A creative approach to writing on campus

Creative nonfiction authors take ‘Berg

“I hate writing,” Tessa Fontaine proclaimed to a room full of aspiring and professional penmans. Discussing the struggles of writer’s block, she made it known that there never exists a good time to write. “If I waited for that block to dissipate, I’d never write anything.”

Fontaine, Mitchell S. Jackson and Nadia Owusu were the featured writers at this semester’s “Writers at Muhlenberg” event. 

“The Creative Writing Program has these three-day conferences and Writers’ Residency every year (except when we host our Living Writers series),” said Professor Linda Miller, who is the director of the Creative Writing program.

In the past, Muhlenberg has hosted a Poetry Conference and a Fiction Conference.

“It was time to focus on the genre of nonfiction,” said Miller. 

This conference and writers’ residency consisted of two main events: a panel discussion on Feb. 5 and a reading and book signing on Feb. 6. 

The topic of the panel was “The Reimagined Self,” moderated by Professor Linda Miller. The writers discussed what their “I”s mean — that is, when they write first person accounts, is the narrator really them or simply a sought-after version of themselves?

“We think in stories.”

“My ‘I’ is me on steroids,” said Jackson. “The further I revise, the more I become a character.” 

Afterall, many would agree that the key of writing is found in rewriting. 

“My father taught me to revise. My father taught me writing,” said Owusu. 

Owusu talked about her unique upbringing, having never lived in one place for longer than four years. She lived in Rome, Addis Ababa, Kampala, Dar es Salaam, Kumasi and London, all before coming to the United States at 18 years old. Often feeling like she did not have a home, her “reimagined world” inspired her writing.

“I reimagined what it means to belong,” said Owusu. 

The panel agreed that writers should allow themselves to “reimagine” their memories.

“We think in stories,” said Fontaine. Taking a “sideways slide into memory” allows writers to focus on one moment or one object to “build a story.” 

“The most memorable part of the panel for me was when persona versus identity was discussed,” said Sofia Barone ‘22. “I think the way we identify ourselves and our narrative style in writing is so important because it’s what makes us unique and fosters our creativity.”

Jackson emphasized the importance of persona when identity becomes just too real. 

“Identity becomes narrow,” he said. “Realness restricts your identity.” Thus, turn to persona, turn to the “character.” 

“I think the way we identify ourselves and our narrative style in writing is so important because it’s what makes us unique and fosters our creativity.”

“I personally found Mitchell Jackson’s account the most interesting because he was a formerly incarcerated person,” said Becca Baitel ‘23. “That’s not a perspective that you can encounter every day. It was very cool especially when he was talking about how he wrote about his family, and he didn’t want his readers to know whose story correlated with whose. He wanted to leave it up for interpretation.”

Jackson did not speak much about his time behind bars, but as Baitel is referencing, he did discuss his atypical family life at the second night’s reading. 

“The most memorable part of the conference was definitely the reading,” said Elizabeth Mahony ‘23. 

Jackson explained that the cover of his book Survival Math is a collection of photos of men in his family. Each essay inside tells the story of one man, but the reader does not know which story belongs to which face. This was done to eliminate stereotyping and keep the truth a mystery. 

Jackson read an essay about his mother walking in on his father with another woman, Fontaine read an essay about her mother’s declining health and Owusu read about her stepmother lying to her about how her father passed. Needless to say, you could hear a pin drop during these readings.

“A question I would have, that is definitely more of an intimate one, is how they address the hardships in their life,” said Barone. “To have to reinterpret and reimagine memories can be difficult, and I wonder if there is a process each respective author takes in order to feel more in tune with their memories and voice when they write about the adversity they faced.”

As Jackson said, sometimes your identity can become too real. But there’s never a good time to get writing. 

Fontaine suggested that the young writers in the audience enter contests with a “soon deadline” to force themselves to get something down on the page. Better yet, she suggested contests that you need to pay $5 to enter, because if you don’t finish, well, then “you’re burning $5.” 

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