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.

Continue reading

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