The RMIT building in Melbourne is topped by an architectural flight of fancy that resembles a giant green brain. By the end of the Nonfictionow Conference held there last November, that brain must have been pumping. Abuzz with the collective creative passion of 400 plus delegates, some 180 panellists and keynote speakers, it was a forum that challenged, provoked and inspired.
Transplanted for the first time from its home in the US, the conference is the brainchild of Robin Hemley, Director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at Iowa University, home of the illustrious Iowa Writers Conference. A biennial event begun in 2005, Hemley describes it as “a kind of party as much as a literary gathering”.
It was a coming together of nonfiction practitioners, students and teachers, where hard-earned wisdom blended with fresh ideas and adventurous innovation to look not just at where we are now with nonfiction, but where we’re going. And from what I heard, it looks like being one hell of a ride.
According to David Shields, the opening speaker, the future requires not just jettisoning the baby with the bathwater, but reinventing the bath. Introduced by Robin Hemley as a writer with “a virtuoso ability to grab text where he finds it”, he is the enfant terrible of the US nonfiction scene, his recent bestseller “Reality Hunger: A Manifesto” having been named one of the best books of the year. The book is a collection of around 600 numbered collages of his own words mixed with quotes from other sources, none of which are traditionally acknowledged.
We live, Shields says, in an “attention deficit disordered society” which has alienated us from reality and rendered the traditional novel obsolete. What we need now, he says, is work that breaks the form, occupies a “bleeding edge between genres”, constructs an invisible membrane between life and art and shows us how to endure existence, rather than escape it.
For him, it’s about grabbing life as it comes at us, “in bright shards”. His discovery of the power of collage, which he said came to him as an epiphany in the shower, gave him a way to write that seemed truer than fiction. Describing himself as an “old existentialist dressed up in digital culture’s new clothes”, his style isn’t one for the faint hearted and some may wish he’d stuck to singing in the shower. However, he set a cracking pace for the rest of the day.
Helen Garner, the only Australian keynote speaker, was less confrontational but even more inspiring. Existential angst of the Shields variety doesn’t worry her. Typical of her unique down to earth candour, she confessed that tending her suburban garden and managing her grandchild gives her all the reality she needs. When invited to be Australia’s standard bearer at the conference, Garner initially demurred, saying she had no grand original thoughts to expound. She doesn’t need to. Her work speaks for itself.
That it also speaks too stridently for her has generated plenty of controversy, with claims that her fiction is “diaries with the names changed” and her nonfiction is factually skewed by personal bias. She admits she can’t write without putting herself in the story, especially the “searching, doggedly curious part of me”. The penetrating powers of observation she brings to her subjects are honed even more incisively when she aims them at herself. Despite her stellar career, she has no illusions about herself as a writer. It was heartening to hear that even for her, starting a new book is like “dragging black shaggy ropes of seaweed out of my gut”, that she sits at her desk with no sense of “accumulated competence” and must “start again from scratch every single time”. Far from quibbling about the category resistant nature of her writing, we can only hope that she keeps on unearthing that brilliant seaweed.
Panels over the three days covered a multitude of forms and subjects, from the ethics of disclosure to the aesthetics of memoir. Cheryl Strayed, author of “Wild”, discovered in its creation that courage comes “from going to the dark places”, Anne Manne described nonfiction as “one human heart talking to another” and Judith Armstrong confessed her biggest challenge in writing her biography of Tolstoy’s wife was defining its genre. My only regret was not being able to attend everything.
Nonfiction has sometimes been seen as the refuge of writers who lack the imagination to create fiction. If you could distil one message from NFN2012 it would have to be, that’s never been less the case than now.
Robin Hemley calls his conception “a conversation between writers, students and teachers”. Underneath the green brain last November that conversation never flagged. Like the best of nonfiction writing, it awakened the imagination and fuelled an obsession to know more. Far from being fiction’s drab relative, it convinced me that nonfiction is a kaleidoscope of creative opportunities.