Reading and Writing Across Difference at Omaha LitFest 2015

By Rebecca Macijeski, Assistant Editor-Poetry and Sarah Fawn Montgomery, Assistant Editor-Nonfiction

Filed under: Blog |

Centered around the subject of anxiety, and featuring panels on diagnosis, treachery, and empathy, the (downtown) Omaha Lit Fest was held on Saturday, October 17th at the W. Dale Clark Library. Moderated by Lit Fest Director and Author of Swan Gondola, Timothy Schaffert, the event brought readers and writers together in a discussion of craft, the connection between narrative and literary responsibility, and anxiety’s influence on literature.


The opening panel featured doctors and writers Bud Shaw (author of nonfiction book Last Night in the OR: A Transplant Surgeon’s Odyssey) and Lydia Kang (author of YA sci-fi novels Catalyst and Control). Touching on everything from the pedestals that doctors are put on by patients and society to the shifting perception of medicine as a service industry, the discussion eventually moved into a meditation on the role of narrative for patients and physicians. Kang analyzed the need for new physicians to embrace medical rhetoric, remarking that “They start to learn the language of medicine—it’s a very distinct culture.” Yet because of young doctors’ eagerness to assume their specialized roles, “they lose their ability to speak jargon free,” she warned, which creates distance between physicians and patients. The role of creative writing, she said, is to provide physicians a way back into other cultures, to help them navigate between the languages of patient and medicine. Literature thus becomes an important medical link. Similarly, Shaw described all of medicine as a narrative act, diagnosis the result of a developing story. Young doctors, he argued, “need to look at these patients and figure out what their stories are.”


Bringing together Marilyn June Coffey (author of Thieves, Rascals & Sore Losers: The Unsettling History of the Dirty Deals That Helped Settle Nebraska), Douglas Vincent Wesselman (author of Tales of the Master: The Book of Stone), and Theodore Wheeler, (author of On the River, Down Where They Fond Willy Brown), the second panel discussion explored the role of personal demons, social outcasts, and taboos on literature. Treachery, panelists insisted, is essential to literature—not for shock value, but because of its relationship to the human condition. “All writers are treacherous,” remarked Wesselman.“We clean up our histories, and writers like to dirty it up again.” The many forms of treachery—from the taboo of Coffey writing about masturbation to Wheeler writing about local race riots to Schaffert speculating on the human fascination with apocalypse—are not mistakes or flaws to avoid, but material to mine. While the audience was vocal about trigger warnings and writer censorship, Wesselman defended a writer’s expressive freedom, comparing trigger warnings to “emotional bubble wrap” and likening literature to the appeal of danger, saying “it’s a risk writing it; it should be a risk reading it.”


Joy Castro (author of How Winter Began: Stories), Julie Iromuanya (author of Mr. and Mrs. Doctor), and Jennie Shortridge (author of Love Water Memory) concluded the panels with their discussion of emotion in literature. Initially focusing on how to create empathy in readers through character and suspense, and the ways reader reaction impacts author choices, the panel quickly shifted its discussion to the larger conversation surrounding empathy and gender. Pointing out that the panel was comprised of three female authors, moderator Schaeffert invited the panelists to share how larger cultural assumptions about women and emotion shaped the marketing of their novels. Shortridge found that gender influenced presentation, for when her book came out in paperback the figure of a woman was added to the front cover in order to feminize it for potential readers. Castro, too, commented on how her thrillers, which follow a tough heroine (which Castro pointed out some readers have difficulty empathizing with) were feminized throughout the publishing and marketing process. Her original titles were softened, as was her initial vision for the covers. Iromuanya toyed with the idea of publishing her work under initials in order to hide her gender, but ultimately did not, her choice a deliberate act in a publishing industry that creates endless boundaries through its subgenres. Castro ended the panel by encouraging readers to “learn to read across difference,” an idea that many of the day’s panelists seemed to circulate around, and one that holds potential for closing the distance between readers and writers.

Sarah Fawn Montgomery holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from California State University-Fresno and a PhD in creative writing from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln, where she teaches and works as Prairie Schooner’s Nonfiction Assistant Editor. She is the author of The Astronaut Checks His Watch (Finishing Line Press). Her work has been listed as notable several times in Best American Essays, and her poetry and prose have appeared in various magazines including Confrontation, Crab Orchard Review, DIAGRAM, Fugue, Georgetown Review, The Los Angeles Review, North Dakota Quarterly, The Pinch, Puerto del Sol, Southeast Review, Zone 3 and others.

Rebecca Macijeski is a Doctoral Candidate in Poetry at the University of Nebraska and holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts. She currently serves as an Assistant Editor in Poetry for Prairie Schooner and Hunger Mountain. She has attended artist residencies with The Ragdale Foundation and Art Farm Nebraska, worked for Ted Kooser’s American Life in Poetry newspaper column, and is the recipient of a 2012 Dorothy Sargent Rosenberg Prize. Her poems have appeared or are forthcoming in Poet Lore, Nimrod, Sycamore Review, Potomac Review, Painted Bride Quarterly, Storyscape, Rappahannock Review, Border Crossing, Gargoyle, Fourteen Hills, and others.