Friday, June 22, 2018

What Happened on June 21: Cila Warncke • Christopher Schaberg • Mel Hinshaw • Rosemary Smith • Naomi Washer • Christopher Doda • Raquel Gutiérrez

Here we go, friends, with the first of many posts over the next month or so of What Happened on June 21, 2018. More details on the project here, but, in brief, we asked you to write about what happened on one day in June, and are publishing the results, largely unedited, for the next month and change, roughly ten a day. If you wrote something (it's not too late!), send us your work by the end of June (at the latest: earlier is better!) via this submission form (it's okay if you didn't RSVP before: the more the merrier).

—The Editors

DAY 1: Cila Warncke • Christopher Schaberg • Mel Hinshaw • Rosemary Smith • Naomi Washer • Christopher Doda • Raquel Gutiérrez


Today started like all the last days have: reach for phone, check for message from husband, roll out of bed, clean teeth, go downstairs to boil water for coffee. While the red kettle works itself up, I open the shutters in the front room. I grind coffee, spread peanut butter on two rice cakes, then head outside with my cat. She likes have company, or an audience, for her morning dust-bath.
  My landlord stops by to pick up some post. We have a brief conversation about the weather  and pets. He is, as ever, patient with my broken Spanish. 
  Computer booted, I donate to RAICES. I am horrified by what's going on in the States -- children forcibly separated from their families. My cat went missing last week. I cannot begin to imagine the trauma of being parted from one's child/parents. I want to smash things.
  Instead, I watch a Spanish TV drama called Gran Hotel while I do yoga. It's a period soap opera, essentially, with gratuitous stabbings and an abundance of illicit pregnancies. Language practice. 
  The first meal of the day is leftover rice and lentils with tomatoes, spinach and rocket.
  After that, I spend an hour hoovering and mopping the house. I'm leaving tomorrow to go to London for a long weekend and want the place tidy before I leave it to the sitter.
  I shower, then text my husband some photos. He's been away for two weeks, physically, and the last six weeks have been the most emotionally challenging in our relationship. How thick is the ice, exactly? I pull some toys out of the bedside drawer. Taking sexy selfies without getting lube all over your phone is such a 21st century problem. 
  Eventually, I pull on cut-offs and a tee-shirt. I have to hold two online conferences for the writing course I teach, but the webcam is shoulders up. I've been teaching English 1310: Introductory Composition for five terms now. The mid-term conference is easy after that much practice -- thirty minutes of exam tips and research guidance. 
  Back to back video conferences done, I pet my cat, grab my handbag, and set off for Jerez -- a 40  minute drive. My first stop is a supermarket where I stock up on the essentials: greens, water, wine, lentils, and cheese. I continue into town and pick up the house-sitter. We connected through a website, and this is our first time meeting in person. I'm nervous and kill the car three times before we make it out of the parking lot and through the first set of traffic lights. 
  The light is softening as we drive towards home -- around 8:30PM. Turmeric-tinted fields of sunflowers sweep along either side of the motorway. Dark shoulders of mountains shrug in the hazy distance. Arriving home, I find our parking lot packed. My neighbor tells me the school down the road is having their end-of-year fiesta. After unloading the groceries I drive back to the end of our urbanizacion and find a spot.
  As I'm preparing dinner I get a phone call: Someone has seen my cat. I rush through cooking and eating, then leave the sitter with an apology and hurry outside. I'm carrying a canvas bag with a flashlight, tin of cat food, and container of cat treats. When I get to the empty lot described there is one small orange and white striped cat (not mine). 
  A wiry, gap-toothed man, drunk or possibly stoned, comes over. He seems to know all about my cat and insists his friend has it. "Come to his house," he urges. I decline, repeatedly. He finally wanders away and I ask three older women in deck chairs if they've seen the cat. Oh yes, they say. One of them directs me to an empty lot, closed off with warped iron doors. Crouching down, I see a slender tabby. Handsome as my cat, but not him. We've met before. Ever since I put up missing cat posters last week, this girl has caught people's attention. She comes and butts my hand. I tear the lid off the food and leaver her gobbling it down.
  The night is deep, clear Andalusian blue; stars bright. I walk home, still warm in my cut-offs. At 11:30PM I sit down to write my short story of the day (it's a 30-day challenge I'm doing with myself). It posts at 11:59PM. 

—Cila Warncke

Cila Warncke is a writer & teacher. She lives with her husband in Spain.


I awoke this morning at 4:51 to the droning of a small plane flying at around 5000 feet directly over my house in the woods in the Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore, in northwest Michigan. 
     This plane passes overhead several mornings each week, always at this ungodly hour. Yesterday it was 4:45 when it motored overhead. The noise is somewhere between an incessant whine and a guttural rumble. On especially still mornings, particularly when there’s a high cloud cover, it’s loud enough to wake you up. Really startlingly loud. 
     A year ago or so my dad became obsessed with this plane and called the local airport to figure out what it was, as it seemed like it was waking him up every morning. He thought it was taking off from the nearby airport in Traverse City. But it’s apparently a freight plane that flies from somewhere downstate to somewhere in the Upper Peninsula, delivering UPS packages. Or maybe FedEx, I can’t remember. It has to fly a low altitude for some technical reason—I can’t remember that, either. I have an email from my dad from a year ago detailing what he found out about this plane, but I just went through my inbox and I can’t find it. My inbox is a mess: 74,803 messages as of right now, because I’m too lazy to delete them as they come in. I use Apple’s spotlight search to a fault. To find anything on my computer. But lately it pops up mysteriously when I push “command i” to end italicization after an emphasized word. Spotlight pops up when I’m not trying to use it. It’s really annoying, but I’m also too lazy to troubleshoot this minor glitch. 
     On the other hand, this summer the pre-dawn plane is not an annoyance to me. It’s my alarm clock. I roll quietly out of bed, grab my clothes waiting on the bedside table, and tiptoe out of the room. My partner Lara is slumbering on the other side the of the bed, and my four-year-old daughter Camille is there, too—she crept into our room sometime after midnight. I slip out of the room and creep to the bathroom to pee and get dressed. Then I sneak downstairs, where my wallet, glasses, and keys are waiting. I’d set them out the night before so I could locate them in the pitch black. And my jacket. It’s 51 degrees—or that’s what my car tells me when I turn the key to start the engine. Much colder than New Orleans, where we’d all been a few days prior. I coast down the driveway, turning on my lights as I leave the woods. 
     I drive to one of my favorite lakes in the national park, about five miles down the road. I get there before dawn and mist is covering the surface of the lake. I put on my waders and walk into the lake. I haven’t fished this lake yet this year, and its unfamiliar weed patterns and unusually high water level throw me off as I move cautiously into the darkness. Darkness below, darkness above. The frogs are so loud I can barely hear myself think. 
     The surface is mirror calm for the first hour. I am mostly using a black popper the size of my thumb. But the fishing is somewhat slow: I think there was a hatch last night, and the fish are stuffed from gorging on dragonflies or mayflies all night. But I still manage to catch four plump bass and two enormous bull bluegills, protruding foreheads and miniature piranha-like teeth. The water is colder than usual for this time of year, after a long winter. 
     Loons fly overhead and croon in the distance, sandhill cranes do their thing—I even see a pair on the shore involved in an elaborate mating ritual. Green herons cruise above; they have a roosting area nearby. Redwing blackbirds do acrobatics in the cattails along the shoreline. A bald eagle soars over me, and I think how funny and apropos it is that our national bird is essentially a scavenger. I stay on the lake until almost eight o’clock. The reeds mesmerize me. I can get lost in their vertical lines in reality and in reflection. But I can’t go into this much detail and keep this up for the whole day. 
     When I get home my two children, Camille and Julien, are swinging on their hammocks on the hillside. I make a pot of black tea. We have breakfast—eggs over easy, avocado slices, and some kimchi made by my brother-in-law out of the wild leeks that covered the forest floor a month ago. I go for a walk in the woods with my dad, Julien, and Camille. We find the first tiny chanterelle mushroom. There was a lot of rain last week, so the season might be good. I won’t know today. There are also slugs galore scooting along the forest floor—and they tend to get to the mushrooms first. 
     At home Julien and Camille climb back into their hammocks—they have some game they are playing. I catch up on emails and post a picture of the chanterelle mushroom to twitter. I chat with my co-editor Ian on Slack about some things related Object Lessons. Then I begin a prolonged text message exchange with one of my former students, Stewart Sinclair, a brilliant writer who has collected enough material that he is attempting to shop and sell a book of nonfiction. I give him advice—or my philosophy, anyway—on how to put together a book proposal and confidently pitch a book idea. What unspools over the next few hours ends up at around 2500 words. I joke to Stewart that we ought to submit this text message exchange as our contribution to “What happened on June 21”—but he gets all fidgety and anxious about how it would expose him as a fraud, a pathetic chump trying to become an 
‘author’. I try to assure him that we are all frauds, it’s part of the business. But that all happens much later in the day.
     After lunch (grilled cheese and leftover spaghetti from the night before), Julien and Camille play in the hammock some more. The hammocks are really a hit this summer. I pour the rest of a bottle of wine we opened the night before into a glass, and I read a little of Susan Sontag’s introduction to A Barthes Reader. My sister Zane then texts and asks if we want to meet her family at the beach at 2. I reply yes. We start to get ourselves together, and we pack up a towel and water bottles and jackets in case the wind comes up. We head down to the beach and the cousins romp and play in the very cold water then on the beach, collecting driftwood and other detritus. My Lara and I sit on the sand and talk to Zane. Our neighbors Mary Beth and Scott Lowe show up, and we chat with them while their granddaughter Aria runs off with the other kids. I’m talking to Scott when suddenly he says “WHAT IN THE WORLD IS THAT?!?” and I look out in the lake and there they are: a pod of massive carp cruising in the shallows. I immediately, instinctively wade out into the water to see how close I can get to them, but they spot me and dart off into the dark blue depths. We watch several more pods and a few individual even more enormous carp swim by, feeding on something on the sandbar about 20 yards offshore. I briefly contemplate going back to the house and getting my fly rod, but the wind is picking up and soon there are big waves crashing into the shore. The kids have all fled to the dunes to play where it is warmer, and Scott and Mary Beth soon head home with Aria. 
     Finally all the kids are tired and we head home. Back at the house Julien and Camille again head to the hammocks. I crack open a Wayward Owl beer I brought from New Orleans and start prepping dinner, while Lara takes a walk through the meadow. I chop up green onions and sweet peppers. I cut some thin slices of cheddar cheese. During dinner, chicken fajitas and mac & cheese and broccoli, Camille berates me for trying to correct the way she is holding her spoon: “I can hold my spoon the way I want to hold it!” After dinner I rummage through my fly boxes and find a few good crawfish pattern flies in case I decide to go down to the lake early tomorrow morning and cast for carp. And then, another first of the year: we discover a tick on Camille’s leg, the first tick we’ve found this summer (but we’ve only been up here three days). Lara gets the tea tree oil and a Q-tip, and I smother the tick in tea tree oil. Lara gets the tweezers. Camille is whimpering, saying how much it hurts. (We haven’t done anything yet.) After ten minutes of tea tree oil bath, the tick looks woozy and Lara carefully extracts the tick, getting the head all the way out. Oh, I forgot: earlier I rammed my toe into a stick outside and my big toe is all bloody; I think Camille is transferring some of this incident, which she was very tuned into at the time, onto her own condition. Camille goes back outside to play with Julien, and all is going swimmingly until I hear BAM BAM BAM THUMP and Camille has tumbled down the stairs and is wailing on the ground, covered in woodchips. Her legs are all bruised. She was dancing on the deck and spun off the edge of the stairs. We give her some arnica and soon she’s back singing and dancing again. 
     Tick taken care of and bruises attended to, I do dishes and we start to wind down for the evening. Camille doesn’t want to take a bath, but Lara coaxes her in by telling her they can play kitty bath, wherein Camille gets to pretend to be a kitty in exchange for getting in the bath. (It’s really an ingenious move on Lara’s part: it works brilliantly.) After baths and teeth brushing, I read Julien and Camille a fantastically strange book that my mom found somewhere: Speedboat by James Marshall (1976). It’s about two dogs who live together: one has an obnoxiously loud speedboat that he likes to tool around in, and the other is “a homebody” who stays at home and just reads. I don’t want to spoil what happens, but it’s amazing. And bizarre. By the end of the book it’s all blurring into my unconscious. It’s still early and almost blindingly light out, but I’m tired from getting up at 4:51. I tuck them in and give them each a kiss, and go to my room to go to bed myself. Lying in bed Lara and I see two miniscule fawns stroll over the hillside, with the mother deer in tow. I’m getting sleepy. I’ve left out so much here, from today. So many extra details occur to me as I lie here, fading. So much nuance, unrecorded. Before falling asleep I upload this document onto the Google drive where Ander directed me. It’s a partial sample of things that happened on June 21, 2018, orbiting my little family unit in Leelanau county, up in Michigan. 

—Christopher Schaberg

Christopher Schaberg is Dorothy Harrell Brown Distinguished Professor of English at Loyola University New Orleans, and founding co-editor of Bloomsbury's Object Lessons series. His most recent book is The Work of Literature in an Age of Post-Truth.


I play one single game on my phone called “I Love Hue” (available on the App Store and Google Play) and every day I get a mobile app notification to log in and collect my prisms. Every day you get fifteen free prisms, which are the tokens required to play the game (each round takes three prisms, so technically you can play five rounds a day without buying anything on the app, though I typically just log in, get my prisms, and use a bunch of them at once once or twice a week when I can’t sleep or have some down time and have already caught up on all my social apps). The actual game involves placing colored tiles—think little Pantone squares or paint chips, but digital—in order on a grid. It’s soothing and I’m very good at it, at least in comparison to my brothers, who are colorblind and “hate shit like that.” At nine a.m. on Thursday, June 21st, 2018, I log in to collect my prisms, close the app, and get back to my computer.
     I’ve been online since eight and awake since seven. I have a call at ten with someone to discuss a potential writing opportunity, but I already did all my homework stalking the company and founders and websites involved earlier this week so I’m off the hook on that for now, which is good, because today’s busy. I have a lot to get done and I’d like to get it all done. This isn’t typical—I’ve had some especially slow days lately, but I thrive on momentum and enjoy the ride of the wave right before it all builds up. You know that feeling in your stomach and body when you’re swimming out in the ocean and the waves come through and you paddle through them before they’ve crested and you sort of drop with the water level? When people ask me how I work, as I’m sure they will during this call, that’s what I’ve come to think of. If I can angle myself just right against the flow of everything coming at me, it’ll feel fun, and I’ll keep going.
     Perhaps I’m thinking of the ocean metaphor because scenes are coming back to me from one of the dreams I had this morning, which involved digging up jellyfish in a shallow bay during low tide, carefully though, in case they stung. I’ve been dreaming heavily lately. Not anything morbid or particularly harsh or striking, but just thick: big concrete slabs of dreams with all sorts of real concrete things embedded in them. The one I woke up from immediately this morning was an improv dream: my best friend does improv in real life, and in the dream I’d gotten roped last-minute into a performance with her and her group. I came into the room full of a live audience and sat in the wrong chair, then ran over to sit with the rest of the group as the leader was introducing the show. Then the show started and the group began a scene where the characters were getting turned into eggs and rebirthed as sacred entities. We all crouched down up at the front of the stage, holding our knees to our chests and pretending we were eggs, and then one by one the members of the group hatched and announced their new being.
     “I’m a sacred wind!” one said.
     “I’m a blue emerald,” said another.
     “I’m a violet star,” said another.
     “I’m Pharrell!” I said, hatching, and no one laughed. I looked at my friend, panicked that I was ruining her performance, and feeling awful, and racking my brain for what few improv guidelines I could remember. Yes and, yes and… but I’d Yes Anded in that scene, why didn’t anyone laugh? What did I do wrong? 
     I woke up sweating and confused. I grabbed my phone to text this friend about the dream, but I already had a text from her waiting: I can’t get up because my feet are cold and gromit is laying on them with a picture of her dog, Gromit, laying on her feet in bed. I relayed more about my dream, she relayed more dog pictures. Eventually my husband started reading me the negative attributes of the dachshund breed, which he’d been reading about on his phone on his side of the bed. 
     “Doesn’t get along with kids, has separation anxiety, tries to escape.”
     “This sounds a lot like Copper. I don’t see what the problem is,” I say. Copper is the dog we currently own already, and I’ve been on a bender about dachshunds for a week or so. I want a long-haired one like Vanessa Carlton has that I see on Instagram, one like my parents’ next-door neighbors have, one like our family friends have. I’ve long liked this type of dog, but I’ve been pushing to get one this week in particular likely because the news has been bad (children separated from their families at the border, white nationalism flourishing, civil discourse disintegrating entirely) and our families are stressful (severe illnesses, major life transitions, relationships ebb and flows) and puppies make you feel better. 
     “Another dog is not going to fix things,” my husband says. He’s not wrong, so I close the internet browser tab I have open about Freckles, a cream-colored long-haired dachshund puppy who’s up for adoption in Northern California. Copper hops up on the bed and back down again seven, eight times. He wants us to get up and let him out and feed him. My husband’s in medical school and usually has already put in a couple hours at the hospital by now, but today he has a test so we’re both home and the schedule’s off and the dog is acting up. And I am, too—I’ve been trying to get in a routine of writing every single morning as soon as I wake up, because I’ve been reading a book by Robert Olen Butler that says if you take even one day off of writing it’s like you haven’t done it for fifteen years, but Trevor and I have only been married six months and most of that time has involved busy early mornings so we take all the slow moments we can get together, like the one we’re having today. I’ll write later, I think, and the list of things I have to do today is already adding up. I tell Trevor about something I read in another book (When by Dan Pink, one of those lifehack/business type of books that people like Malcolm Gladwell blurb) about how having coffee right when you wake up messes with your cortisol production and raises your caffeine tolerance, so you’re supposed to wait until 90 minutes after you wake up to have coffee.
     “Fine,” he says. “Let’s shower first then.”
     For us, shower time is conference time. In the shower we come up with a game plan for our upcoming weekend. Between our families there are two birthday parties, one baby shower, one apartment move, one grandparent visit, and one non-specific-occasion-related friend group gathering to be had. Trevor’s family lives in the South Bay and mine lives in the East Bay and we live up in Sacramento so we’re trying to figure out logistics. It seems best to take two cars, but we don’t like what that means in terms of gas usage and in terms of time apart. After the shower, I sit in my towel checking my email, tracking a package I’m waiting on, deciding to work from home for the morning until this package—my name change paperwork—shows up and I take the call and I get these illustrations I’m behind on in and I get enough momentum on my current work project done that I feel good going in and sitting in the office to work on the final five percent of it. While I’m waiting for Trevor to leave for his test so I can get started on my shit, I read an article/interview about black people feeling pressured to not like white things, but also liking white things sometimes, and analyzing all the shades of nuance in between and around all that. I look up the author and contributors on Twitter and click “Follow.” I also debate whether I really need to be doing this June 21, 2018 project or not given everything else I have going on, but here we are doing it right in the middle of it all, Copper sleeping in a sunbeam on the couch and Trevor heating up coffee before heading off to take his test and everyone already chatting on the work Slack channels and my mother emailing me to get the password to the website with our wedding photos on it and me worrying about writing this June 21 business instead of adding to the other story that I’m working on on my other computer at my other desk every day like Robert Olen Butler says to and deciding well whatever it’s still writing and going to take a final bathroom break before I take this call and get going on everything else already.
     Fuck. I just remembered this is a video call, not a phone call. I put on tinted moisturizer, mascara, my contact lenses, and a better shirt. I check the lighting in the office and living room and decide the living room is better. I set my computer up and go back to snag some earrings just in time. Just as I’m launching the video app, I see Trevor’s car pull up outside and the dog starts going ballistic as he does when someone’s outside. Despite a few minutes of barking and doors opening and closing at the beginning of the call and me being all awkward and apologetic at first as a result, it goes well and I learn a lot, and I shut my laptop an hour later feeling wired and excited. I get up to go bug Trevor, who’s in the other room studying for his next test with headphones in, and he’s got a list of serious questions to ask me about adopting a dachshund puppy. We spend the next few hours working from home, waiting on the package (“Out for Delivery” – so vague), and going back and forth about the dachshund situation—money, time, motivations, whether or not this is just what recently married millennials who aren’t having a baby yet do. We already have a dog, so getting a smaller one wouldn’t necessarily expand our pet ownership workload, after any initial training and adjustments. But then when it comes time to fill out the application and it asks for landlord’s phone number and I remember we pay dog rent per dog and I decide I don’t want to deal with that, but when I tell Trevor that he’s sad because he’d just started settling into the idea of a new dog so we agree he can call the landlord if he really wants to and then he goes and makes boxed macaroni and cheese and I go to reorder birth control online. Did you know—I didn’t, for years—that you can take birth control nonstop, as in, you can skip the sugar/iron pill week and just take the other pills continuously and never have a period? I don’t know how well this works for everyone (periods are like snowflakes, no two are the same, and everyone has their own menstrual cycle hell story), but my new OB/Gyn finally told me they (the people who invented the birth control pill) just invented the sugar/iron pill week in birth control pills so that women would still have a period and “still feel natural” while taking them. I feel like this is something I should have learned way earlier and that more people should know because it means you don’t have to have a period at all if you’d prefer (and I prefer). Anyways, I’ve been annoyed about it lately because the pharmacy still sends you birth control pills at the rate that includes the extra sugar pill week, which means I can’t order a new pack until a few days before I need more, which with shipping / weekends can be tight, so I’m sending my doctor and pharmacy a note to see if I can’t get the prescription re-upped a few weeks sooner each time. Or send me more than three packs at a time, though every time I have to go order more I get to be really thankful that I can get free birth control and appreciate of my health insurance, which reminds me to support all things feminist and humanist and healthcare-oriented, like the rest of my goddamned patriarchally-structured day doesn’t.
     Mid-afternoon: I’ve scrolled through all the assets I’m supposed to write to for work (images/videos of a vodka brand that will need copy) and have sat emptily tapping at the screen. I can get away with this because in creative world, where I work, we like to let things “simmer” and come back to them after a bit and find what’s working when it’s working. While simmering, I read everything ever written by some senior editor at Elle who wrote a review of Ocean’s 8, which I saw last night and liked (the review and the movie). I’m now, however, out of articles to read and things to chat my cousin and friend about, and I’ve naturally stopped going on Twitter as much because it’s directly linked to my anxiety and depression, so that’s at least a good reason to have less things to scroll through. I got a story rejection from a magazine I forgot I’d submitted to because it used a different submission manager than Submittable, the software that tracks the majority of my literary dealings. I downloaded the Tiffany Haddish biography for Kindle, since I got an email that my e-copy at the library was ready. I ate a whole roll of Life Savers. I search my soul and find I’m most frustrated about not having finished these illustrations yet, so I head over to my art desk and pull them out and decide to fester slowly for a while.
     Speaking of goddamned patriarchally-structured days: nearly six p.m. here now and I did maybe one fourth of the work I needed to do on the illustrations before my package got here and I got all involved in the name-change process. I opted for a trendy online program with a cute name—Hitchswitch—that supposedly sends you all the paperwork you need to change your name after you get married and then you fill it out and mail it back in and voila, everything’s taken care of. I don’t think I can complain about it too much since half the pain-in-the-ass of any paperwork is printing forms out when you don’t have a printer or easy access to one, and getting envelopes if you don’t have any laying around, and dealing with postage and tracking numbers—and they included all that. I did, however, need a marriage license (I spent all nine minutes it took to drive from our house to the county clerk’s office worried that it never got actually filed and we’d have to deal with that but of course that wasn’t the case; our officiant was and is a straight-up hustler), so we ran down there before it closed at five and got five copies so we’ll never have to go back there anytime in the foreseeable future. And then we went and got a passport photo because of course my passport’s expired as well. And then we got pie because emotional eating and we’ve been wanting to try this new pie place on Broadway. And then I came back to the mountain of paperwork and realized that all I can do until I go get the Social Security Card stuff taken care of (they closed at 4 and they’re 30 minutes away, so it’ll have to be 8am tomorrow, because while you can mail it, according to the packet, it’s really better if you just go in) is fill out the Social Security Form, get the whole passport packet ready to mail, and then nothing, because mail’s already been picked up for the day and the rest of the forms have to do with the DMV and cars and in California (the packet says) you have to do all that in person as well. I was hoping, when I bought this $90 packet, that it would save me a day’s worth of drivin¬g around. It’s probably only saving me a half-day’s worth of driving around, which, the math really depends on how nice the driving company you’re working for is or how big of tippers your Uber/Lyft riders are or how much you’d (I’d) be making during that time anyway, which I think is more than $90 so—I mean, that plus this packet literally comes with a bunch of super idiot-proof step-by-step checklists so you can make s¬ure you’re not missing anything and feel emotionally stable rather than super stressed throughout the process. All that to say that after a less-successful-than-expected-afternoon I still feel the whole thing’s worth it. Since I’m riled up about namechanging I go big and check to see if there’s any social media handles available with my new surname, and sure enough there are—lucky me, they match on Twitter and Instagram. Just a couple clicks and seconds and I’m different now to all these people that I’ve never met online. 
     “Changing your name is weird,” I was telling my husband in the car on the way back from the pie place, “because when you first got named you never thought about it, it just was.” Having to think—perhaps the biggest burden of being alive and of age. Thinking about it, I think it’s almost too easy to become somebody else. There’s papers, theses, books to write about this topic here, but I’m just telling you about my day.
—Mel Hinshaw

Mel Hinshaw is a Sacramento-based artist & writer.


6:07 a.m. E.T. 

Midsummer begins in Prince Edward County. A cool day, sun peaking out through fluffy clouds, breezy. World Cup ongoing in Russia – fear of beer shortages. Horrendous stories of baby snatching and displacement by US government officials in Texas; locally, 21 women claim sexual harassment and toxic work environment at Norman Hardie Winery; Art in the County opens, a popular juried exhibition of local artworks in Picton. What am I up to? Aquafit at 11, followed by coffee with my buddy, an afternoon of reading and gardening, babysitting the little buggers tonight so daughter and son-in-law can have a night out, and punctuated with brief sorties to my computer to document today’s blessings and rants. Off to bed now and heading to fall at a rate of two minutes a day.

—Rosemary Smith


It never occurred to me that it might rain on the longest day of the year, the summer solstice, but here we are and that is how I woke, to the thrum of rain soaking the wooden back porches of my building, piling in puddles of stones in the yard. I woke to a message from Sebastián, a photo from the philosophy book he’s been reading: “We see like in Plato’s allegory of the cave only the reflections of things, so that what we see has lost all reality. We must realize how often we are governed and controlled not by the things themselves but by our ideas of things, our views of things, our picture of things. This is the most interesting thing. Try to think about it.” (Ouspensky, The Fourth Way). I try to think about it as I wander out into the hall and look out at the apartment—so large, and dark, and empty. I turn the kettle on, and I let it scream too long while I stand watching the rain pour inside the open living room windows and coffee overflows from the cup in the kitchen onto the counter and the floor. I am sitting down to write when I remember Daniel’s book, Lake Michigan, is lying in the windowsill of the spare bedroom, and as I suspected, its cover—that expanse of pale blue—is soaked, but its pages are undamaged. The dog whines and stamps his feet a little at my chair, begging to be taken out of doors, but I am unsure what to wear. Now, the rumble of the train. My mother sends an email filled with selfies. This is something my mother does not do. Each selfie is taken from an angle slightly below her face (the mark of a novice selfie-taker) and in each image, her brow is slightly furrowed in concentration. She is trying on new glasses, and wants my opinion. I can see her own reflection lit up in the phone, facing her face, visible to the viewer. She looks older, but the humor in her writing is as youthful as it has ever been. I ride the Brown line train downtown—a boat through the buildings, on this day where water continues to make its presence known. I meet Amy at a reading at the Poetry Foundation and we sit in hardback chairs while several people approach the podium and speak to us about their dead relatives and loved ones. It is both funny and sad, and we laugh a lot and cry a little on this, the longest day of the year. It is still bright outside though it is evening, and I watch the green trees in the garden beyond the wall of windows, behind the poet who is reading a new poem (“…a wall falling into a wall falling into a wall…”). Later, after wine and chocolate-covered strawberries and chatter (Amy and I talk about clothes, how nothing ever fits one’s body in quite the right way), I get back on the Brown line train back home, a dark boat on a dark night with no stars or fireflies. On the train, I can see nothing but my own reflection. I listen to the sound poem collages Sebastián made that, on a day that is not today, I will make into dance videos. These days, I am trying to live inside the day at hand. I try to think about it. But the lingering light in the Poetry garden reminds me of the last time I sat in that room, when I read my own poems at that podium, when I returned to my chair, an intensity full of unexplored possibility. When I get home, I take the dog out for a walk up and down the avenue, first one side and then the other. I listen to Sylvan Esso in my headphones, and I dance a little, hidden in trees on the dark avenue. Back home, I continue dancing opposite my wall of windows where I have left the shades pulled all the way up so I can see my reflection. “We see only the reflections of things,” a reality we can only begin to imagine. A sense of self that remains once-removed. A self I am watching even now as I write, though in the dark glass I cannot see the blue of her eyes.

—Naomi Washer

Naomi Washer is an essayist, dancer, and translator based in Chicago. She has received fellowships from Yaddo and Columbia College Chicago where she earned her MFA in Nonfiction. Her work has appeared in The Account, Interim, The Boiler, Blue Mesa Review, Crab Fat Magazine, and other journals. She is the Editor-in-Chief and Publisher of Ghost Proposal.


It is 2am and I am still awake. As usual. Insomnia never lets go. My life of lack of sleep is my norm. No amount of pills or supplements of valerian root tea can make me sleep for more than four hours. Got up and read Marathon Man by William Goldman. Got the book from one of the any free little libraries in my neighbourhood. Anyone who says the book is always better than the movie has never read Marathon Man. Or the Godfather, or Rosemary's Baby or the Stepford Wives (thanks Ira Levin for your script ideas!) or Twins (filmed as Dead Ringers). Perhaps plot driven as opposed to character driven books make for great films. Still reading at 4am.
     Woke at 6am. First action. Check the flag on the fire station across the alley way from my terrace. Not much wind today. Low overhead clouds. Should be a good morning for a long walk. Much of the roof on the fire station was destroyed during the storm last week. I stood and watched it from my patio door as the rain swirled upwards and downwards and ripped the top off the left gable. The storm came from nowhere and made its presence felt all over the city.
     Took my usual walk to Prospect Cemetery this morning. As an insomniac I live on what I like to call VST or Vampire Standard Time, so a cemetery is the perfect place to occupy. Past the mausoleums at the gate, the plaque honouring the long-time groundskeeper: "Please walk on the grass." I do every time. Past the many stones of the Woodmen of the World, carved to look like fallen trees, past my favourite names (Willouby Power, Rachel Jane Death, Horatio Sleep), past my favourite stone (the Phillips family, a massive obsidian cube set en pointe, near another Death family buried next to the Coffin family (Jesus I can't make this up), past the massive cenotaph for WWI dead (the largest in Canada), past the massive inlaid cross and sun dial (bearing the inscription "Time and light man abuses, but shadows still have their uses"). Past so many other lives laid to rest. The memorial for those killed in the Oshtima wars in the early 20th century and those killed in the plane crash in Quebec in 1957. A cemetery makes poets out of everyone.
     Read an article by Peter Howell in the Toronto Star about how Rosemary's Baby is the father (mother?) of modern horror film as it gave rise to demonic possession as a theme. This is only partially accurate as Psycho predates it by a decade and Night of the Living Dead is just as influential to another strain of horror and came out around the same time.
     Croatia smoked Argentina at the World Cup.3-0. Croatia, seriously?
     Barry Trotz hired to coach the New York Islanders after winning the Cup with Washington. Will this be enough to keep Tavares on Long Island or will he come to Toronto where he belongs? 
     Have decided I need to see Polish movie the Red Spider. Because, well, serial killers.
     Womp womp. Lewandowski.
     The number of cyclists and pedestrians killed in Toronto in the last two weeks is astonishing. No human being ever won an argument with a bumper. Especially at 40 miles an hour.
     Koko, the gorilla who learned sign language has died. She was the same age as I am, 46. A gorilla knew a language I didn't. I have officially wasted my life. 
     Trent Reznor is in destroyer mode. Especially with Taylor Swift. Seems right.
     Behemoth just pranked the hell out of Lamb of God. Sweet.
     Rewatched Pontypool tonight, a horror movie set around Canada's English/French debate, language as a virus. Will watch either Pumpkinhead or Enemy next. Haven't decided. Still awake. As usual. 
     Such is the day that was.

—Christopher Doda

Christopher Doda is a poet, editor and critic living in Toronto. He is the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Glutton for Punishment, a book of glosas based on heavy metal lyrics. He is also the Series Editor for the annual Best Canadian Essays.


Peru loses to France.

  I woke up before the alarm clock set at 7am. The light filled my bedroom which made the thought of catching the early bird special again at Bobo’s possible. I had already enjoyed their $2.79 breakfast earlier in the week and felt that two eggs over medium, crispy potato hash, and sourdough toast should be socialized medicine. I languished too long in bed though and as I made it into my truck at already 7:40am I feared I would be late. I went to another place that specialized more in brunch on the weekend but took my chances. In the creases of my mind’s eye I could recollect that this location’s menu chalkboard had boasted breakfast specials in the past. I took my chance and went there instead.
  I arrived ten until 8am not realizing the restaurant wasn’t open yet. I stood in the already 90-degree heat under some paltry shade the potted trees could muster. Once the restaurant opened I made a beeline for the counter being that it was just me and the real estate of a table felt like a commitment I wasn’t ready for. I also wasn’t sure if I was going to stay considering once I came inside I saw the part on the chalkboard was void of any signal that a breakfast early bird special would be offered. I sighed into a conciliatory smile and asked the barista for coffee and cream, no sugar. The only sugary beverage I indulge in is an ice-cold Mexican Coke. It was too early for that.
  Throughout this conundrum of whether or not to have breakfast alone I texted with a friend about watching the Peru-France match at 8am. We had already exchanged panicked texts about what was happening to Central American children along the Southwest borderlands. My heart was beating fast and I tried to calm myself with the thought of a discount breakfast. But I was already at the restaurant and felt conflicted about spending full price on a giant pancake that is out of the realm of my usual breakfast consumption. I stalled ordering telling the nice barista that my friend is supposed to meet me. I sip some coffee. It’s really good coffee. Bobo’s for being a severely discounted breakfast locale has really good coffee, too. It didn’t make sense that I wasn’t at Bobo’s. I made a note that I would get up early again and go to Bobo’s tomorrow.
  At 8:10am a wave of new customers had entered the restaurant. I was thankful the World Cup was in full swing because as I turned my head to the left I noticed a spiky-haired lesbian sitting alone at a table. I recognized her and felt a tingle in the old nervous system. Her wife had put her hand in my back pocket last Spring at a concert in town and the ick of that encounter flooded my memory bank. I looked up at the nice barista and said my friend wasn’t coming after all—that my friend had the audacity to start watching the game without me—and that I would take my coffee and a scone to go. The barista flashed a knowing look. Peru? She asked, waiting with bated breath at my answer. You know it, I said. Oh good, I was scared I had said the wrong team.
  I drove in my air conditioned truck and took bites of the crispy blueberry scone. It was warm and buttery and really worth mentioning. I knew it would be gone before I watched the World Cup match.
  I arrived at my friend’s condo. The fact of the impending 100-degree weather at almost 8:30am confused me about what time of day it actually was. It felt like it could have been the mid-afternoon but the sunlight was still soft to the naked eye. I took my car key and lightly tapped on the metal door as to not wake her pre-teen children from their summer morning sleeping. My friend opened the door. We hugged hello. I took my wallet and phone out of my pockets and laid them on an end table along with keys and sunglasses. I sat down and began to root for the Peruvian team.
  They lost, 0-1. I could feel tears welling up so I started breathing deeply, one breath after the other. I did not want to be emotional about the cyclical nature of loss before 10am. It was also the beginning of Cancerian season which is my sun sign. And moon sign. My Venus, too. I’m very watery. My friend asked me if I had heard from my ex. It wasn’t a good time to ask me that with it being Summer solstice and all. I took a deep breath and regenerated the crab shell around my soft parts. I’m fine. My friend offered me a burrito. A really small and cute burrito. A small and cute burrito that belonged in the cult of juvenilia. The beef picado mixed with refried beans tasted like home-cooked Taco Bell. This is a compliment of the highest order.
  I started thinking about my ex’s codependence and the fact that each time I logged into Tinder I always got the There’s no one new around you message. I took smaller bites of my burrito. I navigate the choppy waters of that relational spectrum. It amounts to wanting someone for those parts of the day when the panic took hold.
  At least Tinder had the decency to end that with a proper period.

—Raquel Gutiérrez

Raquel Gutiérrez is a poet, performer, and essayist pursuing her MFA degree in poetry and non-fiction at the University of Arizona. Born and raised in Los Angeles, she writes about brown ontology, art, music, space and institutionality and publishes chapbooks by queers of color with the tiny press Econo Textual Objects, established in 2014.

Check back for more dispatches from June 21, 2018 tomorrow. —Editors

Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Patrick Collier: What's Happening?

Dear Essay Daily readers:

As you know, tomorrow, Thursday, June 21st, we are organizing an experiment in which we're asking you to pay attention to—and write about—what happens on that day. Write and send it our way, and we'll publish as many of them as we can. Click here for more details. First, though, here's Patrick Collier writing about the Everyday Life in Middletown project.

What’s Happening?

Patrick Collier


If I met you on the street and asked you "what's happening?" you might tell me about the meeting you’re running to, or about your workout at the gym this morning, or about some fun you have planned for the evening.
     Just as likely, you would say, “Nothing much.” Or, “The usual.”
     But let’s pause for a moment. What’s going on beneath the “Nothing much”? What is “the usual”?
     A lot has, in fact, been happening. You woke, perhaps from a deep, sound sleep; perhaps from dreams, vivid or murky, pleasant or troubling. Perhaps you woke with a start to the sound of static-infused classical music. Or you woke naturally with the light, and nuzzled into your partner’s back.
     You went to the bathroom and tended to your body. You ate breakfast: distractedly, like an American, with your IPod propped in front of you; or with gratitude and attention, like a monk; or somewhere in between.
     While you were busy with these tasks, your body and your mind went about their own business, with minimal assent or consciousness from you. Your autonomic systems ran; your nerves processed sensations; acidic juices sloshed around in your guts. Your mind wandered, came into focus, went blank.
     You heard songs on the radio. Or snatches of songs played in your head. You made plans, ran through lists. Somewhere in there, advertisers nudged their way, briefly, up to the line of your consciousness, whether in a targeted ad in your Facebook feed or in a scrap of a slogan that ran through your mind.
     None of these routine tasks, ephemeral sensations, and half-thoughts might seem worth mentioning—particularly in a quick-cordial sidewalk conversation. In a literal sense a good deal of it this material is beneath notice. But, as the British cultural critic Ben Highmore has argued, “nothing much” doesn’t quite cover it, either.
     What is more, a great deal—a terrifying amount, depending on your point of view—of our lives passes while this “nothing much” is happening.


In Muncie, Indiana, these days, a group of citizens has joined with some faculty at Ball State University to document, write about, and study the rich, fine-grained experiences we go through each day, experiences that might otherwise disappear beneath the shadow of that obfuscating phrase, “nothing much.”
     Our project is called Everyday Life in Middletown. And it seeks not just to document and study ordinary lives as they’re lived in our city, but also to foster conversation around everyday life—to become a sort of online, public commons where we might connect over the shared experience of waking up day after day in this small, struggling city, shaking off the last night’s cobwebs, and getting on with it.
     More than forty volunteers, varying widely in age, occupation, and background have signed on to complete three detailed, one-day diaries a year. The project finished its first year in its present form this month, and we’ve gathered almost a hundred diaries, in addition to more than fifty we collected in an earlier version of the project.
     This summer, we’re working on ways to generate conversation around this growing archive of everyday life. We’re inviting our diarists and others to read around in the archive and post their thoughts to our blog. We’re hosting a public discussion of the diaries. And, since our archive is open-access, we’re experimenting with ways of using new search and visualization tools as ways of encouraging exploration and play amid the already formidable amount of detail we’ve amassed on everyday life in our town.


We call the project Everyday Life in Middletown because, as it happens, Muncie is the “Middletown” of the best-selling, quasi-sociological masterpiece Middletown: A Study in Modern American Culture. Initially funded (and rejected) by the Rockefeller Foundation, the book became an international best-seller in 1929. This study, in turn, helped to inspire Mass Observation—a radical, monumental experiment in studying and mobilizing everyday life to progressive purposes, conceived in England in the late 1930s.
     The founders of Mass Observation—a small cadre of young Cambridge graduates including a poet, a budding film-maker, and an anthropologist—recognized that the mass media of their day was mischaracterizing the lives and opinions of ordinary people. They observed a crisis of public information in their society: fascism had taken root in Europe, and a small outgrowth of it had popped up in Britain; public rhetoric was playing to the worst elements of our shared humanity; science and scholarship were capable of finding solutions to entrenched problems, but ordinary people had no means to access or understand them. Drawing on a heady mix of surrealism, psychoanalysis, literary creativity (a working title of Mass Observation was “Popular Poetry”), and anthropology, the Mass Observers enlisted thousands of British subjects to record their everyday lives via day diaries and questionnaires and others to spend time at pubs, factories, and public events, taking notes on everyday behavior. They generated a massive archive which is still used by scholars today.
     After several transitions and a fallow period in the mid-twentieth century, Mass Observation reconstituted itself in the 1980s and has 300 volunteers providing information about their everyday lives today.


Back at the start, one of Mass Observation’s first attention-getting projects was a collection of day diaries on May 12, 1937—the day of the coronation of George VI.
     This was certainly not a day on which “nothing much” was happening. The abdication of Edward VIII was still fresh, and war with Germany was a constant fear. But what is striking about the resulting publication, May 12 1937: Mass-Observation Day Survey is how dramatically it shows the inadequacy of a headline such as “Subjects Cheer New Ruler of British Empire.”
     Two hundred miles away, a millworker who kept a day-diary was not cheering: he was worried about his brother, who was down with appendicitis, and seething over working and social conditions on the shop floor:
The frequent five-minute stares of the painter, allied to the fact that I was constantly on the go working hard, brought a feeling of resentment at the inequality of the distribution of work….I got the impression that the atmosphere, the electric lights burning all day (bad lights), everything combined had an effect on the temper of everyone, spinners, piecers, bobbin carriers, etc.
     Back in London, a banker expressed to a junior colleague his intention to “stay as far away as possible” from the coronation events. While the coronation was sprinkled through the day’s conversations, they also included rugby and soccer. The banker started his day worrying about the news: the Ambassador to Germany was said to have returned the Nazi salute to Germany’s Foreign Minister. Later, the banker lamented his inability to engage his colleagues in conversation about such issues:
Incidentally conversation rarely gets beyond the height of football pools and weather. During the day I endeavoured to get some conversation going on interesting subjects, mainly political, but as you see, failed dismally.
     Certainly our time differs in profound ways from England in 1937. But, like the Mass Observers and their volunteers, we are living in a period of intensified political anxiety and—without doubt—a crisis in the means and content of public discussion. If the Mass Observers were concerned about facile generalizations about public opinion (“England applauds Chamberlain”) and outright falsifications of diplomatic news, we have alternative facts, fake news (both practiced and, as a term, weaponized by the Trumpists), and a corrosive culture of verbal abuse that threatens to drown out civil political discussion.
     Like the Mass Observers, our primary inspiration, we at Everyday Life in Middletown believe that a partial answer, or at least a salve, to our political illness lies in everyday life. And we want to mobilize the study and discussion of everyday life as a place where we might recognize our shared humanity and initiate some online, mediated conversation that focuses on that shared humanity. As an attendee at one of our recent events said, our archive of daily reports from ordinary citizens might serve as an “empathy machine.”


Naturally, Essay Daily’s June 21 project spoke to us, especially the project’s “democratic, anyone-can-play approach,” as Editor Ander Monson put it. So did Ander’s intimation, in a recent post, that everyday life is centrally involved with the question of “attention….what attention is (especially when it’s paid, as we say in our odd turn of phrase, over an extended period).” In a May 21 post, Ander reads Harold Abramowitz and Andrea Quaid’s essay from the occasional magazine ATTN: in a way that goes to the root of the beauty and mystery of the day-diary: “What is today about? What is the point of a day, or of today, or of any day? Is ‘this day…like a little world?’ Is it ‘like leaving the world alone?’ Well, let us find out.”
     These are big questions Ander (and Abramovitz and Quaid) are raising—and indeed, we have found that keeping day diaries, and reading others’ day diaries, will force big questions upon you. I don’t know what the June 21 project will show, but if my experience with day diaries is any indication, it will raise big questions but only gesture—fleetingly, in fragments, but with tantalizing suggestiveness—towards answers. And that in itself is good practice for democracy: increasing our capacity to stay in the place of searching and exploration, to entertain multiple and conflicting details (something like Keats’s “negative capability”); to quote my friend, sometime-Essay Daily scribe Jill Christman, there is value in “staying in the unknowing.” Paying heightened attention to the everyday, whether by writing or by reading others’ accounts of it, multiplies details and forces us into a place where answers are unfinished and the future is open.
     In that spirit, rather than tying these thoughts up with a bow, I’d like to close by giving you a glimpse of what was attracting and (fleetingly) holding the attention of our friends in Muncie, Indiana on Nov. 14, 2017—the first diary day of the current Everyday Life in Middletown project:
Get ready: shower, make up, hair…I have a big meeting today, so I want to look right, which means I picked my red peekaboo pumps, which are going to hurt my feet, but they TOTALLY make the outfit. Sigh.
…The dog was awake so I put her out. She’s getting old and wobbly, which makes me feel sad. My mom just died, so the dog is not allowed to die for awhile.


This kid is good as gold, but so headstrong. I cajole with him to for-the-love-of-god change his socks. We debate over the Mario or the Pikachu shirt for today. I help him with his shoes. I convince him to actually wear his coat (major victory). We both go upstairs to say our goodbyes and I love yous to his father who is now up and getting ready for work….pausing in the midst of tying his necktie to get a big hug from the little guy. I fish my keys out of the swim bag in the foyer (son had swim lessons last night) and open the front door.
     We step out into crisp, fresh air. It is beautiful today.
     I feel a sense of victory/accomplishment/relief each day when we finally make it to the car and pull out. 
9:15 p.m. The boys are asleep. I was thankful for this. I debated on whether or not I should relax or be productive. These are my thoughts daily. I decided to be productive and finish up my documentation from work. This is going to be a long night.

Patrick Collier is Professor of English at Ball State University and the director of Everyday Life in Middletown, whose archive and website can be found at

Monday, June 18, 2018

Int'l Essayists: Christopher Doda on editing the Best Canadian Essays

Just over eight years ago I was asked, somewhat unexpectedly, to take over as Series Editor for the annual Best Canadian Essays. I say 'somewhat unexpectedly' because though I have published a great deal of book reviews, I have only published a handful of essays and in Canada I am better known as a poet (if being 'better known as a poet' than anything is possible in our current cultural milieu). But my reputation as a critic and an editor was apparently enough to warrant the invitation and, after some consideration, I accepted. Initially modelled after the longstanding Best American Essays, I was effectively to become the Canadian equivalent to Robert Atwan, who has shepherded the annual US collection since the mid-eighties.

Of course, I had some decisions to make. Mainly, I had to decide what sort of writing would be eligible for inclusion. The first and basic principle was that essays had to be by Canadian authors and published in Canadian journals or magazines (I would have no problem using works by Canadians in foreign journals, such as say Adam Gopnik, but lack the time and resources to go hunting them down). Naturally it means non-fiction: for all intents and purposes, essays are generally non-fiction but not all non-fiction is an essay. For instance, much online writing lacks the cohesive structure necessary to be considered an essay. In spite of the significant energy expended online, I find most blogging is primarily about imparting content with little attention paid to form or style. I opted to rule out book reviews, mostly because they are too short, narrowly focused and really point to other works. I also excluded excerpts from longer works, as they are not stand-alone pieces and usually printed as teasers for something bigger. Furthermore, I made the crucial decision that essays that appear in the volume must be reproduced exactly as they appeared in the original publication. As an issue, this comes up every year as one or two authors will try to revise their pieces or, more often, reverse changes that were made at the editorial level before initial publication. But the idea is that each volume should represent a snapshot of the year's best essays and not subject to authorial whims and revisionism. 

But overall, when I've come to define an essay for inclusion, I've cast a fairly wide net. Every volume that I've done has featured a few pieces that would be better described as straight-up journalism than 'traditional' essays, the sort of lengthy personal meditation on a subject. Because I have kept the definition open so as not to exclude any quality piece of writing just because it does not entirely conform to the classic essay, I've sometimes thought that perhaps a more accurate sobriquet would be ‘Best Canadian Non-fiction’ for a couple of reasons. The first is commercial: many people, with dire memories of the dreaded five paragraph essay structure drilled into them in class, quail at the sight of the word ESSAY. Often when I tell people about this editing gig the first reaction I get is: "Ugh I hated writing essays in school," so I thought that 'non-fiction' might alleviate people's negative associations. Secondly, it is a more expansive term. 

I have ultimately decided against this change because of my antipathy toward the term itself however. I have always found the term ‘non-fiction’ problematic at best and somewhat absurd at worst. It certainly privileges the novel and short story over the essay and the treatise as art forms. Moreover, built into the very word is the assumption that fiction is the dominant mode of prose and that non-fiction is some sort of deviation. As any linguist will say, trying to define something by what it is not is a fool’s game. Besides, in our post-modern era, the distinction between fiction and non-fiction can be fairly blurry and both are dependent on narrative craft and techniques for their forcefulness. A non-fiction reader picks up a book for information certainly but also for the way it is imparted, its flow and flair, characteristics more akin to fiction. So I'm stuck with ‘essay’ for now it seems. Besides, I am more interested in expanding the definition of the essay itself. The essay should be an inclusive, not an exclusive form: it should hold a multiplicity of not only opinion but style and variety in its expression. 

If there's one thing I've noticed as an editor and reader for Best Canadian Essays (the Guest Editor and I split the reading equally) is that themes often emerge in different years. I even dubbed the 2015 volume "the Law and Order Issue" because half of the total pieces we used fell under that subject. One year I read a lot about animal rights. Canada being what it is, there's usually a fair amount of writing about nature and the environment, particularly around the oil patch in Alberta (Alberta is Canada's Texas in more ways than one). When I started in 2011, there was a great deal of writing about Canada's involvement in Iraq and Afghanistan and when it would hopefully conclude. Under the previous government of Stephen Harper there was a great deal of concern about government secrecy and muzzling of scientists. Considering 80-85% of Canada's population lives within 100 miles of the American border (one of Canada's best essayists, Barry Callaghan, once described us as hanging by our fingertips to the window ledge of the world), there's a strange amount of writing about the comparatively uninhabited North; it retains its mythic hold on our imagination. Case in point: there are at least two or three books published every year about the ill-fated Franklin expedition to navigate the Northwest Passage in 1845. With North America's aging population, I have read umpteen memoirs about the difficulties of care for a sick/dying/demented/recently deceased parent or some combination thereof over the years. Memoirs of obsession, mental illness and addiction also abound. I have even had some disappointment in this regard; since I became editor, Canada has been host to an Olympic and Paralympic Games, a Pan Am Games, the Women's World Cup of Soccer, the Invictus Games, and three separate World Junior Hockey Championships, yet I detect very little George Plimpton-level sports writing here. Most recently, I found myself reading essays by women about their tortured relationship with food. 

Having perused Best American Essays over the years before I took up this mantel, I also began to wonder what the differences are between the two projects. The first I imagined was sheer volume. Every year I have a wish list of about 50 magazines and journals that I'd like to receive for consideration and typically I get about 25-30 (some routinely ignore me, for whatever reason). As I said earlier, I split the material with each year's Guest Editor, which is a fair amount of reading but it is doable. I have no idea of the number of eligible journals there could be in the United States but with ten times our population, it must be...unwieldy. I've always wanted to know the process by which Best American Essays gets made. 

I've also noticed one particular contrast in style between our two countries. There is a kind of essayist in America, led by the immensely popular David Sedaris and his spiritual children Sloane Crosley, Davy Rothbart among others, who is a sort of quirky bumbler who flaunts his comic ineptitude, often to the point of straining credulity, in a variety of situations for the amusement, as opposed to enlightenment, of the reading public. With the self as primary subject matter, the essay becomes yet another narcissistic outlet for an increasingly self-absorbed society. With the possible exception of the late David Rakoff, who became an American anyway, Canada does not produce this type of writer. The Toronto Star columnist Heather Mallick--best known in the US for her defense of Canada's social safety net on Bill O'Reilly's show back in 2004--has lamented in print that Canada does not have a Caitlin Moran (the UK equivalent) or a Lena Dunham or a Roxane Gay. 

That Canada does not produce, or perhaps reward, this type of writer can be seen in a number of lights. One could view it as Canadian authors perversely ignoring that specific portion of the popular marketplace where the essay thrives (Sedaris, Moran and Co. are bestsellers after all). One could see it as a symptom of the serious tone generally adopted by Canadian magazines and journals; say what one will about Canadians, that we are "polite and reasonable" as our Prime Minister recently put it, but we are rarely thought of as playful. One could see it as an example of American individualism versus Canadian collectivism: one writer wants to document what happened to him or her, the other what happened to us. Consequently, it could also be that the US writer has often benefitted from the idea of the singular, forceful personality where the Canadian writer is expected to be publically self-effacing out of a mixture of genuine humility and fear of tall poppy syndrome, an ugly place for a writer to exist. One could even see it as petulant Canadian cultural reactionism: what America likes we don’t and that defines our tastes (this is a dreadfully deep current in my country's national psyche at times). 

This year is the tenth volume of Best Canadian Essays (the previous Series Editor bowed out after two years) and I have greeted the project annually with a healthy mix of complaining and happiness. Complaining because it's just something I do and happiness because I get to read a lot of interesting material and moreover because I get to have a hand in providing the most worthy entries another platform for exposure. Anthology editors, if nothing else, are simple conduits between writers and readers and that is not a bad place to live. 

Christopher Doda is a poet, editor and critic living in Toronto. He is the Series Editor for the annual Best Canadian Essays and the author of three collections of poetry, most recently Glutton for Punishment, a book of glosas based on heavy metal lyrics.

Read more from our Int'l Essayists series here.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

After Reykjavik: a Chorus of Reports

by Sam Cooney, Quinn Eades, Robyn Ferrell, Tresa LeClerc, Peta Murray, Janice Simpson, Sam van Zweden and Fiona Wright; curated and introduced by David Carlin

Prelude (David):

Over four days in the northern summer of 2017, the sixth NonfictioNOW Conference took place in Reykjavik, Iceland. NonfictioNOW is a biennial international gathering of writers—usually about 400—for conversations on nonfiction writing, past, present and future, and its crossovers with other media and genres. So: the essay (lyric, personal, hybrid, experimental, speculative, video, visual), nonfiction poetry, memoir, biography, literary journalism, travel writing, graphic nonfiction, flash nonfiction and so on. (Full disclosure: I am currently co-president of the not-for-profit Board of NonfictioNOW.)

For many people from the US, who make up the largest group of NonfictioNOW delegates, Iceland seemed like a long way away. As for Australians, we are used to traveling. The group of writers assembled here are just some of the large contingent that made the long journey north. Afterwards, we invited these eight to take part in an event in RMIT non/fictionLab’s Present Tense series in Melbourne. The idea was to perform a chorus of reports. The format of the evening was somewhat inspired by the Queer Aesthetics panel Quinn Eades, Peta Murray, Francesca Rendle-Short and Barrie Jean Borich devised and performed in Reykjavik. It also follows a performative ‘collage’ model that Francesca and I have developed through a number of international WrICE (Writers Immersion and Cultural Exchange) events in Australia and Asia.

In the case of this Chorus of Reports, it went like this: each of the eight writers was asked to prepare two short pieces to read. The order would be randomly devised; each writer drawing the next speaker’s name out of a hat. No preliminaries, no faff.

For the first piece: describe a pivotal moment for you at the Reykjavik conference - something from a panel you gave or attended, a keynote or some other conference event. Choose something that rocked your socks, prompted an epiphany or touched you deeply in whatever way. Try to take us to that moment and have us understand why it mattered.

The second piece: (shorter) a creative statement or manifesto or rant or litany or incantation or something else on what nonfiction can do now.

This is roughly what happened on the night:

Part 1      Pivotal moments, epiphanies and consequences

Sam Van Z, on the light creeping in around the edges:

When I arrive in Iceland for NonfictioNOW, I’ve been working on two projects for a long while. One a book-length collection of lyric essays about food, memory and the body. The other is a TinyLetter that I make with my partner, a photographer, where we make words and pictures, and put them together to see what happens.

The manuscript feels closed. Afraid of being misunderstood, I’ve written over any gaps, trying to pin down my meaning. Any life that was once in it has been strangled out - and I don’t know how to let go. I don’t know how to hold it lightly.

The TinyLetter, on the other hand, feels open - full of play and possibility. The times when it fails are balanced by those when it sings. I can’t explain what makes it work. I can’t recreate the lightness.

When I arrive in Iceland, I feel disconnected from the how of my practice, and this is scary.

During the conference, memoirist Sarah Hepola says: ‘Epiphanies are overrated. Things don't happen in single moments.’

In their panel, Margo Jefferson and Elizabeth Kendal suggest ‘discarding the wall of prose’, calling for writing that lets light in - embracing uncertainty and imperfection; and I know this, I know. But telling me to let go won’t make me let go. It’s like my doctor telling me I just need to calm down. Or that insomnia is worse when I keep thinking about how I can’t sleep. How do I write while also giving up a ‘sense of completeness’? How to let go of fear and the impulse to fill in?

Later, documentary poet Erikah Meitner explains the relationship between her poems and the photo essays they accompany. The relationship, she says, is one of three things: an illustration, a metaphor, or a juxtaposition. I recognise these as the things that create space in my TinyLetter. They are also my best tools in deconstructing ‘the wall of prose’.

Another conference speaker says, ‘Lyric essay can inhabit silences and the ways we can intuit things’. So often I write from a gut feeling - this is both essential and infuriating. Its openness defines it, and I love that, but it’s also difficult to work into it with intentionality because of that. Erikah Meitner’s three things explanation applies to lyric essays, too. Braiding an essay around a central theme, what’s pulled in is illustration, metaphor and juxtaposition. Light creeps in around the edges of these things.

This growing sense is not a key that unlocks anything, but it does help me see that the things that work in both projects aren’t dissimilar - I am increasingly able to diagnose what feels right. Not by locking it down, but by acquiring the language I need to identify and speak about it more clearly.

Loosening my grip. Letting light in.

Epiphanies are overrated. Things don’t happen in single moments.

When I touch down in Melbourne again, and when I learn to sleep in darkness again, then I can breathe. I am reconnected to my practice, ready to return to the desk.

Sam C, on the keynote speech of Aisha Sabatini Sloane:

Late one afternoon at the conference, or perhaps it was early one evening or who knows what time because it certainly was simply daylight, I walked into a cavernous dark theatre inside a towering glass-covered building squatting teeteringly on the shoreline, and I took a seat in the second front row of many rows and saw someone lying on the ground as a presumed friend of this person stroked her forehead. I listened covertly, my eyes locked on to something made of paper and words in my hand, as this friend cooed to her and told her everything would be okay, and I learned that this person lying on the ground being cooed to was Aisha Sabatini Sloan, the person who I and a couple of hundred others were here to see give a public talk, and I learned that Sloan was very ill and I learned that Sloan had been up all night vomiting, and I learned that she still had been vomiting all that day and felt like vomiting right now, even while lying on the ground with someone stroking her forehead and telling her everything would be okay. And I saw Sloan pick herself up and I felt my body care about her even though I didn’t know her and didn’t know her work and she was only still a name and a vague reputation to me, and I saw this ill person spend the next hour or maybe two on stage, sitting down instead of standing up, deliver one of the most powerful talks, and by powerful I mean the absolutely opposite of what we’ve largely been taught to associate with the word ‘powerful’ – for this was powerful in the most quiet, humble, thoughtful, inclusive way, and though Sloan was technically a small and kind of hunched figure on a giant stage in a cavernous room inside a towering building on a blustery shoreline, and though Sloan was invited because she represented things and though she did her best to let us know that she didn’t at all represent these things she also knew that she did represent these things, though she was just another writer talking to a bunch of other writers, what I saw was someone literally pick themselves up off the floor to speak clearly a bunch of sentences to a room full of people that needed to hear these sentences, whether they agree with me or not.

Tresa, with a story inspired by personal accounts of racism against Latinos in the US, heard during the panel session Toward a More Inclusive Canon: Diversifying the Creative Nonfiction Syllabus:

La Colonia

There weren’t always houses on Florentia Street. Oxnard, California used to farmland stretching out to the ocean until houses sprang up where the strawberry fields used to be. Two years ago they built this gated community to keep the La Colonia gangs out. Laying in bed, I listen to La Colonia across the park, huffing like a child before a tantrum. The winds quiet. Then three explosive pops and that concussive ring. ‘Fireworks or gunshots?’ I wonder. The El Niño rains haven’t arrived yet but the air is heating up.

The volume on the TV downstairs fades. Dad’s been watching his favorite Rojo contestant, Maria Jimena Pereyra’s Spanish version of I will survive, Yo Viviré. On American Idol yesterday, Simon Cowell said ‘this isn’t Chilean karaoke’ and I wondered if he meant Rojo. I can hear Maria Jimena’s voice drain with each click of the remote. Now we are both listening to the winds at our door.

They say that when this year’s El Niño storm hits Southern California the mountains will fall onto the highway and I won't be able to go to university anymore. That’s okay with me. I don’t like it there out past La Conchita, in Santa Barbara. They tell me I’m not supposed to be there. Not with those words, with things like, ‘my friend didn’t get in because they let people like you in,’ and ‘they go easier on people like you, that’s why you’re doing so well.’

If they ask why I don't go, I’ll tell them it's El Niño. Last time it came it buried La Conchita. The town was built on sand against a mountain. It was three blocks long and three blocks wide with ocean views. But to get to the beach you had to cross eight lanes of the Pacific Coast Highway. They say that one night El Niño was so bad the hills couldn't take it. They buried a block of houses while a father went to get ice cream for his children. They had to pull him off the hill. Every time he dug into the earth, it fell again over the valley he had made. He was Sisyphus condemned to an eternity of watching the hill crumble in his hands.

Fireworks are illegal but you still buy them as easily as you could a churro or a Boyz II Men CD at the Swap Meets on Sunday afternoon. After all, firecrackers are just flash paper, a fuse and gunpowder. I listen for screaming. I don't hear anything. Just the El Niño winds kicking around the streets.

Hey, you know up there in Ventura on the hill there used to be a cemetery? You could see it clear to the ocean. Now only a few plaques sit where the gravestones were and people bring their dogs to stretch their legs and play catch on the grass. The reason is because 100 years ago El Niño came through. The graves came up. Coffins floated down Main Street into ocean, like a real life Dia De Los Muertos procession.

I won’t go back to university tomorrow. I wrap my blankets around me like the stories of this town and it’s quiet. But then fire trucks bleet out their song, the ambulance, the police cars. Always in that order. I wonder how quiet it must be out past La Conchita, before people like me brought the storms.

Fiona, from a panel about collaboration:

In a panel about collaboration, which I love, but rarely do, in a room that feels like an old theatre, the final speaker is a woman from Belgium who looks like Björk, dark-haired and big-eyed; she runs, she says, a small press named for honey, and also a writer’s residency – people suddenly scribble when she says this – because she’s interested in the co-labour of collaboration, in labouring alone, but with companionship.

My housemates and I sometimes have evenings where we sit on our three couches and put in earphones, one of us watching Netflix, one listening to podcasts, one reading on her Kindle. We call these earphone evenings, together alone, alone but with companionship.

Two days before the panel I’d arrived in Reykjavik, rolled up into the basement flat of a beautiful white house, opposite a church built of grey concrete, arching up into the overcast sky; the people I was staying with, good friends and writers all, were curled up in the armchairs when I got there – reading, tapping away at laptops, marking up a manuscript. I’d been felling raw, and rubbed back by all of the small encounters I’d had in transit; by the eerie bus trip from the airport to the city, past flat fields of black basalt stretching unbroken to the coastline, ancient-looking, and moon-like. I’d been alone, and largely silent, for thirty-two hours by this stage. My friends had filled the house already with food, crackers and cheese, two bottles of wine to share; that night we ate together, read together; slept early and deeply in shared bedrooms.

The next day, I dressed myself in seven layers and walked across the city, past the angular town hall and up the hill, the houses quiet still, and sleepy. I wrote for a while in a café and my friends met me there a little later, and we walked for several hours through the town, crossing underneath the freeway to a forested park on its outskirts, talking the whole time of books and films and writing and ideas, what we were working on, what we wanted to be working on.

One friend said, I went away for a weekend with my schoolfriends, and when I went outside to read for a while, all four of them came out, in turns, to check on me and ask me what was wrong.

One friend said, when I go away with my family and need to get out, I say I’m going for a walk, and my mother always says, oh! I’ll come with you!

When we got back to the house that afternoon we read and worked and wrote and I felt serene and properly present in a way that I so rarely do. Co-labour, I think, is co-mindedness, is comfortable; and I realise that we’re more powerful and protected when we do this.

Robyn, in and around the keynote of Karl Ove Knausgård:

Here is Norwegian writer Karl Ove Knausgård keynoting. The Danish Ambassador introduced him as ‘Proust for the internet age’. There is a touch of Kierkegaard grandeur in his highly-worked essay on domestic verities. Waiting for a letter from the Swedish Academy?

The keynotes were held in the grand auditorium of the Harpa Building, a beautiful Reykjavik landmark down by the harbour. The wind was cold and the water steel blue in early June. Summer is a relative concept in Iceland. Perhaps this opened us up to nominalism and some shape-shifting when considering the truth-telling of contemporary nonfiction.

One panel session at the conference was called ‘Based on a True Story’; an Icelandic research project in law and literature. It considered Knausgård’s six-volume series of autobiographical novels. He did not change names to protect the guilty. His family sued unsuccessfully to stop publication. His now ex-wife had a nervous breakdown, making her own contribution to the life story on her radio show. Critics remain perplexed by the mix of fact and fiction.

What strikes me is the blend of literature and marketing. Like calling it ‘My Struggle’, a reference to Hitler’s autobiography. Like telling ‘the truth’ about everyone in your life in the style of a tell-all magazine profile. A girlfriend said: “It was as if he said: Now I'm going to punch you in the face. I know it's going to hurt, and I will drive you to the hospital afterwards. But I'm going to do it anyway.”

In the ‘after-life’ of social media, readers speaking back to controversial truth-telling means the work of this kind of nonfiction text can be ongoing and even ‘curated’, becoming an instigator of events. It’s animated through the uncanny vivacity of the text of the law, too, where words written have force and consequences and are played out in defamation cases and injunctions in the theatre of the courts.

All this showed me that what counts as truth, in a ‘post-truth’ world, is far more artful, more vindictive and closer to life than art. Truth becomes a malleable property of the nonfiction text. This truth is no longer authorized. This truth is on the move and nonfiction is its vehicle.

Janice, away with the Irish at a panel called ‘Letters to Iceland’:

I felt bubble trapped–not like Trapped the Icelandic TV show–more like in an American sitcom, say Seinfeld, where all I was hearing was how great everything was in this bubble of everything that’s good about nonfiction–the American greats, or the great Americans. I was up to the pussy’s bow, which is why I raced off to a panel conducted by three Irish people. At last, news from without!

Before beginning their session, ‘Letters to Iceland’, Colin [Graham] placed postcards on tables, gave me three. The back half of a horse, a man with two horses only one entirely in the frame, three men preparing to dive into a pool at what appears to be a competition of some sort. These were reproductions of photographs W.H. Auden took when travelling with his friend Louis McNiece in Iceland in 1936. During their time away they sent letters–some prose, some verse–to lovers and friends in the United Kingdom. Originally published in 1937, Letters From Iceland is a collage of tourist notes, verses and letters. It is part travelogue, part meditation on what might soon happen in Europe, and has run to more than 20 editions.

Taking Letters From Iceland as a starting point, Selina [Guinness] began, reading a letter she had handwritten a month ago to her long-time friend, Rosita [Boland]. Rosita then read a letter to Colin, Selina’s husband. Colin read a letter to his wife, and so on it went, until in all six letters were read aloud. The letters contemplated friendship, collaboration, travel, writing, photography.

Rosita, as it turns out, has visited more than 100 countries over the last 30 years, many of the trips working as a journalist with The Irish Times but she has never taken photographs. For Colin, photography is the subject of his latest book ‘Northern Ireland: Thirty Years of Photography’.

Rosita said, ‘Our lives are as ephemeral as words written on water.’

Selina said, ‘Can I write a sentence that will exceed the photograph?’

Selina, Colin and Rosita–poets, memoirists, novelists. The warmth of their creative work, their love of painting with words. What is it about the Irish voice? I’ve known women to fall in love with a man just because he speaks in an Irish accent. Perhaps I have even done that myself.

Quinn, among knots that can’t be undone:

On the fourth day in Reykjavik
my palms start to itch.

I walk to the Harpa, a square
glassed building next to the water,
and pull my jacket’s hood over my head.
Earache threatens to come
because I have flown for 35 hours
to walk across the top of the world
to sit in a conference
to listen to six sunlit nights
— In an overpriced restaurant an American says
— Oh you’re from Melbourne
— From Down Under
— And I say yes but why under, doesn’t it depend where you’re standing?
  To walk across a country under siege from tourists
  who stagger and drink and shop unrelentingly
— There is a penis museum here where you can buy key rings and cups
— There is a coffee shop that grinds its beans in the middle of us all
— They play Leonard Cohen LPs
— Everywhere has a coat rack 
  At the top of the world in endless light
  teenagers do night things but we can see them
  cats walk haunches up on the hunt
  a taxi driver tells me crime is low

  The conference goes like this:
  (Bataille, formlessness, the universe like spider, or spit.
  What is worth writing about?
  The lie of ‘realness’, gaps, silences, slippages.
  Wayne Koestenbaum in defence of nuance,
  the lover who wants to escape the prison of discourse.
  Glaze, the aroma that the message leaves behind.
  Refusing to articulate the frame.
  Rope games. Knots that can’t be undone.
  Made with fishing line or fine cotton.
  Once tied, the knot stays.
  He says in his smoothing New York voice that we leave
  the tether of the frame in search of the principles of the frame.
  In a broken flash I am both frame and tether,
  the tight and tiny cotton knot, fishing line strung
  always with give, between two poles,
  learning how to sleep under a midnight sun.)

A reading, a book launch, two panels
are done, and my ears know now that they are allowed
to ache.

The wounded eye.
A haunting.
Snow in the distance.
A steel Viking ship
struck at the edge of the water,
settled on a cement disk.
Tourists in red and blue puffy jackets
climb and pose and take photos grinning for their future selves

and facebook and instagram
(how many likes?).

I walk past the steel ship skeleton
and squint one eye
so I can see it without people,
without puffy jackets
and thumbs up.

A three second glimpse
of slick surface,
the Viking call,
this frozen rising ocean, mountains
a finger-width away, an orange
lighthouse behind me, an ear
that aches.

Peta Murray, on unpanelling, in her asparagus crown:

[PM stage direction to self: PUT ONE EYEMASK ON ONE SIDE OF YOUR HEAD]

It’s not just about the light and it’s not just about the landscape. It’s not just about the iron clad houses, their bold colours, so sailors can see home from the sea. It’s not just about the HARPA concert hall, the gills and bones and scales of it. Can a building be a fish?

It’s not just about the high cost of living, the wilting vegetables far beyond our price range, in the two kinds of supermarkets, Kronun and Bonus, only one of which is any good according to my friend the poet, who is a writer-in-residence somewhere out of town. In a lava field. I’ll say that again. In a lava field.

And it’s not just about the furniture in our airbnb, the colourgraded shelves of books for décor, the map of Greenland on the wall, the individual coverlets on a double bed, or the flimsy, useless blinds that do not mask the ever-present day light, so that I cannot sleep. 1am. 2am. 3.


It’s not just about the overpriced fish dinner in the quaint restaurant full of old men with chiseled faces who wear bulkyknit jumpers over best shirts and ties.

Or that walk up that mountain. Helgafells. Or the crunch of our boots on the ground underfoot or the haze of our breaths or the sparseness of the vegetation, yet its boldness, its fluorescence. Especially the defiant moss. Or the climb that is meant to be easy, but is not. Or the cold, though it’s said to be summer.

My epiphany happens at the exhibition over the road. Where a photographic collaboration I have adored from afar called Eyes as Big as Plates, featuring, as some have said with derision, old people with vegetation on their heads - rhubarb, lichen, branches, turf – has an opening night in Nordic House, on the eve of our conference. So that I may meet the artists, Karoline Hjorth and Ritta Ikonen, and their octogenarian subjects in real life and see the photos just once as they are meant to be seen, and drink free wine and hug and be hugged by this dynamic duo, one from Finland, one from Norway, as we squeal at the synchronicity and the wonder of it all.

This is the best moment of the conference and it is an unconferenced moment. And there’s the rub of it. That UN.


Three day-nights later, our unpanelling. Our nonfiction as queer panel that is not be corralled into any kind of familiar shape, and the paper I must give that will not let me write it, and the unraveling this induces in little old jetlagged, sleep-deprived me, so that when the moment comes I am beside myself, I am unmade.


Yet the words come, and my paper is, somehow, bespoke. And I stand there. In my asparagus crown. And I am in Iceland.

Part 2      what nonfiction can do now: rants, litanies, incantations, manifestos…


The non in non-fiction is what we do not choose
we don’t foray, we begin
it is something I respect severely,
a text container
a running on the animating current of doubt.

I was not always as you see me now
in a body that doesn’t fit the tradition
I had to make myself less recognisable
in order to not be misrecognised
it begins with a hole.
There are non-fictional dimensions of the internet.

It is working from immersion backwards
it is a wonder towards facts
a clustering of facts
an accumulation of facts
it is making facts kinetic.

I think of
something flat, now risen
something to distill the fear
the more you use
it the more it
I’m uncomfortable every day and
I want people to be uncomfortable

I asked, what is your favourite
kind of laughter, she said
you’d love the light here
the light
the light
the light here


The Icelandic alphabet has thirty-two letters, an extra six on top of those we know, so that it’s both familiar and strange to the eye. While I was there I tried sounding out some words. Especially a very long one meaning “salted licorice chocolate.”

Salted licorice chocolate is the kind of creative nonfiction of confectionary.

For nonfiction is a confection.

It mixes and compounds and this is what gives nonfiction its capacity to make strange and to keep strange. And I believe that this strange-making and strange-keeping has restorative powers.

Restore comes to us with Latin roots, inviting us to re-stand, to stand again, to arise, we might say, repaired, rebuilt, renewed.

Nonfiction, through play and ploy, through the queering of things, has the capacity to surprise and re-awaken, transforming our everydayness and restoring hope. It can repair our capacity to see, and to listen. It can rebuild our curiosity, and renew our willingness to question and to resist.

Nonfiction has done some fancy restoration work on me. It has allowed me to move away from the solidity of writing about, towards another kind of writing, a writing from, in a form that fuses performance writing and the essay. My hope is that through this liveness, in its ungainliness and unfinishedness, I may encounter new ways of knowing. And unknowing. Of becoming – even in an unbecoming headpiece.

Nonfiction un-does.

And to paraphrase the late Bryce Courtenay, one should never underestimate the power of un-.


In Iceland there are 10,000 writers for a population of 340,000. The Icelandic government buys 1000 copies automatically of every book published.

Iceland does this for its writers, the state sponsorship of literature, because otherwise they would have no literature. They do this because Icelandic is not English.

Meanwhile Australian writers face the cruel trifecta of publishing monopolies going global and sucking up local imprints, Amazon underselling them, and 'fair use' literally putting us out of business.

Australia, too, is a minor literature, and is a downtrodden colony of US/UK cultural imperialism. Digital disruption and commercial genre publishing squeeze out indie publishers with their economies of scale and mass audiences. Or they buy them up, if they succeed. They to add them to global stables where marketing directors sit on every board.

Commercial genres can't substitute for a writing culture & soon Australia will be without one.

We need a chook raffle. We need something like Britain’s national lottery. We need philanthropy like Twiggy Forrest gives to the Western Force rugby team. We need a national press, like we have a national broadcaster.

We need a not-for-profit national press with a peer-reviewed process and some 'zero-price' marketing strategies, like handing out free books on public transport).

Call it The Chook Raffle Press. Books don’t work so well when made into commodities. Make Australian writing free-to-air! That’s my rave.


I originally wanted to write an incantation about nonfiction. I started researching the ‘Galdrabók’, which is the Icelandic Book of Magic from about 1600. It’s a beautiful looking book filled with spells and symbols. But I couldn’t get a copy. Probably for the best. It says things like, say this spell and a daemon will appear and cough up the person who stole from you. I wouldn’t want to unleash any rogue spirits here tonight.

But isn’t that what good nonfiction does. Haunt us, cast its spell. Show us our daemons.

Fittingly, nonfiction is defined by what it is not. What are we are missing. What exists in absentia.

The panel that I referenced in my earlier story was based on Junot Díaz’s article MFA vs. POC. In the article, Díaz criticized the American creative writing workshop and its curriculum for being too white, reproducing the dominant culture’s blind spots and assumptions around things like race and racism, sexism, heteronormativity. On the panel, several women discussed their experiences in university. We teared up, because we were not used to talking about these things. And yet, they were not that different to what Sandra Cisneros had spoken about years before.

As a matter of fact, just the other day, Latino students trying to register for a mock trial were called mediocre and underqualified in a mass email mistakenly sent to University of Maryland students. Ironically they denied them the experience to be a part of the trial, because they didn’t have enough experience. They only apologised that students had learned of their assessment.

Here in Australia, the world is not so different than the United States. While the names have changed, the old spirits remain the same. Nonfiction is an incantation. It can bring these kinds of social injustices to light, coughing them out before us. We just need to make sure our stories aren’t erased before we can write them.


Let me begin by asking you if a painting is fiction and a photograph nonfiction; a weather forecast fiction and a weather report nonfiction; a recipe a fiction and a meal on the table nonfiction?

Real or imaginary? It is said that one’s imagination leads to fictional creations. But one’s imagination is real. So real in fact that people can suffer for years from imaginary afflictions, both physical and psychological. Therefore, if fiction is spawned from something real–the imagination–then isn’t the resulting product nonfiction?

Let’s take a couple of examples. What are Helen Garner’s books The Spare Room and Monkey Grip? Or what of Truman Capote’s In Cold Blood and John Berendt’s Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil? Garner claims she made things up; Capote and Berendt claimed they wrote the truth. But you know what, all of them are lying…

‘Is there a scale with pure fact at one end and pure fiction at the other?’ asks Carmel Bird (1993). David Carlin’s beginning nonfiction writing students see a marked distinction between the forms, believing that fiction has the ‘capacity to lie and make things up’ and nonfiction ‘is bound, as if unmediated, to the facts’ (2012, p. 3). This view relies on an assumption to distinguish the two forms: that facts are immutable.

Let’s dispense with this binary of real vs unreal; fiction vs nonfiction. Let’s free ourselves and our readers. It’s a nonsense to make an arbitrary distinction. We have to name this way of writing something other than what it is not, but often is.

Sam C:

I am trying to get at something
and I want to talk very plainly to you
so that we are both comforted by the honesty.
You see there is a window by my desk
I stare out when I am stuck
though the outdoors has rarely inspired me to write
and I don't know why I keep staring at it.

My childhood hasn't made good material either
mostly being a mulch of white minutes
with a few stand out moments,
popping tar bubbles on the driveway in the summer
a certain amount of pride at school
everytime they called it "our sun"
and playing football when the only play
was "go out long" are what stand out now.

If squeezed for more information
I can remember old clock radios
with flipping metal numbers
and an entree called Surf and Turf.

As a way of getting in touch with my origins
every night I set the alarm clock
for the time I was born so that waking up
becomes a historical reenactment and the first thing I do
is take a reading of the day and try to flow with it like
when you're riding a mechanical bull and you strain to learn
the pattern quickly so you don't inadvertently resist it.

I am trying to get at something so simple
that I have to talk plainly
so the words don't disfigure it
and if it turns out that what I say is untrue
then at least let it be harmless
like a leaky boat in the reeds
that is bothering no one.

The world is vicious and beautiful and, to some extent, unexplainable. But that doesn’t stop us from wanting a story, all the same.
- Thomas Paige McBee, Man Alive
What can nonfiction do?

When my children were small they loved the book and the TV show called Guess How Much I Love You. One long morning, drowning in children’s TV, I saw and heard this:

The baby owl sits on a stump and tells the animals gathered around her a story of ice and sun, darkness shrouding, thirst licking like death at their throats, sun that refuses to set. Then a night that takes hold and will not release its grip. In the end, balance is restored. Little Nutbrown Hair asks

“Is that story true Little Owl?”

There is a pause.

“It is true that it is my story Little Nutbrown Hare.”
And the speaking will get easier and easier. And you will find you have fallen in love with your own vision, which you may never have realized you had. And you will lose some friends and lovers, and realize you don't miss them. And new ones will find you and cherish you. And you will still flirt and paint your nails, dress up and party, because, as I think Emma Goldman said, "If I can't dance, I don't want to be part of your revolution." And at last you'll know with surpassing certainty that only one thing is more frightening than speaking your truth. And that is not speaking.
- Audre Lorde 1984
I am wobbling all over the place. My neck and shoulder have been in a screaming spasm for the last week.

What can nonfiction do?

This is the question I was given, and I have 2 minutes to tell you what I think. 2 minutes is around 300 words, and I have already used thirty-five of them. So I think all I have are questions. Why is it always autobiography for me, even when I am writing poetry? Why are people frightened for me when I tell life stories? When I crack open the cage of my chest and invite people to look in? Because I speak with impropriety. Because I write us fucking bright and hard in the torque of night. Because I am willing to tell you everything. In The Pleasure of the Text Barthes says that ‘Text means Tissue… [and that] lost in this tissue–this texture–the subject unmakes [themselves], like a spider dissolving in the constructive secretions of its web.’

In 2015 I published a book of my body (Barthes also says that “for some perverts the sentence is a body”). The body in that book is and is not the body that stands on this stage, because writing changes. The body in that book is cunted-breasted-birthing-breastfeeding-bursting open terrified-trauma laced-reaching for a queer place. The body in that book could feel tissue wanting to assemble differently, could feel a violently approaching shift. The same month the book was launched a different body was also being launched (because writing changes).

What can nonfiction do? For this body that stands here, nonfiction is fishing line or string, an entanglement of writing and tissue, that alters, that loosens and tightens, that pulls so hard it holds. This body was Barthes’s spider dissolving in its string and fishing line web, and once dissolved, this body was made new.

What does nonfiction do? It makes tissue-stories and sends them out to be imbibed, to make change, to open us up, to thread a web under our tightropes, to push us into a howl and a laugh, and to hold us as we walk. Nonfiction connects.

Sam van Z:

I’m rethinking my heroes.

At the three NonfictioNOW conferences that I’ve attended, I met writers whose nonfiction has shaped my writing practice. International authors whose existence was suddenly made real by proximity.

As the birthplace of much of the experimental work that has stretched the genre, and with a market that’s more commercially viable than our own, the US is seen as the promised land for creative nonfiction. There are strong collectives talking about and sharing one another’s work, supporting their community and seeking collaboration. The benefits are obvious - these are the communities that make things like NonfictioNOW possible.

These conferences have also allowed me to meet people from Melbourne who I hadn’t met at home. Their work is phenomenal, even - especially - alongside all the American writers I already considered my heroes. How had I missed all of this? Is it because I’m no longer a part of academia? Is this where the exciting stuff lives? Why had I (and I think so many young creative nonfiction writers) been looking overseas for examples of exciting writing, when what’s happening at home is alive and compelling and fierce and important?

My writing heroes have been international for too long. What nonfiction can do now, here in Australia, is start conversations that champion our own. It’s time to find local heroes - our peers, our mentors, our leaders and emerging writers. It’s time to amplify the volume of those who are working to redefine the genre locally.

It’s time to speak loudly about what we’ve been reading - the Australian affliction of Tall Poppy syndrome is real, but communities exist to lift one another up. The conversation needs to be loud enough that when our young nonfiction writers think of ‘great experimental and creative nonfiction’ they think of Australian work, and of people they recognise at events, people they can approach for mentorship, and speak with meaningfully.

So I’m committing to talk loudly about the experimental, uncomfortable, underrepresented and challenging Australian nonfiction that I’m reading. Because these conversations start with readers. They get books from smaller presses into more hands and on more course reading lists. These conversations educate our publishers and our prizes.

The conversation starts with readers, so speak loudly.


Thanks to RMIT University’s non/fictionLab for its support, in particular Francesca Rendle-Short and Adrian Miles, as well as Tresa LeClerc, Stef Markidis and Sophie Langley who coordinated the Present Tense event series. A significantly expanded version of one of Sam van Zweden’s contributions was first published as “I’m Rethinking My Heroes: Australian Nonfiction and Reading Loudly”, Meanjin Online, April 5 2018.


David Carlin is a writer and creative artist based in Melbourne. His next book, The After-Normal, co-written with Nicole Walker, is forthcoming from Rose Metal Press in 2019. David is a Professor at RMIT University, where he co-directs WrICE and non/fictionLab.

Sam Cooney runs TLB, a not-for-profit publishing organisation that publishes the quarterly literary mag The Lifted Brow as well as books through Brow Books. Sam is also official 'publisher-in-residence' at RMIT University, a freelance writer and many many other things.

Quinn Eades is a researcher, writer, and award-winning poet whose work lies at the nexus of feminist, queer and trans theories of the body, autobiography, and philosophy. Eades is published nationally and internationally, and is the author of all the beginnings: a queer autobiography of the body, published by Tantanoola.

Robyn Ferrell is the author of several books of philosophy and creative writing and is Honorary Research Fellow in the Department of Gender and Cultural Studies at the University of Sydney. Her nonfiction book, The Real Desire, was shortlisted for the NSW Premier’s Award.

Tresa Le Clerc is a writer and PhD candidate in RMIT’s non/fictionLab. As part of her creative project, she is writing an ethnographically informed novel, entitled All The Time Lost, that explores migrancy and the everyday in Melbourne, Australia. Her short story ‘American Riviera’, was published as part of the book 9 Slices.

Peta Murray is a writer of some award-winning and widely performed plays, as well as essays, short stories and works of essayesque dismemoir, a form she has invented and developed through a recently completed PhD, which examiner Marion Campbell described as ‘an exceptional and groundbreaking practice-driven research thesis, amazingly original.’

Janice Simpson is a crime writer, whose novel, Murder in Mt Martha was published in 2016. Janice is a national convenor of Sisters in Crime, a not-for-profit organisation promoting women crime writers and readers, as well as a PhD candidate and member of the Non/fiction Lab at RMIT University.

Sam van Zweden is a Melbourne-based writer interested in memory, food and mental health. Her writing has appeared in Meanjin, The Big Issue, The Lifted Brow, Cordite, The Wheeler Centre and others. Her work has been shortlisted for the Scribe Nonfiction Prize for Young Writers, the Lifted Brow and non/fictionLab Experimental Non-fiction Writing Prize and the Lord Mayor's Creative Writing Awards.

Fiona Wright's books of poetry and nonfiction, including 2015’s Small Acts of Disappearance: Essays in Hunger have won many awards. Her poems have twice appeared in Best Australian Poems and she is the 2017 Copyright Agency (CAL) New Writer in Residence at University of Technology Sydney