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Aspen Words in New York City

Aspen Words is forming a presence in New York City with a book series held in partnership with the Aspen Institute. So far, events have included a panel on “The Art of the Essay” featuring Meghan Daum, Phillip Lopate, and Clifford Thompson, as well as an event with author Gail Sheehy. A few weeks ago, Dani Shapiro, Darin Strauss, and Vivian Gornick spoke on a panel about “The Art of Memoir.” Here are a few of their insights on what memoir is and what it is not. Watch the video for their full conversation.


Dani signing “There’s this misunderstanding about memoir in so many ways. To me, it’s not about this idea that people have that it’s self-absorbed or its narcissistic or its confessional or its exhibitionist, when in fact it requires transcending one’s own life in order to see oneself as a character in one’s story.” 
– Dani Shapiro, author of Still Writing: The Perils and Pleasures of a Creative Life
Darin “A memoir is not a history book—you don’t have to go out and do all this documentary research. It’s a record of your memory. And so if your memory falters, but is honest to the moment, then I don’t think it’s that large a sin.” 
– Darin Strauss, author of Half a Life
Vivian “You’re not writing about yourself, and you’re not putting out your vulnerabilities. What you’re trying to do is to produce out of yourself an unsurrogated narrator*…If you concentrate on the story, not on yourself, then you’re creating literature.” 
– Vivian Gornick, author of Fierce Attachments

* An unsurragated narrator is the author in a nonfiction narrative who implicates him or herself in every part of the story, as opposed to inventing characters that can act as surrogates for the writer. Gornick discusses this concept in her 2001 classic The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative.

Photos by Courtney Collins

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