Other People’s Pasts: Writing into the Nexus Between Myth and Reality

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Facilitator: Elyssa East
Dates: March 9 – April 3, 2020
Genre: Creative Nonfiction
Class Size: 10

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Session Description

“To identify a person as a Southerner suggests not only that her history is inescapable and formative but that it is also impossibly present,” photographer Sally Mann wrote. “Southerners live uneasily at the nexus between myth and reality, watching the mishmash amalgam of sorrow, humility, honor, graciousness, and renegade defiance play out against a backdrop of profligate physical beauty.” As Mann states, not only is our history ever present, much of what we know about it is a collection of myths, if not straight up lies, designed to protect other people’s honor. As chroniclers of true stories, can we set honor aside and write into the nexus between myth and reality of other people’s pasts—be they family members, friends, strangers, historical figures, and even our past selves? Do these myths help us access a deeper truth, a larger fiction, or both? What about the facts? What do we do with the conflicts that facts can pose when telling stories about people or a culture that defiantly prefers another story of itself? We will discuss the ethics of writing about other people’s pasts and shattering their mythologies (as well as our own), explore literary techniques to help us excavate the truth, and learn research methods to infuse our work with the lesser celebrated beauty and poetics of fact.

Author Bio

Elyssa East’s first book, Dogtown: Death and Enchantment in a New England Ghost Town, won the 2010 L. L. Winship/P.E.N. New England Award in Nonfiction. Dogtown was also a finalist for the Massachusetts Book Awards and an Editors’ Choice Selection of the New York Times Sunday Book Review. Elyssa has received fellowships from the Jerome, Ragdale, and Ludwig Vogelstein Foundations; Columbia University; the University of Connecticut; the Bread Loaf Writers’ Conference; the Phillips Library; and the Corporation of Yaddo. Her reviews, reportage, and essays have appeared in The New York Times, The Guardian, The San Francisco Chronicle, The Boston Globe, The Dallas Morning News, The Kansas City Star, The Philadelphia Inquirer, Al Jazeera America and The Oxford American. Elyssa’s short fiction has been published in Cape Cod Noir and USA Noir: The Best of the Akashic Noir. She has taught Creative Writing at Columbia University, NYU’s Gallatin School of Individualized Studies, Rhode Island School of Design, SUNY Purchase, Cleveland State University, and The Writer’s Hotel. She is a direct descendant of “The Father of Harlan County,” General George Brittain, and currently resides in New York City, where she is at work on a novel.