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.

Monday, April 8, 2019

“To Get at the Real Thing”: Stephen Crane’s “War Memories”

When Stephen Crane went to Cuba in 1898 as a journalist covering the Spanish–American War, he was hoping to finally experience war firsthand; although he was the famous author of a war novel, he had never actually participated in or even witnessed a battle up close. The nearest he had come was the distant observation of some skirmishes in the Greco–Turkish War of 1897. In Cuba, he had his chance at last. He was present at all the major battles of the brief war, from Guantanamo to San Juan Hill. As a reporter embedded with the troops, Crane experienced firefights, witnessed death, and even participated in the American war effort by carrying messages to officers. From the frontlines, he wrote articles for Pulitzer’s World and took notes for a novel that he intended to write (but never did). After the war, he wrote short stories and essays based on his experiences in Cuba. These pieces appeared in the collection Wounds in the Rain.

Perhaps the most interesting and unusual piece in the collection—and much the longest—is a (mostly) nonfiction narrative entitled “War Memories.” Today, this difficult-to-categorize piece would likely be called creative nonfiction or literary journalism, although it is not quite either. Crane’s text plays with genre (and facts) in a way reminiscent of postmodern war narratives such as Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried (labeled fiction) and Michael Herr’s Dispatches (labeled nonfiction). Writing nearly a century before Herr and O’Brien ventured into the same territory, Crane used “War Memories” to explore the underlying ambiguity of “true stories” and the ultimate indeterminacy of Truth. From the narrative’s opening line—“But to get at the real thing . . . it seems impossible”—to its last (“You can depend on it that I have told you nothing at all”), Crane contemplates the inability of language to fully articulate experience: “An expression of life can always evade us,” he writes. “We can never tell life, one to another, although sometimes we think we can.”

Ultimately, “War Memories” tells a purportedly true story even as it questions whether “facts” can fully convey the truth.

* * *

In between its opening and closing comments on indeterminacy and the inadequacy of language, “War Memories” recounts a series of episodes or vignettes that detail the narrator’s experience of the Spanish–American War. But the focus of these vignettes is “off center.” The reading public, as Crane well knows, wants to hear about the war’s major events (such as the charge up San Juan Hill) and the presumed major players (such as Teddy Roosevelt), but the narration deflects this desire. Instead, Crane suggests that the big picture is too fuzzy to reveal the truth. Only by turning our attention to small, seemingly insignificant things—such as a bunch of bananas or a toothbrush—can we begin to approach “the real thing.” In “War Memories,” Crane is telling the truth about the war, but he is, to use Emily Dickinson’s phrase, telling it slant.

Throughout the text, Crane plays with notions of veracity, starting with the question of who exactly is narrating the text. The opening lines of “War Memories,” refer in third person to someone named Vernall. This Vernall delivers what amounts to the thesis statement of the essay: “‘But to get at the real thing!’ cried Vernall the war correspondent. ‘It seems impossible! It is because war is neither magnificent nor squalid; it is simply life, and an expression of life can always evade us. We can never tell life, one to another, though sometimes we think we can.’”

Subsequently, the narrative shifts to the first person for the remainder of the text. Initially, it appears that Vernall is someone other than the narrator, someone who is simply quoted in the first paragraph before the first-person narration begins. We are apt to think that Vernall is not the narrator, but one of the other correspondents on the dispatch boat with the presumed narrator. Only later, when an officer addresses the narrator as Mr. Vernall do we realize that way back in the first paragraph the narrator has referred to himself in the third person and quoted himself. So while Crane the author is using his own actual experiences for the material of “War Memories,” the narration of those details has been displaced onto an invented or fabricated narrator. The narrative confusion is deliberate and telling: the reader cannot be certain who is speaking, and this uncertainty necessarily raises questions about the reliability of what is being said. It also foregrounds the evident (but usually unacknowledged) ambiguity at the core of war reportage.

Immediately following this opening comment on indeterminacy, the (now first-person) narrator relates a minor incident that occurs on board a dispatch boat carrying several correspondents out to sea where they intend to monitor the U.S. Navy’s blockade of the Cuban coast. But the narrator is not interested in discussing the political or military dimensions of the blockade; in fact, these “big picture” concerns are hardly mentioned, if at all. Instead, the narrator turns his attention to a “huge bunch of bananas” that one of the correspondents has “hung like a chandelier in the centre of the tiny cabin.” As the boat rolls with the waves, this bunch of bananas swings wildly around the cabin, knocking the correspondents down and forcing them helplessly to the corners of the cabin. It is presented as an amusing anecdote right up to the “punch line”: “You see? War! A bunch of bananas rampant because the ship rolled.”

With these words, Crane—or his stand-in Vernall—signals his narrative strategy: namely, to relate an anecdote focused on something seemingly insignificant and then allude to the incident’s possible—yet unrealized—emblematic significance. In this initial anecdote, the bunch of bananas becomes a metaphor for the war—or more exactly a metaphor for the attempt to report the war, to do the work of a war correspondent—which, on the surface anyway, is the work of determining the facts and explaining the events of a given war. But right away, as the four correspondents on the dispatch boat set off to do their duty, they are distracted, put off their guard, and even knocked down by something absurd and uncontrollable, something that literally cannot be grasped. A paragraph later the narrator repeats the trope: “the war . . . was a bunch of bananas swung in the middle of the cabin.”

Subsequently, the narrator relates another incident, this time involving action more typically associated with war: the bombardment of a coastline. In this scene, the narrator is doing the requisite work of a war correspondent: he is on board the flagship in the company of junior officers. He is “getting the story” for his newspaper. A call comes to “man the port battery.” The correspondent joins the officers in observing the bombardment, but before long they all return to the officers’ mess to drink coffee and listen to piano music. The narrator concludes the anecdote by noting an odd—even absurd—juxtaposition: “The piano’s clattering of the popular air was often interrupted by the boom of a four-inch gun.” This discordant image, and indeed the whole incongruous scene, recalls the trope established earlier. It is all “a bunch of bananas,” the narrator says.

But how so? To paraphrase Lewis Carroll: how is a war like a bunch of bananas? Seemingly there’s no obvious answer, and therein lies the rub: Crane is—I think—suggesting that there is a deep and unrecognized significance in what would otherwise seem insignificant. Any given event or moment of the war may (as the bunch of bananas in the cabin) absorb your attention, demand your attention, while simultaneously evading your ability to grasp it, to manage it, let alone to master it. You are supposed to “cover the war,” but how is it possible to “cover” something so elusive, so “rampant”?

* * *

I first read “War Memories” in preparation for a trip to Cuba. My purpose was to visit San Juan Hill and write a magazine article for the one hundredth anniversary of the Rough Riders’ famous charge in the Spanish–American War. What I wanted from Crane was a few choice quotes about the Rough Riders that I could work into the article. The words of a famous novelist—eyewitness to the battle—would obviously enhance the article, so I searched Crane’s lengthy essay looking for what is now sometimes called “the money quote.” To my surprise, I found nothing I could use—no detailed description of San Juan Hill or the battle, no account of the Rough Riders’ actions. Somewhat puzzled, I set Crane aside and turned to the accounts written by other famous journalists on the scene that day in 1898: Richard Harding Davis, Frank Norris, William Randolph Hearst. For the time being, I forgot about Crane and “War Memories.”

I forgot about it, that is, until I was actually in Cuba, standing at the base of San Juan Hill, staring up its (surprisingly) gentle slope to where a defunct Ferris wheel stood on the hilltop. At that moment, confronted with the odd, unexpected image of the Ferris wheel, along with the underwhelming puniness of the famous hill, I recalled the recurrent motif of “War Memories”: “a bunch of bananas”—the image that in Crane’s mind stood for all that he found strange, absurd, and inexplicable about the war and war correspondence. Throughout the essay, I remembered, Crane had repeatedly turned his attention to odd and seemingly insignificant things; in these images, he found the true representation—if not the precise meaning—of the war he was attempting to cover. Standing at the base of San Juan Hill, I realized that in my eagerness to find a money quote, I had too readily dismissed “War Memories.” I would need to revisit the essay.

* * *

“War Memories” consistently dwells on incidents that—in the narrator’s telling—are essentially indeterminate, moments when the truth cannot be fully or even adequately determined, moments when truth is in dispute. An example comes from the narrator’s account of an incident that occurs just after the skirmish at Las Guasimas, one of the first fights of the war and the debut action for the Rough Riders. In the midst of the intense firefight, the narrator happens upon another correspondent, his friend Edward Marshall. (Here, Crane uses Marshall’s real name, not a pseudonym as he does for other correspondents.) Marshall has been severely wounded and, according to the account in “War Memories,” asks the narrator to go to the coast a few miles away to “round up some assistance.” In his newspaper account for The World, written in situ a year before “War Memories” was written, Crane provided the usual journalistic details about the episode, details that do not appear in “War Memories.” In the later account, the encounter with Marshall is curtailed; instead, the narrator relates a subsequent conversation with another correspondent (nameless) to whom the narrator reports Marshall’s injury. The other correspondent responds: “Marshall? Marshall? Why, Marshall isn’t in Cuba at all. He left for New York just before the expedition sailed from Tampa.” An absurd back-and-forth dispute then ensues with the narrator insisting that Marshall has been shot and needs assistance while the nameless correspondent maintains that Marshall is back in New York. Exasperated, the narrator flees: “I couldn’t go on with him. He excelled me at all points. I have faced death by bullets, fire, water, and disease, but to die thus—to willfully batter myself against the ironclad opinion of this mummy—no, no, not that.” This encounter does not appear in any of Crane’s reportage. He added it to “War Memories” as yet another example of how easily truth can be disputed and distorted, yet another instance of an absurd minor incident supplanting the “main” action in the narration.

As with the banana incident and several other encounters that the narrator relates in “War Memories,” there are farcical overtones to this passage; but beneath the farce, key themes of the narrative are present: miscommunication and misunderstanding, disputed truth, entrenched opinions. Much of the narrative, indeed, involves refuting the “ironclad opinion” of those who have spoken and written with such certainty about the war.

To this end, Crane introduces a rhetorical device that heightens the narrative’s concerns with truth and indeterminacy. This is the device of an off-stage interlocutor. This person does not appear directly in the text; rather, the presence of this interlocutor is inferred from the narrator’s occasional pauses—breaks in the flow of the narrative when the narrator appears to be considering a question or a comment that has come from the unnamed, unseen, and unvoiced interlocutor. Initially, these interruptions are innocuous and hardly noticeable, as when the narrator, while describing a skirmish, pauses to consider a question of terminology: “In this valley there was a thicket—a big thicket—and this thicket seemed to be crowded with a mysterious class of persons who were evidently trying to kill us. Our enemies? Yes—perhaps—I suppose so.”

Here, the interlocutor has apparently interrupted to say—with certainty—that the “mysterious class of persons” was “the enemy.” The narrator, however, is less certain, and refrains from using such a definitive term. Typically, these interruptions are brief, and the narrator dismisses them with a curt comment before continuing with his account.

In some places, however, the interlocutor becomes more obtrusive and obstinate. For example, as the narrator relates an incident involving a misunderstanding that he had with two soldiers, he is forced to respond to repeated interruptions from his listener who apparently wants him to skip the incident with the soldiers and speak instead about major events and participants, especially Colonel Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. With each interruption, the narrator puts off the interlocutor, basically dismissing the undue fascination with celebrated events and celebrity participants. The narrator insists that the proper focus is not on the big picture, but on the small, seemingly insignificant moments of the war and especially on moments of miscommunication, confusion, and misunderstanding. These are the moments that demand consideration, he argues. Therein lies whatever meaning or significance is to be found in the war. To underscore his point, he ignores the request for stories about Roosevelt and the Rough Riders and instead discusses at length the importance of toothbrushes to the soldiers and embedded correspondents who are deployed in the field.

The interlocutor can be seen as a stand-in for the general public, especially consumers of yellow journalism who clamored for accounts of media-fabricated heroes like Roosevelt and the Rough Riders. During the war, as a paid correspondent, Crane, ever desperate for money, was forced to write such accounts. He made no secret of his disgust at having to do the drudgework of journalism. A year later, in the more reflective piece that is “War Memories” (for which he was not paid), Crane seized the opportunity to speak his mind and decry the public’s misguided desire for the usual hackneyed accounts of courage, honor, and glory. It is also worth noting that the only mention of Roosevelt in “War Memories” comes in this dispute with the interlocutor—and the narrator mentions Roosevelt by name only in response to the interlocutor’s apparent request for a story about the man who emerged from the war as a celebrity, and subsequently rode his newfound fame to the presidency. The war’s presumed luminary is hardly present in Crane’s account.

Eventually, though, the narrator relents and promises to tell the interlocutor about the events of July 1, 1898—the single day of heavy fighting during the brief war, the day American troops charged up San Juan Hill. It was certainly the most documented and detailed day of the war, and remains so to this day.

But in talking about the “glorious day,” the narrator deliberately turns this well-documented and seemingly overly determined event into a scene of indeterminacy. He says almost nothing about the famous charge, only alluding to it in passing. Instead he dwells, as he has all along, on moments of ambiguous significance, moments that illustrate the thesis with which he began: the difficulty of getting at the real thing and truly communicating experience. For example, the narrator manages to only briefly and obliquely mention the charge up San Juan Hill and does so without mentioning Roosevelt or the Rough Riders at all. Instead his attention turns to the wounded returning from the front. His description emphasizes the difficulty of grasping such a scene:
The trail was already crowded with stretcher-bearers and with wounded men who could walk. One had to stem a tide of mute agony. But I don’t know that it was mute agony. I only know that it was mute. It was something in which the silence or, more likely, the reticence was an appalling and inexplicable fact. . . . When thinking of it now it seems strange beyond words. But at the time—I don’t know—it did not attract one’s wonder.
“Inexplicable.” “Beyond words.” These are the tropes that predominate Crane’s discourse about the war. What did not attract wonder initially seems in retrospect highly significant, albeit beyond articulation. The narrator continues to discuss the war in this vein through a series of incidents, episodes, and ambiguous scenes—too many to review in a brief overview. So I will fast forward to the end of the narrative, where the narrator, after nearly 20,000 words of “telling” coyly informs us that “you can depend on it that I have told you nothing at all, nothing at all, nothing at all.” And with this thrice-repeated phrase, he brings the narration to a close. After so much “telling,” Crane brings us back to the original thesis—that getting to “the real thing” seems impossible. Indeterminacy is upheld. The narrative is undercut by its own telling. Have we heard a true story? Ah, the narrator seems to say, does it matter?

* * *

After my return from Cuba, I revisited “War Memories” and immediately realized that it is a much more intriguing text than I had noticed when I had first perused it for a “money quote.” While there hadn’t been much in “War Memories” that would suit the exact purposes of my magazine article, there was a great deal that I—and any writer of narrative nonfiction—could learn from Crane. After rereading “War Memories,” I went on to read widely in Crane’s journalism and nonfiction. Like most people, I had known him only from high school readings of The Red Badge of Courage and “The Open Boat.” Now I found many hidden gems in his oeuvre—innovative and even experimental pieces that place Crane among the noteworthy precursors of what we today call literary journalism or narrative nonfiction.

In the early to mid-1890s, Stephen Crane—then an unknown cub reporter—was writing intriguing accounts of life on the streets of New York. His instinct was to focus on insignificant and offbeat moments and to probe those moments for the seemingly inconsequential details that would reveal something unexpected—the big truths hidden in ordinary scenes. So, for example, Crane found his stories in such unseemly places as Bowery flophouses and breadlines. He turned his attention to mundane incidents, such as a broken-down van blocking a street or a crowd gathered around an epileptic who has collapsed. One of Crane’s favorite techniques was to focus attention on anonymous people in crowds rather than on whatever spectacle had attracted the crowd; decades later the renowned street photographer Weegee would take the same approach, turning his camera on the crowds gawking at crime scenes.

So what is there to learn from Crane? Here’s a list of some key takeaways:
• Go to the margins to find your story.
• The story you originally intended to write is probably not the story you ought to write.
• Look hard at your subject, then look away: the story that needs telling is likely located on the periphery of your original subject.
• Look for the detail that doesn’t make sense and study it.
• The crux of a story is not found in action; the real story is found in the human psychology associated with the action.
• If you think you’ve discovered the truth, a wildly swinging bunch of bananas will soon knock you to the ground.
* * *

To get an inkling of just how radical Crane’s text was and still is, consider the 1964 volume of Crane’s war dispatches published by New York University Press. The volume was edited by R. W. Stallman, who was the first academic biographer of Crane and the preeminent Crane scholar of the time. Yet in Stallman’s estimation many passages of “War Memories” did not warrant inclusion in the volume. Curiously, Stallman edited out pretty much all the passages I have reviewed here: the bunch of bananas, the obtrusive interlocutor, the toothbrush reflections—these are all elided.

Today, it’s hard to understand this editorial decision, especially since the removed passages are those now most likely to interest us. They interest us because they seem so postmodern, because they correspond to our latter-day uncertainty about truth, and because these passages anticipate the work of contemporary writers such as Michael Herr and Tim O’Brien, whose accounts of Vietnam use similar devices in calling attention to the indeterminacy of war. But in 1964, before Vietnam literature, before Herr, and before O’Brien, Crane’s innovations must have simply seemed odd and impertinent, and so they were excised. I think Crane might have found this a particularly pointed irony—as if the obtrusive and bothersome interlocutor of “War Memories” had ended up his editor.


Along with two books of travel essays--Guatemalan Journey (University of Texas Press) and Green Dreams: Travels in Central America (Lonely Planet)--Stephen Benz has published essays in Creative Nonfiction, River Teeth, TriQuarterly, New England Review, and other journals. Two of his essays have been selected for Best American Travel Writing (2003, 2015). Topographies, a collection of essays, is forthcoming from Etruscan Press. Formerly a writer for Tropic, the Sunday magazine of the Miami Herald, Benz now teaches professional writing at the University of New Mexico. For more info, see

Monday, April 1, 2019

Loving the Fear: A Conversation with Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel & Clinton Crockett Peters

What tears your skin off in the dark? Speaking of selfs, I’m terrified of car crashes and cancer, which data supports. But there are other kinds of fright, those on a global scale, monsters big enough to encompass presidencies, charm behind candelabras, and power Death Stars. Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel earned her MFA with me, and I got the unordinary privilege of seeing much of her riotous collection Fear Icons take shape. It’s a delicious serving of Paranoia. An essay collection that examines those icons who rocketed to our cultural moon and then, like Bond villains, waged terrible war. It came out from Mad Creek Books late last year. I recommend you read it in the dark.


I love the subject of your book and the subjects of your book. On a global scale, how did the book come together? What were your cornerstone essays? Were there any fear icons that didn't make the cut?

Thank you for saying that, Clint! I love that you love the subject/s since love is so bound up with fear in these essays. How love and fear intensify each other is really a cornerstone concern of the book.

I suppose the book started to come together when my son was born. He came out of my body and left behind a body of fear that I nourished in loving him. It was overwhelming. So I wrote through it. Essays like “Darth Vader,” and “Dick, About Your Heart,” consider personal fears. Others like “Dolly,” and “Liberace and The Ash Tree” engage cultural ones.

When I thought about icons, I found I could try to be present with fear— and not just get over it. I could think about how our interpretations of icons impact our perceptions of fear—and each other. In other words, I could ask: who are we to each other when were afraid?

There are so many icons that didn’t make it into the collection. I wrote an essay on Georgia O’Keeffe who talked about the fear of loneliness being nothing compared to the fear of never being alone. It was an ekphrastic essay that couldn’t move out of the confines of description. Another essay was named for Tilda Swinton, but it mostly narrated the activities of a squirrel outside of my window. Others that got cut: an essay on Caliban, one on widow makers, St. Valentine. Even now I feel a touch of curiosity about all of these subjects, but for one reason or another, they didn’t work. They repeated thinking I had already done. Or they repeated approaches. Or the essays fell apart. Or I did.

I'm always keen on collections that vacillate in their tones, lengths, and ambitions. I liked your collage of shorter, intimate essays with longer pieces that have more research girth. Wondering how you thought about putting them all together. Was there an overall tone you were aiming for or a shape?

I wanted the overall shape of the collection to move from essays that are experiential and frenetic to essays that settle more into fear. The essay “Oil,” is meant to mark the shift. It’s an erasure of Genesis that aims to remake an established text. For me, that essay indicates that the book will also to try to remake its approach to fear. The essays that follow “Oil” try (and fail) to do that.

I also kept my kids’ ages in mind when organizing the book. The collection begins with the birth of my son who then ages and is older in his last appearance in “Darth Vader.” My daughter is born about halfway through the book. The kids come and go; I didn’t want this to be a book that was only about parental fears. But I do want the fears of parenthood to seep out into all the other essays and inform how all other fears are read.

Something I've been thinking about is profiling a heinous source of fascination. I'm finishing up an essay on George W. Bush, and have mixed feelings. On the one hand I find him, his life, his attitudes, fascinating... on the other hand Iraq War, reversing Climate Change position, etc. Sometimes I shut down because, seriously, does more ink need spilling about this dude? I LOVED your Dick Cheney essay. It feels perfect. Clearly, you don't admire him (I think I'm reading you right there ;-)). How did you push through revulsion? Or did you use it as a writing tool?

Revulsion was the prompt. And so my questions were for myself: could I move beyond my own revulsion? I don’t know that more ink should be spilled for folks who are revolting to us—unless it is that revulsion that becomes the subject, the thing the essay will contend with.

Your question has me thinking about John Berger’s book Portraits. While Berger writes about famous artists who painted portraits, he is really writing a series self-portraits. He reveals himself through what he describes. We see him through what he sees.

I love essays that offer a take on a subject that reveals the person who is speaking—making it clear that the writer is aware of their subjectivity and calls on that subjective self to answer for itself. Why did Dick make me feel so afraid? Could I get past that fear to think of him like the human that he also is? He is a pastiche of fears for me. But a person. Could I extend empathy toward him—a man who is suffering from a heart condition that has been treated as a metaphor and yet is very real? It turns out I couldn’t. And that failure made me more afraid than the fears he caused in me. Through him, I recognized my inability to do what I assume I can.

In your question you mention that sometimes you shut down. I do too. How do we keep writing about difficult things without destroying ourselves? For this book, I kept writing by force. But now? I’m interested in writing that does not cause me to suffer so much. Can we write about the hard stuff without multiplying suffering? In others? In ourselves? I don’t want to be a machine with a broken heart.

I recently heard Ben Marcus read, and he asked the audience: “When was the last time you read a happy short story? Where everyone was happy?” I had actually just read Garth Greenwell’s story, “The Frog King.” Greenwell set out to write a happy story. And it is, in many ways, a happy story; it’s about two people who love each other. They have their small disagreements, but the story primarily conveys the experience of being a beloved. And yet, the story must end. The happiness can’t last.

All of this made me wonder: when was the last time I read a happy essay? A joyful one? And then I read an essay from Ross Gay’s The Book of Delights. He wrote one essay each day about something that gave him joy. Every day. In the essay I read, he finds delight in loitering — something that is not allowed — and so he locates joy through tension. And finds tension through joy. This seems like a very good writing prompt.

What's your essay-family tree?

I love this question! A tree grows. It’s a metaphor with change built in.

Right now I’m reading James Baldwin’s open letters and Tove Jansson’s The Summer Book and Moominpappa’s Memoirs. Rachel Carson’s The Sea Around Us. Svetlana Alexievich. Patrick Rosal’s “Letter to the Lady who Mistook Me for the Help at the National Book Awards—or Some Meditations on Style,” and Bhanu Kapil’s blog.

I'm a new parent, so maybe this is just on my mind, but your kids come up in your essays. How did parenting change your writing? For me, I find my mind ping-ponging less among different essays and ideas I'm composing and drilling down more steadily (if less passionately) on one as I write. That make sense?

That does make sense! I’ve heard other parent-writers talk about becoming more focused when they have less time to write — I really admire that!

My daughter is currently at a playdate on this Saturday morning and my son is with his dad so I can respond to your wonderful questions. This is my experience of writing as a parent. I have to separate myself from my kids in order to write. But they’re always on my mind.

I remember the first year my son went to daycare for 6 hours twice a week so I could try to finish the book. I was so thankful he was there. And I cried because he was there. I felt like split wood. I wanted to be with him AND wanted my own space to be with myself. It’s the AND that accompanies me through the process of being a parent and writer. I am trying to be both. It isn’t possible. But it must be. I must be able to write as a parent. Because I am both. How to be both? That too is part of what this book explored.

Now that my kids are in school and preschool all week, I'm also teaching all week. I still have so few hours for writing. The logistics are always a challenge. For a few years, I answered the limitations of time by writing late at night and in the early morning before anyone got up. That schedule wasn’t sustainable. My health started failing. It also wed my writing life to expectations of productivity.

At this point, I’m trying to liberate myself from those expectations so that I might hold the freedom that comes with writing. This means sitting down to write without expecting anything from the limited time I have to write. I’m not yet sure how to actually make this happen. But I do know that when I refuse notions of productivity, I actually write.

I'm lucky that I got to workshop, I think, four or five of these essays with you back at 'ol Iowa. I love seeing their final forms. As a teacher and a (like me, twice!) graduate student of writing, do you have any thoughts on how workshopping helped (or hindered!) your collection?

Workshop let me learn so much about what is possible in writing. It taught me how to speak the language of critique, gave me deadlines, and it let me connect with writers who would become lifelong readers.

But, I’m also interested in workshops that allow us to learn from the writing process. The most commonly used model of workshop doesn’t foreground that process, make it transparent, or allow for the writer to explicitly consider the concerns they have. Conventional workshops are actually contingent on silencing. (The writer sits silently while receiving “critiques” of their work.) And, frankly, any mode of being that works by silencing is a mode I’m interested in dismantling.

In 2018, Joy Castro, Matthew Salesses, and Bich Minh Nguyen held an amazing AWP panel in which they talked about workshops that do/not work for writers. After the panel I felt empowered to revise the workshop model as I’d wanted to do for some time. I read Jesse Ball’s book Notes on My Dunce Cap and paired his approach with Liz Lerman’s Critical Response Method. She’s a choreographer who (30 years ago) thought workshops were damaging to the creative process. In my model, writers ask questions of their readers and talk openly about what they hope to do. Responders offer statements of meaning and questions that the writer can answer or simply receive.

So far, this approach has been boss. My first year students are responding to each other’s work with such care and insight within the first five minutes. They speak to each other with such respect. They are also, perhaps most importantly, learning how to ask questions about their own work. And to share the difficulties openly. Their writing is really evolving. It isn’t stationary or reproducing the affinities most popular in class. The model has given us the space to see what the writing might become.

I'm a big fan of how you open up your Liberace essay: "In the children’s backyard, the ash tree is a celebrity. Its bark shines with sap, and its branches sign their dark autograph into the clouds..." I'm wondering how you found or landed on this image to start the essay, how you came to include the ash.

When these sentences came to me, I had been thinking for a long time about the ash tree outside my window. I had been stuck for a while on how to write about Liberace. The essay was feeling rather stifled by its biographical mode. I was looking out the window, letting myself get bored and started describing the ash tree. It was so pretty. I remembered its golden fall color and red berries that stuck around through the winter. I loved the tree. At the same moment I remembered being a kid and finding initials carved in a tree. I thought trees were the best of all creatures. I never carved my initials in them; I didn’t want to hurt them. But I loved to touch the initials in the bark. I felt connected to the person who was no longer there. Their initials only told me so much about them, but I could touch the place they touched. I felt connected to someone I knew almost nothing about. This kind of magic feels akin to the magic of fame for me — the way someone famous can feel so present in your life even though they are nowhere near it. The image of the initials become a metaphor that I could follow back to that idea of fame, and of what it means to be famous and to have your autograph—your very name—collected and claimed in such a way.

What are you working on now? What are you reading?

I’m working on writing — I’m reading everything — I’m learning how to begin again.


Kisha Lewellyn Schlegel is the author of the essay collection Fear Icons, winner of the inaugural Gournay Prize. Her essays have appeared in Conjunctions, The Iowa Review, Gulf Coast and the anthology Marry a Monster. A graduate of the University of Montana's Environmental Studies Program and the University of Iowa's Nonfiction Writing Program, she is an Assistant Professor at Whitman College.

Clinton Crockett Peters is the author of the essay collection Pandora’s Garden: Kudzu, Cockroaches, and Other Misfits of Ecology. He has been awarded literary prizes from Shenandoah, North American Review, Crab Orchard Review, and Columbia Journal. He holds an MFA from the University of Iowa where he was an Iowa Arts Fellow and a PhD in English and creative writing from the University of North Texas. His work also appears in Orion, Southern Review, Hotel Amerika, DIAGRAM, Electric Literature, Catapult, and elsewhere. He is a Visiting Assistant Professor of Creative Writing at Berry College.

Monday, March 18, 2019

On Blindness and the Teaching of Form in Essays

JT: I’m explaining the focus of my Intermediate Nonfiction course with the syllabus projected onto the large screen when I notice a young woman (brown shoulder-length hair, skinny jeans, soft sweater, brown lace booties) in the front right corner seat wearing sunglasses. It is January, 2018. A white cane leans against the wall beside her. Her fingers alternate between the Macbook on her desk and a small, blue keyboard on her lap. One earbud in, she types notes as I go along, and when I pause to ask the students to write their first names on a sheet of paper and hang it from the edge of their desks, the young woman turns to another female student behind her and whispers. The student whispers back, writes something on a sheet of paper and hands it to her. I watch the young woman fidget with the folded paper until it hangs from the side of her desk. Nikki.

I panic.

I panic because the class I have designed, “The Essay Form(s),” relies heavily on the visual aspect of the essay and includes units on the braided, the enumerated, the segmented, the one-sentence, and the triptych, as well as a final unit—Innovations in the Essay—that includes borrowed form (hermit crab) essays and other experimental, invented approaches. I have taught a version of this class for a few semesters, always with the emphasis on the conversation between form and content and how various forms engage the reader visually on the page.

How, I wonder, is this going to work?

NL: My first thought, after class was over, was that I was really looking forward to learning more. Creative writing was a new passion. Upon completing my first fiction workshop the previous fall, I decided to take creative nonfiction because the opportunity sounded exciting. Nonfiction—real life? I had no clue what to expect. I didn’t know if anyone would be interested in reading about my life. As I always do, I introduced myself to Dr. Talbot after the class had ended and said, “I don’t want you to worry. Blindness won’t affect anything at all.”

Said with a smile, with confidence, with a knowledge that this was, in fact, the truth.

I was fairly certain that blindness would only mean I would receive the assignments via e-mail, whereas my sighted peers received them in a course packet. I assumed blindness would mean nothing more than it does in my other classes, that I’d simply take notes on my computer. I had absolutely no idea what it would actually mean: thinking in a new way about things I’d never had to think about before. Form. Shape. Font. What those things would mean to a Braille reader like myself.

But I didn’t know any of this then.

JT: After that first class ended, I walked back to my office, worrying about the small group read-arounds.

Every Thursday, each student brings in two copies of a 300-word experiment in the form we are studying. One copy for the group, one for me. In groups of four to five, they silently pass their experiments around the circle, reading and underlining passages they admire or identify with, as well as one other element that changes each week. Sometimes, a + for where a reader wants more information or an E to signal that an entire essay could be made from that line or an L for a surprising leap across the white space between segments.

As the experiments go around, students come across a sentence already underlined or find a plus sign or an E in the margin. If they agree, they add a check next to it. So students can get their experiments back with ✓✓✓✓ in sections or find sections with no markings, those areas I call “crickets.” After the first read-around, I ask students to look at their writing and identify where the energy is (where are the multi-colored checkmarks?). Students answer with “a strong detail” or “an image” or “a strong emotion,” and I explain that my strategy, in part, is to teach them how to assess what’s working and not working. In other words, I want them to see what’s going on in their writing.
I considered the read-arounds, the emphasis on visual assessment, the underline or the + or the ✓. Blindness wouldn’t affect Nikki’s learning, but it would impact my teaching.

Nikki’s group ended up meeting each Thursday at a table in the hallway, and while the rest of the groups sat in the classroom silently reading in circles, Nikki’s group took turns reading their experiments orally and commenting on strong lines or discussing the assigned elements for that day.

Nikki and I figured out after a couple of read-arounds that the sighted members of her group needed a hard copy of each experiment to make their underlines and notations, in addition to the group discussion. A hybrid read-around, part out loud, part on the page.

Sometimes I went in the hallway to check on Nikki’s group, but most of the time, I left them on their own because I don’t monitor other small groups. Nikki, what did I miss out there in the hallway? What was your takeaway from the oral read-arounds?

NL: The group read-arounds were undoubtedly my favorite part of Thursdays. When I read a nonfiction essay, or any piece of writing really, I try to do so only with Braille, because it enables me to try to hear what the author’s voice sounds like in my head. When I read with a screen reader, as helpful as that can be, I hear an electronic voice and don’t feel I can connect with the author. This is to say that I was so, so excited by the prospect of listening to my group members read their own work aloud. It meant that I would get to hear their tone and inflection and the way they phrased each syllable. And they did not disappoint. Each Thursday, my group brought their best work to the table, leaving me in awe each time they read for me.

Additionally, after that first read-around, I found that reading my writing aloud wasn’t as daunting as I had previously thought. By the end of the semester, I’d grown to enjoy doing so. As one of my group members read his or her writing, I would open a document and write down particular phrases that stood out to me as I heard them, as well as anything Dr. Talbot had asked us to point out that week. On the flipside, as I read my writing aloud to them, they would circle and underline their favorite parts of my work and then review them with me at the end of my reading, all of which I would write down in that same document under the heading “Notes.” This became a weekly ritual for us. I learned to listen for specific things in the writings: syntax length, the use of what Dr. Talbot calls “the magic three,” or the clarity of the persona.

Also, if a part of someone’s writing was in italics, or bold, or changed font, my friends took the liberty of letting me know. If the form was segmented, they told me how each segment was denoted (by asterisks, by number, by symbol.) By the end of the semester, none of us wanted to see group read-arounds end, because we had grown to thoroughly enjoy the time we shared our writing aloud. It helped me become a better writer, and I would wager to bet it helped them notice different things about their own work that they probably hadn’t had to think about before, such as form, italics, white space. By the end, we knew each other’s writing styles inside out.

JT: During those initial weeks, I struggled to understand what you could “see” regarding segments in essays, and you struggled to understand what segmentation meant, how it appeared on the page. But we had a breakthrough moment in my office. Would you like to tell about it?

NL: The moment you are referencing is one I will never forget. I’ve been fortunate to be a fluent Braille reader since the age of eight, and for about five of those years, I used a refreshable Braille display that connects to my computer to read everything from essays to novels. I realized during the segmentation unit that the Braille display I utilize was reading sentences line by line, which made the concept of sentence-by-sentence segments nearly impossible for me to grasp. For example, if the sentence was longer, I may receive a line of that sentence before needing to advance it to the next line. I had no understanding of how long a segment could or should be. I remember feeling frustrated that I didn’t have the answer to figure out this thing that seemed so complex yet so simple at the same time. You and I decided it might be a good idea to move away from technology and go back to the basics of Braille as I learned to read it, before refreshable Braille displays and computers entered my life.
With that in mind, I typed—in Braille—an essay by Ira Sukrungruang, “The Cruelty we Delivered: An Apology.” The next day, I brought the four pages (in landscape mode) to your office. I remember your awe as you watched me read the words. It reminded me that for someone who has never seen Braille, it can be really neat to observe the reading process. Then, you took scissors and cut that essay into strips, laying each out across the small sofa in your office. As I placed my hands on the strips – segments – I was astounded. The fifth segment was shortest of all and to me, carried the most weight in the essay. Those that were longer sandwiched the shorter one, and suddenly I understood fully what a segmented essay was all about. And it was all because we were both willing to think outside the box. Technology is an amazing asset, and I can’t imagine my life without it; however, for this exercise, it was really crucial to go back to the basics of Braille formatting, as can be done only on paper.

JT: While you held the strip of the fifth segment in your hands, I asked you if you had any thoughts about why it was shorter then the other segments, and you answered, “Because [the boys are] all together in that one, and that’s an important moment.” In class, we had been discussing how short segments can be used for emphasis, and in that moment, you physically recognized that.

And then you asked: “So when the students read, they can see this?”

I realized that a student might be able to see, but may not pay attention to visual cues on the page. The next day in class, you and I shared our conversation, and from then on, everyone was more attuned to segment size variation or consistency, to writer’s choices in regard to the spaces in their work. Since that class, I share this anecdote every semester to emphasize the importance of not only reading an essay, but looking at it.
And here’s something else about the visual aspect of the essay. My syllabus requires that students avoid the default font in Word and use the experiments throughout the semester to “find” their font, the one that matches their voice or the tone of the piece. The font in your experiments, Nikki, even this semester in Advanced Nonfiction, are all different. How do you create different fonts, even when font has no meaning for you?

NL: Because Braille looks the same to the blind reader all the time, no matter what is being read, font as it appears in print was something I hadn’t thought about before. There is no way to change font in Braille because, though different symbols may be present, the code itself doesn’t change. To that end, I found thinking about print font confusing—until you asked me to consider how each experiment I wrote made me feel. You asked me to pick a font based on my answer to that question.
I’ve found over time that the font that usually goes best with my writing is Apple Chancery (Nikki’s other recurring font is a 10 point Courier New. It works well with her voice on the page.). As it has been described to me, it is gentle and swirls across the page in a loop. And many of my experiments feel like they need this gentle, swirling font.

On days this font does not fit my writing, I ask a wonderful assistant in one of the campus computer labs for a bold font, or font that is more quiet, or a font of a particular emotion. This pairs an emotion, a concept I am familiar with, with print font, a concept I am not.

I would like to take this opportunity to thank the incredible people who have taken the time to describe these fonts to me in this way; when I turn in an essay, I know it looks uniquely like something I wrote.

JT: In our conversations and in class, you insisted, more than once, your desire to do what your classmates did, but we did make some minor adjustments. Which ones worked best for you?

NL: Self-advocacy has been an important part of my life from a young age, and I knew you took my questions seriously and worked diligently to understand my way of learning so you could best help me understand what I needed to know. Often times, once you explained it in a way I could grasp as a Braille reader, such as when you told me about the three ideas that run throughout a braided essay, it made total sense. The oral read-arounds worked really well because they enabled me to fully participate in a way that was unique to my learning style. I believe it also helped me learn to read more confidently, something I previously struggled with at the beginning of the semester. Finally – and it seems really simple – but e-mail was our best medium of communication. Each week you would email me the essays, along with any notes on formatting and form I should know before reading the piece, and this was extremely helpful. With these three things, I truly learned an incredible amount in the class and would recommend that any blind student take a class on form if given the opportunity. I simply cannot imagine my writing now without the knowledge I have gained on form, and it is something I always think about now as I sit down to write a new piece.

JT: After a few weeks, we agreed it would be beneficial to add an Independent Study to your coursework as an extension of the class so that we would have more time to discuss the shape and function of different forms and for you to read additional essay models. You also worked one-on-one with some of the PhD students. Those students each selected an essay, such as Eula Biss’s “Time and Distance Overcome,” “Dislocation” by Verity Sayles, or Steven Church’s “Auscultation,” because of the their distinct shape. And when one of those students asked how you would describe the shape of Braille, you answered, “Shapeless.”

Thinking about shapelessness—the one sentence essay really clicked for you, because it makes the most sense to you as a Braille reader. What is the connection/relationship between the one sentence essay and Braille?

NL: My entire life, I have been a loquacious speaker; my sentences are long, winding, and often require gentle interruptions from the person listening, so they are able to get a word in! This is not to say I do not listen, but what I found is that I write the way I tend to speak. When I discovered an author could write an entire essay full of emotion and sentiment all in one sentence, I could not wait to try it.

In my mind, the one-sentence essay translates the best to Braille because it just flows across the page, nothing special needed. It just is what it will be. The one-sentence essay effectively let me convey scenarios which were full of action, full of excitement, full of feelings that are not controlled easily and tend to burst to the surface. That was what the one sentence essay came to represent for me. In a one sentence essay, the form reads fluently in Braille because it is essentially a series of lines working together to form the sentence, the same way Braille is presented.

JT: Finally, what did it feel like to have your own one sentence essay, “This is What (Real) Freedom Is”, published in Hobart?

NL: Having my first essay published is a tremendous honor, and I couldn’t have done it without the time and energy and brilliance of the graduate students who worked with me to make this piece the best it could be. I couldn’t have done it without the support of my family and friends, especially the family friend who inspired the piece. And I couldn’t have done it without the support and guidance of you, Dr. Talbot, who took the time to teach me all I needed to know about form and nonfiction in general. Finally, this essay found its home with Hobart, and I am forever grateful to Laura Gill and her team for taking a chance on me and deciding this essay was worth a shot.

Special thanks to Ruby Al-Qasem, Clinton Crockett Peters, Kim Garza, and Spencer Hyde.


Nikki Lyssy is a senior at the University of North Texas, where she studies creative writing. Her favorite journals to read include Brevity, Hobart, Kenyon Review Online, Sweet, Pithead Chapel, and Hippocampus. After graduation, she plans to pursue an MFA.

Jill Talbot is the author of The Way We Weren't: A Memoir (Soft Skull) and the editor of Metawritings: Toward a Theory of Nonfiction (Iowa). She teaches in the creative writing program at the University of North Texas.

Monday, March 4, 2019

In Praise of Ambiguity: The Lyric Essay in 2019 by Zoë Bossiere & Erica Trabold

As the host of an interview podcast series on the New Books Network, one of my missions is to generate quality conversations with writers about their debut books of creative nonfiction. Though I have hosted interviews with writers from all backgrounds, my New Books in Literature channel gives special priority to books written by women, people of color, queer-identifying folx, and other marginalized identities. Recently, I had the good fortune of sitting down with Erica Trabold, whose collection of lyric essays, Five Plots, was released from Seneca Review Books this past November. If you haven’t read it yet, Five Plots represents a sharp contemporary example of the subgenre, boldly experimenting with form to craft a striking portrait of the intersection between terrain and the lived experience of Trabold as a young girl navigating her identity and heritage in rural Nebraska.

Below, essayist Erica Trabold and I continue the conversation we began on the New Books Network about definitions of the lyric essay, why it has such staying power, and how it intersects with identity in order to better understand the lyric essay’s place in the writing world of 2019 and beyond.


Zoë Bossiere: Erica, our conversation about the craft of your book got me thinking about the state of the lyric essay, especially as it comes up in academia. As a teacher, I’ve had countless conversations with the emerging writers in my classroom about what the lyric essay is, exactly. They’re curious about what makes it tick, (Is it the poetic quality of the language? The formal experimentation? The use of white space? All of the above?) and how to master it as eloquently and as (seemingly) effortlessly as Eula Biss in her essay “The Pain Scale” or Claudia Rankine in her Citizen, or Ander Monson in his “I Have Been Thinking About Snow.” We spend time in class mapping each of these essays, seeking answers to big questions about content and form. I encourage my students to experiment with the lyric essay, themselves, which often represents a first departure from the linear narrative prose intro creative nonfiction students write, and an important step toward finding a unique writerly voice. As a result, every semester several of my students will bring pieces into workshop crafted with the lyric essay in mind. Teaching the lyric essay works for my teaching style and classroom, but I know the form is also somewhat contentious in academic spaces. So let’s start there.

Erica, you consider yourself not only an essayist, but a lyric essayist. You began writing lyric essays as an undergraduate at the University of Nebraska, and they remain a strong (if not the defining) aspect of your identity as a writer. I’m wondering what your experiences with the lyric essay within the academy have been like? Have you encountered any resistance to the form and your personal identification with it?

Erica Trabold: Something I learned as a brand new MFA student: it’s contentious to call yourself a “lyric essayist.” I had just left Nebraska for a program in Oregon, and the students in my cohort were meeting for the first time, introducing ourselves and our work around the dinner table. “Are you sure you write lyric essays?” a second-year student interrupted me to ask. “What even is a lyric essay?” That’s when my face got hot.

“I like D’Agata’s explanation,” I said, “that a lyric essay is dependent on gaps and images.” My answer was built on definitions, and I didn’t necessarily feel any of them were new. The term has its origins in Seneca Review’s Fall 1997 issue, the first in which the journal devoted page space to the subgenre by name. In Seneca Review’s oft-cited editorial note, Deborah Tall and John D’Agata offer a basic definition, and that’s what I was drawing from:
The lyric essay partakes of the poem in its density and shapeliness, its distillation of ideas and musicality of language. It partakes of the essay in its weight, in its overt desire to engage with facts, melding its allegiance to the actual with its passion for imaginative form.
With this work, Tall and D’Agata opened their submission queue to writing that “accretes by fragments, taking shape mosaically,” is “no more than metaphors,” or circles “the core of a single image or idea, without climax, without a paraphrasable theme.” In sum, the editorial note resists the idea that narrative or argument are the only driving forces behind publishable nonfiction writing. Though a thing always exists before it is named—in 1997, a subgenre was born…. twenty-some years later I was still being asked to defend and define it.

“Are you sure you write lyric essays? What even is a lyric essay?”

Although I identify as a lyric essayist, I ask myself some version of these questions every time I sit down to write. Maybe that’s a product of self-doubt, or maybe these are questions worth asking. I guess I’m not too interested in the difference, only in noticing how the questions are so easily weaponized and uttered in skepticism. I even do it to myself, instead of embracing the freedom and flexibility of the form.

I’ve heard a number of writers express similar suspicion over the term “lyric essay” over the years. Some want it gone, replaced, or shifted to another genre entirely. I get it. Even with our definitions, “lyric essay” remains a hard category to pin down, and like the term “creative nonfiction,” carries with it an encyclopedic volume of baggage. But I worry the contents of these conversations will never really change. When it comes to “lyric essay,” I wonder… besides drawing and redrawing the lines of definition, what else can we talk about in 2019?

ZB: That’s a good question. I’ve heard all kinds of interpretations of the lyric essay both in the workshops I teach and the workshops I’ve taken, ranging from narrow definitions that strictly conform to John D’Agata and Deborah Tall’s original conversation to much broader understandings of the form that seem to encompass just about anything. Both are valid, as the only real rule in essaying is that there are always exceptions to the rules.

So I agree that getting hung up on finding an exact definition for the lyric essay can be antithetical to creativity, especially in the workshop setting. For example, in one of my graduate workshops, a peer brought in a piece she titled “a lyric essay” that was comprised of one linear narrative broken up into short sections with lots of white space spread across several pages. Whether the piece was in fact “lyric” or not, no one can actually say. But much of that class was spent arguing over the definition of “lyric essay” before we actually got around to discussing the content of her work. I’m sure that was a frustrating experience for her, and it’s one I’m not keen to repeat in my own classes.

Luckily, there has been a distinct shift in how writers talk about the lyric essay now and when John D’Agata and Deborah Tall’s definition first cemented it as a subgenre. Of course, we can’t know what Tall would think of the lyric essay in 2019, but in the years since their collaboration D’Agata has revisited the definition numerous times, calling into question the very foundation of what the lyric essay is and whether the distinction between lyric and other forms is still relevant in the ever-shifting universe of the essay at large.

And though it might be easy for folks to dismiss this as the usual D’Agata move, stirring things up in the writing world, he’s definitely not the only one. Far from protecting the integrity of the form, lyric essayists in particular seem the least willing to interrogate what the term means. This movement from the need to delineate the lyric essay as different from other essayistic forms in 1997 to Eula Biss stating the definition “doesn’t matter” in her 2007 essay “It Is What It Is,” to now, more than ten years later, appears to be in favor of embracing in that ambiguity—or, at least, resigning oneself to it. The titles of recent works on the lyric essay seem to follow in this spirit, as seen in Biss’ essay and also the 2015 Seneca Review anthology, We Might As Well Call It the Lyric Essay.

So I’m wondering now where you consider your stance to fall along this spectrum. Is the lyric essay a readily identifiable form, or is it something one can only really know when they see it? Do you feel this delineation between lyric and other essay forms is an important aspect of your identity as a writer?

ET: Is it important? That’s a good question, and perhaps, if I re-enter the conversation I had with my classmate, it’s a version of what they were asking. I think it’s incredibly important to call a lyric essay I’ve written a “lyric essay.” Whether in a workshop, submission, or editorial situation, those words mean the essay will be read and responded to appropriately. Nothing is more frustrating than getting feedback or edits that go against the spirit of the lyric essay—gaps, images, repetition, meditation, subtlety, music—and ask it to be something else. No matter the genre, I would guess most of us want our work to be read through the lens of the form we’re aiming for. In that sense, I find the label so important.

That said, I think many of us know a “lyric essay” when we see one, but terms used to categorize genre are often co-opted and decided for us by marketing departments. Sometimes I read a memoir and think, “That didn’t really feel like a memoir to me at all.” Turns out the writer wanted to publish it as fiction. In another example that comes to mind, a writer published each “chapter” of her memoir individually as essays, and through the editorial process, numbers got slapped on. What am I getting at? I think savvy readers know when something doesn’t feel right or fit the category we’re trying to smash it into. And in those cases, a label can do more harm than good. I’m of the opinion that writers should be allowed to name and define their own work—if I say I write “lyric essays,” be generous first and try to understand why, try to understand how it uses the tools of that form to create meaning.

ZB: Right. The trouble with labels and categories, of course, is that by definition they must include some things while excluding others. Implicit in naming the lyric essay—in naming anything—is the imposition of limitations as to what something called “the lyric essay” should look like, should encompass, and even who it should be written by. But how does one begin to categorize a form that “forsake[s] narrative line, discursive logic, and the art of persuasion in favor of idiosyncratic meditation” but is also distinctly something other than poetry? Geoffrey Babbitt interrogates this very problem in his recent essay, “On Categories,” wherein he points out how “naming an in-between, such as the lyric essay—which Tall and D’Agata originally defined as a ‘sub-genre that straddles the essay and the lyric poem’—can show just how arbitrary categorization is.”

I’d say giving the lyric essay a name provides clarity, and clarity can be a useful thing. When we can identify what an essay is doing, this helps us in turn identify what the essay is doing well for purposes of workshop, critique, and other professional pursuits. For instance, the term “creative nonfiction” only came into contemporary usage around the 1970s because writers needed a way to categorize their work for the National Endowment of the Arts. Then they needed an official name for what they were teaching in the academy. Publishers needed a category for selling books and literary journals for accepting submissions. In a similar vein, Seneca Review needed a name for its contest, and, as Babbitt makes clear, the lyric essay was closest to the kind of work they were seeking. So in light of all this, we might understand the tendency toward distancing the lyric essay from certainty to be a form of resistance to the academy’s obsession with categorization—a way of protecting the lyric essay from becoming institutionalized in the same way other creative forms have been.

ET: Exactly—I think we wade into murky waters by institutionalizing and syllabizing our subgenres. Plenty of academics offer interesting critiques about boundaries, terminology, and ethics, and I think these are conversations unique to the nonfiction genre. I want to get curious about that. Even in pedagogy, I notice a hesitation among creative writing teachers to teach the term “lyric essay” to students. Mostly, they seem worried about our genre’s relationship to truth.

Perhaps some of the hesitation is rooted in the myriad reactions to D’Agata’s 2012 book The Lifespan of a Fact. As that conversation has continued in our classrooms, I’ve noticed a fair amount misunderstanding and conflating. First of all, the book is not about lyric essays; it’s about nonfiction writing en total. It questions just how much nonfiction writers should believe in or rely on “facts.” Some of us don’t like that idea. Isn’t our genre built on facts? Shouldn’t we defend them? If we don’t, what separates our work from fiction? Of course, these are fair questions to ask. But again, The Lifespan of a Fact is not a book about lyric essays—it’s only by association the stigmas get attached to the subgenre and passed onto our students.

Anyway, I think the truth vs. fact conversation is pretty tired. They’re two abstract concepts I don’t see entirely at odds and never have. We can allow our writing to push against while playing within the boundaries of the truth—we know this already. Stopping another writer short from that playfulness is a kind of gatekeeping. It keeps us from having more meaningful conversations about what the lyric essay can accomplish. I see the lyric essay as a place of resistance and especially useful for writers with marginalized identities.

ZB: I’m glad you bring this up, Erica. You’re right that it’s probably time for the conversation around the lyric essay to shift from definition to other questions about who is actually writing the lyric essay, and why. Because I feel like the answers haven’t been examined much beyond the pervasive assumption that only (white) women write them. For instance, Lyzette Wanzer, in her excellent addition to Essay Daily’s 2018 Advent Calendar, “Finding A Way In: Teaching the Lyric Essay” asks why there seems to be, in her words, a “dearth” of men writing lyric essays. I appreciate Wanzer’s question as one certainly worth exploring, though I’m not sure I buy the notion that men aren’t writing lyric essays, per se. I can think of several well-known male lyric essayists or, if preferred, male writers who have been known to write lyric essays, other than the handful Wanzer mentions. There’s John D’Agata, Matthew Gavin Frank, Eric LeMay, Ander Monson, and Dinty W. Moore to name only a few of my favorites. Erica, you could probably name even more!

But accepting Wanzer’s assertion at face value, I think one potential answer for the popularity of the lyric essay among women writers might be its ability to successfully subvert (white, western, heteronormative) literary tradition. That is, the lyric essay takes many of the cardinal rules of “good” writing—linear structure, clear chronology, plot—and throws them out the window in favor of embracing liminality and uncertainty, which are spaces many women inhabit.

The conversation about women and the lyric essay parallels, in many ways, the grouping of women and what’s often called the “confessional” essay form. The confessional essay has been criticized for being what detractors call “too singular,” detailing personal experiences with everything from medical nightmare scenarios to rape and sexual assault in plain, honest language. I wrote a response on the Brevity blog a couple of years ago now to the infamous New Yorker piece, “The Personal Essay Boom is Over,” which touches on the issues surrounding this kind of criticism in greater depth. But in short, the confessional essay is often unfairly dismissed as less serious than other forms of nonfiction writing, and those who write them are not considered “real writers” in the literary sense. That women just so happen to make up the majority of so-called “confessional essayists” is no coincidence, and I worry that categorizing the lyric essay as a predominantly “women’s” form distracts from the amazing genre-pushing work these essayists are doing.

So in this same vein, I wonder whether the rush backward in the conversation surrounding the nomenclature of the lyric essay is actually good or bad for the women writing them. That is, would the end of distinguishing lyric essays from other kinds work better credit women lyric essayists as “real writers,” or does it erase the recognition these women have worked so hard to establish in the genre? It’s a complicated question, and one I’m not sure has a definite answer one way or the other. But I’d be curious to hear your thoughts, Erica.

ET: Those are difficult questions to answer—I think we can agree that it is pretty messed up there is anyone out there who believes they have the power to call someone a “real writer” or not. Unfairly, women have had to fight harder for their work and lives to be taken as “serious matters” worth writing about. However, I don’t think this is just a question about women. Let’s invite all our intersectional identities to the party—writers of color, queer writers, writers with disabilities, writers of multiple languages and multiple Englishes. Let’s reclaim our marginal spaces, like the “lyric essay”—for absolute sure—but I don’t think new definitions are necessary.

For me, “lyric” is perhaps more a quality than a category. There are conventions unique to the subgenre—gaps, silences, white space, images, and association, to name a few. Maybe a piece has some of those lyric qualities and not others—just like every writer has a unique amalgamation of intersecting identities. “Tracks,” one of the essays in my book, Five Plots, is more narrative than anything I’ve ever written, and I’m okay with that. Because it’s still using many of the conventions of the lyric essay while letting others go. We have to be able to allow ourselves that space to decide what selection of tools are useful for a project. And it’s a really powerful thing for a writer to be able to name their own work, instead of having it named for them. Writers should be allowed to assume the identities they see appropriate for themselves.

ZB: You know, in considering why we’re seeing a tendency to distance the lyric essay from its nomenclature, I can’t help but think how this ambivalence is so germane to the lyric essay, and what the form supposed to symbolize. I mean, could a something as liminal, marginal, even queer as the lyric essay exist any other way? In some ways, this movement is reminiscent of creative nonfiction as a genre, up to and including marrying the words “creative” and “nonfiction” together as a stand in for what it is we essayists do. As I tell my students in their introductory workshops, one of the first paradoxes of nonfiction is that it’s named for what it is not—and it only gets weirder from there.

So it is with the lyric essay, which is both lyrical and essayistic but also so much more expansive than any pair of words could encompass. The lyric essay doesn’t follow the “rules” of creative nonfiction (most lyric essays spectacularly fail Lee Gutkind’s “Yellow Test”). It defies traditional narrative prescription, and makes itself comfortable occupying the spaces between artistic normativity. All of which is why it’s important when we talk about lyric essaying to look beyond binaries. You’re right—when the conversation is focused on women and the lyric essay, as it often is, it can be easy to overlook the amazing genre-bending work by trans and nonbinary writers who tend toward lyrical forms in their nonfiction, like Clutch T. Fleischmann, Berry Grass, and Krys Malcolm Belc (to name just a few). The lyric essay and liminality go hand in hand, so it makes sense that queer-identifying folx are choosing this form of written expression in particular, and I’d like to see this method more widely embraced in the worlds of academia and publishing, where these voices have traditionally been excluded.

ET: Wholeheartedly, I agree! In a time when embracing fluidity is essential to positive changes in our culture, why go on resisting the expansiveness the lyric essay offers? The binaries have to to go—including and especially truth-fact. Let’s continue to update our thinking, as teachers and writers.


Zoë Bossiere is a PhD candidate at Ohio University, where she studies creative nonfiction and rhetoric and composition. She is the Managing Editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction and a podcast host for the New Books Network. Visit her at her website, or on Twitter @zoebossiere.

Erica Trabold is the author of Five Plots, selected as the inaugural winner of the Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize. Trabold's lyric essays appear in The Rumpus, Passages North, The Collagist, Seneca Review, and elsewhere. A graduate of Oregon State University and the University of Nebraska at Omaha, Erica writes and teaches in Portland, Oregon. Find Erica on Twitter @ericatrabold and the web at

Friday, March 1, 2019

Chris Wiewiora: From Defense to Offense


Before my buddy Andrew and I earned our MFAs at Iowa State, I sent him your proem “Hoop—a hymn” from The American Scholar. We shared lit mags like passes. By then, we were at the pinnacle of our games and at the trough of our writing, but we had started going to courts a year before that.

Recently, I got a copy of your last book, also named Hoop, and read it, but I didn’t know how I could write about it and about you, since you’re dead. I thought I should write you a letter despite you not being able to read it, because open letters aren’t really written to one person, but to a team, either one you played for or against. I want to revel in the play back in Ames with Andrew. Your book reminded me of all those outdoor and indoor courts, our outfits, players, and games, and the fun of it all, and affirm your question, “Could it possibly be that sport is more than sport?”

Andrew and I wanted to do something instead of sit at home and write; work on our theses that we called manuscripts and thought of as books. We were probably as delusional as college ballers thinking they’d go pro. In your chapter, “My College Basketball Career,” you recalled the humbling fact that you weren’t going on because you were already at your pinnacle of your game and “there is some blunt straightforward admirable integrity about this that says something subtle and true about the sport, and about those who play it.”

For us, our first game was at Meeker Elementary School—an outside, cracked and sloped asphalt court with hoops facing east and west so that we had to play half-court with our backs to the afternoon sun. Everyone who we rounded up at Meeker had played ball before as kids. They had probably played in suburban driveways against siblings or cousins in neighborhoods like mine. My daily uniform to middle school during the mid-90s in Central Florida was an extra-large T-shirt, mesh gym shorts, and high top Jordan’s. I wasn’t any fanatic, except that my paternal grandmother lived in Chicago and who else was I going to root for except M.J. and the championship-winning Bulls?

Nonetheless, I didn’t grow up as a winning shooter, an offender. Instead, I followed the ball and knew what your brother had told you that, “You don’t have to steal the ball; all you have to do is get a hand on it, deflect it, distract the shooter.” However, that ethos wasn’t good enough to get on my middle school’s team, when I tried out, but it didn’t stop me from playing in driveways, scrapping for the ball. That’s how I played as a kid and that’s how I played when I was back on the court as an adult.

After that first game at Meeker a pain pulsed in my sides too used to sitting. A cramp from running, from hustling, from defending on the court. Nobody had brought water and there were no water fountains. I heaved, but smiled, thirsty to play more.

Andrew and I were so relieved to find an escape from the tyranny of our theses. Andrew with a novel that everyone thought would be the novel our program would be known for. During summer before our final year, we roadtripped from Iowa to West Virginia. Andrew would research mountain top removal and Appalachian families. I was going to attend a nonfiction conference in Ohio. I was hoping to use it as a retreat and figure out the second half of my memoir. We stopped in Kentucky and Andrew fielded e-mails from agents. Plural. A bunch of literary scouts who seemed to want him. They were reading fifty pages of his manuscript and that was one step closer to readers reading a book by him, except that the agents all turned his manuscript down. They wanted him to do a bit more with it, like a baller going abroad to play in a European league before coming back to go pro. His manuscript’s title sounded his frustration: Blasting at Big Ugly.

Andrew and I didn’t know if we would find answers to our manuscripts’ questions: What happened? Both our theses featured intergenerational family sagas. Andrew’s more expansive in scope about a family rooted in mining the mountains and then protesting the practice, while mine followed my perspective of growing up as a son of overseas Christian missionaries who served behind the “Iron Curtain,” before moving back to the States. I had written about my childhood memories in a foreign country, but I didn’t have much to write about my family’s faith except my abandoning it like an air ball. I couldn’t find a way to pass the narrative from growing up as a non-Polish speaking American Pole in Poland to becoming a teenager in Florida with my Evangelical family. The title of my thesis gaped at the space between heritage and memory: The distance is more than an ocean.

Off the page, we knew our roles on the court: Defense or Offense. I don’t mean that we were trying to escape all language. I’m sure Andrew would know how to read every line of body language in your chapter “Getting the Nod” : “pats chest, pointing of a finger, raises his hand, curt nod, touching of hands, wink,” because we did all that when we arrived in a small town of West Virginia and walked down to the city park and played one-on-one.

My orange ball gleamed off the metal backboard like the reflecting sun. We had to aim our shots to skim across the sheen and into the rim or plop a swish straight into the net. The net, too, might have been metal like chain-link, or mail, a connecting fence or a protecting armor, and I imagine it metallically tinkled instead of whooshed through nylon. It’s hard to remember since even the air looked distorted, boiling. It was humid in the trough of the city’s hill. Our sweat clung to our skin, unable to evaporate. Salt sparkled on top. And we had just driven two back-to-back days. Andrew probably wasn’t down for a game so soon, but it all added up to me winning.

That game was before Andrew figured out that I favored the right wing for jumpers and left for hooks. This was before Andrew closed the space in games so I couldn’t dart to the basket for an attempt at a quick lay up and then make-it-take-it again. Before he would turn around, like your brother, with his back to my chest and dribble down the lane, not needing to unlock a shot from the top of the key, and instead he would shuffle against me until he was close enough to easily turn and shoot—mostly making it—while I could only dance with him and then try for a rebound.

When I left Andrew for the conference in Ohio I felt a foreshadowing loneliness. I sped past buggies rolling along the shoulder of Amish country. I went to a craft discussion on art-i-fact in nonfiction, skipped my manuscript review, and stopped correcting the awed other participants who gushed about me being at Iowa. It took too much to explain that, No, I didn’t go to the Writers’ Workshop in Iowa City, and that the Nonfiction Program was separate, anyway, but I was at Iowa State’s multi-genre, place-based Creative Writing and Environment Program in Ames.

From my single room in the dorms, I walked over to a court. A jagged net barely hung from several rungs around the rim. Cracks split the court’s cement. Nobody else from the conference was there and I had my ball, a still sticky new rubber Spalding. I took shots for less than an hour; self-conscious of my ball careening off the double rim or rolling away after a miss, and either way retrieving it myself.

I spent the rest of the conference back in my room. I drafted an essay about skateboarding when I used to do it alone until I found a friend to ride with. I should’ve known my thesis was doomed to not become a book if I didn’t care to write it.

After summer we started playing nearly exclusively at Brookside Park. Its court was closest to Andrew’s duplex downtown. He didn’t own a car. He had biked 20 blocks up to Meeker with a basketball tucked under his T-shirt, but at Brookside he could dribble over the bridge above the train tracks and I could drive.

In fall, we wanted to go outside and play, get out of our offices of grading and co-workers’ conversations about composition, which really wasn’t writing. Or conversations about what we would do after grad school. Or meetings with students. I taught in the mornings and held all my office hours only on Friday afternoons so the students who really cared would show up. I had any other weekday afternoon open and free to receive a text from Andrew: Brookside?

I wouldn’t answer, “Brookside,” to your chapter title’s question of “What Was the Worst Gym You Ever Played In?” Brookside wasn’t like your worst gym, the dusty Saint William the Abbot’s gym where you could “slide through the dust leaving long runnels behind you and contrails raised by your passage.” Brookside was this bucolic, but quirky, skinny court between several full-sized tennis courts and an ultimate Frisbee field. I don’t know why the city of Ames hadn’t made the court professional width, or at least sunken in only one hoop lengthwise to make a regulation half-court. Instead it was another east and west poled court. We mostly played facing east and not just because of the sun but the west side ended just as the park sloped down to the park’s namesake: a brook.

In addition to Andrew and my afternoon one-on-one games, we would meet up with a rotating cast of ballers. We knew them from other cohort’s writers, or guys in relationships with gals in the program, or folks around town or the university. We mostly used their last names since some shared the same first names. They sounded like ballers or writers. The Nicks: Bognavich and Brennick. The Wills: Bonfiglio and Osterholtz. Also: Gran and Kolbe. I wonder if you and the rest of your brothers all just went by first names on the court, or if you were counted off as Doyle One, Doyle Two, Doyle Three…. If we had another Andrew, then it would’ve sounded right to say my friend’s sportsy last name. I had seen it on jerseys and I could imagine it on a book jacket: Payton.

As you wrote, “Names are fluid things on basketball courts.” But we never called any big guy “Meat” like you did after your buddy Tommy Crotty whose “mother called [him] husky, which is another word for unsculpted.” We didn’t say anything like that aloud, even if we thought some of those big guys we later played in State Gym were jerks or the high schoolers at City Gym were ball-hoggers. We didn’t name them, we just didn’t play with them again.

Still, there is a language—a verbal language—of the game. Nobody needs to see any movement for knowing play: “We got next! My bad. Little help! Shoot that! Pick left. Pick right. Yo! Ball! I’m open! Who’s got that guy? Good game.” As I read Hoop I wrote down all the words of the game that you used, that we used, that every baller uses; and the list is a list of mostly action, a chain of movements in the moment, a list attempting to relive them: pick, roll, drive, D, pass, pump, box, pass, stutter, screen, pass, sink. But there are other phrases and words that recall memories. The joy of play. The frustration of injury.

On one of those one-on-one afternoons, Andrew and I met at Brookside and someone had cranked the adjustable hoop down to a dunkable level. How could we not resist recording each other on our cell phones doing what we couldn’t normally do? Recently, I watched one of those videos I took of Andrew. I’m kneeling, but holding the cell’s camera above the court. There is no frame of reference for the viewer. Only blue sky in the background, the hoop in the fore until I say, “Watch him fly,” and Andrew jumps in and he does as I say, “Dunkin’ it.”

On another afternoon, Andrew yelled, “Fuck!” He sprawled on the ground with his hand clasped around his leg. I thought he might have tweaked his knee or maybe hurt his back, because he had bent his knee and he laid on his back, but then he probably wouldn’t have bent his knee or laid on his back if either were hurt. Andrew leaned on me while I got him up to my car and took him home.

I cursed the same as Andrew did when my injury happened, but it was entirely different circumstances. I cursed at a person not at the situation. My left forefinger hardly bent 10 degrees. The skin—initially blackened with dead blood—turned purple, blue, and then lightened to a swamp green.

I believe the finger’s knuckle had been cracked. To this day I can’t curl it as fully as my right. Thankfully I’m right-handed. The next time in class I set my left hand on the podium and one of my students glimpsed the monstrous appendage and dry heaved. All my other students wanted to know what had happened.

It happened during a shifting from gloaming to nighttime at Brookside. During an over-populated, full-court, one-last-game game. During some fast break with some hot shot on my team. During a blind pass across the court. I raised my left hand to shield my face and the ball smashed my finger.

These were your “Common Colds of Basketball Injuries,” but that doesn’t mean they didn’t hurt us. We remembered them because they took us out of the game, took us away from fun, took us back to the page, to our grad work. I can’t remember how long it took for us to return to the court tentatively and tenderly. We were still up for a good game to go down, but it had to happen indoors with the onset of winter since snow and ice began to cover the outdoor courts.

We could’ve quit. Taken our injuries and nursed them at home past recovery. We could’ve said we needed to keep working on our theses. Stayed at our desks and wrote away. But our hands still curled with the sphere of a ball, even if they held a crumpled wad of another draft. Our eyes still flicked to baskets, even if they looked at wastebaskets. We still made shots, arced into the air.

That winter, I felt like I needed to be invited to a new court. I wasn’t one to search alone. Andrew ran offense, the go-get-’em. I supported defense, the stay and stop. Then, Brennick told us that there were hoops around Lied Gym’s recreational track where his girlfriend played indoor soccer.

And so, we practiced on rubber courts that left our feet blistered from friction heat for an ill-fated 3-on-3 intramural league. We had to wear a set of gym-provided mesh tanks. Our first and only uniforms other than shirts and skins.

During the tournament, you would’ve been glad to know that I almost drew enough fouls to bench me when I tired to reach around our opposing corn-fed undergrad boys, but they beat us before that. Despite losing, I didn’t care. I was playing with my friends on our hastily named team: Just-for-Fun.

Maybe it was Brennick, too, who told us the usual on-campus parking meters didn’t count for Sundays at State Gym, where we had lost in intramurals. However, in spring, we soon figured out that in the mornings we wouldn’t be up against corn-fed or ball-hogging boys, but fellow grad students and a few young instructors who understood a good game wasn’t about winning, but having fun. I don’t want you to think that we didn’t play our best just because we played for fun. We played so that our team played its best, because next game we might be playing with someone who we manned up against would be who set down a screen for us.

Now, I want to call you out on writing about your lack of team play. You blew off the idea of manning-up or zone coverage in the glib “In My Defense,” because you got bored. Bored? You believed that basketball was geometry and calculus and small-not-small moments and other metaphors that don’t connect to the game’s only two plays: offense and defense. You missed out on half the game!

You loved to offend—I mean play offense—like I loved to defend. I can only understand your desire to score with my desire to block when I had manned up on Andrew at State Gym. As we came down from a rebound his elbow knocked my eyebrow. I don’t know who took possession, but I was ready to keep playing, but everyone else had stopped. There wasn’t the scuffle and squeak of dusty or dry rubber on glossed wood. Someone must have held the ball, because there wasn’t any bouncing echo. Only laborious breathing. Then, the sliding drip off my nose thicker than sweat.

Someone got a gym attendant who ushered me to the bathroom. He tried to block the view of me bloodied while asking me loaded questions: “You alright, right? You don’t want to call an ambulance? Won’t some super glue work better than stitches?”

I agreed.

I washed my face. The cut looked clean, popped open from pressure. It would leave a scab and then a Monday story to tell my speechless students and finally a scar that I see in every mirror and reminds me of the worth—not the cost—of play. No apologies necessary, because it wasn’t a jerk play, just ball.

It’s not that you don’t get it right elsewhere in Hoop—picking the “rat baller” when choosing guys, the humiliating acceptance that there will always be a guy better than you, the funk of workout clothes, and the fact that “you cannot tie up all the loose ends” even as a father with a son’s laces—it’s that you claimed nolo contentardo. You’re not guilty and not not guilty. It’s that as a baller you weren’t accurately or fairly or honestly or sportsman-likely one to call your own fouls and outs. You were dishonest, and I don’t believe honestly confessing it all later earned you forgiveness, only told your truth: “I was a terrible defensive player from the start and never got any better.”

And in the interest of calling out, here’s a not-foul foul that I’ll call on myself:

During the too cold and gray and snowy weekdays we used our saved quarters from State Gym’s weekend free parking to pay for playing at City Gym. City Gym was a full court, indoor facility, but we usually played half-court since seniors played pickleball on the other half. We didn’t have to bring water or our own balls, because City offered both.

Andrew and I would play epic lunchtime games of one-on-one. My “ogre finger,” as I came to call it, could flex enough to palm a ball and somewhat dribble. Andrew didn’t hobble on his ankle anymore, but didn’t stomp on the gas while driving to the basket.

I circled the wings trying to find space but Andrew crouched and spread and claimed the ground and air. I dribbled clockwise around the three-point line and then broke in, getting my sneakers near the paint, pressuring Andrew to cut and try to block. Instead, his ankle gave as I released a left-handed hook that caught the rim and sank down through the net to the floor where Andrew clutched his blown ankle.

I was thrilled to make the shot, but disappointed at the cost of causing pain for the point. I used Andrew’s weakened body for the play. One basket won wasn’t worth many games lost. I didn’t do it again. And maybe that made me a lesser player, but I know it made me a better friend.

That’s where and who and what you got right: on the court and with your pals, your brothers, and, later, your sons, and with your songs. In “Laughing and Jigging and Laughing,” you recalled warming up to the Talking Head’s “This Must Be The Place (Naïve Melody)”—which I remember played at so many of the house parties in Ames—and you rhetorically asked, “Who doesn’t dig this song?”

Your song selection makes me think of “Let the Good Times Roll” by Ray Charles that I played in my car on a rainy Sunday. This was springtime when everything began to get lush on the way to State. Andrew and I were done with our theses and only needing to defend, and, of course, I was ready for that.

Somehow on this day—the day I remember as my best game, because don’t we all have our best like we have our worst, and we should call out both—I was selected to be a shooter as it happens in games. I didn’t ask. It just happened. What you called, “This Unconscious Sureness” happened. This big guy—a Meat—passed me the ball and set a pick on my man and I darted for the basket and dropped the ball in. This great defense to offense connection happened for the entire game. I felt like I was playing at the rim. Floating up there. Or sending the ball, arcing a clear trajectory from the corners for threes. Or aiming for the square and bouncing the ball off the backboard. Or plunking it right in. Nothing but net.

“No game is ever the same,” you wrote in “Hints and Intimations.” And it wasn’t. Not after that. Maybe there would have been, but I never really played for myself like that. I didn’t go to the courts to practice dribbling or shooting alone. I didn’t plunk down quarters at City when I knew Andrew wasn’t going to be there. I didn’t go to State by myself. And I only went to Brookside by myself once, long after my cohort had all graduated with me, but all of them moved away from Ames to anywhere else. I stood in that quiet and empty space with my ball on my hip and then I dribbled and shot against no one, for no rebounds, and it was so different, so lonely.

I was so conscious of playing by myself that it affected the game. I knew what I was doing instead of just doing it. I wasn’t doing it anymore with my team, or against another team. I wasn’t defending an offender.

There was no communication with anyone on the court. I had missed that language, the body language, what you called “a sort of language that sometimes is about competition and other times might be about theater, or summer, or friendship, or channeled war, or communal vibrancy, or refuge, or catharsis, or reinvention, or salvation, or lots of those things all at once.” And it was none of that anymore.



Chris Wiewiora earned an MFA in Creative Writing and Environment at Iowa State University where he played pickup basketball mostly defense as well as on an intramural team "Just for Fun." He previously contributed "My Selected Marginalia, Pulled Quotes, and Underlining from Madness, Rack, and Honey: Collected Lectures" to Essay Daily for National Poetry Month, April 2018. His nonfiction has also been published in Sport Literate and anthologized in Best American Sports Writing 2016. He has written an essay collection about his reading life tentatively titled ON THE PAGE. Read more at