Category Archives: Creative Non-Fiction

Edmund White 02/01/10

Report by Katie McGinnis:

When contrasted against the commanding power of his work, Edmund White is surprisingly genial in person. Students, faculty and community members were treated to his reading on February 1st in the LBC’s Kendall Cram Room. White read from his famous work City Boy, an autobiographical documentation of the New York gay scene in the 1960s and 70s, and then answered audience questions.

Edmund White has lived an extraordinary life, which needless to say has influenced his writings. Born in Cincinnati, he was raised in Dallas, Texas with virtually no connection to the art scene. He explained that the first published writer he met was in New York when he was thirty, and that before then he had fantastical expectations of writers. He thought them to be sacred, wealthy people who never left their limousines. However, what White proves is that writers are everyday people, with pasts of struggle, hardship, and self-discovery.

Penniless, White moved to Paris, and then to Rome. He returned to America after going broke again by “taking people out to dinner.” After this, he drove a fruit-juice delivery truck to support himself in New York until finding a job with Time Life Books. His first job as a paid writer, he said, was writing three one-thousand page textbooks on history and psychology.

The subject of City Boy is uniquely important to White. He described his first biography, My Lives, as difficult to construct because it required dividing his life into sections and drawing conclusions about choices in his life, which he often found himself unable to make. City Boy is not only an autobiography, but a sketch of a New York that has been forgotten to history. In terms of sexuality, White said, “the 80s were a total step backward.” The freedom allowed during the previous thirty years, when AIDS was nonexistent, religion lax, and society accepting, was gone in a moment.

In the years to come, many of the most outspoken members of the gay scene succumbed to AIDS, allowing a very different crowd—which demanded not just acceptance, but the rights to marriage and adoption—to take the stage. He suggested that the rally we see today for equality of marriage and family is “not always what it used to be like.” City Boy documents this, and also explores the literary fixations of New York in the 60s and 70s – when it was, White says, “a junkyard, with serious artistic aspirations.”

During the Q&A session, the author provided words of wisdom to the new generation of writers sitting before him. He expanded on a statement made during a dinner with students, when he asserted that being a writer means being a failure. White explained that “writing does not fit into normal life” and that one must “make time for it by taking away from other things.” He bravely claimed that when “a writer is born into a family, a family is destroyed.”

White also warned about the uniqueness of our literary generation: more is being produced than is being read. Aside from technological phenomena such as blogs, the tradition of the past—where friends would hurry out to read a book so they could discuss it—has degenerated into our present literary world of numerous genres produced in unreadable amounts. “The world is becoming more fragmented,” White contended, “not specialized.”

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Dan Baum 10/14/09: Finding the Right Word

Report by Betsy Porritt:

Dan Baum cuts an interesting figure in a straw boater, sleeveless shirt and baggy, fuchsia pink trousers.  When he talks, it is with the confidence of a New Yorker reporter with hand gestures to match. He speaks with a warm eloquence and easy precision directly reflected in the clean lines of his prose. It’s easy to see how he gained the trust of the diverse cross section of characters that are presented in his book Nine Lives.  And characters they are, although this is a work of non-fiction. Baum has creatively re-constructed nine narrated lives of pre-Katrina New Orleanians as a way to explore the deeper issues within the heart of a city that is so much more than one awful hurricane.  While the whole world of journalism and storytelling was looking one way and “disappeared down the rabbit-hole” that was Katrina, Baum looked the other and found a wealth of stories itching to be told and begging for representation.  “New Orleans”, he said, discussing the secret to his success in gaining access to so many people’s personal narratives, “is a story-telling place.”

Baum discussed the way he applies fictional narrative techniques – character, structure, dialogue, point of view – to the stories of real people, obtained through interview and observation. He also uses his writers’ skill to adopt the tone and language of his interviewees, bringing us close to their experiences. The book may not always be completely factual – it may even contain a few outright lies – but the truth of the matter remains. This is a book about trauma and recovery: the depiction of Katrina as just another pot hole in the warped and bumpy lives of our protagonists makes this not tale of re-construction but an historical account of a city, filled with more heart than any fictionalized account of heroism could be.

A self-confessed “old journalist”, Baum has found his own way to get to the bones of a character and a story.  Experience has taught him about people and given him the skill of listening to them.  Somewhere along his career (as well as The New Yorker, he has written for Rolling Stone, The Wall Street Journal, and Playboy), any outright ego was knocked out of his writing and he learned how to present the world without infusing it with an overpowering sense of himself.

Maybe this is why he makes such a good journalist and why Nine Lives is such a compelling read.  His characters reflect his interviewing style and are all the more real and rounded for that.  We learn more about Joyce Montana through the way she sees her husband and son than we ever would if she were simply talking about herself.  In his talk last Thursday in Cudd Hall, Baum discussed some tricks of the trade – including fast typing; re-reading Strunk & White’s The Elements of Style; asking off-topic/unexpected questions; and approaching an interview as though it’s a “shrink appointment” to help the interviewee go truly “deep.” But it’s clear that an understanding of people is the real secret ingredient to journalistic success.  Well, maybe that and a flamboyant choice of leg-wear.

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Personal Essay Symposium 10/03/09: Jonathan Ames

Report by Faine Greenwood:

I never thought I would see a man discussing, ahem, evacuating his bowels in the South of France at an officially Tulane sponsored event. Yet I have: I have seen Jonathan Ames.

Ames, a NYC-based personal essayist, novelist, and screenwriter (among other talents) is a bizarre and neurotic presence, the sort of gentleman who fades into the background until he says something entirely outrageous. His simple, casual-sounding writing has the sensibility of an off-kilter and sexually depraved P.G Wodehouse, Bertie Wooster with a scatological sensibility and a delicately concealed transsexual fetish. Yet Ames cedes to moments of haunting, almost delicious sweetness in his prose and in his stories. He has a surprising eye for important detail and for on-point and hilarious dialogue. He shows us things we would never think to look at (or might, in all honesty, want to look at).

His delivery is utterly deadpan and, on stage, Ames personifies the down-trodden “bald and impotent” figure that shambles through so many of his essays. Yet his calm is what kills the audience dead: there’s something about how matter-of-factly he relates his experiences with a Ugandan colonic doctor. He keeps a straight face even when discussing the aforementioned South of France episode, in which he’s totally humiliated. We’re still laughing with him. That’s a knack.

Jonathan Ames is, at the same time, totally depraved and totally charming, a gentleman who has merely lost his way. He was a pleasure to have at Tulane and did not engage in any socially unacceptable behaviors on campus: I think we should invite him back.

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Personal Essay Symposium 10/03/09: Chris Rose

Report by Sarah Manthey:

Chris Rose, local newspaperman turned spokesperson for post-Katrina New Orleans, half-read half-performed works from his book 1 Dead in Attic as the third contributor in the symposium on the personal essay. His book is a compilation of articles he published in The Times Picayune.

Rose began as a social columnist for the paper, but after Hurricane Katrina his column turned into more poignant pieces.  He attributed this transition to the transformation everyone was going through at the time.  For him writing acted as therapy the way that post-Katrina New Orleanians used talking as therapy.  “All anyone wanted to do for the first year after the storm was have someone listen to their story,” said Rose.  “I was able to get up on a soapbox and yell.”

Rose began the reading with a piece entitled “My Introduction to New Orleans” which described how, ironically, a hurricane during Thanksgiving break his sophomore year of college initially pushed him toward the city.  He read other essays such as “The City that Hair Forgot” wherein he links amusing vignettes to a larger message that to experience “a New Orleans moment” is not simply to walk down Bourbon Street but to delve into something much deeper and harder to describe.  The end of his piece begs the question: “Do you know what it means to miss New Orleans?”

In their discussion, Professor T.R. Johnson pointed out how similar his writing is to the way Rose talks.  Rose advised writers to read aloud their material, either to themselves or a friend. Much more than “regular newspaper fodder,” Rose’s column allowed him the opportunity to speak about extremely personal experiences in such a way that everyone could relate.  “I like to call it literature in a hurry,” said Rose.

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Personal Essay Symposium 10/03/09: Phillip Lopate

Report by Faine Greenwood:

Phillip Lopate has been a particular delight for me to discover. I’ve got my reasons: I have often been critiqued in the past for providing too much background information in my essays: it is the fetish of a life-long information whore, the kind of person who enjoys being good at Trivial Pursuit. I admit it all. The advent of the Internet has made back-research entirely too tempting to me. I can Google up a library of Alexandria; every factoid is instantly accessible to me in purest format. And here we have Phillip Lopate, who did this kind of exhaustive research prior to the Internet, who provided back-story and context in a readable and elegant fashion, who nailed it. As Peter Cooley noted, in his introduction at the Symposium, Lopate could write an essay about shoelaces, an essay in which we were given the history and origin of shoelaces, an essay we might actually enjoy.

Lopate’s style is cool and intellectual. His is not the enveloping bear hug of the new-age personal essayist. He is not here to make us feel better about ourselves, or drag us along on his personal spirit-quest (and thank God he does not). Lopate remains at a bit of a scholarly distance, a role he is comfortable with. Mr. Lopate is the shusher in the back of the movie theater, he is the man who spoke out (finally!) against the horrifying rise of joie de vivre. He says what he wants to say, and he does it so smoothly that we do not immediately file him away as a simple rebel.

And there is emotional depth to Lopate, beyond his initial New York City (Brooklyn!) veneer. Lopate worked as a “poet in residence” and teacher at the District 9 middle school in New York City for years, teaching writing and art to a host of not always willing pre-teen kids. The observations and the material he gets out of those years is superb. Look at the brilliant Chekhov With Children from the Getting Personal compilation, in which Lopate audaciously produces and puts on an ennui-sodden Russian play with a bunch of middle schoolers. The miracle? He pulls off the play, and the children personify the characters, envelop themselves in the part. He does not talk down to the kids or assume that they are incapable of doing what they do: so too does he approach his readers. He assumes we will sit beside him for the duration, and listen to what he has to say, because he has invited us in.

That Phillip Lopate is fearsomely intelligent and eternally measured serves him well when he reverses things. The Tulane reading was a case in point. Lopate followed a rather dense essay about his experiences in poetry with an essay discussing (in great detail) the vagaries and insecurities of his sex life. It worked perfectly, in my mind: the fog of scholarly thought the audience had succumbed to subsided, and we were all laughing together over Lopate’s particularly clever turns of phrase. (“Sex is like parenting: someone, somewhere, is doing it better then you.”) Lopate proves that we can have the high and the low together in personal essay, and perhaps emphasizes that we do not even need to make the distinction. Every part of life can be examined and considered, and every bit of it can be made interesting.

Lopate is an impeccable stylist, the man who has defined the personal essay in America. It was very good to meet him: we discussed pierogis briefly, and I mentioned that I agreed entirely with the thesis of Against Joie De Vivre. I wrote him a brief thank-you email that weekend. He replied immediately and graciously: we can’t ask for much more from those who come to Tulane to talk to us. He said in the email that he hoped he’d be invited back. I hope so too.

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Personal Essay Symposium 10/03/09: Meghan Daum

Report by Sara Tobin:

Writer Meghan Daum opened the “Less-Than-Secret Lives” symposium on the personal essay Saturday Oct. 3 with a reading from her most recent work, Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House.  The book is a collection of personal essays that explores the concept of “home” in the many places she has lived, from New York to Omaha to Los Angeles.  Daum is also the author of the essay collection My Misspent Youth and the novel The Quality of Life Report, and her articles and essays have appeared in many publications, including The New Yorker.   She currently lives in Los Angeles and writes a weekly column for the Los Angeles Times.

The selections Daum read from Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House focused on her parents’ background, her childhood home in New Jersey, and her life in New York City as a young adult.  Both Daum and her parents were obsessed with the myth of New York as a place full of bohemians, intellectuals, and artists, which did not reflect much of the reality of the pre-Giuliani and pre-gentrification city in the 1980s.  She manages to get out of suburban New Jersey and become a real New Yorker who loves the city, but the lifestyle leaves her with crushing debt that forces her to eventually leave it.

After the reading, Tulane Creative Writing Professor Paula Morris interviewed Daum about the art of the personal essay and its importance as a branch of literature.  Daum said that the personal essay should reveal everything about the narrator and nothing about the author, and that it should tie into something larger culturally.  She also considers her status as an outsider in the various places she’s lived as important to her work, and said that writers always have to be outsiders to see with “a fresh pair of eyes.”  When asked about the place of the personal essay in the “Age of Over-sharing” with platforms like Facebook and Twitter, Daum said that she found the unfiltered “first thoughts” people express through these mediums are “unproductive and uninteresting.”

My Life Would Be Perfect If I Lived in That House will be released in June 2010, and Daum’s column can be found in the Los Angeles Times every Saturday.

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