Women Writing Lives: Pedagogy in the Archives

In the fall of 2017, I started teaching a new class. Women Writing Lives would examine a diverse selection of 20th– and 21st-century texts of women’s literary nonfiction, including radio diaries, published journals, finely wrought memoirs, essays, and – most ambitiously (from a pedagogical standpoint) – unpublished archival materials. Questions I posed in my syllabus included:

  • How do women write their lives and why?
  • What can we discern or discovers literariness of nonfiction and life-writing of all kinds?
  • What is the difference between public and private writing? Should we read these differently, and if so, then why and how?

The writing-intensive class comprised twenty students. We kicked off the semester by listening to a teenaged girl’s radio diary from the 1990s. Amanda told her coming out story and professed her love for her girlfriend in a thick Brooklyn accent. As we listened, the class marvelled at Amanda’s frankness, courage, and vulnerability in the telling of her life. We talked about editing, about narrative arcs, and whether or not this radio diary might consitute an essay or something else.

In the weeks that followed, Alice Walker’s essay, “Looking for Zora,” showed us how writers are detectives. Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own demonstrated how women’s social history has determined women’s literary history and our writerly legacies. Reading Sarah Manguso’s Ongoingness beside Sylvia Plath’s Journals showed us the power of editing, retrospection, and how diaries differ from memoirs. Maggie Nelson’s Jane: A Murder took their breath away as did Louise DeSalvo’s essay, “Portrait of the Puttana as a Middle-Aged Woolf Scholar.” Students shared their own examples of life-writing, wrote short analyses of the books we read, and experimented by producing bold new texts of their own in the form of diary entries or letters. Finally, having looked at women’s life-writing from all angles, we were ready to go into the archives.

The summer before the class, I spent a few days exploring the Missouri State Historical Society’s collections. For a while, I considered having the class read a homesteader’s diary and letter collection. I then sat with letters written by a female anarchist imprisoned in St. Louis, which were fascinating but somehow not right for the task at hand. In the end, I settled on the extensive collection of a Vietnam War correspondent, Ann Bryan Mariano McKay (1932-2009). McKay’s papers contained love letters to and from Frank Mariano who became her husband, adoption and immigration papers for the two orphaned Vietnamese girls who became her daughters, newspaper clippings, the daughters’ writings as they grew, snippets of memoir about the war, and (devastatingly) the records of the deaths of one of the daughters to cancer and of Frank to cardiac arrest. I found the collection utterly engrossing and deeply moving. I suspected my students would too. By way of background, I distributed a memoir-essay called “Vietnam Is Where I Found My Family” that McKay had contributed to the anthology, War Torn: Stories of War from the Women Reporters Who Covered Vietnam. This prepared the class for the three days we would spend in the archive.

4009 f  515 - Ann in OW office Saigon c  1967.jpgThe trick to pedagogy in the archives is not to overwhelm with too much material and not to set students loose on the collections without guidance. For successful teaching in the archives, instructors must provide structure, limits, and clear instructions. With all this in mind, I pulled together three photocopied packages for my students: one told the story of Ann’s life in the form of her letters and clippings; a second that told the story of Frank through letters and legal documents; and a third that told the story of Ann’s daughters, also through letters and official papers. I broke the class into three groups. Each received only a portion of the archive, that is, either Ann’s, Frank’s, or the daughters’ materials. Students then completed an assignment based on their particular portion of the archive. In addition to the photocopied packages (one per student), I invited the class to examine the original materials.

Over the three days in the archives, students completed the following assignment.

1) Describe your materials:

  • What is in the collection?
  • Who is the author of the collection?
  • Describer the physical characteristics of your materials. What is the paper like? Color, texture? Is it a typescript or manuscript? Is it original or a photocopy?
  • What year was it produced? Or over what time period?
  • How old was the author of these materials?

Once you have observed the materials and answered these and any other questions that come to mind, write a paragraph describing them.

2) What can you deduce from your materials? What do you know for sure?

  • Where are they from?
  • What do they tell you about their author? About her or his class, profession, life experience?
  • What story do these materials tell?

Once you have answered these questions and sat with your materials long enough to understand something about them, write a paragraph that starts: “These materials tell the story of…”

3) What questions have these materials raised for you? What more would you like to know?

  • Write a paragraph musing on the unanswered questions you have. You may list your questions but you can also speculate as to what you think the answers to these questions might be. Use your imagination.

Once they had completed and submitted the assignment, students wrote a reflection of their time in the archive:

Write a paragraph describing what you did in the archives. Be sure to include any thoughts about:

  • What you learned in this process of working with archival materials.
  • What you might want to do if you had more time to go deeper in this research.
  • What surprised you most over the past three classes.

Upon reconvening in our classroom after our archive days, we shared our newfound knowledge. Impressions from the students included:

  • “These materials have been very interesting to sift through and work with, but it has been very hard for me to come up with a cohesive timeline of [Ann’s] stories and experiences. Like mentioned in class, working with archives is somewhat like detective work trying to piece everything together.”
  • “Ann and her daughter [Mai]…used letter-writing almost exclusively as a means to talk about their problems, which meant that pretty much the entire story was there in front of me. In all honesty, that was really cool for me.…This was especially interesting to me as the letters were written in the 1980s, especially 1989. How strange yet enticing that their language and ideas can resonate with me, almost twenty years later.”
  • “Reading ​​only ​​from ​​Frank’s ​​perspective​​ gives​​ me ​​a​​ strong​​ urge ​​to ​​read ​​Ann’s ​​letters and to see​​ her ​​reaction ​​to​​ his​​ affection. ​​There ​​is ​​a​​ particular​​ letter​​ where​​ Frank​​ apologizes ​​for ​​fighting with ​​Ann​​ while ​​they ​​are ​​visiting ​​each ​​other, ​​and ​​he​​ never​​ mentions ​​why, ​​but​​ I ​​wonder​​ what exactly ​​they ​​were ​​fighting ​​about.​”
  • “There were so many folders filled with years and years of stories, so I can’t even begin to imagine how long it took to gather and sort [them]. To be honest, the thought of looking through the archives of strangers sounded a bit boring to begin with, but after spending time flipping through the archives, I was so sad to leave. I think it would be very interesting to see someone start the process of grouping these materials together to create a story of someone’s entire life.”

Each group had learned a single fragment of the story of this collection and of this family. Each group, in turn, led the rest of the class through their portion. By comparing notes and complementing their peers’ discoveries, together the students created something resembling a whole.

Once we’d completed the entire exercise, we compiled a list of what our time with Ann Bryan Mariano McKay’s papers had allowed us to see and experience either more clearly than before or perhaps even for the first time. Here’s that list.

Our time in the archives allowed us to think about

  • how and why we record our lives and what we leave behind.
  • how even the smallest, most ordinary life may contain great beauty, tragedy, and wisdom.
  • how archival research is fun, fascinating, and challenging.
  • how a single life (Ann’s) contains the stories of many other lives (Frank’s, the daughters’) within it.
  • how not everything can be found on the Internet.
  • how people who lived long ago (20 years or more!), and whom we imagine as old-fashioned or dusty, are more recognizable to us than we think.
  • how our own private writing practices and creative processes might actually matter and have artistic or historical value.
  • how we too, with our small little lives, also have the right to tell and record our stories.

It was a deep pleasure to watch my students learn before my very eyes, witness them discover the thrill of archival research, and observe them fall in love with a family they had never met and to whom they had no connections other than the ones they were building in their imaginations. Truth be told, even I was surprised at how deeply and profoundly attached they became to our archival subjects. As the class filed out of the reading room on our last day of work there, I was alarmed to see tears streaming down the cheeks of one of my more taciturn students. When I asked her what was wrong, she sighed and gestured to the materials on the table. “It’s just so sad,” she said. “Beautiful, but sad.”

Note: Thanks to the University of Missouri’s Campus Writing Program for granting me a Writing Intensive Project Award so that I could take the time I needed to develop this course. Thanks also to John Konzal and the other archivists at the State Historical Society of Missouri for welcoming my class and letting us take over the reading room for three days. For more on Ann Bryan Mariano McKay, you can read her obituary here. http://www.latimes.com/local/obituaries/la-me-ann-bryan-mariano9-2009mar09-story.html


Senior Editor Julija Šukys is an assistant professor of creative nonfiction at the University of Missouri. She holds a PhD in Comparative Literature from the University of Toronto (2001) and is the author of three books (Silence is Death, Epistolophilia, and Siberian Exile), one book-length translation (And I burned with shame), and of more than two dozen essays. Šukys draws on archives, interviews, bibliographical research, and observation to write about minor lives in war-torn or marginal places, about women’s life-writing, and about the legacy of violence across generations and national borders.

 

Jennifer Dean — My Favorite Essay to Teach: Angela Morales’s “Girls in My Town”

27286616I knew I wanted to teach Angela Morales’ The Girls In My Town before I’d even finished the whole collection, before reaching the eponymous and concluding essay, but once I read the opening section of “The Girls In My Town” I knew I had to teach the book, or at least that essay.

Set in the Central Valley where I also teach and live, “The Girls In My Town” is a dark meditation on teen mothers (and the young men who abandon them), loneliness and lack, and the darker side of motherhood, including La Llorona and reflections on the pain of childbirth.

I enjoy teaching this essay from a craft perspective because it shows the power of well-chosen details to help create motif and support the ideas of a piece. As both an essayist and poet, I have a reverence for well-wrought scene. Morales’ essay is a fantastic way to demonstrate to students the power of description for advancing a theme, motif, or driving question. Morales opens her essay with a panoramic description:

Here in the Central Valley –in this sun-bleached, hardtack landscape– we have no choice but to search for beauty. The soil, dun-colored and rock hard, erodes into a soft layer of silt that covers the town every time the wind blows. All across California’s farm belt–this land between the Sierras and the Pacific–rows of cotton bolls, apricot and walnut trees, grapevines and tomato plants, roll out for hundreds of miles. But then the rain ceases. Two years pass. Three years. Early morning dew brings the smell of manure, which lingers in our neighborhoods, a smell that grows stronger with every passing month. Winter brings no rain but only a thick layer of tule fog, which traps us further in a damp, white haze. Bitter particles of pesticides hang in the air. We drive on Highway 99 in search of something to look at and find For Lease signs, abandoned Western-themed restaurants, and peeling billboards advertising brand new housing developments that never panned out–a picture of a two-story tract home with a Spanish-tile fountain, a father holding a plump toddler, a chemical green lawn, a happy yellow dog. Between aqueducts and waterways, mazes of irrigation canals and ditches, we try to improve our minds. We enroll in classes at the community college and vow, once and for all, to see it through.” (147-8)

Morales roots readers in the landscape and subtly prepares readers for what follows. “The Girls in My Town” is a great way of presenting the importance of well-chosen description details to students. In discussion of the essay and craft, we compare our own observations about the Central Valley with her writing in the essay, observing what word choices and details she has chosen to include or leave out, and what those choices suggest about the mood of the piece.

At once, Morales’ description both evokes and distorts the reality of the Central Valley. Morales supplies readers with texture, taste, smell, sound, and sights that are very much real, but arranged in such a way that we are later able to understand Morales’ disdain for the continuation school and other support systems that provide for material needs of young women’s bodies but not their souls or hearts. She writes, “The girls in my town may have more choices, though some people might argue that when you’re young and poor and your own mother lives on welfare, those choices are hard to find. Love, on the other hand, is easier to find. Love (or the promise of it) is free.” (154)

“The Girls In My Town” craft discussion is a great opener for a description exercise. I ask my students to pick a mood, an emotion (or draw one from a hat) and I ask them write a description of a setting that hints at their chosen emotion through description, doing their best to include as many sensory details as possible. When writing time is over volunteers share their work. The result is a kaleidoscope view of the same setting.

The Central Valley in drought can be as harsh a place as Morales describes, but when the rains come in winter and spring the topsoil becomes a rich color like milk chocolate, the irrigation canals and ditches are full and the fast-moving water makes a shushing sound as it glides through neighborhoods on the way to those same rows of apricot and walnut trees in fields like a Hidden Valley advertisement; the rains rinse away the dust from the streets lined with stucco covered wood frame houses in shades of blue, yellow, peach, and green pasteled by long months of bright sun. My students know this, and say as much, too.


Contributing Editor Jennifer M. Dean earned an M.A. in poetry from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln and an M.F.A. in creative nonfiction from California State University-Fresno. Her work has most recently appeared in Crazyhorse, Midwestern Gothic, Poetry Quarterly, Off the Coast, and elsewhere. Jennifer adjuncts at Fresno City College and has three dogs whom she accidentally taught to spell ‘bath’ and ‘walk’. She is currently working on her first essay collection.

Reading List: Essays that Define the Essay

The following is a list in response to a request for suggestions of “an essay, accessible to undergrads, defining the literary essay (not academic or comp/rhetoric).” Thanks to Dinty W. Moore and so many others who took part in this Facebook thread. If you have other suggestions, please leave a note, and I’ll add it to this list. (Of course, we were pretty excited to see suggestions from our pages, too!) Where possible I include a link to the piece.

Atwan, Robert. “Notes Towards the Definition of an Essay.”

Didion, Joan. “On Keeping a Notebook.”

https://www.penusa.org/sites/default/files/didion.pdf

Jessica Handler’s “Favorite Essay to Teach” about assigning Didion’s “On Keeping a Notebook” might be useful. Find it here.

Hampl, Patricia Hampl. “The Dark Art of Description.” (Indirectly defines the literary essay.)

–. “Memory and Imagination.”

Harvey, Steven and Ana Maria Spagna. “The Essay in Parts.”

Hoagland, Edward. “What I Think, What I Am.”

Lott, Brett Lott. “Toward a Definition.”

Ozick, Cynthia. “She: Portrait of the Essay as a Warm Body.”

Sanders, Scott Russell. “The Singular First Person.”

Stuckey-French, Ned. “Our Queer Little Hybrid Thing.” (Lots of suggestions to use this for undergrads and grad students. Some report greater success using this with higher-level undergrads & grad students.)

We’d love to see more essays that define the essay. Consider submitting one to Assay!

Jennifer Case–A Nerve for Excellence: Teaching Annie Dillard’s “Pilgrim at Tinker Creek”

When I first assigned Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek in an environmental writing course, I immediately recalled a warning my mentor had given early in my teaching career. “I once taught a book that I loved, and the students hated it. It was the worst teaching moment I’ve had,” she said. “Never teach your favorite book.”

PilgrimatTinkerCreekDillardPilgrim at Tinker Creek is, without a doubt, my favorite book. The first time I read it, I was a quiet, intense high school student who enjoyed gardening, writing, and hiking. I was struggling with religion, trying to understand my own beliefs, and Dillard’s environmental spirituality—deep and dark and unnerving in its questioning—felt like a new kind of communion. “Something pummels us, something barely sheathed. Power broods and lights. We’re played on on like a pipe; our breath is not our own,” Dillard writes (15). Reading such passages when younger, I felt pummeled, played on, breathed upon. I felt fed and swallowed whole.

I hesitated, as a result, when assigning the book to my class because I couldn’t bear the thought of them not appreciating it, or—perhaps even more—the book no longer living up to my memory of it.

To be sure: Pilgrim at Tinker Creek is dense. It is meditative and philosophical, chockfull of allusions. It is a hard book to read and a hard book to teach. To help my students digest it, I broke the class into groups and had each group take a five-page chunk of the chapter “Intricacy.” They identified their section’s major images, symbols, and ideas, and they transferred those glosses to the board. By the end of the hour, the board was crammed with phrases such as “red blood cells,” “the goldfish in the bowl,” “chloroplasts,” “evolution and trees,” “eye pouches and Henle’s loop,” “intricacy and red blood cells and speckles.”

When I asked what they saw, they replied, “a mess.” Which was true. Aside from a few echoes and patterns, the reverse outline we created appeared random and confusing and discursive.

I then read from the middle of the chapter, where Dillard writes,

The creator goes off on one wild, specific tangent after another, or millions simultaneously, with an exuberance that would seem to be unwarranted, and with an abandoned energy sprung from an unfathomable font. What is going on here? The point of the dragonfly’s terrible lip, the giant water bug, birdsong, or the beautiful dazzle and flash of sunlighted minnows, is not that it all fits together like clockwork—for it doesn’t particularly, not even inside the goldfish bowl—but that it all flows so freely wild, like the creek, that it all surges in such a free, fringed tangle. (138-139)

“In what ways is form meeting content, here?” I asked, and we discussed how Dillard’s chapter, in tackling the complexity and messiness and intricacy of the natural, biological world, is also complex and messy and intricate. Her essay, like the subject matter she describes, goes on millions of tangents simultaneously, with an abandoned energy that, for some students, seemed unwarranted. We discussed how Dillard’s chapters—each of them—masterfully mimicked the subjects they tackled. My own faith in Dillard’s writing—and my students’ appreciation for her—burgeoned. I sighed with happiness and considered the lesson a success.

But it is the book’s afterword, actually, that offers the greatest lesson, and explains why I keep returning to it. When describing her experience writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek, Dillard recounts a New Yorker essay she’d read about mathematicians, who apparently suffer “the failure of the nerve for excellence” as they age (279). The phrase piqued Dillard, as it piqued me in high school, when I promised myself that I, too, would write a Pulitzer prize-winning book by the time I was 30.

I am older, now, than Dillard was when she started writing Pilgrim at Tinker Creek. Though I teach at a university and consider myself a writer, I have not published that Pulitzer prize-winning book. As a result, reading about Dillard’s nerve for excellence makes me strangely nostalgic. But Dillard’s book still pummels me; it still inspires me in its confidence, in its willingness to explore painful depths and answer impossibly complicated questions. More than anything, then, this is why I continue to teach Dillard’s essays. I want my students to be ambitious. I want their nerves for excellence to spark. Year after year, decade after decade, Dillard’s work has offered such stimulation, for me and for them.

***

Jennifer_CaseJennifer Case’s poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Zone 3, Split Rock Review, English Journal, Poet Lore, and Stone Canoe, where her work received the 2014 Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize in Fiction. She is the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org and teaches creative writing, professional writing, and composition at the University of Central Arkansas.

Creighton Nicholas Brown — My Favorite Essay to Teach: Jamaica Kincaid’s “A Small Place”

Every spring semester that I teach English 203: Exploring the World, I look forward to the day when my students begin discussing Jamaica Kincaid’s A Small Place. While not definitionally an essay, Kincaid’s slim 81-page memoir (or travelogue? or jeremiad?) is the shortest text I teach in a course using contemporary nonfiction travel writing to explore postcolonialism, social and environmental justice, and issues of gender in the global South.

Kincaid

My students arrive to class having been confronted—without warning from me—with Kincaid’s categorical rage and pinned under a relentless gaze constructed skillfully through her repetition of you. Kincaid lands my students in Antigua and regularly reminds them, “The thing you have always suspected about yourself the minute you become a tourist is true: A tourist is an ugly human being.” We spend much of the first of two class days working through both Kincaid’s rage and my students’ deeply personal reactions to her castigation of Western tourists.

Of particular interest for me on our first day with A Small Place is the transition in class discussion from discounting Kincaid’s scathing observational claims about her readers to a conversation considering whether such anger can be productive. This conversation is bumpy with some students arguing her outrage does not merit her description of them as “incredibly unattractive, fat, pastry-like,” and others positing that Kincaid’s indignation grabs her readers’ faces and forces them to look at, to see, to witness the over 500-year history of Western barbarity on this twelve by nine-mile-wide island. These students—those arguing for the productivity of anger—begin to cite passages linking the slave trade to Antigua’s Hotel Training School and to the discourse of tourism, which positions us to discuss contemporary imperial discourses and institutions during the next class meeting.

We leave our first class devoted to A Small Place reflecting on Kincaid’s stark observation on the development of capitalism. She asks her readers, my students, “Do you know why people like me are shy about being capitalists? Well, it’s because we, for as long as we have known you, were capital, like bales of cotton and sacks of sugar, and you were the commanding, cruel capitalists.”

What I like most about A Small Place—in addition to her profound rage, despair, and unanticipated hope—is watching as Kincaid carefully maps historical and contemporary imperial discourses and institutions onto this small island. As she guides us through the streets of St. Johns, she catalogs institutions such as the bank that once traded in human capital and now lends the descendants of those slaves funds or the hospital that government ministers avoid. But the most striking example of Kincaid’s discursive cartography is her genealogy of the Hotel Training School.

We spend much of the first half of our second day explicating Kincaid’s claim that the Hotel Training School, which produces hospitality workers for the many hotels lining Antigua’s beaches, resulted from slavery and emancipation. She remarks, “In Antigua, people cannot see a relationship between their obsession with slavery and emancipation and their celebration of the Hotel Training School (graduation ceremonies are broadcast on radio and television).” This is a challenging discussion for my students. Initially, they seem to react with the same frustration they felt on the first day, but as we closely read the text, my students realize they’re collectively feeling despair with the systemic injustice built into this one industry in Antigua, which they realize can be translated onto other metonymically small places. This is why I love to teach A Small Place: it is in this moment when my students stop resisting Kincaid’s acerbity and begin to empathically engage with her humanity.

I devote the second half of our second day with A Small Place to explicating Kincaid’s conclusion—both as the moment we witness her rage and despair dissolve into cautious hope and as a model for my students’ conclusions in their own writing. Line by line we determine the purpose of each sentence and observe that Kincaid concisely contextualized and summarizes her thesis, makes a provocative insight, and concludes with the broader implications of her project:

Again, Antigua is a small place, a small island. It is nine miles wide by twelve miles long. It was discovered by Christopher Columbus in 1493. Not too long after, it was settled by human rubbish from Europe, who used enslaved but noble and exalted human beings from Africa (all masters of every stripe are rubbish, and all slaves of every stripe are noble and exalted; there can be no question about this) to satisfy their desire for wealth and power, to feel better about their own miserable existence, so that they could be less lonely and empty—a European disease. Eventually, the masters left, in a kind of way; eventually, the slaves were freed, in a kind of way. The people in Antigua now, the people who really think of themselves as Antiguans (and the people who would immediately come to your mind when you think about what Antiguans might be like; I mean, supposing you were to think about it), are the descendants of those noble and exalted people, the slaves. Of course, the whole thing is, once you cease to be a master, once you throw off your master’s yoke, you are no longer human rubbish, you are just a human being, and all the things that adds up to. So, too, with the slaves. Once they are no longer noble and exalted; they are just human beings.

If I’ve planned my course schedule correctly, the two days we dedicate to discussing A Small Place are sandwiched between Sarah Vowell’s Unfamiliar Fishes and spring break. My students leave for Gulf Shores, Cancún, or Saint Kitts having grappled with Kincaid’s justified rage, despair, and hope-filled plea, and having investigated a network of contemporary imperial discourses.

***

BrownCreighton Nicholas Brown is a doctoral candidate and Emmy-winner at the University of Kansas, where he teaches in the English Department. Currently, he is working on his dissertation, which is titled (Un)Disciplined Subjects: Postcolonial Life Writing and Contemporary Imperial Discourses. His research interests include contemporary literature of the global South, postcolonial theory, life writing, and ecocriticism. His most recent publications are “The Hunger: The Power and Politics of a (Post)Colonial Cannibal,” which appeared in Diasporic Identities and Empire: Cultural Contentions and Literary Landscapes, and “Dracula’s Colonized Tongue Speaks through Fanged Teeth.”

Reading List: Nonfiction Craft Books

IMG_7690Here’s a list of books to use when teaching CNF. It’s not exhaustive, but it’s a good start. This list originally grew out of a discussion by members of the Creative Nonfiction Collective (CNFC). 

Thanks to Julija Šukys for this terrific list!

__________

  • Atkins, Douglas. Tracing the Essay
  • Barrington, Judith. Writing the Memoir
  • Birkerts, Sven. The Art of Time in Memoir: Then, Again
  • Bradway, Becky and Hesse, Douglas, eds. Creating Nonfiction: A Guide and Anthology
  • Castro, Joy. Family Trouble: Memoirists on the Hazards and Rewards of Revealing Family
  • D’Agata, John, ed. Lost Origins of the Essay
  • –, ed. The Next American Essay
  • DeSalvo, Louise. The Art of Slow Writing
  • –. Writing as a Way of Healing
  • Fakundiny, Lydia, ed. Marcela Sulak and Jacqueline Kolosov. The Art of the Essay
  • Forché, Carolyn and Gerard, Philip. Writing Creative Nonfiction: Instruction and Insights from Teachers of the Associated Writing Programs
  • Gornick, Vivian. The Situation and the Story.
  • Gutkind, Lee, ed. In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction
  • –. You Can’t Make This Stuff Up
  • Handler, Jessica. Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss
  • Iversen, Kristen. Shadow Boxing: Art and Craft Creative Nonfiction
  • Kaplan, Beth. True to Life: 50 Steps to Help You Tell Your Story
  • Karr, Mary. The Art of Memoir
  • Kephardt, Beth. Handling the Truth: On the Writing of Memoir
  • Kidder, Tracy and Todd, Richard. Good Prose, the Art of Nonfiction
  • Lazar, David, ed. Truth in Nonfiction: Essays
  • Lopate, Phillip, ed. The Art of the Personal Essay
  • –. To Show and To Tell: The Craft of Literary Nonfiction
  • MacDonnell, Jane Taylor. Living to Tell the Tale
  • Miller, Brenda and Paola, Suzanne. Tell it Slant
  • Moore, Dinty. Crafting the Personal Essay: A Guide to Writing and Publishing Creative Nonfiction.
  • –, ed. The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction: Advice and Essential Exercises from Respected Writers, Editors, and Teachers.
  • –. The Truth of the Matter: Art and Craft in Creative Nonfiction.
  • Rainer, Tristine. The New Autobiography
  • Root, Robert. The Nonfictionist’s Guide.
  • Roorbach, Bill. Writing Life Stories
  • Silverman, Sue Williams. Fearless Confessions: A Writer’s Guide to Memoir 
  • Sims, Patsy. Literary Nonfiction: Learning by Example
  • Singer, Margot and Nicole Walker, eds. Bending Genre: Essays on Creative Nonfiction
  • Sulak, Marcela and Jacqueline Kolosov. Family Resemblance: An Anthology and Exploration of 8 Hybrid Literary Genres
  • Thompson, Craig. Blankets
  • Tredinnick, Mark. The Land’s Wild Music
  • Williford, Lex and Michael Martone, eds. Touchstone Anthology of Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Work from 1970 to the Present
  • Yagoda, Ben. Memoir: A History
  • Zinsser, William. Inventing the Truth: The Art and Craft of Memoir
  • –. On Writing Well: The Classic Guide to Writing Nonfiction.

Heidi Czerwiec on Nicole Walker’s “Fish”

Heidi CzerwiecHeidi 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.


Nicole Walker is a writer whose first book of poetry This Noisy Egg was followed by a book of lyric nonfiction, Quench Your Thirst With Salt, and a co-edited collection Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction. It is because of this thoughtful genre-bending she embraces that I enjoy teaching her work in multi-genre introductory creative writing workshops, in essay-writing courses, and, most recently, in a hybrid forms workshop. In particular, I have great success with her short piece “Fish,” the opening essay in Quench, which never fails to provoke heated discussions and compelling imitations.

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Guest Post: Guess Who’s on the Syllabus?: Assigning Ourselves in the Classroom

KarenCraigoFrom day one, students in my first-year survey course understand that they will have to do a lot of writing. And their very first reading assignment reveals another important fact, which is that I am in the trenches with them.

Students don’t seem to bat an eye at the fact that the first essay I require them to read is by Karen Craigo. Colleagues … well, they might. And it does make sense to ask the question—why? There ought to be a very good reason for making a captive audience read one’s own work.

The essay I assigned this semester was published in a small online journal, Split Lip Magazine. It is a personal narrative—exactly like their first writing task—and it begins when I was roughly their age. (My students this semester are all recent high school graduates.)

The essay discusses the bravest moment of my life, and at first it seems to be about the time I moved across the country to Montana. Then it seems to be about the time I hopped a train (like an idiot) to try to roam the country. Ultimately, though, it is about the more everyday bravery of sticking with my obligations when adventure and the road always beckon. Being a middle-aged mom every single day? Cleaning vomit and watching non-stop Pixar movies? Trust me. That stuff’s brave. Continue reading

My Favorite Essay To Teach

I’m in this teaching mindset today for a couple of reasons. Most of all, I’m in the midst of finally being in one place long enough (with internet) to get into the nitty gritty of Assay’s submissions and watching the inaugural issue start to take shape. It’s also the 4th of July, and I’m all by myself in my parents’ empty house, with no plans to do anything 4th of July related (does mowing their lawn count?) and I’m still recovering from whatever bug I picked up last weekend on our trip to visit family in California, so my will to do much more than read and watch Netflix is pretty low.

irish creative writingBut yesterday, our illustrious Advisory Editor Jim Rogers, who edits the Irish scholarly journal New Hibernia Review, asked me to review this book, Imagination in the Classroom: Teaching and Learning Creative Writing in Ireland, edited by Anne Fogarty, Eilis Ni Dhuibhne, and Eibhear Walshe and I’m way too excited about it. As my other hat is Irish, it’s been a particular soapbox that the academic organizations I belong to don’t do much with creative writing or pedagogy. Naturally, there are exceptions here and there, but it’s not part of their larger work. So, I have been very interested in the intersection of creative writing and Ireland (as well as Irish nonfiction, as creative writing) for a long time–so I’m thrilled to see this book. I hope it lives up to my excitement over it. Continue reading