Tuesday, February 3, 2015

Jo Ann Beard & the Complications of Genre

I admire the sentence that carries its own weight unapologetically. As such, I don’t fully embrace the distinction between non-fiction and fiction, because personal experience is incredibly difficult, maybe impossible, to divorce from. When I heard Jo Ann Beard was visiting, I was excited because her prose and its publication complicate the expectations of genre that I am interested in. When “The Fourth State of Matter” was first published in the New Yorker, it was designated as fiction. Today you can find it in nonfiction anthologies like The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. In 1996, The New Yorker decided that the quality of the prose carried itself beyond the constructed boundary of genre. The piece needed to be read and its context was an afterthought.
The weeklong workshop is a privilege and a wonderful opportunity. The stakes are heightened for all participants, and because we do not have a pre-existing relationship, the workshop itself is fluid, immersive. We focused on reading, reading well, and writing: the act and the craft.
During a Q&A session after her reading, when asked about the extent and content of possible story development, Ms. Beard said, “Anybody who has lived on the planet can imagine deeply anything.” As she continued to discuss the possibilities of a story, she detailed some of her experiences with writing fiction as opposed to non-fiction.
She suggested that fiction, by its very nature, offers more liberty than non-fiction, and that writing fiction allows the author to tell the truth, but does not imply ownership. However, there was the admission that you can’t create, or re-create yourself; that the persona, or character, is a creation outside of the self, although intimately married to that self.
I think it’s an interesting dilemma and will deserve more time to engage—particularly as I move toward my thesis—there is something within the realm of both genres that is appealing. Non-fiction offers itself as unapologetic truth. Fiction doesn’t demand ownership of anything; it allows for the experience to be plainly pictured.
Since I began writing seriously I prized most the experience of the poet. The exploration of craft in poetics engages both the act and the calling as a priori to the beginning of the career. In that way, genre seems to be a highly valuable commodity. I often return to Companion Spider, to read through Clayton Eshleman’s essay titled “Novices.” His calling to the young novice writer, the torch that he offers out to those invested in bearing the burden of craft, is an invitation to a nameless community invested in accepting the burdens of mortality and offering something on paper to a future that will forever outlast the self. For now since it is my choice, I will see it as I want and take on the obligations of genre without bending to its constraints.

Jason Stephens is from Boise, Idaho and he joined the MFA at Florida Atlantic University in the Spring of 2014.

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