Welcome to Practical Notes, a new series on In the Classroom, in which we address various practical aspects of the writing world.
I first encountered a craft paper during my first semester of my MFA at Eastern Washington University, when my workshop professor assigned one to us. I’d never encountered one before, had no idea how to write one, and even more importantly, couldn’t see why I needed to. I was there to write. Right? Even as I grumbled over the fifteen-page assignment that was taking me away from the essays I really wanted to write, I grudgingly agreed that maybe it wasn’t so bad after all. I didn’t encounter another craft paper in my MFA, nor my PhD, but I faced many similar requirements that simply felt like hoops to jump through in pursuit of the degree. That, I realized with much hindsight, was my own failing of being openminded about what different kinds of work had to teach me about my own writing. I now teach in a low-residency MFA program at Augsburg University, where, like many of our peers, we require a craft paper and craft talk as part of our graduation expectations. This past fall, I supervised five different craft paper projects (three nonfiction, three fiction) and I had so much fun with it. I recognize that not everybody gets as excited about craft papers as I do–and that’s okay. But this Practical Note is coming from a place of enthusiasm.
[Side note: this is one of the avenues that led to Assay’s creation in the first place. I knew this work––which I came to consider very important––was being written, but the only place I really knew where to find it was the Writer’s Chronicle, which had sparse nonfiction offerings.]
What’s the purpose of a craft paper? Why do I need to write one?
Its purpose is to participate in the larger conversation of nonfiction by contributing a work of new ideas to the community. Your thesis is your contribution of original creative work and thus serves a different purpose as an extension of what is expected in graduate level work. A craft paper is not a literary analysis–its purpose it to look at an element of craft and analyze it across several texts, or to take a single text and analyze it across several craft elements.
I include this description in my syllabus, adapted from the wonderful Matt Bell several years ago:
Literary analysis is different than craft analysis: they can overlap, but they are meant to be distinct. Craft analysis is designed to discover the specific ways a writer creates a certain literary element, such as tone or voice. One can study the way tone affects a story, but that is a literary analysis of tone. Studying the ways punctuation and sentencing create tone is a craft analysis. Remember that you are reading these pieces as writers.
Throughout your responses, use specific examples, relate the reading to your work in progress or other work we’ve studied, and add to the subject your own experience and aesthetics. Please also feel free to ask a few questions at the end of your critical response, for possible discussion in class or on Moodle. Your assignment is never to have merely read the text. The most obvious quality that unites the best writers in all the classes I’ve ever taught is that the best writers consistently come out of everything we read saying “I’ve never thought of this before” or “I now realize I have a lot to learn about this technique” or “I’m going to try and work harder at doing X, Y, and Z well” or “this gave me new ideas to explore”—while almost every time the weaker writers write their responses about how they didn’t learn anything from this, that everything in it was something they already knew, barely worth saying again. If innate talent exists at all, I believe that in the writers where it seems most fully realized it is perpetually accompanied by a willingness to remain a student of the work of others, to not see yourself as already complete in your knowledge and skills. Fostering such an attitude in yourself will maximize what you get out of this course, the readings, and our discussions.
We, as writers, need to value the texts in front of us in this way. And, I would argue, equally important to value underrepresented writers and texts. Instructors have a finite amount of syllabus space for readings––and you come to class, whether it is a low-res program or residential––and you’re likely already pairing writers and ideas in your head. A craft paper is a good place to do this, aside from program requirements.
This is a waste of time. I want to be working on my thesis.
The craft paper is also a place of discomfort, writing in a different register than we’re used to. When we spent so much of our energy creating our own work, it’s tough to want to spend time on other writers. But the truth is that craft work like this is essential to our own creative work. These are the finger scales and training runs. Very few people sightread a sonata or run a marathon without training. We need to study the work in front of us so that when we go to our own page, we can intentionally craft our own page, rather than arriving there by accident.
A personal example: my new book just came out and it’s light years away from my comfort zone in form and content. So I read all the flash nonfiction I could get my hands on––and flash fiction and prose poetry––to find out what made it tick. I studied the poetic volta and started paying attention to turns in nonfiction. I found Rebecca McClanahan’s “Selected List of Literary Gear Shift Moves” on Essay Daily. I started to call what I was doing a micro-essay. Then I started reading short nonfiction books as mine took shape, from Julija Sukys’ Siberian Exile and her terrific craft piece on short books, “In Praise of Slim Volumes: Big Book, Big Evil” to read through the conversation my book would eventually be participating in. The basis of this work will be my craft talk for Augsburg’s low-res MFA residency in the summer. Work like this should never go into the void, no matter who is doing it.
Where to start?
I have my students start off with a substantial proposal in the first week of the semester.
Most recently one of my students chose to study warrant in nature writing, the “so what” factor; another student working on a travel narrative in search of her family’s roots wanted to study quest narratives, as an extension of travel writing. Each of these topics grew out of the student’s thesis work and was not separate from it. The work they did on their craft paper expanded their concepts that surrounded them and gave them a sense of the conversation already taking place.
That said, a craft paper should not simply be a personal exploration of a text because you’re working on something similar in your own thesis. This is a problem we often see in craft papers submitted to Assay: the engine for the craft paper is the writer him/herself struggling through how to write about *something* and that struggle is the point of the paper, not the analysis of craft. The personal link can be the stimulus, but it cannot be the entire spine of the paper. For myself, I want to see the writer’s brain on the page. Craft papers can be detached, or not, but as you can see in the following section, where I assign many different examples of craft papers, the personal exists at many different points on the spectrum of detached to entrenched. That said, the choice to use I or not will depend on what you’re doing, how you decide to do it, and the expectations of your particular instructor.
I assign several examples of craft papers to start a conversation about the many different ways there are to write craft papers. Yes, craft papers require different muscles, but there is no one right way to write them. This semester, I chose these:
Emily W. Blacker, “Ending the Endless: The Art of Ending Personal Essays”
Then we discuss:
- What makes this a craft paper?
- How does the author dig into the craft itself––and how does the author make clear what her/his purpose is?
- How is the paper constructed? What is its structure?
- Where do you see the author’s ideas driving the work––and where does the author use primary textual examples to illuminate his/her ideas?
- Where do you see the author using secondary materials (other articles, other craft books, etc) to illuminate his/her ideas?
This isn’t a quiz––I don’t literally want them to point to where this is happening. I want them to engage with these readings so that we can determine the standards of a craft paper as they work towards putting together their own work. What can we learn about writing craft papers from these different examples?
Putting the Puzzle Together: The Research
I require as part of the proposal process both a preliminary outline and a preliminary annotated bibliography, so I can see the direction the writer intends to take their craft paper and suggest ways to fill the cracks and holes I see. The main issues I have encountered include a lack of diversity among the primary texts and this is not acceptable to me in graduate level work, so if the reading list is primarily white or primarily male, I require revisions.
The secondary research is more difficult, simply because nonfiction as a whole remains undertheorized (one of the major reasons that I find craft papers and such so valuable). When I was doing my own PhD work, finding research on nonfiction texts was near to impossible. Students writing craft papers will also encounter this problem. I encourage students not only to dig through Assay and the Writer’s Chronicle, in addition to craft books. The introductions to various anthologies, as well as the introductions to Best American Essays, also are excellent places to look for secondary thinking. Project Muse has often been more successful a database than others. I also encourage looking for supplementary texts in the subgenres, whether it’s ISLE or New Hibernia Review.
The reality is that nonfiction writers who are writing craft papers must be creative in finding and extrapolating from secondary texts, because the work we have to draw on is thin. This also presents an excellent opportunity for our work beyond program requirements. You might do some research into race theory, or neurobiology, or cultural criticism to make your point.
The Purdue OWL remains the best resource for MLA citations, both in text and Works Cited.
Where we often struggle with requirements like craft papers and comps is when we can’t see a value in it, except for the thing itself. Publication venues, like Assay and the Writer’s Chronicle, exist for craft work like this and it’s important to have this continuous influx of new ideas, new texts, and new applications. Nobody has put these ideas and texts together in this way before–and that makes it unique and valuable. Don’t lose sight of the fact that you are the particular expert on this subject. Writing analytical work, like a craft paper, doesn’t have to be boring–and it shouldn’t be–even if you never write another craft paper.
Karen Babine is Assay’s editor. She is the author of All the Wild Hungers: A Season of Cooking and Cancer (Milkweed Editions) and the award-winning Water and What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life (University of Minnesota Press), winner of the 2016 Minnesota Book Award for memoir/creative nonfiction, finalist for the Midwest Book Award and the Northeastern Minnesota Book Award. Her work has appeared in such journals as Brevity, River Teeth, North American Review, Slag Glass City, Sweet, and her essays have twice been named Notables in Best American Essays. She lives in Minneapolis.