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A Riff on the [NONFICTIONOW] Writing Conference

By Rosemary Davis

Writing is based on curiosity, not an obsession. Where are you? Come out of your comfort zone. Think honesty instead of truth. Donít write for revenge. Are you reluctant to call attention to yourself? We all live with ambiguity. A place can be exterior (out in the world) or interior (psyche). What is your book about? An unconscious decision is made about voice. Respect the boundaries of other cultures. See place as lover. Forms can be fractured, circled, braided or collaged. Writing is a conversation. Some people name themselves. See and feel simultaneously. Add to this history and perspective. Make an enormous mess. Give yourself permission to do your best work. Present contradiction and complication. Keep writing the story and it will reveal itself to you. In an odyssey you recognize the answer and are always heading towards it. There is a point. You are creating self on the page. How much research should you do? Practice the art of juxtaposition. An essay may be thematically structured. Use sport as a frame and stage. Narrated scholarship equals the subject and narration. Experience and memory grow inside of us. Are you a participant or an observer? Place can be a source and expression, not just a backdrop. What is a pie shake? Find the intersection of food and language. Choose words carefully. Examine oneís motives. Switch point of view if you sense an awkwardness or that something is not available to you. Read Mary McCarthy. Second person is a kind of self talk. It must have meaning. What constitutes literary journalism? Write New Orleans. In third person you can say many things that you would have been embarrassed about. I, I, I, I ... His story alternated with her story. Whatís in your backyard worth digging up? Show the familiar and the strange. Add lyricism. Look for the prairie lights. You are crossing borders. What is the question that you are asking?

With a quest, the journey itself is primary. Many questions form and this is the search for answers. Spirituality can be connected to nonrepeatable experience. Some pieces are defined by tone. I walk; I saw; I thought. It occurred to me. Character may be revealed through action and dialogue. How does your place of origin shape you? Nature informs and infuses. Anticipate the surprise of the unknown. Write backwards, forwards and circle around time. Form can emerge from the subject itself. What would be the New Yorker approach? People think memoirs are about traumatic events. Tension develops between the voices of innocence and experience. Whatís the story behind the story? A character who is a contradiction must have a believable transformation. You can not own someone elseís spirituality. Give something back, donít just take from other countries. It is a question of love. What do you allow yourself to write about? Memory is the important thing. Be thorough with historical research. Make characters real people. Tension and instability move the story forward. Allow for intimacy and eroticism. The natural world helps us to heal. Define personal identity. What are your family secrets? Use a metaphor. Place moves and shapes us. It is a melody driving through our work. You are either a newcomer or a local. Learn the climate and terrain of yourself - the tiniest habits. What is your distraction? A vacuum cleaner? Write what you know and discover what you donít. Shake the reader up. Join with others to form collaborations. Write, write, write. Diverge from predictable paths. Show reverence without betraying a culture. Observe and react. Dissect the past. Examine the Montaignean essay. Make it a personal task to discover more truth. Look for sources containing similar things. Ponder Joan Didion. The reader must know about the struggles, problems, and failures or the victory is hollow. Silent.

Can you present your family fairly? Layer present and past with the sum of the parts. Make the familiar strange. Third person creates distance. Explore and discover your motives. Donít call it an essay. Use future tense. Find humor, plot, or suspense. Whatís your book about in one sentence? Who is it that haunts your prose? Write books about obsessions. There is a self-consciousness of meeting the self so intimately. Try using several different forms. Structure is important. Write a personal element and a question, a so what. Tone and character create place. Analyze global conflicts and wars. Third person is a way to protect, not be self conscious. Write with a lens and an ear for performance-orientated pieces. Find yourself in others. Science is a window to see culture. Present a persona. Create the character from inside out. Travel is a catalyst for possibilities. Contradictory impulses exist. Thatís a true crime. You characterize yourself in reflecting on history. Walt Whitman made books. What do you feel passionate about? Cats? Take an object and write around it. Writing about place reveals character. Study the power of James Baldwin. Narrative has to move and mean at the same time. You can do profiles or group portraits. Go on a spiritual sojourn. Mix forms for added tension. Knowing your questions will help you decide what stays in or out. Place shapes narrative. Be careful not to let the city get all of the attention. Seek emotional, personal, social, and political truth. Consider commentary and criticism. Do not present a relationship which is static. Place whispers. Both narrator and the dead evolve and change. What is the scope of your memoir? Make the strange familiar. Ask your question again and again.


Rosemary Davis lives and writes in a small cottage on Tanners Lake near St. Paul. Recently, she was one of the winners of the Minnesota Literature Councilís fourth annual Essay Contest. The Loft Literary Center in Minneapolis chose her as a poetry participant in their 2004-2005 Mentor Series. Rosemary has completed her MFA coursework at Hamline University and is currently writing a memoir about living in San Francisco during the 70s, as her thesis. She served on the Water~Stone Review editorial board in 2002.