Becoming the Student: Jennie Case Reflects on the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writer’s Conference

This past summer, I prepared with some apprehension to attend the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writer’s Conference. “Apprehension” because although I had attended graduate school, where I relished the conversations I had with other emerging writers, Bread Loaf marked four years since my last experience as a student. I had continued to exchange work with a few colleagues, and I attended conferences like AWP and ASLE, but between caring for an infant, finishing my dissertation, adjuncting, and then teaching, the time I had as a writer was simply that: time to write. It was my opportunity to sit down with a notebook, a computer, or a draft, and to craft something, read a collection of essays, or respond to a friend’s work. Outside of that, I was always the instructor: leading discussions and guiding students to analyze the structure of a published piece or to recognize the potential in their own developing drafts.

Sending my work in for a workshop at Bread Loaf Orion, as a result, brought back with it a surprising anxiety. Suddenly, I recalled how I had always felt when submitting work for workshops as an undergrad or a graduate student: that nervous anticipation, the second-guessing as I wondered if this essay was really far enough along, and how this roomful of people I did not know would respond to it—would respond to me. The anxiety my students wore on their faces in my undergraduate classes, I suddenly felt again in my own body: the way I bit my tongue, the way I sometimes reread my work and saw in it potential, but sometimes reread it and cringed.

Thankfully, I had no reason to feel intimated. That first day of our workshop in Vermont, I found myself surrounded by writers, and although some of us taught, others worked for the EPA, or as environmental journalists, or ran small farms, or wrote environmental journalism. Many had a much more extensive scientific background than me. Yet, everyone had submitted thought-provoking essays that explored the human relationship to place from interesting, compelling angles. We read each other’s work carefully, and we gave thoughtful feedback. I was reminded, once more, what it was like to be in a community of readers. A community of people who care about writing, and language, and what that writing can reveal about the human place in the world.

Outside of class, I attended lectures on fieldwork and using writing to break silence. I woke early to go on bird walks, getting back to the main lodge just as the breakfast bell rang and I loaded my tray with fruit and a bowl of oatmeal. In the afternoons, I attended mindfulness meditation sessions, where the instructor discussed how to use meditation to make room for creativity. At each and every event, I sat quietly, my notebook open, my mind open, ready to receive.

JennieCase_BreadLoaf.jpg

What I will take with me the most from my experience at Bread Loaf, as a result, isn’t necessarily the feedback I got on that one essay, or the networking I did, but the reminder of how important it is to be a student: to find ways where I can step back, and simply listen to others and learn from them. To not try to be the authority, but to open myself to new perspectives and experiences—to go on a bird walk with birders far more experienced than me, and to sit in on a conversation with people who do something completely different from me for a living, to listen to lectures by accomplished writers and take rapid notes, to leave a workshop not thinking “I think that went well,” or “I believe I handled that part of the discussion effectively/ineffectively,” but with ideas and inspiration for my own work.

When I boarded the shuttle from Bread Loaf back to the Burlington airport at the end of the week, I did so with a satisfying exhaustion. The conversations and activities had been so engaging, I felt absolutely worn out. And yet, I also knew how necessary the opportunity was——and how rare. I will not be able to attend writing conferences like Bread Loaf every year. That simply isn’t an option right now for me and my family.

Yet I am reminded of the importance of becoming a student, not always the professor, and so I will make a point to seek out such opportunities, whether at future conferences down the road, at lectures hosted by my university, or at community events. They make me a better teacher, a better writer, and a better literary citizen. Placing myself in situations where I am not the expert reminds me what my students experience every day. And it reminds me how much there is to still learn from this world—and how joyful and challenging that learning experience can be.

Here is the reading list I gathered at the workshop:

Jane Brox’s The Wake of Silence (forthcoming 2018)

Belle Boggs’s The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood

David James Duncan’s River Teeth

Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams

J. Drew Lanham’s The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affairs with Nature

Kathleen Dean Moore’s Great Tide Rising

Claudia Rankin’s Citizen

For more information on the 2017 Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers’ Conference (and to apply), please click here and here. The 2017 conference runs from Saturday, June 3 – Friday, June 9, 2017. The conference will take place at the Bread Loaf Campus of Middlebury College in Ripton, Vermont.

Editor’s Note: Please also read Jennie Case’s “In the Classroom” contribution “A Nerve for Excellence: Teaching Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”

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Jennifer_CaseJennifer Case’s poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as Orion, 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.

“The annihilating ocean of whiteness”: J. D. Schraffenberger on Scott Russell Sanders’ “Cloud Crossing”

ScottRussellSanders_Credit- Steve Raymer_Oct_2010.1

Scott Russell Sanders (photo credit Steve Raymer)

For years I’ve regularly taught Scott Russell Sanders’ 1981 essay “Cloud Crossing” to my creative writing students because I admire it deeply—both thematically and on the level of craft—and am enriched each time I return to it. Like many (most?) good essays, it’s deceptively simple; nothing dramatic really “happens” as Sanders recounts a short hike up Hardesty Mountain (not far from Eugene, Oregon) with his one-year-old son Jesse strapped to his back. Too often, I find, students’ first instinct is to write about a momentous Occasion, an important Event, some memorable Incident, which is why I’ve learned of the deaths of so many loved and loving grandparents over the years—because these are intensely emotional moments marked as significant by ritual. Sanders demonstrates clearly that essays need not be about Big Experiences at all. They can be quiet and mundane, internal, familiar.

TheFourthGenre_cvrIn his co-edited textbook The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction (which includes Sanders’ “Cloud Crossing”), Michael Steinberg notes Judith Kitchen’s list of five things that her writing students often “deny themselves”: retrospection, intrusion, meditation, introspection, and imagination, adding to this list: reflection, speculation, self-interrogation, digression, and projection (335-6). Sanders does not deny himself any of these techniques. While on top of the mountain, he observes “nine concrete piers that once supported the fire-tower” that is no longer there, but he doesn’t stop at what is immediately present. Instead, he imagines “the effort of hauling materials up this mountain to build this tower,” asking what became of it, realizing finally that it must’ve burned down:

The spectacle swiftly fills me: the mountain peak like a great torch, a volcano. The tower heaving on its nine legs. The windows bursting from the heat, tumbling among the rocks, fusing into molten blobs, the glass taking on whatever shape it cooled against.

There should be nails. Looking closer I find them among the shards of glass, sixteen-penny nails mostly, what we called spikes when I was building houses. Each one is somber with rust, but perfectly straight, never having been pried from wood. I think of the men who drove those nails, the way sweat stung in their eyes, the way their forearms clenched with every stroke of the hammer, and I wonder if any of them were still around when the tower was burned. (59)

Sanders conjures the burning tower and reanimates the men who built it not through observation or experience, and not even through research—but through imagination, speculation, supposing what might have been. We nevertheless get to experience as readers the “great torch” of the tower. We get to feel the “stroke of the hammer.” None of these things “happen,” but thinking makes it so.

Another reason “Cloud Crossing” finds its way onto my syllabi is that it was first published in the pages of the North American Review and subsequently reprinted in his 1987 collection The Paradise of Bombs, along with eight additional essays originally from the NAR. I mention this fact because I now happen to edit the North American Review here at the University of Northern Iowa, and I try to introduce my students to the literary publishing world whenever I can profitably do so, especially in the context of a magazine where they themselves have an opportunity to work. Returning to the original magazine publication also allows us to compare versions of the essay and ask questions about revision. In the case of “Cloud Crossing,” the original is much the same as the subsequent versions, with a notable exception. At the end of the essay, as Sanders begins the drive back home, his son is crying inconsolably in the back seat. The original version from the NAR:

But nothing comforts him, or comforts me, while we drive down the seven graveled miles of logging road to the highway. There we sink into open space again. The clouds are a featureless gray overhead. Jesse’s internal weather shifts, and he begins one of his calm babbling orations, contentedly munching his cracker… (59)

The revised version:

 But nothing comforts him, or comforts me, while we drive down the seven graveled miles of logging road to the highway. There we sink into open space again. The clouds are a featureless gray overhead.

As soon as the wheels are ringing beneath us on the blacktop, Jesse’s internal weather shifts, and he begins one of his calm babbling orations, contentedly munching his cracker… (193)

Sanders the essayist makes two significant changes here: he breaks for a new paragraph and slows our reading down by adding the introductory clause “As soon as the wheels are ringing beneath us on the blacktop.” Why do you suppose he’s made these changes? I ask my students. What new effects have been introduced? Has anything been lost? I tell my students there’s a chance that Sanders had indeed included this clause all along, but space constraints in the magazine compelled him to truncate the ending. Teaching the essay while acknowledging the original publication context sometimes leads to larger discussions like these of the literary publishing world. I also find it interesting and sometimes instructive to look at what else was published alongside a piece that appeared in a magazine. “Cloud Crossing,” for instance, is joined in its issue of the NAR by Barry Lopez’s “The Man Who Had Maps” and Bobbie Ann Mason’s “Old Things.” Are there aesthetic or thematic similarities among these pieces of prose? How is Sanders’ essay different at the level of genre from these short stories?

As a writer in complete control of his craft, Sanders’s work offers excellent examples for students to emulate:

Fascinated by his leaf, Jesse snuggles down in the pack and rides quietly. My heart begins to dance faster as the trail zigzags up the mountain through a series of switchbacks. Autumn has been dry in Oregon, so the dirt underfoot is powdery. Someone has been along here inspecting mushrooms. The discarded ones litter the trail like blackening pancakes. Except for the path, worn raw by deer and hikers, the floor of the woods is covered with moss. Fallen wood is soon hidden by the creeping emerald carpet, the land burying its own dead. Limegreen moss clings fuzzily to the upright trunks, and dangles in fluffy hanks from limbs, like fresh-dyed wool hung out to dry. A wad of it caught in the fist squeezes down to nothing. (57)

The energetic verbs (snuggles, zigzags, clings, dangles, squeezes), vivid images (powdery dirt, worn path, creeping moss), and fresh metaphors (blackened pancakes, burying its own dead, fresh-dyed wool) enliven this passage. Perhaps more impressively, however, Sanders moves from showing the reader a scene in the dramatic mode (Jesse snuggling, his heart dancing, the trail zigzagging) to telling the reader information in the narrative mode (Autumn has been dry, someone has been here) to playing linguistic music for the reader in the lyrical mode. Listen to the subtly overlapping assonance and consonance make Sanders’ prose sing: the “e” sounds of limegreen/clings/fuzzily; the “z” sound in clings/fuzzily; the short “u” sounds in fuzzily/upright/trunks/fluffy; the long “a” sounds in dangles/hanks; the “ng/nk” sounds in dangles/hanks, trunks/hanks/hung. Listening carefully and analyzing the specific ways this sentence is lyrical offers a range of examples for students to try themselves. In this one short passage of prose, we can observe the three main things writers do: show, tell, and sing.

I also like teaching “Cloud Crossing” because it’s a thoroughly ecological essay. Sanders takes us on a mountain hike with him, but this is not an idealized, romantic landscape. He tells us outright that “this is no literary landscape.” There is, furthermore, “[n]o peace for meditation with an eleven-month-old on your back,” and at the top of Hardesty Mountain, he admits, “There is no dramatic feeling of expansiveness, as there is on some peaks, because here the view is divided up into modest sweeps by Douglass firs, cottonwoods, great gangling heaps of briars” (58). To be sure, Sanders is renewed by the awe and wonder his son experiences, but the essay is driven by guilt and fear rather than by a sublime transcendence of being in the natural world. “And I realize that carrying Jesse up the mountain to see clouds,” he tells us,

is a penance as well as a pleasure—penance for the hours I have sat glaring at my typewriter while he scrabbled mewing outside my door, penance for the thousands of things my wife has not been able to do on account of my word mania, penance for all the countless times I have told my daughter Eva no, I can’t, I’m writing.

Sanders’ fear is born of “the long entropic view of things.” The essay begins by noting, “Clouds are temporary creatures,” and it ends with a meditation on human ephemerality: “Even while I peek at [Jesse] over my shoulder he is changing, neurons hooking up secret connections in his brain, calcium swelling his bones like mud in river deltas” (59). This realization leads to panic: “everything I know is chalked upon a blackboard, and, while I watch, a hand erases every last mark” (59). “Cloud Crossing” is not primarily an essay of place—though it certainly is that, too, as it grounded in the specificity of Hardesty Mountain and Sanders’ writerly attention to his environment—rather, it’s an essay of time. When we talk about ecological writing, we tend to focus on place—for good reasons—but we often neglect other ways of thinking ecologically and being in environments. If the main insight that ecology has to offer us is the inevitable interconnection of all things, these interconnections should carry us into the prehistoric past and into the distant future as well—so that we can understand more deeply who we are as humans, so that we can imagine new sustainable futures for those yet unborn.

“Cloud Crossing,” then, is a beautifully crafted and pedagogically useful essay. But I will not be including it on my next creative nonfiction syllabus. When I’ve taught it in the past, it’s been from Root and Steinberg’s The Fourth Genre, which I’ve required my students to buy. I liked the textbook because it’s both an anthology of essays by writers whose work I admire as well as a collection of thoughtful essays about the genre itself. But of the 56 writers in the current (6th) edition, only three are people of color: Judith Ortiz Cofer, Edwidge Danticat, and Dagoberto Gilb. Looking over previous editions of The Fourth Genre, I have discovered eight other people of color who have been included in the tables of contents at one point or another. Only one Native-American writer has ever been included, (Linda Hogan) and (unless we count Danticat, who is Haitian-American) no African-American writers (zero) have been included. (I should pause here to note that my analysis is obviously subject to some error because I can’t know for certain how all of these writers identify racially or ethnically. I stand firmly by the point, however. And besides, even if I’ve overlooked a few people of color in my count, it would do very little to change the overwhelming whiteness of the anthology.)

What are we to make of this lack of diversity? I don’t think it’s peculiar to The Fourth Genre because glancing through a few other anthologies of creative nonfiction, I find a similar predominance of white writers in the tables of contents. Should I be surprised? Probably not. But should I blame Root and Steinberg—and countless other editors—for their blind spots when these have been exactly my own blind spots as a teacher and writer? How can I complain about a white man’s essay in a textbook when it is, as I’ve said, beautifully crafted and pedagogically useful? How can I complain when I am myself a white man whose work has been included in such publications?

It’s true that we suffer from what Junot Diaz calls “the unbearable too-whiteness” of creative writing as a discipline in higher education, but is it also true that creative nonfiction as it is taught in writing classrooms is even whiter than poetry and fiction? That’s my suspicion, which means that I’m going to retire Scott Russell Sanders’ “Cloud Crossing.” I come to this decision not because I believe in fulfilling some arbitrary quota of people of color in a textbook or anthology (though it might surprise you to be reminded that the United States is only 62% white—The Fourth Genre, however, is 95% white), not because it’s the “right” thing to do, and not as liberal white-guilt penance, but because art is better when it is diverse, because white people (teachers, editors, writers) fool themselves if they think their literary taste and judgment have not been deeply (if unconsciously) formed by their own whiteness, because the current state of literary affairs excludes the voices of people of color not maliciously but systemically, because like Diaz, I want “[t]o create in the present a fix to a past that can never be altered.” Instead of Sanders’s work, who has been and will remain a literary hero of mine, I will teach James Alan McPherson’s “Umbilicus” or Langston Hughes’ “Salvation,” as Chauna Craig and Suzanne Cope have suggested respectively on this very blog. I will seek out and teach the essays of Martín Espada and bell hooks and Leslie Marmon Silko and N. Scott Momaday and the countless other people of color whose work has remained in my own blind spot for years.

“Cloud Crossing” is about change. Early in the essay, Sanders tells us that his child “is changing cloud-fast before my eyes. His perky voice begins pinning labels on dogs and bathtubs and sun.” Like most writers, he is acutely aware of language (“word mania”), and like most parents, he is amazed by the utterance of his child’s first few phonemes. On their hike, Jesse points to the sky and says “Ba! Ba!” Sanders corrects him: “‘Moon,’ I say. ‘Ba! Ba!’ he insists. Let it stay a ball for a while, something to play catch with, roll across the linoleum.” The essay implicitly asks us to consider how language represents the world around us. How we decide which label gets affixed to which thing. This is a linguistic question, a literary question, and it can quickly become a political question, too—words, writing, literature, art: what forms will our lives take? What sentences will contain our understanding of reality, truth, history?

“Cloud Crossing” ends in terror as Sanders descends the mountain, “down through vapors that leach color from ferns, past trees that are dissolving. Stumps and downed logs lose their shape, merge into the clouds.” The terror here is dissolution, the erasure of difference, the loss of shape and definition. As they finally leave this featureless cloudscape, Sanders listens to his child’s “calm babbling orations”: “The thread of his voice slowly draws me out of the annihilating ocean of whiteness. ‘Moon,’ he is piping from the backseat, ‘moon!’” The label has stuck—“moon!”—for Jesse as it has for us. How might we now draw ourselves out of a different but no less annihilating “ocean of whiteness”?

Works Cited

Diaz, Junot. “MFA vs. POC.” The New Yorker. April 30, 2014. Web.

Sanders, Scott. “Cloud Crossing.” North American Review 266.3. (1981): 57-59. Print.

Sanders, Scott Russell. “Cloud Crossing.” The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction. Ed. Robert L. Root, Jr. and Michael Steinberg. 6th ed. New York: Pearson, 2012. 188-93. Print.

Steinberg, Michael. “Finding the Inner Story in Memoirs and Personal Essays.” The Fourth Genre: Contemporary Writers of/on Creative Nonfiction. Ed. Robert L. Root, Jr. and Michael Steinberg. 6th ed. New York: Pearson, 2012. 333-36. Print.

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Schraffenberger_author_pic (2) (2)J. D. Schraffenberger is editor of the North American Review and an associate professor of English at the University of Northern Iowa. He is the author of two books of poetry, Saint Joe’s Passion (Etruscan Press) and The Waxen Poor (Twelve Winters Press), and his other work has appeared in Best Creative NonfictionBrevityNotre Dame ReviewPoetry EastPrairie Schooner, and elsewhere. His essay “Ecological Creative Writing,” co-written with James Engelhardt appears in Creative Writing Pedagogies for the Twenty-First Century (Southern Illinois University Press 2015), and his manifesto “Our Discipline: An Ecological Creative Writing Manifesto” is forthcoming in the Journal of Creative Writing Studies.

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.

“Baby, Come Hug”: Teaching Amy Hempel In A Vulnerable Time

BJ Hollars is the author of several books, BJ_Author_Photo_2014 2 copyincluding two forthcoming in 2015: From the Mouths of Dogs: What Our Pets Teach Us About Life, Death, and Being Human, as well as a collection of essays, This Is Only A Test.  He can be reached through his website www.bjhollars.com


Disclaimer:

Dear Assay Readers,

The Hempel story to which I refer is indeed, fiction and was taught during a fiction class. Nevertheless, this particular story might be useful in any classroom. And as noted in the post, given the story’s thematic resonance in my own life, I felt compelled to share it. Literature has genres; life does not.


The morning after my mother-in-law died, I reread Amy Hempel’s “In The Cemetery Where Al Jolson Is Buried.”

Lord knows I didn’t want to.

In fact, of all the stories I really didn’t want to read that day, Hempel’s was at the top of the list. A story about a woman on her deathbed could hardly provide the uplifting message I was after; though my syllabus hadn’t left me much say in the matter.

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