Assay@NFN15: “Beyond Scaffolding: Constructing an Essay Collection”

Screen Shot 2015-08-16 at 11.40.48 AM

John Proctor, Jennifer Bowen Hicks, Amy Butcher, Jericho Parms

How to navigate the publishing world while still honoring the essay form, or taking Didion’s “bits of the mind’s string, too short to use” and how to combine them into a whole. Questions the panel considered:

  1. What are the formal differences between an essay, a book, and a book of essays (both from the writer’s and reader’s POVs)?
  2. How to navigate present tense when collecting pieces/moments from many different times.
  3. Great essay collections as exemplars
  4. The role of surprise and discovery in writing the essay, and how we mediate or preserve that when arranging/documenting into a longer collection.

[Each panelist spoke briefly, then the panel turned into more of a conversation/roundtable, and conversation with the audience]

Jericho Parms: she loves the freedom of the essay, how it allows ideas to stand along, extracting meaning from a group of disparate thoughts or moments. She was buying a house while arranging her first essay collection, and so uses the metaphor of a house: an investment in something larger, taking ownership of the whole. She took inventory of what she had in the individual essays, and then used the example of other essay collections and mentors’ advice to help shape the collection.

Jennifer Bowen Hicks: she sees her role on the panel as the apologist, talked about her struggle, and the impossibility of compiling a manuscript out of individual essays. But she says that the individual essays sometimes tell you what the collection needs – where are the blank spaces around and between the essays? the negative capability?

John Proctor: started off writing short pieces that took no longer than 1 minute to read, and posted one per day on his blog. He then wrote longer pieces out of these disparate smaller pieces, which he felt represented a fractured sense of self. He uses the metaphor of trying to build a wall out of ill-fitting stones.

Amy Butcher: to keep the metaphor going, she considers the collection as a house, but it’s on fire, and she’s wondering if the burning is part of the house. Her approach is more troubleshooting than a how-to – she thought about what makes for a bad essay collection. She referenced an online essay “Why Do Essay Collection Books Suck?” and its comment thread. The comments named lack of story arc, pieces not written to go together, intros/explanations/hand-holding that try too hard to tell the reader how it all goes together, collections that keep trying to relate everything to one central obsession/metaphor/image/idea even when the material takes place over 10 years or more.

How Butcher tries to avoid these pitfalls is by asking, what am I trying to say? how do I keep from saying the same thing repeatedly? How can I put these essays together in a way that’s meaningful? To return to the house metaphor, how does each essay help hold the roof up?

[Panel then turns into roundtable discussion with audience input.]

JohnP: How do you negotiate writing as experience versus writing as documentation? How do you include both in a collection?

JBH: Narrative crafts itself in surprising ways when you’re not trying to write long form (like memoir).

AB: It’s difficult to sell an essay collection (though I don’t want to obsess about marketing).

JerP: In Brevity, Rebecca McClanahan had a piece called “The Forest and the Trees” on the difference between a collection of essays versus a book of essays, where she considers them as different things entirely, that changed my understanding.

Audience comment from Heidi Czerwiec: it might be useful or helpful to consider theories of ordering poetry books, since they also deal with individual pieces arranged into a larger order – Susan Grimm’s Ordering the Storm contains several theories of how to order poetry books, and Katrina Vandenberg had a great essay in Poets & Writers on how to order a poetry book based on how to make a mixtape, a la High Fidelity. JerP responded that she often looked to poetry books for ideas on ordering.

Audience comment from Robin Hemley: there’s greater importance on the organizing principle, especially on the title of the collection, and how it works as a rubric for how to read the essays together.


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing in Angle,Able Muse, and The Boiler Journal.  She is the author of Self-Portrait as Bettie Page and the forthcoming A is for A-ke, the Chinese Monster. She teaches at the University of North Dakota, where she is poetry editor for North Dakota Quarterly.

AWP2015: Flat Lands and Open Waters: Reading Hybridity into the Midwest

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMFlat Lands and Open Waters: Reading Hybridity into the Midwest was moderated by Nickole Brown, co-editor of White Pine Press’s Marie Alexander Poetry Series, which publishes one or two books of prose poetry each year. While the series itself does not focus on the Midwest, several of its authors write about/from the region, and the panel featured these voices.

I’ll mostly stick to an overview of the panelists’ remarks below, but I want to quickly note that this was one of the most thoughtful, cohesive, and enjoyable panels I’ve attended. I was not particularly familiar with the panelists or the press before attending, and I left looking forward to reading more of their work. The authors all have impressive resumes, but I’ll simply link to their White Pine books below, since they read from these during the session.

Continue reading

AWP2015: Time and Structure in the Novel

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMEditor’s Note: this was a fiction session, but we’re posting it because it does have overlap with some of the book-length nonfiction panels we saw.

“Time and Structure in the Novel” was both a popular and useful session. The foundational text for the session was Joan Silber’s The Art of Time in Fiction. It was mentioned in moderator Sarah Strickley’s opening statement, referenced repeatedly by all members of the panel, and strongly recommended as a book for writers to consult. As described by panel member Leah Stewart, Silber’s book identifies different ways that novelists can arrange time flow in their stories. The notion of “classic time”—in which time moves forward in discreet, linear steps—and “switchback time”—in which the narrative moves regularly back and forth between past and present—were cited most often by the panelists.

Continue reading

AWP2015: Narrative, Lyric, Hybrid: Crafting Essay Collections into Books

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMPanelists: Renee D’Aoust (moderator), Rebecca McClanahan, Patrick Madden, Peter Grandbois, and Phillip Lopate

 I attended this panel hoping to get some advice about what to do with the essays I’ve been accumulating over the last several years. Though many of them have been published individually in journals, they also seem to want to be gathered together. Yet I haven’t been sure how to turn these often disparate texts into something cohesive, something that can legitimately be called a book.

The panelists all spoke about the process of assembling a book of essays, and their presentations inspired me to think about this act of assembly as a process just as creative as the writing of essays itself.

Continue reading

AWP2015: Fashioning a Text: Discovering Shape and Form in Nonfiction

If you arrived at the AWP panel “Fashioning a Text: Discovering Shape and Form in Nonfiction” looking for a blueprint or some hard-and-fast rules for how to structure your next book or essay, you’d be disappointed. All the panelists admitted that most often they stumble on form through trial and error. For me — and I suspect for nearly all the 300 or so attendees in the standing-room-only crowd — this came as a huge relief.

Thank God, we thought, it’s not just me.

Mike Steinberg, founder of Fourth Genre, and a fellow who knows a thing or two about creative nonfiction started the conversation by describing the process of finding a form for his memoir Still Pitching. Fittingly, since it’s a baseball story, it was a three-strike kind of thing. He knew from the get-go the book had something to do with the intersection of wanting to be a pitcher and wanting to be a writer (Aside: Trust your inciting vision turned out to be universal advice) but took three complete drafts before finding its form.

Michael Downs, the author of House of Good Hope, told the crowd that Mozart claimed to see entire symphonies in the sky, but he sees “only clouds.” Downs focused on idiosyncratic nature of form, how it’s different for each individual writer.

Elyssa East moved the conversation from abstract to edible-tangible with the example of a bowl of knock-off Starburst candies. She knew her memoir Dog Town had several threads, a ton of them, but it wasn’t until she took the colored candies, labeled them, and started moving them around her desk, that the idea started to gel.

[Digression: At this point in the panel, Elizabeth Wiley read the presentation that Robert Root had intended to give since Root couldn’t attend. Ms. Wiley seemed lovely, but this was the second panel of the day where a proxy read aloud the paper by a missing panelist, and I have to say it’s awfully hard to concentrate in those cases.]

Patrick Madden, the voice behind Quotidiana – the fabulous collection and the website, too — anchored the team with an overview of several successful “hermit crab” essays – including an Ebay auction, a Google Maps, a syllabus, a Trivial Pursuit card, a pain scale – to prove that found forms can work if they fit the theme just right.

The overall takeaway: structure arrives in unexpected ways. East provided Steinberg with a great last line: “I don’t have a bowl of candy for everything I do.”

Ana Maria Spagna lives and writes in the North Cascades. She’s the author of five books including 100 Skills You’ll Need for the End of the World (As We Know It), and she teaches at Northwest Institute of Literary Arts.

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!).

AWP2015: Narrative Expectations in the Personal Essay

With about 180 people in the audience Bruce Ballenger, Professor of English, Boise State University author of Crafting Truth: Short Studies in Creative Nonfiction,discussed narrative theory in nonfiction in a talk he admitted “I am still working out.”  He discussed the scholar Rick Altman’s concept of ‘following’ a narrator, focusing on “Breaking Clean,” a Judy Blunt essay on childhood in the badass Missouri Breaks.  Nonfiction narrator must play by rules of reality, and the nonfiction narrator speaks for the author, Ballenger suggested.  A narrative arc in the personal essay is a line of thought in meditative sparks, he offered.  “When I am surprised by something I write, then the reader will be too,” he concluded.

Lad Tobin, English professor at Boston College, a Sun, Utne Reader contributorand author of Writing Relationships, spoke on the “art versus life binary” in nonfiction. Cheryl Strayed writes there is a “clear and bright line” between fiction and nonfiction but what about lengthy remembered dialogue? asked Tobin.  JoAnn Beard admits she invented words in remembered dialogue.  Meghan Daum calls it “the Joni Mitchell problem.” A persona is an illusion.  An essay succeeds in the intersection of real life event, and the author’s thinking about the event.  “I am not over it,” Strayed concluded, in her essay on her mother’s death, Tobin pointed out—almost as if presaging writing her book on the same topic.  “We need better language to talk about the line between fiction and nonfiction,” concluded Tobin.

David Giffels, assistant professor at the University of Akron, author of two major nonfiction books, including the essay collection Hard Way on Purpose, is a Grantland, Wall Street Journal and NPR contributor.  Halfway into his memoir his editor told him he did not have a narrative arc.  “I was shocked after 250 pages,” Giffels said, “I’m not that interesting!” In a panic, he switched publishers to Scribner, and the book opened up as “a collection of essays.  “I learn by fucking up and starting over,” said Giffels.  “The slimmest narrative can be a good essay,” he discovered in the process.  We care about “what an incident meant” to the narrator. He analyzed his own essay using a self-invented diagram he called the three pillars: Beginning, continuation, ending.  “In the space between the pillars is where an essay comes alive,” said Giffels.  In the essay, on looking for a used bowling shirt in an Akron thrift shop, Giffles showed how an ordinary shopping trip could expand to analyze the detritus of a failed city.

The q-and-a following the session did not solve nonfiction structure, but offered lots of points for teaching the essay’s narrative arc. A last second discussion focused on the new collage techniques of Lesley Jamison and Eula Biss, and Lad Tobin recommended a Robert Root how-to essay on ways of writing in collage. 


Ted Anton is professor of English at DePaul University and the author of The Longevity Seekers. Science, Business and the Fountain of Youth (University of Chicago Press, 2013).

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!).

Amy Wright on SueEllen Campbell’s “Grubby” (w/Dinty W. Moore)

Native garden face shotAmy Wright is the Nonfiction Editor of Zone 3 Press and Zone 3 journal and the author of five chapbooks. The recipient of a Peter Taylor Fellowship to the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop, an Individual Artist’s fellowship from the Tennessee Arts Commission, and a VCCA fellowship, her work can be found in Brevity, DIAGRAM, Quarterly West, Southern Poetry Anthology (Volumes III and VI), Tupelo Quarterly, CALYX and Kenyon Review.

“Consider the progression of the ages,” SueEllen Campbell asks of readers in the first sentence of her essay Grubby. Not a softball request for a first line, but she woos us toward that effort with descriptions of tidal rise and ebb, volcanic ejections of new earth, ancient lake beds full of sand and dust. But the reason I love to teach her essay is the metaphor she opens in the third paragraph: “Perhaps you begin with a layer of sunblock.”

“Why doesn’t Campbell begin her consideration here?” I ask my Advanced Composition essayists, whose introductory paragraphs at times incline toward the abstract.

Continue reading

A Book of Essays: Is This Really A Good Idea?

As I transition from college into the real world, much of my time is spent dreaming and planning for a future of my own making–and part of that is figuring out the writing aspect.  My eyes are wide with the dream of publishing a book of some sort, but if what I write isn’t worthy of being shared in some form, I get frustrated that I’m not being as productive as I should be.  Perhaps because of my age and place in life, I struggle with writing if the writing doesn’t have a set purpose. But I know that most writers struggle with simply getting time spent in the chair.

Now that I’ve written a few essays about my travels in Europe during my semester studying abroad in Liverpool, England, I naturally start to wonder what they could be for.  Is this potential for a book of essays?  My mind plays around with order, overall story, and purpose. Continue reading