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.

Monday, October 7, 2019

**Int'l Essayists** Marcela Sulak on The horrific Stranger and the Self: Two New Israeli Lyric Essays (that do not look like essays)

Israeli publishing houses and literary journals don’t usually distinguish between literary fiction and literary nonfiction—it’s all simply prose. Possibly a greater distinction would be made between journalism and literature, although even here sometimes there is cross-over; for example, Assaf Gavron’s funny and over-the-top newspaper column which was later collected for publication as a book, Eating Standing Up, a review of Tel Aviv falafel stands.  Within the “prose” category I’ve noticed an emergence of flash experimentation: Alex Epstein’s single-page, single paragraph meditations published in English translation as Blue Has No South (marketed under “fiction” in English translation) or Yoel Hoffman’s flashes of meditative memoir, Moods (also marketed as “fiction” in Peter Cole’s English translation). The lyrical essay which does not look like “prose” on a page is rare in Hebrew. But I’ve encountered two extraordinary examples this past year.  Both are book-length lyrical essays which contemplate what it means to give shelter to a potential enemy and the role of poetry, religion, and art in our mediation of insider and outsider, past and present. They are Sharron Hass’s THE DAY AFTER: An Essay on Sophocles’ Farewell to Poetry (Afik books, 2018) and Adi Sorek’s essay in nine tiles, City of Refuge, which was not so much published as exhibited in a bomb shelter in Tel Aviv in the summer of 2019. These multidimensional works unlock the doors of times past, and draw attention to the materiality of words. Indeed, their efforts do not actually look like prose at all. Hass’s resembles a collage/poem and Sorek’s resembles a page of the Talmud framed with the lid of an archival carton.

“It is highly political to discuss Athens and the fragility of democracy. It is complicated and not altogether complicated, the ways that theater and democracy grew up together,” Sharron Hass tells me one day in July about THE DAY AFTER: An Essay on Sophocles’ Farewell to Poetry. “My project was also an implicit projection of these discussions onto present day Israel,” Hass adds. This essay follows the literal and stuttering footsteps of Sophocles, who at the end of his life, in his last play, retraces the journey of Oedipus Rex to Colonus, a village just outside of Athens. It is the birthplace of Sophocles. Hass notes:

Oedipus is the horrific stranger who comes and asks for shelter. How do we treat the outside world, horrific (so we imagine) strangers, enemies whom we believe are dangerous to our existence? I hold this up to present-day Israel not exactly like a mirror, but as a kind of scaffolding.
But this essay does not look like an essay, a fact that Hass, who has published five collections of poetry and has garnered Israel’s most prestigious awards for them, including the Amichai Prize in 2019 and The Bialik Prize in 2012, brings to our attention. Her fourth stanza proclaims:

I’m not confused: this isn’t poetry

this is an essay on Sophocles’ farewell

to poetry; and nonetheless I’m writing

in short lines with gaps. This is another way

to sit on a rock like the aged


A short line is far more similar to a rock

than a long line.

It’s hard to lie. And not only because of the lack

of comfort.

Of exhaustion.

The translation in progress is by Gabriel Levin. The rock in question is in Colonus, where Hass has traveled to be near Sophocles as she writes. She wishes to leave far behind  “the wretchedness of theory.”  Indeed, she seems to exchange this wretchedness for the misery of sitting without shade, with no water or food. Hass’s line is filled with stones and the natural elements, the body of Sophocles and that of Oedipus, their defilements, drawing attention to the way the flow of language and thought is dependent on the free movement of the body within the arrangement of its physical surrounding.  

But why isn’t Hass writing “poetry”? A few pages later, she explains:

Lyrical poetry is ahistorical, it aims

to stabilize the present moment appearing in the first person singular

with the help of transformation and rupture.

Theater is, I believe, different. It’s hard to know where if at all meaning trails off between

            the bodies that are speaking. The instability

allows for freedom of movement, a feeling of expanse,

a horizon, and even a glimpse as such conversation sound   

                                                                                                                        judgment –

and perhaps every so often tragedy will deny us all of the above?

Hass is writing neither lyrical poetry here, nor theater. Her goal is to disrupt the very idea of genre in order to arrive at unknowing. She explains in her interview with Aya Elia conducted in June and published in the Israeli daily paper Yedioth Ahronoth:

Look, every genre picks up a certain theater of consciousness, to organize reality in a certain way, and to organize the ability to interact with reality and experience it. Tragedy knows one thing, epic another, and comedy another. They can correspond, here and there, but genre is a kind of knowledge. It's very difficult to know beyond the limits of knowledge. So it’s true I wanted to disrupt something, but I also know: genres are stronger than you and me, they're older than us. I'm not sure one person can disrupt a genre.

 This distinction of genre is one to which the reader must attend, Elia notes: 

[On the page] there are various phenomena: cropped rows, fonts of different sizes, short columns indented to the margins, and also highlighted and aligned paragraphs. This is not just an eye-catcher. Hass talks to Sophocles, but also hears and replays Nabokov, Avot Yeshurun, Zen teacher Suzuki Roshi, and others. The voices that come, come from all directions. Maybe that's why writing from right to left is not enough…This is not a typographic image but an oceanic structure—different depths that are constantly in motion. In order to pass the reading you need swimming skills, it is impossible to float unawares, anyone who falls asleep may drown.

Hass’s goal is to arrive at a conscious unknowing, an open-minded ignorance, a curiosity, which is the only place from which one can truly encounter the wretched and sublime stranger. In Sophocles and his Oedipus we have humans the gods themselves observe to discover themselves, as Hass would have it. And perhaps because of this extremely powerful self knowledge, which required a break with human law to obtain, both are cast out of society.  
“There are those for whom nothing is worse than not having a country,” Hass notes of them.  But they are blessed, in the end, if we can use the word “blessed” in this context, for death is a kind of knowledge, as well, and earth welcomes the body and its mysteries.  


As different as the essays appear to the eye, and as different as the sources upon which they draw, Adi Sorek’s City of Refuge shares the preoccupation with who is a stranger, what is a refugee, and how must we behave, given our responsibilities for the talents and wealth that we posses. Sorek, who is a “prose” writer and who is writing her doctoral research on Talmudic laws governing Cities of Refuge, has created a series of nine “tiles,” which look like the pages of the Talmud.

Sorek explains in an essay I translated with her for the journal The Ilanot Review:

In the Talmud, a City of Refuge is a city in which someone who has accidentally killed another person can claim asylum, or find refuge. In Hebrew, the words for “refuge” and “shelter” are the same. Therefore, this project arose from intertwined questions: What is a shelter? And what is a City of Refuge? 

The central text is a diary that Sorek wrote over the course of a year, during time she sat in the center of Tel-Aviv at Habima Square in the mornings and recorded what was happening before her. The diary begins in the fall of 2014, at the end of the last Gaza War, and ends in the summer of 2015. Surrounding this text are quotations from the Talmud, Sorek’s Ars Poetica, meditations on the language of the Talmud, on the laws of the City of Refuge, and imagined questions and encounters of the visitors to the exhibition which was held in a bomb shelter in the summer of 2019.
Originally, the frame of a tract of Talmud was a part of a weaving loom, Adi Sorek informs me over espressos at a café on Habima, and her tiles reference this frame. Like the Talmud, Sorek’s tiles are also a kind of time line, or archeological trove, with layers of content in various languages. Since Sorek’s essay hung in a bomb shelter, space here is integral to the project.

Sorek chose Habima Square because it has a hidden fallout shelter dug beneath it. In her Ilanot Review essay about her project she says,

I began by attending to the outline of the doors leading to the underground bomb shelter—doors designed as part of the plaza floor and therefore paved in tiles, covered, like secret doors. They open during wartime and close in times of “peace”.

In wartime, the underground area is supposed to be a shelter. At other times, it is a parking lot…

I perceive the texture of the resulting text as a kind of tile, or mosaic. During the process of writing, the tiles of Habima Square merged and separated repeatedly from those of the City of Refuge, and the oscillation between them led to a mental wandering that inquires about the connections, gaps, and passages that exist or have the potential to exist between the text and the everyday space.
One day, Sorek tells me, during the Gaza War, the missile siren sounded and she picked up her daughter, who was four at the time, and ran into the shelter. As she held the soft body of her daughter, she began to think about the mothers and their children who lived in the Talmudic cities of refuge:

It is written that you could see mothers bringing food and goods to the refugees in the city of refuge, so they won’t want the Chief Cohen (who governed the city) to die. Because at the death of the Cohen, the refugees in the city of refuge are set free. So mothers would give clothes and food, to help the refugees feel good. They took their children with them to teach them to do this, too.

Sorek’s thoughts follow the women from the public squares of the Talmudic city of refuge back home:

When you think of the role of women at this time, you realize their main domestic duties included weaving cloth to make clothes. In fact this was the case throughout the Mediterranean region, and in the Greek stories, too, women were weavers. We think of Penelope weaving and unweaving her shroud, and of Philomela [who, when her tongue was cut from her mouth, wove the story of the crime into a tapestry] and of Arachne. In Homer, Ovid, and all the Greek male poets, we think how the quality of a woman’s weaving and its purpose will determine the social fabric, in a way.

Women as weavers are a counterpoint to male poets, Sorek says. And she thinks there is something to be said about the page of the Talmud as physically framed with a line from a weaving loom. About the Talmud itself evoking a textile. 

Just as Hass seeks to avoid genre labels, to get at a basic unknowing and deep attention to truth, so does Sorek strive toward avoiding the way we associate distinct languages with their attendant kinds of truth and knowledge. The Talmud contains various languages: Hebrew, different dialects of Aramaic, and Greek, among others. And so Sorek also meditates on and mediates among languages through the image of the sabra, a succulent which was originally introduced into the region by the Spaniards who brought it from the New World in the fifteenth century.  It is featured in the Habima Square sunken gardens, where Sorek would sit.

In Arabic the meaning of the word Tzaber (صَبَّار) is related to patience, tolerance and endurance. In Hebrew Tzabar (צבר) is a verb that means to accumulate (Litzbor) and is related to the Tzabar plant (or Sabra),* perhaps due to its ability to accumulate liquids. Or perhaps because of the web of entanglements in the word as it appears in the Semite languages of Ugarit, Aramaic, Hebrew and Arabic (Ivrit and Aravit) with regard to gathering and congregation. In Modern Hebrew “Tzabar” is the nickname for a Jew born in Israel; and also a plant that is associated with the emptied Arab villages – for generations dense fences of the Tzabar have marked the village boundaries.
Sorek sees the modern high-tech city of Tel Aviv, with its high-rise glass buildings reaching for the heavens, Habima Square’s sunken garden piping in symphony music, with its bomb shelter parking lot and hidden doors, its inhabitants of locals and refugees, bracing against a real or imagined enemy, the enemy within the borders or the one without, its laws rooted in the Talmud, and its language rooted in the Bible, as a sort of hypertext. What the mothers of the Talmudic City of Refuge are actually giving us is the way to interpret, to weave into the story cycles of voices, she says. And in her own essay tiles, Sorek, like Penelope, sees a purpose behind their unweaving, and their weaving back again.


Marcela Sulak's third poetry collection and first memoir are forthcoming with Black Lawrence Press. She’s co-edited Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres. A 2019 NEA Translation Fellow, and a 2017 PEN Award for Poetry in Translation finalist, she’ translated five collections of poetry. Sulak is an Associate Professor of Literature at Bar-Ilan University.

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