Report from the Bedell NonfictioNow Conference, Day 2

Thursday, November 11, 2010

S. L. Wisenberg, codirector of the MA/MFA in creative writing programs, attended the Bedell NonfictioNow conference at the University of Iowa last week. Her most recent book is The Adventures of Cancer Bitch.

Alison Bechdel and the Luck of the Irish

On the second day of Nonfiction Now, graphic memoirist Alison Bechdel, author of  the acclaimed Fun Home and creator of the long-running strip "Dykes to Watch Out For," gave the lunch presentation. It was called Post Hoc Ergo Propter Hoc, the name of her next project, and she worried that the best part of her new project is the title. She also worries because she wants to tell everything at once and hasn’t figured out how. She detailed what she’s called elsewhere “my debilitating self-archiving disorder”—showing photos of her datebook and work log, as well as one of the binders she collects the datebook pages in. We laughed. We laughed because she clearly was self-deprecating in order to get laughs, but mostly in recognition, because most of us go to extremes in one way or another in our actions or in our thinking when we’re working on a new project. We feel as lost as she has and know, as she knows, “that it’s right to be lost when you’re writing,” and we know that talking about it shares the burden but doesn’t make writing easier.


Paging through the schedule of a conference reminds me of freshman year in college, where every course sounds wonderful and you imagine yourself enrolling in all of them. You start out the conference with such good intentions, but then you sleep late or have a headache or get overwhelmed with stimulus and find yourself at the end of a day having gone to just a couple of programs. I managed to spend just a little time in the Irish Perspectives on Creative Nonfiction panel. If truth be told, I just heard Jim Rogers speak. And not even his whole spiel. But he had some very interesting things to say about Angela’s Ashes by Frank McCourt: no one had looked at before what it was like living in a theocracy; the Irish-Catholic ethos had been not to stick your neck out, not to call attention to yourself, and McCourt ruptures that forced silence; McCourt’s work ultimately creates bathos because he takes the nobility of suffering and “turns it into burlesque and farce.”

But what I especially loved hearing about was hardly breaking news: It was about anthropologist Mark Zborowski’s study of ethnic groups and pain. Italians and Jews were both unafraid to emote, but Jewish patients were more prone to worry. WASPs were less emotional; and and Irish-Americans talked about suffering, not the pain. “Their worldview is close to nihilism,” Rogers said.