#AWP17 Conference Report—Teri McDowell Ott on “Following the Thread of Thought”

awp#AWP 17 Panel F248. Following the Thread of Thought.

Description: How do writers follow the thread of a thought through the maze of events in an essay or memoir? What is the art of reflection? Writers of nonfiction may have more latitude than poets or fiction writers to tell as well as show in their work, but the challenge is to keep these ruminations from becoming dull, simplistic, or moralistic. Panelists examine the way writers keep ideas lively and offer techniques for effectively weaving the thread of thought into the fabric of nonfiction.

Panelists: Steven HarveyPhillip LopateAna Maria SpagnaSarah Einstein

Conference Report:

The young grad student seated behind me giggled when Phillip Lopate strolled into a crowded Salon N a minute before the panel was to begin. “I gave him a hug when I saw him earlier!” she squealed excitedly to her friends, clearly enamored with Lopate’s persona. But, seriously, who couldn’t love this man? Dressed in a tweed blazer with wood buttons, a white collared shirt and brown tie to match, he was the wise anchor on a panel of talented essayists who all paid their respects by quoting from his book, To Show and to Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction. When Lopate rose to speak from the notes he had jotted down in a small, red Moleskin, his message was one of encouragement. “Essays are doing well in the marketplace,” he told us. “Reflective essays are uniquely suited and needed in this moment of confusion, chaos and false certainty, a moment when truth itself is seen as only a possibility, a moment of ‘alternative facts.’”

Sarah Einstein expanded on the ways the reflective essay could serve us well in this polarized time. She began by confessing how, as a young person deeply involved in political movements, she used to speak and write in a way that was more about asserting “power over” the other. Now she has grown to more effectively leave gaps in what she wants to say, leaving room to listen before responding. She describes this process as “fragmentation”—or giving the reader space within the essay to do the work of meaning making in concert with the author. This is not to say the author isn’t guiding the meaning making. But Einstein wants the reader to do the work of following along with her. She offered Jo Ann Beard’s essay “The Fourth State of Matter” as an example. Typically, Einstein offered, she would read this essay about the 1991 shooting at the University of Iowa and jump quickly into the debate on gun control. But because Beard crafts the essay through different stories or fragments describing loss (the loss of her dog, the loss of her husband, the loss of control over her house) Einstein was guided to feel the loss of Beard’s colleagues when they were tragically shot.

From a teacher’s perspective, Ana Maria Spagna, shared her students’ repeated question of “But how?” when trying to think on the page. A common problem in her students’ writing was that their reflections were not moving, they were not going anywhere or showing any growth in their thought. Reflective essays are like a knot, Spagna suggested, you have to untangle the knot of your thought and then stretch it out as you write the essay.

Steven Harvey structured his comments around three techniques to deepen or move your reflections forward: disambiguation, ambiguation, and amplification. Disambiguation is the via negativa, or the path of exploring your subject by revealing what it is not. To illustrate, Harvey shared an excerpt from Ta-Nehisi Coates’ Between the World and Me where Coates explores what being black means by revealing what it is not. Disambiguation is the gift of “No” that leads you to more revealing. Ambiguation, Harvey continued, is the process of taking an idea away from certainty towards complexity and contradiction, oftentimes by applying it to an experience. “Experience is never just one thing,” Harvey said. “It is always far more complicated than any thought we have. Adding experience to an essay, then, disrupts our thought, complicates and deepens it.” Finally, amplification is what Harvey described as the “and yetting” of an idea. Take an idea and then add “and yet.” What I just said is true, and yet what I say next is true too. Following this thread of “and yet” encourages the writer to deeper and more honest reflection.

Lopate concluded the panel by naming what we writers need most in order to write reflectively: courage. It is fear that obstructs us, Lopate said, particularly fear of endlessness and fear of banality. How will I get out of this essay once I start? What if I have nothing interesting or original to say? To overcome the threat of endlessness, Lopate suggested embedding nodes of tension in your essay, or knots (as Spagna offered) that have to be untied. As for banality, Lopate kindly reminded us that thinking on the page is not about big ideas, but about the push-pull of thoughts and insights that come along the way. “So,” Lopate concluded with a smile, “all I’m going to say is just go for it.”

Teri McDowell Ott has written essays for Hippocampus, Mamalode and The Christian Century and she blogs at www.terimcdowellott.com. She is a Presbyterian pastor serving as the chaplain of Monmouth College. Teri, her husband, Dan, their two tow-headed children and their skittish German Shepherd live in the middle of a corn field in Western Illinois.



#AWP17 Conference Report—Nadia Ghent on “The Personal (Essay) is Political: Nonfiction as an Agent of Social Change”

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PM#AWP17 Panel S274: The Personal (Essay) is Political: Nonfiction as an Agent of Change.

Description: Online nonfiction venues such as Salon, Slate, and The Atlantic, among others, invite writers to respond to world events through the lens of personal experience while also allowing works to be shared virally via social media. The best of these spur public conversations about issues as pressing as police brutality, rape culture, LGBTQ rights, and more. This panel explores the various roles of the personal essay in contemporary culture, and discusses how words effect change on the world.

Panelists: Katie Cortese, Jaquira Díaz, Eric Sasson, Gabrielle Bellot, Matthew Salesses

Conference Report:

There may be no moment more poised on the brink of widespread social and political change than our current time. As a response to the current state of political discourse, the personal essay in contemporary culture has become a vital tool that enables writers to change established opinions and to oppose narratives based on “alternative facts.” Although this panel was scheduled for the very last time segment of AWP 2017 when conference fatigue was widespread, the panelists were unanimous in sending the audience off on a mission to write, to read, and not to despair over what some have called the “American tragedy.”

Moderator Katie Cortese, assistant professor of creative writing at Texas Tech, began by asking what the responsibility of nonfiction writers must be within the context of the present political climate, and how writers can transform words into measurable change. Cortese quoted James Baldwin’s statement that literature is indispensable to the world, but then questioned how literature becomes indispensible, and how writers can actually change political reality. These questions were explored in great depth by all the panelists.

Gabrielle Bellot, staff writer for LitHub, provided a comprehensive historical overview of the role of the essay in contemporary literature. Bellot traced the beginnings of literature’s role as an agent of change to Chinua Achebe’s lecture/essay Image of Africa, that challenged mainstream critical thinking about Conrad’s Heart of Darkness as well as racist interpretations of “darkness” itself. “We must write dangerously,” Edwidge Danticat wrote, and Bellot asserted that the essay has always been political even within the realm of the personal. Bellot cited works by Sei Shonagun and Marjane Satrapi, in addition to the Wonderwoman series, as having clear political messages. Other texts that have created massive social conversations are Nicholas Carr’s “Is Google Making Us Stupid?” Ta-Nehesi Coates’ “The Case for Reparations,” Zola’s “J’Accuse,” and Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail.”

However, there are many external forces that can exert negative effects on the efficacy of an essay’s message, Bellot warned, and the primary danger is in the positioning of the text within the current climate of extreme political partisanship. “We must be vigilant as writers,” she said. Writers must become acutely aware of how the editing process can sometimes change the aim of an essay, or how headlines, often the only part of an essay people read, can misrepresent that essay’s intended meaning. These are the “invisible dangers” that also extend to confusion over such words as “transgender” and “transgendered,” errors that even reputable news outlets can commit.

Bellot strongly advocated for creative nonfiction’s ability to create empathy among readers, and suggested that CNF may have greater power as an empathically driven narrative mode than reasoned, researched pieces. “Stories get us to believe in them,” she said.

Matthew Salesses, PhD candidate at the University of Houston, rerouted the question of change: what kind of change do we want and who do we want to change? These questions must be considered if writers want to avoid writing to and for the kind of people who believe exactly the same things we believe. Salesses made his comments while seated, “giving up the lectern” because he believes in conversation from a position of equality and being “in people’s spaces,” the same way an essay can enter into a reader’s space.

The personal essay grants access to the author’s mind and can change thinking, but change itself is difficult. Salesses argued against complacency, but admitted that finding ways to change the focus of his own writing after the November elections was challenging. As a Korean adoptee into a white family, he realized that he had drifted into writing from a comfortable position of white privilege without being white. Change is crucial, however, and writers must take ownership of change in order to write the kind of essays that interrogate personal and political values and systems of power.

Jaquira Díaz, Pushcart Prize recipient and MacDowell fellow, read from her 2016 piece in The Guardian, “Puerto Rico’s Last Political Prisoner” about the 34- year long imprisonment of Puerto Rican nationalist Oscar López Rivera and described how she felt as if she was “posing” as a journalist in order to take on the authority the story needed. Díaz said that it seemed inauthentic to her to write journalistically, since she was more comfortable writing creative nonfiction, but pairing journalism with nonfiction techniques can be essential in reaching a wider audience. Readers see themselves reflected on the page when they can identify with the writer, and Díaz asserted the need for substantially more writing that speaks to people of color while also exposing systems of oppression and brutality.

Eric Sasson, Ctrl-Alt columnist for The Wall Street Journal, noted that he found it interesting to write for a publication whose opinions and values he did not believe in, but that he felt he was exposing Wall Street Journal readers to viewpoints they might not be used to encountering. Sasson described his belief that nonfiction can enact social change especially if writers cover issues that have previously been ignored or are not being written about. This burgeoning major progressive movement in reaction to the political climate has been fueled by outrage over what purports to be the truth, and Sasson emphasized that nonfiction becomes even more vital when “alternative facts” threaten to obscure political discourse.

In the Q&A, questions centered on responses to the uncertain state of our country. One question was about using Medium as a publication outlet, and Bellot said she is encouraged by the site’s aesthetically pleasing look and how quickly issues can be brought to public attention. She mentioned that she herself has published on the site, even though some people claim that as a self-publishing venture, Medium may not offer the kind of credentials necessary for many writers. Another questioner asked if this crisis in government is a call to action, and the panel was unanimous in its assent. Sasson pointed out that recognizing this situation can be positive, and that “the only response to despair is you double down, you organize.” A final question brought up the issue of who can write about race, and Salesses echoed Ralph Ellison’s words, “you can’t write in America without writing about race.” Salesses encouraged white people not to write from a personal viewpoint they will never have, but instead “to write about whiteness. Examine yourself.” Díaz reminded the audience that it is not the job of people of color to explain themselves to the white world, and she encouraged everybody to read the literature written by people of color: “The answers are there.”

Note: There was a candlelight vigil for freedom of expression organized for immediately after the panel ended. The vigil took place in Layfayette Square directly across from the White House, and speakers included Kazim Ali, Melissa Febos, Luis J. Rodriguez, Eric Sasson, Gabrielle Bellot, Ross Gay, and Carolyn Forché.

Nadia Ghent is a writer living in Rochester, NY. This was the first AWP conference that she has attended.

Chauna Craig on James Alan McPherson’s “Umbilicus”

Editor’s Note: In light of recent events, Assay is working to fill its spring issue with work that focuses on social justice in nonfiction teaching, reading, writing, across all disciplines that claim nonfiction. All approaches to texts are welcome. Deadline: January 1st, but we are reading now. Please see our call here at Assay’s new Submittable Submission page.

We’re looking for work like this, which first ran in our “In the Classroom” series in 2015. We are proudly reposting it today.


Baltimore, 2015.  Los Angeles, 1992.  Detroit, 1967. Los Angeles (Watts neighborhood), 1965, etc. Race riots, urban revolts, rebellions, uprisings. Whatever the media calls the cycle of public eruptions of outrage over racial injustice in this country’s history, we live in a society where the history of racism continues to shape reactions and decisions, even seemingly small ones like whether to accept help when a car breaks down on the side of a road.

James Alan McPherson’s “Umbilicus” was one of my favorite essays to teach in 1998, when it was reprinted in that year’s Pushcart Prize anthology. Thoughtful, complex, vivid—it taught me. Seventeen years later the essay remains a model of nonfiction writing for how effectively it combines narrative and reflective meditation and demonstrates how personal experience is often weighted by larger cultural forces.


James Alan McPherson

McPherson’s narrative begins in the late fall of his first year as a professor in Iowa when a friend urges him to get out and explore the countryside, to take a chance and expand beyond his careful circle of home and work. He does so, and his spirits are reawakened: “I began to reconsider the essential importance of risk to the enterprise of life.”

The story really begins when the casual touring ends. His car’s engine smoking on the side of the road, McPherson begins to walk for help. A pair of white men in a pickup truck offer a ride.

When I first read this essay, I thought immediately of James Byrd, Jr., who encountered white men in a pickup in Texas and didn’t survive the meeting. He was tied to the truck by a rope and dragged three and a half miles, his head severed somewhere on that road. What makes McPherson’s essay especially powerful is that Byrd was murdered the year after it was first published. McPherson couldn’t have drawn on that story while writing, as I did when reading. But he drew on everything his life had taught him to the point those men stopped their truck, and we see his mind wavering between the risk of trust and the history of distrust.

He writes,

“The two of them seemed to be laborers, or at least farmers. The gun rack stretched across the rear window took my memories back to the terror of that long road I had traveled to this place. There was the truck, the gun rack, the white faces, the road. But they did not have the oily Southern accent. I accepted their offer, and the passenger moved over and allowed me to take his seat.”

Soon, however, the men volunteer proof of their trustworthiness. They insist that they “like the colored.” When they discover that there are no tow trucks at the service station, they devise a plan to tow the car themselves:

“There’s a rope on the back of this truck.  We can drive on back and tie that rope to the front bumper of your car. Then we’ll just tow her on in to Cedar. You can pay us what you were gonna pay the tow truck, plus we’ll do it for less money.”

Though we have no concrete reason to suspect the men of ill intentions, they are not kind either. They expect to be paid. They expect gratitude for the bargain. Through dialogue and careful characterization, readers are led to identify with McPherson’s growing wariness.  No proof of malice, but no proof of benign intentions either.

The best essays reflect the world, not as we want it to be, but as we experience it. We rarely get incontrovertible evidence to support our hopes or fears. We make the best decisions we can in the moment, while all of our human bias, fears, hopes, risks, denials and confusion compete for consideration. “Umbilicus” embodies the drama of individual risk and retreat in the context of history. As darkness falls and McPherson grows desperate, he agrees to the white men’s plan. They tie his car to their truck, and they start driving. Roads that seemed fairly smooth before now feel foreboding as McPherson tries to steer a dead car, unable to see much, relying on the white men’s skills and care, his only remaining sense of control his brake pedal. He reflects on how “…the old life lessons came back. There has never been a life-affirming umbilicus between black and white.” The rope is no longer in his mind a lifeline, but a danger; the men are no longer rescuers but “two drunk white men” putting his life at risk.

McPherson admits that he acts from this “reduced frame of reference.” I had no trust left in me. He hits the brakes, sending both vehicles into the ditch, even as the rope, the umbilicus, holds. Though at the end of the essay he walks away, we realize that no one ever really walks away from a dead car or a broke-down Baltimore, or Los Angeles, or Detroit, etc. “Umbilicus” lingers in the reader’s mind, not only because the writing is sharp and vivid, but because it awakens our own (often secret) doubts about the rhetoric of race in this country.


10679674_10205306037194106_650969032157442128_oChauna Craig’s essays have appeared in Fourth Genre, Lime Hawk Review, Terrain.org and Superstition Review.  Her work has been honored as a Notable Essay in Best American Essays, and she’s won fellowships to Virginia Center for the Creative Arts, Vermont Studio Center, and Hedgebrook Writers Retreat.  She teaches at Indiana University of Pennsylvania.

#cnfwc16 — Twelve Quotes Full of “Insight and Inspiration” from the 2016 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference


  1. “A draft is full of sentences that are auditioning. – Dinty W. Moore


  1. “With an outline you’re not going to write about what you don’t know you know.” – Dinty W. Moore


  1. “Save your seedlings.” – Dinty W. Moore


  1. Try writing by hand, because “your fingers are connected to your arm, the veins to the heart.” – Dinty W. Moore


  1. Instead of saying that the reader has to do some work, think of it this way: “The reader likes to participate.” – Dinty W. Moore


  1. “First draft writing is like no other kind of writing – you have to go into the woods and keep going. Second draft writing – you have to see the forest for the trees.” – Kristin Kovacic


  1. “The title is the door to your essay – but a door works both ways.” – Kristin Kovacic


  1. “Wherever you have the wrong set of feelings, that’s a fruitful place for an essayist to be.” – Kristin Kovacic


  1. “The biggest thing an editor can do for you is get [you] out of your head” – Jason Bittle


  1. “Immersion is about waiting. It’s not about finding a story to fit inside your pre-constructed ideas, but letting a story unfold.” – Maggie Messitt


  1. “If you don’t have belief in your own gut, develop it.” –Adriana Ramierz


  1. “Burst upon the page.” – Lee Gutkind  

    CNFwc16 program

Find out more on Twitter at #cnfwc16 or at the conference website: www.creativenonfiction.org/conference.


Randon Billings Noble author photoRandon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Millions; Brain, Child; Los Angeles Review of Books; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; Brevity; Fourth Genre; Creative Nonfiction and elsewhere. A fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, she was named a 2013 Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow to attend a residency at The Millay Colony for the Arts. Currently she is a nonfiction editor at r.kv.r.y quarterly, Reviews Editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and a regular reviewer for The A.V. Club.

#cnfwc16 — Report from the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference

2016_ConferenceBanner_3_HCreative Nonfiction’s (CNF) motto is “True stories, well told.” It’s also true that their annual conference held over Memorial Day weekend in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania tried to please everyone. More than 150 writers at varying stages on their journey gathered for three themed days of panels and presentations: “Write,” “Revise,” and “Publish.”

The first day offered master classes with Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore, and others. The second day featured the harder work of revision through research and adaptations. The final day focused on the realities of the publishing industry and do’s and don’ts of writing book proposals, agent queries, and platform building.

Rather than the traditional literary readings or workshops, the CNF staff hosted a nightly happy hour. Long lunch breaks encouraged attendees to explore the restaurants, cathedrals, and museums within walking distance. CNF also offered twelve conference scholarships to their “Writing Away the Stigma” fellows.

For a novice writer, Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference really was “three days full of insight & inspiration.” For the already well-published writer, it was refreshing. If attendees sought individual access to agents, editors, and publishers, they were generous and available. For CNF fans, small really was a better way to learn to tell a true story.

Find out more on Twitter at #cnfwc16 or at the conference website: www.creativenonfiction.org/conference.


Melissa Scholes Young’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poets & Writers, Poet Lore, and other literary journals. She teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. and is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @mscholesyoung

R. Flowers Rivera: Poetry Is Nonfiction and Other Things My Students Learn to Trust

My Creating Poetry class continues to stun me, or I should say the effects some teacher from their long-ago pasts does. See, these are my upper-level, undergrad students who have elected to try their hand at writing poems or to further develop some poetic series they have been writing toward. Inevitably, at least once a semester (if not more), some serious soul or another recounts the experience of having been instructed to seek the right answer when ferreting out motifs and theme, or the meaning as they engage in a close reading of the text, of having been told to first research what other critics have said about a work—or, even more interestingly, what their teacher says is the right answer. Here, I keep my tongue and old American Bandstand allusions in check: “I’ll give it 78, Dick. It’s got a groovy beat and you can move to it.” Via the syllabus, I assign some approachable books as preliminary reading in theory and craft in addition to an anthology or two. However, this is the technique on which I rely most: I bring in copies of poems stripped of the names of the poets because I want the students to move toward developing their own sense of aesthetics by seeking the internal logic and rhythm of the poems—which bring us to Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s Streaming, a collection I selected as the winner of the 2015 Southwest Pen Book Award.


I had selected the Streaming against my usual hard-edged biases toward perfect clarity, for the collection taught me aurally how to read each poem—word-by-word concatenations—leaving me to trust the images as guides functioning the way in which the poetics of objective correlatives do. Consider the following:



Swarming upward

hosts thicken air as hornets

with whirling winds

their weapons wielded wildly


back home blackbirds whirl

in skies grayed

from icy winter chill, frost,

a single sparrow cowers against

bush base huddling


wind bristles with his war

skies hustle

fields, valleys, meadows moan

mountains reel


all creatures

cater to whims of man

in chaotic frenzy for battle

when peace is ever present

in just one thoughtful breath


breathe, breathe deep (33)

After I had read the poem aloud, I asked them what they thought the effect was. I received blank stares and confused, darting glances. So, in turn, I asked for three volunteers to re-read the poem aloud, followed by asking them what them what they felft in the gut. They met me with silence, and I waited them out. “Okay,” I said, “quickly mark whatever literary and rhetorical devices you notice.” Finally, they dug in, this was a task most of them had been trained to do. Hands flew up, and I asked them to take them down, saying “This is not that kind of class. We are cars merging into traffic. Find a gap, speed up or drop back, but get in.” The answers came spilling forth: alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, asyndeton, repetition, slant rhyme. “Yes, yes…all yes. But do you have to know any of those things to find beauty of meaning in the poem?” They shook their heads in unison. The students were my birds of pedagogy. I could see how our classroom ecology was thriving or failing in their ability to carry on.

I know I’m taking a risk each time I pull this stunt, but the process rarely fails. The students first realize that poetry is a kind of nonfiction that functions as exposition, description, narration, persuasion—at root, truth-telling. In Hedge Coke’s Streaming, as with most poems, the reader can rely upon diction, syntax, caesura, enjambment, and punctuation (or the lack thereof) as signposts. Even as I first read, and then read again, her poem, I could feel the language and see histories rising and falling away. Watch the poet relate whole histories of resistance in the second stanza of “Taxonomy”:

We were tabooed, shunned, mocked and on our mettle

most any pierce of day. Principal struck blows to show we

deserved no mercy. It was splintering. Holes bored blisters

each smacking wave. We were deserving. Wave after wave

first grade took the test out from me. Never did spill again,

no matter the syndrome. We were anything but beggars,

so we scraped by, held up. We flung ourselves into every

angle, withheld our curve. Split loose from whatever held on. (61)

I learn to trust Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s vision, no matter that America had sought erasure of that pride. She shows reader/writers how to witness for one’s people and homeplace without appropriation, how lines of poetry can be dovetailed to manifest meaning. “Lest they moved you, sent you off to foster somewhere no / one warned might reckon. Sent you streaming. Gave you up / like paper. Tossed, crumpled, straightened up, and smoothed / out flat. That was that. It was nothing you’d remember, but / we do” (61-61). You see, or at least I hope you do, exactly what Streaming reminded me of. The poet must continually risk part of herself in the act of creating poems. And by doing so, there exist no formulaic answers, only attempts at communication. My students quickly learn that you can fail, but that I don’t mind if they do, as long they’re willing to risk something they cherish, and that to my mind—since I am the one whose grading pen they fear—there are no failures unless you’re unwilling to fail big.


W+F2R. Flowers Rivera is a native of Mississippi. Her second collection of poetry, Heathen, was selected by poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller as the winner of the 2015 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, and also received the 2016 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Poetry. Dr. Rivera’s debut collection, Troubling Accents, was chosen by the Texas Association of Authors as its 2014 Poetry Book of the Year. She lives in McKinney, Texas, and teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas View more of her work by visiting http://www.promethea.com

Assay@NonfictioNow2015: Call for Guest Bloggers–Thursday!

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 11.40.48 AM

The long-awaited return of NonfictioNow to the United States has had us thrilled for months–and now the schedule of panels is up on their website. To make NFN more accessible to the wider world and because in the time since AWP in Minneapolis we still haven’t come up with an effective method of cloning so we can be in several places at once, we’re calling for guest bloggers to write up reports on panels for us to archive here at Assay. We’ll be posting a call for each day separately. Please feel free to sign up for more than one panel, more than one day. Use the comment section (below) to reserve your choice, and we’ll cross it off the list, so no one else will take it.

Your guest post should be around 500-700 words and can be a summary, personal thoughts, quotes, or anything memorable that our nonfiction community would love to know about since we can’t all be at everything.The goal is to give those who aren’t there a good idea of what went on. Once your post is ready, send it in the text of an email to assayjournal (at) gmail.com along with a one or two line bio and we’ll post them ASAP. If you want to see how we did AWP, click here.

Please make sure to like our page on Facebook and follow us on Twitter–that way, we can tag you when your post goes live. Thank you, all!

Below is a call for guest bloggers for the first day of NonfictioNow. Stay tuned for the Friday and Saturday calls.


Thursday, 29 October 2015

9.00 am – 10.15 am

  • On Failure, or the Essay as Ruin (Lindsey Drager, Jenny Boully, Sarah Levine, Sarah Minor, Kristen Radtke)
  • Of Visual Essayistics (Denise Gonzales Crisp, Gail Swanlund, Ben Van Dyke, Joshua Unikel)
  • Mixed Media Memoir (Amy Silverman, Rebecca Fish Ewan, Deborah Sussman Susser)
  • First Person Dangerous (Anne Panning, Alexis Paige, Penny Guisinger, Karen Salyer McElmurray)
  • Meditations on Monstrous Characters (Marsha McGregor, Marcia Aldrich, Brooke Wonders, Amy Wright)


10:45 am – 12:00 pm 

  • Toward a Theory of Anthologies (Patricia Foster, David Lazar, Margot Singer, Patrick Madden, Paul Zakrewski)
  • Writing and Editing the City (Jennifer Acker, Curtis Bauer, Barrie Jean Borich, Aviya Kushner, Steve Wingate)
  • Beyond Scaffolding: Constructing an Essay Collection (Jennifer Bowen Hicks, Amy Butcher, Jericho Parms, John Proctor)
  • Writing from Within a Dissenting Subjectivity (Quince Mountain, Jose Orduna, Catina Bacote, Rachel Hansen, Toni Neali)
  • Theorizing Nonfiction (Travis Scholl, Beth Peterson, Joanna Eleftheriou, Corinna Cook, Jennifer Sinor)


12:15 pm – 1:15 pm

Keynote Address by Brian Doyle


2:30 pm – 3:45 pm 

  • Hydra-headed Memoirs & Well-connected Essays: Negotiating Your Book-length, NonFiction Thing (Steven Church, Steven Harvey, Sonya Huber, Tarn Wilson, Joe Mackall)
  • Exploring Women’s Bodies (Heidi Czerwiec, Jen Fitzgerald, EJ Levy, Wendy Ortiz, Anna March)
  • Writers on Essays that Took Forever to Get Right (Mary Margaret Alvarado, Amy Leach, Kerry Reilly, and Charles D’Ambrosio, Aviya Kushner)
  • A New ‘I’ on Nature: Explorations in Environmental Essays (Clinton Crockett Peters, Wendy Call, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Angela Pelster, Yelizaveta Renfro)
  • Relocating Dislocation: Uncovering the Familiar in the Strange (Deanna Benjamin, Travis Scholl, Beth Peterson, Eric O Scott)


4:00 pm – 5:15 pm

  • It’s a Family Affair: The Exciting/Perilous Task of Writing About our Relations (Honor Moore, Hope Edelman, Maggie Nelson, Lucas Mann, Mieke Eerkens)
  • Literary Travel Writer (Bonnie Rough, Alex Sheshunoff, Colleen Kinder, Robin Hemley)
  • You are what you write…: What Happens When Nonfiction Writers Get Defined by Their Material (Sonja Livingston, Justin St. Germain, and William Bradley, Beth Nguyen)
  • Performing the Essay: Combinations and Permutations (Peta Murray, Francesca Rendle-Short, Sophie Cunningham, Lucinda Strahan, Papatya Bucak)
  • Entropy Magazine: A Case Study (Emily Stern, Brooke Wonders, Barrett Warner, Sara Finnerty Turgeon, Nancy Jainchill)


7 pm – 8 pm

Keynote Address by Maggie Nelson


9 pm

Soiree Readings: Iowa 30 Years Anthology

Taking My Time: Randon Billings Noble on The Folded Clock by Heidi Julavits

Randon Billings Noble author photo

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; Brain, Child; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; Brevity; Fourth Genre and elsewhere.  She is a nonfiction editor at r.kv.r.y quarterly, Reviews Editor at PANK, and a reviewer for The A.V. Club.  You can read more of her work at www.randonbillingsnoble.com.

30 April

Today I read to page 32 in The Folded Clock and loved it so much I started writing a letter to a friend – a real letter, not an email or message or text – to tell her about it.  This friend and I used to live in the same city, but now we don’t, so we write letters to each other maybe once a month or so.

I like to write letters. I like addressing the envelope, picking out a stamp that fits the mood of the letter or of the season.  I like the physical act (sometimes inconvenience) of taking it to a mailbox to send it on its way.  I like it when words become an artifact – something with a presence that is held and read and perhaps not too easily discarded.

The Folded Clock is an artifact, a book with an abstract print on its cover that looks like something Vanessa Bell may have painted for the first edition of a Woolf novel.  There is no dust jacket to fuss with or fret over.  It feels good in the hands and to the eye.  It is not easily discarded.

I meant to read only a few pages but I read to page 32.  It was too late at night to start a book but I found myself unable – or unwilling – to stop. The Folded Clock is a diary with each entry beginning with the word “Today.”

Today I wondered What is the worth of a day?

Today, or rather tonight, my husband and I will be watching “The Men Tell All.”

Today I was stung by a wasp.

Today I spun tops with my son.

Today I started reading a book called How to Navigate Today.

The entries are dated but in no particular order.  Each one deepens into a nuanced meditation – an essay, even – on a subject that may only tangentially relate to the opening line.  Thinking about “The Men Tell All” (the penultimate episode of The Bachelorette) turns into a consideration of fiction vs. reality, crushes vs. marriage, how Neanderthals managed to procreate, and why it shouldn’t be surprising that we experience real feelings as a result of fiction.

Each entry makes me think about my own life in similar terms – whatever terms Julavits sets out: writing, watching, stinging, spinning, reading, feeling.

11 May

Today I went to the National Portrait Gallery and thought about the passage of time.  I was looking at an exhibit of the works of Elaine de Kooning and reading the notes on the wall about early work, late work, how the work was influenced by marriage, birth, death … It made me wonder about my own work, my own life.  What will my best work be?  What will be considered a stumble, a mistake?  What will my main influences be, for better or worse?

Much of the above passage I took straight from my diary.

I wonder how much Julavits took straight from her diary and how much she added and how she thinks and feels about her work and life and being in the middle of things.

3 May

Today I ate Thai food with a bunch of poets in Fairfax, Virginia.  I had never been to Fairfax, Virginia but have always loved the name.  It reminds me of Miss Jane Fairfax from an Austen novel, a character I don’t much remember, and never seemed to be clear about even when I did remember.  Was she “good” or “bad” (according the heroine in question)?  You can’t tell from the name (like wicked Wickham or will-less Willoughby) – the X at the end makes her feel somehow suspect.  I could look it up – a Google search is only a few keystrokes away – but, like Julavits, sometimes I prefer wondering to a hard answer.

I like hanging out with poets.  They do a lot of wondering too.

10 May

Today I received an email from the library telling me that The Folded Clock was overdue but I decided not to return it.  I don’t want to rush these readings.  I tend to read them at night when everyone else is asleep and I’m alone and almost giddy at having the quiet and solitude to enjoy a book in a circle of lamplight that feels like a spell protecting my quiet and solitude.  These moments feel illicit (even though they’re not) and I am reminded of Anna Karenina coming home from seeing Vronsky and lying awake in bed, her eyes shining in the dark, thinking only “It’s late, it’s late” with a kind of inarticulate joy.  But I am so happy to be alone with a mind I admire without being interrupted by other minds I admire, especially the two four-year-old minds I live with, that it almost feels like an affair – something valued but kept at the margins, something unknown to the sanctioned people in my life, something they might not fully understand.

17 May

Today I made a list of ways I might start more diary entries with “Today.”  Some of them I have already used, some of them I have not.

Today I stopped watching Sons of Anarchy after a particularly vicious prison rape.

Today I went to “Muffins with Mommy” at the twins’ preschool and had my hands painted green.

Today I watched a series of World War II planes fly over the Potomac.

Today I tried to clean out a closet but didn’t.

There’s something compelling about starting each entry with the same word.  It acts as an organizing principle when diaries – and lives – usually don’t have one.

24 May

Today I finished this piece even though I still haven’t finished The Folded Clock.  I feel a little guilty about this, but the series is called “Writers to Read” not “Writers I’ve Read.”  And I’m still reading – I returned the library’s copy but immediately bought my own.  I didn’t want too long a pause in our conversation, Julavits’s and mine.  I want to keep turning the pages, seeing how our lives and thoughts unfold against each other’s.  I don’t want to hurry this relationship to its inevitable 290-page end.  I want to slow the clock and savor the time.  I want there to be more todays.

The Setting and the Story: Joan Didion’s “The Santa Ana”

VivianWagnerVivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Zone 3, McSweeney’s, The Pinch, Silk Road Review, and other journals, and she’s the author of Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music.

Every time I read Joan Didion’s description of the hot, dry Santa Ana winds I get homesick. I’m a native Californian, but I’ve lived for many years in a village in southeastern Ohio, and we just don’t get winds like that around here.

Didion’s Los Angeles is, for many of my students, a foreign world. Yet I’ve found that her essay, “The Santa Ana,” inspires them as they describe their own Midwestern and Appalachian worlds. It’s an essay, in short, about the importance of setting, and about how the place where a story happens cannot be separated from the story itself.

“The Santa Ana,” which first appeared in The Saturday Evening Post in 1967 and later was published as part of “Los Angeles Notebook” in Slouching Towards Bethlehem, describes a culture of crime and freeways, forest fires and wind. It’s a landscape inextricably tied to emotion, perspective, and experience:

“There is something uneasy in the Los Angeles air this afternoon, some unnatural stillness, some tension. What it means is that tonight a Santa Ana will begin to blow, a hot wind from the northeast whining down through the Cajon and San Gorgonio passes, blowing up sandstorms out along route 66, drying the hills and nerves to the flash point.”

This low-grade anxiety serves as the beginning of Didion’s essay, and that anxiety underlies everything that is to come. It’s the setting of her story, and it’s also the story itself. She draws on history, folklore, and science to describe the Santa Ana, comparing them to the foehn winds of Austria and Switzerland, the hamsin of Israel, and other “persistent, malevolent winds.” During such winds, she argues, crime increases, depression deepens, and everything that’s bad in Los Angeles gets worse. It might or might not be the result of the wind whipping up positive ions – “what an excess of positive ions does, in the simplest terms, is make people unhappy,” she says – but whatever the legitimacy of the science behind this claim, Didion uses the wind to get at what she sees as the heart of Los Angeles’s culture. She describes the crime waves and traffic jams, the suicides and murders, that accompany the Santa Ana, referring both to news reports and to small moments in her own life: “I rekindle a waning argument with the telephone company, then cut my losses and lie down, given over to whatever it is in the air.”

Ultimately, Didion builds to a metaphorical crescendo:

“Los Angeles weather is the weather of catastrophe, of apocalypse, and just as the reliably long and bitter winters of New England determine the way life is lived there, so the violence and the unpredictability of the Santa Ana affect the entire quality of life in Los Angeles, accentuate its impermanence, its unreliability. The wind shows us how close to the edge we are.”

I remember when I first read Didion’s description of the Santa Ana winds. I was in college, and it struck me at once as an exaggeration of the emotional effects of fairly common winds and a brilliant description and analysis of a place and its people. After reading Slouching Towards Bethlehem, I never looked at Los Angeles the same way again. It’s not a complete portrait of the city, by any means. It’s filtered through Didion’s late 1960s perspective and her interpretation of the city’s moral and cultural character. But it’s a deep and resounding portrait, one that tells a story of a place through the physical experience of its landscape.

I like to use this essay as a starting point, part of a prompt for students to write about weather events that they’ve experienced – snow and hailstorms, lightning, hot muggy days, and the occasional derecho. It gets them thinking about the importance of setting beyond just “It was a sunny day” or “It was a dark and stormy night.” Didion makes us see setting not as peripheral but as central, almost like a character itself. And I think this is the most valuable thing about Didion’s essay: it emphasizes the primacy of place, setting, and landscape. Every story, after all, happens somewhere, and Didion makes us think about the importance of where.

Fragments, Moments, and Stories: On Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

blue flowerVivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Zone 3, McSweeney’s, Silk Road Review, and other journals, and she’s the author of Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music.


  1. I started reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets this spring on my way to AWP in Minneapolis for the weekend. Feeling restless on the airplane, I downloaded it onto my iPad and began reading. I read and read, all the way to Minneapolis. I glanced up now and then to see the sunset over the prairie of clouds, to see the plane descending through grayness into the city, to see the inexorable approach of the runway. After each glance up, I’d fall back into the book.
  1. Early this morning, I saw the first of my Alaskan wildflowers blooming in my Ohio garden: a blue flax. It had a small yellow center and fine purple lines radiating outward. Delicate and strong, it fluttered in the cool breeze.
  1. I’m easily distracted, as a reader, as a writer, as a person. Bluets speaks to me partly because it lets me read in bits and pieces. To read and then look out the window. To think and then read again. To let my mind wander and then focus.
  1. In second grade, my teacher wrote a note to my parents on my report card: “Vivian tends to daydream.” That word — “daydream” — caught my imagination. I’d never heard it before. I asked my mom what it meant, and she said it meant I didn’t pay enough attention. I realized then that the teacher was right. I thought of all the time during class that I gazed out the window, listening to the desert wind blow sand against the glass. I paid attention, but not always to what the teacher wanted me to. I daydreamed.
  1. My writing has been influenced irreversibly by Bluets. The book has freed me from thinking that narratives must be linear and chronological. I knew this prior to reading Bluets, I suppose, but this book helped me to feel it, to understand it. And, perhaps most importantly, to practice it.
  1. Bluets’ numbered sections work well on an iPad. I’m not particularly proud of the fact that I first read this book in its digital version, but this book grew out of the digital age, with all of its demands and tabs and windows.
  1. I’ve been making recycled paper lately with old bills and junk mail. It’s calming and engrossing. I love how the slurry dries and reveals a few single letters here and there – random a’s and d’s and z’s. Sometimes I mix violets, clovers, and grass in with the paper. A few days ago I accidently mixed in a small flying insect with a handful of leaves. I found it in the paper, its delicate wings outstretched, flattened. I felt bad. I wished I had looked more carefully at what I had gathered, what I had thrown in.
  1. After I make the paper, I stitch it into small journals and chapbooks. I have many of them now, waiting for words.
  1. I’m going to Alaska this summer to spend time with my boyfriend. He’s a pilot, an engineer, a photographer, an explorer. I love his dark, kind eyes. The way he’s always up for an adventure. The way he’s always in the moment. The way, when I’m writing, he sits by me quietly – reading, gazing out at the water, puzzling over his own projects, thinking his own thoughts. I love being with him.
  1. Bluets doesn’t have a story, exactly. At least, it’s not a story in the traditional sense of that term. It’s composed of 240 fragments, facts, details, observations, and story-bits. Together, they add up to what might be considered a narrative about a lost relationship, about the regaining of a sense of self, about depression, about hope. Now that I’ve finished the book, I like to dip back in and read a passage here and there. Maybe the one about bower birds. Or about Derrida. Or about Cézanne. Or about cyanometers. Or about Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Each one stands alone, and yet each one belongs with the others.
  1. The blue flax flower in my garden still blooms now, in the early afternoon. The sun’s reached its petals, slightly brightening their shade of blue. In a few days, this particular flower will stop blooming and go to seed, but I see another bud near it, slowly unfurling, waiting for just the right moment to open up.