Nonfiction Authors Explore Influence of Personal Experiences in Writing Process

Maggie Nelson (left) and Sarah Manguso (right) after their Scripps Presents talk on April 4. (Courtesy of Jacqueline Legazcue • The Student Life)

Nonfiction writers Maggie Nelson and Sarah Manguso discuss how experience influences their work. (Jacqueline Legazcue • The Student Life)

The Spring Scripps Presents speaker series closed out an impressive season on Tuesday with authors Maggie Nelson and Sarah Manguso discussing their works, methods, and inspirations on the Garrison Theatre stage.

Maggie Nelson is known for transcending the boundaries between cultural theory, autobiography, and poetry in her writing. She is the critically acclaimed author of five books including “Bluets,” “The Red Parts,” and her most recent, “The Argonauts.” A 2016 MacArthur Genius Grant recipient, Nelson’s work is a deeply personal interrogation of identities and narratives that challenge degrees of cultural normativity and linearity.

Sarah Manguso is also known for intervening in taxonomies with her poetically-enriched prose. A 2012 Guggenheim fellow, Manguso has authored seven books, her most recent of which, “300 Arguments,” she discussed at Scripps earlier this semester. Manguso is also the current Mary Routt Chair of Creative Writing at Scripps, where she teaches writing.

At once memoirs and meditations, “The Argonauts” and “300 Arguments” subvert classical literary forms and guide readers through personal memory, cultural criticism, and potent musings on the human condition. Organized into several small compositional units, both works demonstrate the power of each carefully selected word.

“I think Sarah and I share a real delight in the small form but also compositional structures that are more symphonic and discursive, and I think that’s probably a trick that we learned from poetry, where we both started,” Nelson shared. “With shorter forms, you’re really blaring out loud what the compositional elements are, they’re just more obvious.”

Although these authors resist placing their works into categories, both use nonfiction to relate their literary talents to current cultural and political identities. Nelson, in particular, cites gender and queer theory in navigating her readers through her pregnancy and her partner’s gender transition through compelling, nonlinear storytelling.

“What I like about nonfiction,” Nelson said, “is that whatever happens, your job as an artist is to grapple with what happened and make it into art, which is different from making whatever you want happen in fiction. Wherever the chips fall, make art from it. You don’t control it in that way.”

Nelson and Manguso both read from their selected works, inviting the audience into their intimate anecdotes and trains of thought and further reflecting on the process of representation and formulation.

Flora Field SC ‘17 is an English major and a student in Manguso’s creative writing class. She said that she admires both authors’ works and that they have influenced her own writing.

“The style of the conversation really intrigued me, particularly because I knew the two had a relationship prior to the event,” Field wrote in an email to TSL. “I think the audience gains a lot from witnessing a conversation as opposed to a presented talk. In some ways, I think this more organic form seems to replicate a part of what I understand both Maggie and Sarah’s projects to be, which is to write the self in a more comprehensive or integrative way, as opposed to following the linear narrative.”

Nelson and Manguso topped off what has been a stellar cast of speakers on the Scripps Presents 2017 roster. Other literary highlights included the National Book Foundation’s Lisa Lucas and bestselling authors Rachel Kushner, Robin Coste Lewis, Elif Batuman, and Jami Attenberg. Each has enriched the semester with words on the literary form, the power of fiction, and the capacity to ignite empathy through storytelling.

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