By Amy Lutz, MCWC Editorial Assistant
General registration for MCWC 2018 is now open! Don’t wait to grab your seat because all workshops and consultations are first-come, first-served. Explore mcwc.org to learn more about the workshops and afternoon seminars offered at MCWC 2018.
When you register, sign up for the Saturday night closing dinner to hear our 2018 keynote address from Elizabeth Rosner. Seats at this event are first-come, first-served as well.
Elizabeth is a bestselling novelist, poet, and essayist. Her debut novel, The Speed of Light, was translated into nine languages and short-listed for the prestigious Prix Femina. Blue Nude, Elizabeth’s second novel, was selected as one of the best books of 2006 by the San Francisco Chronicle. Her third novel, Electric City, was named one of the best books of 2014 by NPR. A poetry collection, Gravity, was published in the same year. Elizabeth’s first book of non-fiction, Survivor Café: the Legacy of Trauma and the Labyrinth of Memory, was published in September 2017 and has been featured on National Public Radio and in the New York Times.
Here’s a taste of the insight and passion she will bring to her keynote address:
In an interview with Late Night Library, you mentioned writing as a form of personal transformation. How have you seen the transformative power of writing across all three genres—novel, poetry, and non-fiction—that you have published in? Was there a progression that led from your publishing novels to poetry, and now non-fiction?
I can say in all humility that the gifts of the writing process continue to evolve for me. Sometimes I am clearly aware of what has transformed in my life, inner and outer, while at other times the changes are much more subtle (but no less profound). In writing novels, I’ve often experienced a sense of simultaneously delving into my own memories of people, places, and events, alongside deliberate questions like: “Who might I have been if I’d been born in a different decade or to different parents?” or “What if this had happened instead of that?” or “What if I combined these three real people into one?” or “What have I always wanted to learn about this place and its secrets?” Fiction allows me to become a kind of special investigator, and I get to indulge the part of myself that is insatiably curious, and to challenge the part of myself that can be dissatisfied with how things supposedly are. In poetry, I get to be transfixed by the sound of words, by the images that come to me unbidden, and by my wrestling match with lines and negative space. When I began writing poems, I felt a bit fraudulent, because I didn’t quite know what I was doing, but ironically perhaps I also came to trust that poetry gave me extra permission to be honest. I let go of some of my ambition, and paid much more attention to the process rather than the outcome. That was a crucial developmental moment for me as a writer. Most recently, writing a book of nonfiction has changed me in ways I haven’t quite assimilated fully yet. Maybe the most significant thing is that I’ve relaxed into a new form of confidence—at least in the sense that I feel a depth of self-recognition in my work, a quality of speaking in my own voice and from my truest source.
The themes of trauma and your experiences as the daughter of two Holocaust survivors are present throughout much of your writing. What appealed to you about looking at the same themes through different writing genres?
On the one hand, I’m astonished that the themes of my family legacy are so persistent in my writing, and yet, on the other hand I think: Why not? I came to a point in my life as writer where I simply had to make peace with the material that was “given” to me. My movement from one genre to another wasn’t to try to escape the subject matter so much as it was a following of some inner impulse to explore again from another angle. I happen to believe that form follows content—as in, the material tells us what it wants to be. So there were plenty of times where I had to wait a while to understand what genre I was going to end up with. In my most recent book, and in my poetry collection too, I was quite consciously combining forms and creating what many people are now calling “hybrid” forms. Coming back somewhat repeatedly to similar themes doesn’t feel repetitive if it’s a practice of looking at something through a kaleidoscope. The view is different each time.
In your latest book, Survivor Café, you broaden the discussion of inter-generational trauma and the lasting results of war atrocities to a wide range of recent historical events. How do you feel the message of your book is compelling and relevant today? Why did you decide to write Survivor Café?
Broadening the discussion is, for me, absolutely essential if we have any hope of learning from history and finding ways not to keep perpetrating the same horrors over and over. In the present moment, we are all bearing witness to unmistakable evidence of unresolved historical trauma. What I feel compelled to do is to bring my own awareness into a public conversation, to take what I’ve been studying all my life (both personally and professionally) and to share it with as wide an audience as I possibly can. I wrote this book with urgency because of the soon-to-be-gone voices of Holocaust survivors and others who endured some of the worst atrocities of the 20th century; I wrote this book to promise that these voices would not be forgotten; I wrote this book to inspire empathy across the boundaries of time and place; I wrote this book as a plea for individual and collective responsibility and awakening; I wrote this book to help illuminate the intricate and strange interconnections we share as human beings; I wrote this book while feeling filled with despair and with hope, in almost equal measure. War and genocide and historical trauma must continue to be examined alongside our vast potential for resilience and creativity and compassion and healing.
In the interview on your website, you admit, “I am quite possibly the least organized novelist in the known world.” Were you more organized as a non-fiction writer? Survivor Café has a rich mix of personal experience and research. How did you organize so many different pieces?
I must confess that I now feel as though I qualify for an award for least organized non-fiction writer too. Seriously. The main difference in this case was that I did have a working outline in the form of a sketched-out table of contents—but this was a very slender skeleton upon which to rely. My structural decisions often come to me after I’m well into the accumulation of my material, and this was true for Survivor Café as much as it was true for my novels. It seems that I am compelled to write in fragments, and they pile up (as well as scatter). Eventually I can’t tolerate the chaos any longer, and I begin to gather pieces into categories, which may or may not become chapters. It’s not a method I recommend, because it can be so alarming to be immersed in such confusion and uncertainty. But I also understand that the opposite of this—adhering to a rigid plan, for instance—would never work for me. My ideas take shape as I write; voice and intersections and images all lead me toward something I can’t quite know in advance. Even the research for Survivor Café, which was exhausting on many levels, couldn’t quite be contained by a strategy. Sometimes I imagine hiring an assistant to help me organize my work, but I can’t even imagine getting organized enough to tell an assistant what to do!
Your first novel, The Speed of Light, was translated into nine languages, was a finalist for the Prix Femina and won the Prix France Bleu Gironde. Did your success overseas surprise you? What about your work, do you think, appeals across borders?
Thanks to my brilliant editor Dan Smetanka, who purchased my first novel for Ballantine Books (Random House), foreign rights were indeed sold to nine countries, with Germany being the first. It was beyond thrilling to discover that my words would be translated into languages I didn’t know (that is, almost all of them), and a bit strange to know that readers would hold books in their hands that had my name on the cover but with different titles and images (foreign titles are often quite unlike the original titles—something I was shocked to learn). The truth is, though, I often felt, growing up, that I wasn’t exactly American; instead I felt more strongly connected to the European birthplaces of my parents and all of my ancestors. Also, because the setting of The Speed of Light includes not only Berkeley but also a handful of European cities, as well as an unnamed country in Central America, I hoped that the story would be meaningful across national and cultural boundaries. The theme of storytelling as redemptive, and the longing to connect deeply with others who can empathize with your emotional landscape—I imagine that these are essentially universal truths that do transcend nationality.
In all your years of being a mentor, teaching workshops and leading writing retreats, what do you feel is the most important service you offer writers? What drives your passion for helping other writers?
In my teaching I practice a form of deep listening, and give each writer and each group my full attention. I do this for a variety of reasons and with certain goals in mind: 1) in hopes of recognizing what is “already working” in a piece of writing so that I can play that back to the writer; 2) in order to help the writer know what it’s like to be received; 3) as a way to model and help develop a writer’s own practice of deep listening to the words and voices and images that are generated in the process of writing; 4) to create a safe and supportive community; 5) to build and reinforce empathy, which is an elemental tool of writing and reading and connecting with others; 6) to help myself and others to remember what it’s like to focus intimately and without distraction.
After writing for so many decades now, I think my commitment is to share what I’ve learned from my own mentors and teachers as well as to share what I’ve learned through trial and error. As for passion, I sense so many of us are hungry for validation—not in the form of awards or prizes but in the sense of feeling seen and heard. I want to offer that to others whenever possible. I consider teaching to be a privilege, and I take the role very seriously.
How do you plan to approach your non-fiction morning workshop, Deepening and Refining Non-fiction?
There is a wonderful quotation that I’m told comes from Ovid, and I keep it framed on my desk: “If you write truthfully and completely about anything, you write at the same time about everything.” That is certainly one very significant message that I want to convey, although there is a great deal of nuance involved in considering what it means to “write truthfully and completely.” Non-fiction is not about so-called “facts,” for instance, nor is it about striving to become an absolute expert on a particular subject. That leads to a more complicated discussion of emotional honesty, and a willingness to write with uncertainty, and a humble transparency about what one does NOT know alongside what one knows. I’m a firm believer in writing as a process of discovery, following questions rather than answers.
You can register now for the morning workshop of your choice, including Elizabeth’s non-fiction workshop, at mcwc.org. To secure your spot, register as soon as possible—MCWC 2018 workshops are filling up quickly!
To find out more about Elizabeth Rosner, check out her website at http://www.elizabethrosner.com/index.html.