Fragments, Moments, and Stories: On Maggie Nelson’s Bluets

blue flowerVivian Wagner is an associate professor of English at Muskingum University in New Concord, Ohio. Her essays have appeared in The Kenyon Review, Zone 3, McSweeney’s, Silk Road Review, and other journals, and she’s the author of Fiddle: One Woman, Four Strings, and 8,000 Miles of Music.


  1. I started reading Maggie Nelson’s Bluets this spring on my way to AWP in Minneapolis for the weekend. Feeling restless on the airplane, I downloaded it onto my iPad and began reading. I read and read, all the way to Minneapolis. I glanced up now and then to see the sunset over the prairie of clouds, to see the plane descending through grayness into the city, to see the inexorable approach of the runway. After each glance up, I’d fall back into the book.
  1. Early this morning, I saw the first of my Alaskan wildflowers blooming in my Ohio garden: a blue flax. It had a small yellow center and fine purple lines radiating outward. Delicate and strong, it fluttered in the cool breeze.
  1. I’m easily distracted, as a reader, as a writer, as a person. Bluets speaks to me partly because it lets me read in bits and pieces. To read and then look out the window. To think and then read again. To let my mind wander and then focus.
  1. In second grade, my teacher wrote a note to my parents on my report card: “Vivian tends to daydream.” That word — “daydream” — caught my imagination. I’d never heard it before. I asked my mom what it meant, and she said it meant I didn’t pay enough attention. I realized then that the teacher was right. I thought of all the time during class that I gazed out the window, listening to the desert wind blow sand against the glass. I paid attention, but not always to what the teacher wanted me to. I daydreamed.
  1. My writing has been influenced irreversibly by Bluets. The book has freed me from thinking that narratives must be linear and chronological. I knew this prior to reading Bluets, I suppose, but this book helped me to feel it, to understand it. And, perhaps most importantly, to practice it.
  1. Bluets’ numbered sections work well on an iPad. I’m not particularly proud of the fact that I first read this book in its digital version, but this book grew out of the digital age, with all of its demands and tabs and windows.
  1. I’ve been making recycled paper lately with old bills and junk mail. It’s calming and engrossing. I love how the slurry dries and reveals a few single letters here and there – random a’s and d’s and z’s. Sometimes I mix violets, clovers, and grass in with the paper. A few days ago I accidently mixed in a small flying insect with a handful of leaves. I found it in the paper, its delicate wings outstretched, flattened. I felt bad. I wished I had looked more carefully at what I had gathered, what I had thrown in.
  1. After I make the paper, I stitch it into small journals and chapbooks. I have many of them now, waiting for words.
  1. I’m going to Alaska this summer to spend time with my boyfriend. He’s a pilot, an engineer, a photographer, an explorer. I love his dark, kind eyes. The way he’s always up for an adventure. The way he’s always in the moment. The way, when I’m writing, he sits by me quietly – reading, gazing out at the water, puzzling over his own projects, thinking his own thoughts. I love being with him.
  1. Bluets doesn’t have a story, exactly. At least, it’s not a story in the traditional sense of that term. It’s composed of 240 fragments, facts, details, observations, and story-bits. Together, they add up to what might be considered a narrative about a lost relationship, about the regaining of a sense of self, about depression, about hope. Now that I’ve finished the book, I like to dip back in and read a passage here and there. Maybe the one about bower birds. Or about Derrida. Or about Cézanne. Or about cyanometers. Or about Gertrude Stein’s Tender Buttons. Each one stands alone, and yet each one belongs with the others.
  1. The blue flax flower in my garden still blooms now, in the early afternoon. The sun’s reached its petals, slightly brightening their shade of blue. In a few days, this particular flower will stop blooming and go to seed, but I see another bud near it, slowly unfurling, waiting for just the right moment to open up.

AWP2015: Mining the Gap: Trauma, Memory, and Reimagined Pasts

Panelists: Elizabeth Kadetsky, Jessica Handler, Denise Grollmus, Rebecca McClanahan, Elyssa East

Joan Didion wrote that we tell ourselves stories in order to live.  But how do we tell those life-saving stories if we can’t remember?  How do we write when we rely on our own and others’ shifting, incomplete memories? How do nonfiction writers maintain what Jessica Handler calls pride in our “fealty to the truth” when current neuroscience reveals that traumatized brains change, revising memories, even potentially coding trauma into the DNA we pass onto our offspring?  

With so many people experiencing, narrating, and writing personal and cultural traumas, these questions are relevant and essential.  This panel of writers focused on how gaps inform our memory on writing, trauma and violence, concluding that “a good trauma memoir is one that examines and then deals with the paradoxes of what we don’t know.”  The not-knowing becomes one of the central themes and organizing principles when writing trauma.

Panel organizer Elizabeth Kadetsky opened by explaining how her readings on the neuroscience of trauma informed her drafting of a cycle of essays about her mother’s illness and death by Alzheimer’s. She cited Dr. Bessel van der Kolk’s definition of trauma as “unassimilated scraps of overwhelming experiences” and described narrative techniques characteristic of traumatic experience: erased fragments, nonlinear repetitions, broken timelines, paratactic sentences, and modular jumps.  Her own takeaway as a writer, one relevant to this audience, was understanding how the traumatized mind redraws experience in a repetition/compulsion manner and that gaps are not to be overcome in fashioning trauma narratives, but treated as central to the form.

Jessica Handler, author of memoir guide Braving the Fire, elaborated on how our brains lose memory with trauma and how we can work with the absence of memory in the texts we’re writing.  She too asked,  “What if we regard the state of not knowing as an opportunity….an element of your story?” She advised, “Consider the absence of information a conflict in your story.  And what is plot but conflict?  We can write about the absence of information.”

Rebecca McClanahan, picking up on the difficulty of representing trauma itself, discussed the importance of developing instead a “reader-felt sense that something is being understood even in the writing of it, in the re-membering.”  This reinforced the primary theme of the panel:  that the point of writing trauma is not to discover the truth of trauma so much as to discover what shines through when we turn to face what we do not and may not ever know.  The story then is not a story of the event itself so much as the story of our own “encounter with the wild thing” that cannot be tamed by overused words and harmful concepts like “closure.”

Finally, Denise Grollmus and Elyssa East focused on engaging with other people’s faulty or obscured memories, reminding us that the rewriting of memory around trauma is not just a literary problem, but an ethical one.

This panel, well-informed by current research in trauma, neuroplasticity, and PTSD, effectively translated the literature on trauma into meaningful considerations of craft and ethics for nonfiction.  The panel smartly resisted pop-psychology notions of “closure” as the ultimate goal of this vein of writing, embracing instead the value of the encounter with those “unassimilated scraps.”  Writing is not experience itself, but an artifact of the experience.  These writers accept that truth and encourage us all to write and appreciate the questions, doubts, and gaps themselves.   


Encounters with Trauma: Reading Recommendations by Panelists

Paul Auster, The Invention of Solitude

Simone de Beauvoir, A Very Easy Death

Anatole Broyard, Intoxicated by My Illness

David Carr, The Night of the Gun

Cathy Caruth, Unclaimed Experience

Joan Didion, The Year of Magical Thinking

Dorothy Gallagher, How I Came Into My Inheritance

Mikal Gilmore, Shot Through the Heart            

Stephen Kuusisto, “Night Song”

Primo Levi, Survival in Auschwitz

Norman Mailer, The Executioner’s Song

John Edgar Wideman, Brothers and Keepers

Lidia Yuknavitch, The Chronology of Water


Chauna Craig has published creative nonfiction in Fourth Genre, Superstition Review,, Lime Hawk, and elsewhere.  She teaches at Indiana University of Pennsylvania, and her first short story collection will be published by Queens Ferry Press in 2016.

Visit Assay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies to browse our recent issues (Fall 2014 and Spring 2015), explore our classroom resources, and to subscribe to the journal (it’s free!).

Assay@AWP15: Call for Saturday Bloggers!

Thank you to everyone who has volunteered to report on Thursday and Friday panels at AWP! We’re really excited to hear your perspectives! Here’s the call for Saturday panels: if you’ve already signed up for a Thursday or Friday spot, feel free to sign up for another!

It should be around 500-700 words and can be a summary, personal thoughts, quotes, or anything memorable that our nonfiction community would love to know about since we can’t all be at everything. Once your post is ready, send it in the text of an email to assayjournal (at) along with a one or two line bio and we’ll post them to our blog ASAP.

Make sure you’ve liked our page on Facebook and follow us on Twitter–that way, we can tag you when your post goes live! Continue reading

AWP Friday Panels: Be a Guest Blogger!

EssaysLast week we received so many great offers to blog about the Thursday panels at AWP in Minneapolis (can you believe it’s in less than two weeks?), so we’d like to keep the excitement going and open up the call now for covering the Friday panels (Saturday’s call to come next week). Thank you to everyone who has already volunteered to blog about a panel or two, and if you haven’t claimed one yet, now’s the time!

Let us know in the comments if you’d be willing to write a blog post about a panel/event/bookfair. If you signed up for a Thursday post, feel free to sign up for multiples!

It should be around 500-700 words and can be a summary, personal thoughts, quotes, or anything memorable that our nonfiction community would love to know about since we can’t all be at everything. Once your post is ready, send it in the text of an email to assayjournal (at) along with a one or two line bio and we’ll post them to our blog ASAP. Continue reading

Come Write With Us At AWP! Call for Guest Bloggers–Thursday

Screen Shot 2015-03-20 at 6.35.57 PMGoing to the AWP Conference and Bookfair in Minneapolis? Concordia College–Assay’s home and sponsor–is the premier sponsor of AWP this year, and it’s Assay’s first AWP, so we’re really excited to count down the days! We’re looking for guest bloggers to write up reports of nonfiction and pedagogy panels, readings, interviews, and more, because we haven’t figured out how to clone ourselves and be in three places at once! (I’m sure I’m not the only one having a hard time deciding which panels to go to!) We’re also looking for bookfair reports and other write-ups of the goings-on. So many things to do and see! Continue reading