Assay@NFN15: The Beasts Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating the Animal World

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Panelists: Kirk Wisland, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Elena Passarello, Steve Church

By Jen Palmares Meadow

All literary conference attendees who work in the field should keep a field journal. In it they ought to record every panel they attend. No matter what kind of literary beasts they might be studying—whether they be poets, novelists, or essayists—their journals contain the study on which much of their work might be improved. The following are my NonfictionNOW field notes from the panel “The Beasts Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating the Animal World”.


Conference: NonfictioNOW

“The Beast Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating the Animal World”

Panelists: Kirk Wisland, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Elena Passarello, Steve Church

Date: 30 October 2015, 10:45-12:00PM

Location: Flagstaff, Arizona, High Country Conference Center, Humphrey’s Theater

Steve Church opened the panel by warning the crowd, “This panel is not pumpkin spiced, but it should be fun.” He read an excerpt from “Seven Fathoms Down,” an essay included in his collection, Ultrasonic. Did you know that noodling is fishing for catfish with your hands? He also read an unsettling piece about consequence.

Kirk Wisland read, “What the Hawk Needs”, an essay concerning a red tail hawk caught an apartment sliding door, and other “instances of perforation.”

  • What good can come from the shattered glass?
  • Dear Neighbor, Be warned. There may be a hawk in your apartment.
  • Dear Hawk, Be warned. There may be a window in your sky.

Alison Hawthorne Deming read from the introduction to her book, Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit. She asks, “What are we interrogating when we are writing about the animal kingdom?” and discussed what it means to be a human at this particular time, during the “incomprehensible diminishment of animals.”

  • “We owe our lives to the animal kingdom. We owe them our care and attention.”
  • “Animals are the core of what we are as creatures, sharing a biological world and inhabiting our inner lives, though most days they feel peripheral.”

Elena Passarello read from her in-progress collection, Animals Strike Curious Poses, in which each chapter is named after an animal of historical record, including: Dolly the Clone, and (hopefully) a robotic bee.

  • Arabella, a spider was the first female in space
  • Sackerson, the baited bear made famous by Shakespeare


  • Is it uncouth to personify animals?
  • Once you start writing about animals, they start showing up everywhere.
  • Affection for animals is what sends me to the library.

Audience Question: What are the risks of speaking from the perspective of the animal?

  • Deming: Because we have no idea what animals are thinking or feeling, it’s really easy to get wrong. “It’s important we don’t misrepresent animals to serve us—we’ve done that,” and also, it can be construed as offensive to people’s oral traditions, people who have the right to speak from these animals.
  • Wisland: I teach a class on sustainability, so anything that get kids interested…I think the hawk gets a pass.
  • Steve Church: The Normal School once published a story entirely from the perspective of a bridge. It can be done.

Audience Question: How do you avoid sentimentality when writing about pets?

  • Deming: If you feel like you’re getting cheesy and sentimental, turn to science.
  • Passarello: I posted an essay on Twitter, entitled, “My Cat Sharky”, and I lost ten followers.

Works Referenced During Panel:

  • “What is it like to be a bat?” by Thomas Nagel
  • “Ordinary Wolves” by Seth Kantner
  • “Dog Tags”
  • “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey”, by Christopher Smart


Jen Palmares Meadows writes from northern California. Her work has appeared in Brevity, The Rumpus, Denver Quarterly, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Memoir Journal, Kartika Review, Essay Daily, and in other places. She is currently at work on a collection of Vegas stories, where she writes about sex, gambling, and church, not necessarily in that order, but sometimes all at once.

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Jen Palmares Meadows for an incredible job live tweeting during the NonfictioNOW Conference. Search the hashtag #NFNOW15 to see conference tweets, and follow Jen at @jpalmeadows.

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