15 December 2015: Writing nonfiction in the mountains

Written by Adlin Zainal | Images by Katrien Van Huyck

Arizona (5)

Arriving in Flagstaff, Arizona for NonFictioNOW 2015. 

“Singapore is a long way to travel for this conference!” the woman sitting next to me proclaimed when I answered her question on where I was from.

We were both sitting in the Rees room of the High Country Conference Centre in Flagstaff, Arizona with about two dozen other writers waiting to listen to a panel titled “Meditations on Monstrous Characters”, which was about writing on monsters, whether human or not. She lived just down the road and the closest she had ever been to Singapore, she said, was Hong Kong.

I had indeed travelled a long way to attend the NonfictioNOW 2015 conference, held in October. Together with four fellow schoolmates, we had travelled over 20 hours by plane and another two hours by bus up the winding mountain roads.

NonfictioNOW 2015 was hosted by Northern Arizona University, in partnership with Yale-NUS College and RMIT University. The conference was attended by over 400 nonfiction writers, teachers, and students from around the world in an effort to explore the past, present, and future of nonfiction. Professor Robin Hemley, director of Yale-NUS College’s Writers’ Centre, was one of the three co-chairs for the conference.

Tim Flannery (2)

Professor Robin Hemley with writers Francesca Rendle-Short, David Carlin and Tim Flannery, before the start of one of the keynote panels. 

I was involved with the conference from its planning stages, helping primarily to put together the website, so actually being on the ground in Flagstaff was both exciting and terrifying. Before leaving, I remember telling my friends, “This is a whole year’s work come to fruition”. Being at the conference itself felt strange — like an abstract concept was coming together in the 500-odd participants and over 60 panels and keynotes. Throughout the conference, I saw writers discussing their work over coffee breaks, lunch dates and even toilet breaks! It was a close-knit community that, for the three days I was there, I got to experience in all its vitality and creativity.

The trip also gave me a rare opportunity to network with other writers, broaden my writing repertoire, and most importantly, understand writing as both a passion and a career.

And what of the amazing quality of panels? One of my favorites was a panel on writing about family, aptly titled “When a Writer is Born into a Family, the Family is F’d”. Coming from a traditionally conservative Asian society, one of the topics I’ve always grappled with was writing about family.  Growing up, I was told never to do so, because such topics were private and could reflect badly on myself. The absolute rawness with which the panelists shared their often-heartbreaking experiences about writing on something so deeply personal and difficult left me teary-eyed, but also with a new understanding and resolve on how to treat the topic with respect and delicacy.

That experience was not isolated. I spent the entire conference being surprised and inspired by not just the talent, but the humility of the panelists and keynote speakers. Brian Doyle, one of the keynote speakers, declared, “Stories are food!” before telling the audience that the stories we needed to write are all around us. Michael Martone and Ander Monson cleverly played on the “key” aspect of “keynote” to entertain all in attendance with a collection of stories about, well, keys. Tim Flannery proved to everyone that writing about science does not have to be flat and mechanical, which I am sure my fellow liberal arts and sciences peers can appreciate.

I walked away from the conference with a sense of awe, which after a month has translated into countless nights putting pen to paper (or fingers on keyboard), applying everything I’ve learnt, both technical and spiritual. I feel like I’m a better writer for having attended the conference. Here’s to NonfictioNOW 2017!