Edited by Marcia Aldrich, Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women is now available from the University of Georgia Press. At Assay, we were delighted to have the opportunity to ask Aldrich questions about the anthology.
Waveform has a Wednesday reading at KramerBooks in D.C. and a Saturday panel as part of #AWP17. Learn more, here.
Marcia, thank you so much for agreeing to be interviewed for our “In the Classroom” series at Assay. Congratulations on the publication of Waveform: Twenty-First-Century Essays by Women (University of Georgia Press).
The essay selections in Waveform have diverse and surprising forms. It’s a contemporary anthology, in the best sense of our current moment, and it’s long past time that we have a contemporary creative nonfiction anthology filled with essays by women writers. Gender is not a theme, per se, though all the essays included are written by women and, as such, feminism is very much part of the project. The essays have such a wide-ranging take on multiple topics that I see the anthology working for courses from Composition to Creative Nonfiction Writing to Literature. You’ve built an accessible blog to assist teachers who use the book in the classroom, and I imagine contributors, including yourself, would be happy to Skype into courses.
Question from Assay (Renée E. D’Aoust): Is there an ideal course that you envision for this anthology? Multiple courses? (As a follow-up, I don’t want to imply that the book is only for the classroom, because it is also a super read.)
Answer from Marcia Aldrich:
I am a fan of miscellanies and collections, those books that can’t be reduced to a theme. I always read The Best American Essays with pleasure because I can dip into the idiosyncratic mind and style of one essayist and then move onto another. Waveform provides those kinds of pleasures and surprises for the general reader of essays. Built into the anthology is the idea of classroom use. The book’s place in the classroom has been in my thinking from the book’s inception. Waveform grew out of my being a writer in the field, an editor impressed by the growing achievement of women essayists, and as a teacher who designed nonfiction writing courses. From all those positions, I became aware of an omission, a lack, an absence, if you will, of an anthology of contemporary women essayists that reflected the range and depth of the writing women were publishing. I had conversations with other women writers about the frustration we felt at the limited presence of diverse women in the collections we were using in the classroom—for example The Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction. Despite loving the selections, it fell short in offering us sufficient diversity for the contemporary classroom.
At Michigan State University, if Waveform had been available, I would have used it in many of the classes I taught. I teach different levels of creative nonfiction workshops and I include a range of reading materials to accompany our own writing. The give and take between reading and writing is an essential component to the way I teach. Waveform offers examples of the types of essays being written today—it covers the spectrum from flash essays, lyric essays, list essays, found material being shaped into essays, narrative essays, memoir essays, epistolary essays, immersive essays, speculative essays. The formal innovation is a gold mine for the nonfiction classroom. The wide range of style and subject was carefully curated to offer students an introduction to the multiplicity of forms the essay is taking. Most students enter the nonfiction classroom with a narrow idea of what the essay is based on the kinds of composition courses they had in high school or freshman writing classes. They are genuinely surprised, and happily so, to find the essay to be a site of invention and personal expression.
I’ve taught literature classes focusing on contemporary nonfiction under the rubrics of Women and Literature, Readings in Nonfiction, Special Topic: The Essay and so on. In my teaching rotation, I move between reading courses and writing courses built around different topics in the field of nonfiction and in each case Waveform was the book I was missing. I created the book I wanted to read, the book I needed to exist for the purposes of filling out the creative nonfiction landscape, and the book I needed in the classroom. I didn’t imagine one ideal course where Waveform would best fit. I imagined Waveform as filling the gap that exists in any number of different kinds of courses in which contemporary nonfiction is being studied and written.
Question from Assay (Renée): There is a Waveform panel coming up at the 2017 AWP conference in D.C., and I’d love to have Jocelyn Bartkevicius, a panelist and contributor to Waveform, answer the following question. But, first, a little background.
I first learned about Waveform when I attended your panel introducing it at the 2015 NFNOW conference in Flagstaff, Arizona. That panel was called (and asked the question), “Is This the Golden Age for Women Essayists?” From the audience, during the q&a, Jen Palmares Meadows, who has contributed to Assay, asked “What, if anything, do your publications do to seek out or include women of color essayists in your publication, and was/is it enough?” You, Marcia, answered that you worked very hard to include diverse voices in the anthology. Brenda Miller was on that NFNOW panel and said she felt she had not done enough to include diverse voices during her time as editor of The Bellingham Review. There was a general consensus that more work needed to be done. There was a discussion about the need for women of color to submit to journals, but less about the advocacy editors must do. So we have the AWP panel coming up, and both you and Jocelyn Bartkevicius are on the AWP panel. (Jocelyn’s fantastic essay, “Gun Shy” is included in Waveform).
You were each in previous positions of power at literary magazines, Fourth Genre and The Florida Review, respectively, and now you’re not. So how do you see your work advocating for women of color changing with this anthology and the forthcoming panel? What can this anthology—and those like it—do, that cannot by done by literary journals? And since we’ll have Jocelyn Bartkevicius answer this question, she is welcome to tailor the answer to the upcoming AWP panel.
Answer from Marcia Aldrich:
This is mainly Jocelyn’s to answer, but I’d like to say something as well.
As editor of Fourth Genre, I built issues from the submissions that came in the mail. I was reluctant to depart from that tradition by aggressively recruiting essays. It was a depressing fact that Fourth Genre did not receive many submissions from writers of color, male or female. This was troubling and I became cognizant of the need to rectify the imbalance.
As the editor of Waveform my role was different and I had the opportunity to create a more balanced portrait. I felt a responsibility to construct an anthology that wasn’t just stylistically diverse but included a more representative range of voices. I was adamant about delivering on the promises of diversity and in Lisa Bayer, the director of the University of Georgia Press, I found someone who shared that commitment. In the case of Waveform, I actively recruited essays.
Answer from Jocelyn Bartkevicius:
When I was editor of The Florida Review, with some regrets, I upheld the long tradition of considering work that was sent to us, rather than reaching out to writers to submit work. There was one exception: Sometimes, if I was at AWP or another conference, and I heard a compelling talk, one that worked as an essay as well as a more standard conference paper, I would ask the writer if I could have it for TFR. In that way, one two or three occasions, I was able to add some more diverse voices to an upcoming issue.
Reading over-the-transom submissions, the ethnicity of the writer wasn’t always evident. For example, one of the essays that was a finalist in our annual contest was about politics, being part of the team that traveled in advance of the President of the USA on his international trips. It was a brilliant essay. Only near the end did the writer reveal that she was a black woman. Her essay is still one of my favorites that we’ve published.
As for Waveform, I think Marcia did an excellent job of reaching out to women of color and LGBT women. The voices, topics, and forms of the essays in the book are compelling in themselves, and also reveal the complexity and diversity of women’s esthetics and concerns. My MFA students are about to discuss the book in a graduate class on craft, and I’m looking forward to their responses.
When I pitched the panel to AWP, I emphasized something that Marcia points out in her writing about the book: That in her New York Times piece on whether or not this is a golden age for women essayists, Cheryl Strayed, while answering yes, qualified that yes. Writing by women–of all ethnicities and gender identities–are underrepresented (as Marcia has reported).
My proposal emphasizes what I call the literary fallout from that paradox–getting published more than ever in literary journals, but then not reprinted in Best American Essays. So women get read, but as is the nature of literary journals, those pieces are in a sense, just a flash in the pan. Read and then recycled. I promised that our panel would explore the complications of that resulting invisibility.
There’s another angle that some of us on the panel will consider. Most of us wrote the essays included in the anthology expressly for that anthology. My contribution, “Gun Shy,” is one such example. I’d never consciously written an essay “as a woman.” That is, of course I’m a woman writing, but I’ve never thought about the ways I was creating a gendered self in my voice or style or choice of topic. So, on the panel we’ll reflect a bit on how our work is affected when we are specifically asked to write as women, and whether identifying as a woman–putting our work out there as women’s writing–is tricky, even maybe dangerous.
One aspect of the panel proposal that is invisible in the conference schedule, is the way I argued that a panel on women’s voices would be essential in Post-Inauguration Washington, DC. When proposals were due, Trump had just accused Hillary Clinton of “playing the women’s card,” and she’d taken that attack and turned it into a call for action. She listed all the issues important to women, and said, “If that’s playing the women’s card, deal me in.” In my proposal, I said that the talk of the town in DC during AWP’s conference was going to be the impact of having our first woman president, or–and at the time I thought this was a longshot–how playing the women’s card meant women would be silenced once again.
Last week, I attended the Women’s March on Washington and discovered that I was right and wrong in that proposal. The new administration strikes me as one that is working hard to destroy rights that women have fought for over the last few decades. I actually read a Facebook post I found not just offensive, but terrifying, written by a man in in my town whom I’d thought was just an ordinary Republican. He said that electing Trump was going to allow us to deport all the “brown women” [his term] because now we’d get the white women out of the board room and back into the bedroom where they belonged. At the Women’s March, hundreds of thousands of us spoke out and resisted. We screamed resistance. So here’s another paradox for our AWP panel to consider: As the elected officials erode our rights, and hack away at free speech, will women’s voices become silenced or louder? And how will we, as women of all races, ethnicities, gender identities, and political priorities, join together to make sure the voices that are heard are multiphonic.
Question from Assay (Renée):
Back to Waveform, specifically. Many of the essays are thought-provoking and heart-wrenching, and I would like to highlight Torrey Peters’s memorial to trans people killed around the world in “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay.” Peters created the essay from a document that listed all the deaths of transgender people from 2013 to 2014, which is why it is called a “found” form. I wondered how you found this particular essay—how it came to your attention.
Answer from Marcia Aldrich:
I discovered Torrey Peters’s essay “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay” in Brevity’s special issue on gender, published in May 2015. This was one of the first times Brevity devoted an issue to a special topic with guest editors and I had been looking forward to its arrival. I found Torrey’s essay to be the standout of the issue. It did not escape my notice that the essay fell way outside Brevity’s word limit which suggested the editors believed sufficiently in the work to waive the word length requirements. There are several things to say about this essay and why I selected it. First I had been following Torrey’s evolution as a person and a writer. When Torrey was David and a graduate student in Iowa’s Nonfiction Graduate program, he had submitted the essay, “The Dressing Room” to Fourth Genre in my first year as its editor. The interns and I had collectively been reading submissions for weeks and were disappointed in the quality. And then “The Dressing Room” arrived. I remember one of the interns shrieking as he was reading the essay: “Yes, yes, this is it. This is what we’ve been looking for.” We passed the essay from one to another, reading with genuine excitement. It was the first submission we all agreed was a clear acceptance and an example of the kind of essay we were hoping to receive. For the rest of the submission period, we compared every other essay to “The Dressing Room,” which may have been unfair, but it was our way of asking whether this essay deserved to be published alongside the essay we all considered exemplary.
So when I saw Torrey had contributed an essay to the special issue, I was excited to read it. “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay” couldn’t be more different than “The Dressing Room” except that they are both searing and brilliant. Perhaps my training in poetry makes me especially appreciative of “the found” in art, that is the way art can take found materials and shape them in such a way that their inherent power is revealed. I’ve taught Torrey’s essay twice, both in introductory level nonfiction writing classes, and in both instances students chose it as their favorite essay read in the semester. The student presentations on this essay were both outstanding, followed up by the best discussions we had in either class about the relationship between form and content. Why does this form work so powerfully to memorialize and haunt readers?
I am particularly happy to have two mini essays about “Transgender Day of Remembrance: A Found Essay” on the Waveform blog, one by Torrey herself who speaks candidly about how she feels about the essay now and a reader response by one of the students who “taught” the essay to our introduction to creative nonfiction class in the fall of 2015. These materials on Torrey’s essay were just what I envisioned including when I had the idea to create a blog that might be a teaching resource.
Question from Assay (Renée):
There is an excellent interview conducted by Zoë Bossiere (with you) about Waveform at Essay Daily, and I’d like to direct readers to that interview (see link below), if they haven’t seen it yet. I’m also mindful that there’s no need to repeat what you cover in that thorough interview. But I would like to follow up on one of your answers. You note that in Waveform you “wanted to depart from a thematic or subject driven approach and instead highlight the way writers interact with subject through elements such as style, voice, tone, and structure, and allow the subjects to fall where they fall.” Along these lines, what effect do you hope Waveform has on the genre, on the way women write nonfiction?
Answer from Marcia Aldrich:
This is the most difficult question you have posed to answer concisely. Historically women writers have struggled with cultural tendencies to pigeon-hole their work along thematic lines. Modernist poets like Louise Bogan and Edna St. Vincent Millay, for example, chafed against labeling them as poets who wrote about love. While both poets did write about love, this characterization reduced their accomplishments and pushed them into the sentimental or domestic tradition of women’s writing rather than placing them in the modern poetry stream. There is a place for the thematically organized collection and I have used them in the classroom–often students come to read women’s writing through a thematic lens. In 1996 Wendy Martin edited The Beacon Book of Essays by Contemporary American Women. I happened to have an essay included in the book under the heading Essays on Self-Identity. It’s a wonderful collection and historically important but Martin had a different intention than I had with Waveform. Martin was interested in the essay as a map of the territory of women’s lives in the second half of the twentieth century. She was much more attuned to the experiences represented than the form or development of the essay itself. Twenty years later, I wondered what would happen if I put together a collection of women’s essays that weren’t packaged thematically and weren’t chosen because of their thematic content. It’s quite freeing to not assemble a book of essays based on content and not have to select material based on a principle of thematic coherency. It almost feels as if it is a subversive act.
I remember working with Charlie Altieri, a modern poetry scholar, in graduate school in an independent study where I read various theorists and the assignment was this: what does this method of analysis make possible in your reading of this poem and what doesn’t it make possible. He was interested in my discovering how different ways of reading literature are made possible through different methodologies. With a thematically organized collection, the reader immerses herself in how different writers approach a common theme, all the while deepening her overall experience of the theme. A worthwhile experience: coming at a theme from a variety of angles and voices. The theme provides a scaffolding.
On the other hand, if you take away the thematic organizing principle, I asked what do you get instead? In a sense, you take away a crutch. You must discover what the essay is concerned with—you must be more active in figuring out how the essay works. And by interacting more actively with the essay, you immerse yourself more in the form of the essay to discover its content.
I’ve reversed the ways of reading by depriving the reader a thematic hook or guidepost. They’re on their own to grapple with the essays. This grappling mirrors my own experience of reading essays in the last twenty years. The essay landscape has been broken wide open in the last twenty years; it has moved away from being predominantly a narrative or persuasive form and embraced wholesale innovation and unpredictability. Perhaps it was never an easy matter to say what an essay was or define how it operated, but today what we call an essay is a multi-splendored thing.
I don’t have an aesthetic agenda to push with Waveform—I’m not championing the lyric essay, for example, over the narrative essay or pitting one school of thought over another. Perhaps the book reflects my own mobility as a writer and teacher—to write and read all over the essay spectrum from flash to lyric to classic meditative forms. As a teacher, I offer my students a wide array of essay examples as well. I like to surprise myself; I like to be surprised. I’m hoping that in the great mix of the essays in Waveform, readers will find something to love, something that speaks to them and helps move them forward in their own lives and writing.
From Assay (Renée):
Thank you so much for your time—and for your long support of writers in our genre. We look forward to your panel and reading at #AWP17!
Useful links and further resources:
Find more information and to purchase Waveform from the University of Georgia Press, here.
Use Waveform in your courses. Teaching resources and much more information can be found at the Waveform site, here.
Read Aldrich’s excellent interview with Essay Daily, “Riding the Wave: Marcia Aldrich on Diversifying the CNF Anthology,” here.
The full list of contributors: Marcia Aldrich, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, Chelsea Biondolillo, Eula Biss, Barrie Jean Borich, Joy Castro, Meghan Daum, Jaquira Díaz, Laurie Lynn Drummond, Patricia Foster, Roxane Gay, Leslie Jamison, Margo Jefferson, Sonja Livingston, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Brenda Miller, Michele Morano, Kyoko Mori, Bich Minh Nguyen, Adriana Paramo, Jericho Parms, Torrey Peters, Kristen Radtke, Wendy Rawlings, Cheryl Strayed, Dana Tommasino, Sarah Valentine, Neela Vaswani, Nicole Walker, Amy Wright.
Marcia Aldrich is a professor of English at Michigan State University. She is the author of Girl Rearing: Memoir of a Girlhood Gone Astray and Companion to an Untold Story (Georgia), winner of the Association of Writers & Writing Programs Award for Creative Nonfiction. She is the former editor of the journal Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction.
Jocelyn Bartkevicius has received the Missouri Review Essay Award, The Annie Dillard Award in Creative Nonfiction, the Iowa Woman Essay Prize, the Vogel Scholarship in Nonfiction at Bread Loaf, and the 2016 John Guyon Literary Nonfiction Prize. Her work has appeared in anthologies and in such journals as The Hudson Review, The Missouri Review, The Bellingham Review, The Iowa Review, Fourth Genre, TriQuarterly, Crab Orchard Review, Gulf Coast, Bridges, and Sweet, and has been selected for the “notables” list in The Best American Essays. Her essay “Gun Shy” is included in Waveform: Twenty-First Century Essays by Women, edited by Marcia Aldrich. She is working on a memoir about the Lithuanian diaspora and secret mass deportations in Soviet Lithuania. She teaches in the MFA program at the University of Central Florida and is the former editor of The Florida Review.