AWP2018: Towards Truth and Brevity: All About Creative Nonfiction Chapbooks

Panel Participants: Randon Billings Noble, Bernard Grant, BJ Hollars, Penny Guisinger

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Less is more.

All four panelists have published chapbooks of creative nonfiction prose—at least, they noted, that’s they’ve been told their slim book-like works are called. In their creator’s mind however, a chapbook typically begins as something else: A long essay. Linked micro essays. Prose poetry. Or some other thing in the land between short and book-length.

Two years ago, Randon Billings Noble didn’t know where to submit an unusual lyric essay when a poet friend suggested chapbook publishers. “I thought chapbooks were just for poets,” she admitted, until Red Bird offered to publish Devotional.

“Now I’m an evangelist for CNF chapbooks,” she said, which “can be a way of thinking about scope and structure, practice and process.” Even with chapbooks, size varies, she noted, from “micro-chap” (around eight pages) to a “shortie” (a novella-length collection, from 24 to 48 pages). A writer might produce a chapbook on purpose, especially as a way of getting at the core of a longer work, but chapbooks often emerge in ways that surprise even the author.

B.J. Hollars, whose CNF chapbook, In Defense of Monsters, likened its emergence to a sandbox, “a literal testing ground”. He talked of CNF chapbooks as a chance to either make a small thing bigger or a big thing smaller, a way “to play, test ideas, and connect with readers.” His forthcoming book, he said, would not exist if not for that chapbook, which represented “an opening to a conversation.”

Hollars urged writers not to regard chaps as “something less or invalid because of page or word count.” Rather, they are a craft challenge for writers, because chapbooks “ask each word to carry extra weight.” Echoing back to his sandbox metaphor, he noted that a chapbook might be “a place to play, and then ask yourself, ‘how much of the city is left to build?’ Sometimes one castle is all you need.”

When Bernard Grant was writing essays toward a possible future collection, he grew so curious about publishing, he decided to organize some linked flash essays into a chapbook submission. Now with two chapbooks published—Puzzle Pieces and Fly Back at Me—Grant explained that “for prose writers, chapbooks are excellent practice in assembling a book.”

Penny Guisinger published Postcards from Here: a memoir in vignettes with Vine Leaves Press, and still isn’t sure it’s a chapbook by definition, though certainly it is a slim book made up of flash pieces.

“We worry too much about what we call things—micro, flash, prose poem, vignette. To this day, I can’t tell you what a vignette is,” Guisinger said. “What we call things is a marketing decision. Writers sit down to make things, and if it ends up small, so be it.” Hollars agreed, “Let publishers figure out that out.”

Guisinger suggested that readers may love chapbooks because people generally “love tiny representations of big things,” likening it to viewing a small area of a cityscape built of Legos. “Writing small things is about communicating a big idea through a pinhole.”

She offered three tips for prospective CNF chapbook writers:

  • Pay attention to openings. Get right to it; no long taxiing down the runway.
  • Pay attention to endings. Paraphrasing Sam Shepard: Every ending should roll toward a new beginning.
  • Make sure you “hire the right verbs”.

Promoting chapbooks, all agreed, is a partnership between author and publisher, but it falls mainly on the writer. Hollars and Noble suggested banding together with other chapbook authors: pitch a round-up review of several chapbooks; do group readings organized by topic, geographic region, types of press, or other commonalities.

Hollars advised that before submitting to chapbook publishers, “Be sure your submission stands alone, that it’s not just a random assortment of your work.”

Noble added that the work comes before publishing decisions. “Write what you want to write; there’s probably a place for it. I wrote Devotional as a lyric essay and didn’t think chapbook until I didn’t know where to send it.”

Hollars also didn’t set out to author a chapbook. “Let the work lead and see what happens,” he noted. Chapbook publishers, he said, might also entertain possibilities that include art, mixed media, and other variables not possible in typical length books.

Noble’s experience with Devotional was a case in point. She had initial qualms about the proposed design, then saw how it dovetailed with what she submitted, which “felt more like an object than an essay, and Red Bird made it more like an art object.”

The collective “oooh” in the room when she held up the chapbook and it fanned out, confirmed the big power of small.

I was aware of creative nonfiction prose chapbooks already, but after hearing this presentation the first morning of AWP, and then walking the bookfair, it was surprising and encouraging to see so many publishers had them on offer.

Editor’s Note: see Julija Sukys’s “In Praise of Slim Volumes: Big Book, Big Evil” from Fall 2016.

Lisa Romeo is the author of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss (forthcoming from University of Nevada Press, May 2018). She teaches in the Bay Path University MFA program, and her short work is listed in Best American Essays 2016.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!


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