NFN18: “Assaying the Work of Nonfiction Studies”

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Panel Description: Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies takes its name from the scientific term which means to test, a natural linguistic play on our beloved essay. In our first five years, we have tested deep craft analysis alongside precise theoretical lenses with intense explorations of nonfiction pedagogy. We have expanded beyond the journal to host the Best American Essays database, In the Classroom blog series, and the Assay Interview Project in the spirit of literary citizenship.

Panelists: Christine Cusick, Joanna Eleftheriou, Amy Monticello, & Julija Šukys

Šukys welcomed everyone to the panel by thanking Karen Babine, founder and editor of Assay. The journal celebrates its fifth anniversary this year after launching in 2013 with Ned Stuckey-French’s Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing (a Best American Essay notable in 2014). Since then, Assay has published essays on pedagogy and other conversations, developed a database for Best American Essays, and is often the first publication place for MFA students and recent graduates. The Assay Interview Project will launch in January 2019.

Šukys moderated a series of questions for the panelists.

Q: What do we mean by “Nonfiction Studies?” What does it mean to those of us who are practitioners?

Cusick:  At Assay, we consider all the ways in which we think about the idea of craft, readership, and pedagogy. We are concerned with how the writing happens and the social context in which it is happening. Even the structure of the journal helps us to imagine the dialog of how we read and how we position our own work within a historical context, and how the genre is unfolding. We are committed to breaking down the arbitrary structures of the academy and are dedicated to open dialog.

Eleftheriou: It is hard to find scholarship on nonfiction. “Nonfiction studies” does not appear in any other journal. Essay, memoir, and autobiography are often pushed to the margins for scholarship. Assay permits us to find, investigate, and publish the bridges between essay, memoir, and autobiography.

Q: As creative writers, why write about someone else’s work when we can be writing our own work? How does engaging with the work of others help us as writers?

Šukys: Good writers read and excellent writers read omnivorously. Reading others reminds us of how little we actually know—this kind of knowledge is humbling.

Monticello: Reading the work of others is also critical for creative writing students. It helps them move past their own work and see the greater conversations that they are participating in. If we don’t read diversely, we can get “stuck in our own rut of language.” Reading others helps us grow as writers and discover techniques we may want to try. Reading others teaches us to be observant.

Q: How do we get past the idea of scholarship as a “waste of time” for creative writers? What role does the study of creative writing pedagogy play here?

Cusick: The academy criticizes “I” as not scholarly. But we must engage with nonfiction as craft. We can separate ourselves from the pen and the text that we’re writing about. Critics could gain so much from looking at pedagogy in a creative writing classroom. There must be dialog in both directions and we must support the notion that students can have ideas, thoughts, and criticisms about literature.

Monticello: There is a pervasive bias in the academy that creative writing is not “rigorous.” Assay provides an opportunity to write scholarly articles, which helps colleagues understand that we engage in the same kind of scholarship they do.

Q: When considering pedagogy, what writings opportunities exist in the classroom relationship between student/teacher? Where are the opportunities to analyze with critical pedagogy?

Monticello: Begin the discussion around our favorite essays to read. Then branch out into how we find others to read, imitate, and eventually move into our own writing style.

Cusick: Consider how we draw students in to see how the word relates to the world, e.g. science students read Rachel Carson and potentially learn how to advocate for social action through their writing. This helps students see their place in their disciplines in another way and helps students find their voice as well.

Q: What tips can we offer to students who want to submit to Assay?

Eleftheriou: It is important that students read as writers and also critics. Notice the connections between texts, how the essays “work,” and also how they relate to the writer. Encourage rigor as well as creativity in scholarship.

Šukys provided these submission tips:

  1. Ditch dry, academic openings.
  2. Provide a summary of the work being analyzed; don’t assume others have read the essay being critiqued.
  3. Write for an intelligent, but general reader.
  4. Dare to tell us why the text you’re writing about matters.
  5. Don’t be shy about personal voice. Claim your authority; be bold.
  7. Do your homework—see what else has been written on the subject.
  8. Give to a trusted reader to identify problems.
  9. Cover letters should be very brief.

Q: Is there one overlooked or under-read text or theme the Assay editors would like to read?

  • Nonfiction texts from other disciplines e.g. Eco-Crit, Irish studies
  • More diversity (non-Anglo writers)
  • Re-examination of narratives we tell of the origins of nonfiction
  • Activism and empathy


Stacy Murison is a contributing editor at Assay.

Visit Assay’s Fall 2018 issue for more!

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