AWP2015: Narrative Expectations in the Personal Essay

With about 180 people in the audience Bruce Ballenger, Professor of English, Boise State University author of Crafting Truth: Short Studies in Creative Nonfiction,discussed narrative theory in nonfiction in a talk he admitted “I am still working out.”  He discussed the scholar Rick Altman’s concept of ‘following’ a narrator, focusing on “Breaking Clean,” a Judy Blunt essay on childhood in the badass Missouri Breaks.  Nonfiction narrator must play by rules of reality, and the nonfiction narrator speaks for the author, Ballenger suggested.  A narrative arc in the personal essay is a line of thought in meditative sparks, he offered.  “When I am surprised by something I write, then the reader will be too,” he concluded.

Lad Tobin, English professor at Boston College, a Sun, Utne Reader contributorand author of Writing Relationships, spoke on the “art versus life binary” in nonfiction. Cheryl Strayed writes there is a “clear and bright line” between fiction and nonfiction but what about lengthy remembered dialogue? asked Tobin.  JoAnn Beard admits she invented words in remembered dialogue.  Meghan Daum calls it “the Joni Mitchell problem.” A persona is an illusion.  An essay succeeds in the intersection of real life event, and the author’s thinking about the event.  “I am not over it,” Strayed concluded, in her essay on her mother’s death, Tobin pointed out—almost as if presaging writing her book on the same topic.  “We need better language to talk about the line between fiction and nonfiction,” concluded Tobin.

David Giffels, assistant professor at the University of Akron, author of two major nonfiction books, including the essay collection Hard Way on Purpose, is a Grantland, Wall Street Journal and NPR contributor.  Halfway into his memoir his editor told him he did not have a narrative arc.  “I was shocked after 250 pages,” Giffels said, “I’m not that interesting!” In a panic, he switched publishers to Scribner, and the book opened up as “a collection of essays.  “I learn by fucking up and starting over,” said Giffels.  “The slimmest narrative can be a good essay,” he discovered in the process.  We care about “what an incident meant” to the narrator. He analyzed his own essay using a self-invented diagram he called the three pillars: Beginning, continuation, ending.  “In the space between the pillars is where an essay comes alive,” said Giffels.  In the essay, on looking for a used bowling shirt in an Akron thrift shop, Giffles showed how an ordinary shopping trip could expand to analyze the detritus of a failed city.

The q-and-a following the session did not solve nonfiction structure, but offered lots of points for teaching the essay’s narrative arc. A last second discussion focused on the new collage techniques of Lesley Jamison and Eula Biss, and Lad Tobin recommended a Robert Root how-to essay on ways of writing in collage. 


Ted Anton is professor of English at DePaul University and the author of The Longevity Seekers. Science, Business and the Fountain of Youth (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

Visit Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies to browse our recent issues (Fall 2014 and Spring 2015), explore our classroom resources, and to subscribe to the journal (it’s free!).

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