Wednesday, June 20, 2018

Patrick Collier: What's Happening?

Dear Essay Daily readers:

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

What’s Happening?

Patrick Collier


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


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


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


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


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


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

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

Monday, June 18, 2018

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Read more from our Int'l Essayists series here.

Tuesday, June 12, 2018

After Reykjavik: a Chorus of Reports

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

Prelude (David):

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

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

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

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

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

This is roughly what happened on the night:

Part 1      Pivotal moments, epiphanies and consequences

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Loosening my grip. Letting light in.

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

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

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

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

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

La Colonia

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Fiona, from a panel about collaboration:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Quinn, among knots that can’t be undone:

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

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

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

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

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

and facebook and instagram
(how many likes?).

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

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

Peta Murray, on unpanelling, in her asparagus crown:

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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


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


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

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


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

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

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

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

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


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

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

For nonfiction is a confection.

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

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

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

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

Nonfiction un-does.

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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

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

Sam C:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

“Is that story true Little Owl?”

There is a pause.

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

What can nonfiction do?

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

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

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

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

Sam van Z:

I’m rethinking my heroes.

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

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

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

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

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

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

The conversation starts with readers, so speak loudly.


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Monday, May 21, 2018

On ATTN:, attention, Aditi Machado, Harold Abramowitz and Andrea Quaid, and What's Gonna Happen on June 21, 2018

If you're a regular reader of this space, you know about our upcoming project, What Happened on June 21, 2018, in which we're inviting as many people as possible (writers, nonwriters, artists, amateurs, pros, collagists, musicians, whatever) to pay attention with us to a day in June.

While you don't need to register your interest via the google form, we'd love to have you do so in order to plan better.

Really, all you need to do is wake up on June 21 and write about what happens that day, however you understand that question. When you're done, give it a good edit, and send it in to us. (We'll collect these submissions via a google form.)

We'll publish as many of them as we can. We're guessing these will run through, at least, July.

This endeavor comes out of a handful of texts: Christa Wolf's One Day a Yeara special issue of Le Nouvel Observateur featuring 240 writers writing about what happened on April 29, 1994; a brief Nicholson Baker essay reproduced here for that project; and, I suppose, I'm also thinking of some of Juliana Spahr's day poems like this one. While that special issue of Le Nouvel Observateur was a who's who of literary 1994 (click to expand)—

—we're interested in a more democratic, anyone-can-play approach to trying to take a bite out of one day this coming June. So whisper the idea into anyone's ear.

While talking about the project with my friend Farid Matuk he turned me onto the only two issues of an occasional magazine called ATTN:—

—that published an issue devoted to July 31, 2015 and one on April 25, 2016. It appears to be ongoing, but a new one hasn't arisen in some time. To get a copy you'll have to buy one (though they look hard to find...) or, as I did, head on down to your local totally kickass international poetry library (I'm sure you have one where you are, right?). I'd recommend buying a copy or a subscription, and maybe they'll keep this project up.

(Attn ATTN: folks: perhaps you'd like to join us in June? You seem to like an occasion for art.)

The project of ATTN: is similar to ours in its open-endedness, though ATTN: is oriented toward poems and collage-style lo-fi art. Still, it includes a number of what I would call essays, including a lovely piece by Aditi Machado, which I'll reproduce here (click to expand):

I love that it's handwritten—so personal, which is always welcome in an essay, and yet so few of our essays are handwritten or hand-drawn (this one's an exception)—but also because it's going right at some of the questions of attention that interest me: what attention is (especially when it's paid, as we say in our odd turn of phrase, over an extended period) and what relationship it has to perception. What the relationship is between the subjective and objective, which is to say the central question of the essay, being the relationship between self and world or I and eye. Machado's assembly of quotations helps track one way through these questions, and I'd recommend you spend some time with it.

I also liked, for only some of the same reasons, this essay by Harold Abramowitz and Andrea Quaid (click to expand):

What is there to say about a day? Does the act of trying to say or think or observe something about a day change the day? "Maybe today was about what we are doing right now, I don't know," they say (it's unclear who is saying what, this being collaborative—and that uncertainty starts to push a little on some of the tenets of nonfiction or the essay in ways that feel worth exploring further). What is today about? What is the point of a day, or of today, or of any day? Is "this day…like a little world"? Is it "like leaving the world alone?" Well, let us find out.

Will your day intersect with the days of others who may be writing or thinking about the contents of that day? How will your days collaborate? How will all our days collaborate? Will they be punctuated by tragedy? (Surely—though the tragedies may or may not register for all or even any of us if they are quiet or far enough away.)

Here's another contribution to the first ATTN: by, I think (it's hard to tell—attribution is not a primary focus of this project) Donald Guravich:

It's hand-drawn and awesome. And I'll include only one more, this one from the second issue, on April 25, 2016, by Craig Dworkin, which collages news and happenings on a number of levels, sort of in the style, perhaps, of Harper's "Findings" feature:

By reprinting these and directing your attention (or your attn:) to them I mean not to suggest that these are modes you should be inhabiting, but that these are a few of the many opportunities for attention that a day can offer. So think about joining us: it's about a month away. We'll remind those of you who indicated your interest in the form the week before, and if that's not you, still you should feel free to play along. That's the nice thing about a catchy song—it spreads, invites a mass accompaniment.

Abramowitz and Quaid sum it up: "Wow, I think to myself, this is hard to do." Yes, exactly, I think to myself, which is why we should do it a lot more often. Starting on June 21.

Monday, May 7, 2018

What is an Object? 14 Object Lessons Authors on their Objects


We can point to an object only because we perceive it as separate from other things, apart not only from other things in the object-world but also living beings. Yet glass troubles these simplifying distinctions. As an object, glass showcases other objects and often allows us to see them with more perspicuity. So, the purpose of glass is not to be perceived. Think of the camera lens, the microscope, or eyeglasses. But, crucially, glass also turns people into objects. Whether capturing us in the reflection of a mirror or distilling our very selves into an image crystallized by a camera lens, glass gives us the startling glimpse of what it might mean for us to be inorganic, for us to not be unique, for us to, in fact, be objects ourselves. —John Garrison, Glass


I liked the difficulty of defining my object. The word luggage refers to so many different things (suitcases, trunks, backpacks, etc.), but it also refers to the contents of these things, and that could be anything. So as I wrote, I found that I was really interested in the idea of luggage because what my object is, materially speaking, became less and less clear. But that uncertainty—and the fact that the word brings with it so much (no pun intended)—became part of the book: how luggage is about language and how it is a figure for concepts like secrecy, ownership, and displacement. —Susan Harlan, Luggage


Whale song is about as far away from an object as you can get. Its transience as sound is matched only by the unreality of the sounds themselves—uncanny, haunting announcements that whatever cetaceans are saying to each other will probably always exceed our attempts at understanding, consumption, capture. Is it this lack of objectivity that placed whale recordings at the heart of two such important artifacts of human history, the 1972 LP Songs of the Humpback Whale, the largest pressing of any recorded album in history, and the Voyager Golden Record, currently traversing interstellar space in hopes of reaching an alien intelligence? —Margret Grebowicz, Whale Song


How much butter can an egg yolk hold? Separated from its white brethren, the yolk sits eyeballing in my hand. In between its proteins I promise to situate fat—whisk in whisk in whisk in the butter slowly. What does it mean to split an atom? The fusion of béarnaise.
     Outdoors, it’s early for blue bird eggs but still one sits, eyeballing, in the middle of a nest. In between the cracks of shell, an egg-tooth promises escape. I can’t promise much to this new situation except to keep my eye on the break, to blink into being this nuclear baby bird new. —Nicole Walker, Egg


Benjamin states that any object, artistic or natural, endowed with “aura,” looks back at you. The idea came alive with a vengeance as I was writing Rust. Teeming orangey-red blotches began staring at me, demanding, imploring, threatening. Rust dissolved the world into myriads of shells, hollowing or corroding the fullness of things. Increased paranoid-critical activity helped, like forcing Japanese friends on a Tokyo-Kyoto train to hallucinate rusty metal in the landscape. The solution to the dissolution was to combine Hegel’s dialectics of nature and Ruskin’s aesthetics. Rust once integrated to my regular blood-rhythms, the wonderful irritability of the object redeemed the restless world. —Jean-Michel Rabaté, Rust


In writing Silence, I did not anticipate that readers would object to my premise that silence is an object. Thingifying what might be viewed as an abstraction is obviously related to Hegelian and Marxist thinking on Verdinglichung, reification, especially since I begin with the commodification of silence, but I resist the notion that silence is, in fact, an abstraction. Simply because silence names something above and below the capacity of our senses to apprehend it doesn’t mean it doesn’t exist. The last century or so has extended the universe of objects to the infinitesimal, even down to the level of sub-atomic particles. We clearly no longer demand confirmation by our senses of objecthood. My book catalogues some of the ways—in science, art, politics, religion, law—that we treat silence as an object of inexhaustible utility. So don’t object to silence as an object. —John Biguenet, Silence


What did I discover, approaching the tree as an object? That there are the several things we’ve given trees to do: to shelter, to feed, to fuel. That there are also the many things a tree will do as well as other objects: if you drop one from an airplane, for instance, it will fall to the earth (a tree falling to the earth would be a prodigy, a sign, a terror, but in certain respects also unremarkable). And that beyond these lie all the secret ways the tree has of being, of happening, of doing world, which are numberless. —Matthew Battles, Tree


Because a tumor is the object that is us, I was forced to ponder relationships between self and object. In the case of a tumor, an individual and an object are made of the same stuff. Even when that’s not the case, though, an object’s meaning is delineated by how we interact with it. The word object comes from the Latin meaning to oppose or to put in the way of. An object becomes consequential or evocative when it gets in our way, when my response and someone else’s response has something in common—when we create culture out of objects. —Anna Leahy, Tumor


The burger is a private experience that the hand delivers to the mouth. But the “Burger,” long the “All-American” meal, has always contained an element of instability to it—and not only because it can rot. Named for a city that did not originate it, a form and a method of presenting flesh that often relied on disguise, in the twenty-first century it achieved the apotheosis of not being what it is presented to be, the burger with everything but the meat. I see the hamburger as a modernist aberration, albeit a very successful one, in the long tradition of shaping protein food items into single-portion meals. It’s replacement? The everyday object of burgerness. —Carol J. Adams, Burger


In Doctor, I dissected common perceptions of doctors—from children’s games to mainstream movies, hospital slogans to corny jokes—to reveal a more accurate version. I aimed to demystify the profession, but I also worried that providing an unfiltered look at doctoring might not be such a positive exercise. Did readers really want to know what doctors thought and said and did behind closed doors? I asked a non-doctor friend, who read an early draft, if it was too dark. She replied, “Funny you should ask, because reading your book triggered a memory. My stepfather is a psychiatrist, and my aunt is an actress who never really ‘made it’ and has been in therapy for years. Once, at a family dinner, my stepfather made a half-joke that while his patients are talking about their problems, he’s thinking about what he’s going to eat for dinner. My aunt became enraged and stormed out of the room. I thought it was hilarious. So I think you’ll have two kinds of readers.” Opening up something secret to a general view is a gamble, and the doctor is an object that risks cutting both ways. —Andrew Bomback, Doctor


As I wrote, I thought about Jeanette Winterson’s formulation of culture writing as a way to object, as a verb. My book objects to white supremacy, racism, murder, torture, and imprisonment. It objects to the weaponization of garments against vulnerable people. After the book was published, I objected to the way some critics and interviewers tried to exploit it to confirm their own biases. “What you’re saying is that hoods are sinister and dangerous, right?” I’d say: This book is about knowing the difference between a Klan hood, an executioner’s hood, and a hoodie. They’re not at all the same thing. The conflation is, itself, white supremacy at work. —Alison Kinney, Hood


When it comes to the things our minds imagine and our hands fashion, "fake" is a matter of intention, effect, and perspective. Unfortunately, as culture verbally conflates the artificial, the faux, substitutes, imitations, and cheap plastic crap with fraud, it comes to the same intellectual confusion too. That which people dislike or distrust they feel free to call fake so as to discard from objective reality as easily as they do “fake” objects from their perceived reality. The problem is that objective reality doesn’t work like that. It cannot be altered to fit our world view, nor can it be escaped. —Kati Stevens, Fake


When the object blurs after you stare at it too long, go out into the world and beat around for stories. “I know it’s strange to ask a stranger this, but what is this object?” “How does it rub up against what you personally want?” “Has it heard you crack up? sob? swear?” “How do you hold it?” “What hole would it leave?”
     Ask homeless people. Pantomime across languages. Make people you know ask people they know. Learn how the object manufactures experiences. Learn how experiences manufacture the object. The object is not an inkblot; neither is it a blank slate. —Meredith Castille, Driver’s License


I don’t weave, sew, knit, or crochet. I don’t collect blankets or quilts. But of all objects in the world, I chose blanket. I don’t recall how that came to be, except I know there were no other object contenders. It was always blanket. There’s something to be said for a little indifference before the object, a kind of anamorphic gaze onto its plane and contours. To write about blankets was to encounter philosophy and physics, memories and grief. Language is overcome with blanket metaphors. Writing brought me to the material object. And now I see blankets everywhere—folded, stacked, draped. And the word itself stirs me. —Kara Thompson, Blanket

Wednesday, May 2, 2018

What’s So Normal About This, Anyway? On The Spirit of Disruption and The Normal School Nonfiction Series


On The Spirit of Disruption and The Normal School Nonfiction Series


Steven Church 


In the late 90’s, after two years of putting my BA degree in philosophy to work fixing toilets and shoveling snow as a maintenance man in a Colorado ski town, I headed off to graduate school to study fiction writing because I liked short stories. Little did I know that the golden age of the short story was waning and the “lyric essay” was already making its first splashes in the (often frighteningly) small literary nonfiction pond, nor did I understand then how the essay form would end up shaping so much of my professional, editorial, and artistic life.
     The truth was at the time I didn’t know Montaigne from Montell Jordan, and I thought all “creative” nonfiction was nature writing. But I would soon discover that I loved Joan Didion and Bernard Cooper, Truman Capote and Tobias Wolff, David Foster Wallace, Lauren Slater, David Shields, Lia Purpura, and Lawrence Weschler, as well as some of those aforementioned nature writers. I’d discover that I loved books that didn’t fit easily into “normal” literary classifications, even if I wasn’t entirely sure what those literary classifications were.
     At that time the term “lyric essay” seemed dangerous, revolutionary, and exciting, as if it marked the advent of something new in literature. The lyric essay itself as a form or mode of writing was not necessarily new, as both its prophets and detractors often tried to remind us. The movement to embrace lyric essays, to reclaim modes of nonfiction writing from the grips of other genre and sub-genre classifications, to carve out a space for the unclassifiable within the academy, however, did seem new—as if we were all intrepid deputy explorers setting out across the frozen tundra or hacking through verdant canonical jungles, planting flags in anything that seemed to fit under this maddeningly wide and colorful umbrella of the lyric essay. Armed with new terms and new permissions we claimed territory in poetry, fiction, art, film, philosophy and other disciplines. We kicked in doors and knocked down walls. It was exciting.
     Perhaps also empowered or at least emboldened by this excitement surrounding the genre, by these new permissions and this spirit of wonder, exploration, and disruption of the norms in nonfiction publishing, Matt Roberts, Sophie Beck, and I formed (along with several friends) a collaborative writing group focused on prose writing, the spirit of principled disruption, and fun. This writing collective became a lifeline for us and other writers who’d graduated from the relatively comfy and supportive nest of our MFA program; and we supported our artistic selves by hosting themed readings, publishing a chapbook, and collaborating with visual artists.
     There was this undeniably fun energy that we all desperately needed, the same energy that would eventually, several years later and with the financial and institutional support of Fresno State (where I landed a teaching job), end up being the driving force behind the founding of The Normal School: a Literary Magazine.
     When we launched the print magazine ten years ago, we chose the name for a couple of reasons. First, we liked the sound of it and the dubious authority it suggested, the way it seemed to be telling you what was “normal,” while also inspiring the question, “What is ‘normal’”? The title has an ironic shimmer that both critiques the idea of “normal,” while also celebrating it and trying to redefine it. We liked the multiplicity and tension that exists in the title, and that it seemed like we were taking ourselves really seriously, even if we weren’t in a lot of ways. We liked the disruption of expectations. Finally, our host institution, Fresno State was founded on Sept. 11, 1911 as the Fresno Normal School; so the title hearkens back to the history of an institution founded to train local teachers who were schooled in the “norms” of knowledge and education. We tried to internalize an aesthetic of honoring and embracing history while also challenging what is considered “normal” today.
     In terms of nonfiction content for the magazine, we wanted the lyric essays, the recipes, lists, maps, collages, collaborative pieces, experimental essays, speculative essays, and essays that other magazines ignored or rejected; we wanted the experimental “boundary pushing” essays and the trouble-making essays, political essays, music essays, true crime essays, and even the straightforward memoir, journalism, criticism, and other subject-driven nonfiction. We wanted it all and we wanted to throw them into a conversation with each other—and that’s how we’ve always thought of the magazine, as a conversation on the “norms” of literary publishing.
     At least once a year it seemed, we also schemed and dreamed about publishing books and, to be sure, many people asked if we’d ever get into that “business.” We wanted to do it, but we wanted to do it the right way, the Normal way. We wanted it to be largely independent with an eye toward competing with the “big” presses and we wanted the books to pay attention to design. We wanted it to be West Coast; and we wanted the books to be affordable and unique titles that embodied the same spirit as the magazine.
     The first foray into this world of book publishing has been an anthology of essays collected from the first ten years of publication. The Spirit of Disruption: Selections from The Normal School, which will be released August 1, 2018 by Outpost 19. This anthology collects 28 groundbreaking essays from a diverse, accomplished group of contributors to the magazine and combines the essays with original reflections from the writers. Our list of contributors includes Ander Monson, Elena Passarello, Aimee Nezhukumatathil, Rick Moody, Jericho Parms, Dinty W. Moore, Silas Hansen, Joe Bonomo, Brenda Miller, Patrick Madden, Jerald Walker, and many more.
     Because I’ve really enjoyed working with Jon Roemer at Outpost19, we decided to take the plunge even further into publishing, and our next venture is The Normal School Nonfiction Series for which I’ll serve as the Series Editor. This partnership seeks to publish books that embody the spirit of the nonfiction that we’ve celebrated for ten years in the magazine. We are particularly interested in immersive and reportage-based writing, socio-cultural and political criticism, pop culture analysis, and essayistic prose that artfully blends the personal and public. We are interested in lyric essays, hybrid nonfiction, research-driven memoir, and the sort of engaging and eclectic nonfiction writing we regularly publish in The Normal School; and we also hope to publish books by diverse, historically under-represented, and/or marginalized voices
     At the magazine we’ve always appreciated what I’ve often come to think of, somewhat ingloriously, as “messays,” or pieces of nonfiction writing that, again, don’t necessarily conform to traditional definitions or expectations of the essay, or that at least buck against other “norms” in nonfiction publishing and might be difficult to place in another magazine. These are often longer pieces that seem constantly on the verge of collapsing or exploding out into a million different directions.
     Perhaps instead of “messay,” I should just call it a Normal essay; and perhaps I’m also just speaking of the sorts of nonfiction writing that we’ve always loved here at the magazine, those longer engagements with a unique consciousness. The essays we publish are often ones that suggest some larger, deeper, messier and possibly book-length inquiry.
     Normal nonfiction is then, for me, the unruly working class messay mated with the more academic and intellectual lyric essay. It’s the punk rocker blurred with the lyric essay’s classical composer, the bareknuckle fist-fighter mixed with the ballroom dancer. It’s the narrative tension mashed together with lyric attention. The basic foundations are the same shared language, often similar motivations toward formal innovation, and there’s something in the execution that rattles your sense of what’s real or right or normal or acceptable. It’s art, but it’s unruly and rowdy art. It’s art that is meant to disrupt your sense of what’s actually normal in literary nonfiction.
     It is this somewhat unruly approach to publishing and an obvious appreciation for interesting nonfiction that first appealed to me in working with Jon Roemer and Outpost19. I’d loved books that Jon had published with Outpost19 by Lawrence Lenhart and David LeGault, as well as an anthology, Rooted, edited by Josh McIvor-Anderson, in which I had a short piece reprinted; and I liked that he combined an indie-press appreciation for literature with an obvious understanding of how to put books into readers’ hands and how to celebrate authors and their work.
     In our discussions of The Normal School Nonfiction Series, Jon and I have always said that we want to continue the “spirit of disruption” that The Normal School magazine and the anthology has adopted, while also looking for ways to reach a wide reading audience that is more sophisticated, generous, and adventurous than many publishers realize, an audience that we believe is hungry for more Normal nonfiction.


Submit here by May 15 for The Normal School Nonfiction Series: 


Steven Church is the author of six books of nonfiction, most recently the collection of essays, I’m Just Getting to the Disturbing Part: On Work, Fear and Fatherhood, and he edited the anthology, The Spirit of Disruption: Selections from The Normal School, which will be released in Aug. 2018.