AWP2018: The Body’s Story: On Writing Narratives of Illness

Panel Participants: Sonya Huber, Suleika Jaouad, Porochista Khakpour, Esme Weijun Wang

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMAs someone who has written about my own biography of breast cancer for the past decade, I was especially interested in attending this session and learning how others tell the stories of their own bodies–stories of chronic illness, disability, and/or disease. And when they do so, how do they remain authentic to their experience? Audiences, after all, oftentimes prefer a happy ending to a more realistic ending of uncertainty.

After the moderator and author, Sandra Beasley, briefly introduced the expert panelists, each panelist elaborated upon her own unique relationship to writing narratives of illness. The first, Sonya Huber, author of Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System, spoke openly of her struggles with chronic arthritis and the challenges of writing about the disease. She actively resists writing linear illness narratives that have happy endings, for writing about sickness, Huber reminds us, is not necessarily one of survivorship.

Suleika Jaouad, writer for The New York Times’ Well Blog and author of essays that have appeared in Vogue, Glamour, and Women’s Health Magazine, was diagnosed with myeloid leukemia at age 22. After chemotherapy and a bone marrow transplant, she is now in remission. Throughout treatment, Jaouad wrote “from the trenches,” which helped her to build credibility with her audience and maintain authenticity in her prose. From her hospital bed, she began chronicling her journey and revealed what it is really like to be young with cancer. In writing from this place of uncertainty, she tried to explore the liminal space between illness and wellness. At this time, she is working on a book called Between Two Kingdoms: No Longer in the Kingdom of the Sick.

Porochista Khakpour, author of Sons and Other Flammable Objects, The Last Illusion, and Sick: A Memoir, has a fascinating biography that had been the fodder for her first two novels that speak to the American/Iranian identity, and her latest book, Sick, explores her relationship with late-stage Lyme Disease, addiction, and PTSD: a destructive trifecta that makes healing nearly impossible.

The last panelist, Esme Weijun Wang, author of The Border of Paradise, reveals what it is like living with late-stage Lyme Disease and schizoaffective disorder and the limitations that are byproducts of these illnesses. In her writing, she tries to convey, in a physical sense, what it is like to experience mental illness in a way that has not been done before.

Then, Sandra Beasley asked a series of pointed questions. Her first was “How does your narrative of illness contrast to archetypes of a ‘path to recovery’ or the ‘survivor’s journey’? In response, Huber shared that she resists the notion that sickness makes one sanctified and/or a better person. On top of that, she and many others, are not grateful for their disease. So many illness narratives reinforce these inauthentic motifs, and she has vowed not to do the same with her own writing. For Jaouad, the word “survivor” is problematic. Narratives of illness are not, necessarily, narratives of the hero’s journey. “Not all people who go through hell come out better,” she states. When she emerged from the depths of her cancer treatment, she felt the opposite of triumphant. For her, there was no celebration, and she felt guilty for not wanting to celebrate. There must, she thought, be something wrong with her. She felt alone and adrift in dealing with her visible and invisible scars. Khakpour couldn’t have answered this question more honestly. Hers was not a survivor’s story. She failed at relationships, and she battled addiction. And for Esme Weijun Wang, there was never going to be a happy ending. There is no cure for her diagnoses of mental illness and Lyme Disease, so she still questions what the narrative arc of her writing should look like.

Writing about illness can be especially complicated when it intersects with the personal identities that an author carries. These types of intersections are of particular interest to Huber who writes specifically about how illness is affected by social class, the healthcare system, as well as medical debt. When sick, capitalism leads to economic annihilation for many, and for her, capitalism “robbed her of her relationship with her own body.” Suleika Jaouad is acutely aware of how age and illness intersect and that women have a much harder time receiving a correct diagnosis–especially for something like cancer. For her, it was a relief to get a diagnosis after many months of struggling to get one. She also is interested in the intersection of illness and race. Because her father was from North Africa, and her mother was from Switzerland, Jaouad had a difficult time finding a bone marrow match as the registry is greatly underrepresented for her community.

Getting and keeping a job is also hard for writers of illness. How, for example, does one publish and then promote one’s work? One can only have certain jobs, Khakpour stated, and illness changes a writer’s relationship to work. Suleika added that she had limited energy while undergoing chemotherapy and radiation but that living her worst nightmare with little to lose inspired her to take creative risks with her writing and her career. Before cancer, she would not have told her New York Times editor that she wanted a column of her own, but illness emboldened her.

For those of us writing narratives of illness, Sonya Huber recommended that we write for an audience who gets it. At first, she wrote for a more general, uninformed audience, but it did not work for her. In writing for “pain people” (love that term), she freed herself and made it possible to successfully address both audiences. For Jaouad, keeping a journal was essential. After all, we forget so much while sick. Porochista wisely added, “Surround yourself by people who love you.” For her, acceptance revives her and gives her energy to write. Wang, who was used to eight-hour writing marathons at one point, learned to slow down and rely on a community of supportive writers.

Lastly, the panelists recommended authors who have mastered narratives of the body. Sandra Beasley, the moderator, suggested Jessica Handler’s Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss; Sonya Huber encouraged the audience to read Susan Griffin’s What Her Body Thought; Suleika Jaouad said to check out Sarah Manguso’s Two Kinds of Decay and Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story: The Art of Personal Narrative; and Esme Weijun Wang offered up Andrew Solomon’s The Noonday Demon: An Atlas of Depression.

In my own writing about cancer, I have wondered if there were times I went too far. If I should have sheltered the reader from the raw suffering of my body. These panelists, however, have convinced me to remain authentic and continue to tell my own truth.

Teri Fuller is an M.F.A. Creative Non-Fiction student at Antioch University in Los Angeles, and she is also an Associate Professor of English at Waubonsee Community College in IL. Her work includes personal essays, short stories, memoir, and reviews. Her work has been featured in Lunch Ticket, Tiferet Journal, and Lifelines Magazine: A Literary and Art Journal from Dartmouth’s Geisel School of Medicine.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

AWP2018: From the Stanza to the Paragraph: Poets Who Write Prose

Panel Participants: Jill Bialosky, Joy Harjo, Marilyn Chin, Gregory Anthony Pardlo, and Harriet Millan

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMI attended this panel hoping to get advice or moral support from others who have jumped between poetry and prose. I’ve been doing just that over the last several years, and hearing others talk about their experience with hybrid genres and blurring boundaries seemed like a good way for me to start to map this space where I’ve found myself.

It turned out to be an enlightening and interesting discussion not only about the practice of moving between genres, but about the meanings and purposes of genres themselves. This discussion, along with the practical advice and information offered by the panelists, was invaluable.

Jill Bialosky, who moderated the panel, opened the discussion with a description of her own history with genre-switching. She began writing poetry in the late 1970s as an undergraduate, at a time when deep imagery poetry was all the rage. She talked about how magical it felt when, as a young poet, she realized a poem’s meaning could be captured by a particular specific image. She said it taught her to read deeply and metaphorically.

“I think everybody should take poetry instead of composition,” she said, only half-jokingly, noting that reading poetry teaches you to see and interpret meanings beneath the surface. Later, in graduate school at the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, she was introduced to narrative poetry. She explained that combining her understanding of deep imagery and narrative was helpful as she transitioned to prose, and she discussed ways that her skills in these areas shaped the prose that she writes.

Joy Harjo spoke about similar experiences shifting between and across genres. She talked about the she’s spent her career crossing and re-crossing the boundary between poetry and prose. She started out writing poetry, but she soon realized there were many stories she wanted to tell – her own stories, but also historical and cultural ones. It wasn’t always easy transitioning between the two, she explained. With poetry, she knew she could cross time and space, but she discovered that with prose storytelling, she had to figure out how to work through a plot, to get from here to there. She said that with her book, The Woman Who Fell From the Sky, she wanted to create a book of poetry that was an oral event. She had both poetry and prose in this book, but she didn’t want the prose pieces to explain the poems, but rather to co-exist with them. In the process of putting together this book, she began to see the fluidity inherent in genre.

“The stories started sounding like poems, and the poems started sounding like stories,” she said.

She also discussed her memoir, Crazy Brave, and the process of creating a book of interrelated stories. And now, she’s working on a historical memoir that includes both stories and poems. Hybridity and crossing genres, she’s found, have become common in her work. They’re a way for her to tell stories from different angles and in different forms, without worrying about the unspoken rule that writers have to stick within the boundaries of a particular genre.

Marilyn Chin gave a memorable and lively presentation. She began by saying that she’s first and foremost a poet, and that she began writing poetry in a formalist way, focusing on meter and feet and structure. She still likes formal poetry, she said, and she sees the value in the adherence to strict poetic forms.

“I still believe that a poem is a perfect, beautiful space,” she said.

Eventually, though, when she was in her 30s she sought to break free of the rules of form. When she began writing prose, it was as a way to escape, to re-invent herself and her work – a kind of transgressive and subversive cross-dressing.

“I wanted to explode social discourse,” she said. “I wanted to write tales that embarrassed my ancestors and talked back to patriarchy.”

Gregory Pardlo, too, talked about the power to be had in crossing genres. He discussed the ways that his relationship with writing has always been shaped by his relationship with education, beginning with teachers trying to train him to use the linear form of the five-paragraph theme. He said he started writing poetry because it was a refuge, allowing him to think metaphorically.

Genres, he said, are social and cultural constructs, and he’s interested in exploring and finding ways in and out of those constructs.

“Poetry as a genre is just as constructed as race as a genre,” he said.

Finally, Harriet Millan talked about the tensions between genre and cross-genre work. Genre, she said, represents allegiance, safety, and protection. It’s inherited and is worth fighting for. Cross-genre work, on the other hand, is expansive, inventive, alive, and changing. She balances between her respect for both sides of this dichotomy, seeing the value of both genre and cross-genre work.

Millan discussed the ways that storytelling was looked down upon by her family of Holocaust refugees, because they were seeking to escape their past, become Americanized, and not tell stories about where they’d been. She still struggles with telling stories, she said, talking about how her poetry often only obliquely mentions the Holocaust and other experiential or historical details. She is, however, interested in experiential poetry, and the ways that her own and her family’s experiences can make their way into her poetry.

After they gave their presentations, the panelists presented short poems and bits of prose, so the audience could hear the ways these genres have unique capabilities even as they inevitably cross paths.

This panel was an engaging exploration of the intersections of poetry and prose, and the ways the distinctions between these genres are arbitrary, fluid, and always in flux.

Vivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her work has appeared in Muse /A Journal, Forage Poetry Journal, Pittsburgh Poetry Review, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, Creative Nonfiction, The Atlantic, The Ilanot Review, Silk Road Review, Zone 3, Eyedrum Periodically, 3QR, and other publications. She’s also the author of a memoir, Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music (Citadel-Kensington), a poetry collection, The Village (Kelsay Books), and a micro-chapbook, Making (Origami Poems Project).

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

AWP2018: Reading the Dead: Bringing the Past to Life in Nonfiction

Panel Participants: Kiki Petrosino, Rebecca McClanahan, Jeremy Jones, and Jessica Handler

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMThe AWP Panel on “Reading the Dead: Bringing the Past to Life in Nonfiction,” focused mainly on the idea of how to write what is missing and still keep the story as authentic and factual as possible.

Through her research of her ancestors, poet Kiki Petrosino noted that writing about family history requires us to “read between the lines.” This includes researching what the social circumstances of our ancestors were (which can be found in secondary sources), and where their documents exist (such as wills, property records, and census that are each government documents ). This type of research, Petrosino said, can take us from “nothing to everything all at once.”

Perhaps the most touching part of Petrosino’s talk was when she discussed her ancestors’ inability to read and write and how most of the documents she had come across showed an ancestor’s signature to be marked with an “x,” until 1907, where she uncovered the first evidence of literacy in her family. An ancestor had signed his name, “Eziekel,” which for me, was beautiful to see. There was a careful attempt at writing his name, as if the letters themselves had slowed down to create a legible, thoughtful signature. I couldn’t help but wonder more about this man who had so methodically signed his name on this document.

This is the type of “normal glory,” that Rebecca McClanahan spoke about. She stated that if we scratch any normal life, it will reveal extraordinary things and that we should allow this to unfold.

McClanahan also discussed how there are degrees of encounters when doing research. There are things like the stumbling across an artifact, or finding patterns that repeat themselves, that can become stories themselves, and that being in the midst of all this research creates a type of, “iron files coming to your magnetic center.” In other words, serendipitous things start to gravitate towards you when you research.

She also reminded us that if there is too much silence, as in not enough information, then something is probably missing. Without knowledge of how to find this missing information, McClanahan said we need to “break bread with the dead,” and we can do this by diving deeper into time and space and try to connect more with them through examining the things that touched them. What was especially interesting was when McClanahan said that writing about the dead sometimes required her to let them take the driver’s seat, so to speak, and allow them to speak in the form of their letters or other documents, while other times you can try to sympathize with them and sometimes even allow yourself to be angry at them and let all these aspects come through in your writing.

Jeremy Jones’s project dealt with research that involved missing diary entries, and lists, thus the information was very flat, and lacked emotion and introspection he noted, so his challenge was in finding the three-dimensional story.

Because, as Jones mentioned, human beings have active minds, our brains always unify things we see, and so he likes to use the Gestalt Principles (Proximity, Similarity, Continuity, Closure, and Symmetry) as they have helped him figure out how to best unify things. The Gestalt Principles helps him to figure out where he needs to focus in his work. Wherever he sees gaps in research, he asks himself, “Where is the momentum?” “Where is it going?” and “How can I fill this in to provide closure?” So there is some assumption-making going on, but it should be in keeping with the other elements of the story, both before and after the missing elements.

Jessica Handler asked the question, “How to work with what we don’t have?” which can be answered by looking at what information you do have (for example: photos, papers, and censuses).

While you might not have the voices that can fill in blanks, you can piece together the story with what you do have. The absence of knowledge is conflict and should be incorporated into your story, and so the story of not knowing, becomes the story. Handler suggested that nonfiction gives us the opportunity to walk the readers through the conflict you might have had in piecing the story together. So if you encountered roadblocks to finding information, include that in your work. The mystery of not knowing is relevant to the story you’re trying to tell.

Marilyn Duarte is currently an MFA candidate at the University of Tampa’s Creative Writing Low-Residency Program.

AWP2018: That Ticking Clock: The Handling of Time in Fiction, Poetry, and Nonfiction

Panel Participants: Moderated by Cary Holladay, the panel consisted of Gary Fincke, Lorraine Lopez, and Jim Minnick, with a paper by Charlotte Holmes, who was unable to attend the conference.

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A panel of writers in multiple genres discussed the craft of shaping time via literary references, as well as the unique relationship between narrator and reader. In her paper, Charlotte Holmes used examples from literature to demonstrate how time functions as “the story’s invisible engine.” Its essential elements may be delivered in minutes, hours, days, or years. It may be a case of capturing an era, historic times, or shifts in customs, laws, and social hierarchies. Edith Wharton, for example, wrote about her youth and captured an era and the manner in which people of a certain class behaved, in her short story “Roman Fever.” Holmes added several other literary examples, emphasizing that no matter what time the authors capture, characters turn out to be much like us, representations of the universal.

Lorraine Lopez began by referencing her personal experience of time, a precious commodity the older she gets. She aims to be efficient and use it well, and chronically late people do not gain her sympathy. In writing fiction, she partners with time to keep herself focused and her story well-paced and sequenced. Narrative time is an investment worth elaborating. Pacing a story can take pages or a paragraph. In fiction, the author skillfully balances the present time, the scene interactions between characters, and summary, which is everything else. Flashbacks and flashforwards add dimensionality to the story. Narration, interiority, and reflection round off the craft, while building structure acts like nails and mortar of the story. Studying F. Scott Fitzgerald’s The Great Gatsby provides the reader with an excellent model of handling time.

Cary Holladay discussed how linear chronology, the straightforward presentation of events, is often the preferred way to bolster the organization of a story. A reader stays with the story in time as long as there is payoff. There has to be something in the here and now to keep suspense in play. She presented the concept of the continuous flashback, where the author invents the story’s own continuous thread. In each return to the narrative, the story picks up moments after the last flashback with memory becoming the connective tissue. Thus, the flashback story carries its own suspense. Revisiting it enlarges the character and memory, and serves as a reflection that yields revelation. Considering that characters hold a private, a public, and a secret life, the continuous flashback can serve to reveal a person’s secret life.

Jim Minnick zeroed in on the relationship between author and reader in real time, the moment of reading the story. He guided the audience in an exercise of imagining the reader breathe, pause, sigh, tear up, and respond to the story line. He further discussed the role punctuation, sentence length, and verb tense play in skillfully written stories and poetry, and read an excerpt of his work.

This was a well-orchestrated panel that successfully presented the panelists’ insights, sharing ways to elaborate and manage the concept of time.

Sophia Kouidou-Giles, born in Greece, resides in the USA. She has published in “Voices,” “Persimmon Tree,” “Assay,” and in an anthology entitled The Time Collection. “Transitions and Passages” is her poetry chapbook. She is currently working on a memoir.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

AWP2018: Making Room for Essayistic Thinking during Hard Times

Panel Participants: Amy Monticello, Heather Kirn Lanier, Kristin Kovacic and Randon Billings Noble (M)

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMDescription: With the rise of “alternative facts” and an increasing disregard for both science and literature, thoughtful and nuanced essays are more important than ever. But longer, deeper work takes more time than a quick response piece. How can essayists make room for nuanced thinking, for thorough explorations of hard truths, for humor, for slowness, for contemplation? This panel of diverse essayists offers practical suggestions and discusses theoretical concerns. Come, think, and—hopefully—be eased.

Amy Monticello begins her talk with an anecdote. The plane ride, when, for many panelists, the presentation actually begins and the focus on audience starts to feel real. She tells us that she was rereading The Wrong Way to Save Your Life by Megan Stielstra, and, of course, in this reading it resonated a new way. In the anecdote, the reader comes upon a moment when Stielstra is dissecting an animal heart. Her young child walks in and asks what she is doing, and she explains “I’m writing an essay.” Inside that moment, for her and for Monticello, essaying is studying fear through anatomy. And isn’t that the point, that when we write the essay, we understand most central pieces of life in their beauty and function.

Monticello says what I hope we all slow down to think about sometimes—or maybe we can’t stop ourselves from doing so—that the act of the essay is happening in our everyday lives, all the time, and most deeply when we are not staring at a screen or page. And for her, the new tenure-track job she had started in her daughter’s first year, the sleep she was unable to get walking the floors with her daughter from 1-4 AM nightly and the difficulty all writers face when trying to come back to writing after finding a shift in our selfhood. Knowing how measurable the publishing game is for the new job she had taken, her body was living in a state of fear.

And then Trump happened. And it all got worse.

Monticello talks about her gig for writing “hot takes” in which she could, essentially, complain about what it means to be a mother in this insane moment. And how writing those short, quick responses to the tenuous world in which she lived was “survivalist writing.” It helped her begin to look for an in to the more complicated writing that, as a writer, made her feel connected to the world and to herself. She says because she “raged” in hot takes, she ignited a path for something deeper. She was able to open to a process which allowed her to take the time she needed to write quality essays “The problem with quality essays is that they are almost always a gamble,” she says. “But I know the relationship between risk and reward.” And that the risk in encouraging yourself to slow down in the moments that count; the reward is where real growth and understanding occurs.

Heather Kirn Lanier introduces her audience to MASS MoCA, an arts organization to which she finds herself addicted. And specifically, she describes to us an exhibit she has experienced by installation artist James Turrell. In this exhibit, the audience walks into a room that is completely dark. The audience is told to let eyes adjust to the darkness for fifteen minutes as a way of finding a new way to see, that is, in the dark. People stumble into the absent light reaching for the guardrail or for each other, and as Lanier describes this, she acknowledges that the people listening to her presentation might be able make the connection between this art and her own metaphor for essaying. While she is right, we are no less reactive when she tells us of two girls, one of whom reaches into her pockets for her smartphone. Because we know where this going, we gasp. The young girls (and likely the people around them) will need another 15-20 minutes to begin their journey back into darkness. The ways we as listeners and writers are resistance to take the time to adjust to our own thoughts is second to the story. But isn’t that the point?

Seeing in new ways (especially seeing ourselves) is confronting, she reminds us. Disorientation is not an easy thing to sit with. It is much easier to try and attempt an answer to a question that has already asked than answering the question that is true for you. When we stop writing the thoughts we are receiving and have received from the sources around us, when we ask the questions we tend to answer in contradiction, when we stumble upon contradictions and embrace them, that’s where the best moments for essaying are. She reminds us that our media validates quick, flitty ideas. And in that way, essay thinking is countercultural. It gives us strength to question the paradigm of our current time and the ways we are being conditioned to think.
And she gives us concepts to work with from herself and from others. She hopes that can help us step more readily into that wonder. Here are some of the ways she promotes that way of thinking:

  1. Keep seeking the questions that make you uncomfortable
  2. If you make an outline, know there’s still much uncertainty left in fleshing out the idea
  3. Cut yourself off from squeaky media; put boundaries around them. (E.g., one day a week without internet, no social media before 3 pm, no email until after morning writing.)
  4.  Find an old ancestral object and hold it. Feel it. Be with it.
  5. Watch a sunset for longer than it holds your interest
  6. Trust things that take a long time to make. Like trees. Like books.

Kristin Kovacic was the biggest surprise. After hearing these two stellar and meaningful talks, she came to the microphone and admitted to the audience she had merely to echo what the previous authors had presented to us and that her talk might sound much the same. But, oh, it did not. Kovacic began by telling us about the new job she had acquired at a private school and the smart young students she was able to work with there. And that how in that time of starting new work, she was diagnosed with breast cancer. I wondered if she felt her writing similar to Monticello in this way, but to me, who recently left the toddler years with my son and also recently lost my grandmother to cancer, the differences seemed quite striking. Not even opposite sides of the same coin.

She found herself fighting to do well in a new position at a time she was fighting for health and vitality and, well, life. Working against the enemy that was inside her, the constant fear, and the cancer treatments that attacked her body in another way. She talked about the difficulties of working through the year teaching, the 6 inch pile of grading that accompanies most writing teachers around. The writing on the board which compromised her scars, filling her wounds with fluid that needed their own treatments to drain. She is raw about how no one told her to be careful of this; no one told her this would happen. And her fierceness in this loneness is what I connected to most as a writer of essays. To be stuck in our own vast realities with the responsibilities to survive, to know what there is no way we could have known.

She was trying to make it to the summer for the real writing life to begin. And then as the writing began, there was a thread about writing irony and how ironic some of the situations she was finding herself in were and how she was teaching irony to her classes. Her power was strong in her prose, and I’m sorry to say, I took few notes as I listened to her talk because the language, the weaving of tale and experience and poignancy of what she said was so moving, I forgot that notes was a thing to which I had committed.

But as she began to talk about the active shooter training that she and her students received, I began to write in my notebook simply as a way to step back from the power of her talk. She was becoming too vulnerable for me, she was hitting too close to home with my own teacher fears as she discussed the process of her colleague in a black cloak and (hockey?) mask walking the halls with a toy gun. He was playing the role of the shooter and giving students a context for where to go and what to do if this were more than a drill. If one of the “bullets” hits you, you’re out. After, there is a tally and session for reflection, for grief and (one hopes) relief. And while she and her students were playing the roles of victims, another school shooting was taking lives in real time. Here she says is “where irony disappears, when exactly what you’ve been practicing is what actually happens.”

She quotes Audre Lorde: “I am saving my life by using my life in the service of what must be done.”

She brings this back to her writing by sharing with us how she teaches Baldwin’s _Notes of a Native Son_, and asks her students to think and write about it. One of the lovely moments of breath in this part of the talk is when one student says “This isn’t, like, an essay essay.” And Kovacic agrees. She is taking them far away from what they know about the essay (likely of the five-paragraph garden variety) and inviting them deeper into their own experiences. She talks about her own experience last summer as she was making it past the first school year for herself and into that lovely time to write. And without giving us the details, she describes an essay she wrote, one that took time and told her hard truths about herself. A time in her younger years when she saw somethings she didn’t like about herself in the arena of racial language and equity. As her students read _Notes of a Native Son_, she invites them to write about race. She asks them to write a personal essay about race tying the work they do here to the generative mind. She says “writing about cancer is easier than writing about race, because when writing about cancer, you know who your enemy is.” As a nearing middle aged white woman, she may be alluding to the enemy as herself or the culture she has believed in. It’s a thing I struggle with, and maybe you do you. And I wonder, if I were real with myself, if I could write this essay. Would be brave to fight that unseen enemy within as she has been and is being? Would I be brave enough to share it with my community? These are questions I will be asking myself for some time.

Our moderator, Randon Billings Noble, finishes our time and prepares us for questions. She reminds us to read Becket and Wendell Berry and everyone.
She reminds us to go out and look at THINGS (not screens).
She reminds us that while we are out, we should write by hand. Essaying moves at handspeed.

And then she opens the room to question:

“How do you separate your privilege to pause with the need to act?”
Monticello answers: We have to signal we’re listening, but we have to think if we’re the right person to answer. When are you the listener?

“How do you keep your audience when the news cycle shifts?”
Panelists answer together and through conversation: 1) Know when it’s your time to work quickly, but practice self-care. 2) Short response pieces are valid too. 3) Some pieces are complicated enough that the news cycle will come back to them. Take your time if time is what you need to do the piece and the subject justice.

“Is there a place for humor in essayist voice at this time in our culture?”
Monticello: Yes. Humor is most needed when the joke can point to the center of the issue’s absurdity.
Lanier: Absolutely. Try a humorous voice. Try many voices.

And a final thought from the panel: Explore your thoughts for your thoughts’ sakes without publication in mind. There is great value to this.

Haley Lasché is a yoga teacher and writing professor. Her poems have appeared such places as Drawn to Marvel: Poems from the Comic Books, Hartskill Review and Dossier Journal. She has two poetry chapbooks _Where It Leads_ (Red Bird Chapbooks 2016) and _Blood and Survivor (Moria Press 2017).

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

AWP2018: Writing From Privilege: Who Can Write What and Why?

Moderator: Angie Chuang
Panelists: Vanessa Hua, Kirstin Chen, Kim Liao, Kelly Luce

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMDescription: What does it mean to write from a position of privilege? How should white writers navigate their privileged positions? Are writers of color exempt, or are all writers inherently privileged by way of having the opportunities to pursue literary careers? In this panel, writers of a diversity of backgrounds and formats will discuss the question of who has permission to write what, and how it influences their willingness to write outside the confines of their race, gender, economic class, and more.

From the moment I sat down, I found myself wrestling with a host of pre-conceived notions—all self-imposed. What I saw was five panelists, none of whom appeared to be Black or Brown. How could a meaningful conversation about privilege occur without what I considered to be the necessary representatives of diversity? I share this as a way of shining a light on my own bias – it’s what I might have called unconscious bias except I was very conscious of this unexpected response to a panel of professionals who had yet to even open their mouths and share a single insight—a reminder of my privilege and the pernicious nature of stereotypes and single stories.

Throughout this excellent session, moderator Angie Chuang made it a point to have panelists address their diverse backgrounds and their differences in positionality. (It should be noted Chuang stepped in for panel organizer Kaitlin Solimine whose flight was cancelled due to weather.) Through introductions, we learned that Luce, the sole white, non-Asian writer, often features Asian protagonists in her work. She lived in Japan for several years. Liao is Asian American with Russian Jewish heritage on her mother’s side, Chen was born and raised in Singapore, and Hua is the American-born daughter of Chinese parents (as is Chuang). Hua’s debut collection, Deceit and Other Possibilities, features individuals from the Bay Area’s diverse immigrant communities: Chinese, Mexican, Korean, and Armenian among others. “I call them model minorities behaving badly,” she says of these characters, explaining how she likes to go outside of herself and employ “imaginative empathy,” as a way of expanding the world.

The panelists all embraced coming to diverse characters from a place of humility. Luce underscored the responsibility she feels in terms of representing and giving voice to a group outside of her own race or culture. She suggested that writers question their motivations when including diverse characters. “Are you just adding them for diversity’s sake or does the writing demand something of you?” Chen pointed out that, when it comes to secondary characters, writers often lean on stereotypes. “This one-dimensional approach causes problems,” she said. “Minor characters matter as well.” Panelists agreed that “acknowledging your otherness” is a way to gain trust. They also emphasized that researching people meant absorbing what people needed you to know about them, not just exploring what you think you know.

The writers were asked to comment on Lionel Shriver’s controversial speech from 2016’s Brisbane Writers Festival. Shriver, wearing a sombrero, had scoffed at hypersensitivity and political correctness. She also called fiction writing a “disrespectful vocation by its nature.” Chen suggested people read Kaitlyn Greenidge’s Who Gets To Write What?. She also pointed to Viet Thanh Nguyen’s LA Times piece on appropriation. Overall, the panelists were aligned in their belief that writers were free to use their imagination but challenged the idea that imagination and disrespect went hand in hand.

The panelists were asked about their experience with and/or opinions on “sensitivity readers,” people who are hired to vet a manuscript for issues of representation, cultural fluency and bias. The responses suggested that a sensitivity reader’s value could only be assessed on a case by case basis. The group believed writers should be open to culturally attuned feedback but shouldn’t blindly relinquish their authority over creative choices. Hua suggested a solid relationship between a writer and such a reader would be a plus. The relationship would facilitate candid communication as well as a better understanding of the writer’s vision and goals.

The panel addressed several audience questions including how to avoid being perceived as tone deaf—“data can go a long way” was one response, particularly when it helps to establish that you understand privilege. In terms of vetting work, an audience member expressed concerns about exploiting culturally diverse friends and fellow students by asking them to read and represent their culture. In response, Hua spoke to the value of relationships once again. “They need to begin long before you need them,” she said. “Your friendships need to be in place.” Everyone agreed that you need to ask yourself what you are bringing to a community, not just what you need from it.

Rochelle Newman-Carrasco has an MFA from Antioch, Los Angeles with an emphasis on Creative Non-Fiction and Literary Translation. Her work has appeared in Role Reboot, Lillith, NAILED, Advertising Age, Lunch Ticket, The Forward and others. Her bilingual children’s book, ZigZag, will be published in 2018.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

AWP2018: The (Art) World is Everywhere Whispering Essays

Panel Participants: Joey Franklin, Sarah Minor, Shawn Wen, Joe Bonomo, Elena Passarello

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMThe genesis of this panel was a quote from poet and essayist Alexander Smith, who said “The world is everywhere whispering essays, and one only need be the world’s amanuensis.” He also called essays “the infinite suggestiveness of everyday things.” The panelists looked to the world of art not for what to essay, but how: what can we learn about essaying from other techniques in the art world?

Sarah Minor spoke on visual art and the essay – she herself works in “the visual essay,” where text and space work together, the visual arrangement of words in the space on a page. She argues for a shared language that bridges visual arts and creative writing spaces:

  • narrative: time + action = progression; building and/or layering an idea, not necessarily telling a story arc or plot
  • self-awareness: making reader/viewer complicit in the processes of art
  • texture: = feeling by seeing; in essays, juxtaposing sections that have different styles so that they rub up against each other

Joey Franklin spoke on hip-hop and the essay, about language/story/rhythm and the surprise of artful collage. Quoting Montaigne, “I am perpetually tricking myself out.” Franklin notes several similarities between hip-hop and essay composition:

  • “self”-centeredness: a preoccupation with the “I,” the ego, the personality
  • authenticity: “keeping it real”
  • persona: a cultivated self or alter ego, depending on what’s required for an essay or project (like Eminem’s character Slim Shady) – an ironic or adopted stance for the sake of a project or argument
  • metacommentary: rapping about rapping, essaying about essaying
  • emphasis on tradition or genealogy
  • 2nd-class label
  • genre purity debate
  • appropriation through other genres
  • hyped-up rivalries (East v. West Coast, D’Agato v. Gutkind)
  • sampling: collage of sources – Judith Kitchen on the lyric essay: “The aim is to make of, not up.”

Shawn Wen, “What Radio Teaches Us” – from radio, she learned cadence, silence, breath, how a line holds your mind and ear, and how to imitate speech. In particular:

  • texture: bring in dialogue or other texts to break up the flow
  • timing and feeling: editing for timing/flow for precision
  • juxtaposition of different voices, textures, paces
  • collage techniques: including lists, poems, biography, history, description, and performance
  • BUT, acknowledges limitations of radio: very linear, oversimplified takeaways, too populist, doesn’t allow for complexity

Joe Bonomo spoke on Rock ‘n’ Roll and the Essay – how Aldous Huxley and Pete Townsend each claimed his art (the essay and the rock song, respectively) as a vehicle for any subject. He notes that while we come to the music that matters to us around puberty, we come to essays as adults. The essay moves forward as the shape of the author’s thinking and then circles back; rock tends toward a “5 paragraph essay” form – verse/chorus/verse/bridge/verse/chorus – though it may move away from this in jam sessions/live outtakes/etc. There is an ironic self-awareness in both

Elena Passarello spoke on theater and the essay. Because of the limits of performance (limited time and money for rehearsal), each actor breaks down a role into beats made of skill, tradition (what others have done with the role), energy, prep for role, research. The essayist often has a similar preparation before sitting down to write the essay. Yet for both the actor and the essayist, there is space for magic to happen in the moment of performance/writing. A repertory actor will create a different voice, stance, presence for each role – the essayist does the same for each essay, and an essay collection functions somewhat as a repertory of roles. Shared techniques include:

  • archive
  • documentary vocality
  • interview/docupoetics
  • multiple voices

Poet and essayist Heidi Czerwiec is the author of the recently-released poetry collection Conjoining, and of the forthcoming lyric essay collection Fluid States, winner of Pleiades Press’ 2018 Robert C. Jones Prize for Short Prose. She lives in Minneapolis. Visit her at

AWP2018: Towards Truth and Brevity: All About Creative Nonfiction Chapbooks

Panel Participants: Randon Billings Noble, Bernard Grant, BJ Hollars, Penny Guisinger

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Less is more.

All four panelists have published chapbooks of creative nonfiction prose—at least, they noted, that’s they’ve been told their slim book-like works are called. In their creator’s mind however, a chapbook typically begins as something else: A long essay. Linked micro essays. Prose poetry. Or some other thing in the land between short and book-length.

Two years ago, Randon Billings Noble didn’t know where to submit an unusual lyric essay when a poet friend suggested chapbook publishers. “I thought chapbooks were just for poets,” she admitted, until Red Bird offered to publish Devotional.

“Now I’m an evangelist for CNF chapbooks,” she said, which “can be a way of thinking about scope and structure, practice and process.” Even with chapbooks, size varies, she noted, from “micro-chap” (around eight pages) to a “shortie” (a novella-length collection, from 24 to 48 pages). A writer might produce a chapbook on purpose, especially as a way of getting at the core of a longer work, but chapbooks often emerge in ways that surprise even the author.

B.J. Hollars, whose CNF chapbook, In Defense of Monsters, likened its emergence to a sandbox, “a literal testing ground”. He talked of CNF chapbooks as a chance to either make a small thing bigger or a big thing smaller, a way “to play, test ideas, and connect with readers.” His forthcoming book, he said, would not exist if not for that chapbook, which represented “an opening to a conversation.”

Hollars urged writers not to regard chaps as “something less or invalid because of page or word count.” Rather, they are a craft challenge for writers, because chapbooks “ask each word to carry extra weight.” Echoing back to his sandbox metaphor, he noted that a chapbook might be “a place to play, and then ask yourself, ‘how much of the city is left to build?’ Sometimes one castle is all you need.”

When Bernard Grant was writing essays toward a possible future collection, he grew so curious about publishing, he decided to organize some linked flash essays into a chapbook submission. Now with two chapbooks published—Puzzle Pieces and Fly Back at Me—Grant explained that “for prose writers, chapbooks are excellent practice in assembling a book.”

Penny Guisinger published Postcards from Here: a memoir in vignettes with Vine Leaves Press, and still isn’t sure it’s a chapbook by definition, though certainly it is a slim book made up of flash pieces.

“We worry too much about what we call things—micro, flash, prose poem, vignette. To this day, I can’t tell you what a vignette is,” Guisinger said. “What we call things is a marketing decision. Writers sit down to make things, and if it ends up small, so be it.” Hollars agreed, “Let publishers figure out that out.”

Guisinger suggested that readers may love chapbooks because people generally “love tiny representations of big things,” likening it to viewing a small area of a cityscape built of Legos. “Writing small things is about communicating a big idea through a pinhole.”

She offered three tips for prospective CNF chapbook writers:

  • Pay attention to openings. Get right to it; no long taxiing down the runway.
  • Pay attention to endings. Paraphrasing Sam Shepard: Every ending should roll toward a new beginning.
  • Make sure you “hire the right verbs”.

Promoting chapbooks, all agreed, is a partnership between author and publisher, but it falls mainly on the writer. Hollars and Noble suggested banding together with other chapbook authors: pitch a round-up review of several chapbooks; do group readings organized by topic, geographic region, types of press, or other commonalities.

Hollars advised that before submitting to chapbook publishers, “Be sure your submission stands alone, that it’s not just a random assortment of your work.”

Noble added that the work comes before publishing decisions. “Write what you want to write; there’s probably a place for it. I wrote Devotional as a lyric essay and didn’t think chapbook until I didn’t know where to send it.”

Hollars also didn’t set out to author a chapbook. “Let the work lead and see what happens,” he noted. Chapbook publishers, he said, might also entertain possibilities that include art, mixed media, and other variables not possible in typical length books.

Noble’s experience with Devotional was a case in point. She had initial qualms about the proposed design, then saw how it dovetailed with what she submitted, which “felt more like an object than an essay, and Red Bird made it more like an art object.”

The collective “oooh” in the room when she held up the chapbook and it fanned out, confirmed the big power of small.

I was aware of creative nonfiction prose chapbooks already, but after hearing this presentation the first morning of AWP, and then walking the bookfair, it was surprising and encouraging to see so many publishers had them on offer.

Editor’s Note: see Julija Sukys’s “In Praise of Slim Volumes: Big Book, Big Evil” from Fall 2016.

Lisa Romeo is the author of Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss (forthcoming from University of Nevada Press, May 2018). She teaches in the Bay Path University MFA program, and her short work is listed in Best American Essays 2016.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

AWP2018: It’s (Not) All About Me: Personal Writing in an Age of Narcissism

Panel Participants: Krista Bremer, Sy Safransky, Jaquira Diaz, Heather Sellers, Crystal Williams

Screen Shot 2018-03-12 at 7.25.10 AMAs a long-time subscriber of The Sun Magazine, I am forever grateful the editors who once-upon-a-time graciously published my personal essay “Good Enough.” Here, contributors and editors from The Sun consider whether personal writers (really) are self-absorbed, craft in personal essays, matters of equity, and where the political should reside in the personal writing of today.

Krista Bremer, writer & associate publisher of The Sun, moderated the panel and opened with this reminder: the mere decision to write the personal can be fraught. Her father once asked—and I paraphrase—but why-oh-why did she have to write memoir. “The first person is my instrument,” Bremer tells us. And it is her “privilege to enlarge the questions.”

So, how do we expand our scope even as we look inward? Turns out that Ovid’s Narcissus wasn’t such an ego-maniac after all. Heather Sellers challenges the notion that personal writing requires self-absorption. For those of us writing about ourselves, it is only by deliberately gazing, noticing, and reflecting that the “self” can even be recognized. When we let go of the limitations of what we perceive on the surface—and what we thought we knew—then we might begin to really see what is underneath. If we keep on, and are lucky, we find understanding that is not only lasting but potentially transformative for writer and reader alike. Art, Sellers asserts, is the cure for Narcissism.

Jaquira Dìaz cuts right to truth. I like her. She says “I write about girls, but also about monsters…Sometimes, as they say, the monsters are real.” And the audience thinks, we know. We’ve met our own monsters.

She says “In my America, a white woman at a writing conference tells me I look like a gang member.” Oh! Horrible! It gets quiet for a beat. On monsters, I think: when have I unwittingly been someone else’s monster?

Later, Dìaz suggests that a distinction between the personal and political may not be a writer’s prerogative. “For some of us,” she says, “our existence alone is political, so our writing is, too.” When she says “I think we start with empathy,” I think. Yes! And then, I jot down this equation empathy ≠ narcissism.

Crystal Williams invites James Baldwin to join us, sharing two paraphrased quotes she likes to carry around in her mind. First, I am a witness. That is my job. I write I all down. And next, If you tell everything, no one can hold you hostage. As writers, Williams says, courage is like a muscle. And to be courageous, we are working toward the truth in our work.

Bremer then returns to some of the panel’s guiding questions. If it’s not all about us, what is it about? Is personal writing self-absorbed or can it be more? What work can it do? Should it do? Should personal writing be political and even illuminate the larger, human story?

The Sun Magazine’s founder, editor, and publisher Sy Safransky says “I think everything is political if you let it be.”

And after her earlier invitation to be brave, to those of us who may be tempted to stay safe, Crystal Williams says her next charge would be: “What politics are you advocating for in your nonpolitical writing?”

As for universal themes? Jaquira Dìaz doesn’t shy away from what is problematic in that very notion. She wonders whether “maybe the conversation needs to shift to consider what is universal? When people say ‘universal’ to me, I think they are really saying that they want my writing to more white and heteronormative.”

All this resonates like a chord and I can’t help but come around again to Bremer’s opening remarks. As a writer, we are lucky to have our respective instruments and the chance to continue (or begin) to “enlarge the questions.”

Beth Mayer’s short story collection We Will Tell You Otherwise won the 2017 Hudson Prize with Black Lawrence Press and is slated for publication in July 2019. Her fiction has appeared in The Threepenny Review, The Sun Magazine, The Midway Review, and elsewhere.

Visit Assay’s Spring 2018 issue for more!

Assay Interviews Mimi Schwartz

9781496206305-Perfect.inddMimi Schwartz’s latest book, When History Is Personal, makes its debut this March (University of Nebraska Press, 2018). Other books include Good Neighbors, Bad Times: Echoes of My Father’s German Village (2008); Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed (2002); and the ever-popular Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction, co-authored with Sondra Perl (2006). Her short work has appeared in Agni, Creative Nonfiction, ASSAY, The Writer’s Chronicle, Calyx, Prairie Schooner, TikkunThe New York Times and The Missouri Review, among others—and ten have been Notables in the Best American Essays Series. She is Professor Emerita in writing at Richard Stockton University and gives readings, talks, and workshops nationwide and abroad.


Assay is pleased to interview Mimi Schwartz to celebrate the release of her most recent book. To order When History Is Personal from the University of Nebraska Press, please click here.

Assay (Renée E. D’Aoust):

Mimi, your new book is wonderful—congratulations on its publication! To provide a framework for readers, I’d like to share the description:

When History Is Personal contains the stories of twenty-five moments in Mimi Schwartz’s life, each heightened by its connection to historical, political, and social issues. These essays look both inward and outward so that these individualized tales tell a larger story—of assimilation, the women’s movement, racism, anti-Semitism, end-of-life issues, ethics in writing, digital and corporate challenges, and courtroom justice. In adding her personal story to the larger narrative of history, culture, and politics, Schwartz invites readers to consider her personal take alongside “official” histories and offers readers fresh assessments of our collective past.

In the Preface of When History is Personal, you write that you “count on my experiences clashing with what the world is saying.” Rather than perceiving that clash as a limitation of perspective, you welcome that clash as a necessary, narrative tension. Personal moments connect to historical currents. I’m touching on the idea that the personal is political, but I’m also touching on the idea that individual stories matter. I feel this astute approach to nonfiction is what you’ve developed over the course of your previous books and writing life. Is it something you knew intuitively years ago or something you needed to learn? In writing workshops, we often talk about the courage needed to write our own stories. Is there courage in the clash?


I think being open to clashes—even looking for them—is essential, especially when writing about family and friends we think we know. Childhood memories, in particular, tend to begin with a cast of heroes and villains—the mean father, the jerky sister, the amazing grandmother—who have shaped our miserable or idyllic childhood. Fact checking, interviewing, and research help us challenge our initial assumptions, forcing us to rethink and re-experience remembered stories we are used to telling ourselves. We dig deeper, come in from another angle, hear a counter voice saying It didn’t happen that way! Whatever the clash, memories gains complexity and nuance—and our stories become more insightful.

In When History Is Personal, I benefited from many clashes. There is the one in “The Coronation of Bobby,” when one small fact about King George’s coronation (it happened before I was born) overturned a lovely memory I had of crowning my dog King Bobby, just like King George. And the one in “Love in a Handbag” when a photograph of my sister Ruth and me, high in an oak tree, brings back the good memories I’d forgotten, while writing about our battles half a century later. And the one in “A Trunk of Surprise,” when a speech by an African-American friend makes me realize how much I didn’t know about the racism he had faced before moving into his house in Glen Acres, a wonderfully special community where we met in 1966.

My colleague Jack Connor, in his Argument and Persuasion courses, insists his students include OPV (Opposing Points of View) on every paper. I now urge the same in my writing workshops: by adding dialogue, or telling someone’s counter narrative, or adding one small, annoying fact that overturns a memory. Let the chips of certainty fall wherever. The writing, I’ve found, is truer when the courage for that is there.


It is fascinating to me that after escaping Germany and saving his family from the Holocaust, your father took you back to visit Germany, and the small village he had left (and escaped), a mere eight years after World War II ended. Your father has such amazing wisdom, and you write beautifully about your resistance to it and recognition of it. Your writing evokes a profound sense of connection to the world: to place, to village, to family. In the first essay in When History Is Personal, “My Father Always Said,” you write:

Do you want to put down stones?” my father asked, placing small ones on his father’s grave, his lips moving as in prayer, and then on his mother’s grave, and on the others. He had found the stones under the wet leaves, and my mother, wobbling in high heels, was searching for more, enough for both of us.

Throughout this essay and the book, your writing is clear and defined, and it is also very beautiful. Was it hard to find that line of beauty for such profound topics?


If I consciously look for beautiful language, I never find it. The words must come naturally out of the experience I’m describing, or else they tend to sound pretentious and stilted. That said, I try to listen for the rhythms in my head and encourage a rush of words to surface without pre-editing. A good deal gets cut in subsequent drafts, but what remains are the words I most need. James Dickey calls it “finding the nuggets in fifty tons of dirt.” I also like Dorothy Allison’s metaphor of an accordion: “To write-write-write-expand-expand-expand-expand, and then when it is so expanded that it is bloated, cut it down….”


As you know I’m a huge fan of dogs in literature. (Right now, I’m working on a survey review of creative nonfiction books about dogs.) Here’s an excerpt from your story of “The Coronation of Bobby”:

Best of all, Omi and Opi had Bobby with his black-and-white tail that wagged like mad whenever we arrived. Unlike the German shepherd next door who bit me, Bobby was a dog for the unafraid, for those who kept trust with the world and chose welcome over anger, optimism over loss and betrayal—and Hitler be damned. My grandparents’ lack of bitterness in choosing Bobby’s good nature was a gift I absorbed without understanding. All that concerned me back then was Bobby’s name. Real Americans, I announced with authority as the first American-born in the family, would call him Spot. Or Sundae, because of his chocolate spots on vanilla fur. Or Silky, for the softest, long ears I ever put my cheek on.

I love that “Bobby was a dog for the unafraid, for those who kept trust with the world and chose welcome over anger, optimism over loss and betrayal.” I know that kind of dog. I recognize the human who befriends this optimistic dog. Also, the photograph of you and Bobby together is adorable. (Further, I also love the mention of your collie Karma in another essay.)

I’m curious if you think there is a different way we need to write about pets from how we write about humans. What do you think is the most frequently missed opportunity as writers when we write about our pets?


I’m so glad you chose the line about Bobby being a dog for the unafraid, because, for me, writing it was revelatory. Before that, I’d been writing a simple romance of how I fell in love with Bobby, and our farm adventures, and how he saved me from the black snake, and how I took him to my house. All true, but nothing I didn’t know; there was no complexity until I realized the other story of my grandparents restarting their previously urban lives on a chicken farm in America—and how memories shaped their lives here. The more I looked underneath and around my simple dog story, the more I found hiding there.

It is easy to idealize the people we love in childhood, and that impulse is probably even greater with pets—especially dogs that offer us so much unconditional love. Writing that one line of surprise led me to reexamine those halcyon farm memories with Bobby when I was five, six, and seven—and made for a more nuanced essay. So my recommendation to others writing about a dog they love? Write at least one line of surprise on your first draft and explore it.


I think we’ve both taken part in panel discussions about how to create a book out of a series of essays. Many of the essays included here were published as stand-alone pieces in literary journals (writers should note that your acknowledgement list is an excellent resource of journals to read). I’m completely engaged with When History is Personal, as a cohesive collection. In the preface, you write:

The twenty-five essays in When History Is Personal are meant to talk to each other over time and place. Though the organization is loosely chronological, the echoes and refrains matter more, informing and sometimes undermining a world I think I know. History, I keep finding out, has more than one version even when I am the only narrator!

Was the goal of creating a cohesive book in your mind as you wrote these separate essays? Additionally, how did you come up with a four-part structure for the book? It works so well. Again in the “Preface,” you write, “In four sections, I write to bear witness to the history I’ve inherited.”


In When History Is Personal, the structure came late in the process, after I’d written a dozen of the twenty-five essays in the book. I started by having this image of burying a time capsule of objects when I was eight—and thinking how these essays were like those objects: to preserve the world in my little box of history. I wrote a draft of a preface that began with this image—and then variations of my title came: When History Is Personal. Both preface and title became guidelines for the other stories I told: that each one should combine memoir and history, so that I was always writing about “I” in the world “I” lived in. In other words, I wanted to look inward, as memoir does, and outward at the world that shaped my personal experiences.

My favorite memoirs all did that. Growing Up by Russell Baker, for example, is about “a lazy boy and his mother,” as Baker put it; but also about life as a single mom in the Depression. Baker let me enter that world in a way that I never did reading straight history books. The Road from Coorain by Jill Ker Conway is another favorite because of the way she combines her family story with the world of British settlers trying to make a go of it on the Australian outback.

Finding a structural order for the book only came at the end. My first great idea—to pair a personal essay and a craft essay—flopped. The essays didn’t speak to each other no matter how much I wished otherwise. As my friend, Lynn Powell, pointed out: “In your personal essays, you are discovering. In your craft essays, you have answers. The two voices don’t work well with each other.”


I took away ten craft essays and began looking at poetry collections and other essay collections for new ideas. Somehow were organized by time, but I was drawn to Anne Padgett’s Story of a Marriage, which is loosely chronological but not wed to it. Theme matters more, and with that in mind, I spread the essays out on the floor, and they began talking to each other over time and place. Four groupings appeared—Family Haunts, In and Out My Front Door, Storyscapes, and Border Crossings. I then ordered those groupings, considering tone (the need to mix sad and funny) and length ( the need to vary long and short as in music). Finally, I wanted one essay to lead into the next like links in a chain. I didn’t think it essential that people read sequentially (I often don’t), but if they did, I wanted the dots to connect.


In “What’s a Rally to Do?” you implicate yourself in “diplomatic silence,” and you connect the anti-Semitism your parents experienced in Germany with anti-Semitic flyers posted on the New Jersey university where you had taught, at that point, for twenty years or more. You write, “So this is why my dad left Germany! I thought, hurrying off, my heels echoing on the red floor tile. People like her, angry and unpredictable. People like me, diplomatically silent.”

In this essay, you recognize the difficulty of speaking up and speaking with colleagues. The essay shows personal and professional tensions, and it feels almost unbearably current during this political time of division and vulgarity in the United States. Again in the essay, one friend implies that because of your parents’ exodus from Germany you are overly sensitive to the distribution of hate flyers on campus; however, I read it that you are particularly attuned to what those hate flyers mean for the past, present, and future. In this essay, you write, “I always wondered what German professors told themselves in order not to act.” Further, you write:

Platitudes such as “We must treat each other with respect” keep people civil—and connected, like saying, “I love you” on days when you feel the opposite. By themselves these words do little, except to ward off permanent damage; but without them, there is no chance to lay a foundation that might turn self-righteousness into something worth working on.

In what ways can writers further use essays to “turn self-righteousness into something worth working on”? Sometimes I feel personal essays matter because they frame human experience. But other times I admit to feeling rather overwhelmed by the world, to feeling that individual expression, no matter how necessary, is inept. Would you share more about your thoughts about the process of essay writing as it relates to our current political moment?

Mimi Answers:

imagesOne lesson, quickly learned when writing about my marriage (one I wanted to stay in) in Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed, was to give the opposing voices a chance to make the best argument they can. That translated into: Whenever I called my husband Stu an idiot, he got to call me a moron. It worked. He liked the book, saying You got us right!

In this new book, I kept that lesson in mind in “At the Johnson Hair Salon,” about liberal versus small town conversation about the opioid epidemic. And about how Israelis and Palestinians see their entwined history in “In the Land of Double Narrative.” And about the issue of death with dignity that my husband and I faced suddenly in “Lesson from a Last Day.” And about my clash with a good friend over what I saw as anti-Semitic incident in “What’s a Rally to Do?” I showed her my drafts; she disagreed vehemently with my version of what happened, and I added that to my story, feeling I gained credibility and a more nuanced truth than I would have otherwise had.

I want people who don’t agree with me to keep on reading. The best way to do that, I’ve found, is to present their side. Which brings me back to Jack Connor’s OPV and how when we add opposing points of view to our personal stories, we have opportunities for understanding and empathy that are lost when we stand alone on a soapbox of self-righteousness.

I just read an interview with the Lebanese filmmaker, Zaid Doueiri, whose films gain their power from presenting both sides, be it between Israelis and Palestinians (The Attack) or Christian Lebanese and Palestinians (The Insult, his latest). When asked why, he said, “As an artist, it is your moral duty to understand the other side.” That includes all of us who write our lives.


You are a long-time professor of creative nonfiction, and you’ve also been a guest teacher at many writing workshops nationally and internationally (including in my adopted country Switzerland at the Geneva Writers Workshop). My colleague (at North Idaho College where I teach online) Jon Frey and I were talking about your craft text with co-author Sondra Perl, Writing True: The Art and Craft of Creative Nonfiction.


Jon Frey mentioned how much he loves your chapter on voice and writes: “Voice is something that I struggle with in my own nonfiction, and it feels so ephemeral that I almost hesitate to bring it up with undergrad writers for fear of sending them into spiraling self-doubt and crippling angst. So, I would love to ask Mimi Schwartz two things:”

1. How do you talk to students about techniques that feel mysterious to you without making writing feel precious and inaccessible?

2. What role do exercises and forced experimentation play in helping students find their own voices?


When I think of voice, I think of authenticity—and which of our many selves is the best “I” to tell a particular story. Revision, for me, is often about finding the right voice of that narrator. In my opening essay “My Father Always Said,” for example, I started in the voice of my thirteen-year-old self and was going strong until page six. Then I got stuck, until many drafts later I realized this bratty teenager could not narrate her father’s response, near his ancestral graves, to the echoes of the Holocaust. Only when the adult me arrived, or as Sue Silverman it, “the voice of experience” replacing “the voice of innocence,” was I able to reflect on the experience and finish the essay. I say, “when the adult me arrived” because it came out of experimentation. I told myself Let me try switching tenses (I went from present to past) and “try” was key. I read the new voice on the page and knew this was the right one for this story. But I had to coax it, not command it.

With my students, I rely on prompts, written and shared in class, to coax out their authentic voices. They just appear, and everyone in the room hears them and welcomes them—so they stick around for whatever story they might tell next.


Thank you for your time and, again, congratulations on your beautiful book—and body of work! We so appreciate you visiting Assay’s “In the Classroom” series.

To order When History Is Personal from the University of Nebraska Press, please click here.


Renee DAoustRenée E. D’Aoust’s Body of a Dancer (Etruscan Press) was a Foreword Reviews “Book of the Year” finalist. Seven essays have been named “Notable” by Best American Essays and “Gratitude is my Terrain,” published by Sweet: A Literary Confection, was named one of “2016’s 30 Most Transformative Essays” by Sundress Publications. She was an NEH Summer Scholar at the “City, Nature: Urban Environmental Humanities” 2017 Summer Institute, and she has twice served as a Writer to Writer mentor for AWP. D’Aoust teaches online at North Idaho College and Casper College. Please visit and follow her @idahobuzzy.