Last week, Allison Coffelt was the keynote speaker for the English and Linguistics Senior Seminar Conference sponsored by the Department of English and Linguistics and the School of Arts and Letters. During her two talks Nov. 30 and Dec. 1, she discussed nonfiction writing and read sections from her upcoming book, “Maps Are Lines We Draw: A Road Trip through Haiti.”
Coffelt is the Education and Outreach Director at True/False, a nonfiction documentary film festival that happens in Columbia on the first weekend of March each year. They are interested in nonfiction storytelling that employs fictional devices. True/False brings in filmmakers to the large festival where there is music and art installations all across town. Somebody plays live music for every film, and each screening includes a Q&A with the filmmakers. Coffelt did outreach work with public high school students, locals and visitors, college students, and some community groups to try and make the festival accessible by not only providing access to the fest but also bettering their immediate literacy skills and becoming critical thinkers around multimedia. She also teaches them that documentaries are not boring.
“What we do is that we try to pick exciting and boundary-pushing nonfiction films because those films are being made and they are not always showing up in classrooms — which is something I’m working on changing — but they are out there,” Coffelt said.
Coffelt is also a podcaster for True/False. She was interested in podcasting for a while, and after taking a week-long workshop with Transom, she started hosting the True/False podcast at KBIA, a radio station run out of Columbia. The conversation centers on one aspect of storytelling that is done well in the documentary. One of the episodes in the first season that Coffelt really likes is a conversation with directors Keith and Lou about the movie called “The Bad Kids.” The movie is about an alternative school in Southern California. One of the questions asked was how they built character within 90 minutes in a school where there are so many potential characters with fascinating life stories, but many are not willing to open up very easily because that has not served them well.
“It is a lot of work producing a podcast, but it’s also fun,” Coffelt said.
For aspiring writers, Coffelt advised setting up a regular writing practice.
“For me, it’s an essential part of feeling like I’m a writer and feeling like I’m able to produce work,” Coffelt said.
Coffelt said there is an assumption that writers just sit down one day and decide to write a book and it’s hard to understand the millions of micro-decisions that go into making a longer piece of work, such as a novel. It is important to have a writing practice to produce work, but then there is also the revision process afterwards.
Coffelt’s novel will be published in March 2018 by Lanternfish Press.
“That’s where the love comes in — to approach your sentences and your ideas and have a sense of inquiry and have some care toward them and give them a bunch of attention,” Coffelt said.