NFN18: “Hurdles and Epiphanies on the Way to Finishing a Work of Creative Nonfiction presented by the Whiting Foundation”

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Moderator: Elena Passarello. Panelists: Brian Blanchfield, Sarah Broom, Francisco Cantú, & Gretel Ehrlich

Passarello opened the session by introducing the panelists, all recipients of Whiting Foundation grants, and then moved on to specific questions for the panelists.

Q: Are you currently in the midst of some current large nonfiction project? Tell us about that project and its trajectory.

Cantú’s first book, The Line Becomes a River, was published in February, 2018. “There’s a huge abyss you’re presented with after you finish a book project,” he told the audience. The Whiting award as well as other grants and awards are helping him move forward with other book projects, including one about mass incarceration.

Ehrlich is in the “swampy middle of a long nonfiction book—an ‘anti-memoir.’” As she pushes through this large project, she can’t help but notice that she is surrounded by piles of paper and books and that often, the wind blows her notes around. “Words have nothing on the power of wind,” she laughed. Her advice to other writers is to “keep writing and figure out what it means later. Don’t be afraid of the mess; the mess is the manure that helps the vegetables grow. The piece will tell you later what it wants to be.”

Blanchfield is working on two day book projects. One has its foundation in James Schuyler’s work. It is a personal almanac of a place which incorporates observations of the outdoors with bits of very local news interworven. The other is a day book that he started in Iowa City where he taught in 2017. He is inspired by Baldwin’s longer essays and exploring where individual life connects with culture.

Broom started writing The Yellow House in 2001 and finished edits on it very recently. The book will be published in July 2019. She confessed she is just “learning how to let go of the project.”

Q: What’s the moment when you realize this is a book-length project?

Cantú thought at first that his book was an essay. But he continued to research various aspects and, as he showed the text to others, they encouraged him to write a book. An editor he worked with encouraged him to continue his research and to weave his personal story together with research. “The essaying mind wants to interrogate something and then all of these shards fall off onto the side, and then you have see if each is worthy of their own interrogation,” he shared.

Ehrlich shared a story of when she lost everything in the early 90s and got an opportunity to go to Greenland to write an article. She knew she had a book after traveling with a couple who took her under their wing and helped her travel around the country. As she met more and more people and immersed herself in the culture of the place, she wanted to write a book.

Q: Can you describe moments when you got stuck and then moments when you got unstuck?

Blanchfield was stuck with his Proxies manuscript. In the middle of the project, he realized he wanted to say what he knew from his different subject positions (son of father, displaced adjunct)—and write from all of those spaces. These analyses became Proxies.

Broom acknowledged the murky middle as the space where “you badly want to leave, but you have to stay. Part of it is you’re so deep in it, you can’t see the beginning anymore AND it would cost too much to abandon it.” She used two exercises to help her write past her “stuck” moments: the first was to list every day all the things she did to finally get to the page—a “revving up” exercise. The second was to visit different artist spaces and do something physical. Her community of fellow artists helped her get past this middle space.

Cantú had to give himself “permission to be slow.” He also made the move to jettison things that did not help him write, including community activities. “There’s so much shame when we confront the middle thing—when it’s time to write instead of re-arranging quotes and research.”

Panelists shared advice to close out a book project, including personal (and sometimes editor-imposed) deadlines, and a “finishing task” such as an opportunity to correct some of the previous research or to add some new information.

For more information about The Whiting Foundation, visit


Stacy Murison is a contributing editor at Assay.

Visit Assay’s Fall 2018 issue for more!

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