Editor’s Note: The original article neglected to include Professor Maria Vesperi’s contribution to the panel. We regret the omission.
By Liz Lebron
Long before humans invented the written word, they recognized the importance of stories. Griots across Western Africa passed on the family histories and communal songs that held communities together, and bards recited epic tales of their patrons’ good deeds.
“If you wanted to know something about times before you were alive or aware,” said Eric Deggans, NPR’s first full-time television critic, “you’d go to the griot, and the griot would have a poem, or song, or story to tell you that would encapsulate the history of your family, or the history of your tribe. In a weird way that’s what we do now as journalists.”
Deggans was speaking to students, faculty, and staff who joined him, Memoirist Margo Hammond and author Sarah Gerard for a narrative, nonfiction storytelling workshop. Professor of Anthropology Maria Vesperi organized the panel, which was part of New College: Connecting the Arts and Humanities on Florida’s Creative Coast, a program funded by a five-year $750,000 grant from the Andrew W. Mellon Foundation.
Vesperi, whose career includes work as a reporter for the Tampa Bay Times, led the trio in a discussion of nonfiction writing as narrative storytelling through her experience as both a reporter and cultural anthropologist.
“You have to have a balance between the ‘you’ and the ‘I,’ and the outside world,” said Vesperi. “In my field, the issue was, since you are your instrument, your research instrument, and because anthropologists do participate in observation, what is important is to make sure the reader knows you are. Who’s seeing this? Who’s saying this?”
Hammond encouraged those in attendance to focus on the links between fiction and nonfiction writing, which she listed as being tightly written, told within a unique atmosphere, and writing that grabs readers right from the start.
“I would concentrate on two words: narrative storytelling,” stressed Hammond, “which to me is an account of connected events.”
Shared events, however, are not the same as shared memories. Hammond warned attendees that lying is never acceptable as a memoirist, but she conceded that what is real and what is true are not always the same. Your memory of an event is your truth, she counseled, even if it is not real.
Telling her truth was a matter of survival for Gerard, author of Sunshine State and Binary Star. Gerard initially gravitated toward fiction because she was too ashamed to write about her struggles with anorexia. Her shame was so acute, it led her into a lethal silence that she described as “a slow suicide.”
“Writing leads you deeper into yourself while also leading you out into the world,”proclaimed Gerard. “Sharing myself with the world reaffirmed my right to live.”
Deggans shared a similar view of writing with the audience. “It is important for me to reveal myself through my work,” he declared, “and to be fearless about that.”
While the panel agreed authenticity plays a central role in nonfiction narratives, Hammond cautioned against revealing too much at the writer’s expense.
“Tell your story,” said Margo, “but be conscious of the fact that not everything needs to be told. What is important is to make sure the audience knows who you are.”
Gerard will continue sharing her experiences with students and helping them find their voices during the spring semester. She is a writer-in-residence at New College for the 2018-2019 academic year.
— Liz Lebron is associate director of communications and marketing at New College of Florida.