AWP2016 Los Angeles style

Panel session report

The Science of Story: Creative Nonfiction and Cognitive Science.

Someone must have developed a precise dating site algorithm to match me up with this panel. I just know it.  Each panelist spoke about topics that are near and dear to my interest in memoir and memory, and personal narrative storytelling.  I was in memoir heaven. The room was packed- sitting- on -the floor-room only. The takeaways are at the bottom of the post. One of my favorite parts was the discussion led by Jessica H. Nelson about the “exhaustion around Did this really happen? conversation.”Phrases like “time is a tenuous master,” and “emotional truth vs. higher truth” continue to define the work of narrative non-fiction.


New research in cognitive/neuroscience illuminates how and why creative nonfiction works. Panelists explore why our perception of time slows during crisis and how to replicate crisis on the page (showing) and why the best nonfiction engages the prefrontal cortex through introspection, reflection, and speculation (components of telling). This panel examines elements of creative nonfiction and offers suggestions on how we can use science to improve our writing and writing lives.


waiting for the panel to start

The fabulous cast of characters who hit the  all right notes for their audience.

Moderator: Sean Prentiss is the author of Finding Abbey: A Search for Edward AbbeyandHis Hidden Desert Grave, coauthor of Nature and Environmental Writing: A Guide and Anthology (forthcoming), and coeditor of the Fourth Genre: Explorations in Creative Nonfiction.

Jessica Hendry Nelson is the author of the memoir If Only You People Could Follow Directions. Her work has appeared in the Threepenny Review, the Carolina Quarterly, the Rumpus, and elsewhere. She teaches at Burlington College and in the MFA Program at the University of Nebraska in Omaha.

Nancer Ballard is a writer, book artist, editor, and resident scholar at the Brandeis University where she leads creative projects that combine science, humanities, creative writing, and fine arts. She’s the author of Dead Reckoning, and her work appears in numerous journals and anthologies.

BTW- Nancer had what seemed some handy handouts. I wanted some but they went quickly. She urged us to contact her and she’d email us some. This lack of materials was a peeve of mine throughout the conference. Is there an AWP conference web section for PDF’s or other documents such as copies of presentations? I shall find out. Anyhoo, Nancer will is local to me, since she teaches at Brandeis and giving a talk on  The Science of Evocation: Neuroscience and the Art of Memorable Stories, on April 19th. I shall be there.

No Bio on this presenter. He was super-funny and quite inspiring. Here’s  his site:


  • Thinking broadly about what we mean by ‘sensory details.’ When writing memoir, think about how the brain perceives time.
  • It’s fine (and thus affirming to me) to write memoir closely to the way memory works. Challenge the form! Memory can be a “tenuous master.”
  • The work that Robert A. Bjork is doing in UCLA.
  • The work of Daniel Kahneman about memory and the experiencing and the remembering self.
  • The work of economist and psychologist  Daniel Kahneman – Take a look at his Ted talk The Riddle of Experience vs. Memory.
  • A call to action (Yay! fits my memoir’s voice and structure) from Jessica to create new shapes on the page.


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