CFP: The Nonfiction of Social Justice

imageWriters: we have work to do.

This week in the wake of our election’s results, the Assay staff decided that while we would still like to have a focus on Best American Essays in our spring issue (to continue our celebration of BAE’s 30th anniversary), we would like to fill our pages with the nonfiction of social justice. We’re looking for full scholarly articles, we’re looking for informal analysis, we’re looking for pedagogy of all sorts, the incredible variety of forms that Assay likes best. We’re looking for the voices we need now, more than ever.

Who are the writers of color we need to read (and teach), now more than ever?

The LGBTQ writers we need, now more than ever?

The environmental writers, as we struggle against the future incarnations of the EPA? Who are the other voices about to be marginalized even further?

What are the particular texts, the individual essays, the full-length books? What lesson plans have you developed? Perhaps an explication of a nonfiction assignment? What did you read with your students this week when you tossed out your original plan?

Assay’s spring issue comes out in March, a few weeks after AWP in Washington, DC, which is a few weeks after Inauguration Day. In the face of feeling helpless and powerless, putting our words into the world to support each other is our best way of moving forward.

Our deadline is January 1, though we are actively reading now. You will find our submission guidelines here.

Please share this call widely with your colleagues and students.

Writers: We have work to do.

submit

Listicle: Punctuation & Grammar Essays that Entertain as well as Teach

Editor’s Note: thank you to all in the CW Pedagogy Forum who made suggestions for this list.

Jenna London on “The Nine Mile Wolves” by Rick Bass

The Nine Mile Wolves is an activism-driven work in which Rick Bass writes as an advocate for wolf reintroduction in the Nine Mile Valley of Montana. Bass intertwines scene, summary and reflection within the same passage or sentence, enabling the reader to gain the author’s perspective as well as to learn factual information regarding a controversial topic (which was near the height of its debate when the book was first published in 1992). Nature is represented as an entity that is both suppressed and empowered. Empowering aspects include the amount of time and resources dedicated to the survival of the wolf, and the amount of respect the narrator has for the animals. Wolves are a topic of great controversy. But attention—whether it is negative or positive—is an act of acknowledging the species, which is therefore an example of empowerment.

Bass’ book is clearly one of activism with an obvious agenda: the wolf is an important species and deserves to be saved. While Bass doesn’t search for ways in which the species is both suppressed and empowered, these examples are still evident. In at least one instance, Bass represents nature in both aspects in the same paragraph:

“We’re all following the wolf. To pretend anything else—to pretend that we are protecting the wolf for instance or managing him—is nonsense of the kind of immense proportions of which only our species is capable. We’re following the wolf. He’s returning to Montana after sixty years.” (4)

When Bass writes to pretend we are protecting the wolf, for instance, he is empowering the wolf. We’re all following the wolf: this phrase can be both empowering and suppressing—a group of people paying attention to one species is powerful. But again, Bass discusses following a species that wants to live away from humans, which is an act of suppression towards the environment. The above passage is also an example of honest and straightforward writing without the language being either overly sentimental or emotional.

This pack is of particular importance because it is the first to have a territory outside of protected land since the animals were almost extirpated in the early 1900s. Bass describes and analyzes the events, practices and mentalities that led to the near extinction of the American wolf. He writes:

This isn’t all the blind foul-up it appears to be. It’s just the way wolves and humans are, together. It’s like falling through a network of ropes, as if in a circus high-wire act—a slow tumble, bouncing from rope to rope, as if weaving, vertically, from top to bottom, with a lot of things being lost along the way, some wolves, some cows, some innocence… [30]

Nature’s suppression is equally recognizable. Wolf populations have been decimated to near extinction. The animals have been pushed out of their land, poisoned and shot. Even the efforts to re-stabilize wolf populations are an act of suppressing them: humans track, sedate, collar and observe these wild animals whose instincts drive them away from people.

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Wild animals are a rudimentary aspect of The Ninemile Wolves. However, domestic species—cows—are also represented. They are depicted as prey and as the reason humans shot and poisoned wolves. But it is wild nature that exists at the core of Bass’ book. From the first pages, the reader understands that the narrator is passionate about the topic:

“They say not to anthropomorphize—not to think of them as having feelings, not to think of them as being able to think—but late at night I like to imagine that they are killing: that another deer has gone down in a tangle of legs, tackled in deep snow; and that, once again, the wolves are feeding. That they have saved themselves, once again….” (3)

Interestingly, Bass is not actually giving human characteristics to wolves in the quote above. Instead he is using colorful language to describe the brutal reality of wolves on the hunt. In this instance, nature is not romanticized but is instead brutally honest: one creature in nature dies so that the other may live. At other times, though, Bass does seem to anthropomorphize wolves, which can also be perceived as glamorizing or romanticizing nature: “A train’s faint moan reaches us from the next valley, and I wonder what the wolves think of that—if they ever call back to it. Is it outlandish to think maybe that’s one of the things that drew them to this valley—that they were lonely, and like its sound?” [100] Bass gives human qualities to the wolves when he assumes that the animals have the same level of cognitive thought as humans. Specifically, he assumes wolves feel loneliness at all or in the same way a human may experience it. Here, nature’s role is to take on human characteristics. The wolves become lonely and the mountain valley prompts that loneliness.

Assuming the wolves can feel desire, however, does give them human characteristics. Again, Bass seems to be doing so to illustrate the intensity and ruggedness of wolves, which empowers nature (via the wolves). The structure of the reflection—a choppy sentence followed by a fragment and then a long sentence—matches the tone of the passage. The author is frantically trying to understand and protect the wolves. In the background portions, Bass presents scientific information regarding wolf anatomy and pack behavior. Reflection tucked between science adds an element of awareness or validity to the passage.

More often, as in the quote below, Bass takes a spiritual perspective of wolves:

“I like to think that after death, the wolves’ souls keep running, faster than ever, that they rise just to the tops of the trees, where they can get a better view. They glance back down at the person who has killed their life-body but nothing can hold them back, they’re off and running again, still traveling, flowing, like the northern lights.” [108]

Again, these ideas lean more to the romantic aspect of wild animals. Nature’s role here is to be immortalized and for the narrator to again illustrate his infatuation with these animals.

Most often, though, Bass provides scientific information in an understandable manner. In the following passage, Bass again uses a comparison to explain wolves, but he does so in a way that keeps the animal wild and does not glorify the life of a wolf.

Biologists speak with complete conviction of wolves having

“search images, and I visualize a seek-and-destroy mind-set reminiscent of submarine pilots, of computer grid coordinates flashing before the wolves’ minds’ eyes as they cast and weave through the woods, having somehow decided that day to go for a moose rather than a deer or elk, bypassing young deer huddled beneath fir trees, running right over the backs of snowshoe hares—focused only on that one missing search image.” [27]

Bass dispels the idea that wolves are frantic to kill, that they are unable to control what they eat and when they eat it. Bass does not anthropomorphize wolves. Instead, he explains the animals’ innate tendencies in a way that a non-biologist can understand. Nature is represented as simply an element in a machine, bound to itself by instinct.

Bass often inserts a few words of musing within passages of background by starting sentences with phrases like “it’s curious how…” “Of course it’s sad…” and “Never mind that…” These sentences serve to offset the background information with the narrator’s perspective. Bass also includes musing as sidebars in the middle of sentences. This technique serves to provide the narrator’s perspective and to push the reader to be in support of the topic.

Bass uses musing to transition from scene to background, as shown in the following example:

“ …The fifth toe on the front foot, the dewclaw, never touches the ground. Almost never, that is. Sometimes.

It’s hard, almost impossible to say how many wolves we’re following, but my mind won’t shut off, my instinct won’t and even though my logic tells me it’s an impossible task, the other part is still trying to sort it out…

They [the wolves] split and join, split and join, splicing the woods with desire….” (113)

The musing appears to be prompted by the author’s need to educate the reader. In this instance, musing sandwiched between background leads to author discovery and adds depth to the reader’s understanding. When an author uses musing for self-discovery, the reader, too, gains the discovery of an alternate perspective or non-obvious element. Again, this quote is a clear representation of nature writing. The musing serves as a transition from scientific background to a scene.

Most of all, though, The Ninemile Wolves is peppered with phrases and passages that deliver Bass’ most persistent message: wolves are awe-inspiring creatures. He writes: “It wasn’t enough that the Ninemile wolves had beaten the odds and survived, and had shunned livestock. It wasn’t enough to startle; they had to amaze.” (87) Nature’s role in this passage is to demonstrate the resilience of wild nature (wolves) and of the ability of it to not depend on either domesticated animals or on humans themselves. This quote neither anthropomorphizes nor glamorizes wolves. It simply shows another perspective of the human-animal dynamic: wolves amaze the author.

Editor’s Note: For the next issue of “In the Classroom,” we complete our three-part series by Jenna London. The next piece is about Terry Tempest Williams’s “Refuge,” and it would be particularly well paired in the classroom with the analysis on Rick Bass here. You can read Jenna’s piece “A Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks here.

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j_london_picJenna London lives and writes in upstate New York. She is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in E the Environmental Magazine, AMC Outdoors, Berkshire Living and others under her pre-marital surname of Kochmer.

Reading List: Essays that Define the Essay

The following is a list in response to a request for suggestions of “an essay, accessible to undergrads, defining the literary essay (not academic or comp/rhetoric).” Thanks to Dinty W. Moore and so many others who took part in this Facebook thread. If you have other suggestions, please leave a note, and I’ll add it to this list. (Of course, we were pretty excited to see suggestions from our pages, too!) Where possible I include a link to the piece.

Atwan, Robert. “Notes Towards the Definition of an Essay.”

Didion, Joan. “On Keeping a Notebook.”

https://www.penusa.org/sites/default/files/didion.pdf

Jessica Handler’s “Favorite Essay to Teach” about assigning Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” might be useful. Find it here.

Hampl, Patricia Hampl. “The Dark Art of Description.” (Indirectly defines the literary essay.)

–. “Memory and Imagination.”

Harvey, Steven and Ana Maria Spagna. “The Essay in Parts.”

Hoagland, Edward. “What I Think, What I Am.”

Lott, Brett Lott. “Toward a Definition.”

Ozick, Cynthia. “She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body.”

Sanders, Scott Russell. “The Singular First Person.”

Stuckey-French, Ned. “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing.” (Lots of suggestions to use this for undergrads and grad students. Some report greater success using this with higher-level undergrads & grad students.)

We’d love to see more essays that define the essay. Consider submitting one to Assay!

Jenna London on “A Shepherd’s Life” by James Rebanks

A Shepherd’s Life is a place-based memoir in which the author describes his life as a traditional shepherd in the Lakes District of Ireland in the 1990s and early 2000s. Through his vivid descriptions, reflections, explanations, historical background and scenes, James Rebanks implores the reader to re-evaluate preconceived notions about the shepherding lifestyle. Rebanks argues that the shepherd’s life is a choice and, for many, a calling. Rebanks provides personal, scientific and philosophical details dealing with nature—primarily farmland and sheep—that convinces the reader he is a reputable source. The Shepherd’s Life is divided into four main sections: Summer, Autumn, Winter and Spring. Rebanks could have just as easily separated the book into the major periods of his life. But instead, he uses the section titles to illustrate an intrinsic connection with nature. Rebanks’ general purpose is to inform the reader about this lifestyle that suffers from many stereotypes. In doing so, the author also portrays his deeply rooted sense of place and connection to the land. Rebanks does not use his memoir for self-discovery. Instead, he provides the reader with information he has already learned.

shepherdslife

On a personal level, Rebanks examines his relationship with his father. However, this theme is secondary to the larger picture of the book: the narrator loves life as a shepherd and wants to dispel misconceived notions about this profession. Rebanks gives the following description of the Lake District:

“For many it was a place of escape, where the rugged landscape and nature would stimulate feelings and sentiments that other places could not…But above all I would learn that our landscape changed the rest of the world. It is where the idea of all of us having a direct sense of ownership (regardless of property rights) of some places or things because they are beautiful or stimulating or just special was first put into words…. Arguments were formulated here that now shape conservation around the world.” [7]

Rebanks addresses how humans and the natural environment in a specific region are interconnected. The setting couldn’t simply be plopped someplace else without having a significant impact on the premise of the book. Rebanks states that the Lakes District is of ecological importance on an international level. In this manner, nature represents an ever-changing entity worthy of further exploration. Suggesting that the land prompts humans to feel something is empowering to nature, as is the notion that conservation principles have been formulated based on this geographic location. However, the idea of people having ownership over the land suppresses the environment.

Domestic animals—sheep—are a fundamental aspect of both the narrator’s identity and his livelihood. He demonstrates a largely symbiotic relationship with the livestock: people provide the animals with food and shelter. The sheep provide people with wool, sustenance and—perhaps most importantly—an identity and life’s purpose. Throughout the book, Rebanks provides the reader with an intimate view of a shepherd’s daily activities, thoughts, and mindset, as is evident when he describes an annual sheep sale.

“…But, as important [the sheep] goes to one of the top flocks, Turner Hall where he will be looked after and given a chance to breed with some of the best ewes. For weeks after the sales I miss seeing him each day, as if once I had a van Gogh on my wall and now it is gone.” [173]

Rebanks enables the reader to see how this lifestyle is a business with an emotional component. Most readers—whether they are interested in art or not—know who van Gogh is, and can understand the extent to which a piece of his artwork is cherished. Therefore, any reader could sympathize with the author, whether or not she can relate to having a similar relationship with an animal.

Throughout the book, Rebanks demonstrates a passion and admiration for the livestock without anthropomorphizing them. Rebanks’ overall tone is one of authority and confidence. While he reveals a great deal of admiration and respect for sheep, Rebanks seldom suggests the lifestyle is an easy or unflawed one. Instead, he provides a wealth of information about a little-known profession that requires a deep understanding of and dependence on the land. For example, he writes: “The best sheep have a sense of their specialness, and this ewe seems to know that she is one of the stars.” [168] Here—as is typical throughout his book—Rebanks regards sheep with respect and suggests they are a species capable of thoughts. But he does not suggest that sheep are capable of the same thought process humans have. Rebanks argues that the ancient life of shepherds is one of choice, not one of misfortune or poverty. Rebanks is not necessarily making this way of life out to be more glamorous than it actually is. But he does argue that this physically demanding livelihood is special and worth saving. Writing candidly, Rebanks easily convinces the reader that his convictions to farming are genuine.

He illustrates several generations of families to whom everything centers around sheep and the land, giving precedence to the needs of the animals before their own well-being. These actions are incredibly empowering to the environment. At the same time, however, the land and animals are manipulated to serve human’s needs. Nature is both empowered and suppressed in the following passage:

“Trimming sheep feet. Rescuing lambs from being stuck in fences. Mucking out the stalls. Trimming the muck from the tails of ewes and lambs. As you drive past, you wouldn’t notice them, but they add up over time. Landscapes like ours are the sum total and culmination of a millions little unseen jobs.” [55]

In this example the environment (via animals) is oppressed because it is controlled and manipulated by humans. Lambs are stuck in fences that wouldn’t exist if humans hadn’t put them there. Feet and tails trimmed for humans’ aesthetic wishes. But one could argue that those same tasks give the environment a sense of empowerment. In another passage, though, Rebanks mentions that dinner isn’t served until the animals have been cared for. The sheep are given priority over human’s needs, which is also empowering towards the animals.

The length of his individual musings range from a few words to entire paragraphs but average a sentence or two. Rebanks incorporates musing primarily within passages of scene and summary rather than writing passages that are exclusively musings. For example, he writes:

“Tough farms were not places to get rich, but they offered opportunities to those willing (or forced by necessity to take a chance)…If you had a big lowland dairy farm with good soil, you probably looked down your nose a bit at these farmers on marginal land. These tough farms are two months behind in the growing season…” [58]

This moment of reflection is in the “you” point of view and appears to be prompted by the need to define “tough farms.” The reflection serves to describe via comparison. Rebanks refers to a generic person in the shepherding community who is embedded in the lifestyle. Nature has multiple roles in this passage, including educating the non-familiar reader. But most interesting is how nature contradicts itself. It not only provides a humble livelihood (not places to get rich) but also represents a status symbol (if you had…you probably looked down your nose…). This nature-centric passage is another example of the concurrent suppression and empowerment of nature. Rebanks does not romanticize the life of a shepherd in this passage. Even the individuals “looking down their noses” are not depicted as having glamorous or “easy” lives. These aspects add depth to the story and represent how both the placement of musing and the musing itself are critical in molding a work of nature writing.

 

Editor’s Note: For the next three issues of “In the Classroom,” we’ll be sharing three pieces by Jenna London. You can read each one individually, or read all three together, for example, as a classroom assignment to support the reading of each book Jenna analyzes. Up next, Rick Bass’s “Nine Mile Wolves” and Terry Tempest Williams’s “Refuge.”

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j_london_picJenna London lives and writes in upstate New York. She is an MFA candidate at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Her work has appeared in E the Environmental Magazine, AMC Outdoors, Berkshire Living and others under her pre-marital surname of Kochmer.

Chauna Craig on James Alan McPherson’s “Umbilicus”

Editor’s Note: In light of recent events, Assay is working to fill its spring issue with work that focuses on social justice in nonfiction teaching, reading, writing, across all disciplines that claim nonfiction. All approaches to texts are welcome. Deadline: January 1st, but we are reading now. Please see our call here at Assay’s new Submittable Submission page.

We’re looking for work like this, which first ran in our “In the Classroom” series in 2015. We are proudly reposting it today.


 

Baltimore, 2015.  Los Angeles, 1992.  Detroit, 1967. Los Angeles (Watts neighborhood), 1965, etc. Race riots, urban revolts, rebellions, uprisings. Whatever the media calls the cycle of public eruptions of outrage over racial injustice in this country’s history, we live in a society where the history of racism continues to shape reactions and decisions, even seemingly small ones like whether to accept help when a car breaks down on the side of a road.

James Alan McPherson’s “Umbilicus” was one of my favorite essays to teach in 1998, when it was reprinted in that year’s Pushcart Prize anthology. Thoughtful, complex, vivid—it taught me. Seventeen years later the essay remains a model of nonfiction writing for how effectively it combines narrative and reflective meditation and demonstrates how personal experience is often weighted by larger cultural forces.

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James Alan McPherson

McPherson’s narrative begins in the late fall of his first year as a professor in Iowa when a friend urges him to get out and explore the countryside, to take a chance and expand beyond his careful circle of home and work. He does so, and his spirits are reawakened: “I began to reconsider the essential importance of risk to the enterprise of life.”

The story really begins when the casual touring ends. His car’s engine smoking on the side of the road, McPherson begins to walk for help. A pair of white men in a pickup truck offer a ride.

When I first read this essay, I thought immediately of James Byrd, Jr., who encountered white men in a pickup in Texas and didn’t survive the meeting. He was tied to the truck by a rope and dragged three and a half miles, his head severed somewhere on that road. What makes McPherson’s essay especially powerful is that Byrd was murdered the year after it was first published. McPherson couldn’t have drawn on that story while writing, as I did when reading. But he drew on everything his life had taught him to the point those men stopped their truck, and we see his mind wavering between the risk of trust and the history of distrust.

He writes,

“The two of them seemed to be laborers, or at least farmers. The gun rack stretched across the rear window took my memories back to the terror of that long road I had traveled to this place. There was the truck, the gun rack, the white faces, the road. But they did not have the oily Southern accent. I accepted their offer, and the passenger moved over and allowed me to take his seat.”

Soon, however, the men volunteer proof of their trustworthiness. They insist that they “like the colored.” When they discover that there are no tow trucks at the service station, they devise a plan to tow the car themselves:

“There’s a rope on the back of this truck.  We can drive on back and tie that rope to the front bumper of your car. Then we’ll just tow her on in to Cedar. You can pay us what you were gonna pay the tow truck, plus we’ll do it for less money.”

Though we have no concrete reason to suspect the men of ill intentions, they are not kind either. They expect to be paid. They expect gratitude for the bargain. Through dialogue and careful characterization, readers are led to identify with McPherson’s growing wariness.  No proof of malice, but no proof of benign intentions either.

The best essays reflect the world, not as we want it to be, but as we experience it. We rarely get incontrovertible evidence to support our hopes or fears. We make the best decisions we can in the moment, while all of our human bias, fears, hopes, risks, denials and confusion compete for consideration. “Umbilicus” embodies the drama of individual risk and retreat in the context of history. As darkness falls and McPherson grows desperate, he agrees to the white men’s plan. They tie his car to their truck, and they start driving. Roads that seemed fairly smooth before now feel foreboding as McPherson tries to steer a dead car, unable to see much, relying on the white men’s skills and care, his only remaining sense of control his brake pedal. He reflects on how “…the old life lessons came back. There has never been a life-affirming umbilicus between black and white.” The rope is no longer in his mind a lifeline, but a danger; the men are no longer rescuers but “two drunk white men” putting his life at risk.

McPherson admits that he acts from this “reduced frame of reference.” I had no trust left in me. He hits the brakes, sending both vehicles into the ditch, even as the rope, the umbilicus, holds. Though at the end of the essay he walks away, we realize that no one ever really walks away from a dead car or a broke-down Baltimore, or Los Angeles, or Detroit, etc. “Umbilicus” lingers in the reader’s mind, not only because the writing is sharp and vivid, but because it awakens our own (often secret) doubts about the rhetoric of race in this country.

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10679674_10205306037194106_650969032157442128_oChauna Craig’s essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Lime Hawk Review, Terrain.org and Superstition Review.  Her work has been honored as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, and she’s won fellowships to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Hedgebrook Writers Retreat.  She teaches at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

Becoming the Student: Jennie Case Reflects on the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writer’s Conference

This past summer, I prepared with some apprehension to attend the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writer’s Conference. “Apprehension” because although I had attended graduate school, where I relished the conversations I had with other emerging writers, Bread Loaf marked four years since my last experience as a student. I had continued to exchange work with a few colleagues, and I attended conferences like AWP and ASLE, but between caring for an infant, finishing my dissertation, adjuncting, and then teaching, the time I had as a writer was simply that: time to write. It was my opportunity to sit down with a notebook, a computer, or a draft, and to craft something, read a collection of essays, or respond to a friend’s work. Outside of that, I was always the instructor: leading discussions and guiding students to analyze the structure of a published piece or to recognize the potential in their own developing drafts.

Sending my work in for a workshop at Bread Loaf Orion, as a result, brought back with it a surprising anxiety. Suddenly, I recalled how I had always felt when submitting work for workshops as an undergrad or a graduate student: that nervous anticipation, the second-guessing as I wondered if this essay was really far enough along, and how this roomful of people I did not know would respond to it—would respond to me. The anxiety my students wore on their faces in my undergraduate classes, I suddenly felt again in my own body: the way I bit my tongue, the way I sometimes reread my work and saw in it potential, but sometimes reread it and cringed.

Thankfully, I had no reason to feel intimated. That first day of our workshop in Vermont, I found myself surrounded by writers, and although some of us taught, others worked for the EPA, or as environmental journalists, or ran small farms, or wrote environmental journalism. Many had a much more extensive scientific background than me. Yet, everyone had submitted thought-provoking essays that explored the human relationship to place from interesting, compelling angles. We read each other’s work carefully, and we gave thoughtful feedback. I was reminded, once more, what it was like to be in a community of readers. A community of people who care about writing, and language, and what that writing can reveal about the human place in the world.

Outside of class, I attended lectures on fieldwork and using writing to break silence. I woke early to go on bird walks, getting back to the main lodge just as the breakfast bell rang and I loaded my tray with fruit and a bowl of oatmeal. In the afternoons, I attended mindfulness meditation sessions, where the instructor discussed how to use meditation to make room for creativity. At each and every event, I sat quietly, my notebook open, my mind open, ready to receive.

JennieCase_BreadLoaf.jpg

What I will take with me the most from my experience at Bread Loaf, as a result, isn’t necessarily the feedback I got on that one essay, or the networking I did, but the reminder of how important it is to be a student: to find ways where I can step back, and simply listen to others and learn from them. To not try to be the authority, but to open myself to new perspectives and experiences—to go on a bird walk with birders far more experienced than me, and to sit in on a conversation with people who do something completely different from me for a living, to listen to lectures by accomplished writers and take rapid notes, to leave a workshop not thinking “I think that went well,” or “I believe I handled that part of the discussion effectively/ineffectively,” but with ideas and inspiration for my own work.

When I boarded the shuttle from Bread Loaf back to the Burlington airport at the end of the week, I did so with a satisfying exhaustion. The conversations and activities had been so engaging, I felt absolutely worn out. And yet, I also knew how necessary the opportunity was——and how rare. I will not be able to attend writing conferences like Bread Loaf every year. That simply isn’t an option right now for me and my family.

Yet I am reminded of the importance of becoming a student, not always the professor, and so I will make a point to seek out such opportunities, whether at future conferences down the road, at lectures hosted by my university, or at community events. They make me a better teacher, a better writer, and a better literary citizen. Placing myself in situations where I am not the expert reminds me what my students experience every day. And it reminds me how much there is to still learn from this world—and how joyful and challenging that learning experience can be.

Here is the reading list I gathered at the workshop:

Jane Brox’s The Wake of Silence (forthcoming 2018)

Belle Boggs’s The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood

David James Duncan’s River Teeth

Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams

J. Drew Lanham’s The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affairs with Nature

Kathleen Dean Moore’s Great Tide Rising

Claudia Rankin’s Citizen

For more information on the 2017 Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers’ Conference (and to apply), please click here and here. The 2017 conference runs from Saturday, June 3 – Friday, June 9, 2017. The conference will take place at the Bread Loaf Campus of Middlebury College in Ripton, Vermont.

Editor’s Note: Please also read Jennie Case’s “In the Classroom” contribution “A Nerve for Excellence: Teaching Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”

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Jennifer_CaseJennifer Case’s poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as Orion, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Zone 3, Split Rock Review, English Journal, Poet Lore, and Stone Canoe, where her work received the 2014 Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize in Fiction. She is the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org and teaches creative writing, professional writing, and composition at the University of Central Arkansas.

A Truly Gigantic Journey: Uncovering Leah Lax by Stacey Engels

Sitting on the chest of drawers in my bedroom is a simple collage I made over a quarter century ago, after getting my heart broken. The message it transmits is no longer one I want to reiterate to myself, but I have left this little creation out, within view, because I still love Kafka. And because, as a writer trying to fathom the mystery of my own existence, I have to look back to that young artist whose fears and desires shaped the life I have now.

Affixed to a square piece of poster board is a smaller square of yellowed paper; a quadrant showing the pointillist face of Kafka in four phases of dissolution. In the upper left corner is a complete image: wavy, parted hair, elfin ears, thick brows, otherworldly stare. In the lower right corner, the all-seeing eyes are rimmed with darkness. The right side of the face is all but gone and the left side is shadowed. There is a cluster of letters above the thick, black brows: L I T E R A L I T E R L I. As the tubercular-looking man fades, his legacy – the words he has left behind – grows.

truly-gigantic

Glued below this four-part portrait is a neat strip of paper on which I typed, in all caps:

THE JOURNEY IS SO LONG THAT I MUST STARVE TO DEATH IF I RECEIVE NOTHING ON THE WAY. NO PROVISION CAN SAVE ME. FOR HAPPILY IT IS A TRULY GIGANTIC JOURNEY.

This was my solution, at twenty-four: Just Write. That last, miraculous eight-word sentence – the headspinning unexpectedness of it, the discordant notes adding up to an indissoluble alloy of terror and joy – made me feel that writing was a religion to which I could happily sacrifice life.

Fifteen years after making that collage, I met Leah Lax at Yaddo. While some of us handled the free-time-bonanza that was a few weeks in an artists’ colony like addicts on a bender, disappearing into studios and interacting as little as possible with others, Leah was like an open water swimmer: at the end of the day, she stepped gracefully out of her creative flow, and you could tell she had covered distance. She was grateful to be among people, breaking bread, and she was grateful to return to her solitary work.

One afternoon, we went for a walk around the lake. We talked some about our lives and more about our projects: mine was a play based on the life and art of a Canadian painter, and Leah’s was a memoir about leaving her Hasidic community and beginning life as a secular lesbian. She had converted in her teens and her attraction to orthodox life had come, in part, from her desire to study holy written teachings, though of course her study was restricted because she was a woman.

Hearing her speak about the pull of the words themselves, about the world of light that opened out beyond the forest of little black symbols on the page, was to hear my own silent feelings given voice, even though my interest had only ever been in literature.

When, years later, we became friends on Facebook, I felt I could see Leah’s life story flowing by, a stream of photos and articles and videos and notes. In 2015, after ten years together and three months before gay marriage was legalized nationwide, Leah and her partner traveled from Texas to D.C. to tie the knot. Within months of this, her memoir was out in the world, and suddenly, Leah was uncovered: she and her book seemed to be everywhere.

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Part of the beauty of Uncovered is in how Leah conveys the love she felt for the rituals and language and the community in which she lived, while revealing her slow but neverending struggle to reconcile with her religion’s negation of the female. Throughout the book, she describes different experiences of mikvah, a ritual bath for purification after menstruation, communicating not just the details of an ancient and gynophobic ceremonial practice, but the solace and silence of women-only rituals.

From an early age, Leah’s secular life was infused with a love of art and music – her mother was a painter and Leah was a cellist. (She still plays.) We learn that disorder and mental illness in the home spawned her craving for a rigidly ordered life and witness the breaking away from her Law-governed life as complicated, frightening and often painful. Yet the recurring motif of ritual immersion crosses over seamlessly from her religious life to her artist’s life when she collaborates with photographer Janice Rubin on the groundbreaking Mikvah Project. In other ways, too, we see that art and the sacred have always been intertwined in Leah’s life.

A few pages into Uncovered, I found a line that reminded me how Leah and I had slid into such easy, heartfelt connection: “I would remain obsessed with grasping strange language for wordless things.” And toward the end, a description of her new belief system, which may explain the innumerable FB pictures of Leah smiling – at readings around the country, with Susan, with dog, with Dvorak piano quintet, with other writers: “Such a good, quiet joy rises in me, a profound sense of simple being, of presence… We are simply here. Now.”

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StaceyEngelsStacey Engels grew up in Montreal and has lived in New York City since 1995. As a playwright, she received grants from The Canada Council, NYFA and TCG-ITI and traveled to exotic locations like Sicily, Alaska and Bangor, Maine to attend readings and productions of her plays. A Hertog Fellow in the MFA Program in Memoir at Hunter College, Stacey is writing a book about walking the Camino de Santiago.

Read Stacey’s “In the Classroom” piece on Vivian Gornick’s book The Odd Woman and the City here.

 

Kyle Simonsen on My Favorite Essay to Teach: Susan Orlean’s “Meet the Shaggs”

Susan Orlean begins her essay “Meet the Shaggs” by noting that “depending on whom you ask, the Shaggs were either the best band of all time or the worst.” Unless you are asking my students. Then they are unanimously the worst.

I introduce my students to the band itself before I actually assign Susan Orlean’s essay. First, I play them a bit of the music: a twangy, off-key, discordant cacophony that many visibly react to. I ask them to write a short description of the music after they’ve listened to the song, threatening to play more if they stop writing. Then I show them the cover of the album, the three girls—Betty, Dorothy, and Helen Wiggin—posed on a dark stage with their instruments, and ask them to describe the imagery on the cover. They do so, and then I take volunteers to read their descriptions aloud.

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Some are more vicious than others, but they’re nearly universally disparaging and judgmental. One student called them “a trio of people who are as ill-clad as they are tone deaf,” whose earnest music sounds “like an electrified accordion taking a tumble down an escalator.” Another student wrote, “‘You can never please anybody in this world,’ they sing, which is true in the sense that you can never please anybody while playing them this awful, awful song.”

Then we read “Meet the Shaggs,” and we find that Susan Orlean, as part of her profile of the Shaggs, describes their music very differently. The judgments are still there, but they aren’t Orlean’s; instead, she quotes Frank Zappa and anonymous music critics from the Internet—the latter sounding much like the descriptions by my students. Instead, Orlean’s descriptions are, well, descriptive. She calls the music “winsome but raggedly discordant pop,” nailing down the genre, but also notes some potential influences: “the heptatonic, angular microtones of Chinese ya-yueh court music and the atonal note clusters of Ornette Coleman.” Yet she also manages to be conversational, writing that “something is sort of wrong with the tempo,” and wondering if “they are just a bunch of kids playing badly on cheap, out-of-tune guitars.”

What I like about an exercise like this one is that it focuses in on something essential about becoming a better writer: knowing what’s possible. In getting to compare the descriptions they write—first to each other’s, and then to Orlean’s—students get to see that the way they chose to describe it initially isn’t the only way, and that two very different descriptions can also both ring true.

Some of my savviest students have noted that the judgmental descriptions sometimes say more about the person doing the describing than the object they are describing, leading into discussions about tone, voice, and narrative persona—we know Orlean is smart, knowledgeable, and compassionate not because she tells us these things about herself, but because she demonstrates them in her descriptions of the music and her interactions with the members of the Shaggs as she interviews them for the essay.

Orlean’s knowledge, for instance, is evident in all the ways that she suggests the exhaustive research that informs the piece. She mentions her interview with the town historian from Fremont, New Hampshire, where the Shaggs grew up, and quotes from his book about the town. She hints at numerous interviews and conversations with music critics, local residents who knew the girls, and the Shaggs themselves. And yet all of this research fades into the background of the Shaggs’ origin story—I know this, because I see the sudden realization of the tangible legwork that went into the essay dawn on the faces of students as we comb through it.

The real reason this essay is my favorite one to teach, though, is Orlean’s compassion. I believe one of the greatest gifts of studying creative nonfiction is that it allows us to close the span between our lives and the lives of others, others who may be very different from us, to know them and understand them. This is important in memoir, of course, where the marginalized can tell their story in their own voice, but also in essays like “Meet the Shaggs,” where Orlean sheds light on the loneliness and suffering the Shaggs endured at the hands of their abusive father, telling their story and replacing our reaction of loathing with our capability for understanding—even if I doubt any of my students are listening to the Shaggs on their commutes home.

[Listen to “Philosophy of the World” by The Shaggs here.]

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kyleprofilephotoKyle Simonsen writes, edits, and parents two children from his home in Wahoo, Nebraska. He teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His writing also appears in Sidebrow, Opium Magazine, and Rain Taxi, among others.

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.

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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.