Assay@NFN15: “Beyond Scaffolding: Constructing an Essay Collection”

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John Proctor, Jennifer Bowen Hicks, Amy Butcher, Jericho Parms

How to navigate the publishing world while still honoring the essay form, or taking Didion’s “bits of the mind’s string, too short to use” and how to combine them into a whole. Questions the panel considered:

  1. What are the formal differences between an essay, a book, and a book of essays (both from the writer’s and reader’s POVs)?
  2. How to navigate present tense when collecting pieces/moments from many different times.
  3. Great essay collections as exemplars
  4. The role of surprise and discovery in writing the essay, and how we mediate or preserve that when arranging/documenting into a longer collection.

[Each panelist spoke briefly, then the panel turned into more of a conversation/roundtable, and conversation with the audience]

Jericho Parms: she loves the freedom of the essay, how it allows ideas to stand along, extracting meaning from a group of disparate thoughts or moments. She was buying a house while arranging her first essay collection, and so uses the metaphor of a house: an investment in something larger, taking ownership of the whole. She took inventory of what she had in the individual essays, and then used the example of other essay collections and mentors’ advice to help shape the collection.

Jennifer Bowen Hicks: she sees her role on the panel as the apologist, talked about her struggle, and the impossibility of compiling a manuscript out of individual essays. But she says that the individual essays sometimes tell you what the collection needs – where are the blank spaces around and between the essays? the negative capability?

John Proctor: started off writing short pieces that took no longer than 1 minute to read, and posted one per day on his blog. He then wrote longer pieces out of these disparate smaller pieces, which he felt represented a fractured sense of self. He uses the metaphor of trying to build a wall out of ill-fitting stones.

Amy Butcher: to keep the metaphor going, she considers the collection as a house, but it’s on fire, and she’s wondering if the burning is part of the house. Her approach is more troubleshooting than a how-to – she thought about what makes for a bad essay collection. She referenced an online essay “Why Do Essay Collection Books Suck?” and its comment thread. The comments named lack of story arc, pieces not written to go together, intros/explanations/hand-holding that try too hard to tell the reader how it all goes together, collections that keep trying to relate everything to one central obsession/metaphor/image/idea even when the material takes place over 10 years or more.

How Butcher tries to avoid these pitfalls is by asking, what am I trying to say? how do I keep from saying the same thing repeatedly? How can I put these essays together in a way that’s meaningful? To return to the house metaphor, how does each essay help hold the roof up?

[Panel then turns into roundtable discussion with audience input.]

JohnP: How do you negotiate writing as experience versus writing as documentation? How do you include both in a collection?

JBH: Narrative crafts itself in surprising ways when you’re not trying to write long form (like memoir).

AB: It’s difficult to sell an essay collection (though I don’t want to obsess about marketing).

JerP: In Brevity, Rebecca McClanahan had a piece called “The Forest and the Trees” on the difference between a collection of essays versus a book of essays, where she considers them as different things entirely, that changed my understanding.

Audience comment from Heidi Czerwiec: it might be useful or helpful to consider theories of ordering poetry books, since they also deal with individual pieces arranged into a larger order – Susan Grimm’s Ordering the Storm contains several theories of how to order poetry books, and Katrina Vandenberg had a great essay in Poets & Writers on how to order a poetry book based on how to make a mixtape, a la High Fidelity. JerP responded that she often looked to poetry books for ideas on ordering.

Audience comment from Robin Hemley: there’s greater importance on the organizing principle, especially on the title of the collection, and how it works as a rubric for how to read the essays together.


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing in Angle,Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal.  She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.


  1. Hi there, I’d said I’d cover the Entropy panel. I’m attaching my report, hoping that this is the right place to send it. Please confirm that it is, or if not, could you please let me know where to send. Thanks, Linda Michel-Cassidy


  2. Nevermind. I found the email and sent it properly.

    On Fri, Oct 30, 2015 at 1:18 PM, Linda Michel-Cassidy wrote:

    > Hi there, > I’d said I’d cover the Entropy panel. I’m attaching my report, hoping that > this is the right place to send it. Please confirm that it is, or if not, > could you please let me know where to send. > Thanks, > Linda Michel-Cassidy > > On Fri, Oct 30, 2015 at 7:25 AM, Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies <


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