Practical Notes: Towards the Brief & Informal: In Praise of Other Kinds of Critical Engagement–Karen Babine

Welcome to a new series on In the Classroom, in which we address various practical aspects of the writing world, from writing craft papers to revising craft papers, to writing other materials that might be valuable on the job market. 


imageOne of the joys of what we do at Assay is witnessing how the work of nonfiction happens in a thousand different ways. We believe that, in addition to formal scholarship, some of the most innovative work in our field is happening in informal spaces: our classrooms, on conference panels, and in private conversations between writers, students, and mentors. In this Practical Note, we’d like to focus on our Conversations section, which is our space for informal analysis.

Additionally, we’d like to invite classroom assignments that adhere to our submission guidelines. We hope to encourage pedagogy that creates engagement and publication opportunities for students outside their classroom walls. We aim to show students and their professors that a community of readers interested in the thoughtful engagement with nonfiction exists and, what’s more, that ours is a publication venue for such critical work.

In Praise of the Informal:
The work of nonfiction studies brings vibrancy to the genre. It’s the context of the work and the writer. We consider it as active and creative as the production of the primary text itself. We absolutely love to see new ways of looking at texts.

We know that many professors and instructors are assigning Ross Gay and Aimee Nezhukumatathil in these dark days—but we at Assay have seen no critical or analytical submissions that engage with the work of these authors. Though we do receive many good submissions on canonical authors like James Baldwin and Jamaica Kincaid, we editors are hungry for work that takes a much broader view of the work of writers of color, of writers working on illness and and disability, the work of queer writers, and of other marginalized voices, both historical and contemporary.

We would love to see more work on the diversity of approach and methodology that characterizes creative nonfiction: travel writing, nature writing, science writing, place writing, epistolary forms. What about Eva Saulitis and Dervla Murphy? What about the work of writing saints’ lives? We are curious about visual forms of nonfiction. Diego Rivera documented lives, politics, and social history in his mural work, and we published Amanda Wray’s work on the pedagogy of oral history—and that includes a discussion of his murals. We’d love to read more work on the classical essay, the nonfiction novel, New Journalism, autotheory, autoethnography. Who among you is writing about Nellie Bly?

We almost never see Native writers in our submission queue and we really want that to change. Who’s writing about Lauret Savoy? Robin Wall Kimmerer? Is anyone teaching a class about Zitkála-Šá, Tanya Tagaq and other Native American, Inuit, and First Nations nonfiction writers?

When did you last visit Patrick Madden’s Quotidiana website (it’s cool – you should go take a look)? We’d love to see work on any of the writers whose works and biographies Pat has gathered there.

With this in mind, here are a few constructions that we hope will be of use to you in your own work, as well as possibilities for student assignments.

“A Study Of”
In this form, the approach takes the construction of “A Study of [craft element] in [author/text].” We’ve even found it useful to literally give students that title construction and allow them to fill in the blanks. A study of character in ___. A study of beginnings in ___. The benefit of this type of Conversations construction is that it challenges the writer to add something brand new to the conversations happening in nonfiction, rather than rehashing old ones. Additionally, because the construction allows for freedom, we often see writers writing on underrepresented writers, rather than established ones, which is something we always like to see at Assay.

One craft element + one author

One craft element + multiple authors

Former Conference Papers
This informal construction celebrates the innovative work done at conferences, which often dive into underrepresented authors and craft, and represent exactly the kind of work we want to publish. What’s surprising, though, is that we almost never see them fully develop into submissions. Conference panels at AWP, NFN, and elsewhere are incredibly innovative. In 2015, we published a Special Conference Issue—it’s well worth your time to check out.

Just take a look at these awesome panels submitted as part of our panel reports:

These are all topics that we would be ecstatic to see submissions on.

Sift through your own conference papers and check out our Practical Note on tips for turning your conference paper into a submission. Our top three tips: make sure you’re aware of your audience, make sure you have solid textual references (which are usually absent from presentations), and ditch any dry, academic opening. Conference talks don’t get to the point soon enough. For a written audience, get there quicker. Cut down your runway. Be clear (but you don’t have to be pedantic about it) about what you’re doing and why it matters.

Does your multi-person panel lend itself to a Spotlight?

  • The So What Factor in Nonfiction” (Assay 5.1)
    • Philip Graham, “The Shadow Knows”
    • Miles Harvey, “The Two Inmates: Research in Creative Nonfiction & the Power of “Outer Feeling”
    • Tim Hillegonds, “Making Fresh”
    • Michele Morano, “Creating Meaning Through Structure”

Even if your conference panel is a few years old, dust it off. If your panel/paper was rejected, send it to us. If you’re not sure if we’d be interested in a multi-part spotlight, drop us an email. We’re here for the conversation.

Annotated Bibliographies
This non-traditional form advances conversations in creative nonfiction in a way that is easily digestible to readers and offers quick, deep dives into a particular topic.  Christian Exoo and Sydney Fallone’s duology of annotated bibliographies at Assay facilitates conversation in a way that traditional prose does not. I’d like to start advocating for annotated bibliographies for final creative projects, rather than a scaffolded part of final projects, and I would like to see more of them submitted to Assay.

The goal of these type of annotated bibliographies is to consider them complete research on their own, advancing conversations in creative nonfiction in a way that is easily digestible to readers and offers quick, deep dives into a particular topic. We hope to see more of these texts submitted to Assay. Check out the Annotated Bibliography Practical Note for more specifics of what we’d like to see.

The Montaignian
This informal analytical construction takes its inspiration from Montaigne and gives writers a construction to follow, much like “A Study Of.” It can focus on a single author (Bradley) or a craft element (Ferrence).

Flipping through Montaigne (and Patrick Madden’s “Quotidiana”) would give you even more constructions. We’d love to see more essays on the essay as well:

  • New Essays on the Essay” (Assay 5.2)
    • Charlie Green, “In Praise of Navel Gazing: An Ars Umbilica”
    • Sarah Kruse, “The Essay: Landscape, Failure, & Ordinary’s Other”
    • Desirae Matherly, “Something More Than This”
    • Susan Olding, “Unruly Pupil”
    • Jane Silcott, “Essaying Vanity”

Where To Go From Here
Click here to take a look at our submission guidelines for specifics, then take a look at your existing assignments. Assign a few of our Conversations for inspiration. Assign one or more constructions as your students write reading responses. Challenge yourself to find a conference paper from five years ago and revise it for us.

Recently, we ran such an experiment to see how a group project aimed specifically for Assay might work. In the fall of 2020, Julija Šukys coordinated with Assay to create an interview assignment for her graduate-level CNF class. She created an assignment that adhered to Assay’s submission guidelines and that took students through each step of the project.  At the end of the semester, students submitted their interviews to the for Assay’s Interview Project, one of whose aims is to celebrate underrepresented authors and undervalued texts. The results were exemplary. [Check out K. Mikey Borgard’s interview with Sonya Bilocerkowycz and Hayli Cox’s interview with Donovan Hohn]. If you wanted to reproduce this assignment with your students, then take a look at this Practical Note by Julija. If this is something you want to do, drop us an email and we’ll talk. This sort of thing needs to be coordinated in advance.

As always, we’re here for the conversation, so if you have questions or queries, please drop us an email.


Karen Babine is Assay’s editor.

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