Monday, November 11, 2019

Greg Gerke: Davenport as Exemplar

The essays of Guy Davenport collected in The Geography of the Imagination, Every Force Evolves a Form, and The Hunter Gracchus are more than guilty pleasures for me. They discuss dense things but are easy on the eyes, in harmony with part of Davenport’s forward in the latter, “I am not writing for scholars or fellow critics, but for people who like to read, to look at pictures, and to know things.” Davenport never clogged his sentences with any unnecessary sesquipedalian words or high academic torque, though he taught for over thirty-five years. People used to say about film director John Ford that he made one picture for the studio, then one for him. But Davenport kept his tone throughout—a lecture at Yale held the same locutions as a review of Cormac McCarthy’s Outer Dark in the NewYork Times (uncollected, but on-line). It’s a very poetic, crisp style—the long pungent sentences are masked by short pugilistic ones, as in the Outer Dark review: “Appalachian America has kept in the archaic courtesy of its speech and in the still uncompromised meanness of its ethnic jealousies an inviolable identity unmatched anywhere else in the United States. It is our Balkans.”
     I’d always wanted to come at art in a vital Davenportian way, which is to say not with pompous stridency—declaiming for my own noteriety, using Hegel and Derrida as petards to enjoyment—but in a cogent, stylistic manner for the aforementioned “people who like to read.” Davenport and the other poet-critics—William Gass, Hugh Kenner, Virginia Woolf, Elizabeth Hardwick, Susan Sontag, Cynthia Ozick, and, to an extent, Lionel Trilling—taught me turn and counter-turn in this arena. Though Davenport’s style is not the closest to mine, he is probably the most inimitable, and maybe the most angry—traits handed down by a trifecta of writers who probably formed him most: William Blake (who he almost did his dissertation on), John Ruskin (the writer who, with Thoreau, he most resembles), and Ezra Pound (subject of his dissertation—he visited him a number of times); three people he defined, in that dissertation Cities on Hills, as able “to combine an intense awareness and love of beauty with what seems like a fanatic interest in economics...[and] to combine an interest in the details of practical statecraft with what seem like visionary ideas so impractical that all three men are listed in reference books as insane.” Whether beauty is truth or the other way around, given his essay “What are Revolutions?,” it is clear Davenport had a justifiable antipathy to government, “We are now taxed for every movement we make, every exchange of nickel from citizen to citizen.” In manner, he is most like Ozick, knowing the power of one word, well-applied, transforms mere information into artistry, as in this simple sentence from a review of a Gerard Manley Hopkins biography review: “He was still young when the filthy drinking water of Dublin did him in: typhoid.” Many would have bypassed the use of the adjective “filthy,” but that coloration heightens the fact of decay now in our heads.
     I never consciously set out to copy, but the cues slurried through my metabolism while it repeatedly digested Davenport for the last decade. In his non-fiction, Guy Davenport, the person, is sometimes there, but subservient to Guy Davenport, the thinker. His own life filters in at certain points, with a catchy anecdote here or there (in a prescient uncollected piece on the Confederate flag, he writes, “When I see motorcycle gangs wearing Nazi regalia, I know that I’m looking at ignorance and stupidity”), but, like Gass, it is a rare instance to have pure memoir—“Finding” and “On Reading” are the two most notable exceptions. It may be counterintuitive, but I believe Davenport and the others, when writing of Shakespeare or other cultural curiosities, are really dwelling on their own sleepless nights or love’s work or a piss-poor colleague or friend; they can be said to be pressurizing the work in the manner of how Charles Williams, a 20th Century poetry critic, counsels, “Poetry is beginning to write more about things, and less about what the poet felt about things”—meaning the life services the art, which is not at all about itself, but about a person’s experience of it. In “II Timothy” a piece originally in an anthology, Davenport squeezes in his upbringing, “...I was actually raised by my parents to believe that a moral life, polished manners, and an ambition to be moderately well off were the essence of acceptable behavior. Both my parents tacitly agreed with Trollope that a strong interest in religion was a prelude to insanity.” Davenport goes on like this, explicating, with memoir being attendant, yet he doesn’t strain to squelch the primary force of the piece, taking advice he once quoted., when he referenced Menander in “The Geography of the Imagination”: “Talking about a feast that starves the guest.”
     We live in uber-egoic times, and even such a upright scribbler not to be found on social media, Joshua Cohen, litters his essays with the detritus of Tweet-like pronouncements, though with a nifty campy chrome finish: “So here I am at midnight, sitting in a Barcalounger, reading the Collected Fictions of Gordon Lish while idly masturbating.” There is a tenderfooted line to the insertion of the superficial self into a review of art, a being whom Proust described thus, “What one bestows on private life—in conversation... or in those drawing-room essays that are scarcely more than conversation in print—is the product of a quite superficial self, not of the innermost self which one can only recover by putting aside the world and the self that frequents the world.” The discriminating reader, wondering about the book, film, or exhibition in question, usually will forgive the standard operating procedure of the first-person infused beginning and end, but if too much of the text’s body is that aforementioned paltry feast, it is a very easy and unforgiving click into a new tab that ices the tiresome monologue. But, of course, we don’t think we are inserting that maudlin ego—we are simply using ourselves as a device for more mass appeal and, usually as the bemused (how often writers observe another’s follies) or the victim itself.
     In casting a cold eye on my forthcoming essay book, See What I See, I did notice many of these maneuvers, how I often detailed the circumstances of reading or seeing the art, betting on how the revelations may abet interest, but might only be little jibes which entertain me because it is my life dimly on display. What does the reader really want? Information or intimacy? Probably both, but as in most friendships there is a dance around the indices framing what we want, what we expect, and what we’ll put up with. However many times I hear or read someone say, “I don’t write with the audience in mind,” I know people don’t really have that kind of control over what they write—and anyway, they are speaking in that fusty superficial self voice. But there is the rub—how does that drawing-room self get cloaked enough to come off as half-way genuine, something squaring with Gertrude Stein’s “I write for myself and strangers”? The MFA prescriptivists would say, that is when someone finds their “voice,” when one river flows into another and there is an almost undetectable confluence of form working on the matter at hand. Maybe one can’t countenance that moment—it’s like trying to pinpoint the hour you first began to love someone. You go on a blind date with every reader and some will know in the first syllables if they want to be in your company or not; others will know as soon as they see your name.
     Here is the first sentence of Davenport’s “Dictionary”: “Some years ago, on a particularly distraught evening, the drift of things into chaos was precipitated by my consulting Webster’s Third International for the word Mauser.” So much is going on here and it’s not all ornate or all plain but a synthesis of the two. It certainly is hypnotic. It could be the beginning of a Sherlock Holmes story, but it quickly becomes Kafka, with “the drift of things into chaos”—something so beautiful, you think Keats wrote it and you want more of that beauty, that voice. Then the humor of the ending and ending on that particular pregnant word. Yet there is also the time frame—you find out things drifted into chaos before you know the source of said chaos. In Davenport, one gets sentences that have it all. This is what I strive to create.


Greg Gerke’s work has appeared in Tin House, Film Quarterly, The Kenyon Review, and other publications. See What I See, a book of essays, and Especially the Bad Things, stories, are both available this autumn from Splice.

Monday, November 4, 2019


“Drones are probably killing someone right now.”

This independent clause appears in small type at the top and bottom of every page of Sarah Vap’s Winter: Devotions and Effulgences.

Each time this sentence appears I read it. I do not skim over it. As I move further into the book, I begin to speak the words aloud—“Drones are probably killing someone right now”—and it came to feel like an incantation, a secret you tell yourself about your secret selves. It came to feel like a ghost if you define a ghost as something emergent, as something both invisible and present, beyond one’s perceptual field but felt in our loins and our elbows , the tips of our ears. All the things headed our way.  

Here are more words along with blank space within and around the words  from this beautiful book by Vap:

Drones are probably killing someone right now.
Across the years since we bought the cabin I have arranged and rearranged this book into many formats—sometimes this has been a book of lyric poetry. Sometimes this book has been a list of questions, sometimes a collection of deeply-disrupted aphorisms. Sometimes lyric essays. Sometimes it joined with other research and writing while I completed coursework and two dissertations for my PhD. Sometimes I deleted everything and started over with lists and bullet points, then pasted everything back in again so that I could slam my head against it for a few more years.
Sometimes the materials gathered for this book have been a thousand pages long—the scattered writings of all those mornings, gathered together.
And once I deleted and deleted until the words barely gasped themselves out onto each page, a pool of white around them. Pieces of this book have been pulled out of emails, then deleted from the book again. I’ve used portions of letters, journals, and checked my memory against the news sites on the internet.
As the world changes, the book has to change. As my children have been born and have changed, the book has to change. As my brains have dissolved into the brains of the family-animal, into the whale, into the forest, into the fungal mat—the book has to change. 
Sometimes I try to write down these morning desperations, these morning weather reports—from inside our deepest-tendernesses. 
I want to write from within our deepest-kindness, we.
I am writing forth from the entrails of our family-animal—
I want to extend our tentacles toward whatever are the origins of the naval and industrial pinging—deep in those waters all around us—in order to destroy them.
I am amazed when the babies speak words I’ve never heard before,
but long to understand.
Drones are probably killing someone right now. (52)
Vap’s book is about living and loving in the face of so much violence, so much death, and possible death, originating from our own destructive, selfish behaviors. Vap’s book is about living with death, dying a little every day, as the book’s epigraph states: 
Death takes place in my very being—how can I explain to you? 
—Clarice Lispector

Vap’s book is also about transformation from young woman to woman who procreates (miscarries) and raises a family, from feelings of burgeoning and gain to feelings of disorientation, frustration, and grief over the loss of the quiet, capacious selves, all the possibility, the expansion of multiple selves within and beyond youth, all of it disintegrates. You raise a family into being—“Drones are probably killing someone right now”—and something else emerges, a kind of “second body,” a phrase the writer Daisy Hilyard, in her book Second Body, uses to describe the various empathetic selves in touch with the world beyond one’s perceptual field. 

Drones are probably killing someone right now. 
Glut, I.
The noise in this cabin—my brains exploding from noise—the slams.
Screeching, laughing, crying. Rain on the roof. Sonar pinging at each moment into our brains—
Into the brains of whales—and all the other sea creatures—this animal asleep in my arms— 
love made a body—for a complete mind. I
Drones are probably killing someone right now. (8)
The narrator leaps from the children’s noise to rain pelting the roof to sonar pings in the brains of whales, in our brains. This porosity gives way to spiritual action—fleeting, poignant. In this way writing makes space for stretchy moments hyper-presence invites: 
Drones are probably killing someone right now.
Weeks have passed since I’ve tried to write about winter. The birth of Mateo turned, and is still turning me, inside-out.
Tonight sitting in front of the fire, things flowing into and out of my shot-through brains, breastfeeding this beautiful new baby in my arms—my torso—my brains—my vagina and anus and bowels and bladder—they’re wobbling or falling, and. 
I am newly eviscerated, newly cracked-open. 
The firelight flickers through this tiny baby’s eyelashes, creating shadows across his face so that his face looks cracked open.
Cracked open at the sternum, and cracked open at the brains,—I.
Something of soul has increased, as my porousness has increased.
Something of me has diminished. 
Drones are probably killing someone right now. (38)
The experience of childbirth, of raising children, of being part of a plural organism, transforms the body. Being cracked open materializes into heightened sensitivity to the pinball-flow of creation and destruction transmitting both singular and collective ways of being in the world. What’s around us, what’s coming at us, what’s swimming near us, moves inside us or near us. A man cleans the cafe’s high windows out of which I stare. As I watch him work the squeegee, I send him love and praise. My son leaves dirty, fetid socks on the couch and I imagine draping them over my ears, wearing them as dangly earrings. So many things within and beyond our control have been set into motion and all we can do is behold what is emergent, what emerges. You understand—my son wants the skin of his feet to feel the touch of air. 


The narrator writes. She writes over the course of 12 winters spread across three distinct regions (the Olympic Peninsula in Washington state, Phoenix, and Los Angeles) and filled interruptions. Hunger, poopy diapers, questions about the world and about their bodies, ordinary and extraordinary needs connected to attachment, nourishment, and emotional development. Amidst her own needs and the needs of her family, the narrator writes. “Drones are probably killing someone right now.” Snowfall, flooding rains, days at Venice Beach. She writes. She writes in order to come into contact with selves that mark with more clarity where her body ends and other bodies begin. She writes to record the ordinary and extraordinary familial motions: 

When I try to write the poem about winter, I am trying to hold, tenderly, onto something of the childhoods of my children—my children are flowing right past me, and into the world. (54)
Emergence. Something that has been there gradually and abruptly becomes apparent. Light in the dark sky. Sunshine through tree boughs. Semen. Mature eggs. The child’s inquiring voice behind the shut door. A submarine’s sonar pings and the “drones are probably killing someone right now.” Loose syntax expands through layering modification. An overgrown, jagged toenail soon to be ingrown snags multiple threads of those new blue socks. An imbalance of care—everything there and nothing here. The very end of a sentence reveals a numinous, ambiguous stance. The cold air spills from the cave’s mouth and the man’s mouth opens reflexively as he brings a spoonful of porridge to his child’s opening mouth, like a wish, small, deeply consequential. We eat to stay alive and being alive means being in motion so when we pay attention to the world we’re paying attention to motion, that which we can apprehend and that which lies beyond. I’m talking about soul-level stuff here. Do you hear the knocking on the door? Who’s on the other side? The boy child is. He needs your attention. Or is that the wind blowing the tip of a tree branch against the door?
I haven’t written this book. I’ve gathered fragments across a few thousand mornings during which my body and brains felt susceptible.
During which my body and brains succumbed to. Years of astonishing porousness, during which i have wondered: do i have a soul.
Do I have a mind. Is this love that is dissolving me. And is my soul the bomb that landed
at the center of my torso, exploding—the sternum of this book.
This book that has sputtered out of holes, across many years, during which I was interrupted every few seconds, I. 
Good morning love. Come here.
Drones are probably killing someone right now. (21)
In the company of her boy children Vap describes her face or their faces as “soulface.” She’s searching for the soul touch of others, the deepening of her own:

I cannot know what the salmon just accomplished, across time.
I have always associated the human soul with dwindling. 
I have always associated the human soul with a fire burning in a small cabin in the middle of the woods—snow piled up all around. An ocean not too far away.
I have always associated the human soul with a woman sitting in that cabin at her computer, trying to write a poem about winter. A baby nursing on her lap while she types with one hand. Another tiny boy plays with something behind her, and he is talking to her. (115-116)
A dwindling, a fire burning, snow piling, an ocean not too far away. I think of soulfulness as hyper-presence in which you attend to multiple motions at once, what’s before you and behind you and around you and far away, across space-time. Things recede, push forward, pile up, melt. Forever gone. “Drones are probably killing someone right now.” It’s not one drone—it’s many. What emerges has already existed before it’s entered our perceptual field. “And some kind of animal, the whole time—it was moaning all around me” (37). We may have set something in motion without understanding exactly what it is, or even if we do understand, we can’t exactly grasp the quality of its motion, its speed, its pathways, its trajectory.

Emergence signifies a kind of connective motion, from invisible to visible, from beyond reach to within reach. I look behind the couch cushions and notice three more balled-up socks that smell like Limburger cheese, which is mainly produced in Germany. There is so much happening we cannot see that eventually makes its way. A knotty contradiction, an insight around origins and impacts, an inevitable, mysterious act—“Oh my fucking god we are sitting on the floor in the sunshine coming through the window and the glare of the snow is blinding us and I am scratching his itchy stinky little foot and we are smiling so hard” (111)—a shift in tone or sound (or even just much more of what has been building, amplification of what’s there already, a language moment expressing irrevocability, there’s no going back—“Why do we want to look inside of each other. / What does it mean to be, or to remain, intact—. / When my sons were inside of me—they were entirely inside of me. / When my sons were inside of me—they did open their eyes” (163)—we readers ride through the velvet folds of language, words, the blank-space horizon, everybody’s and nobody’s, and there’s Grandma and those napkin holders she kept in the bottom drawer, wooden rings engraved with skeletal fern fronds. An emergence flickers on like a ghost, expands and deepens, tree roots spreading in every direction, closer to the core. Reticent and ignitable, connected to the body’s incessant motion, even beyond living, into death, to becoming something. 

The writing makes Vap something, takes Vap someplace else, many other places:
Drones are probably killing someone right now. 
Christmas Disassociation 
The baby burrows himself back into my body like when I was little, and I buried myself in the snow. 
The baby pinches and holds onto skin of my arm like when I was little, and her brother grabbed at. 
When I was little, and he wiggled his fingers and his tongue at her each day when he drove them to and from school, and her other brother just. 
When I was little, and her oldest brother sniffed the air each time they passed a particular house as he drove the three of them to and from school. 
He said I smell pussy and he sniffed. He sniffed the air and said pussy every day when they passed the house, because a high school girl lived in that house. 
When I was little, and her brother turned to look at her in the back seat while he was still driving the car, and he sniffed the air to see what her reaction would be. 
Or turned toward her in the back seat to stick out his tongue and wiggle it at her slowly and he was still driving the car, but he wasn’t looking at the road he was looking at her.  
When I was little and he wasn’t looking at the road, instead he was looking at her in the back seat and. 
He was looking at her to scare her.  
Drones are probably killing someone right now. (96)
Nesting inside the narrator’s perception of her baby pressing into her back is a memory of her older brother’s violent speech, his hurtful behavior. As her baby touches her skin, the narrator splits or dissociates, becomes “she,” recalls this memory that emerges over the course of seven prose paragraphs bit by bit. Imagine the drones flying, a swarming or whooshing sound. Imagine robotic claws like earwig pincers. Imagine a young man not much older than my 15-year-old son focused on a screen inside a dark room, his hand on a joystick, the drone’s pincers opening to release an explosive device and then imagine a family sitting around the kitchen table eating a meal, lentils and greens, a child reaching for the butter and knife, the explosive device shaped like a rod dropping through the sky at a slant, the way a child often just learning how spreads the butter unevenly across the bread. 

The emergent emerges, commingles with what has already emerged, what is visible, consciously or unconsciously engaged, thickening or dissipating. I pay close attention to my surroundings, what is entering my perceptual field, what may enter the moment after the next, what is far beyond but headed towards us all. Winter. Winter’s coming our way. This imaginative and empathetic mindfulness gets replicated on the page, shows its winding, shifting, divergent motions.

Close to the book’s end, the most blistering section, the narrator instructs our President and the ExxonMobil Corporation how to examine their vaginas. The narrator patches together the language of genital self-examination and of violence expressed in the nomenclature, Donald Trump and ExxonMobil:
Donald Trump if you’re comfortable doing so, slowly put a finger or two inside your vagina. Those are your vaginal walls. If it hurts or if you have trouble, take a deep breath and relax. You may be pushing at an awkward angle, your vagina may be dry, or you may be unconsciously tensing the muscles owing to a fear or discomfort. Try shifting positions and using a lubricant such as olive or almond oil (don’t use a perfumed oil or lotion that could cause irritation).  
Vulva modeled upon the exchanging of property. 
Vulva of the prison industrial system vulva of water boarding vulva according to the logics of global capitalism vulva of disposable populations I.  
Vulva fight relentlessly to end exploitation and oppression everywhere, also on your reviled point, vulva. 
Drones are probably killing someone right now. 
Donald Trump notice how your vaginal walls, which are touching each other, spread around and hug your fingers.  
Feel the soft folds of mucous membrane. These folds allow the vagina to stretch and to mold itself around whatever is inside, including fingers, a tampon, a penis, a dildo, or your baby during childbirth. 
ExxonMobil with my vaginal walls I. (197-198)
The “I” often emerges only to be halted by the sentence’s end out into blank space so the abrupt, emerging period makes your body feel the violent severance, the many selves cut off—“Drones are probably killing someone right now”—that happens within the porous body, the body open and woven into many other bodies, the body paying close attention to what exists, what is emergent, what has passed through us long ago. The writing shows the kind of deep listening that leads you to the next step or move while making you aware something is coming at you. An effulgence is a brightness taken to an extreme. The brightness fades, always. Death takes place in my very being. I want to witness every incremental step of this fading. My son suddenly 15 years old, asks me to drop him off at high school, a dance. Four years of his childhood remain. His fast walk, the way he now hunches over slightly, especially when he’s wearing his hooded sweatshirt. Tonight I shall cook his favorite meal. I shall measure out each ingredient. 


Jay Ponteri directs the Low-Residency MFA Creative Writing at Pacific Northwest College of Art. His book Wedlocked won the Oregon Book Award. LOBE is forthcoming in Spring 2020, from Widow+Orphan House.

Monday, October 28, 2019

Susannah Q. Pratt: How Zadie Smith Saved My Book

Packing to leave for a week of uninterrupted writing and reading, I found myself in my office evaluating the books on my shelves. I was headed to the former summer estate of a once-famous architect, now turned artists’ retreat, and contemplating what to bring to what seemed like a latter-day house party in the country. I had already packed long pants and a sun hat for traipsing through the fifty acres of prairie adjacent to the property, one linen dress for who knows what, my laptop and some yoga pants. Still, something was missing.
     I felt sure the visual artists would arrive at the retreat with materials—blocks of clay and sculpting tools, or sketch pads and dusty tin cups filled with charcoal pencils. Certainly, I thought, writers must have their own tools of the trade? Items necessary to the production of their craft? The answer came to me after some thought. These tools were, of course, the works of other writers; namely, books.
     So it came to pass that I was standing in front of my bookshelves, considering books both read and unread, deciding which to bring with me. To some degree, it was a question of who I wanted to spend time with; at the same time it was also a matter of both reference and resource. Rebecca Solnit came, as did Thorstein Veblen, if that gives you any indication.
     In the Solnit vein, I selected a few essayists whose voices were not only enjoyable but would also, I was hopeful, serve to strengthen my own. Using this criteria, I pulled Zadie Smith’s essay collection, Changing My Mind, off my shelf and placed it in the cardboard box of books headed for the trunk of my car. It didn’t hurt that I had not read all the essays in the collection either. To borrow a wonderful, obfuscating phrase from the writers I would spend the week with, I had “read around in it”, but there was definitely untouched work waiting for me to discover.
     Once at the retreat, I got down to work of my own. I didn’t just work—I read and wrote like a person starved for unencumbered time. At home, almost all of my daily written output took the form of email, text or the occasional work memo. As such, my style had devolved to something functional and terse; I was a master at orchestrating a carpool in five texts or less, summarizing a complex meeting in a single short paragraph. On the retreat, I felt another voice start to return. Freed from the drudgery and sheer quantity of my daily written communication, my written voice relaxed. I reinstated a habit of journal writing. I revised a collection of essays that I had been trying, slowly, to move toward publication. In this, I made some quantum leaps forward. I wrote a funny little piece about my boys. These were the energizing parts of the week. 
     Less energizing were the revision sessions that left me writing in circles, often ending up back where I started, or—on the more frustrating days—somewhere back behind the starting line. Equally discouraging were the communal dinners with the other artists—particularly the writers. I am not a writer by trade, only by hope. I don’t have an MFA. I am not in the academy. So during the dinners I sat quietly and listened to those I perceived to be living the “writing life”. Eavesdropping on the poets and professors who live squarely within the boundaries of the literary world, I heard tales of the shuttering of small presses. Of the dwindling of honoraria for readings. Of teachers who stole and plagiarized student work. Of optioned books that disappeared into the oblivion of half-hearted promises. Of the increasing fees to submit work. At night I would return to my bedroom strangely thankful for my workaday reality, glad for the way writing had been marginalized in my life.
     Even as I began to question this thing I had understood as the writing life, I remained in love with writing. I woke up every morning grateful for the unstructured hours ahead of me. I wrote into them with joy. I began, in the deep recesses of my own brain, to understand what I was working on as an actual book. I started to see my essays as more than a series of related pieces and to see them instead as something that was adding up to more than the sum of its parts. 
     On the fourth morning of the week, I decided to set up shop in the public library in town. I had hardly exhausted the pastoral beauty or all the little nooks and crannies of the estate, but the piece I was working on that morning was about the importance of libraries, and I felt the work might benefit from some time spent in an actual library. So I packed up my laptop and water bottle and walked the mile into town to the little brick library building at its center.
     The day was humid; the temperature registered ninety-one degrees on my weather app. When I arrived at the library, sticky with sweat, I greeted the chill of the air-conditioned reading room with open arms. I settled in, opened my laptop, scrolled to the correct spot in the text, and began to edit. 
     The library essay on which I was working was from my collection (slowly becoming book) on the topic of consuming. And the interesting observation I was making about libraries, or so I thought, was that they are spaces free of consumerism. My essay arrived at this point by comparing my intermittent pattern of library use to my intermittent pattern of churchgoing, noting, finally, that in neither institution is there active buying or selling. These two places, I argued, are among the last public spaces where this is the case.
     (Despite how I may be coming across thus far in this essay, I am not totally naive. I am aware of a vast amount of writing on libraries by everyone from Andrew Carnegie to Neil Gaiman. Several months earlier I had devoured Susan Orlean’s The Library Book. Reading not “around in” but rather through that entire volume, I held my breath, waiting for Orlean to arrive at my exact point. But while she came close, she never landed precisely in this space. And she never compared libraries to church.)
     After several productive hours revising the library essay, I stood up to stretch. I could feel myself approaching that threshold of having nothing more insightful to say, and I felt a break was in order. Rather than return to my computer, I decided to head upstairs to read book jacket flaps in the essay section of the little library. The previous night’s dinner conversation had left me with the impression that it might be good to familiarize myself with flap copy as it seemed I would eventually need something similar in order to find an agent, or an editor, or to sell a book, or whatever would happen when I got brave enough to push my writing toward the door.
     So I stood in front of the short row of essay collections, randomly selecting books, skimming the insides of their jackets and becoming disheartened. The library’s limited shelf space was devoted mostly to collections by already famous authors. These book flaps were full of accolades for the writer, a list of his or her previous “beloved novels” or “regular contributions to…” As I was yet unpublished, these examples were of little help. If this is how flap copy reads, I thought, I am going to have to make stuff up. This thought was problematic on many levels, not the least of which is that I write nonfiction.
     Eventually, on one of the lower shelves I noticed three thick-spined colorful copies of Zadie Smith’s most recent collection, Feel Free. And while I was certain her jacket flap would contain more of the same over-the-top biographical prose, I was curious to find out what this newer collection was all about. Taking down one of the volumes and opening to the jacket, I buzzed through the first paragraph reminding everyone how she “burst spectacularly” onto the literary scene with White Teeth. 
     I moved on to the next paragraph. And there, the gut punch:
Arranged into five sections…this new collection poses questions we immediately recognize…Why do we love libraries? "…what a good library offers cannot easily be found elsewhere: an indoor public space in which you do not have to buy anything to stay." [emphasis mine]
I snapped the book shut, picked up my purse, and hurried downstairs. I closed my laptop, shoved it in its case, and dashed up to the front desk to ask how I could borrow the book. Then, successful in that endeavor, I rushed outside into the steaming heat and plopped down on a concrete bench next to the front door that had been baking all morning in the sun. The backs of my legs burned as I opened the book in my lap and began scanning the table of contents looking for Smith’s library essay. The glare of the noontime sun made the white pages almost impossible to read, but I couldn’t be bothered to dig around in my purse for my sunglasses. I needed to find that essay.
     In retrospect, I am not entirely sure why I was in such a hurry. I think, perhaps, in a very short amount of time I had convinced myself that if Zadie Smith had already written exactly what I had literally just written about libraries, I had been outed as an imposter—a pretender-writer incapable of original thought. This failure of originality would be proof that my instinct was right: I was a phony who had no business being on that retreat. Maybe it was the cumulative effect of a week’s worth of standing adjacent to the literary life, peeking over into the lives of “real” writers, but in those few minutes since coming across her essay, I had somehow endowed Smith and her book with prophetic powers. I was rushing through the book to discover whether I was going to join them. Whether I would be a writer or not, if I would ever have a book of my own. A bead of sweat trickled down my right temple.
     Anyone acquainted with the collection can tell you that there is no essay with “library” in the title. I flipped to the index. The book, with its clear cellophane library cover, began to slide foreward off my sweaty thighs. I caught it and returned to searching. There it was. “Libraries” on pages 3, 4, 6, 7-8, 9-13... Oh, so many pages on libraries!
     The rest will be familiar to many of you. Not only did Smith make my exact point about the absence of consumerism in libraries, but she was ahead of me on the church thing and funny about it too, “In the modern state there are very few sites where this [not buying] is possible. The only others that come readily to mind require belief in an omnipotent creator as a condition for membership.” Later, “[the library is] the only thing left on the high street that doesn’t want your soul or your wallet.” To avoid spoilers all around, I will simply say that Smith takes her essay to the same end toward which I had been heading in mine—an extended reflection on the importance of libraries, made with “pathos”—a fundamentally emotional argument for their existence.
     I shut Smith’s book and tucked it under my arm along with my laptop. I stood up, slung my purse over my other shoulder, and began the long walk back to the estate in the ninety-one degree heat, trying to remind myself with every step that I had the fortune of other, interesting work. That I liked to write just for the joy of writing. That I missed my husband and kids and would see them in three days. That sort of thing. When I got back to the main house and pushed opened the heavy wooden door, I heard talking - a rare sound in the cloister-like atmosphere of the retreat. I squinted down the dark hallway and saw three fiction writers sitting in the mansion’s sunroom, exchanging papers and laughing. I had forgotten that they were holding a workshop for themselves that afternoon. I went upstairs and got into bed.
     I am not proud to admit that my first, irrational response, as I lay there considering the situation, was to be mad at Zadie Smith. Like, really mad at her. Resting listlessly on my pillow, I turned my head slowly toward the books I had brought from home. There, standing upright on my desk, next to a volume of Szymborska poetry, was the other Smith collection, her name on the spine in large scrolling blue font. How could you, I thought. You were one of the authors I brought to inspire, to keep me company.
     But I knew, rather than pouting, I had to face facts. Simply put, I’d been scooped. Smith had beaten me to the analysis and stated it better than I ever could. Plus, with her fame and excellent writing and all, she’d had the jump on me from the start. I was clearly not going to be writing my way into some literary life. In the quiet heat of the afternoon I closed my eyes and fell asleep.
    An hour later I woke up groggy and half-aware that I had fallen asleep in a very bad mood. I sat up as the entire episode came rushing back to me. Ah right, I reminded myself, time to give up on this writing business.
     I am nothing if not a realist, and I am actually pretty resilient too. So believe me when I tell you this wasn’t a moment of total despair. In retrospect, I think was taking the whole thing as more of a corrective. I wasn’t meant for real writing. I’d take my way with words and write up some classic family stories to pass on to my sons. I’d keep submitting cute tales of my kids to parenting blogs. My emails would rock. But never again, I was sure, would I pack up for a week and leave my family behind to pursue my writing dreams.
     As complicated for me as my writer identity, actually, was the question of my now book. No longer a manuscript, or “collection in development”, over the course of the retreat my essays had grown into a book. They were in conversation with one another, and they collectively had something to say. I was less sure of what to do about that, but my instinct was—for at least the rest of the week—to leave well enough alone. I figured I could decide later whether to let the manuscript languish, or whether to dissect it and send off a few pieces to friends and family. Just for kicks.
     Sitting there on my bed, the late afternoon sun streaming in through my windows, I decided I the very least I could do (and it wasn’t much of a hardship) would be to read my way through the remaining two days. And I had to laugh, if a bit ruefully, as the first book my eyes fell on was the library book I had borrowed that morning: Feel Free. I bent down to pick it up. I stood up, refilled my water bottle, and opened the door to the little screened in porch adjacent to my room. The heat enveloped me as I settled into the small wicker rocker on my porch.
     Well, Zadie, I thought as I opened the book, let’s see what else you have to say. And turning to the book’s foreword, I began to read.
     Looking back now, I think it is fortunate more time had not passed between my discovery of Smith’s library essay and my reading of her foreword. Had I picked up the book weeks, or even days, later I may not have continued to vest it with special, prophetic powers. As it was, however, Smith and her words still held particular sway over me. So you can imagine the slight lift I felt in my stomach when I came across Smith offering the following reflection on herself as writer:
     “It’s true that for years I’ve been thinking aloud—and often wondering if I’ve made myself ludicrous in one way or another.”
     Go on.
     “I think the anxiety comes from knowing that I have no real qualifications to write as I do.”
     Um, say more.
     “Not a philosopher or sociologist, not a real professor of literature or film, not a political scientist, professional music critic or trained journalist.”
     (Did I mention there was a trained journalist at my retreat?)
     “I’m employed in an MFA program, but have no MFA myself, and no PhD. My evidence—such as it is—is almost always intimate. I feel this—do you? I’m struck by this thought—are you? Essays,” said Smith, looking right at me, “about one person’s affective experience have, by their very nature, not a leg to stand on.”
     Not a single leg.
     “All they have is their freedom.”
     And with that sentence, Zadie Smith set me free. Free to write about what I know of libraries, and, for that matter, what I know of church and community and pathos. She liberated me from the tyranny of MFAs and PhDs and publishers and submissions and agents and queries and readings. She released me from my insecurities and doubts, or at least gave me the freedom to make friends with them. Knocking down the border wall I had constructed between my life and the lives of other writers, Smith reminded me that I was most free when I was writing.
     I stood up, put the book on floor next to the rocker, and went back into my room. I sat down at my desk and looked out the window for a solid five minutes, thinking. Then I opened my laptop and began to write.
     The final two days of the retreat flew by in a flurry of reading and writing from which I emerged at the communal dinners dazed and happy. I spoke more. I asked questions. I allowed myself to believe I belonged at the retreat. It was, perhaps, in response to this change in me that, during our final meal together, a fellow writer turned to me to inquire whether it had been a productive week. Oh yes, I assured him as I reached for the wine, I had gotten a lot done. I had written a short piece on my children. I’d had some frustrating bouts but had also made huge strides forward on the essays for my book. 
     I did that. I said, out loud to another writer, the words “my book”.
     Hey, he responded, perhaps we could exchange writing some time? He had some essays he was working on and would love feedback. Might he email me to make arrangements to share?
     Oh yes, I replied, feel free.


Susannah Q. Pratt is a Chicago-based writer, mother and consultant. Her work can be found in various online and print publications including Under the Gum Tree, Motherwell, Role Reboot, LiteraryMama, and The Mindful Word. She is also a regular contributor to the blog at Ruminate MagazineFind her at

Monday, October 21, 2019

Sarah Minor: Towards Another Video Essay

Today I have been considering the “hot dog” button on my microwave. I find this button engaging because my microwave is the first I have ever owned and, as the button makes obvious, I don’t actually know how to make the machine function through a combination of other buttons (level, time, temperature), which seem overly complex, and also because I am a vegetarian. 

The “hot dog” button interests me further as a new addition to microwaves because it signals a particular relationship between a machine like the microwave (well-fitted for preparing hot dogs) and a food object like hot dog (long predated by the sausage) which predated this heating machine. Each night as the inner magnetron radiates water for my tea I stare and wonder: Which technology (wave or dog) first predicted this button? The special row with "hot dog" also includes buttons like “baby food” and “oatmeal” which, in another life, might be a comforting way to orient myself.

Somewhat akin to the “hot dog” button is the “AUX” button on my car stereo, which works only in the presence of a cable—auxiliary, extra—attached to a third device that the car radio was made to never need. I think it’s true that the auto did not predict the smart phone, but I’d wager that the smart phone was ambitious enough to imagine itself as the self-driving car, and that the "aux" function now imagines a deep integration of the paper map that the car stereo never dreamed. 

By describing buttons I mean to address the relationship between two other very different technologies—the moving picture image and the textual essay, which combine to make the "video essay." It seems to me that traditional essays and those who make them mostly believe that an essay functions best without a moving image anywhere nearby—a good essay, many say, stands in for every image, the best essays stand alone. This phrase stand alone is something I've described before, and which I think deserves reconsideration, especially in light of Joyelle McSweeney's theory of "disabled texts." What follows is a different way to think.

Today the video essay is not much written about, probably because it is not much made. The genre first gained visibility in literary circles thanks to John Bresland, who pioneered both the making of and the critical writing about the "video essay" or what I might like to start to calling “literary video" instead. Bresland traces the history of the video essay back to what he calls “the film essay,” and further, back to the literary version: a “meditation on truth and memory.”

Like the “hot dog” button, the “video essay” is a thing predated by one word it contains. Yet I find that most examples of video essays treat the moving image as an auxiliary function, and that their designs feel clunkier for it. At TriQuarterly Review where I serve as video editor, we see a lot of submissions that blend the two technologies, for example, by pairing a voiceover with a camera pointed out a car window. Here, it feels like the term is literalized: Video essay = video + essay, except here it's the video that feels like it's playing through the metaphoric AUX cable, as a kind of background track. In this example, both video and essay could be called “meditative," but the effect they create together seems duplicated, not multiplied.

Recently I've noticed that the term “video essay" means something different in the field of Film Studies, which includes video analyses like this one about the way visual humor functions in movies by Edgar Wright. Here, “video essay” is perhaps at its most meta--a curation of moving images that help us study the way moving images are cut, shaped, and arranged for different effects. Similarly, in Composition and Rhetoric classrooms the term “video essay” means a traditional academic essay that uses moving image to highlight examples that scaffold a thesis, as in this version of a rhetorical analysis through "Teach Argument." Like in the film studies video essay, video clips in an academic video essay are present so they can illustrate an analysis. Video here is present simply because it is more efficient than a voiceover at describing video content.

Last spring at AWP I found myself at a strange video screening, sitting beside another writer and laughing so hard that no sound came out of my mouth, which felt like a new experience in the face of literary video. This was at a showing of cinepoems curated by the Cadence Video Poetry Festival, where I had served as one of three judges. The Cadence Festival has run for three years at Seattle's Northwest Film Forum under the direction of Chelsea Werner-Jatzke. Cadence introduced me to a community of folks who avidly make and watch footage that acts like a poem (and often, like an essay). Most interesting to me, as a judge, were the various categories for entries, which divided submissions into 1. "Adaptations/Ekphrasis" 2. "Collaboration" and 3. "Video by Poets." These, I think, signal some new and exciting thinking around the pairing of text with video (already an interdisciplinary venture) according to a variety of techniques for wielding two mediums at once.

Many of the videos I saw at Cadence seemed adventurous and successful because of their willingness to use video as more than a background. This seemed, at least in part, related to the community's link to the Film Forum, and the ready acceptance of "film" as a medium that has its own ways of telling stories and making meaning without words. Among the many ways forward I see for the video essay, this seems one clear path: literary videos that borrow from the ways other fields use moving image as a form of language.

This week Youtube users will famously watch 7 billion hours of footage and in my house, “reading” will take place whenever someone lays a book open beside a smart phone. If we were betting I might wager that moving images predict the ways we’ll prefer to consume essays, at least some of the time. Though here I'm thinking of style, rather than the basic presence of other media. Because at TriQuarterly, and elsewhere, I’d like to see video essays that think of video less like an accessory and more like language sharing the same crowded button, I’d like to point towards some examples of video essay that are doing things differently.

Video Essay as Video Art: The field of visual art does not have “video essays” exactly, but examples of early video art were often the result of artists playing around with new moving image technologies like the green screen, and repurposing them as a means of revealing (predicting?) their potential for frightening and humorous results. A contemporary example from this lineage is Annelyse Gelman’s “The Center,” which uses text-to voice and face swap software for essayistic purposes. Another video art adjacent example might be “Ozark Crows,” a winner at Cadence.

Video Essay as Document: Creative Nonfiction has long held hands with journalism, but where archival material meets literary craft, the contemporary essay seems to me much closer with the field of docupoetics. Video has long been a form of "document," and video essays like Emma Sheinbaum’s “It’s You” draw on video source material that writers might at first think of as quotidian. But Sheinbaum's piece, once framed with an essay, reveals a curation of home footage that poses clear, essayistic questions about a generation that grows up being video recorded. The piece is also a meditation on the medium itself. It shows us how home video can function like a memory implanted.

Video Essay as Translation: Literary video is, I'd wager, the only genre a writer can use to communicate in three modes at once (text, image, sound). A favorite video project that seems familiar with the power of simultaneous media is "The Wounds of Christ" by Anais Duplan. Perhaps similarly, in “Defiled Prophesies,” Raj Chakrapani takes advantage of video's inherent layers to consider the process of literary “translation” and to gesture at the places where text translations fail. Throughout this video, a series of closed captions translate the audio track at a slant. Among other images, Chakrapani also translates the text as an image of fabric with light playing across it to offer what "a poem or book translated by a largely white literary space cannot provide."

Video Essay as “hermit crab” form: For an essayist venturing into video territory and who is less interested in learning new technologies, the screen grab function on any computer can allow you to “record” processes that behave like a "found" or "hermit crab" form. Kelly Slivka’s “Ars Poetica” might serve as a rare document of what writing poems was like in the early digital age, but the result also uses moving image to capture the various lives and “meanings” a poem inhabits on its way to a final version. 

Video Essay as Film Essay: A favorite video essay I’ve encountered recently might be an example you’d like to debate about (must a literary video include text?). “The Problem That Has No Name” by Hannah Bonner is wordless (unless you count its title, a reference from The Feminine Mystique, which I do) and made of entirely found material. I admire the project for the haunting way Bonner carefully sequences short clips from the horror genre she addresses (v. essays?). The result, I think, leaves an audience reconsidering what such films were originally "about" or are newly "about" for contemporary viewers. This project pairs the curatorial mode of the film studies "video essay" in a manner that feels deeply literary for the way it offers the viewer nearly all subtextBonner calls the project a “collage,” and so we might think of this piece as the video equivalent of a "lyric essay," because the microwave button is too small for "lyric film essay" to fit (Literary editors with digital platforms: publish this work!). 

Sarah Minor curates the Visual Essay series here at Essay Daily. She is the author of Slim Confessions (Noemi Press 2021) a collection of essays from Rescue Press (2020), and The Persistence of the Bonyleg: Annotated (Essay Press 2016). She co-directs the Cleveland Drafts Literary Festival and teaches at the Cleveland Institute of Art.

Monday, October 14, 2019

Zoë Bossiere: A Student-Centered Approach to the Creative Writing Workshop

As a discipline, creative writing has only been taught in the academy for about a hundred years, and during that time not a whole lot has changed. The first workshop class I took as an undergraduate was largely structured after the first workshop my graduate instructor took, which was likely structured in much the same way as the workshops her professor had taken as a student, and so on. While no one knows exactly when the traditional workshop model was created, it is thought to have originated at the University of Iowa, home of the Iowa Writer’s Workshop program. Because of this history, the original workshop is often called the “Iowa model,” a style so ubiquitous in the field that virtually all creative writers today have taken (and taught) workshops based upon it.

The Iowa model has seen plenty of spirited critique over the years. In her essay, “Unsilencing the Workshop,” Beth Nguyen advocates for altering the existing model so that the student whose work is being workshopped (the “workshoppee”) may engage in the conversation with their fellow workshoppers rather than sitting in forced silence. More broadly, writers like Viet Thanh Nguyen and Ocean Vuong have both observed that the workshop’s power dynamics are inherently biased toward white, male, heteronormative, and western voices, as students are more likely to experience dismissive pushback when they submit work that does not pander to these perspectives. Still others—including, recently, Sonya Huber—argue that traditional workshop feedback, such as “show, don’t tell” is harmful to students writing about trauma or from marginalized subject-positions.

Regardless of the critique, all of these writers seem to agree that the traditional Iowa workshop model does not teach students to give culturally sensitive or informed feedback. At its worst, the exclusionary nature of this model can discourage promising writers from pursuing their craft, and cause them to stop writing all together, as described in Junot Díaz’s essay “MFA vs. POC.” Many writers have established that the Iowa model is, at very least, inadequate for the contemporary creative writing classroom in myriad ways. Since the problem has been identified, however, the big question has become how one should address these issues in pedagogical practice. That is, how do we, as teachers, facilitate a creative writing workshop that will work for all of our students?

As a teacher myself, I’ve been thinking about the issues surrounding the Iowa workshop model a lot lately, especially as they concern underrepresented voices in the writing world. I want my students to feel comfortable bringing their work to class, and to feel confident that their peers and I will read the work in good faith and provide them with helpful feedback for revision. Further, I want students to feel their perspectives are heard, respected, and valued in the workshop space. With these hopes in mind, I began to think about what a model that privileges all students might look like. This was challenging work. Every model I came up with or read about seemed to fall short of the universal approach I was looking for. Rather than reevaluating the workshop with fresh pedagogical eyes, many suggestions I read seemed to put a different spin on the same old model—making accommodations for individual student-writers rather than a ground-up reimagining of the workshop process that addresses the power dynamics between student and teacher, majority and minority perspective, traditional and contemporary ideas about what “good writing” looks like, and more, all inherent to the Iowa model.

I had a lot of my own ideas about what works and what doesn’t work in a workshop, which were primarily based on my own experiences as a creative writing student—what I admired about my professors’ workshops or what I wished they had done differently. I felt sure my students also had their own ideas, and I wanted to hear them. So I started doing something a little radical: I asked my students for their opinions about the workshop.


In composition pedagogy, a student-centered approach is one that considers the learning needs and cultural background of an individual student or a group of students. While student writing is the primary focus of any workshop, most workshops are not student-centered in structure. Instead, the teacher decides what the rules of engagement for the workshop will be without input from students, often before meeting the group of writers they will be working with for the semester. From a traditional standpoint, this makes sense. The assumption is that students who are serious about becoming writers will adjust to the workshop and develop the “thick skin” necessary for navigating a writing world full of rejection and disappointment. In practice, however, this one-size-fits-all approach to the workshop rarely benefits all students in the class, and often excludes underrepresented voices from the conversation. Without fair representation in even (and perhaps especially) the most rudimentary aspects of community writing practice, failure becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy for many student-writers. But it doesn’t have to be this way.

Applying a student-centered approach to a creative writing workshop means building a workshop model with ideas from the actual students who will be working within it. As Beth Nguyen points out in her essay, most students don’t realize there are alternatives to the Iowa model—their workshop experiences are limited to the methods their creative writing teachers practice. The benefits of student-centered model, then, are numerous. Not only can such a process work to serve students’ specific needs as learners, but it can also give students practice advocating for their own needs in the workshop setting. This, in turn, can help teachers better understand the needs and expectations of their students, unique to the specific makeup and positionalities of the writers in the classroom. As an added bonus, students also tend to be more invested in systems they help to influence or create.

The first time I attempted a student-centered workshop model was in an introduction to creative nonfiction class at Ohio University. I walked into the classroom on the first day of the semester, and that more than a third of my students were writers of color. I learned more than half the class identified as women, and several students identified as queer. I had been interested in exploring workshop alternatives, but had neglected to consider, until that moment, the parity of perspectives on my reading list. My syllabus incorporated some of these voices, but relied on a dated anthology of primarily white and cis-male essayistic perspectives. I realized immediately that I was unprepared to teach this group of students. Something had to change. I thought about the books and essays I was most drawn to, who wrote them, and why. I thought about my own workshop experiences, good and bad, and considered how those same situations might have felt for students who do not share my subject-position as a white, cisgender woman. It was an uncomfortable but necessary reckoning, and one I hoped I could use to ultimately benefit my teaching.

One source of inspiration for me then was Peter Elbow’s seminal text, Writing Without Teachers. In it, Elbow writes extensively about power and methods of achieving a more equitable writing workshop—namely, by removing the “teacher” figure all together. Contrary to common beliefs about the goals of workshop, Elbow asserts that “[t]o improve your writing you don’t need advice about what changes to make; you don’t need theories of what is good and bad writing.” Instead, he says, students need to understand how readers perceive their writing in order to make informed choices in revision. While I wasn’t sure all of Elbow’s ideas would be workable in practice—in most classroom settings, a teacher is necessary to grade assignments, direct the conversation in class, and hold students accountable to one another—I wondered whether it would be possible to get students invested in a workshop-building process akin to Elbow’s teacherless writing classroom. I was determined to give it a try.


To prepare for our first discussion about the workshop model, I asked students to read the New York Times article “Viet Thanh Nguyen Reveals How Writers’ Workshops Can Be Hostile,” as well as Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay “On Pandering” from Tin House. (I would have liked to include Beth Nguyen’s essay on unsilencing the workshop, but it had not yet been published.) Because around half of my students had never taken a creative writing workshop before, it was essential for them to read these ideas and to consider similarities to past peer-review experiences. For those students who did have prior workshop experience, the readings introduced them to workshop power dynamics they may not have been aware of before, enabling them name their past experiences. Students responded to the texts both through their own writing and an in-class discussion. On this day almost everyone in class had something to contribute, and several students (particularly those of color) spoke up more than once about painful workshop experiences they’d endured in the past and their hopes for our workshop in the future. The students engaged in this discussion for so long we ran out of time; their eagerness to share made it clear that no one had asked them for their opinions about the workshop before.

At the conclusion of our discussion that day, I asked the class to write one question, one concern, and one suggestion for our workshop model on post-it notes and collected them. For the sake of transparency, I typed up these anonymous student responses into a single document and shared it with the class. Then, from these responses, I created a draft outlining a potential workshop model based both on students’ ideas as well as a few additional implementations specific to the genre we were working in. The latter included a stipulation of mine that students not refer to the writer on the page by name, instead using “the speaker” or “the narrator” in order to create distance between the writer sitting in the room and their version of themselves on the page. The draft was distributed to the class and we spent part of a period discussing further ideas for improvement. At the conclusion of that discussion, students were asked to write another round of anonymous questions, suggestions, and concerns; I made revisions to the draft accordingly. After this final step, we were ready to put our model into practice. Below are the parameters for our agreed-upon workshop model:
1. The writer will have an opportunity at the beginning of their workshop to speak for up to five minutes about the literary tradition they are writing from, the intended audience, and anything else the writer would like readers to understand about their essay before discussion begins. The writer should take notes and practice active listening during their workshop, but also feel free to speak up at any point if they feel it is necessary to do so. 
2. During our discussion, readers will have opportunities to speak to what the essay is about, what is working well, and what aspects they have questions about. Readers should direct comments to the writer and to each other rather than to the teacher. The teacher will act as workshop facilitator, posing questions and offering occasional comments in order to shape and give direction to the discussion. The workshop facilitator will also act as timekeeper. 
3. Though nonfiction writing can be highly personal, the person the writer has crafted on the page is a persona—one version of the true self. Please do not refer to the writer by name during their workshop. Instead, use language such as “the speaker” or “the narrator.” 
4. Please use positive language when discussing aspects of the writer’s essay you had questions about or did not understand. Couch observations and suggestions in questions (“I was curious about the section where…” or “I wonder how the essay would read if…”). Speak about the essay and the writer with respect. Finally, please be mindful of tone when providing feedback, avoiding statements that begin with “I wanted…” or “I didn’t like…” 
5. Readers may choose to speak, or raise their hand to join the conversation—whichever method feels more natural. Those who did not have many opportunities to discuss the essay during the workshop may be invited by the workshop facilitator to pose a question to or share an observation with the group to ensure they are not left out of the conversation. 
6. After the workshop discussion, the writer will again be invited to speak and pose a final question to the group. The group will clap in recognition of the writer’s work before readers pass their letters and the essay back to the writer.
Using this new model as a guide, the workshops themselves were a highly successful exercise. Even my initially skeptical students reported mostly positive experiences with both building the model and putting it into practice. Most unexpectedly, however, the process of creating the model fostered a close-knit writing classroom community where students felt comfortable bringing all manner of essay into class. Many students reported that the feedback they received from the workshop discussion was helpful in revising their work, and almost all communicated—either verbally in class or through their exit survey—that the way they conceptualized the goals for a creative writing workshop had changed. Rather than ideas about what “good writing” should look like and worrying about whether their essays made the cut, students were more focused on what they wanted their writing to achieve, and what audiences they wanted to reach.


Though it requires a bit more in-class work to facilitate than the traditional workshop, a student-centered workshop building process is a valuable alternative to the Iowa model. First, it gives students the tools to think critically about the biases inherent in the creative writing workshop. Such a model offers also students the opportunity to become members of a writing community and a chance to advocate for their own workshop needs as well as to speak up for those with less privilege than themselves. Though I recognize the workshop building process may be challenging in some contexts—especially if students disagree with one another—this method allows for a greater flexibility than a traditional model. For instance, I could envision an even more radical individualistic student-directed approach to the workshop in which each student constructs, with guidance from the teacher, a model unique to their own needs.

The student-centered model is one actionable way to break the generational cycle of the Iowa workshop model, allowing teachers an opportunity to think critically about their pedagogy—how they teach creative writing, and why. With so many writers and educators speaking out against the creative writing workshop model as a harmful means of perpetuating discrimination, creative writing teachers must take it upon themselves to model new ways for students to critique one another’s work if we truly want the writing world to change for the better.

Zoë Bossiere is a doctoral candidate at Ohio University, where she studies creative writing and rhetoric & composition. She is the managing editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction and the co-editor of its forthcoming anthology, entitled The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press, 2020). She is also a podcast host for the New Books Network's Literature channel. Find her online at or on Twitter @zoebossiere.