Rebecca McClanahan began our nonfiction workshop at Kenyon College each morning last week by reciting to us a poem from memory. This was impressive and inspiring. To say the least, it set a tone around yea olde oaken table.
One thing a genius does is to offer us art that’s made, in part, from our own cast-off thoughts. Or from showcasing our better impulses, often youthful, which she’s never stopped acting upon. Like memorizing poetry. I’m not smart enough myself to call Rebecca a genius. But I do know one thing. Hers is the finest literary mind I’ve ever dwelt steadily in the presence of.
(How I wished I might have run my memoir manuscript through that sensibility.)
The author of nine books, a writer of poetry, nonfiction, and fiction, Rebecca led nine of us in a seminar in Literary Nonfiction, a moniker she preferred over the more commonly used Creative Nonfiction because “creative” brings up that ugly specter of truth vs. lies and bogs everyone down in what the morass means.
This can be a messy genre, nonfiction. Itself hard to define. But so fertile and varied and forgiving—part of Rebecca’s message all week. She loved Nemerov’s line about form saving the writer from his own stupidity, mentioning it more than once in the course of our exhilarating week with her. One of her own sayings also pointed to the writer’s imperative to transcend, with form, mere lived experience:
“You cannot start a fire with one stick. You need two things for the text to move forward.”
The challenging and transformative aspect of the conference at Kenyon is that it’s generative. You don’t send ahead a manuscript or bring one with you. You create new work right there, from prompts given in the workshops themselves. You share it with your classmates, and at some point you read your best piece to everyone