Monday, May 27, 2019

Artist Statement 2.0: Writing in a Time of Extremity

At the start of spring semester 2019, I asked the students in my Graduate Creative Nonfiction Workshop to craft a brief Artist’s Statement as a snapshot of their thematic and stylistic intentions, obsessions, and goals. It’s a good way to tackle the vexing matter of trying to articulate what you’re trying to do as a writer, while knowing the work thrives in uncertainty. And it’s good practice for corresponding with editors and publishers, applying for grants, fellowships, and residencies.
       This group of MFA candidates came from widely diverse backgrounds--from California, Florida, Virginia, Cuba, Nigeria, Zimbabwe. It was multinational, multicultural and multigenre. Some had strong ties to our border region, some were deeply tied to other geographies and histories. Difference among these talents meant not conflict but fuel for truly engaging discussion. All felt the impingement of the political and planetary extremities that are this moment in history. Many of them questioned the value of artistic vocation in such a time, in argument with their own commitments. When three University of Arizona students were arrested for protesting the presence of armed Border Patrol members on campus, fear and activism rose. The border crisis for many of us living in Tucson is not a matter of politics and policy—though both of these forces could certainly be deployed toward more just ends. It is a matter of survival and family cohesion and humanitarian care. I wanted to know how this new wave of social anguish was registering among the students, whose projects moved in such divergent ways through the minefield of our times.
     My last assignment at the end of the semester was to ask them to write an Artist’s Statement 2.0, framed by the idea of "Writing in a Time of Extremity." I suggested they define extremity any way they wished: climate change, border/ immigration crisis, the Arizona3, the moral crisis in leadership of the nation, history of colonization, militarization of American culture. Plenty to choose from. Here is what they had to say about the state of our art. 

Alison Hawthorne Deming

Katerina Ivanov 

I am trying to make sense of things. At the border, nothing makes sense. U.S. Border Patrol agents found a 3-year-old migrant alone in a cornfield. Militia holds hundreds of migrants at gunpoint at the border. U.S. Mexico Border: Trump wishes military could be rough with immigrants. Federal government to accelerate Customs and Border Protection redeployment amid migrant surge.
     When I moved to Tucson, my mother was worried. She said it was dangerous for us, there. She said, no haces ruido. She told me to make myself small: a marble, a raisin, make sure I don’t catch the light. But it is impossible, in Tucson, I am reflective. In Tucson, there are children in cages and it’s illegal to leave the crossers water, and all I can hold is an anger so expansive, it feels like it reaches mountain to mountain.
      It bleeds into my writing; it trails from me like oil from a used car. I am angry. I am so fucking angry. Anger can be a tool, but this requires control. Precision. Things that feel far off. Anger warps my writing like hot metal. It feels foreign, like it did not come from me, like it came from some distorted wax self—half-melted, unrecognizable. It reads off pitch, mistuned, a broken radio. Anger fills writing with static. Anger fills writing with fear. Anger does strange things to my writing, to me. My body, made of wax; my body, the warped figurine.
      These days, I find myself craving something beautiful. Ultra-determined tree roots, burying under a house. A nopal with all the spines still attached—deceptively soft, almost fuzzy, almost cotton, A perfect puff of car exhaust. I write these things on a running note on my phone: these are the good things. I say them like a prayer. Root, nopal, exhaust. Writing lately feels a lot like list-making: root, nopal, exhaust. Bilingual baby at the grocery store, babbling Spanglish. Tamales from the Food City parking lot, buttery with manteca.
      I seep my writing in memory like warm milk—the present feels impossible to write. It feels like there are not words for what is happening. (Maybe there are, and I just cannot write them, yet). Writing has to look like care: here is something beautiful, look at the way my mother’s eyes crinkle when she passes the Eucharist in mass, look at the way my father looks at my mother, look at how the pineapple plants take root in the Florida soil, really just sand. I am trying to remind myself of something, lately. Look, just around the corner, at the edge of your eyeline—there might be something good. 

Lucy Kirkman

Cyclone Idai has washed away the Eastern Highlands, the folded ridge of mountains that makes a natural border between Zimbabwe and Mozambique. The cyclone raged in from the coast, ripping up palm trees and thatched palm rooves, ripping inland to the mountains. These are the mountains where the civil war started in 1970. The freedom fighters (or terrorists, according to white Rhodesians at the time) were trained in the folded hills of Mozambique, often from exile, and walked the steep crags and valleys of these mountains to fight for independence.
      A few years ago a man, a tourist, disappeared in these mountains. He left his wife and children at the base of the mountain, or maybe they weren’t there at all. But he went up Mount Inyangani, the highest peak in the range, and did not return. Every sane Zimbabwean is at least a little fearful of this mountain, “the mountain that swallows people,” so maybe his disappearance was due to his ignorance. Weather can change in a matter of minutes up there, from sunny and clear to cloudy and foggy, which is the difference between lost and found, path and wilderness, descent and drop. This man disappeared without a trace. But no—that is not quite true—rescue teams found his wallet and his wedding ring on a rock high into the climb. There were whispers of nhangas, witches and witch doctors that are said to live on this mountain, who take children and adults and use their bones for medicine. Or, he could have just walked over the mountain, through the range, into Mozambique. There were rumors of financial troubles—this is one way to disappear. It could have been suicide. Or maybe he just lost his way. The mountain is so deeply folded that it would be no trouble at all to disappear within it, step into a crevasse or crack, no trace.
      Whatever happened to the man, he remains unresolved. What I know of the mountains is this: the mountains are beautiful, harsh, menacing, the mountains are a border, the mountains are secret-keepers.
      These ordinary and extraordinary events, cyclones, disappearances, civil war, are all folded into the history of these mountains. What we know of them is more than what we see. And yet, most days, nothing happens, or do I mean to say everything: streams follow the same path down the worn-round rocks, the pink flowers grow near the bracken, the sweet, yellow mjanje fruit fall with a soft thud and are gathered by little hands and sold out of woven baskets near the side of the road. People continue to sift through the earth of landslides trying to find valuables, bodies. Sheets of galvanized steel and plastic are salvaged and carefully placed together to make dwellings. All this happens.
      And there is no logic, or there is too much logic. What we see, experience, and react to is not only the long hand of history reaching into our chest cavities, but also the accumulation of a different kind of logic (emotional, affective, or some other thing) that appears and disintegrates almost instantaneously, making the world terribly and happy unknowable. As I writer this is where I want to be--at the edge of the unresolved and unknowable, the place where associations and encounters are like pebbles washing against each other in the eddy of the stream, against all odds. 

Hea-Ream Lee

My writing is often rooted in science research. To me, it’s a noble pursuit that’s endlessly fascinating and populated mostly with kind nerds who love it with their entire hearts. It’s also so full of poetry and drama, with startling images and human stories. This is the framework within which I build my essays, drawing connections between the abstract themes I see in tree ring chronologies or computational modeling to my own life.
       In the past few months I have started writing more about identity and race. This has never been my forte, and it still feels uncomfortable, like an outfit I’ve admired on other people but doesn’t feel quite right on my own body. I used to get around this with the logic that not all writers of color need to write about the trauma of being a writer of color. I believe we should have the privilege, like white writers are afforded, to write about whatever we want. And there certainly is a pressure that I feel to represent my pain on the page which I am still grappling with.
       Another reason is that I want to get it right. I want to do justice to the fact of my many privileges as a nonblack person of color, as an able-bodied straight cis woman, as a light skinned Asian person, as someone who grew up middle class. To write about my relatively minor “pain” feels like the very opposite of extremity.  But more and more I am drawn to writing about race and identity despite my misgivings and anxieties. And I think that’s because of extremity. Because of the out and out fascism, white supremacy, state-sanctioned violence against Black people, human rights violations at the border, Islamophobia, transphobia, the list goes on. And to be clear, as a writer, these specific stories aren’t mine to tell. But in reading other writers’ work on these issues, in trying to do what I can to uplift their voices, to show up, I’m inspired to write on my own experiences.
       At the beginning of the semester our graduate nonfiction workshop discussed writing inwards versus writing outwards, and this dichotomy has been on my mind since. The balance always feels precarious. I’m much more comfortable writing outwards than inwards, in dealing with abstractions and nebulous themes than the concrete and real. But perhaps this time, this place, makes it impossible not to deal in some way with the real. And while I continue to write about science, which is just part of my writerly DNA, which continues to inspire me, terrify me, leave me bewildered, and break my heart, I am also trying to write inwards. Towards a truth that I understand, that I’ve experienced. About what it means to live here, in this body and mind, in this time and place. 

Natalie Lima 

As an artist, my hot topic is identity, or rather, the various identities we all inhabit. I’ve always been drawn to stories about identity, since my own has never fit into one single box. I'm Latinx, I grew up working-class, I’m the child of a mother who grew up in foster care and a Cuban refugee father, I'm the first in my family to graduate from high school and then attend college, I live in large body, I’m a woman, I code-switch a ton in my writing. I feel like I occupy a profusion of identities and, because of this, I navigate different worlds on a daily basis. 
     Recently, I’ve been drawn to writing about the body and though it may be a popular subject as of late, I have always been captivated by the stories of folks who live in marginalized bodies. I write about my body because so much (if not all) of our lives are colored by the sack of meat and bones we lug around all day. The body, in all its pain and beauty, presents multiple opportunities to make meaning of life: There is the science behind how all its parts function in unison; there are the aesthetics of what we present to the world, and what the world deems beautiful or not so much; there is disease and deterioration, which we all will eventually succumb to if we’re lucky; there are the social stigmas and policing of bodies—the hierarchy of bodies— and which bodies do and don’t deserve respect; and finally there are the tiny things, the quirks—crooked teeth or curly hair—that give our bodies character, that make us us.
     I am currently working on a collection of dark humor essays about living in my body. Or to summarize the book in a tweet:
Like David Sedaris but fatter, darker & Latinx. A humor memoir in essays. About living & dating in a fat body. My regular degular awkwardness. Dealing w/ my alcoholism. Growing up working-class & mixed-race in Vegas w/ Cuban roots & dysfunction. And taking up space wherever I go.
     Recently, I've taken a more comic turn in my work. There's something about humor, something about the ugliest, most honest parts of life, that greatly stirs me. I am inspired by writers like Samantha Irby, Jenny Lawson, and Lindy West, by what humor tells us about life, and how even the saddest parts of it can be made funny, especially in these grim, politically-fraught times. I also believe that writing about the self, as a person who grew up in the margins, is a truly political act. And my hope is that my stories add to the diversity of stories that we read in memoir today.
       I've been able to enter the more difficult, painful moments of life by using levity in my work. And I wholeheartedly believe that levity doesn’t strip away the substance in our stories, but it reminds us, all of us, that humans are multifaceted. And, plus, without incorporating a bit of humor in my stuff, I’d drink myself to death and take all my secrets to the grave with me. 
Titles in Progress:
  1. Curmudgeon (and other SAT words I learned in high school and bust out at cocktail parties to sound smart)
  2. Fat Lady On The Brink Of Death. Send Flowers
  3. Are You Open To Squashing Or Wrestling? Asking For A Friend…
  4. Pretty Sure God Make Me Fat To Keep Me Off the Pole
  5. To the White Boys On Tinder Who Keep Telling Me They Love Latin Food, Especially Flan
  6. This Will All Be Funny One Day
  7. Thicker Than A Snicker
  8. I Wrote This For The Haters But Also To Pay Off My Student Loans
  9. Cushion For the Pushin’
  10. Fat Girl Cries Herself To Sleep At Night
*** Note: We can only choose from these titles. I’ve tattooed all of them into the shape of a cute braid around my thigh to help me remember.

Matt Morris

I suspect that the phrase time of extremity holds distinct meaning for each of us, our interpretation dependent on how the world touches us, how we exist in the world—specifically, I’d say, our markers of identity: race, gender, class, faith, orientation, nationality, what have you. What is most pressing for any one of us is, I’d guess, not the same as what’s most pressing for the rest of us—though catastrophe, for instance environmental, certainly often touches us all. For me, to write in a time of extremity is, mostly, to write at a moment when the United States is backsliding in its handling of issues around race—when our president (like, of America) has refused to denounce white supremacists after violent rioting in my home state and when our president (like, of this university) has vacillated over whether, and how, to support protesting students of color. For me, to write in a time of extremity is to try through my language to express something of what it means—and what it feels like—to be of any race in America, where a somewhat nightmarish history, a history colored by genocide, enslavement, segregation, and internment, echoes into the now.
        I don’t think I want to say all of that in my prose, directly, but I do think that’s the emotional load I want my stuff to carry—though, as a mixed writer, I also hope (and hope most of all) that my nonfiction can illustrate possibilities for unity, connection. I don’t want to suggest that my family—wherein black and white have come together lovingly—should stand as a symbol of racial reconciliation: my father is not every African American, my mother is not every white American, my sister and I are not every mixed American. But I do think it’s important for folks to see—and I do hope that my writing, if done with care, can aid in pushing folks to see—that even as instances of institutionalized and everyday racism persist, there is and has always been another way. 
     But, markers of identity aside, I also believe that my best writing comes, most always, not only from this cultural moment of extremity but also, no matter the subject I’m thinking through (for I do not always want to write about race, this semester tired so much of writing about race that I wrote, finally, about something other than race), from a place of extremity—that my best, most honest writing always comes from a place of sincere want, whether for deeper understanding of what flummoxes, for knowledge of what remains only sketchily discernible, or for resolution of what’s most likely unresolvable. And so I am always, when I am really writing, trying to push my nonfiction toward this place of extremity and, when I get there, however briefly, trying my very best to stay, to get past any fear of confronting what’s hard, uncomfortable, confusing.
      I’m thinking, right now—and I’m reminded of this now and then—about a passage from Claudia Rankine’s Citizen, wherein she cites the Indian-English scholar Homi Bhaba, who has said, “The state of emergency is also always a state of emergence.” And I think that wrestling with what throws me most forcefully into Bhaba’s “state of emergency”—what gets my mind fully grappling with multilayered emotion, what gets my mind to sometimes-tough places, whether I’m writing about my father’s enslaved ancestors or one of my closest, hardest-to-know friends—is also what gets me, hopefully, somewhere new. I’d say, too, that for me it is scary to go to that emotional territory, because I don’t know just what’s inside my head, where the writing will take me, whether I’ll get somewhere that feels hard—but I’d also say, again, that trying to get there is worth the risk provided I do get somewhere new.
     Because getting somewhere new is for me maybe the point of writing anything at all. 

Maddie Norris
Imagine the small foot of a newborn, its pearled toes and soft sole. Run a finger along the foot’s palm, and the toes curl inwards, arching for the heel. This reaction, known as the Babinski reflex, appears in children who are born with fully-formed cortical spinal tracts. The reflex’s purpose is obsolete in humans, but it’s believed to have persisted through evolution, adapted from monkeys who clung to their mothers’ tangled fur with hands and feet. By the age of two, most humans lose the reflex; it morphs into something else. Still, the outgrown impulse resides in our DNA. Just because something isn’t present doesn’t mean it’s absent. This is the truth I want to investigate.
     My essays consider the ways the body keeps loss alive. The underlying personal spine of my work are two traumas I can’t shake: the loss of my father at seventeen and my rape at twenty. These past experiences live within me and shape my present. Some threats have passed; many have not. In addressing the impressions society leaves on a body, on a person, I hope to illuminate the way past hurts have present consequences.
     The death of my father and my rape are connected in me as relationships ending in hurt, but they also manifest in distinct ways. In the case of my dad, I use essays to continue my relationship with him, to learn more about him, to find the edges of his absence. My rape, on the other hand, manifests as PTSD, something that is kept alive in my body without permission.
     My work, in my mind, has its own body, its own anatomy, its own bones and sinews. I hope to explore the particulars of each body part, inspecting the skin, the muscle, fat, and bone. Each essay exists singularly, but it also functions in a larger form, in a true body of work. Together, the essays arch towards an unsayable truth. If I’m asking the question of how the body keeps loss alive, then my answer is in my writing.

Suyi Okungbowa

I was born into the middle, into a people worthy of global power yet whose footprints have been wiped away, marks erased; so that I can’t see a way back if I look, so that I no longer know where I’m from, so I have to create where I’m from.
     I was bred in the middle, in a nation hastily put together by colonialist forces and christened by a British Lord’s mistress; so that I can’t find the pieces of which I’m made, so that I no longer know who I am, so that I have to create who I am.
     I was forged by the middle, by competing forces of education so disparate that I become liminality embodied, a hodgepodge of cultures and identities with unrecognisable qualities, a thing without a name; completely nothing, completely everything.
     Therefore, my art begins in the middle.

     I write mostly speculative literature to make sense of how I navigate the world as a liminal being. My work, in its entirety, examines entities like me: Africans, or other speculative variations of them, caught in the crevices between the traditional and modern requirements of history, identity, community and belonging. It’s impossible to be a young, black Nigerian man and not be caught in this quadrality, to not struggle with marrying the requirements of my past with the demands of my future. My work, through speculative metaphors and other more direct forms of engagement, enables me and others like me fill the gaps in current realities with the knowledge of what has come before.
     The liminal self, by nature, exists at odds with extremity. My self-examination therefore constantly comes under test in the present world: where truth is a pendulum bob, occupying various positions depending on its pivot; where the demands of capitalism and the demands of core humanity are at their highest odds; where the world is obsessed with taking stances and occupying positions, as if humans are location pin drops. As an artist occupying intersections of race, class and privilege, employing nuance in my voice becomes my strongest weapon, but also my biggest struggle, a struggle exacerbated by my existence as an Other and minority within my primary, secondary and even tertiary communities.

     My aim as a writer, then, is to insert readers into the psychology and philosophy of society’s unknowns—minorities and misunderstood entities existing within the margins of normative realities—through the endorsement of the middle as a valid space of existence. To do this, I consider myself patient zero, mining my history, present and future to bridge these divides created by geography, reductive history and intolerance.
     I write, then, to become the middle.

Margo Steines

Extremity has been a/the thematic focus of my work for the duration of my writing life, and perhaps my fundamental curiosity as a writer and a person. My topical interests may appear rangy or random, but their common thread is bodily extremity: the farthest, the utmost of any extreme degree, the terminal point or limit. In writing about physical pain, bodily maladies, industrial labor, violent sexuality, endurance athletics, sex work, combat sport, and agricultural brutalities, my writing is always chasing questions of how much/how far/how bad, and why.
     Looking outward at what is happening in the world, I wonder if we have arrived at a place more extreme than where we have been before, or if the intensity of the present moment and the self interest that is activated by these things not just happening, but happening now to us is what seems to define our current moment in time as a previously unrealized terminal point: a new extreme. Politically, we have a megalomaniacal reality television star of dubious mental capacity running the United States government, too many deeply problematic world leaders to list here (cough, Netanyahu, cough, Kim Jong-un); we are staring down the barrel of what we have decided to euphemistically refer to as “climate change,” you can die of medical bills in the most developed nation in the world while the Sacklers gas up their fleet of private jets, oh, and apparently clitoridectomy is a thing in the Midwest now.
     It is clear to me that there is a point in writing about these issues: what they are, how they came to be, what they mean, what we might do about them, the lived experiences of people as we/they experience them. As a reader, a citizen, a human, I’m grateful that people are doing just that. But as a writer, what is less clear but even more compelling is the value of writing other extremities at such a time. My writing is not political. While I do engage research, cultural critique, and a layperson’s level of science, these curiosities and resonances are support members rather than the structural integrity of my work. I am still, perhaps stubbornly, most interested in the private bodily extremities of single humans—usually myself, sometimes others. I have spent most of my life adventuring in various areas of extremity with my own body, and lately I’ve been spending a lot of time asking intrusive questions of the people around me. I wonder sometimes if this pursuit is the most truly extreme thing that a person can do: to ask and tell whole ugly truths about messy, complicated realities. I hope so. 

Finding My Rightful Void: Writing in the Era of Extremity

Raquel Gutiérrez

“Do we merely live hand to mouth? Do we merely struggle with the "ism" that's sitting on top of our heads?” —Cherríe Moraga, Loving In The War Years

The war years have never left but war doesn’t even get called that anymore. Declaring war is a performative speech act rendered null by the mere act of war itself. War doesn’t have to be invoked for us to know it’s there even in its smallest increment. I’m not hopeful about what my writing does in the era of extremity. The only thing most of us have to arm ourselves against the extremities of war is our precarity. 
     Thinking about writing in the age of extremity often makes me think about love. Loving in the age of extremity is a harder undertaking. Is love under the duress of economic instability still love? How do we find and sustain love as our rights are slowly being chipped away? What is love when children are forced to live in cages? Love might be another commodity that loses value in the marketplace of feelings. And our humanity dulls with each passing day watching both banal and spectacular violences emerge. We remain impotent to change any of it. I wonder where did desire go? What kind of lover and giver of love do I become in the struggle against these new normalizations? I think about love as the actions of my higher self, the version of myself that is only made clear to me through writing—what I aspire to be determines the kind of love I give. I don’t always give the best in love but the failure allows for improved upon efforts. I will keep trying until I get it right. I keep trying to until extremity dictates otherwise.
     What is writing but an attempt to contain the scream from its rightful void. Writing is harnessing that powerlessness into language—if not for us now, then for posterity. Writing becomes an accomplice to the state when armed border patrol agents are allowed inside the Modern Languages building to inspire students to join their ranks. Writing is a double agent. 
     Maybe it’s the shock that keeps us from doing anything right now. Or we have to wait for everyone in our family to be taken away from us to feel entitled to lash out at leader and state. Just because we can endure the worst of it doesn’t mean we should. To write is to caution and to reflect on what we did wrong; the wrongest being doing nothing at all. Writing is just one way to stare at my anger.
     I write not to witness what happens in the vicinity of the border space where I get my mail, vote in my district, walk my dog, see my friends. I write about how any of this has changed me. Am I different from before living alongside these 60 miles near one of the most contested borders, where the U.S. meets Mexico, where people get scanned and surveilled for signs of humanity, where a state decides who stays and who gets disappeared into the phantom vessel of capitalist production. Or have I stayed the same? How have these atrocities compelled me to walk through the underworld of myself? Does the writing force my hand against complacency? Or has the ground beneath my feet shifted so dramatically that it’s hard to find footing in enacting resistance—back when writing meant resistance.


Monday, May 13, 2019

Cassandra Kircher: The Tent Pole and the Writer


When I teach Scott Russell Sanders’s “Cloud Crossing,” I present it to students as a narrative essay: A father hikes up a mountain with his eleven-month old son strapped on his back, discovers the remains of a burned fire tower, and hikes back to his car. Time, in the essay, moves forward chronologically with the momentum of a slow-pitched softball pausing midair as the narrator reflects on his older daughter, Eva, and parenthood more generally. I love the description of Sanders wrestling hunks of moss from his son’s hand and mouth. The essay is a clear example of a narrative. Students get my point. 
     Another more important reason I always thought I taught “Cloud Crossing” was to segue into the wasp nest of truth in relation to creative nonfiction. After twenty minutes or so of discussion, I tell the class that after Sanders gave a reading of “Cloud Crossing” back in the eighties, an audience member spoke up: “Wait a minute,” the man, a friend of Sanders, said, “I was with you on that hike.” Sanders, so the story I remember goes, agreed: “You were,” he said, “but you weren’t needed in the essay.”
     For years I’ve been surprised at how deceived students look when I tell them this story. Early on in my teaching and writing life, I’d accepted that minor characters in creative nonfiction sometimes have to go. “Killed off” is a term I know I’ve used to get students’ attention. Last week, however, I was even more surprised—shocked might not be too strong of a word—when I emailed Sanders to confirm details about this story that I couldn’t verify. I wanted to know who that man in the audience was, what Sanders thought about leaving him out of the essay, exactly when and where this reading of the essay took place. I emailed on a Saturday; Sanders replied Monday morning: “The essay from which I omitted my fellow hiker is not ‘Cloud Crossing,’” he wrote. “It’s ‘Feasting on Mountains.’ Both are included in my first essay collection, The Paradise of Bombs…. The correction is important. On the hike described in ‘Cloud Crossing,’ I was alone with my young son; had anyone else been along, my experiences would have been very different; indeed, the essay might never have been written.”


Last fall when making final edits on my manuscript Far Flung, I paused when remembering a camping trip I had written about ten years earlier and mischaracterized in the book: there weren’t, as I had described, just my two children on that rain-filled trip we’d taken to Rocky Mountain National Park. There had been three. In the process of writing, I’d “killed off” a curly-haired little girl named Eliot, a friend of my daughter’s, who my husband and I had invited along. After my own kids, Eliot was the child in the world I knew best. I’ll always remember how she cried one of the August evenings we left Colorado for North Carolina. She was about five and wailing to the point of tantrum, as if she just then realized people you love can leave. Today Eliot is twenty-three. Her mother, one of the closest and most important friends of my life, has been dead almost five years.


After receiving Scott Russell Sanders’s email, I searched for my copy of The Paradise of Bombs and reread “Feasting on Mountains.” The experience was strange, almost emotional. Instead of concentrating on the narrator and his thoughts while hiking up Oregon’s Mount June, I kept obsessing over the friend who had been written out of the essay, the one who must have been right there huffing and sweating beside Sanders. My inside knowledge about the absent friend made a difference. While reading, I was no longer a teacher. I felt like one of my students, the dozens and dozens I’d told about Sanders’s hiking companion who had not made it onto the page.
     I’m not sure how I mixed up an anecdote about “Feasting on Mountains” and assigned it to “Cloud Crossing.” In his email to me, Sanders wanted to make sure I got my facts about both essays straight, but most of what he wrote was instructive and comforting. “Feasting on Mountains,” he emailed, “was one of my earliest essays, written in 1979, and I was still learning the form; had I been more experienced, or more skillful, I might have been able to compose a twin narrative, one about the exchanges between my friend and me, the other about my inner brooding on the human (male?) penchant for violence… As one develops more experience in writing, one can handle more complexity.”
     That camping essay was one of my own early essays. If Eliot ever reads it, I want her to know that fact, just as I want her to know about that trip she enjoyed but might not remember because she was so young when it occurred. Mostly—now that I don’t feel quite as guilty—I want to thank her. My camping essay ended up being about me accepting that neither my husband nor children share my own passion for sleeping in tents or eating around dirt. It was, I imagine, Eliot’s presence that allowed me to see that gap. She was the one helping me thread shiny poles through grommets while my own kids shepherded stuffed animals into a half-pitched dome and my husband eyed our station wagon like a getaway car. Creating any personal essay, like putting up any family-sized tent, needs collaboration in ways I haven’t thought much about yet. Whenever I read an essay, I realize the writer might have had help in the process of writing—someone responding to drafts, someone reading for typos. What I’m becoming aware of now is that essays are like tents after they’ve been put up and their rainflies staked down. At that point it’s not possible to see the poles holding them up. I’m not sure if I’m contradicting Scott Russell Sanders or offering another perspective when I write this: had Eliot not been along on that camping trip, my essay probably would never have been written.

Cassandra Kircher's essay collection, Far Flung: Improvisations on National Parks, Driving to Russia, Not Marrying a Ranger, the Language of Heartbreak, and Other Natural Disasters, was released May 1, 2019 by West Virginia University Press. Her nonfiction has been nominated for Best American Essays and a Pushcart, and has appeared in North Dakota Quarterly, South Dakota Review, Cold Mountain Review, Flyway, Apalachee Review, Permanent Vacation, and others. She teaches at Elon University.  

Monday, April 29, 2019

On Anger, Experiments in Form, and The Shell Game: a Conversation with Kim Adrian

I'm teaching a graduate seminar on the art and work of the literary anthology this semester, in which we're reading anthologies across genre and in some cases talking with editors about the work that goes into assembling an anthology of others' works, and what that kind of work can mean, what sorts of space it can consolidate or create, and what conversations it can foment. You'll see some more of these conversations on Essay Daily over the course of the next couple months. I'm a bit of an anthology aficionado to begin with, and the class's conversations have only deepened my appreciation for an undersung form. It may be undersung and underappreciated, but it's crucial to the development of many writers. Almost all writers I know were inflected or affected or imprinted (in a positive way usually, though sometimes in challenging ways too) by anthologies at some point in their journeys. Whether it was discovering what the lyric essay was capable of in The Next American Essay or even encountering Lopate's great though very much of its time demographically The Art of the Personal Essay, or an infatuation with the Best American Short Stories anthologies of the late 80s and early 90s, these anthologies can be meaningful, and they have lives that go on long beyond the first encounter. Are they tied to a time and place? Yes. But they persist. And they mean. They can make a canon or break one. They give us permission, whether it's to write stories that you didn't know you were allowed to write or think, much less publish, or whether it's to mess around with form, in the case of Kim Adrian's The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms (University of Nebraska Press, 2018). What are the connections between the writer's own work and the editorial/anthologizing work they do? What are the lives of anthologies and those who read and assemble and publish them like? How much work is it to put one together, or to find a publisher for one? What kinds of spaces are we creating or consolidating when we gather and publish an anthology? We'll be asking and answering some of these questions and more. 

After discussing some of the essays in The Shell Game, I posed a few questions that came up in our class discussion to Kim Adrian, and we present them here to you. We welcome your thoughts about anthologies, which ones mean or meant the most to you, and why? Which ones spurred you to do something different, not seeing what (or who) you wanted to see in an anthology? Let us know in the comments or on twitter. —Ander Monson


AM: Kim, thanks for doing this. So as I mentioned in an earlier email, I’m teaching a graduate seminar on the literary anthology—what they do / what space they make or collect for writers, readers, editors, publishers, teachers, students, and other communities. We talked about the great anthology you edited, The Shell Game (University of Nebraska Press, 2018), and we have more questions. Thanks for making this anthology and getting it out into the world. So: What draws you to nonfiction (others or your own) working in received forms? One needs to be a little bit obsessed with an idea, subject, question, or form to do all the work of assembling an anthology (which editors know is much more work than most people can imagine), and it’s clear from your other work (most obviously in your book, The Twenty-Seventh Letter) that form is both highly meaningful to you and, it would appear, generative. How’d you get so obsessed with form/s?

KA: I took a lot of fiction writing workshops in college and for a few years afterwards, when I had a part-time job at Harvard, where one of the benefits was free classes. Being young and having my heart set on becoming a writer, I took the advice I received in those workshops very seriously. What I didn’t understand was that the the limitations of the workshop setting itself (twelve students, one semester) often promote a prescriptive approach. One teacher even gave us a formula. ABCDE—Action, Background, Climax, Denouement, Ending—something like that. Trying to write stories that filled requirements like this was probably the worst thing I could have been doing at that time in terms of growing as a writer, but of course I didn’t realize that then.

During this same period, over the course of about a year, I checked out every volume of The Best American Short Stories from the library and charted the plot of each story. I was obsessed. It was a painful obsession because I, myself, couldn’t manage to write the kind of plot that’s based on so-called conflict. The kind where something has to “happen,” to “change,” the kind with a “rising action” that leads to increasing tension, a climax, and finally a letting down or denouement. My work has always tended toward the essayistic. I’m just more interested in lateral offshoots than in straight linear progression. But for a long time I resisted my own inclinations because I thought I needed to stick to the rules I was learning in the workshops. I suppose it’s natural to try to please your teachers, but that was a big part of the problem. Being a people pleaser can be a very dangerous proposition when it comes to writing.

At some point I realized that all the stories and novels and essays I loved best to read actually worked against the kind of prescripts I was trying so hard to master. Writers like Virginia Woolf or Kenzaburo Oe, with whom I was especially smitten at the time. So I started experimenting with form. The first story I wrote after this revelation did not go well in workshop. In fact, the teacher said in class that the narrator (clearly a version of myself) needed to be in a psychiatric hospital. Even at the time I remember thinking that comment was over the line. The narrator of that story was merely thoughtful and a little melancholy. That particular teacher had written a well-known book on conventional fiction writing techniques and, looking back on it now, I wonder if he took it personally, somehow, the fact that that story of mine—which was about young love—was as essayistic as it was narrative. Did he resent my coloring outside the lines he’d described so carefully in his craft book? Who knows. In any case, his comment made me angry. Especially because, by my reckoning, that story was the best thing I’d managed to get down on paper thus far. Oddly, that anger propped me up, and my experiments with form only got bolder.

AM: One question that came up in reading, say, Caitlin Horrocks’s “The Six Answers on the Back of a Trivia Card” was to what extent the success of a hermit crab essay depends on how familiar the reader is with the form it’s inhabiting. That is, for one of my students who’s only a couple years younger than me, it immediately and powerfully brought her back to her own childhood studying those cards (her grandfather, she told us, was an obsessive Trivial Pursuit collector—!—and he had every edition, and she’d stay up late in bed as a kid reading and memorizing answers so as to get a competitive advantage against him (which is awesome in itself and tells you something about her…)). But if one were to teach that essay to an 18-year-old, I wonder what the form would even mean to them. Do kids still play Trivial Pursuit? Do they play it as a board game or as an app or something? If it wasn’t recognizable to them, how would they read it? That led me to a larger question which we talked about a bit in my class, but I thought I’d pose it to you: is any form used in a hermit crab essay a technology? (Are all forms technologies?) And then, does using a form tie an essay to a particular technological moment or era (I’m thinking here of, say, the Ok Cupid essay too)?

KA: I don’t think of forms as technologies so much as strategies. But yes, some forms will absolutely speak more clearly to certain readers than to others. As much as I love hermit crab essays, I suspect they are especially vulnerable to becoming cliché or passé rather quickly because of this recognition issue, at least in those essays that don’t exploit the form in a truly skillful way. Because in the final analysis form is always subservient to content, and in less skillful hermit crab essays that’s not always the case. But in a really good borrowed form essay, I don’t think you have to worry about the formal strategy getting outdated. A really fine piece of writing will carry its own. A good reader will have enough to go on to put it together, even if they’re not personally familiar with the form. Certainly there are examples that have aged very beautifully—Primo Levi’s The Periodic Table, for instance. But that’s Primo Levi. He used the perfect form for his project. Not to dissuade anyone from playing around in this way, because I really do think it’s a worthwhile game. Hermit crab essays are a particularly accessible way to experiment with form that can lead to interesting discoveries and insights. For instance, I think they allow us to see very clearly how form and content are intimately related—how they’re essentially one and the same thing, but also not. Not quite.

AM: It’s a bit unusual for a writer to propose an anthology project to a press before publishing a book of their own. A lot of anthologies seem to trade in part on the reputation of the editor as a writer, and that’s a lot easier to do once that reputation’s built by the editor’s publishing career. As I remember it, the anthology proposal predated either of your books (though I imagine you had a contract for your Object Lessons book). I admire the boldness of your idea for this anthology but also wonder how the work involved in making it contributed to or amplified or overshadowed or slowed or otherwise affected your own work as a writer? Did it help you to surround yourself with discoveries of other writers using borrowed forms? 

KA: Yes, I already had the contract for Sock, and that lent me a bit credibility I think. I also had a fairly long history of publishing shorter works, including a couple of hermit crab essays, so that helped too. But honestly I was pretty surprised that I got the contract for the anthology. It almost seemed too easy. Though in a way the whole project felt like that. Not easy, exactly, just way more doable than I’d expected. That said, it was also a ton of work. I had to read over 500 submissions, for example. But I enjoyed almost the entire process—communicating with other writers, working with many of them to improve the essays, thinking about how best to order the pieces. The only thing I didn’t like was obtaining permissions. Working on the anthology did slow down my other work—my memoir in particular, which was eventually published by the same press. I just couldn’t concentrate on the few relatively minor revisions they had requested on that manuscript and also get the anthology out the door at the same time, so my memoir came out a year later than originally anticipated. Overall, the anthology felt like a juggling act and while it did take up a lot of time, now that I don’t have an editing gig in my life, I miss it. I found it to be a wonderful counterbalance to the isolation of writing. In terms of the last part of your question, I admire every essay in the anthology, but there were only two that inspired me in my own work. And yes, it was very enriching to work with those writers, and to examine their writing so closely, as an editor. It was fascinating.

AM: How did you end up at the University of Nebraska Press for both of your books (which are both lovely: they do good work)? 

KA: By the time I started thinking about the anthology I’d finished my memoir, The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet, and was hunting around for an agent for it. The book is a bit of an odd duck, a borrowed form (a glossary) about my relationship to my mentally ill mother. Several agents had praised it but worried they wouldn’t be able to sell it because it didn’t have a strong enough narrative arc. (Lol, see above.) There was one agent in particular that I really liked. So even though he had said no to my memoir, I pitched him the idea for the anthology. He said he was interested, but that he’d need to see a real proposal and some sample essays before he committed. That’s what prompted me to reach out to a few essayists, write the introduction, and put together a formal proposal. When I sent these things to the agent, he said he still liked the idea but didn’t foresee a significant market for the book so he’d have to pass. I’d put in so much work by then, and had a pretty meaty proposal ready to go; it seemed only natural to send it out myself. I researched presses that publish this kind of thing—presses, I mean, that I could approach without an agent—and sent it to a couple of the most likely. University of Nebraska was at the top of the list because they are such terrific advocates of innovative nonfiction. They loved the idea and I had a contract in a couple of weeks. In terms of my memoir, I kept looking for an agent, or a larger publisher, on my own for a while but it was slow and frustrating. After a while I thought, why not send it to UNP? I was enjoying working with them on the anthology, and obviously had a good relationship with the acquiring editor there (Alicia Christensen), so I sent it to her and—happily—she took it. 

AM: In the proposal you sent me you’d sent me you included a possible mock-up of a cover idea, featuring art by Aki Inomata of hermit crabs in plexiglas artificial shell structures. That was a great cover image, I thought. I like them both, though the actual cover goes in a very different direction, one that really doubles down on the technology qualities I mentioned above. What happened between that idea:

and the one that you ended up with:


KA: Oh, that was a heart-breaker. Aki Inomata is a wonderful artist, and her acrylic architectural “shells” for real hermit crabs are perfect metaphors for hermit crab essays, which is why I took the liberty of using her work in a cover mock-up as part of the proposal. Unfortunately, she doesn’t speak English, so communications about actually using one of her images on the real cover were difficult. She didn’t get what I was talking about—an anthology? of what kind of essay?? what’s an essay??? I wrote to her several times but it always ended the same way. At a certain point, she got an agent and I thought that might be a good development, but the agent didn’t speak English either. One of the contributors to the anthology, Joey Franklin, speaks some Japanese so he volunteered to write to the agent—but again that went nowhere. The image on the cover now is actually something I had to fight hard for too, because the first cover image the press sent was—let’s just say, not my cup of tea. Primary colors. 1950’s clip art of Dick-and-Jane-style Caucasian kids playing some weird game that looked like a bomb-building kit. It was a valiant attempt at a borrowed form—supposed to look like an oblong game box, with the title and image running sideways—but the overall effect was illegible and, I thought, pretty garish. The book at that point also had a confusing subtitle: “a collection of hermit crab essays.” Over the course of the editing process it had dawned on me that to anybody outside the tiny world of hardcore innovative nonfiction (basically, the readership of this blog) this string of words could only indicate a collection of essays about hermit crabs. So I’d been working, with little progress, to get it changed. For some reason the press was really adamant on keeping “hermit crab essays” in the subtitle. But after a number of frantic (persuasive?) emails and phone calls from me, they finally agreed to change both things. The image that’s on the cover now—of a computer form in the midst of being filled out—was my idea, much refined and elevated by UNP’s designer.


Kim Adrian is the author of the memoir The Twenty-Seventh Letter of the Alphabet ("aching, endless, unresolved, and extremely compelling" —Los Angeles Review of Books). Her first book, Sock, is part of Bloomsbury's Object Lessons Series. Her award-winning essays and stories have been published in Tin House, AGNI, the Gettysburg Review, O Magazine, and many other places. The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms is an anthology of lyric essays Kim edited, praised by The Millions for offering "a sense of hope about literature."

Monday, April 22, 2019

On Collecting: A Conversation with Rachel Z. Arndt

I am a collector: a collector of stones, of Czech-based kitsch. I love the competitiveness that comes with collecting: to have the best, the rarest, the most comprehensive. I’ve written pretty extensively on the subject, but since publishing my book, I’ve started thinking more pointedly about the art of collecting: how collected writing is able to hold a subject, construct narrative, establish theme. The hope for this semi-regular column is to explore the different way writers and artists express themselves through the collection, how these practices might help us in our own artistic pursuits.

I found myself pulled toward the work of Rachel Z Arndt. Her collection of essays, Beyond Measure, is focused not on the collection of objects, but the collection of data: of sleep quality, of weigh-ins at judo competitions, the ideal height for kitchen countertops. Rachel was kind enough to engage in an email conversation on the topic of collecting over the course of the past several months.


David LeGault: In Beyond Measure, it seems like this idea is most directly pursued in the idea of quantification: collecting data on sleep patterns, or exercise & weight, or relationships, or even tracking time itself. Although the essays of the collection focus on this idea of understanding through data, I'm curious how that same approach helps to shape your creative work. For example, are word counts useful as a prompt? does goal setting or structure help you to approach your subjects? Is it different for you when putting together one essay as opposed to the entire book?

Rachel Z. Arndt: Oddly, that approach doesn’t inform my creative work much. I say “oddly” because it seems even to me that it should—that I would benefit in my writing from the structured thinking of my emotional life. Sometimes I think it would be nice—or at least convenient—if I did take a more data-driven, data-collecting approach in my creative work rather than in my daily life. It would be nice to flip things, essentially: to be looser in my day-to-day thinking and more goal-oriented on the page. Wouldn’t I get more done that way? But there you can see the problem; you can see, that is, that I’m returning to this obsessive demand for productivity (which comes from step-trackers and Instagram likes and neoliberalism, among other forces) for everything to make sense and for the evidence to prove it does. So maybe it’s good—or downright miraculous—that I don’t rely on data collection when I write (not to say that I don’t rely on data and facts in writing, just that the act of writing isn’t dependent on measurement). Maybe it’s a relief that I write in search of a feeling rather than a quantifiable thought—though I’m almost loathe to come out in favor of qualitative, subjective, inexact feelings, to say that I write in search of some mushy sense of accomplishment, or really in search of the feeling that comes most often during sports, when I’m not thinking at all about what I’m doing and the sentences are just appearing. It’s become a habit for me to flip back through ink-saturated pages every twenty or thirty minutes when I’m writing, feeling them as if to make what I just did real, because I have no real memory of it. But to admit writing is potentially spiritual? That feels a bit too inexact.

Sometimes I momentarily deceive myself into thinking I can outline an essay before writing it. And I make the outline and I feel good about it—until I start writing, when it all goes out the window because I realize what I always realize: that I usually don’t know what I’m trying to say until I’m saying it.

Which doesn’t mean I’m opposed to structure, though, just that planning an essay—its thesis, its path forward—doesn’t usually work for me. Some structure is actually very helpful, but only when it’s formal structure and not a structure that has to do with narrative or content at all—the actual data that emerge in an essay. So a word count would be helpful on the sentence level but not on the level of the essay and especially not on the level of the book, when it might tempt—God forbid—outlining

Occasionally when I’m stuck, I’ll treat myself to the formal constraint of repetitive sentence structures (see especially my essay “Briefly”). When I do that, structure is actually freeing, helping my writing as strongly as it hinders my enjoyment of daily pursuits like seeing friends or eating.

DL: That is interesting. I like the idea that data collection/organization can function as a means of structuring life, but that having too much order can stifle creativity... almost as if you have to remove that part of your process in order to try and understand it's function: a way of stepping away from yourself.

On the same line of thought, I think it's one of the reasons I found your connection to judo to be so fascinating. From personal experience running track, cross country, and now marathons, I know the appeal of running has always been that quantifiable nature: that I can still tell you my fastest 5k speed and that it will always be a goal for me to chase. I suppose this also fits with a sport like competitive weightlifting where you're essentially competing against yourself. To me, Judo seems like the sort of thing you can train for, but that lacks that same objective level. This could be my ignorance of the sport though. Do you feel like Judo is another form of creative expression for you? That is to say, when there is so much appeal in quantifiable data, why are you equally drawn to things more abstract?

RZA: I will say that judo isn’t completely unquantifiable. There’s match time, scoring, seconds it takes to win by pinning your opponent, &c. There are throws that are as close to perfect that we might as well call them objectively perfect. There are points and national rankings and perhaps the most measured thing of all: weight. But I understand what you mean.

Still, judo by no means occupies the same part of my being that writing does. I have a hard time thinking of sports as creative. I know they can be for other people, but for me, creativity is thinking and sports are pointedly not-thinking. Sports are my body, not my mind.

That doesn’t mean I’m not drawn to the abstract, though—I am. I’m drawn to it because quantifying everything is exhausting. Just as measurements themselves are relative, so is the value of measuring—it is meaningful, that is, relative to what remains (or insists upon remaining) unmeasured. There’s a place and time (ha) for measuring. There’s even value in measuring what’s abstract—in rating restaurants, for instance. But there’s also value in abstracting what might usually be measured—in going “off the grid,” in “living in the moment,” and all those other wishy-washy wellness things that are so often marketing ploys but sometimes really are worthwhile ways of living. I take off my watch sometimes, I cook without recipes. I’m very exciting!

And just as there’s value in abstracting the measurable and measuring the abstract, there’s also value in simply not measuring, in not transforming one into the other. So there’s therefore value in knowing when to measure. I try not to measure my writing too much—or even to plan it out—because I know those measurements will hinder me. I’m drawn to the abstract—to writing in particular—in part because there’s not the pressure of metrics (at least not at first).

But then again, there’s the sometimes unbearable pressure of never knowing, exactly, how well you’ve performed and the unbearable impossibility of recreating the circumstances exactly of when you performed well.

Which is not to say there’s more value in what’s quantified. I just think, because we usually use numbers for value, the value of the quantified is more accessible and more obvious. And it therefore holds greater appeal. But the appeal of the abstract is the very fact that it can’t be quantified. Perhaps it holds meaning only relative to what’s measured, or perhaps there’s inherent meaning. Either way, it’s meaningful, at the very least because it gives us points of comparison. I don’t mean to valorize the off-the-grid ethos that seems mostly an excuse to post on Twitter about going off the grid, only to say that for me, there need to be points of relativity not only within measurement but also around it.

DL: I love this line of thought: that it is the balance between quantification and the abstract--perhaps the pull between these two extremes--that can give conflict to an essay, to the project as a whole.

And I think this gets me to a point where I'd like to shift gears a bit and talk about the collection as a whole: as I've mentioned, the idea behind this series of conversations is to think about this act of collecting, to understand our own work of curating. With that said, how did this project start? Was it a preconceived idea for a collection, or did it come organically (that is, did you write enough essays that you began to see a pattern)? Beyond that, I'd love to hear your thoughts on the arc of this collection: I was really pleased when reading to see the connections forming between so many seemingly disparate essays.

RZA: The project started in a moment and also over years. The idea wasn’t apparent to me at first. I have a good friend to thank for making it so: She noticed I’d been writing a lot about measurement, which made me realize that yes, yes I was. At the time, I’d been trying to write more narrowly about sleep, but I’d been flailing, struggling to turn something that’s boring to watch and unknown in the moment into something compelling.

Once I knew I was writing about measurement, the essays—or at least the ideas for them—felt like a relief. Suddenly I had a word for the thing that had concerned me for so long. My readers—friends, publishing folks, peers—helped me figure out which essays to write and why, and for that I’m deeply grateful; they pointed out holes and redundancies, which became increasingly important to know about as the collection cohered (or, rather, as I began to call the shape it was taking “coherence”).

Arranging the essays was tough. I still don’t know whether I’m happy with the order. I like to think the movement within each essay follows associative logic (versus, say, chronological structure) and that the collection as a whole does the same thing. It was important to me to frame each essay correctly, so the reader would know enough about the narrator (but not too much) at each point along the way. I looked at the beginnings and endings of essays, trying to tie them together thematically, linking them as if with ligatures in typography: One specific letter need not necessarily be next to another specific letter, but when they’re adjacent, their shapes shift slightly to form an appropriate—and satisfying—connection.

I also wanted a balance between literal and metaphorical measurement throughout. And I didn’t want too many fitness essays (who knew I’d written so many!) in a row.

Some books that helped in not only writing the individual essays but in putting the right ones next to each other: “The Empathy Exams,” by Leslie Jamison; “Notes From No Man’s Land,” by Eula Biss; “A Woman of Property,” by Robyn Schiff; “The Folded Clock,” by Heidi Julavits.

Rachel Z. Arndt is a writer and editor. Her debut essay collection, Beyond Measure, came out from Sarabande in 2018. She received MFAs from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and the University of Iowa’s Nonfiction Writing Program and a BA in creative writing and Spanish from Brown University. She now lives in Chicago.

David LeGault's book of essays, One Million Maniacs, is now available from Outpost19. Other recent works appear or are forthcoming in The Normal School, Hotel Amerika, and Thin Air, among others. Although he calls the Midwest home, he currently resides in Prague, Czech Republic.

Thursday, April 18, 2019

Towards a Better Nonfiction Workshop

Of late I find myself struck by a number of on-going discussions involving the much lauded & much dreaded mechanism which serves as the linchpin of American writing programs: the workshop. Specifically, I want to draw the attention of our readers to Beth Nguyen’s recent article over at LitHub and to a supportive Twitter thread in response by Garth Greenwell. What I found particularly arresting—alarming, terrifying, infuriating—about this discussion was Greenwell’s confirmation that both an absence of pedagogical training for creative writing instructors and a professional disregard for K-12 teaching experience are common at the university level. The thought that high school teaching experience, i.e., teaching work more challenging and lower paying than that typically done by a tenure-track CW professor, would be seen as disqualifying briefly threw my mind into an apoplectic frenzy, and when I first started drafting this post I thought it would be a massive, brutal, excoriating, Juvenalian entry in our curmudgeonly Malcontent series, one which would tear down the workshop model and its attendant notions of institutional prestige (that draft included multiple denunciations of indifferent professors as traitors to art; lengthy compilations of workshop failures brought about by incompetence, malfeasance, and malice; an extended catalog of the countless intellectual & moral failures of David Foster Wallace; several uses of the phrase “faux New Critical detritus”; and an overlong conceit which re-imagined the aesthetic arbitrariness of workshop feedback as a sashimi conveyor belt in which some items are secretly made of feces).

But as I think more and more about the workshop (and the professors who teach it), I have realized that many people, including (perhaps especially including) the tenure-track professors expected to make use of it, don’t actually care that much for the workshop to begin with. Given this, I think it may be a better use of my time & space here to identify some specific problems which tend to emerge from the workshop, mention some possible solutions (some of them gleaned from my experience teaching high school students), and open up a call for thoughts and commentary on improving the workshop.

For this discussion, I’ll be assuming a relatively “traditional” workshop model, i.e., one in which students read a piece, write letters in response to it, and then offer a mixture of prescriptive and descriptive feedback in a loose, supposedly free-flowing seminar-style group discussion.

I absolutely do not mean to suggest that all of my proposals below are excellent, 100%-effective solutions for the major problems with the workshop. Rather, I hope that they may serve as a starting point or inspiration for discussions on things we can do to improve the workshop. I welcome feedback, suggestions, responses etc.

So then, on to the problems:

The Workshop is Not Culturally Responsive (to put it very, very mildly)

See Beth Nguyen’s above-linked article for examples of this. Or just talk to students of color, queer students, working-class students, or students of many other marginalized groups about their workshop experiences—examples of this are rife. I can recall one particular workshop, relatively early in my grad school experience, where discussion over a particularly gay essay of mine devolved into a fruitless and unhelpful debate about whether or not the piece’s somewhat, shall we say, direct references to relations between men might “alienate possible straight allies”. The essay was some overwrought fragmented faux-lyric thing which framed gay subversions of the arrow-pierced religious iconography of St. Sebastian & 19th Century notions of sexual inversion as metaphors for the contemporary psychological experience of the closet—which is to say, the essay was deeply unconcerned with anything even approaching the phrase “straight allies”.

Was spending a third to a half of that workshop discussing the possible alienation of “straight allies” remotely helpful? No. Did losing that much discussion time to the “straight allies” problem prevent me from getting other, potentially more helpful feedback? Probably. But the traditional workshop mode—group discussion and a silent author does not have a particularly good mechanism for reframing or re-guiding these types of discussions.

Possible solutions: as Nguyen’s essay mentions—un-silence the writer! This can take many forms, but even a modification as simple as allowing a writer to intervene and say “got your feedback, thanks, can we move on to a new topic” will go far to prevent fruitless or unhelpful discussion.

Additionally, workshop instructors should consider the possibility of explicitly re-directing discussion when they feel conversation may be drifting into an unhelpful, harmful, or offensive direction. Anybody who has done work with younger students (or anybody who has done any form of serious conflict resolution at all) knows that early intervention & re-direction, rather than being an impediment to honest discussion, often prevents serious toxicity from developing.

Also: require students to at least attempt a Google search on terms or phrases from other cultures, languages, religions, etc they may find unfamiliar BEFORE they bring it up in workshop discussion. Sort of silly that instructors may need to make this mandatory, but here we are.

The Workshop Offers Few Avenues for Direct Modelling

A good deal of human learning—especially learning occurring in formal settings like classrooms—is contingent upon modelling, i.e., upon an instructor or mentor figure showing students what an outcome should look like and then helping them break down and work through the steps to achieve it. This usually takes an instructional structure similar to I Do (i.e., the instructor directly models the skill); We Do (the instructor helps students walk through the process); You Do (students are given the chance to try the process on their own). If I Do; We Do; You Do sounds pedestrian, silly, childish, or beneath you, reader, think back to the last time you cooked a recipe you were unfamiliar with—you probably watched an instructional video or read an article on a cooking blog (I Do) and then prepared the recipe according to step by step instructions the first time (We Do) before modifying it according to your own preferences a second time (You Do). The process is commonplace and natural to people learning all manners of skills at all levels.

The traditional workshop, however, is absolutely terrible at offering opportunities for this sort of modelling. One of the primary goals of workshop is for writers to learn how to interpret and critique the work of others. But—unless the professor takes time to build their own apparatus for developing these skills into the course—the workshop offers little to no chance for students to actively improve these skills under guided instruction. Instead of assuming students already know how to write effective workshop letters and have effective workshop discussions, or instead of just hitting the ground running and assuming students will figure out their own workshop “style”, instructors may want to consider explicitly laying out some guidelines and suggestions for workshop letters and discussions and then (most importantly!) providing feedback on workshop letters throughout the course.

This need not be negative/punitive in focus—many students do have legitimately different styles when it comes to workshop feedback. Taking a little time every week or two to present to the class examples of different interpretive moves (ideally helpful, successful ones) students have made in discussion or in workshop letters will allow the class to see a variety of different models in action—much more helpful than just “figuring it out” on their own.

I have sometimes heard that students should already know how to do all this by the time they get to grad school, but this relies on assuming that every student has a thorough grounding in creative writing practice & pedagogy from their undergraduate years. This is, to put it politely, a very false assumption.

The Workshop Should Not Be a Summative Assessment

Although students should be expected to bring work with some degree of polish in to a workshop, a major problem with the workshop model is that it can reward “safe” or overtly “finished” work (if you turn in something which doesn’t take any huge risks or have any huge issues you can be sure people are much less likely to gossip about your work at the program’s happy hour watering hole). The social stakes of workshop often make it seem like what is, in teacher lingo, called a summative assessment—an ultimate, final test of your ability to produce work according to a certain benchmark (in this case, the benchmark being “does this workshop group think this is worthy of publication?”).

But this is a terrible way for workshop to function! It unnecessarily stresses the writer, creates potential tensions which can lead to bad vibes across the whole program (or school, or community, or etc), encourages unhelpful workshop gamesmanship and one-upping, discourages writers from trying new tactics in their writing, and ultimately fails to meet the writer and their work where they are at.

There are number of ways instructors can ameliorate this, but I believe that thinking of workshop as a formative assessment—something low stakes, designed to provide developmental feedback rather than an evaluation of whether a piece is “working or not”—is a good starting point. Encourage your students to focus on purely descriptive feedback—what was their experience of the text, rather than how this text should be changed. Or you may directly inquire with the author at the start of the workshop what type of feedback (structural? Line by line? Research related? In light of XYZ?) they would find most helpful and guide discussion along those lines.

The Workshop Format Makes Poor Use of Time and Breeds Inattention

Put simply: it is very hard for anybody to pay attention to anything for 3 hours, no matter how much we might like to pretend otherwise. Students are likely to lose focus during workshop discussion, especially if 1 or 2 loud voices are dominating the conversation. Additionally, when a piece comes in workshop may unduly influence the type of feedback it receives—people are often just getting warmed up during the first 30 minutes, and often bored & ready to go get a drink during the last 30 minutes.

Instructors may consider using some of this opening and closing time—when students are least focused—on a generative exercise or discussion topic not directly tied to a workshop piece. And instructors may want to seek out ways to divide the workshopping of a single essay into smaller component units. Changing gears/modes regularly allows for easy refocusing and makes it easier for students to avoid drifting off during workshop. A simple, easy to implement version might look something like this: instructor poses a relevant, individualized, descriptive question about the piece up for workshop (1 minute); students break into pairs or small groups to discuss this question (3-5 minutes); instructor solicits responses to this question & summarizes on whiteboard (3-5 minutes); instructor uses this content to segue to whatever mode of workshop the course uses (30+ minutes); writer asks any clarifying or additional questions they may have (5 minutes); students conclude by filling out index cards summarizing any new observations they have had about the piece (or by mentioning their favorite quotes from the piece, or re-iterating what they found most interesting—there are all kinds of closing activities you can use here) & presenting these to the writer (3 minutes).

This is, of course, not the only way to go about implementing something like this—it is just one suggestion to show how breaking the discussion up can make better use of time, provide a bigger variety of feedback, and minimize the natural human tendency to inattention.

The Workshop Can Be Uniquely Ill-Suited to CNF & Essay Students

CNF is a ludicrously over-broad genre term—it includes everything from the works of Anne Carson (the poets are probably screeching right now, but as they call anything pretty-sounding “a poem” so too have I come to call anything smart “an essay”) to longform gonzo journalism to science writing to etc etc etc. This means that a CNF workshop is likely to have a huge variety of backgrounds, styles, interests, etc present in it. The workshops I attended might feature me, a gayboy who writes about 16th Century demonology & Catholic art history & obscure JPRGs, responding to essays about saguaro cacti. Or a former border patrol agent responding to an essay about a cryogenic lab. We were often a vibrant, pleasingly chaotic mix. But without focus and structure the free-flowing group discussion model of workshop could easily turn into 20+ minutes of “I needed a little more context on subject ABC, which is unfamiliar to me”—helpful feedback, surely, but also something that could be an email, or an index card, or a post-it note instead of taking up class time. I don’t think the traditional model does an excellent job of leveraging the energy and force offered by the varied backgrounds and interests of CNF writers, although I will admit I don’t have a very clear set of ideas for improvement here.

A Brief Call: On Improving the Nonfiction Workshop

I would like to dedicate some space and time this summer (ideally in the month of June) to encouraging conversations on how the nonfiction workshop functions and how it can be improved. Are you interested in contributing an Essay Daily-style piece on how the nonfiction workshop might be made better? Drop us a line (managing editor Will’s email is in the column on the right). We’re open to creative reflections on the relevant pedagogy, plug-and-play strategies teachers can utilize in their classrooms, weird & hybrid (always one of our preferred modes) commentaries on the workshop, concrete suggestions for ways to vary and enrich workshop, etc. That being said, we prefer things which exist in the creative-critical liminal space to purely academic articles on pedagogy. Those formal articles are undoubtedly excellent, but likely better addressed to our scholarly friends over at Assay.

If you have some thoughts and feelings about the workshop but don’t feel up to writing a whole piece, drop me an email anyways—I’m happy to compile brief thoughts and notes from our contributors in a summary-style digest as well.

Thanks for your time and interest, and be in touch by June 1st if you can.


Will Slattery helps curate things here at Essay Daily. He tweets on occasion: @wjaslattery.