Bob Shacochis’ Mayborn Conference Presentation

In his presentation at this summer’s conference, Bob Shacochis rejects the practices of confession as catharsis for personal gain and nonfiction done for the sake of shock value. Two members of our tribe, Jayme Rutledge and George Newtown (see his essay), have weighed in on the issue. We want to hear from the rest of our literary tribe. Please read Bob’s speech and and join our pow-wow by offering your thorough and thoughtful response.

Adios,
George Getschow

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The Stench of Self … or not?

I first heard the phrase “the stench of self” attached to memoirs at the Mayborn Nonfiction Writers Conference in 2006. In the ‘08 Mayborn keynote, Bob Shacochis gave his take on the genre, describing it as “thrown face first into other people’s laundry baskets.” Memoir wallows, he said, in adolescent narcissism of the “Oh-my-god-my-life-is-so-messed-up-that’s-what-makes-me-unique” variety.

Shacochis made these assessments only in passing, but the fact that journalists toss off such cavalier disparagements may be even more bothersome than a full frontal attack. Why does an entire genre suffer from the indictment of its worst exemplars—narratives of drugged teeny-throbs, buxom sexpots, father-diddlers, and baby-rapists? The snippy part of me wants to counter, “You’re a journalist, eh?  You must know Stephen Glass.”  But instead I’ll ponder whether memoir deserves to be such an easy target.

What makes a reporter different from a memoirist anyway?
•    There’s the question of sources: Barbara Walters interviews Ferdinand and Imelda; Maxine Hong Kingston interviews her mother and herself.
•    There’s documentation: A memoirist gussies up half-remembered quotes from 30 years ago; a journalist includes a phrase from last week only after consulting an informant, taking meticulous notes, and suffering a fact-checker.
•    There’s location: A journalist surveys Everest trekkers from a 4-mile-high base camp or follows Teddy Roosevelt’s footprints up the Amazon; I, in my cork-lined room, never risk freezing my ass off or wiping it with toxic jungle foliage.
•    There’s sociability: Journalists toss back their Jack Daniel’s in gaggles; we memoirists nurse our toddies alone.
•    There are ethical constraints: Misrepresenting the color of one’s prom dress prompts indulgent smiles; inventing quotes from a public prosecutor gets one fired.

Journalists pride themselves on their standards. A few years back, memoirist Vivian Gornick faced an unanticipated buzz-saw when the public applied reporter’s rules to her work. She’d caused the kafuffle by admitting she consolidated characters and conflated scenes. Why the fuss? she asked; memoir tells truth through accretion, conflation, vignette, and dialogue like the rest of belles lettres. By contrast, reporter Lee Hancock admitted almost apologetically to the Mayborn assembly that she’d transported a Katrina refugee to Baton Rouge. Journalists aren’t supposed to lay down the pen and pick up the hitchhiker; that’s part of their code, the promise never to influence the story. It couldn’t be part of mine. If I weren’t in the middle, doing and feeling, there would be no writing. To a journalist it must seem like I make up the rules as I go along.

Apart from occasional plagiarizing, reporters who stray sacrifice literal truth to vividness. That is, they act like memoirists. The list of journalists cut loose in the past decade for fabricating stories, quotes, or informants includes a who’s who of Pulitzer Prize nominees whose stories gained a following precisely because they were so vivid, so shocking, so personal. They wrote for the most respected publications. Stephen Glass (outed in 1998) wasn’t the first—or last—at The New Republic; Ruth Shalit had preceded him by three years, and Scott Thomas Beauchamp faked his Iraq war diaries less than a decade later.

Other malefactors have included Patricia Smith and Mike Barnicle at The Boston Globe (1998), AP’s Christopher Newton (2002), the trio of Michael Finkel, Jayson Blair, and Rick Bragg at The New York Times (2002-2003), USA Today’s Jack Kelley (2004), Diana Griego Erwin at The Sacramento Bee (2005), and Jay Forman at Slate (finally owning up in 2007 to his 2001 inventions). A few, like Tom Junod at Esquire (2001), managed to ride out the storm; in defending Junod’s fabricated profile of REM singer Michael Stipe, his editor claimed the magazine had a duty “to amuse and entertain our audience.”

The need to entertain is where the rub produces the blister. Bored readers stop buying magazines. One Mayborn speaker after another advised us nonfiction practitioners—if we want to keep readers reading—to perfect the craft of storytelling, of bringing characters to life through scene and dialogue. Readers demand not only colorful detail but a narrative arc—“Stories must have beginnings, middles, and ends.” And as Tim Madigan put it, “There better be a damn good payoff at the end.”

All this is sound advice for reporters intent on selling their wares; dangerous advice, though, when editors—feeling the pressure from publishers committed to the bottom line—fish for more and more vibrancy from rewrite to rewrite. The case of James Frey points up the lure of dollar signs in the la-la land of minimal accountability: following the revelation that Frey had reinvented his life story, readers began to doubt the reliability of memoir, but when sales of A Million Little Pieces ballooned after his dustup with Oprah he could pitch a sequel for a seven-figure contract. I can see why journalists might resent the rules he plays under, but reporters produce stories shading toward license—even if they fall short of lies—for the same reason Frey revises his three hours in a drunk tank into three months behind razor wire. The practice makes for juicier stories. Juice sells.

In A Million Little Pieces, the fuzzy standards of memoir and the economics of the publishing industry met readers’ genre expectations to produce the perfect storm. Frey could fool a fine editor like Nan Talese because the arc in his story, the rise from degradation to authorhood, reaffirmed what her readers wanted to believe in a format they cherished. Resolution into a satisfying arc began with the first memoir, Augustine’s Confessions, in which the saint progressed in hindsight from sin to salvation. On that pattern, Poor Richard, through pluck and good sense, inevitably emerged as Ben Franklin. Rousseau added the fillip of abandoning bastard children on the trail toward becoming an icon of flawed humanity. This genre-roadmap prepared the route for Frey.

The temptation to impose a predictable arc afflicts news reporting too. Before Nick Heil got to work supplying the shadows that enrich Dark Summit, the media had latched onto the easy vilification of Everest tour-outfitter/promoter Russell Brice. Some Antichrist had to be held accountable for “the most shameful act in the history of mountaineering” when 40 climbers trudged past a dying Brit. Brice may have borne some responsibility, but the moral outrage in the media reflected a need for scapegoating among the public that embraced the simple morality tale. In Heil’s subtler reworking, we still find the breath-snatching detail that engages readers—we pass enough grotesquely frozen corpses on our way up and down the mountain—but Heil refuses to supply the expected narrative arc. The climbers had no way, short of calling in a mythical alpine Medivac, to wrestle the stiffening body down the mountainside; nor had they reason to believe its owner would arise to reclaim his flesh if it ever thawed. In Dark Summit, the payoff comes not in a titillating exposure of evil or in the heartening triumph of good, but in bleak truths about the human condition: sometimes, no matter how much we hope for a Disney ending, the transcendent dream gutters out a few hundred yards short of the summit; sometimes we find the sacred dome already pockmarked with urine from alpha tourists; sometimes people just die.

Closure, the reassuring demonstration of cause and effect where we all get what we deserve, shapes stories, not lives—unless we impose the structure on the narratives we construct about ourselves. Lack of closure, however, may be too unsettling for most readers. Memory itself may remodel personal narratives into meaningful arcs so that we can believe we matter in a world that otherwise fails to notice. In the Kiowa folktale that N. Scott Momaday related at the ‘08 Mayborn banquet, Dragonfly believed he could pray the sun out of the ground; with such a worldview, he couldn’t permit himself to oversleep. If we doubted that we could influence the outcome so that the story eventually comes out right, we would have no reason to wake up in the morning. Who would buy books if the stories in them routinely effaced human significance? Principled writers have to hope, as they probe what it means to be human, that readers learn to look for other payoffs.

Reporters and memoirists offer complementary paths toward complex truths.  Brian Sweany urged, “The most important thing is getting inside the head of your interviewee. Let that person tell the story.” The prospect of cold calling would send me to my bed quicker than a migraine, but I can get into my own head, where I can question my informant more ferociously than I could any stranger. David Gregory becomes an emotional predator when he asks the terminally ill Tony Snow, “How does it feel to know your children will grow up without a father?” but I can legitimately pose the question to myself as I receive the inaugural drip-drip of Taxotere in an oncologist’s chair in the company of my 7-year-old son. A reporter could never extract such intimacies from a rape victim without compounding the violation.

Sure, the self stinks—with a sweet over-ripeness that lures me in. Like Montaigne, the first modern reporter to probe his interior for insights into the human macrocosm, I write because the winey scent from the neglected pear orchard in my Indian summer clings to my nose hairs. Curious, I delve into myself—not unlike a reporter following rumors of a gang initiation down murky alleyways. We dig deep and reveal what we uncover not because we respect an external code of ethics but because we promise ourselves to tell the truth. There will always be those who fail to honor their deeper selves and thereby silence their better angels. Some may write memoir; others may be reporters. Maybe by next summer the journalists at the Mayborn Conference will see that, for good or ill, we’re all in this thing together.

George Newtown

(Note: Unless otherwise indicated, all quotations in this piece derive from notes taken at the Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Writers Conference of the Southwest, held in Dallas/Ft. Worth, TX, on July 18-20, 2008.)

Honesty in memoirs or vanity? Shacochis wonders

When journalist and author Bob Shacochis told the Mayborn Conference audience he wanted to talk about the virtues of silence, he admitted the choice was contrary to his own nature.

By his own admission, he can’t shut up.

He began his talk by expressing surprise – the pleasant kind – at finding the literary and journalistic traditions fused at the Mayborn Conference. At best, journalists are scarce at these big writing symposiums, which are usually dominated by novelists and other fiction writers. Coming from Shacochis, this isn’t a good thing. “You can’t find anybody doing literary nonfiction,” he says, “because usually they want to write about themselves.”

Writing about oneself isn’t the problem. According to Shacochis, it becomes a problem when the author falls prey to conceit. “In nonfiction, honesty smacks of vanity to me when it comes nicely decorated with pretty ribbons of self-delusion and denial,” he says. The solution? Turn it into fiction. That way the writer is liberated. Gone is the “damned illusion of honesty in which honesty serves self rather than community.”

Shacochis learned the lesson of silence – knowing what to leave out and inversely, when to speak up – after Harper’s published his personal narrative on trying to have a child in the late 1990s. Shacochis was unprepared for the overwhelmingly vitriolic response to his piece, in which he revealed his wife had an abortion at 16. His own response ranged from anger – “all I want to do is suggest that the letter writer[s] learn to read a goddamned piece of writing before they attack me” – to one tinged with regret at overexposing his family. But Shacochis continues to believe the power of the article would have been diminished had it been transformed into a fictionalized account.

Writing that serves the community and peels away at universal truth is at the center of Shacochis’ argument. He rejects the practices of confession as catharsis for personal gain and nonfiction done for the sake of shock value. Fiction writers are often encouraged to write as if everyone they know is dead, but Shacochis wonders if nonfiction writers should do the exact opposite. He warns, “The fact remains the pen is mightier than the sword and it can just as readily kill or maim. Not just politically, as we know all too well throughout history, but spiritually, emotionally, psychologically. How much pain can you absorb? And then, as a writer, how much pain can you articulate? Or cause?” For Shacochis, it is not a rhetorical question.

He does not shy away from making himself an example. He refuses to write nonfiction about his father, the inspiration for the bad guy in his new novel, the pedophile Stephen Chambers. It is a purely artistic decision. “Fiction understands that the [perpetrator] is often more intriguing, more compelling, more morally complex and conflicted than the victim,” he says. “In nonfiction, we gaze upon the victim and think justice and redemption. In fiction our allegiance often falls on the other side of the divide.”

Honesty can be the Achilles heel of the nonfiction writer. Achieving the perfect balance is an imperfect art. Even after asking the question, “Am I revealing too much?” a writer can never be sure of the community’s response. That is the risk – and perhaps even a part of the thrill – of authorship. As Shacochis wound down the evening, he quoted Martin Luther King, Jr., who said, “A time comes when silence is betrayal.” Shacochis fashioned King’s words into his own creed. “Sometimes there is sin in silence.” He paused briefly to let that sink in. “And sometimes grace.”

Jayme Rutledge, UNT mag prod class

AASFE and The Mayborn

Dear Mayborn Tribe,

Have you heard about the American Association of Sunday and Feature Editors? AASFE is an organization of editors and other journalists from the United States and Canada dedicated to the quality of features and the craft of feature writing in newspapers and online. AASFE supports its membership with an annual conference, which will be held at the swanky Hotel ZaZa in Houston’s Museum District in Houston, TX October 15-18.

AASFE offers inspiring programming: Speakers will include David Maraniss, the Washington Post editor who worked on the Pulitzer Prize-winning Walter Reed investigation; Mimi Swartz, executive editor of Texas Monthly; Constance Hale, director of the Nieman Narrative program; and award-winning novelists Ana Castillo and Chitra Banerjee Divakaruni.

This year AASFE is inviting journalism faculty and students to join at the discounted registration rate of $150 and hotel rooms for $99 a night. AASFE is providing time for students to consult one-on-one with editors. For $75, faculty and students can also attend one day of the conference — either Thursday, Friday, or Saturday’s morning sessions and Saturday afternoon consults with editors.

All faculty and journalism students who attend will also receive a year’s free membership in AASFE.

Go to http://www.aasfehouston.com for more information. Go to http://www.aasfe.org to register.

I plan to attend this conference. Hope to see you there.

Adios,

George Getschow
Writer-in-Residence
The Mayborn Literary Nonfiction Writers Conference of the Southwest

Downsizing & Creativity

Read Paul Meyer’s piece, Two Dallas Morning News Reporters Take ‘A Novel’ Approach to Storytelling.  

There’s much to talk about. During a time of chaos and downsizing in the newspaper industry, two writers for The Dallas Morning News proposed a creative approach to telling the story of a Mexican girl’s shame-filled journey across the Rio Grande into the United States. Paul Meyer, one of the reporters, was told not to expect a favorable response. “My editor, after seeing a draft of the proposal, was willing to lend public support but frankly didn’t think it had much of a chance of getting approved. These were difficult times.” 
 
But as it turned out, the “difficult times” had the opposite effect. “What none of us counted on, however, was that this period of intense newspaper instability, like most great periods of institutional or cultural instability, would also generate a kind of creative energy and hunger. If the industry was failing, and failing fast, why not turn to new forms of storytelling, in print and in Web-based multimedia presentations, to attract new readers and rekindle the loyalty of old ones? 

So let’s hear from you, the honored members of our literary tribe. Is a period of major downsizing in the newspaper industry the time to develop new, more creative forms of nonfiction storytelling? Speak Tribe.

Searching for a mentor

Dear Tribe,

Read Kevin Fedarko’s piece on mentoring at
http://www.themayborn.com/fedarko_1.html.
Did it hit home? Did a mentor play a big role in your writing life?

    George Getschow

    Welcome

    Welcome to MAYBORN’s Ongoing Narratives. Here you can join the Mayborn Writer’s Colony Blog and weigh in on narrative issues and articles.

    MAYBORN is for narrative writers and students in the Southwest, and for those who love to read. It’s a place where the known and the not-yet-known can gather side by side, sharing nonfiction stories – and how they got them.

    We invite you to read and comment on the collection of compelling stories, interviews and narratives in our new MAYBORN magazine. Many of the pieces are written by writers and authors speaking at the Mayborn Conference next month. You can access MAYBORN magazine’s web interface and blog by going to www.theMayborn.com.