Assay@NFN15: You Lived Through It; Do We Have to Read About It?

Editor’s Note: Sejal Shah’s panel report concludes our coverage of NonfictioNOW. Thank you, all, for your generous contributions, which made it possible for those unable to attend to take part. See you at AWP 2016!

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Sandi Wisenberg (Moderator), Elizabeth Kadetsky, Thomas Larson, and Janice Gary

Panel description: Much has been written about the therapeutic benefits of writing for survivors of traumas such as war, disasters, slavery, disease, rape, incest. Writing is generally agreed to be good for the mental health of the amateurs. When does nonfiction writing about trauma rise to the level of art? What makes some artful, and others, self-serving? The answers are subjective, but we will explore the questions and hazard some answers. Speaking as writers, readers, and editors, we will examine successful and unsuccessful creative nonfictions and tease out our reasons for making those judgments.


Sandi Wisenberg:

The title of Sandi Wisenberg’s piece is “Notes on Distance and Density.” In it, Wisenberg looks at Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” an essay (“The Mother, the Daughter, and the Holy Horse: a Triology”) by the writer Judy Ruiz; Wisenberg also mentions Toni Morrison’s writing about slave narratives “as a form of autobiography”—and says that within this genre, Frederick Douglass is able to convey an “exploration of inner life.”

Wisenberg asks, “What if, in describing your desperation on the page, you fought against revealing this desperation on the page?” Joan Didion “famously recorded the despair of her twenties in ‘Goodbye to All That,’ but “her distance contains her feelings of crisis.” Didion writes, “I was not yet then guilt-ridden about spending afternoons that way [beer can cut, gazpacho, crying, etc.] because “I still had all the afternoons in the world.” Wisenberg describes Didion’s iconic essay as an elegy for the single life and the time we all had then.” She notes, “The analysis makes the piece. Didion knows even her feeling of being unique is universal.”

Wisenberg also mentions writing letters (blue aerogrammes!) when she was in Paris at 20 (and “miserable as usual”) and later keeping a blog when she was diagnosed with breast cancer—and about both of these forms of writing (letter and blog) as places where there is both emotion and also opportunity for writing that is not only in the midst of the suffering; she suggests there is more of opportunity in the blog than in the aerogram, but does not dismiss the aerograms and what can be found there, as well.


Thomas Larson:

Tom Larson began his talk, “My Trauma, My Deconstruction,” with a discussion of his memoir, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, in which he wanted to “chart the psychological and relational rapids of [his] three heart attacks, which struck between 2006 and 2011.” He discussed the transformative power of the trauma memoir. “I believed (and still do) in the transformative power of the trauma memoir.” He asks himself, “Why was I chosen? Perhaps once I write the story, I’ll have a better idea. Which, at best, can only be inconclusive. Trauma is that experience which should have killed us but didn’t.” Larson says his audience is less of those “who are from where I am now and more of those who lie with my pre-heart-attack self.” As examples, Larson brings up Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, The Drowned and the Saved, and The Leftovers, and describes them as “death-obsessed.” “We authors,” he explains, “often mistake making it through as proof of a cracked or purposeful design.”

Larson asks, “Where was my book when I needed to read it? If I wouldn’t have read me, why did I, why do I, expect others to follow suit?” Larson says, “I do know memoir as preventative medicine often does not work… our lives are slumbers, we see in retrospect.” Larson says he does not know why some “tragic/redemptive stories” work on readers and others don’t. He quotes Carl Jung, who said most people seek self-knowledge, but they fail because they start out too late and run out of time. Larson wants to think “the trauma memoir might be of assistance in this awakening.”


Elizabeth Kadetsky:

In her talk, “Flash Memories and Misery Memoirs,” Elizabeth Kadetsky spoke first about the stigma and popularity of what historian Ben Yagoda termed “the misery memoir.” She also discussed the more reputable tradition of memoir “as testimony—documents of a communal justice.” This category included ethnic American and African American autobiography and Holocaust memoirs—some of the most popular titles include Eli Wiesel’s Night and Malcolm X’s autobiography.

Kadetsky said that during the 1980s the “impetus to testify about one’s individual versus communal trauma began to win respect.” Kadetsky attributes this in part to the trauma studies movement. She mentioned Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s book, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, Judith Herman’s essential Trauma and Recovery and the idea that in order to heal, the one who has undergone the trauma must speak and must be heard. Kadetsky uses the example of Eli Wiesel—in Night— who asks the question ‘How does one describe the indescribable?’ She said, “This question—how to describe the indescribable—is the task set forth for the writer who seeks to rise above the misery memoir.” She suggests that the answer lies perhaps in the actual definition of trauma, which has been medicalized as a syndrome in the DSM as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Kadetsky says that trauma is “experienced in an immediate way that bypasses the narrativizing constructs of the brain that give context and meaning to most experience.” She said that it seems some of the success of successful trauma memoirs may be owed to moments that “mimetically illustrate the experience” of PTSD by “using elements of writing craft such as…insistent images from the past, intrusive thoughts that disrupted chronology, and even a kind of deflection or avoidance.” As examples, Kadetsky lists Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, JoAnn Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Kadetsky notes that Didion successfully invokes the state of grief through repetition, fragments, and disconnected memories, artfully rendered.

In her own experience, Kadetsky has written three essays about an episode that led, in the six months after, to her mother’s death and her sister’s homelessness. Kadetsky said that she kept the question, “Why would your story matter to me?” in mind when writing and recreating her own experience.


Janice Gary:

Janice Gary’s presentation is titled, “Given Sugar, Given Salt: On Trauma and Memoir.” Gary begins with these lines: “You work with what you are given,” from a Jane Hirschfield poem in Hirschfield’s collection titled, “Given Sugar, Given Salt.” Gary addresses the sense we as writers might have (quoting an agent)—once there’s a great memoir in the field—there doesn’t need to be another one on the same topic written. Gary says, “As nonfiction writers, as writers of memoir, we work with the shapeless, clay-like material of our life. Given sugar, we write about sugar, given salt, we write about salt.” She made the point that “given trauma, we write about it- not because we think it is sensational material, [but] because we cannot not write about it.”

Gary points out that there is a “very high bar set for memoir—especially those dealing with trauma—and a lot of prejudice…. A writer has to be willing to face their own reluctance and societal pressure not to tell just to get it on the page.” Gary discussed her own memoir, Short Leash. She was afraid no one wanted to hear about her rape or read another memoir with a dog in it. But then Gary also read “beautiful memoirs about difficult lives” including Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face; Gregory Orr’s The Blessing; Richard Hoffman’s Half the House; Katherine Harrison’s The Kiss. Gary said, “In all of these books, it was the writing that held me in thrall, not the subject matter. These books and authors transformed life into art.” She cited Dani Shapiro in Still Writing: “The thing you’ve been writing is not a diary…contrary to the notion you have …you have chosen every single word, you’ve crafted each sentence.”

Gary said she has read many moving and beautiful memoirs. In one memoir she found to be not as successful, Margo Fraguso’s Tiger, Tiger, there was too much scene, scene, scene, and not enough reflection. “The what happened—trauma itself—is not what a memoir should be about.” Gary quoted John Updike who said, “Literature is the most subtle self-examination known to man.” The writer examining her life, attempting to “discover who they are in relation to what has happened to them—that’s what I look for in a memoir—trauma or no trauma. Writing about what is supposed to be kept silent is not only a literary, but also a political act.”

At the end of her remarks, Gary answered the panel’s question (asked in the panel’s title), “You Lived Through It; Do We Have to Read about It?” She said, “No, you don’t have to read it. Just don’t tell me not to write it.”


Q &A: Included Hope Edelman asking about reader response in the age of Internet criticism—the ability to reach us easily; cyber violence against female memoirists. One of the only kinds of bullying allowed now. Criticisms often posted online became personal attacks.


Sejal Shah’s writing has been nominated for Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize. Her lyric essays and short stories have appeared in various places including Brevity, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Kenyon Review, The Literary Review, and The Marginsas well as being featured in The Huffington Post. She lives in Rochester, New York.

Assay@NFN15: Keynote Address by Michael Martone and Ander Monson

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Keynote Address by Michael Martone & Ander Monson

October 30, 2015, 7:10pm: not quite Halloween, but certainly in the neighborhood (the rich kind that kids travel to—on real Halloween—for full-sized candy bars). It was this night that played host to Michael Martone and Ander Monson’s keynote speech for Flagstaff’s NonfictioNow Conference.

And, given what the speech turned out to be, the proximity to Halloween was apropos timing.

Starting from the introductions, this keynote was dressed up, disguised even. Both authors were introduced through a thick mixture of truth and lie so thorough, and transparently untrue at times, that one with no background on the speakers would have had nothing but a façaded Halloween mask of creative nonfiction writers: they live in the southwest, are from the Midwest, perhaps they have written books claimed by other authors, or have written books that don’t exist at all (apparently, Ander Monson is the author of Michael Martone by Michael Martone). Either way, true or false, both were dressed up in suits for the personas that speech giving demands.

The keynote itself ended up a costumed version of a “keynote” as well. Ander Monson claimed that they could not highlight “key” points of a nonfiction conference, and that Michael Martone was only interested in surface, not depth, anyway, so, instead, they examined the surface of the word “key” in detail. The speakers dressed up their keynote in a haphazard manner, giving the sense that it was, to a degree, unplanned. Martone had a stack of papers that he gave to an audience member who, in turn, gave them back to him throughout the keynote, in a random order, I’d assume. Monson decorated the conference room with a slideshow of various key-related images which he bounced around throughout the talk, sometimes even commenting “eh, let’s do this one now.” The speakers covered everything from falling keys proving gravity for babies to garish pictures attached to bathroom keys. The chaos, though, fell into place, and, right before the audience, a spectacle of surface emerged into Halloween’s habitually spectacled season.

I haven’t been to many other keynotes in my time, and certainly none that focused on the anatomy of the word. But, through their exaggerated attention to the fiction of a keynote address—the personas of the speakers, the pretending to know exactly what a conference is about, the illusion of organization—Martone and Monson were able to focus on a collage of simple nonfictions: what keys mean in their lives.

As I left the keynote, I couldn’t help but feel an extra weight in my own keys, as I’m sure everybody that night did, while unlocking my bike from the bike rack just before riding off into Flagstaff’s jack-o-lanterned streets heavy with fake, exaggerated spider webs.


Lizzy Nichols is an undergraduate student at Northern Arizona University where she studies English, French, and the delicate art of being a hipster. She has a forthcoming short story in the Fall 2015 edition of Cardinal Sins. A link to some online work is here 

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Lizzy Nichols and Nicole Walker for the opportunity to republish coverage of this keynote address, which was first posted at the NonfictioNOW 2015 Conference Blog.

Assay@NFN15: The Beasts Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating the Animal World

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Panelists: Kirk Wisland, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Elena Passarello, Steve Church

By Jen Palmares Meadow

All literary conference attendees who work in the field should keep a field journal. In it they ought to record every panel they attend. No matter what kind of literary beasts they might be studying—whether they be poets, novelists, or essayists—their journals contain the study on which much of their work might be improved. The following are my NonfictionNOW field notes from the panel “The Beasts Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating the Animal World”.


Conference: NonfictioNOW

“The Beast Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating the Animal World”

Panelists: Kirk Wisland, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Elena Passarello, Steve Church

Date: 30 October 2015, 10:45-12:00PM

Location: Flagstaff, Arizona, High Country Conference Center, Humphrey’s Theater

Steve Church opened the panel by warning the crowd, “This panel is not pumpkin spiced, but it should be fun.” He read an excerpt from “Seven Fathoms Down,” an essay included in his collection, Ultrasonic. Did you know that noodling is fishing for catfish with your hands? He also read an unsettling piece about consequence.

Kirk Wisland read, “What the Hawk Needs”, an essay concerning a red tail hawk caught an apartment sliding door, and other “instances of perforation.”

  • What good can come from the shattered glass?
  • Dear Neighbor, Be warned. There may be a hawk in your apartment.
  • Dear Hawk, Be warned. There may be a window in your sky.

Alison Hawthorne Deming read from the introduction to her book, Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit. She asks, “What are we interrogating when we are writing about the animal kingdom?” and discussed what it means to be a human at this particular time, during the “incomprehensible diminishment of animals.”

  • “We owe our lives to the animal kingdom. We owe them our care and attention.”
  • “Animals are the core of what we are as creatures, sharing a biological world and inhabiting our inner lives, though most days they feel peripheral.”

Elena Passarello read from her in-progress collection, Animals Strike Curious Poses, in which each chapter is named after an animal of historical record, including: Dolly the Clone, and (hopefully) a robotic bee.

  • Arabella, a spider was the first female in space
  • Sackerson, the baited bear made famous by Shakespeare


  • Is it uncouth to personify animals?
  • Once you start writing about animals, they start showing up everywhere.
  • Affection for animals is what sends me to the library.

Audience Question: What are the risks of speaking from the perspective of the animal?

  • Deming: Because we have no idea what animals are thinking or feeling, it’s really easy to get wrong. “It’s important we don’t misrepresent animals to serve us—we’ve done that,” and also, it can be construed as offensive to people’s oral traditions, people who have the right to speak from these animals.
  • Wisland: I teach a class on sustainability, so anything that get kids interested…I think the hawk gets a pass.
  • Steve Church: The Normal School once published a story entirely from the perspective of a bridge. It can be done.

Audience Question: How do you avoid sentimentality when writing about pets?

  • Deming: If you feel like you’re getting cheesy and sentimental, turn to science.
  • Passarello: I posted an essay on Twitter, entitled, “My Cat Sharky”, and I lost ten followers.

Works Referenced During Panel:

  • “What is it like to be a bat?” by Thomas Nagel
  • “Ordinary Wolves” by Seth Kantner
  • “Dog Tags”
  • “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey”, by Christopher Smart


Jen Palmares Meadows writes from northern California. Her work has appeared in Brevity, The Rumpus, Denver Quarterly, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Memoir Journal, Kartika Review, Essay Daily, and in other places. She is currently at work on a collection of Vegas stories, where she writes about sex, gambling, and church, not necessarily in that order, but sometimes all at once.

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Jen Palmares Meadows for an incredible job live tweeting during the NonfictioNOW Conference. Search the hashtag #NFNOW15 to see conference tweets, and follow Jen at @jpalmeadows.

Assay@NFN15: Exploring Women’s Bodies, Sex and Sexuality in Writing Non-Fiction

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Anna March, Heidi Czerwiec, Jen Fitzgerald, EJ Levy, Ashley Perez

Panel description: Our physical lives and sexuality are central to human experience
and therefore worthy topics of consideration in our writing. However, writing the female body/sexuality presents unique rewards and challenges for non-fiction writers and readers alike. This variously diverse panel will explore, through a feminist lens, these issues and their intersection with under-representation of women in publishing non-fiction. As a group, we will explore the frequently cited concern that contributions by women to the non-fiction field are disproportionately in the area of memoir/personal essay. We will interrogate whether that is a valid concern or if it’s a veiled diminishment of the worth of those categories. We hold the position that women’s bodies and sexuality deserve rich, serious, diverse, nuanced and varied consideration and will discuss how we can broadly foster such writing.

Anna March introduced the panel as a discussion of how women’s sexuality and bodies are valued or not, and how that affects our writing.

Jen Fitzgerald drew from her experience as the former VIDA Count Director to describe the current literary climate from a gender perspective. In addition to counting bylines in magazines, Fitzgerald counted bylines in every volume of Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, and Best American Short Stories from 1986 through 2010. Allowing for margin for writers who don’t identify along traditional gender binaries, she found that Best American Essays was the series most heavily dominated by male writers. According to her counts:

  • 53% of works published in the Best American Short Stories series were written by male writers.
  • 61% of works published in the Best American Poetry series were written by male writers.
  • 71% of works published in the Best American Essays series were written by male writers.

Fitzgerald pointed out that, as with counting bylines in standalone journals and magazines, counting Best American bylines provided real data to support anecdotal evidence of gender disparity in publishing.

Since 2010, female writers have gained some ground in the Best American Essays series. From 2010 through 2015, 62% of the works published in Best American Essays (and 53% of the works listed as notable essays) were written by male writers.

Fitzgerald also noted that Best American anthologies edited by male guest editors always skew more heavily toward male writers, while those edited by female guest editors are either balanced or skew slightly toward male writers.

VIDA counts have documented, not changed, the literary landscape, Fitzgerald said. She encouraged writers to challenge the status quo, for example by interrogating recommended reading lists and building foundations on which women’s writing can exist.

Heidi Czerwiec discussed how her work constantly requires her to navigate the ethics of writing about bodies that aren’t her own. She described four recent projects that in some way appropriated the stories of other women:

  • The poetry collection Self-Portrait as Bettie Page incorporates the story of pin-up model Bettie Page.
  • The poetry manuscript Maternal Imagination draws on women’s birth stories to offer a female perspective on the monstrous body.
  • The poetry manuscript Sweet/Crude investigates the sex trafficking of women in the Bakken oil patch.
  • In writing about her adopted son, Czerwiec tells his birth mother’s story.

In all of these works, Czerwiec seeks to bring to the page underrepresented issues in need of representation, such as:

  • Sexual and artistic agency
  • Historic shaming of mothers
  • Effects of the Bakken oil boom on women
  • Socioeconomic divides in the experience of motherhood

Czerwiec writes about other women’s bodies in order to amplify their voices. At the same time, she implicates herself within her own writing, explicitly acknowledging her privilege and culpability.

Anna March introduced herself as a writer focused on relationship/marriage and feminist issues, as well as an inheritor of three generations of sexual shame. She characterized writing about women’s lives as an act of rebellion, quoting Muriel Rukeyser: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Writing about women’s lives, she said, is taking ownership and wielding political power.

In light of the gender disparity in publishing, as documented by VIDA, March made four recommendations to women writers:

  1. Do the writing. Don’t stop.
  2. Listen to women’s stories, read women’s stories, buy women’s books and publications.
  3. Push back with editors and agents when writing about women’s bodies and sexuality. Be willing to articulate why these topics are important.
  4. Clamor for the writing we wish to see. Write to editors. Be part of creating a world in which this writing is upheld.

March acknowledged several barriers facing women who write about their bodies, as well as suggesting ways to overcome each barrier.

Barrier: Internal shame

Overcome by: Knowing that other women will come forward with similar stories after you’ve shared your story

Barrier: Fear of negative comments

Overcome by: Realizing that those people will find something negative to say no matter what a woman writes

Barrier: Fear of damaging real-life relationships

Overcome by: Being upfront with the people you write about

Ultimately, you may choose not to tell certain stories, March said, but don’t let fear keep you from telling.

Ashley Perez described the process of writing an essay about her experience with sex and pain. She recalled feeling consumed by this story and unable to find peace until she told her truth in writing. Beyond the cathartic benefits of creating an initial draft, Perez shared several insights she gained while working with an editor to shape the story for publication.

  • As with other writing, narrow your focus. Determine what specific thing your essay is about. That one thing defines this piece of writing. Don’t worry that it defines you or all of your writing.
  • Consider whose voice has authority in your writing. Whose lens are you writing through? Even when we think we’re writing from our first-person perspective, we might discover that we’re letting other voices speak for us.
  • Decide who will have access to your drafts while you are writing. Avoid sharing drafts with people who will pressure you to censor your work.
  • Sit with the parts of your writing that make you uncomfortable. Those may be the most important parts of your story.
  • Engage with a literary community to find supportive editors and readers.

EJ Levy noted that at least one editor at Harpers claimed that unlike men, women tend not to pitch again after they’ve been turned down once. She encouraged women to pitch repeatedly until the door opens.

Levy then read a piece titled “Notes Toward an Essay on Hair,” a portrait of her female body exploring the ritual of shaving her face.


Kim Kankiewicz is the co-founder of Eastside Writes, a community-based literary arts nonprofit outside of Seattle. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Full Grown People, LARB, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Washington Post, and con-text. Find her online at Twitter: @kimprobable

Assay@NFN15: Weird Places and Particular Spaces

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Bill Carter, Tim Flannery, and Annette McGivney, with Jane Armstrong moderating

Panel description: Our panel will demonstrate the nonfiction narrative’s unique ability to provide an intellectual and imaginative space in which the author can describe, explore, analyze, contemplate, interrogate and speculate upon his or her relationship to specific places. Our panelists, all of whom have journeyed widely to places real and imagined, close to home or distant and dangerous, employ the nonfiction narrative as a mode of transportation to carry readers far afield to foreign lands or ever deeper into the richly contoured landscape of the individual writer’s mind, showing, ultimately, the dynamic and recursive relationship between self and place as the writer builds an environment on the page while the environment simultaneously shapes the writer.

The conversation began with Jane Armstrong riffing on the panel description, noting the humor of a self-described “shut in and hermit” moderating a panel of wilderness obsessives. She went on to expand the definition of the wilds to include one’s own backyard, explaining how defamiliarization was the nonfictionist’s technique for making strange even the most familiar of places. “All writing is place-based writing,” she said, because we can’t extricate ourselves from our biography. Defamiliarization asks us to imagine that we can. Jane gave a brief lecture on the X and Y axes of nonfiction, where X is the external world and Y is the internal self—one could plot any essay or book on this graph. The other axis governing nonfiction: timespan, which could range from brief to geologic. Jane expressed an interest in liminal spaces where time moves oddly. Her example? The airport. “Every flight is a continuation of every other flight.” She then read a brief essay that explored how place could warp time, using a childhood memory of the first time she flew on a plane to meditate on the loss of her mother: Loss warps time just as flight does. The flight perpetually delayed mirrored the narrator’s desire to endlessly defer her mother’s death.

Annette McGivney took a different tack, describing how she used the wilderness as a space to contemplate how humans work. Her research focused on wild places that have returned from the brink of destruction at the hands of humans, wild places that were “all-consuming and clearly in charge.” She discussed the difficulty of writing about wilderness as the task of narrating the act of “living in the moment; of capturing a process of unfolding.” She read a chapter from a book set in Twilight Canyon wherein the narrator hikes with an inexperienced friend and they nearly run out of water before stumbling on an oasis made all the more lovely by their brush with mortality. “Go in without a safety net,” she said, and the piece revealed how life is often like hiking in inhospitable terrain: the Canyon just makes this truth obvious and visible. “I know how to find my way in the wilderness,” Annette wrote, but “not in the so-called civilized world.” The wilderness can be healing, she said, especially from the trauma of an abusive childhood.

Bill Carter began by reading an excerpt from his book, in which he has a dream that he’s drowned in a fishing net. His work is interested in places where “no one belongs; where nature is violent without apology. Where no one drinks green tea and reads self-help books.” He talked about travel as a good way to jumpstart writing. “Books are about doing things. So keep involved in things.” Of his first book, on the Bosnian War, he said “it was a beautiful place during a horrific time.” He felt that hard labor had always been a cure for him (much as Annette talked about the wilderness as healing). “Exhaustion was healing after the brutality of war.” He was especially focused on honesty in nonfiction: “There are so many ways to disguise human emotion,” Bill said. “I try to cut through all that.”

Tim Flannery talked about attempting to write place through the lens of geologic time, to tell “history in deep time.” He claimed that “you can’t understand a place until you can think expansively about time,” and went on to offer dozens of beautifully wrought examples. One particularly lovely one involved the salt flats in Australia. Digging beneath the surface to excavate bones, Tim noticed the distinct smell of rainforest, a “humus” smell, moist and completely at odds with the arid landscape until he recalled that the salt basin in which he stood was once a lake some 30 million years prior. He pointed out how seeing the familiar (in this case, a smell rather than a sight: the scent of hums) when you are far away makes you see it differently. “The world is inexplicable without time,” was how he ended his talk.

The Q&A was brief: Jane asked how distance (in terms of time, but also space) from one’s subject helped (or hurt) one’s nonfiction writing. How far must you be from an experience (in terms of the axis of distance versus proximity) before you can write about it? Tim suggested focusing on longing: he tries to figure out why he longs for a given place, and why he longs to write about it. This is his way in to the work: understanding why and how a place affected him.

Another question asked about the use of metaphor to describe a place, and the panelists all felt that finding the right metaphor (Annette’s piece imagined the Grand Canyon as a woman, for example) was key—the right metaphor “helps me conceptualize what I want to do,” said Annette. Bill noted that the right metaphor wasn’t clever and instead “honored the place” it described. Tim ended the panel by answering a question posed by Brian Doyle about nature and culture, and how we’re used to viewing human consciousness as being embedded in culture rather than nature. Tim pointed to a book by Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth) on aboriginal land management as an example that complicated this dichotomy.


Brooke Wonders is an Assistant Professor at the University of Northern Iowa. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Collagist, Diagram, and Brevity, among others, and she has reviewed for American Book Review, Essay Daily, and Entropy Magazine. She is about to step down as Nonfiction Editor at The Account: A Journal of Poetry, Prose, and Thought. She will soon join the North American Review as Nonfiction Editor.

Assay@NFN15: “The Science of Story: Creative Nonfiction and Cognitive Science”

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 Nancer Ballard, Dave Madden, Matthew Gavin Frank, Sean Prentiss

Why do writing professors tell you what to do (show, don’t tell; orient us with setting; etc.)? Why are these important from a cognitive standpoint?

Nancer Ballard: conducted a survey about what books readers remembered over time and why [see handout]. For her talk, she focused on 3 characteristics: transformation/new insight into world, mystery, and vividity. She discussed 4 cognitive responses that support these:

  1. Sensory perception – how sensory input is processed [see handout for list of senses]
  2. Emotion – sensory info must evoke an emotional response to be encoded as important. Sensory input is processed, we react involuntarily, then we have an emotional feeling (cf Wm James: we don’t cry because we’re sad; we tell ourselves we’re sad because we’ve cried)
  3. Memory/Place – feeling/emotion lead to encoding as memory. Place is implicit in action and time, and essential to narrative – we have no way to process without the context of time/place/action
  4. Inconsistency – attention loves novelty because the brain filters out the “normal” to make space for new experiences which need to be processed

*Note: the brain behaves the same way when it reads something for the first time: you read words (sensory data) on the page, have a reaction, evoke an emotion (suspense, dread)

We complete patterns – what happens next? – for survival, to help make guesses about the future, to make sense of the world. Jumping to conclusions can be efficient, but can also cause problems – narratives are often about those who incorrectly complete a pattern, make an assumption, and the fallout from that. [see handout for CNF examples]

Dave Madden: Patricia Hampl: “what an essay gives you is a mind at work.” Madden asks, what is a mind at work? how does that happen? Cf Kauffman: essay is not just essayist’s thoughts, but the feeling of their movement, and therefore induce an experience of thought in the reader.

  1. Productive Juxtapositioning: artful sequencing of facts, data, memories, etc, so that meaning is created via order or form – how 2 things juxtaposed create a third thing between them, the literary equivalent of “brain cells that fire together, wire together.” “Leap, don’t creep” – don’t do all the expository work of connecting 2 things – just go there and trust the reader to connect them.
  2. Interleaving: switching among an array of things to study results in better long-term comprehension.
  3. Desirable Difficulty: grappling/frustration results in better learning
  4. Segmentation and Digression: tell stories or make points sequentially and recurrently rather than one at a time. Move your reader away from your topic for a time in order to better engage when you return to it. Interleave material – don’t block-sort it.

When drafting, don’t worry about these things! When revising, “leap, don’t creep,” consider digression and segmentation as a strategic move, not just an aesthetic one, and make the essay move as fast as the brain.

Matthew Gavin Frank: wrote The Mad Feast, about characteristic dishes from all 50 states – reactions were either rage (you got it wrong!) or glee (you nailed it!). Why do we feel so passionately about foods associated with a region? Home, food, and place give us a basis from which to understand the world. Taste/smell/texture of food intensely tied to memory, which is wired to place/time. If that’s challenged, our entire worldview encoded in our brains is challenged. Confirmation of this memory = a sense of community. The mouth is our most vulnerable point, our connection to food, how babies first experience the world – food is how we regularly invite the physical world into our bodies.

Sean Prentiss: how the brain perceives time is integral to coding memory. The body manages several clocks, both short- and long-term perceptions. So, how does the brain perceive time, and how can we use that in CNF?

  1. Fight or Flight – everything seems to slow down, because the brain is trying to take in as much info as possible so it can assess threat, so when we encode this memory, it seems slow because of its density of data.
  2. Aging memory – time seems to go faster when we’re older because we’ve had so many experiences – our brain only needs to encode the novel ones, so it skips the more routine memories.
  3. Drug use and perception of time – stimulants v. depressants v. psychedelics

Below, please see handouts for specific strategies and examples of how to manage time in CNF.




Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing in Angle, Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal. She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

Assay@NFN15: “Writing the Difficult Other”

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 Sarah Tomlinson, Liz Prato, Sarah Einstein

Sarah Tomlinson: wrote memoir about her eccentric, mentally-ill father – everyone but him realized he was delusional – but her hope was that she had rendered him with enough compassion that people would understand her dad. She says that there was no abuse, but lies, neglect, and abandonment – and notes that people’s reaction was that there wasn’t enough abuse to matter so much

Liz Prato: had written a memoir about her dad’s and brother’s descent into addiction and mental illness, and their suicides within a year of each other, and thought she was done with them. Then, while clearing out father’s house, she found 2 things: a list of all the people he’d had sex with, including the name of her brother, and a list of definitions of words related to pedophilia. How to write about her father now? The father she knew was not a bad man, but molesters and rapists are bad men. How to make sense of this? She read Emerson’s essay “Compensation,” in which he says every evil has its good. She came to a place of compassion – not, “my father is a monster,” but “my father has a monster in him.”

Sarah Einstein: wrote a book about a relationship with a homeless, mentally ill man with whom she had a friendship. How to represent on the page his delusional reality and let it exist as a voice, as his own truth, and not in a way that makes a spectacle or gimmick of it? During a conversation where he’s convinced his sister has died, he mentions he molested her when they were young – this moment was the most tense moment of their relationship, and the book. Einstein wondered whether to omit it, and did for a while, but realized he had said it and it was his to say, and she needed to allow him to speak for himself.

[then turns to roundtable discussion, including audience]

LP: It’s too easy to write the “everyone pick up your pitchfork” piece – there are no pure villains or heroes.

SE: How can you capture moments of tenderness or genius – make these people as well-rounded and complex as possible so readers don’t reduce these people to what they think they already know about molesters/homeless/mentally ill/etc.

LP: example of Nick Flynn’s Another Bullshit Night in Suck City

SE: If the person is a sociopath, if there are very negative qualities (cruelty, lack of empathy, etc.), you don’t need to label the person – just put that behavior on the page and let the reader perceive that for themselves. But also ask, in what ways is the person bigger or more than their sociopathy or dysfunction, so we’re not focused on the pathology, but on the bad behavior and its effects on you and others.

ST: her background was in literary fiction and NF, but it was working in ghostwriting that helped her write difficult characters – usually, these were traumatic stories of drug abuse, violence, trauma, and it helped her to help them find the compassion/empathy/complexity, and this in turn helped her with her own memoir.

LP: autobiography is a research-checked factual account, but memoir is the story of what you remember – it might not be totally accurate, but do your best to get it right.

SE: The people who have harmed you have forfeited the right to fact-check you – the fact that they’ve harmed you will inform the reader that the harm has affected how you remember the events.


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing in Angle, Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal.  She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

Assay@NFN15: “Adventures in Poetic Biography”

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 Jessica Wilkinson, Dennis Cooley, Heidi Czerwiec, Benjamin Laird

Jessica Wilkinson opened by respectfully disagreeing with a comment made by Brian Doyle during his keynote address, in which he said that poetry got so involved in its feeling that it ended up talking about its left breast – she asserts that, as much as the essay, poetry can engage with nonfiction topics outside the self, and in fact has some formal strategies for doing so that the essay does not.

Heidi Czerwiec: her discussion of poetic biography focuses on how poetic form can enhance and embody the person being represented in the biography, and uses 3 of her projects to illustrate how. In Self-Portrait as Bettie Page, she explored the slippage between herself and ‘50s bondage pinup Bettie Page via the sonnet sequence, which paired well with the strictures of bondage. In “Rachel,” based on 17th C still-life painter Rachel Ruysch and depicting 3 periods in her life, Czerwiec riffed on a Baroque sonata in tetrameter lines with various leitmotifs in counterpoint. And in A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, about a 19th C Cantonese youth with a parasitic twin during the lead-up to the First Opium War, she used numerous forms to play with the instability of twinning and Sino-British trade, in particular an interlocking form borrowed from Greg Williamson called “double exposure.”

Dennis Cooley: discussed his project Bloody Jack, about Jack Kravchenko, a famous outlaw in Southern Manitoba before WWI which, inspired by Bakhtin’s “carnival of voices,” he chose to render as a play among several voices: letters to editors, love songs, newspaper clippings, Ukrainian phrasebooks, rope-skipping songs, lists, etc. [read excerpts]

Jessica Wilkinson: her work was inspired by Susan Howe, in particular My Emily Dickinson, and how the voices of her subjects led her to the form – by listening to the voices, she could meet them on the page. She discusses 2 projects. The first, marionette: a monument to failure, dealt with Hearst’s mistress, film actress Marion Davies. Because of Hearst’s influence, info on her is inaccurate and erased; because of time, films of her are crumbling. Wilkinson’s project called attention to this faulty/fragmented archive via a visual-based text full of fragments and white space. In contrast, Suite for Percy Grainger about the Australian composer is based in auditory play and draws from an overwhelmingly full archive – Wilkinson’s 5-part manuscript is a 5-fingered composition that portrays 5 different aspects of the complex man. Currently, she is at work on a MS about Balanchine in a text based on movement.

Benjamin Laird: his work deals with biographical poetry in programmable media, by which he means work written in code, web-based (JavaScript, html). He claims that the medium in which poetic biography is written changes how we experience it, and changes the person being represented. He discussed his project on 19th C spiritualist, activist, and lecturer William Denton. He cites Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ idea of segmentivity – that the meaning poems make occurs in smaller segments (phrases, lines, stanzas) that combine to create larger meanings (poem, book) – he plays with combining and recombining these segments to manipulate meaning. He also talked about the issue of versioning – how software affects poetry – since software is inherently incomplete and is constantly being updated/changing, and that while this creates difficulties and challenges for programmable poetry, it also highlights the constantly-changing subject and our relationship to it. He also mentioned Memmott on poem/software as a tool for making meaning. You can see examples of his work on Denton at


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing in Angle, Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal.  She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

Assay@NFN15: “Crafting True: The Complementary Worlds of Narrative Journalism and The Essay”

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  • A bullet point summary by Angele’ Anderfuren @AngeleOutWest


  • Megan Kimble @MeganKimble
  • Lisa O’Neill @LisaMOneill_
  • Katherine E. Standefer @girlmakesfire
  • Hattie Fletcher of @cnfonline


  • The intersection of journalism and creative nonfiction.
  • The differences in reporting a story and telling a story.
  • The telling of our truths, of a truth, of another’s truths.
  • Objectivity and perspective.

Defining the topic:

Journalism is…

  • Reported material
  • A story based on verifiable facts
  • Not usually first person, but could be in some instances
  • The destination

Creative Nonfiction/Essay is…

  • Stories with less of a formal structure
  • Often first person in the story
  • The experience of discovering truth
  • Story out of what’s really happening
  • Using the devices of fiction to tell a true story


How journalism can help or hinder the form:

Katherine, comes from a fiction and poetry writing background before being a journalist:

  • Journalism helped me limit my scope and make sure the right stakeholders are involved in the conversation
  • Projects start personal and grow outwards
  • I became a better nonfiction writer by examining how other peoples’ stories related to my story
  • Asks, how do I bring a reader into the sensory world, how do I making meaning associatively?
  • One thing journalism has to offer is clarity of purpose in the story

Lisa, was a general assignments reporter for small newspaper in Louisiana, then did PR for a nonprofit:

  • I came to writing as a way to make sense of the world
  • I wanted to be a journalist because I saw journalism as a way to create change
  • I loved the diversity of the job
  • I found myself frustrated because I had opinions about things and felt that objectivity in journalism was limited and not entirely true
  • I was aware how I was shaping stories by who I was putting first
  • One thing I think about is: How much I need to be in the piece?
  • What do I have to offer as a narrator versus a witness?
  • It is really important to me to include other people’s voices

Hattie, Managing Editor for Creative Nonfiction magazine:

  • We don’t always talk about the history of creative nonfiction
  • There are two strands to the history:
    • St Augustan and Montaigne
    • An evolutionary strand from journalism and new journalism
  • Journalism was assumed to be authoritative knowledgeable, objective, just-the-facts writing
  • But a lot of writers came to say that is crap
  • There’s been a steady infusion of first person journalism, not the front page but in the features
  • CNF the magazine comes more out of that second thread, the new journalism thing
  • We have a preference for information-based narrative.
  • But we try to provide spaces to accommodate more of the genre.
  • We do more fact checking than most; we draw the line on calling people’s family members.
  • There’s enough of a debate in CNF already, so you must verify what’s verifiable. If you don’t, that undermines the credibility of the story that is being told.

Differences in craft…


  • First real job out of school was as an assistant for the LA Times. Was told, if your sentence doesn’t contain a paragraph’s worth of information, it is not a good sentence.


  • Creative Nonfiction magazine and the Atlantic article – a comparison

·      Recently Joe Fassler had his essay “Wait Times” published in CNF (4500 word version) and a shorter (2500 word version) published in The Atlantic with the title “How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously: When my wife was struck by mysterious, debilitating symptoms, our trip to the ER revealed the sexism inherent in emergency treatment.”

  • The CNF version of the story has some reflection, about the medical system, what it is like to see someone you love in pain
  • The Atlantic had a better title, more grab-able and sharable, tons of comments
  • Fundamentally the same story
  • Joe preferred the longer version with the space to reflect, artistic space
  • “A lot of the nuance of the story got lost”
  • “It is a completely different reading experience.”
  • Internet journalism, it’s kind of about fanning the flames.
  • You’re not expecting to be surprised

Ethical obligation as journalists/writers of CNF…


  • Similar to the way a reader is going to show up differently, I show up differently depending on the piece that I am working on
  • I am sort of a character along the way but I don’t know what way I will appear in the story, how much will get cut out


  • Relationships are the priority in my writing
  • My time in public relations is really helpful
  • Some journalists would come in with no sense of the complexities of a person’s stories
  • I come out of that with a need to feel authentic and recognize the power dynamic at play
  • I consider when I bring in a voice recorder and when I don’t, putting in time with people
  • Who I am is really clear in the persona

What about the I…


  • Absence vs presence of the narrator changes the piece
  • I always have to ask, is this person necessary here?
  • The “I” can help guide readers and show them how to get there


  • Information rich writing also needs to be personal
  • The reporter needs to be present in some way
  • I don’t want the solution to be “put yourself in it,” but that is often what we need to answer, why you are writing this story.
  • A personal investment has to be shown in the narrative.


  • What is the lynch pin of the story?
  • Does something in my life or experience illuminate something in the story?
  • Can it bring something to the reader?
  • Will it be about me in a way that is distracting from the story?
  • Will it compromise what the story is truly about?


  • Book rec: Katherine Boo – Behind the Beautiful Forevers
  • The final section of the book is on her research
  • She interviewed the same people multiple times to check out the story, interviewing other witnesses
  • She didn’t need her presence in the story to be credible
  • Including myself becomes this tool, it is credibility from recognizing the reporting of the reporting
  • What are ways in which I have to acknowledge my privilege and my understanding of the place or lack of understanding


  • Filtering the information that is the truthiness journalism through personal experience
  • What can any one person do with big issues?
  • Who am I to write this?
  • The I can be an accessible way into a daunting, big topic
  • Bringing readers along on that journey with you

Assay@NFN15: “The Essayist as Human”

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Kirk Wisland, Sarah Einstein, Cesar Diaz, Steven Church

Kirk Wisland:  Blogging is satisfying because the immediacy of what is published most closely resembles who we are when we wrote what was published. Wisland is worried that the previous versions of documents from 1997 MS Word might no longer be available because of technological advances. Also, worried that in the desire to write more meaningfully can lead to a desire to seek out the traumatic experiences. Was secretly grateful for writing inspiration after a friend had passed away.  Questions whether it’s fair to write about the dead, because it’s easier than having the reactions from writing about the living. “Maybe it’s the maybe,” he said. By being an essayist, we inherently question ourselves thereby redefining ourselves.

Sarah Einstein: Einstein said she made a mistake. A piece she wrote for an anthology was republished in Salon, with a new headline. When she wrote the piece, it was for an intended audience of an anthology and not for a perhaps less literary crowd. While she received support (and at times inappropriate support), her husband received backlash at a time when there was a death in the family. While she doesn’t regret that she wrote the piece—she had her husband’s permission—she regrets that she published something that would turn out to be so painful to someone she loved. For her, the question about “essayist as human” means learning about your mistakes. Before, when she saw a published piece, she felt comfortable saying whether a person ought be writing or working in academia based on what they’ve written. “I feel like we’re at a moment that we’re we need to think about the essayists humanity.”

César Díaz: Memoirist’s challenge is to gain a reader’s trust , which turns out to be difficult based on the placement of the reimagined world. The memoirist actively manipulates past experiences but readers track at how the writer arrives that the truth in the memoir. How does the memoirist do this? Díaz especially felt that he had to uphold the truth after an MFA workshop likened his life story as a migrant farm-working child as “myth-making” and an elevated way of detaching from reality. He attempted to return to his memoir using only facts. In his research, he discovered that everything he knew was wrong. Finally, he adopted Ondaajte’s idea of the constructed self: that narrative through improvisation. Gornick sees the memoirist’s responsibility as shaping their experience any way so long as the intent remains genuine. This mindset has set him free.

Steven Church: The last couple of chapters of Church’s collection of essays, “Ultrasonic” deal with challenges he faces as a writer. The chapter he reads is called “It Begins with a Knock at the Door.” In the narrative, an elderly neighbor comes to his house asking for help to pull out her older boyfriend out of the bathtub where he fell. After pulling him out of the tub, he feels he clumsily relates to the man by showing off a scar on his leg from his twenties. The elderly man shows off a scar on his leg from surviving war. After feeling that this man’s story is worth more than perhaps writing about flatulence, he accepts that who he is as a writer. 


Patti Wisland is a prose writer and the managing editor of New Ohio Review.