By Margie Whalen
A capacity crowd of about 40 people gathered on Sunday, January 21, to hear Penny Guisinger’s engaging discussion of creative nonfiction and her memoir, SHIFT: A Memoir of Identity and Other Illusions. Guisinger, who went to local schools and now lives in Trescott, was known to many in the audience, which included, as she laughingly put it, “friends, family, and my fourth-grade teacher.”

Guisinger’s fourth grade teacher, Tessa Ftorek (left), who’d been humorously acknowledged as such at the beginning of the event, piped up during the Q&A session. Photos by Lauren Koss.

Her talk began with an explanation of the term Creative Nonfiction, a literary form that has gained prominence in recent years, despite what she calls the problems implicit in the name: what other art form, she asked, has to advertise itself as “creative” and then defines itself by what it is not? It is, she argued, a “squishy” term for a vibrant literary genre that includes a range of forms, including the memoir and the personal essay.

Her particular interests as a writer of memoir, she said, lie in other “m words”: meaning-making and metaphor. In making meaning, the writer addresses both situation and story— the situation, the “what happened?” part of the narrative, and the story, the meaning that is revealed in that situation. Her reading of an excerpt from her new memoir provided a case in point. In the excerpt, she writes of her repeated struggles to back up a trailer hitched to her car; those struggles are the situation, and that situation ends with the trailer hitch falling on her foot—a narrative that elicited sympathetic groans from the audience. But then came the “story”—the meaning— in the line, “I had to learn to back up and shift at the same time”—a line that, it was clear, was about much more than driving skills, as is alluded to in the title of her book.

Guisinger is an enthusiastic devotee of the power of metaphor, describing the “magical delight” she experiences when she finds a connection between two apparently very different things. Here, she led the audience in some metaphor-making of their own. Selecting bits of paper which each had a word written on it, she led a willing audience to try their hands at finding connections between two randomly selected things: what metaphors could be found in pairing “victory” and “mailbox,” or “loss” and “donut,” or “desire” and “tooth”? Audience members offered up a range of imaginative possibilities, their responses suggesting that the game had amply demonstrated the power and allure of a good metaphor and the surprise it can bring.

In the final part of her presentation, Guisinger again read an excerpt from her memoir, this time a passage about a series of potlucks held for a time by a good friend, a reading that clearly evoked the pleasures and generosity that underlie any such gathering of friends. It was at one of these potlucks that she met the woman who would eventually become her wife, a meeting that is part of the “shift” of the title.

Her reading was followed by a question-and-answer session with the audience. Didn’t the writing of a memoir, one person asked, require having a strong memory—or at least the keeping of a journal? Guisinger does not keep a journal, she said, but instead mines those pivotal things she does remember. In addressing a question about the elusive nature of “truth” because of the variability of memories, Guisinger spoke of the distinction between the memoir as a purveyor of facts and as an expression of experience. In writing of her experiences as she remembers them, she tries, she said, “to be the most culpable person on the page.”

While the official release date of SHIFT was to be March 1, copies were available for sale to members of the appreciative audience, who were clearly grateful for the warm, entertaining, and thought-provoking presentation, another happy success in the EAC Sunday afternoon series, which will continue into April.
—Margie Whalen lives in Eastport, where she sings with Quoddy Voices, serves on the Peavey Memorial Library Board, and writes the “Downeast Reveries” column for The Quoddy Tides.

Sunday Afternoons at the Arts Center programs are held in Eastport Arts Center’s cozy downstairs Washington Street Gallery, amidst rotating exhibitions. Admission is by voluntary donation; proceeds are shared equally between the presenters and EAC ongoing program The Concert Series, which offers year-round programming run by volunteers. No one is turned away for lack of funds. Find the full 2024 schedule and more posts about upcoming and past programs may be found at eastportartscenter.org/the-concert-series.