Wednesday, November 11, 2015

Dear Governor Ducey: Lichen Lichen Lichen. Letter #64

I promise I will stop talking about the NonfictioNOW one day very soon. But not quite yet. The first night of the conference, Joni Tevis, read from an essay about rafting through the Arctic National Wildlife Refuge. It’s a longish essay about science and magic and how there’s not a hillock available for privacy as Joni and her husband and their guide set up camp in the still-frigid June on the banks of the river in Alaska. Tevis tells us about how the raft got stuck on a rock and threatened to upend their boat and all their gear, and, in that cold of waters, maybe dunk them to death but that she and her husband and their guide used their paddles as winches and levers and cranes to pop themselves off the rock so they could float to their next near-freezing death experience. They ate from cans. They sang Michael Jackson’s “Beat It.” They danced under the Northern Lights.
            Tevis came to a part of the essay and looked up at the audience and said, in her slight southern accent, “I’m going to skip this part.” She chanted “Lichen, lichen, lichen.” as she skipped through the pages. I was glad and sad. As the host, I am grateful to her for keeping the reading short. As a writer, I wanted to know the lichen details.

The next day, at Brian Doyle’s keynote speech at noon, he preached to the audience. He said, every day, you are a witness. You are the listener. If you listen to every detail, you will be a writer. On Friday, during Tim Flannery’s keynote speech, when asked how did he write about something so big as global climate change, he said, he starts with the science, with the observable, with the little details. In his book, the Weathermakers, Flannery writes about global warming. Yes, he says, there may be more rainfall in some places but even if there is more rainfall in more places, it won’t come at the right time or the right season. For example, when it rains instead of snows in Alaska, the rain freezes. Normally, reindeer feed on lichen underneath the snow but the reindeer cannot break through the frozen ice. Their snouts were made for burrowing through snow to reach the lichen. Now, that it rains instead of snows, they starve.

            Later at the conference, I was introducing my co-chair Robin Hemley who would introduce Ander Monson and Michael Martone. I had to fill some empty space as Ander and Robin played with the audio/visual equipment. As a notation for skipping through time, I recalled Joni Tevis’s reading and said, “Lichen, Lichen, Lichen.” But I misunderstood the point of Tevis’s lichen delay. Later, at a panel reading called “Unusual Foods and Edible Guests” Joni Tevis read the lichen part of her Alaska essay. She hadn’t been skipping over the details—she’d been waiting until she could better press them into service.  She read this about lichen,
“So I find myself looking down, at things small enough to focus on, and discover lichen in amazing profusion. While David and Carl read, I go a-hunting for powdered sunshine, rippled rockfrog, and fairy puke. There’s elegant orange lichen splattered across a stone but no frog pelt nor rock tripe, nor pixie cups, a club lichen that looks like minute goblets.”

Dear Governor: Rock frog and Fairy Puke! These are the tiny details we have been waiting for! This is the science. This is the magic and the life.

I get it. You can’t busy yourself with every tiny detail of your constituents’ lives or their jobs. There are too many of us and we are too multiplex and varied. But perhaps, for example, on the one day you visited Puente de Hozho elementary school, you could have let the students who worked hard to prepare for your visit tell you about the bones they learned the names of in Spanish or, if when you visited NAU, you could come into the classroom to see how my students came together to help put the conference together by filming the sessions, writing about the panels, registering guests, and spreading the word about it, and how, in that same classroom, they came back burbling for new ideas for their own essays and how to teach essays, or if you went one day to see how my students sit in the hallway waiting for engineering students to come by to work not only on the mechanics of their papers but on the argument and evidence of those papers—on the details—well, then maybe you would see that what we do is worth the big, abstract idea and would do anything in your power to make sure that those details continue to get done.  

Monday, November 02, 2015

Thank you, NFNOW15. Thank you, Governor Ducey--Letter #63

Dear Governor Ducey,

I mentioned a few months ago when I first started writing you letters that I was hosting the NonfictioNOW conference. This event is meant to bring together 400 writers from across the globe to discuss nonfiction. The panels included topics such as how to write about behemoth subjects (answer, use a form!), the science of cognition, how to talk about bad guys in your work, how to talk about eating bugs in a panel about edible guests, that asked the question is this the golden age of the essay,? panels that discussed poetry and the essay, fiction and the essay, how to turn crime into story, how to make your relatives come alive on the page and then how to deal with them when they find out you’ve made them come alive on the page. Keynote speakers and offsite events plus a game show night filled the program.

In anticipation of the event, my co-event coordinator, Stacy Murison, and I worked hard to make sure things ran smoothly. We raised funds. We organized a book fair. We corresponded with panelists and keynotes. We reserved hotel rooms and the conference center. With the help of our Australian friends, we published the schedule and the program. We ordered spanakopita. We copied maps of Flagstaff. We stuffed Tote bags. We coordinated volunteers to tape the 60 panels and the keynote speeches, to run the volunteer desk, to drive people to and from the airport. We couldn’t have done it without the volunteers.

There was one hard element: the budget. I never had enough money and couldn’t spend above the memo of understanding I made with my provost and dean. I’m not a marketer or an event coordinator, I am not a knower of how to make tote bags or where the closest UPS is or volunteer coordinator, a trade shower, an IT person, an AV person, a flier designer or a spreadsheet maker. But spreadsheet make I did because while some universities offer apparatus for conference hosting, apparently my university does not. Or at least, not to me. There are things I wished we could have done or done differently: hosted more dinners, sponsored scholarships, recorded every single panel session (although, again, the volunteers did so many and so many so well), promoted the event more broadly, supported the book fair participants more solidly, and found someone to make the spreadsheets and the name tags and the lunch lists without me. Someone to coordinate the lunches.

Still, I have to say, even though we had only little administrative support because we have little funding in our department or college for such things, I still have to say, I am grateful to you because you still fund the university, to some degree, which means the university was still able to help host the event. It was a great success. Over 500 people attended the conference. In the hallways, writers discussed how to better incorporate place into their nonfiction. No one was jockeying for position. No one was saying, “Oh, I’d love to chat but I have to go meet my agent for lunch.” People were grateful and glad to be here, in love with Flagstaff and full of joy. I had hoped there would be great collaboration and conversation.  I didn’t know there would be so much joy.

I’m feeling so grateful for all the participants who paid to come and each of the panelists who prepared mind-blowing talks and the book fair tablers who promoted their published writers and looked to publish new ones and to the dean for saying ‘yes’ to this event and the provost for saying ‘yes’ and for my colleagues who supported this event and helped stuff tote bags (thank you, Angie) and ran excellent readings and the Diagram book fair table (thank you, Lawrence and Andie), and spoke brilliantly about the lyric and the essay (thank you, Justin) and chaired and spoke at what I heard was one of the best panels (thank you, Jane) and came to the conference and the recorded so many sessions (thank you, Erin) and who came to town all the way from Oakland to attend the panels (thank you, Ann), and who helped host the first night’s reading (thank you, Allen) and who helped host our guests (thank you, Monica and Jeff) and who helped chair this event (thank you, David and Robin) and who helped make the program and the schedule and gave us guidance from the Melbourne iteration of the event (thank you, Ali) and who helped run the registration table (thank you, my amazing nonfiction students, undergrad and grad both) and to my support staff of one who did so much for this conference, from emailing panelists to gently suggesting panel chairs to send in their revised bios, from thinking about name tag holders to stuffing bags with me, from finding the AV people hiding at the conference center to reading her own work at an offsite reading, she was the instrumental part in making this conference a great one. 

 One thing that money can’t buy is generosity and while I think it would behoove you to support such work and attention and conversation and collaboration, today, I can only say, I am grateful that NAU exists so that this conference could come to Flagstaff and be the thing Jessica Handler said about the conference, “Nicole Walker &co, #nfnow15 topped the conference charts. Thanks to you and so very many friends, colleagues, and fellow writers for making this the way a writers' conference should be. Plus the Grand Canyon.” From Sejal Shah, “Thank you, Nicole, for all you did to make NonfictioNOW 2015 an amazing, inspiring conference! What a gift to the whole CNF community. And from Lynn Kilpatrick, “Now that I am safely home, I can say, without a doubt, that#NonfictioNOW2015 was the BEST CONFERENCE EVER. I met so many new people, got to express my gratitude to people who have helped me, and got to hang out with some of my favorite writers who also happen to be my friends. I also learned that American Airlines is not my favorite. Many thanks to Nicole Walker for making it all happen.” And from Clint Peters, who asks, “What a wondrous experience at the NonfictioNow Conference in the ethereal city of Flagstaff! I'm bowled over by the event, by the many amazing people it drew. Big thanks to the Jedi Master Nicole Walker and our guru Robin Hemley and the everlasting Stacy Murison. Thank you so much Iowa friends for including me: Lucas MannKristen RadtkeAmy ButcherJoshua Wheeler, Kendra GreeneWill JenningsMieke EerkensPatricia Ann FosterInara VerzemnieksLina Maria Ferreira Cabeza-VanegasNed Stuckey-French,John T. PriceSarah VirenCatina BacoteHonor Moore. Thank you amazing, new friends: Erin Stalcup, Kirk Wisland, Joey FranklinAlex MadisonElena CarterAnnie SandHannah DoyleSteven ChurchElena Passarello,Simmons Buntin, and others I've shamefully forgotten. Also, an especially, mega-thanks to my co-panelists, Stephanie Elizondo GriestAngela Davies Pelster-WiebeWendy Call, and Yelizaveta Renfro. We had a kick-ass panel, didn't we? How upon earth can NNow 2017 top this?

I’m going to work on the NFNOW17 conference. It won’t be in the same capacity—much more brain-in, hands off, but in some ways, I will be sad not to host it again here. It was true collaboration between university and town, student and professor, writer and magazine, person and place and I will miss hand-typing every participants name because I can now call each of those 500 people a writer I know. 

Now I'm off to do laundry. And teach.