo in America The first sentence gives us a fact at the first clause, and a leap at meaning of the second There are two new establishments They represent a new status quo.” He builds tension We read the next sentence or keep the radio on to hear the next sentence What are the two new establishments? They are, he tells us, a cigar cafe, and he describes it throughout the rest of the paragraph The second is a dog bakery He describes it too, and he goes on in the last paragraph to combine the two in a fanciful way
“The dog ladies are, it seems to me, the natural mates of the cigar chompers across the street Their belief is that their dogs defend them from crime, but stylishly, because the dogs, in addition to eating pastries, are pedigreed and come formally in every shape, from accordion pleats to taut [INAUDIBLE] The cigar smokers dream of an economy, where such luxuries are affordable, and safety does indeed, come in many shapes Meanwhile, the band plays on The dog catcher is on the run The market is on the rise, and the heat means nada to the cool.” It is not personal, except in the aside, it seems to me, and it’s not the ending you would expect It’s not a traditional ending He surmises what the dog ladies think, and what the cigar smokers dream, and I think this is purposeful, because we know that his is surmising, and he takes us to an entirely new place at the end Four [INAUDIBLE] take something that is in the news, something reported by NPR, and The New York Times, and riffs on it in The New Yorker “Comments” section “The news is that there is a new ringtone that people over the age of 20 can’t hear.” Sorry We often say a piece of writing is expository, as if it’s a bad thing, because everyone must show, and not tell This is true much of the time, and the reason we like CNF so much is that we can express our thoughts We could follow our thoughts You can follow our thoughts by reading them The journey is in the mind [INAUDIBLE] uses the new ringtone to explore the diminishment of faculties that we experience as we age He begins “There is a new cell phone ringtone that can’t be heard by ghost people over the age of 20, according to an NPR report The importance of this, he writes further down, is it is that one more way for middle aged people to feel that they’re losing it has been discovered.” He ends self-consciously, but effectively This is part of his last paragraph “Readers who are over 20 may not hear the new ringtone If they had it on their phones, it might as well be silent But most readers who are under the age of 20 will not be able to hear this comment Yes, they’ve seen the words, and they will imagine that they are reading something, and that it makes sense But they will never truly get it.” Five And here it is, your turn How did you get here tonight? What did you bring with you? Did you come alone? How long has this lecture been in your date book, or smartphone, or written on your hand, or on your bulletin board? Was it a casual decision to come, or something you’ve been thinking about? When did you come? Was it an assignment? Interest? Once I read at a Catholic university, and people got culture points for coming to hear me So do you do that here? Probably not Was there a deeper wanting to become a writer, or to become a better writer, or to hear and see a writer that you’ve read? If you were just writing about yourself tonight, it would be easy You wouldn’t have to move You don’t even have to ask yourself, because you know But ask the people behind, and in front of you, and to the side these questions I’m going to give you two minutes, and just ask people why they came, and if they came by themselves, and where they came from, et cetera So people are going to scatter, so you’re going to have to improvise [INAUDIBLE] [SIDE CONVERSATION] Hey, I’m going to call time, just
because it seems like you’ve got a lot of information Can I have somebody say what they found out about someone? Yeah? Robert came from Rochambeau, which I can only assume is a restaurant, but I should have asked It’s a street No It’s a street It’s a street Oh, OK I thought it was a city in France Maybe He was a general who helped us push the British out of the colonies Thank you We were so grateful [INAUDIBLE] Who? All right The reason I asked you this is because it relates to what I’m going to read to you This is from The Collossus of New York by Colson Whitehead And he’s observing the Port Authority And he says, “they’re all broken someway, siding down the stairs of the bus Otherwise, they would have come here differently The paparazzi do not wait to take their picture Barricades do not hold back the faithful This is the back entrance after all.” So he’s drawing a conclusion He’s opining, he’s judging, he let’s us know what he thinks of these people without using the I And he’s not objective And even from the second and third words you hear, “they’re all broken.” He tells us what Port Authority is like by partly telling us what it is not like And then he continues observing and extrapolating “In the parking birth, it is anti-climatic A man in goggles records the time of arrival The baggage handler huffs into his palms, one job closer to punching out Thousands of arrivals everyday They won’t stop coming Different people, but all the same They try to sneak by with different faces, but it is no use They step down the grooved steps clutching items and the attendant lugs the bags out of the bin looking for handles They get excited and jostle Is someone going to steal their bags? They all heard the stories One of them has a cousin who came here once and was a victim of street crime He had to have the money wired so he could get home And that was the last time their clan went to New York There is a thing called three-card monte Out to get you They’ve all heard the stories and they’ve all come anyway The bags thud on concrete and get taken.” So he’s got some general stuff They’re all broken and then he’s got the individual stories And we can think that he interviewed them I don’t know if he just knows enough about Port Authority, people coming to New York, and he’s talked to people in his life that he can say these things So if you had to make general statements about tonight, like they come here for x, can somebody come up with a sentence? They come here for culture points All right And if it was a focus on individuals? Like one person Yes? To expand our knowledge of creative non-fiction I’ll give it in shorthand Yes [INAUDIBLE] So give yourself– this is number six Codrescu’s NPR piece was very short Many magazines, including [INAUDIBLE] magazines, publish pieces at the back of the book And I don’t know if there’s an equivalent on the line I was trying to think of this Maybe 800 words This from Book Magazine, which died, so in case you might not have heard of it And it was from the back of the book I think it’s about 800 words and it’s about a very, very small thing It’s about stuff you find inside of old books Has anybody found something inside of an old book or library book? What did you find? A pickle slice That’s terrible I found a love note between two old faculty members Wow You knew their names? Right, that’s good stuff I looked them up Wow Pretty cool That’s very cool Cool Anybody else? No? So this is called, Life Among the Debris by Janet Ruth Fallon And it was, again, the back of Book Magazine “People lose themselves in books all the time That’s supposed to mean they’re so engaged that they lose
track of time or forget to eat But as a volunteer and former board member at my local library, I’ve seen the phrase new meaning I’ve discovered remarkable fragments of selves lost both in the returned books and in the 25 to 500 books donated each day People are revealed in astonishing, hinting ways by the things they leave behind Unlike messages in a bottle, whose senders desperately long for an audience, the flotsam and jetsam tucked into books tells secrets never meant to be told They are a keyhole You can peek into closed curtain lives.” And the rest of the piece is some examples I just think that’s so interesting because it’s such a tiny little thing and she wrote a whole piece about it And she’s really talking about the joys and limits of imagination And deeper down, it’s about traces And what we leave, and what others might find, and what others might think of us after we’re gone or at least after we’ve left the book This is part six I have advice for you Take notes Wherever you go, take notes You can look up a lot on the internet, but not everything And specifics can be golden Write down what you see and hear Write it down in a notebook, paper, or virtual Don’t write it on scraps of paper because you will lose them, unless you paste them onto your notebook pages, which is not a bad idea I was awarded a fellowship from the Illinois Arts Counsel and went to Europe in 1992, gathering information for a novel Going to a conference, a museum, people’s apartments, cafes, theatres, taking trains, talking to people, taking pictures, not enough pictures– I’m still using some of the notes I went to Frankfurt, Germany and saw the house where Anne Frank lived with her family until Hitler came to power They were smart They fled to Holland And you know what happened next It took me a long time to put the piece together I started with famous photos I described them, but I didn’t reproduce the photos because I thought it would cost too much It might or might not of, I don’t know I didn’t check So the first little piece is– “Photos Anne 1941 Margot 1941 They both part their hair on the left side, wear a watch on the same wrist, have the same eyebrows, same open mouth to smile Their noses and eyes are different The shape of their faces, the cut of their hair, the fall of it Books are open in front of each of them One photo we glance past because she is unknown We don’t care what she looks like She’s vaguely familiar Not the real on She is the sister of, the shadow The first child can make way for the second, the important one, who’s more alive, who’s photo is crisp in contrasts, not blurred.” And then I talked about what I read that Anne Frank’s sister, Margot, was considered the serious one And she kept a journal And I wondered what brave, strange, intelligent thoughts that she might have written down And I speculated what she might have written because her journal was never found And I gave an opinion about why we like Anne and Margot Frank “They were suburban and then urban They had bicycles and birthday parties We know how to put both of those things together or whom to call to arrange them The girls are just like us The thrill of the avalanche mist Not that we would ever sacrifice someone else.” I copied a list of French vocabulary word that I saw at the Anne Frank house in Amsterdam I describe the house in Frankfurt I got inside Margot’s at the end I sent the piece around and Creative Nonfiction Journal accepted it for publication Then they called me They were nervous They thought that people would misunderstand They wanted me to reassure them that it wasn’t fiction I say, perhaps I say, perhaps, again I say, perhaps Margot remember, perhaps Margot grieved, and Margot also didn’t write I used italics I think those might be the point Use italics to cite people And you have to give the reader the benefit of the common sense So number seven There is power in words There is power in density There is power in what you don’t explain But you take a risk If you don’t explain, the reader might not understand So just in case, I will ask you, what
does the verb, to gaslight, mean? Anybody know? Nobody gets an award It was a play in 1938 by Patrick Hamilton in England And when it came to the US, it was called Gaslight And it was about a man who is trying to drive his wife crazy And she notices the gas light They have a gas lit lamp and she notices that it changes It’s like shadowy, and then bright, shadowy, and bright And he’s like, oh, no, it’s not changing at all And it is that way because he’s in another part of the house looking for some kind of treasure and he’s a really bad guy So for awhile– the American film came out in 1944 So around that time, people thought about that and they made it into a verb So Adrianne Rich, who was a young teenager when the move came out, uses the word, which is perfect for the second wave of feminism Patriarchy had been trying to hoodwink us We had been brainwashed to believe certain things about yourselves And Rich, at a woman writers conference in 1971, puts together a talk about lying She finishes it four years later Her piece is called, Women and Honor: Some Notes on Lying And notice, they’re called notes And this is an important form to remember, that you can write a finished piece in the form of notes as long as it forms a complete work, as long as there’s rhythm and movement among the pieces She wrote that she wanted to break silence between women She begins with a fragment It’s a good idea, if you’re going to have sentence fragments later, that you start with them, so that people will be used to them and not surprised later And her essay begins, “the old male idea of honor A man’s words sufficed to other men without guarantee Our land free, our men honest, our women fruitful A popular colonial toast in America Male honor also having something to do with killing I could not love thee, dear, so much Love, die not, honor more From [INAUDIBLE] going to the wars Male honor as something needing to be avenged Hence, the duel Women’s honor something altogether else Virginity, chastity, fidelity to a husband Honesty in women has not been considered as important We have been depicted as generically whimsical, deceitful, subtle, vacillating And we have been rewarded for lying Men have been expected to tell the truth about facts, not about feelings They have not been expected to talk about feelings at all Yet even about facts, they have continually lied We assume that politicians are without honor We read their statements, trying to crack the code The scandals of their politics Not that men in high places lie, only that they do so with such indifference, so endlessly, still expecting to be believed We are accustomed to the contempt inherent in the political lie.” Another thing I want you to know– this is, I guess, number eight– that you can mix point of view in a piece And this is from, I Will Send for You or I Will Come Home Rich by Richard Rodriguez And he’s talking about a universal experience that Mexican men go through, not all, obviously, when they go up to the North and sneak into the country And then he talks about him and his father, and then he talks about himself, and then he has history So he just does a lot of different things And it starts out in second person, which I like a lot I know some people hate it and they just won’t read anything in second person “You stand around, you smoke, you spit You are wearing two shirts, two pants, two underpants Jesus says, if they chase you, throw that bag down Your plastic bag is your llama, all you have left The yellow cheese she wrapped has formed a translucent rind The lemonade is scapular A sacred heart nestles Flame in its cleft Put it in your pocket, inside Put it in your underneath pants pocket The last hour of Mexico is twilight The shuffling of feet Jesus says they were able to see in the dark They have X-Rays, and helicopters, and searchlights Jesus says, wait Just wait till he says, though most of the men have started to move You feel the hand of Jesus claim your shoulder,
fingers cold as ice [NON-ENGLISH SPEECH] You run All the rest happens without words Your feet are tearing dry grass Your heart is lashed like a mare, You trip, you fall You are now in the United States of America You are a boy from the Mexican village You have come into the country on your knees with your head down You are a man.” And there’s white space And white space can never be overestimated It’s a great, wonderful thing Also, asterisks “Papa, what was it like? I am his second son, his favorite child, his confidant After we have polished the DeSoto, we sit in the car and talk I am 16 years old I fiddle with the nobs of the radio He is 50 He will never say he was an orphan there He had no mother, he remembered then He lived in a village by the ocean He wanted books and had none You are lucky, boy.” And he wrote this to go with a series of photos And this I got from Mother Jones a long time ago You can see the photos They’re like xeroxes of xeroxes of photos But it’s also in a nonfiction collection of short pieces, which, I think, was put together just by thinking, OK, now what’s the word limit? And let’s just take some of these pieces and put them in there And I’m not sure if he did it or the editor did it There’s also something else you can do You can write about yourself and your family by focusing on an object And this first paragraph is sort of cheating because the person is in there And it’s called, From Here to Poland by Nina Mehta And what I’m going to do is give a bibliography to Beth and I’m also going to have it online So if you want to read the pieces or other pieces I recommend, you can find them “Once, quite a long time ago, there was a Dutch side board that crossed three oceans It had been purchased in Frankfurt, Germany when I was two years old and my sister had just been born My parents must have been love then because they had defied both sets of parents to marry, parents who worried that their respective child would wind up in the other one’s country and would then, therefore, be lost to them What the parents may or may not have known at the time was that both sets would eventually be proven right But also that their children had already been lost to them before they met each other in an art store on East 53rd Street in mid-Manhattan, staring at a darkened arrangement of thin, erratic flowers in the painting by Oskar Kokoschka.” So it really moves a lot in time If you were to sit with that paragraph, it’s like time and place are just moving You can mix the personal and the political You can change diction and tone, again, if you have white space, and tell the reader, OK, I’m changing This is a piece I really love by Michelle Cliff And it’s called, If I Could Write This In Fire, I Would Write This In Fire She grew up in Jamaica And these are just a couple excerpts “Their goddamn kings and their goddamn queens Grandmotherly, Victoriesque, spreading herself thin across the globe Elizabeth II on our TV screens We stop what we are doing We quiet down We pay our respects 1981 In Massachusetts, I get up at 5:00 AM to watch the royal wedding I tell myself, maybe the IRA will intervene.” And maybe, at this point, some people don’t know what the IRA is because there’s been a truce Anybody want to say what the IRA is in this context? We have our subject of the commonwealth, right? It’s the Irish Republican– Yes Army And they were doing some terrorist activities in London Sorry, I didn’t get to– OK Also, Bobby Sands was an IRA member He starved himself to death in prison “I tell myself, maybe the IRA will intervene It’s got to be better than starving themselves to death Better to be a kamikaze at Saint Paul’s Cathedral than a hostage in Ulster And last week, black and white people smashed storefronts all over The United Kingdom But I really don’t believe we’ll see royal blood on TV I watch because they once ruled us In the back of the cathedral, a Mallorcan woman sings an aria from Handel And I notice that she is surrounded by the colored subjects
To those of us in The Commonwealth, the royal family was the perfect symbol of hegemony”– which is a word you learn in college “To those of us who are dark in the dark nations, the Prime Minister or The Parliament barely existed We believed in royalty We were convinced in this belief Maybe it played on some ancestral memories of West Africa, where other kings and queens had been Alters, and castles, and magic.” And she’s personal and she goes, we And sometimes you really go out on a limb She’s speaking for all the colonials in The British Commonwealth But you can get away with that And I think we’re not bold enough, most of the time This is ten I’ve been working on a book about the South And in one part of it, I’m writing about an artist in Selma, Alabama And he named himself the Tin Man And it’s because he had $10 in his pocket And when they talk there, tin as ten Like people on the East Coast, they say merry, Mary, marry in three different ways In Alabama, they say ten and tin the same way And this is me writing “What is me and what is not me? The Tin Man drew, and painted, and made toys out of wire, and cans, and sticks as he was growing up Worked odd jobs and worked maintenance at a hospital until he was laid off Then he cut down, and hauled logs, and fell from the truck, breaking his back He was paralyzed from the waist down He prayed He prayed to god that he could be reborn, that he could create And he told his friends that his life was changing He promised god that he would give him credit, that he would teach others, if you would be redeemed And he was Which takes us back to the $10 in his pocket He could use his arms and hands And leaning over the side of the bed, he made animals out of wire He painted He felt god moving within him He felt the duty to feel joy, though he does not say it that way He is walking now He had back surgery He’s thin and almost rangy He’s always in pain, he says, but has discipline Which seems, I think, to mean listening to that voice within, allowing god to work through him Discipline is something like hewing to the path that your special gift is carving out for you There is the connection with the universal, though he doesn’t use Latinate words like that He dropped out of school in fourth grade He shows me the envelope from Vermont Asks me to pronounce the name of the city, Brattleboro Some students from there are coming to work with him He works with students in school and at summer camp They build funkified dinosaurs of yarn, and wire, and wooden leg joints The connection from soul to soul is larger than voting rights, is larger than politics He didn’t get involved in them much, though he remembers when JFK was shot Felt himself utterly changed by the assassination because he could see that the President could be felled He could be killed for what he believed in The world had changed He is not bitter, does not hold anything against anyone If he were to encounter a white supremacist, he would listen to him He would smother him with love He does not say this exactly He would listen.” And I want you to think about summer of 1991 and raise your hand if you were not alive then OK I started a novel in the summer of 1991 And about six piece of it had been published, but the whole novel, I just keep rewriting and rewriting And it’s been rejected and rejected And I think it’s because I write in little pieces and I don’t have the kind of brain that can do a novel So anyway, I’ve cannibalized some of it into essays And this is one of them And it’s called, The Wandering Womb And the first part is called “Hystericos.” “The ancient Egyptian document known as the Kahun Papyrus”– or Pa-pi-rus? I should know Pa-pi-rus– “advises its readers that the cause of some female trouble is the wondering womb Similarly, in the Fourth Century BCE, Hippocratic physicians wrote that women with certain symptoms can be plagued by a wanderlustful womb, which had loosened itself from its mysterious moorings to cause trouble in the parts of the body where it had set up shop If the womb strayed into the head, it would cause headaches
If it sat in a woman’s chest, it could cause near suffocation A misplaced womb could steal breath, bind up a throat, make everything difficult. Give it a child and it will be happy Sometimes treatment was performed to the other orifices Affected women would be given something foul smelling to breath, so that the womb would be repulsed, would hightail it back down where it belonged Another treatment was to expose the vulva to something pleasant something to learn the womb down to its rightful place, the way a woman incites a lover with sweet performs Intercourse was proposed as a cure After all, the womb longed to be of use It wanted to be a nest In the age before dissection, men could divide its mysteries The womb, Plato, is a wild animal The womb, according to medical writer, Artias the Cappadocian, two centuries later, is like some animal inside an animal.” This is maybe 13 I think it is I’m going to read a piece that is me, but not really me I mean that the I in the piece is not really me And it’s just like In the Modest Proposal, by– Jonathan Swift The narrator is not really Jonathan Swift and he says I here And you can keep passing along while I’m reading “I love pink M&Ms I eat them everyday If I eat enough of them, my cancer will go away Won’t it? Isn’t that what they promise? In the USA, we like our news, and health, and our donations sugar coated If I eat M&Ms and if I go on the Avon walk, do I get a free makeover before setting out? All those cameras, you see, I must look my best It’s important to look my best That’s why we wear a pink ribbon in our hair And oops Not all of us have hair Then around our necks And if I sell pink ribbon cupcakes and support-the-cause brownies– great for a bake sale or afternoon tea, the pink ribbon folks tell us– then I will be in the pink The ingredients for support-the-cause brownies will make me healthy If not, why would they be named after Susan G Komen, who has a whole breast cancer foundation named after her? Oops She’s dead She died of breast cancer Maybe she died from eating these brownies But how could that be? They’re made with M&Ms Milk Chocolate Candies Help Fight Breast Cancer mixed with Snickers and brownie mix Any brand, quick Here’s an opportunity for another multinational corporation to hop on the pink bandwagon And a can of, your brand name here, chocolate frosting What could more natural for us girls? We’re made of sugar and spice Even our out of control cancer cells are nice because they’re pink like us, aren’t they? Remember to follow the recipe We have to learn to follow recipes to be good cancer patients And don’t forget the final decorations Decorations are important Make a continuous ring of M&Ms brand Milk Chocolate Candies Help Fight Breast Cancer around the bottom of the brownies Celebrate Or instead of baking, you could read a book like, Pink Ribbons, INC: Breast Cancer and the Politics of Philanthropy, by Samantha King, which says– “as the Komen Foundation and its corporate sponsors continue to pump money into a research and education agenda that centers on uncritically promoting mammography, encouraging the use of pharmaceuticals to prevent breast cancer, and avoiding any consideration of environmental links to the disease, it becomes less clear whether they are not actually doing more harm than good.” And I have to say, I wrote this in maybe ’07 And the Komen Foundation is doing more than just awareness now They’ve gotten better So I’m going to end there And I want to disperse all the pink M&Ms These are not the official breast cancer M&Ms They’re just pink M&Ms that I got at the store So do people have questions? You want questions? Yes Ask questions and comments, certainly Read Holocaust Girls And you’re all writers Questions? [INAUDIBLE] So Title IX, girls got sports equality Do you have a question?
Yes I was just wondering if you could talk more about being shy and being a journalist? How do you overcome that in interviews when you have to ask harder questions? It’s gotten easier over the years I went to Northwestern for undergrad and I was in journalism, which was a separate school There were like five different schools at Northwestern And I hadn’t been able to decide between English and journalism And somebody told me before I applied that it’s easier to move from journalism to English than from English to journalism, so start out in journalism And there were times when I wanted to go to English, creative writing, because I would have to talk to somebody And if they were mean, it was horrible And I remember, even when I was an intern at a newspaper, somebody was really mean to me on the phone and I started crying But it got better But I had this curiosity that was really strong And so I think the curiosity propelled me to go ahead and ask questions, even though the shyness got in the way But it was hard And envy people who are just like naturally friendly and just naturally talk to people So have you had a hard time talking to people? I guess, yes Sometimes, when I’m doing the campus activity newspaper stuff, it depends on the day So I find that it’s hard to keep that up all the time I find myself to be a naturally shy person But yes The curiosity keeps me going also So thank you And you know what? I think it is important to talk to people because I can’t stand when– I’m going to offend people, I’m sure I don’t like when I read an interview that was done over email because I think it puts the burden on the person who is being interviewed because they have to do a whole lot of work to answer questions And I think it’s much better– our program puts out tri-quarterly online And I really encourage people to call the person and record it because you can ask follow up question and it’s just more natural And you can edit it later And you can sound really stupid When you listen to yourself on the tape recorder, you go, oh my god, I sound like an idiot But it doesn’t matter because you’re just transcribing it And you can edit it Any other questions? That was really wonderful Thank you Thank you This was wonderfully well organized and interesting One thing about pushing the boundaries of creative nonfiction And I was curious whether you ever hit points where you felt you were pushing the boundaries too much? Whether there were moments when you vacillate and ultimately decided that this was too fictional, or too speculative, or something like that? In what I just read about the Tin Man, I wonder if I was because I’m making judgements Like this is what he says, even though he doesn’t say it exactly And then I was hoping that I didn’t sound superior because he couldn’t pronounce Brattleboro But my point was that people are writing to him from Vermont, and they want to work with him, and he can’t even, I don’t think, conceive of Vermont But he’s got this talent So maybe in making judgement I don’t know Yes? Is this something that would be described as metafiction, too? Metafiction? I don’t know Where’s Coover when you want him? It’s funny because Robert Coover wrote– was it The Public Burning about Ethel and Julius Rosenberg? And he wrote about Nixon And I think he went further than I would go I mean, he’s really got Nixon saying all kinds of silly things, and being a Vaudevillian, and stuff Right I think that’s metafiction The example I had in mind was– the only time the term used about Tim O’Brien’s, Finding– It’s sort of a fiction and, or biographical– The Things They Carry? Excuse me? The Things They Carry
I’m sorry The Things They Carry Is that what you were– That’s the other one Yes Oh Going After Cacciato Going After Cacciato Going After Cacciato That was so interesting because I read that I was believing it the whole time But I don’t know if I would call that metafiction But there is something by Philip Roth And it’s been classified as fiction and also non fiction And it’s called, Looking at Kafka And the first part is by Roth about Kafka Do you all know this? Anybody? And then the second half is he writes about himself as a boy in Newark And they have this new teacher, who came from oversees, named Mister Kafka And you just believe it And you believe that Kafka lived, and went to New Jersey after the war, and then they try to fix him up with Philip Roth’s aunt, and something goes wrong I don’t know what that is It’s sort of like trying to get people to believe in fantasy And I think if you write fiction, then you’re going to call it fiction And if you write non fiction, maybe you’ll call it non fiction Philip Roth also wrote the book that I just couldn’t read anymore of because it made me too nervous It was about the war What if Lindbergh had won the presidency? And the US becomes like Germany sort of, in some ways And that’s called, Counter Historical? So if he wanted to make it non fiction, he could have said, I wonder what would have happened if Lindbergh had won Perhaps blah, blah, blah, blah But most people don’t want to read a whole book that says that So that’s something to talk about Yes Can you talk about how Cancer Bitch has been received, especially in the illness community? What surprised me is some people who have different illnesses have said that it helped them And I didn’t write it to help anybody, except me I think a lot of times, if you have that kind of a judgement of, I’m going to help people, it might not come out because it’s insincere But the title gave me some problems Like my stepdaughters mother-in-law had breast cancer, but they didn’t want to send her the book because she’s very religious and would offended just from the title And all of us could talk, on and on, about titles, I’m sure Titles that we were glad we had, titles that we wish we hadn’t had, book covers The publisher decides Can you mention how you pick the projects that you decide to write about? Do you have like an idea book, on Facebook or do you– I have ideas in a file, but I don’t look at them But some of it is just opportunistically The Illinois Arts Council was running out of money, as most arts councils are And a few years ago, they said we’ll give people money for projects Not just like, here’s some money, do whatever you want And so I thought, OK, I’ve always wanted to go to Mississippi, where my father’s from, and Alabama, where my grandmother grew up So I just made up this thing All you had to was find out how much a rental car would cost and find that sort of stuff And I said what I would do And I got the money And so I did it And then I thought, oh, this is really interesting So I just kept researching And right now, it seemed too big to me because I’m feeling I need to say things about the South And I keep reminding myself that it’s called, I think, Moments in Selma and Other Pieces in the South That I’m just talking about places where my family lived just to arbitrarily live in it Yes? Can you talk about the pros and cons, in your writing, in writing in the second person?
In Cancer Bitch, I used a bunch of different points of view Sometimes I would speak of myself in the third person– like, Cancer Bitch thinks that blah, blah, blah And I think I probably used second person I used first person, and then maybe close first person, far away first person All different kinds And I just think that sometimes if I can’t write something and I’m trying to get myself to write it, I just keep playing around with point of view until one of them seems right And maybe I’ll try second person and it will work But I know people– I worked at The Miami Herald The people there, the whole newsroom, I think, hated the second person I don’t know if that was your experience here A lot of people just don’t like it Or Bright Lights, Big City I don’t know if you all know that novel I liked it It’s all second person What do you think of it? I don’t know I ask because I don’t have much experience with it and I know that in the beginning we have [INAUDIBLE] And I just wanted to gain a little perspective on it I think it’s something to try If you just feel a little stuck, it might be your– and then you could always convert it back, if you wanted Well, good Thank you very much Oh, thank you