Music and Writing

by Adrienne Bischoff


What is the writer’s equivalent of practicing scales? Will Jennings, from the University of Iowa, posed this question during the Music And Writing panel.

Compared to rudiments or scales, “you don’t see people practicing their nouns,” he riffed.

Author Thomas Larson mused that Joseph Williams’ writing guide, Style: Toward Clarity and Grace, comes close to daily scale practice with its exercises at the back of the book. For his practice, Will Jennings gets together with a friend with the simple task of writing for 90 minutes. Someone mentioned an author who writes in a dark room to let go of concern for a finished product.

Along with Jennings and Larson, authors Bob Cowser and Richard Terrill discussed the symbiotic relationship between notes and words.

Thomas Larson began with some thoughts about the relative differences between music and writing. Writing, he explained, is a representative art. Its medium is not its art, unlike music. But that doesn’t stop both genres from borrowing from each other. There is much writing on music and music is a form of storytelling. Larson said that composer Hector Berlioz referred to his Symphonie Fantastique as a novel. Similarly, in “Harlem Air Shaft,” Duke Ellington tried to capture the snippets of stories captured in a Harlem air shaft: the overheard prayers, fights, the smells of laundry and coffee.

Bob Cowser shared a personal memory of taking his parents to a football game and how, once the marching band struck up, they were flooded with memories of their family from long ago.

Music is not just a release valve for deeply rooted memories, but a tool to create them, Cowser continued. How many writers listen to music when composing or revising material?

Richard Terrill, as both a musician and writer, spoke about the dissonance he experiences switching between playing and speaking, with the latter failing him, comparatively. It’s his experiential proof that “language and music don’t come from the same place in the brain.”

Will Jennings, in addition to his thoughts on daily writing practice spoke of the simple musicality of words. On any given day he’ll overhear snippets of conversation that have a lyrical quality to them. He mentioned one that especially bemused him: “I’m not going to go through life as a victimized soprano.”

It’s nice to know both musicians and writers share the burden of tortured geniuses.


Music and Writing

Tim Flannery: Keynote Speech

by Adrienne Bischoff

Author of The Weather Makers and 2007’s Australian of the Year, Tim Flannery made his writer’s conference debut with NonfictioNOW 2015. As a practicing scientist, he confessed he hadn’t spent much time “dedicated to the tool” of writing. Surprising words from a bestselling author who has managed to explain the nuances of climate change so clearly and lyrically.

His hour-long speech went by in a flash as he discussed how scientists approach writing differently than everyone else; how he must be an outsider to get inside nonfiction; and how American tree leaves are the McDonald’s coffee cups of the plant world.

The clear exception to the rule, Flannery discussed why so few scientists write successfully for broad audiences. First, Flannery defined that science is not a search for truth, as commonly believed, but a search for falsehood. Contrary to popular belief, science doesn’t have laws, but theories. Even our beloved “law” of gravity, isn’t really a law, but merely a theory. Should an apple decide to rise to the heavens instead of fall squarely upon the head of some genius, poof! – our theory of gravity is gone.

Might then a discipline wholly devoted to finding flaws communicate differently than those which search for truth? Might this explain Flannery’s description of science writing as the “spiriting practice to write arcane articles that get ripped apart”? A search for falsehood might encourage editors and writers to shred anything that may seem extraneous or distracting from logic and evidence.

“The language of science is a telegraphic language; it’s not a language of beauty…. [Editors] want the facts,” explained Flannery.

So how does Flannery write about science in such an engaging way? The answer may be two-fold. First, he believes that to write nonfiction, he needs to be an outsider, understanding the topic as he writes. His writing then is really a journey of discovery and he’s only too happy to bring the reader along for the ride. You can’t get much more empathetic with lay readers than by being one yourself.

Second, both in his writing and speaking, Flannery exudes a fascination with the world and its inhabitants, even the smallest, seemingly most insignificant. Visiting the United States from his homeland of Australia, Flannery was stymied by how readily and liberally our trees dropped their leaves. He referred to them as the “McDonald’s coffee cup of the plant world.”

That’s not something you hear every day.

Even the shapes of the leaves, similar to a hand, amazed Tim. He did some research and learned that the hand shape is “the most economical way to stretch a membrane over a structure.” The biology of leaves has never seemed so whimsical.

The language of science may not be a language of beauty, but Flannery masterfully communicates in his writing the beauty we should hope to see.

Tim Flannery: Keynote Speech

Notes on Location: Newsrooms, Ruins & More

by Katy Harding

1. From Newsroom to Workshop

Can journalism and creative nonfiction come together in unity?

The panel From the Newsroom to the Workshop brings together four previous journalistic writers turned creative nonfiction converts to round table questions about creative nonfiction and the journalism world.

Each speaker has won numerous awards in the journalism community and covered a diverse range of topics from police reports to injured loggers.

One panelist describes his journey to creative nonfiction writer as a process of attempting to see if he could turn his journalist eye on himself. Another, when a child, was asked to draw what she would be when she grew up. She wrote “reporter.” She explains further that working in journalism helped her seek an answer to the question, “What’s the truth and how do we know it?” After writing long form journalism for years, she turned her life upside down and went deeper into her writing by pursuing her MFA.

Another journalist pursued her MFA after years of the desire to do long form “journalist” writing like Didion. The last panelist ended up on an island of a thousand people off the coast of Florida. She drove a golf cart across the island, and says that the time was some of the best experience she had. She echoes the theme of thinking moving up in journalism would mean the freedom to write, but found that wasn’t the case, which moved her to pursue an MFA.

Advice from the panelists:

Journalism, or good journalism, should have a longing for storytelling, not conform to the narrow minded definition that many people think of as journalism. Journalism can actually strengthen the quality of writing in a nonfiction writer’s work.

It is not important to emphasize the difference between forms of writing, but rather where forms intersect, and strengthen each other.

What impulses drive a writer to investigate the world? How do those impulses shape creative nonfiction writing in journalistic ways?

The process of writing is an art. Crafting the essay is typically the emphasis, but the process of uncovering the information is just as important as sewing the piece together.

Immerse yourself into the stories you write, find novelist details and write them.

Allow the personal “I” to play a role in your own writing, recognizing the importance of integrating yourself into your writing. Allowing that to enter into journalistic writing. The “I” can make your writing more personal and allow your writing to connect with other your reader, though it also makes you vulnerable.

A list of advice from one panelist:

  1. Everyone is one or two degrees from a storyteller

  2. No means not now

  3. Sometimes the best thing to do is show up unannounced

  4. Historical societies and archives are your best friends

  5. Sometimes you have to face past your internal censor

  6. Always have the sense that your work is public, even if you’re keeping your work in a bubble

  7. Be present in your writing

2. Relocating Dislocation

A woman in a yellow sweater opens. She is planning a trip to Montenegro; her first time flying across an ocean. She goes to find stories that don’t exist, to find family. In a sense, her whole family, is dislocated. She is going to seek information, beyond what she knows from stories her family has told her. She seeks to be located, again, back to her family. Through the feel of the streets under her feet, the smells coming from houses, and the sights of the cities her ancestors walked and talked and lived in.

Beth Peterson has been to Norway. She relocated to a small town in Norway. She went to write herself into a new place. She left Norway after a few months, but visited often for ten years. She is neither an insider or an outsider, but she recognizes herself as an unstable narrator. “We are all unstable narrators,” she says.

Eric Scott, he went to Iceland. He is studying a religion in Iceland the name of which is hard to type. It means “the belief in the gods.” Or something like that. They are building a temple in Reykjavik. Scott is not an Icelander, but he is a second-generation Wiccan. He describes his trip as a pilgrimage, one of solitude and connection, of holiness. Yet, looking back he recognizes that, in order to relocate you must know and be with those who are located, where you are dislocated.

Travis Scholl is from St. Louis, and, he has a love hate relationship with his hometown. August 9, 2014, Ferguson. He did not grow up in that suburb. He grew up in a suburb that St. Louis natives call “Soco” or South County. He moved back to St. Louis as an outsider, he feels like an exile, many days. He relocates his dislocation to the space of his writing. He uses the labyrinth to do this, at least in his first book.

3. The Essay as Ruin

“These places are often beautiful.”

The ruin and decay of places and cities is fascinating to humans, as bystanders. As we observe from the outside, but, we remain observers, not encompassing or entering into those spaces in reality. Sarah Levine speaks on how to write about ruin in places you are only seeing as a tourist. Not, as if you are part of that ruin; you experienced the decay, but rather as a watcher of an amorphous vapor, who sees ruins viscerally.

A multimedia essay by Kristen Radtke titled “Ruin,” follows. A brief history of ruins and human fascination with them. At one point, Radtke touches on ruins as things humans admire, because they are so unrelatable to our lives. But, ultimately, the decaying rooms look like our own.

Sarah Minor speaks about the multimedia essay on the plain of ruin: “The essay is something that breaks the plain of the text to involve images and design elements . . . [It] assumes a new kind of failure.” The essay leaves space for things to be subjective. Minor recognizes that essays are built on elements that ultimately allow the reader room for interpretation. This takes on new space in multimedia essays.

She concludes with a reading from an essay of her own, paired with images displayed by a projector. The images are cross sections, images of the insides of things, halved. Her essay also is a cross section of her family dynamics. Embodying new spaces, trying, entering into the ruin of life and writing it.

During questions, the speakers are asked to speak on finding the ruins of failed essays. Writing into those ruins. Sarah Minor speaks to writing in cross sections and allowing competing aspects of an essay to recede and find the direction of the writing.

Sarah Levine answers questions concerning ancient versus contemporary ruins. She speaks to the romanticization of contemporary ruins by humans. But also, to the closeness we feel to houses in ruins that look like our own, compared to the ruins of Pompeii, a distant and ancient ruin, intangible to us.

Notes on Location: Newsrooms, Ruins & More

Keys: Michael Martone and Ander Monson

by Lizzy Nichols

October 30, 2015, 7:10pm: not quite Halloween, but certainly in the neighborhood (the rich kind that kids travel to—on real Halloween—for full-sized candy bars). It was this night that played host to Michael Martone and Ander Monson’s keynote speech for Flagstaff’s NonfictioNow Conference.

And, given what the speech turned out to be, the proximity to Halloween was apropos timing.

Starting from the introductions, this keynote was dressed up, disguised even. Both authors were introduced through a thick mixture of truth and lie so thorough, and transparently untrue at times, that one with no background on the speakers would have had nothing but a façaded Halloween mask of creative nonfiction writers: they live in the southwest, are from the Midwest, perhaps they have written books claimed by other authors, or have written books that don’t exist at all (apparently, Ander Monson is the author of Michael Martone by Michael Martone). Either way, true or false, both were dressed up in suits for the personas that speech giving demands.

The keynote itself ended up a costumed version of a “keynote” as well. Monson claimed that they could not highlight “key” points of a nonfiction conference, and that Martone was only interested in surface, not depth, anyway, so, instead, they examined the surface of the word “key” in detail. The speakers dressed up their keynote in a haphazard manner, giving the sense that it was, to a degree, unplanned. Martone had a stack of papers that he gave to an audience member who, in turn, gave them back to him throughout the keynote, in a random order, I’d assume. Monson decorated the conference room with a slideshow of various key-related images which he bounced around throughout the talk, sometimes even commenting “eh, let’s do this one now.” The speakers covered everything from falling keys proving gravity for babies to garish pictures attached to bathroom keys. The chaos, though, fell into place, and, right before the audience, a spectacle of surface emerged into Halloween’s habitually spectacled season.

I haven’t been to many other keynotes in my time, and certainly none that focused on the anatomy of the word. But, through their exaggerated attention to the fiction of a keynote address—the personas of the speakers, the pretending to know exactly what a conference is about, the illusion of organization—Martone and Monson were able to focus on a collage of simple nonfictions: what keys mean in their lives.

As I left the keynote, I couldn’t help but feel an extra weight in my own keys, as I’m sure everybody that night did, while unlocking my bike from the bike rack just before riding off into Flagstaff’s jack-o-lanterned streets heavy with fake, exaggerated spider webs.

Keys: Michael Martone and Ander Monson

When a Writer is Born Into a Family, the Family is F’d

by Sam van Zweden

The impulse to write about our families is a strong one. For those writers who use their own life as material (which I think describes the majority of writers at NonfictioNOW in some way), those lives intertwine with the lives of others – often our families are implicated in our writing. Sometimes the writing is about the family.

The latter is the case for the writers who made up the panel for ‘When a Writer is Born Into a Family, the Family is F’d’. The panel covered ideas of permission, reactions, and the writer’s changed relationships to writing and their family post-publication.

A nice change of pace to the papers delivered at most other sessions of the conference, this panel was a more traditional discussion lead by a chair who put questions to the speakers. What each of the speakers seemed to have in common was a driving motivation rooted in the idea of speaking out – against shame, against silence, against misunderstanding. “Unpacking shame in nonfiction is the frontline battle for so many of us,” said Amy Monticello. David Carlin spoke of writing against the silence surrounding his father’s suicide, and the “unspoken, but completely known” rule which kept his family from talking about it.

I haven’t seen a public discussion of the repercussions of publishing memoir before – and I’m not sure whether it made me feel better or worse about the prospect of publishing my own work about family. The camaraderie in the room was obvious, and I can only hope that this understanding between writers provides support when the reactions of loved ones are less than ideal.

Sue Silverman spoke about the positive feedback she’d received about her books – memoirs of incest and sex addiction – expressing gratitude that she was able to help strangers. “You put your voice out in the world,” she said, “And voices will come back to you.”

The strongest take-away that came from this panel for me is that even though a narrative needs to be rounded off in order to fit between covers and be put out into the world, the stories these writers have shared continue to exist long after we put their books down. Trauma, recovery, ongoing battles – speaking out against shame and silence. These are continuing realities for those who have opened their lives to us through writing.

Sam’s attendance at NonfictioNOW 2015 was kindly supported by the UNESCO Melbourne City of Literature travel fund.

When a Writer is Born Into a Family, the Family is F’d

Melissa Goes to NonfictioNOW

by Melissa Tramuta

I show up with my thermos of coffee and a pen and walk into Humphrey’s conference room. Brian Doyle is speaking. He sounds really excited and I love the way his voice becomes higher and lower as he reads. He says, “Just ask people for their stories!” Then shares some he has collected. He tells a story teaching the importance of boots to a war. He reminds us to consider the cashier closest to the door. I remember being the cashier closest to the door. Consider everyone.

I narrow the 2:45-3:45 slot down to Exploring Women’s Bodies or Writers on Essays that Took Forever to Get Right. Last night before I went to bed I wrote three pages of girlhood musings and sexuality. I started to admit things to myself. I resisted at first. Should you really write this? I thought. Do it. I confident in choosing the panel about exploring women’s bodies. Repeated was something I heard in class a few weeks ago about women: when a pitch or manuscript is rejected, they often give up. That will not happen to me. I also learn that as a woman if I write my body or the bodies of other women, respectively, I might open a floodgate for other women to do the same.

Brian Doyle advises not to be self-absorbed. He didn’t learn until he was 30. I’m 31: go home and highlight all of your narcissistic bullshit that takes away from telling a story. Question: Why did I ever want to write about surviving the desert as a young queer girl? Answer: I couldn’t see myself in any book. Q: Why is this important? A: You know there are still girls/women who do not see themselves in books.

I cried when I first read Maggie Nelson’s The Argonauts. I could not believe she wrote it. As in: I had never seen this story. I knew several people right away I needed to buy it for. I know one person whose life could be saved by this book right now. This book can save a life. I closed my eyes when Nelson spoke. I wanted to understand every word she said. It’s ok that I didn’t. She is highly intelligent and has probably read 4,000 times more books than I have. In many moments it is enough to listen.

When I was in my twenties I met a woman in her thirties that calmed any fear I had of being 30. Tonight Maggie Nelson talked about perspective she has in her forties that she hadn’t had in her thirties. I looked forward to being in my forties. That is to say: I trust the process. Also: eliminate the fear of the crone forever. And the old witch. Do major reconstruction on this female mythology of old.

I have never been to a writer’s conference. My eyes welled up several times today. Some of us have met nothing but pessimism about writing. “What are you going to school for?” “Creative writing.” “What will you do with that?” “…creatively write…” “Yeah, but how will you make money?” I often regurgitate all of the ways writers make money, seldom do any of those ways actually include writing books.

Today was like the first time I went to a gay pride parade in Manhattan, 2001. I had never been around that many queer people. Raised in Arizona, I thought they were like unicorns or rain. I cried all the way to Christopher Street, surrounded by people who would not stop fighting for equality, who refused to be invisible, who were joyful in this pride of being who they were in a world that kept saying, No, no, no. It was all I needed to understand pride.

Today was like that for me as a writer. I thought, there are so many of us and for once I didn’t think of that in a competitive way. As in: the odds weren’t against me, even if they were. I felt a sense of camaraderie. I remembered why I loved correspondence between writers – the magic born of that mutual love of mind. I wanted to make myself useful as a writer – to my peers, my communities, my country, the world. I didn’t want to limit myself by genre. I felt myself grow up a little as a writer.

Melissa Goes to NonfictioNOW

On Failure, or the Essay as Ruin

— by Sam van Zweden

How can the essay come to ruin? How can failed essays become ‘successful’?

This panel, in the first time slot for the conference, brought together Lindsey Drager, Sarah Minor and Kristen Radtke to speak to the topic of ‘On Failure, or the Essay as Ruin’.

In a way, the panel seemed to focus more on the ruin as essay, in a way. The discussion slipped constantly between the ruinous essay and the stories we create around physical ruins, using visual elements to look at the ways essays can reflect the physical ruin. Physical ruins hold fascination for humans – both Minor and Radtke talked about the ways that we use ruins to externalise internal doubt, existential fear, and morbid curiosity. “Some day there will be nothing left that you have touched”, said Kristen. This is terrifying. This is liberating.

The opening paper, from Lindsey Drager, acknowledged from the outset that the essay (both the essay read by Drager, and the essay form overall) will fail. The speakers who followed echoed this idea. Why the ruin?

Ruin is inevitable because language fails. “How to capture and share the lived experience incapable of being languaged?”, asked Drager. Both language and visual elements can “try to do the idea too fully” (Minor). The parallel between the essay and physical ruin lies in the space created by ruin – the opportunity for readers to bring something to the work.

Is decay what essays struggle against? Is the ruin – of landscape, of man-made objects, of essays and language – eternal and unavoidable? By embracing this inevitable failure, are we opening up to possibility and moving past what would possibly be distress? As each speaker touched on the inevitability of ruin and failure, I felt torn between freedom and despair. A ruinous, failed essay could be liberating, if you know from the outset that it is destined to fail. In A Field Guide to Getting Lost, Rebecca Solnit said that “…with ruin a city comes to death, but a generative death like the corpse that feeds flowers”. This seemed to be a sentiment that each of these panel speakers turned towards.

On TripAdvisor, there’s mention of a local Flagstaff site of ruins – something understated, still being excavated, a side-of-the-road open secret. No entry fee. No plaques explaining significance. The reviews are mixed – some people love not being told what to make of these ruins. Others are upset by the lack of guidance. What am I looking at? This is, perhaps, the failure of ruin.

‘On Failure, or the Essay as Ruin’ might view these unmarked ruins as just right – let ruins open up space, and the reader bring along whatever they will.

Sam’s attendance at NonfictioNOW 2015 was kindly supported by the UNESCO Melbourne City of Literature travel fund.

On Failure, or the Essay as Ruin