BEFORE THE FIREWORKS: A panel discussion on the art of the essay, moderated by Graywolf Press' Fiona McCrae, included Brigid Hughes, Sven Birkerts, Robert Polito and Eula Biss.



Amid the generally genteel mood of the AWP conference, I hadn’t expected to see tempers flare over, of all things, the topic of essay writing. But the most riveting panel I saw during the entire gathering was “The Lyric Essay: A Collapse of Forms or a Form of Collapse?” Presented during the conference’s final time slot, it was fascinating on several levels, not least that it was the most combative discussion I’d witnessed in three days.

Immediately preceding that, I had seen two other enlightening but more mannerly essay-related panels: “The Poetics of the Essay” and “Critical Divide: The Personal Essay and the Critical Essay” (the latter moderated by Graywolf Press director and publisher Fiona McCrae). As an essay writer, I enjoy any discussion of the form, and these two panels delivered.

Who knew that the essay-focused panel immediately afterward, held in a chandelier-bedecked hotel ballroom, would become the site of a heated showdown?

My surprise may have resulted from my own ignorance. I went in, to be honest, without fully comprehending what’s meant by the term “lyric essay.” I thought it referred to sort of arty, poetic nonfiction, filled with colorful imagery.

But I soon learned that “lyric essay” sometimes simply means: one in which the writer can make stuff up.

The five panelists held various views about whether, and to what degree, an essayist may be allowed—even encouraged—to invent or alter facts, whether this development is a legitimate or even inevitable advancement of the art. A lively debate ensued. And by “lively debate” I mean that a number of audience members rose to exclaim their opinions in angry, accusatory, occasionally disdainful and profanity-laced speeches, followed by applause from supporting segments of the audience.

I apologize for not having pen and notebook poised during these diatribes—after three days of listening to courteous, even ingratiating, audience comments I wasn’t fully prepared to record, let alone blog about, the vehemence being hurled. I spent most of the time listening in astonishment, mouth agape and head swiveling.

Inevitably, conversation turned to the writer John D’Agata, who has received attention lately over the recent publication of his hugely controversial book,  “The Lifespan of a Fact.” (This link is to the Star Tribune review.)

The book details a seven-year (!!) back and forth between D’Agata and fact-checker Jim Fingal over D’Agata’s account of the suicide of a 16-year-old boy, Levi Presley, who jumped from a Las Vegas hotel in 2002. The book reveals—and D’Agata freely admits—that he fiddled with facts for artistic effect, to improve things such as the “rhythm” of sentences.

D’Agata is a talented writer and, it seemed, widely respected in that room. Had there been an applause-o-meter handy, I suspect he would have won thundering support.

And I suppose that everyone sets the “what’s OK to fudge” mark in different places on the sliding scale. One panelist said he’s had students refuse to recreate dialogue in a memoir because they hadn’t carried around a tape recorder and “‘didn’t want to put words in their grandmother’s mouth.” That strikes me as excessive caution. When writing an essay, particularly a memoirish one, I have no problem with reconstructing dialogue—or the color of someone’s shirt, or whether it was raining—to the best of one’s memory.

But deliberately manipulating facts surrounding a teenage boy’s death in order to fit the writer’s quirky aesthetic? Here is where I, personally, would draw the line.


Katy Read, enroute to the Palmer House Hotel. Photo by Kathryn Kysar.

Katy Read, enroute to the Palmer House Hotel. Photo by Kathryn Kysar.

My view, like probably everybody’s, is shaped by my background. As a journalist, I stick to facts to the best of my ability and believe the real world contains all the material needed to create art. We could go back and forth, I guess, about whether tweaking facts is fair to the reader, whether fiddling here or there doesn’t just throw a whole essay into doubt. I believe, aesthetically speaking, that facts are beautiful things, and that when you can obtain them—even messy, awkward, inconvenient ones—they make for better, not less, satisfying writing.


But another part of my background comes into play here. I’m the mother of two teenage boys, a 16-year-old and a 17-year-old. And as I listened to the arguments in the Chicago Hilton conference room I couldn’t help thinking about Levi’s Presley’s parents. I imagined those devastated, grieving people, a couple who had set up a website celebrating their boy.

Over my years as a reporter, I have occasionally had to call up parents of children who died, and know that while nobody welcomes that sort of conversation, some parents are genuinely eager to have it anyway, because they have something they want to say for the record. They want to set things straight. Now I considered what it might be like for Levi Presley’s parents to pick up a national magazine and find an account of their son’s death in which some writer had played fast and loose with the facts—a writer who had taken the liberty of messing around with the details of their tragedy, not by mistake, not to protect anyone, but to fit an odd and esoteric vision of his own that, frankly, doesn’t even make sense to many of his fellow writers.

Thinking of this, sitting there in the conference hall, I had to fight back tears.

Katy Read is a writer for the Star Tribune. Her essays have appeared in Salon and Brain, Child, among other places.


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