NFN18: “Essay As Ecosystem”

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Participants: Kate Lebo, Kathryn Nuernberger, Clinton Crockett Peters, Elissa Washuta, Maya Jewell Zeller

Just as members of an ecosystem move through it in ways that are sustainable, can writers work through various disparate rhetorical modes, connecting the political/scientific/historical/personal/etc. in ways that are ethical and sustainable?

Each panelist read a short work that illustrates what they mean:

Lebo – “Medlar” from The Book of Difficult Fruit, an abecedarian giving a lyric description and history of unusual fruits

Zeller – “Lower Columbia Watershed Haibun,” first 2 sections, about the poisoning of the watershed where she lives and the contamination of the local oyster industry

Peters – “The Miracle Vine,” about the history of the introduction of kudzu to the U.S. and the bio of a man who promoted its growth in Georgia

Washuta – “Incompressible Flow,” a piece that weaves together the language of a maritime engineering textbook with an account of a relationship with a boat-owning boyfriend gone bad

Nuernberger – “A Thin Blue Line,” which interweaves her personal history with the history of hot-air ballooning and the fairy tale “The Seven Swans”

Nuernberger then moderates a conversation by offering the panel questions:

Was there a particular subject that broke you out of a more specialized or discipline-based approach to nonfiction writing?

  • Washuta had always written CNF, and had done a few majors and knew how to research, so was interested in incorporating history/anthropology into personal narratives.
  • Zeller came to CNF from poetry – she always felt permission to write between forms in poetry, and then after motherhood, she started writing in essays. She read H.D.’s “Notes on Thought and Vision,” about the merging of the uterus and consciousness, what she called “jellyfish consciousness,” and this rang true for Zeller. H.D. asks if it’s easier for a woman to reach this state.
  • Lebo also started as a poet and fled to CNF – she felt as if her identity as an artist was calcifying around poetry, and she went to CNF to write things that poems couldn’t contain. CNF was an escape from self and an opportunity for rhetoric. What was most exciting to her was how writers adopted all these different forms to get them writing.
  • Peters’ parents were both NF writers (academic researcher and sports journalist), and so knowing these different modes made it seem possible. He started in journalism, then went to fiction, and then to CNF, finding himself in Eula Biss’ work on Montaigne, and how she creates collages of reality.
  • Nuernberger also started as a poet writing about science factoids, but started writing CNF as she realized how these factoids connected to larger systems of history/philosophy/etc.

What writers do you think of as important models or inspirations in forming this kind of essay?

  • Lebo started with Antonetta and Miller as teachers, and how their work was powered by subjectivity and writing into mystery, and then she studied with Shields and learned from his collage form. Since then, she’s been inspired by non-literary texts, like outdated medical texts (they’re science-based, but outdated – can they be trusted?)
  • Washuta has a hard time seeing lineage, but two formative influences were Shields’ fragmentation and Biss’ “The Pain Scale.” Also Danielewski’s House of Leaves and how it questions reality and form, and Lying by Lauren Slater in how it questions objective truth.
  • Zeller was also shaped by Antonetta and Miller, and by Connie Voisine’s poetry book Cathedral of the North.
  • Peters says Wallace and Franzen – just kidding! But for real, Eula Biss, Elena Passarello’s Animals Strike Curious Poses, Hoang’s Bestiary, Cabeza-Vanegas’ Don’t Come Back, and Jericho Parms’ Lost Wax
  • Nuernberger says Maggie Nelson in terms of how a prose fragment could accumulate, Momaday in blurring of archival research and personal experience, Zora Neale Hurston’s Of Mules and Men for oral histories and “lies,” and for how it mimics anthropological field research interrupted by personal asides and threads.

Can you talk about your research methods? Do you have to nudge yourself to dive into fields that you aren’t trained in, or do you have to find ways to rein your focus in?

  • Washuta says she can’t work without Scrivener, which helps manage documents (but insists you watch the tutorial before using it!). Otherwise, she mostly just googles stuff. She steers by how to fold research into the central question a book is exploring, which is mostly an intuitive process. Sometimes, she worries that research can be an avoidance technique for her.
  • Lebo is also intuitive, and finds the best sources come from happy accidents – people who know what topic she’s interested in saying “oh, have you heard of ____?” which she thinks is appropriate since our history of food is an oral one, and can’t be contained in a book. Google delivers information, but it can’t deliver experience. She likes to question the mythologies built up around certain plants and fruits.
  • Zeller prefers experiential research, putting her body out into the world, going afield. Her ideal is having the same curiosity, and experiencing the world bodily, as a child.
  • Peters’ research is chaotic and intuitive – he follows wherever his curiosity goes. But he notices that when he’s too close to the research, he takes on a detached historian voice he doesn’t like. He also doesn’t like calling people for information, so he usually avoids it or leaves it until late in the process.

[At this point, the panel ran out of time.]

Handout from the panel: NFNessayeco


Heidi Czerwiec is a contributing editor at Assay.

Visit Assay’s Fall 2018 issue for more!

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