I'm gonna be posting a handful recaps from day 1 of the Wordstock literary festival, which continues today at the Oregon Convention Center. I know, these are a day late. SORRY. Do you want a recap or not.
The first panel of the day for me was the cloyingly titled “My Censor, My Self,” featuring Lidia Yuknavitch, Kerry Cohen, and Lynn Connor, and moderated with unusual competence by Write Around Portland co-founder Ben Moorad. (My notes regarding Moorad read: Moderator is actually listening! <3 <3 )
These three authors were asked to address how self-censorship has affected or shaped their work. It became clear almost immediately that this panel wasn’t particularly well conceived: It should’ve been a memoir panel, and someone like Kevin Sampsell or Steve Almond would’ve been a better fit than Connor, who was a very good sport but whose body of work—nonfiction children’s books—didn’t lend itself particularly well to the subject at hand, and who mostly sat quietly while Cohen and Yuknavitch talked. Those two, however, found compelling points of intersection between their bodies of work: Yuknavitch's recent memoir The Chronology of Water, and Cohen's Loose Girl: A Memoir of Promiscuity, Dirty Little Secrets: Breaking the Silence on Teenage Girls and Promiscuity, and Seeing Ezra, a memoir about raising a son who has autism.
This panel also featured the first of many rambling, unfocused audiences questions. (Someone should start a Tumblr.) Actually, this one began, "I have more of a comment than a question..." at which point I considered throwing my shoe. Great panel overall, however—Cohen and Yuknavitch both write revealingly about their own lives, but they take very different approaches to doing so, and this respectful tension made for a compelling discussion. It was the type of panel that frequently caused the audience to go "Hmmmh"—you know, that little "I've just been enlightened" noise that also makes me want to throw a shoe. A full panel recap after the jump!
(These are rough transcripts—I'll put direct quotes in quotation marks, but assume everything else is paraphrased.)
I missed Ben Moorad's opening question, but it had to do with how self-censorship has been an issue in their work.
Lidia Yuknavitch: There are so many ways to define what we mean when we say "censorship"… there’s the stuff you’re “afraid to go down and get" and then there’s if you let the audience in to your process as you’re writing, if you think of things they wouldn’t want you to say. And then there are writers, editors, agents, the things they wouldn’t want you to say. “If you let any of that get too much into your head, you’re screwed.” "The stuff I’m most afraid of is shame. As writers, if we don’t keep writing through fear and shame in our own processes, then a bunch of other people out there in the room, the readership, will go uncounted."
Q: Does the idea of writing on behalf of others help you through the shame?
LY: "Yeah. Mercifully when you get to the end of the story, and you’re standing there alone with yourself, there are others."
Lynn Connor recounts some advice she received from a friend: “Your job is to write. Let others criticize and censor. You're a writer.” She goes on to describe how when writing a children's book based on an old Chinese poem, she omitted two lines that were about drunkeness, deeming them inappropriate for children.
Q: What was lost by removing those lines?
LC: "I was attached to them, but I don’ think I in terms of the reader much was lost."
Kerry Cohen says there are a lot of areas where self-censorship is a potential issue in her work. She describes a "cultural silence" around teenage girls & sex: "No one wants to admit that these things happen or are true or that there are sexual feelings among teenaged girls." It’s equally a question of “is there even language for this?” In terms of her most recent book, a memoir about having an autistic son, there's "hugely the fear as his mother of what am I going to admit, what is he going to potentially read.” She cops to concerns about him, about being a bad mother, about “using what has happened between us to benefit myself.” But, she says, "the reason we push past all that is so much about our readers." She thinks of herself as “the writer who writes things that most people feel but don’t want to admit.” And she gets lots of thanks for that.
Q: What about the idea that when we write about ourselves we’re also writing about other people… how to navigate that, find the right balance?
KC: "First of all, something that I have believed before I was even a writer is that truth is the most important thing. Even if I say some truth that is ugly about someone I love,” perhaps something about the ugliness will be beautiful or redeeming. Regarding her memoir about her son: "I want him to know the truth. If he reads it as an adult or his brother reads it as an adult, I want to be authentic for my children. Or if they read my other memoir about their mother's sex life as an adolescent or young woman, I feel like that could also benefit them… to know what it's like to be a girl in this world."
LC: Talks about the notion of truth as a creative nonfiction writer and children's author: "How do you give an honest picture of a person in a time” when other times were defined by prejudices that ours doesn't necessarily share.
LY: "All I have to add is that when I hear the word 'truth' get itchy and sweaty.” I believe in the duty a writer has to truth and beauty and authenticness in one's own story, but I can no longer look at the word truth with a capital T... [there are a plurality of truths] and all I can do is tell my tiny part of the truth." She says “anyone who has a sibling” need look no farther to see the multiple-truths theory in action. "If you come from an abusive family like I did there are many different versions of truth… Part of my job was to write underneath the truths that had been presented to the world, to excavate the smaller truths underneath the large truth."
Q: Asks Kerry Cohen if her gauge in writing memoir is "It's true because I believe it's true."
KC: "Yes. It’s good to research and ask other people but… memoir is different than journalism. Memoirists are kind of bad people, to some extent. You have to move into this idea that not everyone's gonna like what you're gonna say. Some people are gonna think you’re an ass. You have to embrace it maybe in the same way that a corporate lawyer does… It’s our job." She cites an Alison Bechdel quote about memoirists being bad people [I can't find it—anyone?]. But says: T"here are ways to protect the dignity of people you're writing about." Good writing requires compassion, she points out.
Q: You've talked about writing under or through shame, how that can help your writing. Are there other things around wrestling with the limits of self censorship & disclosure that you’ve learned how to use?
LY: "As a woman writer trying to sell a memoir, I wanted to call it a 'body story.' I didn’t want to call it a memoir because that has the word ‘me’ in it." [ed: Somehow when Lidia Yuknavitch makes statements like that, it's completely forgivable.] "…but body story wasn’t marketable." She describes running into three roadblocks when trying to sell her book: That it was explicitly about sex, sexuality, and the violence of drug and alcohol abuse. "The larger publishers and more esteemed agents and houses liked my book and told me, they would take my book if I took three things out of it. Or at least change it, don’t write it like you write it, audiences won’t buy it. One of the reasons I ended up landing at an independent house is that Ronda Hughes at Hawthorne Books said, 'this is the only way you could tell this story.' It’s a body story. It’s a woman telling the truth about her body. Without leaving the sex and sexuality out. And I’m saying sex and sexuality separately, you've probably noticed": Sex is individual experiences, but "a woman’s sexuality is in every moment of her life, only our markets in America don’t like you tell that story. I’m gonna be 50 and I’m not supposed to tell you about the sex and sexuality I’m experiencing, because it’s not pleasant from a woman writer, [readers will say] 'ew.' And Ronda Hughes is a secular angel."
KC: "Lidia Yuknavitch, ladies and gentleman." [Cohen was very open about her admiration for Yuknavitch during this panel.] "As someone who wrote about sex and sexuality, and a little bit about drugs and what they do to your body, and did do it in the more mainstream way—it’s very true that that out in the publishing world, this whole notion of selling... I’m going to tell you now what that means. It means 'Does the narrative do what we expect it to do every time we read things, so we can feel safe'" in our expectation that things will turn out OK. For a story, the basic narrative is a hero’s story, a redemption story. "I did write a hero’s story which is how I was able to sell it in New York. But those narratives aren’t always true, especially in terms of women and sexuality." This narrative promotes the idea that "we can do these things and come back from them and we’ll be OK. And of course lots of people won't be OK." But there are are ways to play with those narratives and try to get more at what’s true. She talks about how you always hear about the writers who, after years of rejection, finally get their books published. "We don’t hear stories of writers who get rejected, get rejected, get rejected, and then die."
Q: Are there things you can’t write in nonfiction and can in fiction or vice versa?
KC: Talks about how with her memoir-writing students, one of their main censors is “what if daddy reads this" or "'what if my sister reads this.' And that keeps them from writing. I find this fascinating, because of course, it doesn’t matter unless you write the thing. You can have expectations of how people will respond but what you find if you go this route is people you never expected to be mad are mad, people you expected to be mad are proud and happy and will promote your book even though they come off like assholes in it. What it taught me, what I have to be reminded over and over, is you have no control over other peoples' feelings. You can’t know them, you can’t control them, you can’t own them, it has nothing to do with you." PLUS "there are lawyers in new york." Lawyers vet the manuscripts. Even in that 11th hour, the cenors, the lawyers come.
Q: Asks Lidia if she has different censors for fiction and nonfiction.
LY: "Poetics and fiction from my point of view can get a writer closer to truths than nonfiction. This gets me into lots of debates over whiskey at night with other writers...." But "most profound truths for me" come from painting, poetry, music." Abstract forms have more emotional impact: "Nonfiction gets so explainy that while it is closer to a literal truth in its expression, it isn’t closer to a soul truth for me." "Another form of censorship is how we’re allowed to use language. If you're writing memoir there better not be any poetics in it. if you’re writing nonfiction you better not put any fiction in it." These constraints are market driven constraints. Of the mingling of memoir and poetics in her memoir: "If they only read 4 pages I look like a novice bobo. If they read 60 they would see that I did it very deliberately and was letting the language go funny around intense physical experiences." "I hope everyone when you get home and you're setting at your desk writing naked — right? that's how you do it? — I hope you’ll try this experiment, instead of sitting down and saying 'I will try to write this kind of story,' say, 'I will let the language lead me.' But you have to be naked or it doesn’t work."
Now Moorad opens the floor for questions, saying "if you have a question I encourage you to get to the question mark as soon as possible." Once again: <3
An audience member asks how she should deal with family members when gathering information for a memoir. Should she tell them why she's interviewing them?
KC: "Never tell them you're writing a memoir. They have to be shocked later when you pull out the [advance readers' copy]. If you tell them you might have some of those censors come in." She goes on to question the necessity of research, and recommends David Shields' Reality Hunger. "Don’t worry about all this crazy stuff that happened, James Frey, ugh. Just don’t worry about it—write what you want to write."
LY: If you’re worried about hurting people with the art you make, try to put it in a larger context than just those people… Life hurts. You’re making art. It isn't such a narrow question as we tend to make it. "You’re participating in artistic production… you’re in a bigger realm than 'is my dad gonna be mad?'" Their whole lives are gonna have hard things in them. "Your story will not be the hardest thing in anyone’s life." Also you could wait for them to die, like I did.
Q: how do you deal with negative feedback…
KC: "I’ve had a TON of negative feedback. There was a local magazine I won’t mention the name of, and this guy wrote this long [holds hands apart] about why he would not review my book." [ed: This one maybe? I feel gross even linking to that.] "I’ve had lots and lots of anger at my work." Even before the book came out, when just doing interviews for it, people were furious. She soon realized that it has nothing to do with her, she’s obviously triggering something—once that was understood it was easier. “It’s different when they attack the writing, that would be more upsetting to me.” But usually it’s the material that triggers people.
LY:"We all face a similar threshold sitting down facing the white page… the way past any of these censors we’ve talked about it is to get back to the joy, the passion, the rhythm. That’s what matters." That is the liberation, the resistance against all these pressures or censors or bad dads or whatever, to get into the pleasures of the word, the image. "The only relationship that matters is between you and language. I hope we go away thinking about that instead of all the things that stop us."