Benjamin Batley on Anthony Bourdain: The Punk Rocker of Food, Culture, and Travel Blogging

The reason I use punk rock as a comparison to this blog is because it is unconventional and doesn’t follow the typical norms of travel and food writing. Anthony Bourdain has a very unique non-fiction writing style that is both credible and personal. Much like punk rock’s genre, the genre of blogging is fast-paced and informal, yet very significant and widespread. Like punk rock’s short songs, Bourdain’s blogging is concise and “to the point.” He is able to convey a lot of information about the true meaning behind many of his experiences in very few words. His writing, like punk rock, is “raw,” goes “against the grain,” and is political, yet remains aesthetically entertaining as well as alternatively fashionable to a wide array of readers. His blog provides a great way to gather insight into different cuisines, cultures, and travel destinations, but also provides the path to a plethora of resources that can enhance and satisfy the anthropological enthusiast’s knowledge and desire to learn through both the author and his subjects.

220px-kitchen_confidentialRenowned chef Anthony Bourdain is very well-known for his television shows, books, and speeches that discuss subjects such as travel, food, and culture based on his experiences as someone who has set foot on all seven continents. But, he also has a blog on Tumblr that provides even further insight into these experiences that weren’t necessarily covered in the final cuts of his more widely known publications. His writing is simple, edgy, and colorfully uncensored but has the ability to spark a significant emotional reaction within readers that could potentially educate and change readers’ perceptions about various different cultures both inside and outside of the United States. His blog writing, like most of his work, has the ability to touch on the deepest aspects of humanity in every culture, no matter what one’s inherent political beliefs may be.

In his blog post from May 12, 2016 entitled “Brown Dog,” he says, “You may be the most cynical, born and bred, citified lefty like me — instinctively skeptical of big concepts like ‘patriotism’, relatively foreign to hunting culture, unused to wide open spaces, but spend any length of time traveling around Montana and you will understand what all that ‘purple mountains majesty’ is all about, you’ll soon be wrapping yourself in the flag and yelling, ‘America, fuck yeah!’ with an absolute and non-ironic sincerity that will take you by surprise.”

This charismatic quote conveys a lot about Bourdain’s personality in a very brief snapshot of his blog work, which functions to show his talent as a very effective author. As a New Yorker that is far from home in the rugged terrain of Montana, he is honest, straightforward, and doesn’t mind publicly being able to identify and sympathize with other peoples’ viewpoints, even if they may contradict his own. One of his hallmarks as a writer is the conveyance of his unabashed and often hilarious opinions, but even more noteworthy is his ability to admit that maybe the other side has a point too. By being capable of this, he displays a very likeable persona that is highly opinionated, but still humble, writing in a way that is magnetizing to many people who enjoy learning about different cultures.

In a piece about Filipino culture in one of his episodes from the show Parts Unknown entitled “Unfinished Business,” posted on April 22, 2016, he discusses this particular episode’s focus on the humanity of Filipino people, not just the Philippines in a broad sense. He begins the post with an anecdote about Vangie, the Filipino baby nurse who helped raise his daughter and the close friendship that developed between both of their families. He writes, “This episode is an attempt to address the question of why so many Filipinos are so damn caring. Why they care so much — for each other — for strangers. Because my experience is far from unusual.”

This behind the scenes look is a strong example of what to expect when reading about the background of what went into the filming of many episodes of this show. He goes out of his way in this blog to give his fans an insight into how Filipino culture has personally affected him, and no doubt will be capable of appealing to many others’ experiences with Filipino culture as well, which is inevitably quite prevalent in the United States with such a large influx of Filipino workers, who often go unnoticed, but really have a significant impact in our society. Again, although his shows typically have the outer appearance of a focus of food, travel, and general culture, he really intends to, and succeeds, in appealing to the distinct human qualities of these cultures, which he expands on in this blog.


batley-biopicBen Batley is an English teacher, graduate student, and local musician in Omaha, Nebraska. He received his BA in English at Loyola University Chicago and is completing his MA in English and the University of Nebraska Omaha.

Writers to Read: Karen Babine on Paul Gruchow

paul-gruchowI have a friend whose driving ambition is to convert people to the cult of Joseph Mitchell. I replied that if that was the case, then mine was to convert people to the cult of Paul Gruchow.

My readerly and writerly relationship with Gruchow started in a Minnesota Writers class during my sophomore year of college, the first time I’d ever read any work by any writer who had come from the state I grew up in. As we read Gruchow’s Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild, which had just won the Minnesota Book Award for nonfiction, it was the first time I realized that I could write about Minnesota, I could write about rural Minnesota, people would read it, it could be published, and it could win awards. It was, I realized in hindsight, the most important moment in my life as a writer. My state, my home, was valuable—I didn’t have to write about other, more “important” places. (This, if you will allow me a moment of pride, was intensely important when my (first) book won the Minnesota Book Award this spring. I wish he was alive so I could thank him.)

On 22 February 2004, Gruchow died by suicide. Paul Gruchow was born in 1947 in Montevideo, Minnesota, raised on the prairies of southwestern Minnesota, and after many years of living with and writing through depression, he took his own life. In 2012, his posthumous memoir, Letters to a Young Madman, was published, a draft of which he had finished before he died. I have not yet finished the book. To read of his bipolar struggles in the kinds of sentences Gruchow could write—that is not something I can bear for more than ten pages at a time. This book is, quite simply, the most devastating book I have ever read.

Gruchow writes of the places where he finds himself, and he uses those places to illuminate his world—and his readers’. His work is characterized by the precision of his attention to details, both of the natural world around him and the words on his page. John Henricksson calls Gruchow a “literary naturalist,” a distinction I feel hardly captures the mastery of words that Gruchow possesses when writing about the various topographies of Minnesota, from the farming prairie of Chippewa County in Grass Roots to the wildness of the North Woods in Boundary Waters. Gruchow writes in his Boundary Waters, “We confront in wild places evidence of powers greater than our own; this evidence humbles us, and in humility is the beginning of spirituality. Wildness matters not because it alone is sacred but because it arouses in us the sense of sanctity that makes visible the sacredness of everything else in life” (BW 201). Such awareness of the natural world brings the reader to a higher level of reality, both on a physical and metaphysical plane.

If writers never read solely for pleasure, if we are always aware on some level of what we can learn, then there is no more brilliant teacher of language than Gruchow. His writing is complex in its construction, with serious attention paid to each word and its placement in the sentence. He has mastered the use of poetic language within the prose, intuitively aware of the way the words sound against each other. Grammatically, appositives and parentheticals serve to break up thoughts, to add color to his descriptions, to add interest to a narrative passage, to work the language just one more way. His marvelous use of questions to open Grass Roots: The Universe of Home (1995), as well as elsewhere, serves to make the reader accountable to his or her own conscience.

Gruchow’s writing is full of unusual attention, which gives freshness to his descriptions of things that might seem pedestrian under the lens of other writers. He avoids descriptions that are ambiguous in their commonness, for instance, his rendering of Isle Royale, the largest island in Lake Superior: “I wish to avoid certain adjectives in writing about Isle Royale, words like beautiful, primeval, pristine, natural, wild. There is already enough ambiguity about such places. Certainly Isle Royale appears to be all of these things” (“Spring” 167).

In the essay “The Meekness of Angels,” Gruchow writes of an encounter with a bear: “The bear’s voice was as enormous and commanding as its physique—grander, less guttural, and more eloquent than the roars of the one lion I have heard” (44). Gruchow could have easily slipped into generalities in the descriptions, yet he does not, not ignoring the way grander and guttural sound together. Following this line, the actual description of the mother bear in “The Meekness of Angels” avoids trite and overused language, language which is slow enough to give evidence to Gruchow’s awe over her:

She was enormous and blonde. The silver tips of her venerable hair glistened in the long angle of sunlight filtering through the trees. She did not make a sound as she moved with athletic grace toward her purpose, her massive shoulders as fluid as water. She was like a waterfall on legs. The hump of her back was so prominent and her size so great, that in another setting I might temporarily have mistaken her for a bison cow” (42).

The sentence level attention continues in Gruchow’s impeccable diction. His tone is nearly always soft-spoken and humble, sometimes self-deprecating, something that so clearly follows his speaking voice. No matter his tone, however, his diction gives the reader no doubt as to the writer’s intelligence.

The way words taste in the mouth and vibrate in the ear is not neglected in Grass Roots. In “Rosewood Township,” after the initial description of the cattail marsh at the end of the north-south eighty at the beginning of the essay, Gruchow returns to it: “For me, the most important place on the farm was the cattail marsh at its north end” (20). He goes on to describe the marsh: “Here was a piece of Rosewood Township as it had existed for thousands of years, a surviving testament to the tallgrass prairie, and the richest and most complex representative of it.” He goes on to describe the marsh: “As summer wore on and the wet days of May gave way to dust August, the ponds evaporated, exposing ovals of black mud, ringed by rank growths of cattails, rushes, and tall wetland flowers. These ovals baked and cracked, the rich alkaline deposits in them collecting as fine white powder (21). There’s alliteration here, assonance, true rhymes and slant rhymes–nothing is overlooked.

Slowing the moments down to where the reader can appreciate the language only works if the writer is equally intuitive about where not to linger in his descriptions. In “Rosewood Township,” as he is recalling accidentally burning down his family’s barn, where not one of the panicked animals which had fled into the barn for safety had escaped. The description of the entire ordeal is two paragraphs, at the end of which Gruchow gives the reader a quick glimpse of how he felt about it: “I was out of my mind with grief and fear. I imagined being sent to prison” —this would seem uncharacteristically pedestrian and unoriginal, if not for the next sentence, which gives startling clarity to the young boy’s fear: “I had, as young as I was, a faint sense of what my carelessness would mean to family already dangling by an economic thread.” His fear had less to do with punishment than the welfare of his family. He continues: “The smell of smoke and burned flesh nauseated me. I took to my loft and could not speak or eat for days. Ten years passed before I found the courage to talk about that afternoon” (12). By the brevity of this description, he makes the reader take responsibility for reading between the lines. There is obviously more to what Gruchow-as-child felt, but Gruchow-as-writer knows that his readers are going to have a good idea without expressly stating it.Gruchow’s philosophies and epiphanies operate under the principle that the language has all the answers—and this is some of the finest examples of high exposition on any page.

Gruchow is just beginning to think in his 1986 Journal of a Prairie Year. He has not yet begun to know all the places his mind may take him. For instance, a moment from JPY:

Our language does not distinguish green from green. It’s one of the ways in which we have declared ourselves to be apart from nature. In nature, there is nothing so impoverished of distinction as simply the color green. There are greens as there are grains of sand, an infinitude of shades and gradations of shades, of intensities and brilliancies. Even one green is not the same green. There is the green of dawn, of high noon, of dusk. There is the green of young life, of maturity, of old age. There is the green of new rain and of long drought. There is the green of vigor, the green of sickness, the green of death. One could devote one’s life to the study of the distinctions in the color green and not have learned all there is to know. There is a language in it, a poetry, a music. We have not stopped long enough to hear it.

This moment of green is not as actualized as similar moments in later books, but Journal is, of course, the beginning. The movement towards high exposition, of a writer being able to hit the reader over the head in such a way that the whole world rings and echoes pleasantly inside the skull, is not a skill or gift that happens immediately. But the brilliance of Gruchow is that his writing has always offered the promise of a glimpse into a world that few are privileged to see.

As Gruchow becomes more confident of his language craft, we see that never does he let that language slide in the face of his epiphanies. For instance, from his 1989 The Necessity of Empty Places:

Experiencing a landscape is an act of creativity. Like any creative vision, it cannot be forced or willed. No amount of busyness will produce it. It cannot be organized on a schedule, or happen by appointment. If you would experience a landscape, you must go alone to it and sit down somewhere quietly and wait for it to come in its own good time to you. You must not wait ambitiously. You must not sing to pass the time, or make any kind of effort. The solitude is necessary, the wait is necessary, and it is necessary that you yourself be empty, that you might be filled.

This passage filled my ears like song when I sat on the boulders of Inishmore, in Ireland, overlooking the Atlantic. If anything, the rhythm of the words against each other illuminated whatever I may have been thinking as the waves pounded the boulders of Inishmore.

In Boundary Waters, everything Gruchow has worked towards comes to fruition: the sound and taste of the language, the rhythm, the etymology, the preciseness of his words in pursuit of that which will make the world make sense. One of my greatest pleasures in reading Gruchow has been in watching his craft develop from one book to the next. One of the best examples in Boundary Waters comes near the end of the final essay, “Spring: Wild Isle,” an essay which made the Notables list of Best American Essays in 1998. Gruchow writes:

There is no brief way to know a place even so small as this. Places can be claimed by never conquered, assayed but never fathomed, essayed but never explained. You can only make yourself present; watch earnestly, listen attentively, and in due time, perhaps, you will absorb something of the land. What you absorb will eventually change you. This change is the only real measure of a place.

(Those familiar with Assay will recognize this passage as our inspiration for the magazine’s name and its purpose.)

I’ll close with this thought: something amazing happens when the right writer meets the right place. I’m talking about the magic that happens when Bruce Chatwin is writing about Australia, when Tim Robinson is writing about the West of Ireland, when Bill Kittredge writes about Montana. Gretel Ehrlich speaks of this in The Future of Cold when she writes that “For years, Nietsche searched for what he called ‘true climate,’ for its exact geographical location as it corresponds to the climate of the thinker.” Part of that is the irreplaceable quality of the writer. Part of it is the brilliance in their technique. But most of it is the harmony between the inner and outer world, the organic particularity of place, and how it finds expression in ink.


_mg_8267Karen Babine is Assay’s editor. Her book, Water and What We Know (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award and was a Finalist for the Midwest Book Award and Northeastern Minnesota Book Award.

Assay’s “In the Classroom” Series Returns!

Our “In the Classroom” series is back! This upcoming academic year, we’ll continue to publish “Favorite Essays to Teach” and “Writers to Read.” While our focus is nonfiction, we’d love to hear about interdisciplinary approaches to writing. Or perhaps you’re primarily a poet and poetry teacher/writer, but you have a favorite essay you read and teach. We’d love to read about it.

Here are our guidelines for “In the Classroom” submissions:


You can access all Assay’s submission guidelines here.

As you continue to consider your own submissions to the main journal and to the “In the Classroom” series, please think about students who might have thoughtful pieces or imageresponse papers — and encourage them to submit. At Assay, we are committed to supporting the work of undergraduate, graduate, and emerging writers.

We’re here to support your teaching & writing. To that end, we maintain our syllabi bank. If you have a recent course syllabi that you’d like to contribute to the syllabi bank, please do! We’re happy to hear that this is a valued resource. If there are additional ways we can support your teaching, please let us know.

Here’s the link to our most recent journal release — Assay 3.1. Be sure to read Karen Babine’s and Robert Atwan’s conversation about Best American Essays. We’re grateful for Mr. Atwan’s contributions to the essay and his generous responses to Karen’s interview questions.


Finally, we’re so proud to announce our first “Notable” essay listing in Best American Essays 2016. Huge congratulations to Ned Stuckey-French for “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing.” I frequently use this essay in my courses; I hope you will, too.

Thanks to all of you who have sent “In the Classroom” submissions already. Please keep them coming. And remember: we’re always considering work for our main journal, particularly work this year on the Best American Essays series.

With gratitude,



Renee DAoustManaging Editor Renée E. D’Aoust’s essay collection Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press) was a Foreword Reviews “Book of the Year” finalist.

Assay’s Academic Year 2015-2016 Annual Report


We’ve had a great academic year here at Assay. Thank you, all, for your contributions, for reading the journal, and for your support.

hipstamaticphoto-479148500.856242Next year, we’re looking forward to a journal focus on Best American Essays. A few of our questions: How do we conceive of BAE as the standard for our genre? How have the editors and/or contributors influenced the field? What pedagogical considerations do we have when we use BAE in the classroom? Essay Daily ran a fascinating series on BAE this past winter; if you have not seen those pieces, it’s well worth your time. Please find Assay’s call for BAE-focused submissions here. We continue to consider all submissions, and you can find our regular submission guidelines here. As always, if you have questions, send us an email. We’ll continue reading over the summer.

This past year, our main journal published a fall and spring issue: Assay 2.1 and Assay 2.2. We also published a Special Conference Issue featuring panel talks from NonfictioNOW, AWP, and ASLE.

During the NonfictioNOW (#NFNOW15) conference last fall, we published ongoing conference reports. We also published conference reports from the 2016 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference (#cnfwc16). Many thanks for these contributions, which make it possible for those unable to attend to learn, too. When you attend a conference, please consider writing up a panel / reading / workshop report for our “In the Classroom” series.

Our ongoing “In the Classroom” series continues to publish “Favorite Essays to Teach” and “Writers to Read.” This past year we were also super pleased to feature student travel-writer Lauren Wilson’s contributions.

As you continue to consider your own submissions to the main journal and to the “In the Classroom” series, please think about students who might have thoughtful pieces or response papers — and encourage them to submit. At Assay, we are committed to supporting the work of undergraduate, graduate, and emerging writers.

We’re here to support your teaching & writing. To that end, we maintain our syllabi bank. If you have a recent course syllabi that you’d like to contribute to the syllabi bank, please do! We’re happy to hear that this is a valued resource. If there are additional ways we can support your teaching, please let us know.

On a more personal note, this was my first year as Managing Editor at Assay. I’m thrilled to be part of our team, and I’m grateful for the opportunity to think more deeply about the pedagogical aspects of our field and to explore how we craft nonfiction. Thank you to our Board of Directors for their insights and support. Thank you to our readers and contributors for their enthusiasm and support. And a very special thank you to Editor Karen Babine for inviting me to join Assay.



We’re looking forward to next year! Assay’s fall issue will release September 1st. Our “In the Classroom” series will continue on October 3, 2016.

Here’s to a great summer of reading and writing. I’m off to cuddle my Tube of Fur.

With gratitude,



#cnfwc16 — Twelve Quotes Full of “Insight and Inspiration” from the 2016 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference


  1. “A draft is full of sentences that are auditioning. – Dinty W. Moore


  1. “With an outline you’re not going to write about what you don’t know you know.” – Dinty W. Moore


  1. “Save your seedlings.” – Dinty W. Moore


  1. Try writing by hand, because “your fingers are connected to your arm, the veins to the heart.” – Dinty W. Moore


  1. Instead of saying that the reader has to do some work, think of it this way: “The reader likes to participate.” – Dinty W. Moore


  1. “First draft writing is like no other kind of writing – you have to go into the woods and keep going. Second draft writing – you have to see the forest for the trees.” – Kristin Kovacic


  1. “The title is the door to your essay – but a door works both ways.” – Kristin Kovacic


  1. “Wherever you have the wrong set of feelings, that’s a fruitful place for an essayist to be.” – Kristin Kovacic


  1. “The biggest thing an editor can do for you is get [you] out of your head” – Jason Bittle


  1. “Immersion is about waiting. It’s not about finding a story to fit inside your pre-constructed ideas, but letting a story unfold.” – Maggie Messitt


  1. “If you don’t have belief in your own gut, develop it.” –Adriana Ramierz


  1. “Burst upon the page.” – Lee Gutkind  

    CNFwc16 program

Find out more on Twitter at #cnfwc16 or at the conference website:


Randon Billings Noble author photoRandon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Millions; Brain, Child; Los Angeles Review of Books; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; Brevity; Fourth Genre; Creative Nonfiction and elsewhere. A fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, she was named a 2013 Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow to attend a residency at The Millay Colony for the Arts. Currently she is a nonfiction editor at r.kv.r.y quarterly, Reviews Editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and a regular reviewer for The A.V. Club.

#cnfwc16 — Personal Essay at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference

2016_ConferenceBanner_3_HThe 2016 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference worked hard—and well—to address the many subgenres of creative nonfiction, but as a personal essayist I was most excited to hear Kristin Kovacic speak on the panel “Revising Essays and Short Work.”

Kovacic identified herself as a writer of personal essays and spoke of them with both fluid eloquence and sharp intelligence.

“First draft writing is like no other kind of writing,” she said. “You go into the woods and you have to keep going.”

“Second draft writing – you have to see the forest for the trees.” And this is where you start to revise.

For personal essay, revision involves distance. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in your own story, your own thoughts, your own feelings. But to ensure that you achieve a level of necessary distance, Kovacic asks three vital questions (adapted from Patricia Hampl’s excellent book I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory):

  1. How many things is this about? (Don’t ask what this essay is about but how many things.) Then make a list.
  2. How are these things connected? (That’s where the surprises come.)
  3. Who do I represent? (This is a great question through which to achieve distance, which, in turn, shows the importance of the story.) Are you representing an innocent abroad, a third wave feminist, an only child, a motorcycle rider? How do you write differently as a representative as opposed to an individual?

After answering these questions you can turn to details. The details of the story you’re telling have to bridge two things: what happened, and how you make sense of what happened.

“The artful part,” Kovacic said, “is how you track your thinking. The creative part is following a mind a work.”

CNFwc16 program

Kovacic also suggested to always title your essay, even if your first title serves as a temporary, working title. “The title is the door to your essay – but a door works both ways. It’s an invitation” but it’s also an indication of what your essay is about. You may find that your essay’s content – and therefore title – changes drastically in the revision process.

Other helpful tips included:

  • “A resonant work picks up meaning each time you use it; a repetitive word doesn’t.”
  • “The best place to look about how to stick your ending is back at the beginning.”
  • “There’s a lot of mea culpa in this work that makes it honest.”
  • “Wherever you have the wrong set of feelings – that’s a fruitful place for an essayist to be.”

For more wise advice from Kristin Kovacic, find her teaching at Carlow University or the Chataqua Institute, or read her essay “On Usefulness” for guidance by osmosis.

Find out more on Twitter at #cnfwc16 or at the conference website:


Randon Billings Noble author photo

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Millions; Brain, Child; Los Angeles Review of Books; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; Brevity; Fourth Genre; Creative Nonfiction and elsewhere. A fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, she was named a 2013 Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow to attend a residency at The Millay Colony for the Arts. Currently she is a nonfiction editor at r.kv.r.y quarterly, Reviews Editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and a regular reviewer for The A.V. Club.


#cnfwc16 — Connecting at the Creative Nonfiction Conference


The ballroom fills with guests chatting, donning their red lanyards reading CREATIVE NONFICTION in white text. I sit three rows from the front, sipping complimentary coffee, looking around and wondering if I will make any friends. This is my first big conference, and these large socializing groups remind me of the high school cafeteria, searching for a face I know in the sea of grinning faces on the first day of school.

It doesn’t take long, however, and this isn’t like high school at all. I meet Ruth, a freelance journalist sitting next to me, and then Jackie, another twenty-five year old like me, eager to learn more about creative nonfiction. Soon we are talking about writing over coffee and I am at ease with my new peers when Anjali, conference coordinator, introduces Lee Gutkind, the godfather of Creative Nonfiction.

“Hey, Hi,” he says, holding up a friendly hand. He is glad we are here and to see how the conference has grown, how the genre has grown over the years. He tells us that Creative Nonfiction, the magazine, started twenty-three years ago in his dining room in Squirrel Hill, PA. That before, people laughed at the genre and its silly title “creative nonfiction,” that it was a struggle to legitimize the genre in the beginning.

“And now,” he continues, “we are growing like mad…. It’s a movement, not a moment.”

And over the next few days that’s what it feels like.

Jackie and I find that we are registered for the same classes, and later we go to lunch in the city. Over lunch in the park we exchange ideas, we scrawl notes on napkins, recommendations of writers the other should check out. We ask questions about creative nonfiction as a genre, the ethics, the faultiness of memory, and what we think still needs to be written about. And while meeting agents and editors is great, this is also why we come here. To share what we know in the hopes of learning more about ourselves and the craft of writing creative nonfiction. The conference could have any number of great classes and teachers, all fine and good, but it’s just as much about the small connections, the conversations at lunch, the discussions in the hallway of the hotel that make this conference so worth it.

Find out more on Twitter at #cnfwc16 or at the conference website:


image1-3Annalise Mabe is completing an MFA at the University of South Florida, where she writes poetry, comics, and nonfiction. Her work has been featured/is forthcoming in Brevity, The Offing, The Rumpus, Booth, Word Riot, Hobart, and was nominated by The Boiler for a 2016 Pushcart Prize. She reads for Sweet: A Literary Confection and is an editor at Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art. She lives in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches composition and creative writing at USF.

#cnfwc16 — Report from the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference

2016_ConferenceBanner_3_HCreative Nonfiction’s (CNF) motto is “True stories, well told.” It’s also true that their annual conference held over Memorial Day weekend in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania tried to please everyone. More than 150 writers at varying stages on their journey gathered for three themed days of panels and presentations: “Write,” “Revise,” and “Publish.”

The first day offered master classes with Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore, and others. The second day featured the harder work of revision through research and adaptations. The final day focused on the realities of the publishing industry and do’s and don’ts of writing book proposals, agent queries, and platform building.

Rather than the traditional literary readings or workshops, the CNF staff hosted a nightly happy hour. Long lunch breaks encouraged attendees to explore the restaurants, cathedrals, and museums within walking distance. CNF also offered twelve conference scholarships to their “Writing Away the Stigma” fellows.

For a novice writer, Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference really was “three days full of insight & inspiration.” For the already well-published writer, it was refreshing. If attendees sought individual access to agents, editors, and publishers, they were generous and available. For CNF fans, small really was a better way to learn to tell a true story.

Find out more on Twitter at #cnfwc16 or at the conference website:


Melissa Scholes Young’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poets & Writers, Poet Lore, and other literary journals. She teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. and is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @mscholesyoung

Topic – Resource List: Diversity / Difference / Power in the Writing Classroom

blue flowerIn the Creative Writing Pedagogy group, which is on Facebook, Rebecca Makkal asked the following question: “I’m looking for great essays (preferably online, assignable to graduate students) about diversity/difference/power in the writing classroom. Ideas?”

Many thanks to the following people who posted links to the following pieces in the discussion thread: Karen Babine, Don Hosek, Anna Leahy, Bich Minh Nguyen, DeMisty Philosopiae, James Ryan, Jennifer Solheim, and Ned Stuckey-French.

If you have other suggestions, please leave a comment, and I’ll add the link to the list.

— Here is a broad, recent look at many interwoven issues:

— “Workshop is Not For You, by Jeremiah Chamberlin: The Proper Care and Feeding of Writers”. Originally published at Glimmer Train, it is no longer available at the University of Oregon blog link… if you find a link to this piece, please let us know.

— The book Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom, edited by Anna Leahy. Two chapters deal with grading, plus other topics related to power.

— Bernice M. Olivas: “Politics of Identity in the Essay Tradition,” published in Assay 2.1. See more here.

— “MFA vs. POC” by Junot Diaz. Available at The New Yorker here.

— Matthew Salesses has great recent work about this subject: “‘The Reader’ vs. POC”

Pleiades has an excellent four part series on rethinking the workshop. Here is part one: “Pure Craft is a Lie” Here’s the fourth in the series (you can also access the other posts through this link): Who’s at the Center of Workshop and Who Should Be?

— “Racial and Ethnic Justice in the Creative Writing Course by Joy Castro” can be found here:

— Vida’s “Report from the Field: Racial Invisibility and Erasure in the Writing Workshop” can be found here:

— Find excellent resources at the Journal of Creative Writing Studies, including David Mura’s “White Writing Teachers (or David Foster Wallace vs. James Baldwin)” and Tonya Hegamin‘s “Diversity and Inclusion: A Manifesto and Interview.” Both address issues of difference, and Mura’s piece speaks directly about what is required for white writing teachers to appropriately evaluate work by students of color.


The Context of “Disobedience” — by Michael Estes

I teach English Composition at a diverse community college, and for the past few years I’ve asked my students to read Thoreau’s “Civil Disobedience.” Teaching “Civil Disobedience” excites neither me nor my students with the thrill of encountering an innovative text, but surprisingly, the context of my teaching has made it new.

The first layer of novelty lies in the fact that most of my students haven’t heard of Thoreau. Whatever they’re teaching them in those high schools (pronoun vagueness intentional, and I’m a former high-school teacher), Transcendentalism isn’t high on the list. Both Thoreau’s beard and his diction are unfamiliar to my students, but with the help of a quote from Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.’s autobiography lauding Thoreau’s eloquence on the importance of “noncooperation with evil,” we quickly discover that he’s preaching a familiar theme: what’s legal is sometimes the opposite of what’s right.

ThoreauA second layer of novelty stems from the relevance of a 165-year-old essay to my students’ educational paths. As we read Thoreau’s description of the inferiority of the American government to the American individual in statements such as “This American government . . . has not the vitality and force of a single living man” and “[The American government] does not keep the country free. It does not settle the West. It does not educate [emphasis original],” it’s hard not to think of the stories my remedial Composition students have told me about complacent English teachers in their pasts, and we discuss whether or not the current American government educates and how much vitality it seems to have to invest in the cause of keeping the country, or its citizens, free. In my students’ experiences and those of their peers, is the public-school system more invested in dismantling the school-to-prison pipeline, or constructing it?

This leads to a final source of contextual novelty for “Civil Disobedience”: race. Thoreau exhorts his readers to be jailed if necessary before they contribute their poll taxes to a government that, in his view, wishes to use tax money to conduct the Mexican War and thereby spread slavery. His experiment in civil disobedience occurred in the inevitable context of his status as a Harvard-educated white male, and he spent one night in jail. Imagining for a moment that black men had the option of paying poll taxes in 1849, how would Thoreau’s experiment have been received at the time if he had been black? What laws and legal practices today are immoral, and what happens to those who resist them?

Three quotes from “Civil Disobedience” that have been particularly relevant to my students’ discussions of law, morality, and the relationship between police and citizens:

•  “It is not desirable to cultivate a respect for the law, so much as for the right.”
•  “A very few, as heroes, patriots, martyrs, reformers in the great sense, and men, serve the state with their consciences . . . and so necessarily resist it for the most part; and they are commonly treated as enemies by it.”
•  “Let your life be a counter friction to stop the machine.”

Before reading Thoreau, my students write an essay about an event in their own lives that changed who they are, and I’ve learned from these essays that the contexts of many of my students’ lives are very different from my own. I don’t pretend for a minute that bringing “Civil Disobedience” to their attention is a form of letting my life be “a counter friction to stop the machine” of social inequity that characterizes some of their lives. But as a teacher, using “Civil Disobedience” in the context of a classroom mostly filled by people whose lives somehow demonstrate civil society’s disobedience or betrayal of the social contract has proven valuable. Pedagogically, it’s exciting to see students respond passionately to an essay they had no intention of having a meaningful encounter with and discover its connections to the contemporary world. Personally, I would love for it to have the potential to help, in Thoreau’s words, “prepare the way for a still more perfect and glorious State, which also I have imagined, but not yet anywhere seen.”


Estes photoMichael Estes teaches English in Louisville, Kentucky, in the company of his wife and two daughters. His poetry has appeared in Boulevard, RHINO, The Potomac Review, and elsewhere.