Why of All the Stories I Can Tell…? By Mimi Schwartz (NFNOW17 Panel: Talk 2 of 5)

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Panel: “When Writers Repeat Themselves: New Disguises or Fresh Approaches?”

“Why of All the Stories I Can Tell…?” by Mimi Schwartz

Whenever I write about something I’ve written about before, I ask myself, “Why, of all the stories I can tell, am I mentioning this one again?” Will it lead to a discovery, maybe an epiphany or two? Or is the repetition just a crutch of convenience that will make readers who know my work say, “What, again?” The challenge is deciding which stories are worth reentering and which I need to let go.

Many retellings disappear by draft two; but two stories, both from childhood, keep slipping into my new work, uninvited—and stay put. They seem to be touchstones for defining myself, and keep leading to unexpected discoveries. One story, mentioned briefly in a 1993 essay, became the catalyst for a published book fifteen years later. The second, first told in a short story in 1981, reappears twice in my forthcoming essay collection, When History Is Personal[i], before landing in this essay—again with surprises.515Wy7tfZnL

In Story One, I am a small child, walking with my father on Sunday mornings in Forest Hills, New York, and in the 1993 essay, “Front Door on the Driveway,” I write:

Every weekend my dad, who needed to walk because of his heart, would go up and down the sidewalks of Forest Hills with me, telling me how the family had left Germany….[ii]

My father is referring to his village in the Schwarzwald, where Christians and Jews (half the village in his day) lived in harmony for generations before the Nazis took over.

On those sidewalks in Queens, my father introduced themes that I can’t let go: of migration, assimilation, and escape. And their corollaries: How to be an American? How to know when to leave? At the time, I didn’t realize how my father’s sidewalk stories seeped into me. My main concern, back then, was that my father couldn’t say “th. ” Mother and father came out ‘moder’ and ‘fader’, no matter how often I corrected him. That, along with serving “sproodle” and liverwurst to my friends, embarrassed me greatly as the first American in the family, born four years after they escaped Hitler’s Germany.

The liverwurst and the English lesson, like the story of our Sunday walks, reappeared six years later along with my father’s voice on those walks, insisting: “In my village, we all got along—before Hitler! ” That led to a new essay, “My Father Always Said,[iii]” which led to decade-long quest to find out if his words were really true. The result was my book, Good Neighbors, Bad Times – Echoes of My Father’s German Village, about reentering my father’s boyhood world to learn how once-good neighbors remembered Nazi times, and lived with those memories sixty years later.513Dy0mc37L._SY346_

In Story Two, I am in summer camp, specifically at Split Rock Gorge, where once every summer, we kids would stand on the ledge and jump twenty feet into the river below. At age nine, ten, and eleven, I did it without aforethought. At age twelve, I looked down at the sharp rocks, realized I might hit them—and never jumped again. That story landed in the opening paragraph of a recent essay about memory:

We all have different versions of ourselves, depending on the story. There is one of me at camp, crying in the bunk bathroom at night so my bunkmates wouldn’t see me…. And there is the brave me who jumped off Split Rock Gorge four years straight, until at age twelve, the cowardly me stared too long at the rocks twenty feet below. [iv]

And again, a year later, in an essay about hiking in Croatia nine months after my husband Stu died. As I stood on giant boulders with crevices deep enough to disappear in

My legs refuse another step and I freeze, as I did at Split Rock Gorge, watching the water swirl over the rocks below. I had jumped so easily for four years, the bravest little camper, until at twelve, I saw the consequence of a misstep—and backed away, avoiding the edges of things ever since. And now they surround me….[v]

Months after the trip, back at home, I wrote: “I’ve been avoiding the edges of things ever since.” Words I had never said, never wrote, never realized until they appeared on the page, informing me as I kept writing that, “Gone are my sharp rocks of consequence,” as I moved forward into redefinitions of myself.

I was done with Split Rock Gorge, I thought, until, here it is again in this essay, side by side with my father’s tales on Sunday walks. And suddenly his bravery connects to my fear of jumping off the high ledge: that I was not brave enough to survive as he did, a worry I carried for half a century–until I crossed the Croatian crevices, boulder to boulder. Not that I jumped across; rather I crawled; then stooped; then cautiously stood, stepping painfully, again and again, towards confidence.

The poet Stephen Dunn says that it took him eleven years to complete his poem, “The Routine Things Around the House,” which is about the day he asked to see his mother’s breasts and she showed him. Two years later he published the poem in a journal—and to great acclaim; but for years he never included it in a book because, as he told me:

It didn’t feel truthful enough. In the first published version, I thought my mother’s legacy to me was that she made me feel comfortable with women. But something wasn’t right—until I realized her legacy was showing limits.

“Routine Things around the House” appears in Dunn’s new book of essays on poetry, Degrees of Fidelity. In fact, Dunn says it is the book’s centerpiece. So his waiting, combined with periodic efforts to retell the story until the words were right, paid off with the self-discovery and revisions that had eluded him.

I identify with Dunn’s experience—especially on emotionally loaded subjects. One, for me, is the day my husband Stu died. For five years I kept revisiting the unpublished versions of that day, feeling, as in Croatia, the fear of crevices into which I could disappear. Yet I had to keep trying, not just to jump over them, but to jump in.

When I wrote “jump in,” I made another discovery: how those crevices were my stages of grief—denial, anger, depression, acceptance—that I had to cross before finishing “Lessons from a Last Day.”[vi] My first drafts which began with sorrow and rants veered toward fiction (I told myself I was writing a short story, not an essay), and I began:

He walked into the room in his white coat, announced his name quickly. Dr. something with a K, and headed towards a white board above my chair. “Where’s the magic marker?” he asked, looking down at me as if I knew, paused, and then disappeared out the door. There was no handshake or “How are you doing, Buddy?” to my lover, lying in the bed with arm outstretched so the nurse could find his vein.

Until I veered again into creative nonfiction and the need to tell what really happened to our end-of-life illusions on that last day. I wanted others to know what we did not—and began again:

Stu’s living will is in his backpack when he checks into the little New England hospital near the lake house where we stay every summer. Not that we are worried. He’s had mild pneumonia twice before….

All those retellings, probably fifty drafts over the years, finally led to a truth I trusted for more than a passing day or month. In retrospect, the struggle feels worth it—especially now that end-of-life groups use the essay for discussion. But I’m very glad I kept writing new work while waiting for the discovery that felt right. Just in case….

End Notes

[i] When History Is Personal. University of Nebraska Press – March 2018.

[ii] “Front Door on the Driveway.” Puerto del Sol – Summer 1993

[iii] “My Father Always Said.” Fourth Genre – Spring 1999.

[iv] “The Coronation of Bobby.” Creative Nonfiction – March 2016.

[v] “How the Light Gets In.” When History Is Personal – March 2018.

[vi] “Lessons from a Last Day.” Pangyrus – Spring 2018 (online); Fall 2018 (print edition).

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Mimi_hs4Mimi Schwartz is the author of seven books, mostly recently, When History Is Personal, which includes many of the essays discussed here. Other books include the award-winning, Good Neighbors, Bad Times- Echoes of My Father’s German Village; Thoughts from a Queen-Sized Bed; and the widely acclaimed Writing True: the Art of Creative Nonfiction.

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

Assay@ #AWP17: Call for Saturday Bloggers!

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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!

If you’d like to claim a panel to write about, let us know in the comments (and we’ll cross it off our list here). While these are not the only panels you could report on, remember that Assay is most interested in nonfiction, craft, and pedagogy. We’ll let others cover the fiction and poetry. We’re looking for summary of the panel/panelists, poignant quotes, and personal reactions–aim for 500-700 words. The goal is to give those who aren’t there a good idea of what went on. These reports are also a way that we include writers, teachers, and readers who may not be able to attend the conference. It’s a wonderful act of literary citizenship, and in advance, we’re grateful for your time. Please feel free to cover reading events, and it would be great to seek out reading events with a focus on diversity and write those up.

Once your blog post is ready, use Submittable to send it to us, along with a one or two line bio and we’ll post them ASAP. Be sure to include the original panel information, so we can include that with your post. We want to post these on a rolling basis as the conference is going on, but please finish up your panel submissions no later than a week following the conference. Deadline for conference reports: Feb. 19, 2017.

Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter so we can tag you when it’s published!

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Come Write With Us at #AWP17: Call for Guest Bloggers for Friday Panels

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMThank you to everyone who has already volunteered to blog about a panel or two, and if you haven’t claimed one yet, now is 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 multiple events.

Check out Friday’s schedule below of panels and if you’d like to claim a panel to write about, let us know in the comments (and we’ll cross it off our list here). While these are not the only panels you could report on, remember that Assay is most interested in nonfiction, craft, and pedagogy. We’ll let others cover the fiction and poetry. We’re looking for summary of the panel/panelists, poignant quotes, and personal reactions–aim for 500-700 words. The goal is to give those who aren’t there a good idea of what went on. These reports are also a way that we include writers, teachers, and readers who may not be able to attend the conference. It’s a wonderful act of literary citizenship, and in advance, we’re grateful for your time.

Once your blog post is ready, use Submittable to send it to us, along with a one or two line bio and we’ll post them ASAP. Be sure to include the original panel information, so we can include that with your post. We want to post these on a rolling basis as the conference is going on. You can find the Thursday call here. You can find the Saturday call here. Please finish up your panel submissions no later than a week following the conference. Deadline for conference reports: Feb. 19.

Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter so we can tag you when it’s published!

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Come Write With Us At #AWP17! Call for Guest Bloggers–Thursday, February 9

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Going to the AWP Conference and Bookfair in Washington DC? It’s Assay’s first table at AWP’s bookfair and it’s our first panel, 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.

Check out Thursday’s schedule below of panels and if you’d like to claim a panel to write about, let us know in the comments (and we’ll cross it off our list here). While these are not the only panels you could report on, remember that Assay is most interested in nonfiction, craft, and pedagogy. We’ll let others cover the fiction and poetry. We’re looking for summary of the panel/panelists, poignant quotes, and personal reactions–aim for 500-700 words. The goal is to give those who aren’t there a good idea of what went on. These reports are also a way that we include writers, teachers, and readers who may not be able to attend the conference. It’s a wonderful act of literary citizenship, and in advance, we’re grateful for your time.

Once your blog post is ready, use Submittable to send it to us, along with a one or two line bio and we’ll post them ASAP. Be sure to include the original panel information, so we can include that with your post. We want to post these on a rolling basis as the conference is going on. We’ll post the Friday and Saturday calls for bloggers in the next few days. Please finish up your panel submissions no later than a week following the conference. Deadline for conference reports: Feb. 19.

Make sure to follow us on Facebook and Twitter so we can tag you when it’s published!

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#cnfwc16 — Twelve Quotes Full of “Insight and Inspiration” from the 2016 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference

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  1. “A draft is full of sentences that are auditioning. – Dinty W. Moore

 

  1. “With an outline you’re not going to write about what you don’t know you know.” – Dinty W. Moore

 

  1. “Save your seedlings.” – Dinty W. Moore

 

  1. Try writing by hand, because “your fingers are connected to your arm, the veins to the heart.” – Dinty W. Moore

 

  1. Instead of saying that the reader has to do some work, think of it this way: “The reader likes to participate.” – Dinty W. Moore

 

  1. “First draft writing is like no other kind of writing – you have to go into the woods and keep going. Second draft writing – you have to see the forest for the trees.” – Kristin Kovacic

 

  1. “The title is the door to your essay – but a door works both ways.” – Kristin Kovacic

 

  1. “Wherever you have the wrong set of feelings, that’s a fruitful place for an essayist to be.” – Kristin Kovacic

 

  1. “The biggest thing an editor can do for you is get [you] out of your head” – Jason Bittle

 

  1. “Immersion is about waiting. It’s not about finding a story to fit inside your pre-constructed ideas, but letting a story unfold.” – Maggie Messitt

 

  1. “If you don’t have belief in your own gut, develop it.” –Adriana Ramierz

 

  1. “Burst upon the page.” – Lee Gutkind  

    CNFwc16 program

Find out more on Twitter at #cnfwc16 or at the conference website: www.creativenonfiction.org/conference.

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Randon Billings Noble author photoRandon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Millions; Brain, Child; Los Angeles Review of Books; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; Brevity; Fourth Genre; Creative Nonfiction and elsewhere. A fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, she was named a 2013 Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow to attend a residency at The Millay Colony for the Arts. Currently she is a nonfiction editor at r.kv.r.y quarterly, Reviews Editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and a regular reviewer for The A.V. Club.

#cnfwc16 — Personal Essay at the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference

2016_ConferenceBanner_3_HThe 2016 Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference worked hard—and well—to address the many subgenres of creative nonfiction, but as a personal essayist I was most excited to hear Kristin Kovacic speak on the panel “Revising Essays and Short Work.”

Kovacic identified herself as a writer of personal essays and spoke of them with both fluid eloquence and sharp intelligence.

“First draft writing is like no other kind of writing,” she said. “You go into the woods and you have to keep going.”

“Second draft writing – you have to see the forest for the trees.” And this is where you start to revise.

For personal essay, revision involves distance. It’s all too easy to get wrapped up in your own story, your own thoughts, your own feelings. But to ensure that you achieve a level of necessary distance, Kovacic asks three vital questions (adapted from Patricia Hampl’s excellent book I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory):

  1. How many things is this about? (Don’t ask what this essay is about but how many things.) Then make a list.
  2. How are these things connected? (That’s where the surprises come.)
  3. Who do I represent? (This is a great question through which to achieve distance, which, in turn, shows the importance of the story.) Are you representing an innocent abroad, a third wave feminist, an only child, a motorcycle rider? How do you write differently as a representative as opposed to an individual?

After answering these questions you can turn to details. The details of the story you’re telling have to bridge two things: what happened, and how you make sense of what happened.

“The artful part,” Kovacic said, “is how you track your thinking. The creative part is following a mind a work.”

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Kovacic also suggested to always title your essay, even if your first title serves as a temporary, working title. “The title is the door to your essay – but a door works both ways. It’s an invitation” but it’s also an indication of what your essay is about. You may find that your essay’s content – and therefore title – changes drastically in the revision process.

Other helpful tips included:

  • “A resonant work picks up meaning each time you use it; a repetitive word doesn’t.”
  • “The best place to look about how to stick your ending is back at the beginning.”
  • “There’s a lot of mea culpa in this work that makes it honest.”
  • “Wherever you have the wrong set of feelings – that’s a fruitful place for an essayist to be.”

For more wise advice from Kristin Kovacic, find her teaching at Carlow University or the Chataqua Institute, or read her essay “On Usefulness” for guidance by osmosis.

Find out more on Twitter at #cnfwc16 or at the conference website: www.creativenonfiction.org/conference.

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Randon Billings Noble author photo

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times; The Millions; Brain, Child; Los Angeles Review of Books; The Georgia Review; Shenandoah; The Rumpus; Brevity; Fourth Genre; Creative Nonfiction and elsewhere. A fellow at the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts and a resident at the Vermont Studio Center, she was named a 2013 Mid Atlantic Arts Foundation Creative Fellow to attend a residency at The Millay Colony for the Arts. Currently she is a nonfiction editor at r.kv.r.y quarterly, Reviews Editor at Tinderbox Poetry Journal, and a regular reviewer for The A.V. Club.

 

#cnfwc16 — Connecting at the Creative Nonfiction Conference

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The ballroom fills with guests chatting, donning their red lanyards reading CREATIVE NONFICTION in white text. I sit three rows from the front, sipping complimentary coffee, looking around and wondering if I will make any friends. This is my first big conference, and these large socializing groups remind me of the high school cafeteria, searching for a face I know in the sea of grinning faces on the first day of school.

It doesn’t take long, however, and this isn’t like high school at all. I meet Ruth, a freelance journalist sitting next to me, and then Jackie, another twenty-five year old like me, eager to learn more about creative nonfiction. Soon we are talking about writing over coffee and I am at ease with my new peers when Anjali, conference coordinator, introduces Lee Gutkind, the godfather of Creative Nonfiction.

“Hey, Hi,” he says, holding up a friendly hand. He is glad we are here and to see how the conference has grown, how the genre has grown over the years. He tells us that Creative Nonfiction, the magazine, started twenty-three years ago in his dining room in Squirrel Hill, PA. That before, people laughed at the genre and its silly title “creative nonfiction,” that it was a struggle to legitimize the genre in the beginning.

“And now,” he continues, “we are growing like mad…. It’s a movement, not a moment.”

And over the next few days that’s what it feels like.

Jackie and I find that we are registered for the same classes, and later we go to lunch in the city. Over lunch in the park we exchange ideas, we scrawl notes on napkins, recommendations of writers the other should check out. We ask questions about creative nonfiction as a genre, the ethics, the faultiness of memory, and what we think still needs to be written about. And while meeting agents and editors is great, this is also why we come here. To share what we know in the hopes of learning more about ourselves and the craft of writing creative nonfiction. The conference could have any number of great classes and teachers, all fine and good, but it’s just as much about the small connections, the conversations at lunch, the discussions in the hallway of the hotel that make this conference so worth it.

Find out more on Twitter at #cnfwc16 or at the conference website: www.creativenonfiction.org/conference.

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image1-3Annalise Mabe is completing an MFA at the University of South Florida, where she writes poetry, comics, and nonfiction. Her work has been featured/is forthcoming in Brevity, The Offing, The Rumpus, Booth, Word Riot, Hobart, and was nominated by The Boiler for a 2016 Pushcart Prize. She reads for Sweet: A Literary Confection and is an editor at Saw Palm: Florida Literature and Art. She lives in Tampa, Florida, where she teaches composition and creative writing at USF.

#cnfwc16 — Report from the Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference

2016_ConferenceBanner_3_HCreative Nonfiction’s (CNF) motto is “True stories, well told.” It’s also true that their annual conference held over Memorial Day weekend in Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania tried to please everyone. More than 150 writers at varying stages on their journey gathered for three themed days of panels and presentations: “Write,” “Revise,” and “Publish.”

The first day offered master classes with Lee Gutkind, Dinty W. Moore, and others. The second day featured the harder work of revision through research and adaptations. The final day focused on the realities of the publishing industry and do’s and don’ts of writing book proposals, agent queries, and platform building.

Rather than the traditional literary readings or workshops, the CNF staff hosted a nightly happy hour. Long lunch breaks encouraged attendees to explore the restaurants, cathedrals, and museums within walking distance. CNF also offered twelve conference scholarships to their “Writing Away the Stigma” fellows.

For a novice writer, Creative Nonfiction Writers’ Conference really was “three days full of insight & inspiration.” For the already well-published writer, it was refreshing. If attendees sought individual access to agents, editors, and publishers, they were generous and available. For CNF fans, small really was a better way to learn to tell a true story.

Find out more on Twitter at #cnfwc16 or at the conference website: www.creativenonfiction.org/conference.

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Melissa Scholes Young’s work has appeared in The Atlantic, Washington Post, Narrative, Ploughshares, Poets & Writers, Poet Lore, and other literary journals. She teaches at American University in Washington, D.C. and is a Bread Loaf Bakeless Camargo Fellow. Follow her on Twitter @mscholesyoung

Visit Us at AWP2016!

The AWP conference is next week in Los Angeles, and we will be available several places to meet you. Please stop by and say hello!

Editor, Karen Babine

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Karen’s AWP 2016 schedule

> March 31, Thursday, 3pm – 4:15pm, Panel at AWP — “Old Neighborhoods, New Locales: How Place Shapes Our Writing and Our Literary Identities” — “R250” — Room 408 B:

Los Angeles Convention Center, Meeting Room Level
with Michael Steinberg (moderator), and Karen Babine, Renee E. D’Aoust, Phillip Lopate, and Mimi Schwartz

> April 1, Friday, 10:00am, at Mid-American Review Book Fair Exhibit Space # 1143: Karen will be signing copies of her book Water & What We Know: Following the Roots of a Northern Life

 

Taylor Brorby, Contributing Editor

Taylor Brorby

Taylor’s AWP 2016 schedule

> Thursday 1pm to 3 p.m. — Taylor will be at the Orion Magazine table in the book fair

> Thursday at 6 p.m.: Taylor will be at the Black Earth Institute Reading at Stories Books and Cafe

> Friday from 9am to 10 a.m.: Taylor will be at the Orion table

> Friday at 10:30 a.m.: Taylor is on a panel on “Invisible Ethics in the Classroom”

> Friday from 1pm to 3 p.m.: Taylor is at the Fracture book signing at the Flyway table in the book fair

Managing Editor, Renee E. D’Aoust

Renee DAoust

Renee’s AWP 2016 schedule

> Thursday, March 31, 12pm – 1pm, at the Book Fair, Gazing Grain Press at the George Mason University Exhibit Space #708: Renee will be with Gazing Grain Press (at the GMU booth) signing copies of the mini “Hound Cycle,” an excerpt which Grazing Grain released last year. (Her “Hound Cycle” was a finalist in the Grazing Grain chapbook contest.)

> March 31, Thursday, 3pm – 4:15pm, Panel at AWP — “Old Neighborhoods, New Locales: How Place Shapes Our Writing and Our Literary Identities” — “R250” — Room 408 B: Los Angeles Convention Center, Meeting Room Level
with Michael Steinberg (moderator), and Karen Babine, Renee E. D’Aoust, Phillip Lopate, and Mimi Schwartz

> Friday, April 1, 9am-10am, at the Book Fair, Etruscan Press at the Wilkes University Exhibit Space #1100: Renee will be signing Body of a Dancer at the Etruscan Press table in the Book Fair.

> Friday, April 1, 12pm – 1pm, at the Book Fair, AWP’s main exhibit space # 1011: come by AWP’s main table to talk about AWP’s “Writer to Writer” program. Renee serves as a mentor in this program, which connects writers with published books to writers first setting out.

Assay’s Call for Submissions and “In the Classroom” Review

imageEditor’s Note: I want to be sure that regular readers of “In the Classroom” have seen Assay’s call for our spring issue.

 

Assay Call for Papers: Diversity in Nonfiction

Our spring issue will take up issues of diversity in nonfiction, so please send us your articles, conversations, and pedagogy that address diverse nonfiction texts, underrepresented authors, and varied educational environments. Deadline for full consideration is January 1, 2016.

 

Thank you for spreading the word and submitting!

Our “In the Classroom” series will continue next Monday (and wrap up our fall series) with a piece from Jen Palmares Meadows. You can read Jen’s super Assay panel post about “The Beasts Amongst Us” from NonfictioNOW here. You can also read a Jen’s great NonfictioNOW posts about “The View from the Slush Pile” over at BrevityPart I and Part II.

We’ve had a super year with our “In the Classroom” series, covering “Favorite Essays to Teach” and “Writers to Read.” A few examples: we started this fall with Jessica Handler writing about Joan Didion, continued with Sophfronia Scott writing about Robert Vivian (“dervish essays”!), and last week Stacy Murison wrote about Brian Doyle. Erin Davis wrote about teaching Jess Walter’s “Citizen Vince” and Dinty W. Moore wrote about teaching Debra Marquart’s “Hochzeit.” There was all that and more.

We’re grateful to all who contribute to what we trust is a valuable resource for teachers, students, readers, and writers. As you finish your fall grading and make your holiday writing plans, keep Assay in mind!