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.