Watching Sausage Made: The Focus on Craft in Recent CNF Anthologies–Heidi Czerwiec

photo by Creighton Nicholas Brown

Recently, I’ve noticed a trend in creative nonfiction anthologies published over the past five or so years: they’re incorporating a close attention to craft. I’ve always been a craft geek, so I delight in such things. I first noticed this while reading the recently released The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press, 2020), which has an extensive and fantastic closing section, “Further Resources for Writers, Readers, and Teachers of Flash Nonfiction.” This section includes a list of relevant craft essays available on Brevity’s website with brief descriptors, and a guide to pairing the anthology’s essays with pieces in The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction (2012), which itself includes a craft essay, a creative piece, and a prompt or exercise by each author. Both books are from RMP and are edited by Dinty W. Moore, who also edits Brevity, so there’s clearly cross-pollination and -marketing going on, but reviewing these offerings reveals what invaluable resources these are. These books give explicit attention to craft in flash nonfiction, but this got me thinking about other recent and forthcoming creative nonfiction anthologies that are highlighting craft as well.

This is somewhat unusual among genre anthologies. In poetry and fiction, anthologies are usually compiled according to theme, identity, or era (motherhood, Southern, Romantic), unless they are specifically anthologies of form (traditional verse forms, prose poems, flash fiction). And these thematic anthologies exist in creative nonfiction, too. But even in an anthology like Landscapes with Figures: The Nonfiction of Place (U Nebraska P, 2007), each essay is accompanied by an author’s note detailing their approach to place, and Flash Nonfiction Funny (Woodhall Press, 2018) includes a section at the end of flash craft essays titled “Prompts and Suggestions,” followed by a list of “More Prompts and Ideas.”

I want to pause to define my terms of classification a bit. I don’t mean to include collections that are consciously presented as textbooks, so I will not be addressing the seminal Tell It Slant (2003, but the newest 2019 edition of which includes readings) or the AWP instruction guide Writing Creative Nonfiction (Story Press, 2001), nor the new anthology Contemporary Creative Nonfiction from Debra Monroe (Kendall Hunt, 2019) or the forthcoming Advanced Creative Nonfiction (Bloomsbury, 2021), or the like. I also will not focus on craft books, though there have been several excellent ones lately. What I’ll be looking at are anthologies that collect creative nonfiction pieces but also offer an explicit attention to craft in some way – and, while they may be used as textbooks, that is not their primary intent nor how they are marketed. I also don’t mean for this inquiry to be a comprehensive annotated bibliography, and therefore, I want to apologize in advance for my shortcomings since I’m certain I’ve left out titles. The anthologies I will discuss seem to highlight craft in one of three ways: 1) like the RMP anthologies mentioned above, they specifically address craft; 2) they include an introduction or author note to each piece in the anthology, which may or may not specifically address craft but often do; or 3) they are organized by craft or a craft premise.

The first kind, like The Best of Brevity and the Flash Nonfiction field guide, includes another anthology from Rose Metal Press, Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres (2015). This anthology is divided into sections such as “Lyric Essay,” “Epistolary,” “Poetic Memoir,” etc., and does include hybrids with poetry (the above as well as prose poems) and fiction (flash fiction), though most of the hybrids seem to involve nonfiction as one of the genetic contributors. Each section is prefaced with a craft essay by one of the editors that seeks to describe common features of that hybrid form, and then each piece has an introduction by its author that attempts to describe their experience using that hybrid form to enable or embody the content, sometimes with exercises to teach that form. There is also an afterword, “Teaching Hybrid Literary Genres,” that argues for teaching hybrids as a way to explode assumptions about genre and offers ideas for organizing courses or for writing exercises. There is also the recent Black Ink: Literary Legends on the Peril, Power, and Pleasure of Reading and Writing (Atria, 2018) an anthology of African American nonfiction divided into three sections: “Peril,” “Power,” and “Pleasure,” the latter of which is devoted to issues of craft – in particular, alternatives to “the Master’s tools,” to craft as it has been taught in an overwhelmingly White value system. And forthcoming in 2021 is an anthology of the lyric essay, A Harp in the Stars (U of Nebraska P), which also includes a section on craft of the hybrid form (A confession: I have a hybrid lyric/craft essay in this book). While this kind of anthology is not overtly promoted as a textbook, they often are assigned as such, and are extremely useful as teaching resources.

The second type of anthology is a collection of essays that includes a note or introduction before each piece that describes the content and/or form of that piece. Among this type is The Eloquent Essay (Persea, 2000), whose notes are mostly biographical, but may speak to the form of the essay. For each piece in The Next American Essay (Graywolf, 2003), arranged chronologically, editor John D’Agata himself writes the intro notes, which read like flash lyric essays that often refer to the craft of the piece. For instance, before the excerpt from Therese Cha’s Dictee, D’Agata’s entry concludes, “It is a book that is made up of fragments, mostly. There is white space, therefore. Ghosts coming and going, adding and subtracting, rearranging the air.” Sometimes these entries are in love with their own cleverness, but often they’re weirdly compelling. And in Creative Nonfiction Magazine’s True Stories, Well Told (In Fact Books, 2014), the authors themselves follow their pieces with a note about the piece. While these are usually process-oriented – where the idea came from – they often include a discussion of how the piece was crafted. About his “End of the Line,” Jim Kennedy writes, “My original idea was Orange-Line-as-landscape…. As I wrote, however, something happened, and Orange-Line-as-landscape became Orange-Line-as-metaphor…. Narrative bulk was transformed into brief landings between leaps—leaps of association linking moments that mattered.” This type of anthology is also useful as a teaching tool, though perhaps more to discuss the composition of a particular essay, or if the class is focused on a theme, like place.

The last kind of anthology overtly organizes itself according to craft. The Shell Game: Writers Play with Borrowed Forms (U of Nebraska P, 2018) is an anthology of hermit crab essays, with a foreword written by Brenda Miller to acknowledge its debt to her coining of the phrase in Tell It Slant, an introduction that is, in itself, written in the form of a taxonomy of the hermit crab, and a postscript that is an index of possible models for hermit crab essays (“Standardized test,” “Message in a bottle,” “Menu”). And Shapes of Native Nonfiction (U of Washington P, 2019) organizes the collection according to various craft methods and structures, named for techniques for making traditional Native vessels: Technique (craft essays), Coiling (“essays that appear seamless…that unify content far ranging in time, place, and meaning”), Plaiting (“fragmented essays with a single source…usually the author’s lived experience”), and Twining (“essays that bring together material from different sources”). These anthologies are especially useful for classes or class segments that focus on particular forms and/or craft elements.

OK, so what? And why is this trend happening? This does require us to briefly return to the textbooks and craft books I said I wasn’t going to focus on. The early outliers are the Best American Essay series, Lydia Fakundiny’s textbook The Art of the Essay (Houghton Mifflin, 1990) and Phillip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay (Anchor Books, 1995). While talking with Karen Babine about this phenomenon of including craft (since she has a lot more history and grounding in the genre), she smartly replied that “the only grounding we got in the genre was in the introductions to various anthologies. BAE was one of the very rare places we could depend on for somebody who’s an expert in the genre to give us some new understanding what the genre was doing in that present moment.” Fakundiny’s textbook (also available in an Instructor’s Resource Manual version) has a critical introduction and a section of “Resources for Readers and Writers.” Lopate attempted to carve out a place for creative nonfiction/personal essay apart from the nonfiction essay, and his anthology does have an alternate table of contents that lists essays by theme and by form, though the latter skews heavily narrative. And since up to and even after this point nonfiction had not been considered “art,” I’m sure the inclusion of that word in two of those last two titles is no coincidence. In the early 2000s, these publications begin to proliferate, including Tell It Slant and the AWP guide Writing Creative Nonfiction, as well as the Touchstone Anthology and such nonfiction craft classics as Bird by Bird, Situation and Story, and Creative Nonfiction: Researching and Crafting Stories of Real Life. And who was the audience for these anthologies and publication? This period coincides with creative nonfiction being established as its own genre in creative writing programs, instead of as an occasional course usually taught as an offshoot of fiction. With this rise in creative nonfiction pedagogy came the need for such pedagogical tools. The craft and theory provided context—a context for a specialized audience of creative nonfiction writers, teachers, and students—and the fact that this context happens in an anthology created a catalyst for more conversation, with numerous readings as examples right at hand. However, because of its initial close alignment with fiction, many of these early anthologies and discussions of craft focused on narrative forms. Even Dinty W. Moore, speaking of the early days of Brevity, then considered the flash essay to be an extremely compressed narrative. Notable exceptions include the anthology Short (Persea, 2014), which features and indexes short prose forms, including prose poems and other short prose forms; Brenda Miller, with her inclusion of the lyric essay and hermit crab essay as experimental forms; and John D’Agata’s championing of the lyric essay as the future of creative nonfiction. That may have been prescient, because as prose poetry bled into flash nonfiction and more poets began writing essays, discussions of structures and techniques besides narrative entered the conversation, and craft books exploring these alternatives have flourished: Bending Genre, The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, and Meander, Spiral, Explode are especially notable. The most recent textbooks that I named at the start of this piece consciously aimed to include a diversity of authors, styles, and forms. And, I would argue, this is why the creative nonfiction anthologies I discuss here engage with craft: at a moment when nonfiction forms are proliferating and hybridizing in exciting ways, and craft techniques are being borrowed and adapted from other genres and mediums, craft is a huge and necessary part of the discussion. So, ultimately, it’s not just that I noticed this trend, but that it makes me supremely happy to see nonfiction thinking about itself in such well-articulated ways. I hope I continue to see more.


With enormous thanks to Karen Babine, la migliore fabbra,  for thinking through this with me, especially since she refuses to take a byline for this piece.

Essayist and poet Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the lyric essay collection Fluid States, selected by Dinty W. Moore as winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose, and the poetry collection Conjoining, and is the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She writes and teaches in Minneapolis, where she is an Editor for Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies. Visit her at heidiczerwiec.com

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