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Drew Professors Take Center Stage at Writers@Drew

Closing out the academic year by celebrating debut books

April 2024 – Drew University closed its Writers@Drew series for the 2023-24 academic year by celebrating debut books from three professors in Drew’s creative writing program. 

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Professors Dionne Ford, Alisson Wood, and Rachel Mannheimer

Dionne Ford, whose work has appeared in The New York Times, is the author of the memoir Go Back and Get It. She is also co-editor of the anthology Slavery’s Descendants: Shared Legacies of Race and Reconciliation. She is an award recipient of the National Association of Black Journalists, the National Endowment for the Arts, and MacDowell.

Poet Rachel Mannheimer’s first book, Earth Room, was selected by Louise Glück as the inaugural winner of the Changes Book Prize. A contributing editor to The Yale Review, her work has appeared in Narrative, McSweeney’s, and Poets & Writers.

Alisson Wood is the author of the memoir Being Lolita. Her writing has been published in The New York Times, The Paris Review, The Rumpus, Vogue, and Vanity Fair.

Courtney Zoffness, associate professor of English and director of the creative writing program, moderated the event.

The three authors shared powerful excerpts from their work, followed by a Q&A session from the audience of students, faculty, and staff.

When writing nonfiction, can you embellish or exaggerate the truth for a more narrative function?
The three authors advised against embellishing nonfiction. They also agreed that best practice is to be honest with readers if the truth is ambiguous or uncertain. “It’s powerful to acknowledge this,” said Wood.

“I’m a big believer that no, you should not embellish or exaggerate,” continued Wood. “When I was writing my book, I felt like I was in a prison of truth.” She had saved many artifacts and texts, such as her high school journal and letters, that assisted with her memory. “It was helpful to keep me in touch with reality. Memory is fallible and malleable.”

“Just don’t do it,” agreed Ford, who also refers to personal archives when possible. “Lean into the truth.”

“As a poet, I feel a lot of fidelity to the truth,” said Mannheimer. “With poetry, you can do whatever you want. For me, I feel as if it is a formal constraint to have to stick to the truth.”

Why publish personal work?
“I was interested in the lives of my enslaved ancestors,” said Ford. “Enslaved people were left out of records or were documented by the people who enslaved them. I was really interested in taking back their stories for myself and for them as well. My impetus was to get some control and authority over people who were written about.”

“I thought the story of Lolita from a male gaze was overdone,” said Wood, referring to the protagonist of Vladimir Nabokov’s eponymous novel, and its popularity in popular culture. “To tell a story from Lolita’s point of view was something new and important to share. You cannot change what happened, but when you’re writing about it, you are the person in charge, you have control.” Wood’s memoir explores a predatory relationship she had with her male high school teacher.

Mannheimer shared that she assumes authority when writing poetry that she would not necessarily feel when writing nonfiction. “I love reading other people’s stories, so I feel it is a generosity to share your experiences with others.”

What is your process for writing about difficult or distressing subjects?
“I create a safe space to enter and exit,” said Wood, who uses props, such as chewing gum and candles, to create a figurative writing space. “You can blow out the candle and spit out the gum when you’re done.” She also creates physical writing spaces that she can leave when she ends a writing session. 

Ford uses a time limit to create a scene and turns to mediation to flank difficult passages. 

When writing poetry, Mannheimer thinks retrospectively. “We think of poetry as the overflowing of intense emotion,” she said. “I do better writing about things further in the past.”

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