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.”

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!

Topic – Resource List: Diversity / Difference / Power in the Writing Classroom

blue flowerIn the Creative Writing Pedagogy group, which is on Facebook, Rebecca Makkal asked the following question: “I’m looking for great essays (preferably online, assignable to graduate students) about diversity/difference/power in the writing classroom. Ideas?”

Many thanks to the following people who posted links to the following pieces in the discussion thread: Karen Babine, Don Hosek, Anna Leahy, Bich Minh Nguyen, DeMisty Philosopiae, James Ryan, Jennifer Solheim, and Ned Stuckey-French.

If you have other suggestions, please leave a comment, and I’ll add the link to the list.

— Here is a broad, recent look at many interwoven issues:

— “Workshop is Not For You, by Jeremiah Chamberlin: The Proper Care and Feeding of Writers”. Originally published at Glimmer Train, it is no longer available at the University of Oregon blog link… if you find a link to this piece, please let us know.

— The book Power and Identity in the Creative Writing Classroom, edited by Anna Leahy. Two chapters deal with grading, plus other topics related to power.

— Bernice M. Olivas: “Politics of Identity in the Essay Tradition,” published in Assay 2.1. See more here.

— “MFA vs. POC” by Junot Diaz. Available at The New Yorker here.

— Matthew Salesses has great recent work about this subject: “‘The Reader’ vs. POC”

Pleiades has an excellent four part series on rethinking the workshop. Here is part one: “Pure Craft is a Lie” Here’s the fourth in the series (you can also access the other posts through this link): Who’s at the Center of Workshop and Who Should Be?

— “Racial and Ethnic Justice in the Creative Writing Course by Joy Castro” can be found here:

— Vida’s “Report from the Field: Racial Invisibility and Erasure in the Writing Workshop” can be found here:

— Find excellent resources at the Journal of Creative Writing Studies, including David Mura’s “White Writing Teachers (or David Foster Wallace vs. James Baldwin)” and Tonya Hegamin‘s “Diversity and Inclusion: A Manifesto and Interview.” Both address issues of difference, and Mura’s piece speaks directly about what is required for white writing teachers to appropriately evaluate work by students of color.


Contemporary Memoirs or Collections of Essays by Writers of Color: An Incomplete List — Collected by Steven Church

Steven Church has collected an incomplete list on this subject and posted it at his blog. He credits Facebook crowd sourcing and Sonya Huber, Barrie Jean Borich, and Dallas Crow with helping. Thank you, all.

This is a great resource, and I’m sure the list will grow as more people add names.

You can find the link to Steven Church’s list here.

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.

Topic: Food–Books


Thanks to Scott Morris for this list:  books that are food-related. (See the companion lists for brief essays about food and standard-length essays about food.)

Please add your suggestions in the comments!


  • The Cleaner Plate Club, Beth Bader and Ali Benjamin
  • Honey, Olives, Octopus, Christopher Bakken
  • Bringing it to the Table, Wendell Berry
  • My Life in France, Julia Child
  • Home Cooking: A Writer in the Kitchen, Laurie Colwin
  • Alone in the Kitchen with an Eggplant: Confessions of Cooking for One and Dining Alone, ED Jenni Ferrari-Adler
  • How to Cook a Wolf, MFK Fisher
  • The Gastronomical Me, MFK Fisher
  • Eating Animals, Jonathan Safran Foer
  • Cooking for Mr. Latte, Amanda Hesser
  • Eat, Memory: Great Writers at the Table, A collection of Essays from the New York Times, ED Amanda Hesser
  • Best Food Writing 2014, ED Holly Hughes
  • Goat Song, Brad Kessler
  • Relish: My Life n the Kitchen, Lucy Knisley
  • Immortal Milk, Eric LeMay
  • The Taste of Country Cooking, Edna Lewis
  • Under the Tuscan Sun, Frances Mayes
  • It Was Me All Along, Andie Mitchell
  • To Each With Grace, Orion Magazine
  • The Botany of Desire: A Plant’s-Eye View of the World, Michael Pollan
  • Omnivore’s Dilemma: A Natural History of Four Meals, Michael Pollan
  • Cleaving, Julie Powell
  • Julie and Julia, Julie Powell
  • Tender to the Bone, Ruth Reichl
  • The Man Who Ate Everything, Jeffrey Steingarten
  • The Tummy Trilogy, Calvin Trillin

Topic: Food–Essays

IMG_7690Essays on food–check out the companion list for book-length works on food!





  • “On Meeting our Meat,” Ted Conover
  • “The Way of All Flesh,” Ted Conover
  • “Against Meat,” Jonathan Safran Foer
  • “A Toast Story,” John Gravois
  • “Comfort Food,” Lisa Ohlen Harris
  • “Feeding Time,” Cris Mazza
  • “The Soils I Have Eaten,” Aimee Nezhukmatathil
  • “People of the Cake,” Diane Roberts
  • “Dinner at Uncle Boris’s,” Charles Simic
  • “Four Menus,” Sheila Squillante
  • “First Apartment—Brooklyn, 2002,” Rachel Toliver
  • “Valentine,” Alison Townsend
  • “Fast Food,” Jesse Waters

Topic: Essays by Writers of Color

IMG_7690Thanks to Cyn Kitchen for this list:  essay (not memoir) recommendations by writers of color, who are American, but who are not writing about race.

Please add your suggestions in the comments!


  • Richard Rodriguez, Darling, excerpted in Harper’s.
  • Alice Walker, “In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens”
  • Louise Erdrich
  • Roxanne Gay, Bad Feminist
  • bell hooks
  • Alison Hawthorne Deming, Colors of Nature
  • Stacyanne Chin, The Other Side of Paradise
  • Ta Nehisi Coates, Beautiful Struggle 

Topic: Men, Health, and the Environment

IMG_7690Thanks to Jennifer Lunden for this list:  essays by MEN that blend issues of health and the environment, a companion post to her earlier list of women. Please add your suggestions in the comments below!


  • Edward Hoagland, “In the Country of the Blind”
  • Ben Quick, “Agent Orange: A Chapter from History That Just Won’t End,” Orion.
  • Alan Weisman, “Polymers Are Forever, Orion.
  • Bill Sherwonit, “Tracking Toxics,” Orion.
  • Peter Hessler, “The Uranium Widows,” New Yorker, September 13, 2010.
  • Alan Weisman, Echo in My Blood
  • Carl Safina, The View from Lazy Point

Topic: Women, Health, and the Environment

IMG_7690Thanks to Jennifer Lunden for this list: essays by women that blend issues of health and environment. Add your suggestions in the comments below–if the piece is online, we’d love a link to it.


  • Susanne Antonetta, Body Toxic
  • Belle Boggs, “The Art of Waiting
  • Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
  • Camille T. Dungy, “Tales from a Black Girl on Fire, or Why I Hate to Walk Outside and See Things Burning,” from The Colors of Nature: Culture, Identity and the Natural World, ed. Alison H. Deming and Lauret E. Savoy (Milkweed Editions, 2011), pp. 28-32.
  • Gretel Ehrlrich, A Match to the Heart
  • Gretel Ehrlrich, “The Solace of Open Spaces”
  • Kristen Iverson, Full Body Burden
  • Mary Heather Noble, “Experimental Road,” Fourth Genre, Fall 2014.
  • Joyce Carol Oates, “Against Nature”
  • Eva Saulitis, “Wild Darkness 
  • Sandra Steingraber, “The Sound of Migration”
  • Sandra Steingraber, “Environmental Amnesia,” Orion
  • Rebecca Skloot, The Immortal Life of Henrietta Lacks
  • Alice Walker, Am I Blue?
  • Nicole Walker, “Move Out,” Newfound, Vol. 6, Winter.
  • Terry Tempest Williams, “A Disturbance of Birds”
  • Terry Tempest Williams, Refuge

Reading List: “Essentials” of Mid-Century Nonfiction

IMG_7690Editor’s Note: this list was originally conceived for an independent study, which has obvious parameters–so let’s flesh it out, including individual essays as well as books.


  • John McPhee, Coming Into the Country
  • Annie Dillard, Pilgrim at Tinker Creek
  • Susan Sontag, Illness as Metaphor
  • Steven Jay Gould, Ever Since Darwin
  • Rachel Carson, Silent Spring
  • Phillip Lopate, Against Joie de Vivre
  • Gay Talese, Unto the Sons
  • Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song
  • Barry Lopez, Of Wolves and Men
  • Paul Theroux, Old Patagonian Express
  • Jamaica Kincaid, Annie John
  • Joan Didion, The White Album


Do you have independent study reading lists that you’d be willing to share with the community? Send them to us and we’ll post them to our blog!