#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.”

CNFwc16 program

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.


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.


R. Flowers Rivera: Poetry Is Nonfiction and Other Things My Students Learn to Trust

My Creating Poetry class continues to stun me, or I should say the effects some teacher from their long-ago pasts does. See, these are my upper-level, undergrad students who have elected to try their hand at writing poems or to further develop some poetic series they have been writing toward. Inevitably, at least once a semester (if not more), some serious soul or another recounts the experience of having been instructed to seek the right answer when ferreting out motifs and theme, or the meaning as they engage in a close reading of the text, of having been told to first research what other critics have said about a work—or, even more interestingly, what their teacher says is the right answer. Here, I keep my tongue and old American Bandstand allusions in check: “I’ll give it 78, Dick. It’s got a groovy beat and you can move to it.” Via the syllabus, I assign some approachable books as preliminary reading in theory and craft in addition to an anthology or two. However, this is the technique on which I rely most: I bring in copies of poems stripped of the names of the poets because I want the students to move toward developing their own sense of aesthetics by seeking the internal logic and rhythm of the poems—which bring us to Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s Streaming, a collection I selected as the winner of the 2015 Southwest Pen Book Award.


I had selected the Streaming against my usual hard-edged biases toward perfect clarity, for the collection taught me aurally how to read each poem—word-by-word concatenations—leaving me to trust the images as guides functioning the way in which the poetics of objective correlatives do. Consider the following:



Swarming upward

hosts thicken air as hornets

with whirling winds

their weapons wielded wildly


back home blackbirds whirl

in skies grayed

from icy winter chill, frost,

a single sparrow cowers against

bush base huddling


wind bristles with his war

skies hustle

fields, valleys, meadows moan

mountains reel


all creatures

cater to whims of man

in chaotic frenzy for battle

when peace is ever present

in just one thoughtful breath


breathe, breathe deep (33)

After I had read the poem aloud, I asked them what they thought the effect was. I received blank stares and confused, darting glances. So, in turn, I asked for three volunteers to re-read the poem aloud, followed by asking them what them what they felft in the gut. They met me with silence, and I waited them out. “Okay,” I said, “quickly mark whatever literary and rhetorical devices you notice.” Finally, they dug in, this was a task most of them had been trained to do. Hands flew up, and I asked them to take them down, saying “This is not that kind of class. We are cars merging into traffic. Find a gap, speed up or drop back, but get in.” The answers came spilling forth: alliteration, assonance, consonance, onomatopoeia, asyndeton, repetition, slant rhyme. “Yes, yes…all yes. But do you have to know any of those things to find beauty of meaning in the poem?” They shook their heads in unison. The students were my birds of pedagogy. I could see how our classroom ecology was thriving or failing in their ability to carry on.

I know I’m taking a risk each time I pull this stunt, but the process rarely fails. The students first realize that poetry is a kind of nonfiction that functions as exposition, description, narration, persuasion—at root, truth-telling. In Hedge Coke’s Streaming, as with most poems, the reader can rely upon diction, syntax, caesura, enjambment, and punctuation (or the lack thereof) as signposts. Even as I first read, and then read again, her poem, I could feel the language and see histories rising and falling away. Watch the poet relate whole histories of resistance in the second stanza of “Taxonomy”:

We were tabooed, shunned, mocked and on our mettle

most any pierce of day. Principal struck blows to show we

deserved no mercy. It was splintering. Holes bored blisters

each smacking wave. We were deserving. Wave after wave

first grade took the test out from me. Never did spill again,

no matter the syndrome. We were anything but beggars,

so we scraped by, held up. We flung ourselves into every

angle, withheld our curve. Split loose from whatever held on. (61)

I learn to trust Allison Adelle Hedge Coke’s vision, no matter that America had sought erasure of that pride. She shows reader/writers how to witness for one’s people and homeplace without appropriation, how lines of poetry can be dovetailed to manifest meaning. “Lest they moved you, sent you off to foster somewhere no / one warned might reckon. Sent you streaming. Gave you up / like paper. Tossed, crumpled, straightened up, and smoothed / out flat. That was that. It was nothing you’d remember, but / we do” (61-61). You see, or at least I hope you do, exactly what Streaming reminded me of. The poet must continually risk part of herself in the act of creating poems. And by doing so, there exist no formulaic answers, only attempts at communication. My students quickly learn that you can fail, but that I don’t mind if they do, as long they’re willing to risk something they cherish, and that to my mind—since I am the one whose grading pen they fear—there are no failures unless you’re unwilling to fail big.


W+F2R. Flowers Rivera is a native of Mississippi. Her second collection of poetry, Heathen, was selected by poet and literary activist E. Ethelbert Miller as the winner of the 2015 Naomi Long Madgett Poetry Award, and also received the 2016 Mississippi Institute of Arts and Letters Award in Poetry. Dr. Rivera’s debut collection, Troubling Accents, was chosen by the Texas Association of Authors as its 2014 Poetry Book of the Year. She lives in McKinney, Texas, and teaches at the University of Texas at Dallas View more of her work by visiting http://www.promethea.com

CFP: Assay 3.1 and Beyond!


At Assay, we’ve dubbed Year 3 “Year of Best American Essays.” Our intrepid assistant editor Nick Nelson, who’s been with us since the beginning, has been working to make the reprints and Notables of Best American Essays into a searchable form, and his project will be released in the next several months. He started the project in the fall of 2014, before Assay published its first issue, and the scope has grown considerably as he has pursued it. The project is truly exciting, a wonderful and useful piece of work for our genre, and we are thrilled to share it with the world. Stay tuned for the release date.

2016 is the 30th anniversary of the Best American Essays series and we can’t think of a better gift than attention paid to this institution that forms so much of who we are as a genre. Essay Daily started things off so well with their Advent project in December–and if you haven’t checked it out, you’ll want to. Best American Essays, as a literary series and foundational element of our genre, is such a rich source of conversation. As we also celebrate BAE’s anniversary and Nick’s project, we will devote a section of the magazine in both 3.1 (Fall 2016) and 3.2 (Spring 2017) to interrogating BAE as the standard bearer of the genre, the pedagogy of teaching with it, analysis of individual pieces, and any other place creativity strikes.

imageWe’re looking for full scholarly articles, we’re looking for informal discussions, we’re looking for pedagogical theory, lesson plans, assignments, and more. The introductions to BAE have long been considered the beginnings of nonfiction theory–where does that put us as a genre? If you’re not sure what you’re working on is something we’d be interested in, please ask us!

We continue to read and accept general submissions, so even if your current work isn’t on BAE, we’d love to see it. Deadline for full consideration for the fall issue is May 1, 2016; deadline for the Spring 2017 issue is December 1, 2016.  Click here for the link to the full guidelines.

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

ScottRussellSanders_Credit- Steve Raymer_Oct_2010.1

Scott Russell Sanders (photo credit Steve Raymer)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The revised version:

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Works Cited

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

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

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

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


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

In the Classroom: How Human Behavior Studies Aid the Memoirist by Sophia Kouidou-Giles

Human behavior studies have much to offer nonfiction writers. In my teaching, I work to aid fellow authors to write about themselves and others by presenting a believable picture of character. Together, we study human behavior to draw insights from such fields as psychology, psychiatry, education, sociology, and social work.

Dust off textbooks. Seek librarian recommendations. Search the Internet or use other popular sources at your disposal. These will lend accuracy and authenticity to your writing, in building character, specifying age, describing symptoms, observing dynamics, creating tension, and more. Why not use the art and science that has studied human behaviors? It may help resolve simple or complex decisions for the story teller.

Do you want to introduce the age of a four-year-old in a different way? Look at child development texts.

“How old are you?”

Johnny looked up to his grandmother, “Why?”

When she smiled, he raised four fingers and reported loudly, “four!” [1][2]

Perhaps a character in your story is addicted to a substance and is in recovery. There is a vast literature from which to draw.

The counselor was sympathetic but stern: “Stop using? That is only half the battle. You really need to create a new life, so that everything that brought you to your addiction does not catch up with you again.” [3][4]

How about a character in a psychotic state? Abnormal Psychology provides a description of relevant symptoms, treatment and more. For example, Delusions are fixed beliefs an individual holds even when reality contradicts them.

John spoke with authority, “Jesus told me. I speak in His name.” Then in anger he added, “I have to leave for home.”

“Have you spit out your Thorazine again?” responded the nurse. [5][6]

Here are a few summary points — manuscript and author benefits — of using human behavior studies in your writing.


  • A thorough understanding of what is being portrayed, informed by the historical or current knowledge of human behavior studies is crucial to good writing. It promotes clarity and detailed progression on the evolution of a character and the development of a scene.
  • Empathy for the human condition stems from a better understanding of the dynamics of a situation. Descriptions that show the author’s awareness, and Emotional I.Q. contribute to subtlety in writing and potentially greater insight for the reader.
  • A better understanding and empathy for a character may lead to epiphanies and insights that enrich the page. When captured, such epiphanies offer resolution and relief to the reader. That I consider an author’s psychological debt can be gracefully delivered.



  • At times, reliving a traumatic moment might trigger the author’s defenses. Self-examination deepens the layering in a story when we persist and examine what may be the underlying reaction.
  • In creative non-fiction, we can count on the author to address personal trauma as they build the story arc. In uncovering stressful memories some of the ways we as authors defend ourselves include forgetting, suppressing the detail, experiencing block, and even denial or inaccurate portrayal of the emotional truth. To spark what may need more interior search, description, insight, short of seeking therapy, may be adequately met via the study of human behavior. Readings can provide insights and provoke the author to better express what the page requires.
  • When family challenges the memoirist for his/her perceptions and point of view, the author may feel better prepared to make their case having built up the backup by credible literature.

It’s all about taking advantage of systematic observation and the latest information available, a necessary tool for the thoughtful painter of stories.


[1] For general reading, consult the following: Shaffer, David R., and Katherine Kipp. Developmental Psychology: Childhood and Adolescence, 9th Ed. Belmont, CA: Wadsworth [Cengage Learning Series], 2013.

[2] Information on child development by age [from The Center for Parenting Education] can be found here: http://centerforparentingeducation.org/library-of-articles/child-development/child-development-by-age/#four

[3] For general information, see: Galanter, M.D. ed., Marc and Herbert D. Kleber, M.D. ed.; Kathleen T. Brady, M.D. Ph. D. ed.. Textbook Of Substance Abuse Treatment, 5th Ed. The American Psychiatric Publishing, 2015.

[4] For information on this specific example, see: Bestor, Sheri Mabry. Substance Abuse: The Ultimate Teen Guide. Lanham, Maryland: The Scarecrow Press, Inc., 2013. Print. 76-81.

[5] For general information, see: Oltmanns, Thomas F., and Robert E. Emery. Abnormal Psychology. Upper Saddle River, N.J.: Prentice Hal, 2012.

[6] For information on this specific example, see: Xavier, Amador, Ph. D. I Am Not Sick. I Don’t Need Help! How to Help Someone with Mental Illness Accept Treatment. Peconic, New York: Vida Press, 2012. Print. 185-186.



Sophia Kouidou-Giles was born in Thessaloniki, Greece, and resides in Seattle, WA. With a BA in psychology and an MSW in social work, she worked in child welfare for 34 years, publishing articles in professional Journals. “Transitions and Passages,” a poetry chapbook was awarded recognition in a juried competition. “Life on Egypt Street” a short story, is included in the Time Anthology; “Walking on Rhodes,” a poem, is published in Voices magazine. Member of AWP and PNWA, she is currently working on poetry and a memoir. Follow Sophia @kouidou and visit her on Facebook.

Assay@NFN15: “The Science of Story: Creative Nonfiction and Cognitive Science”

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 Nancer Ballard, Dave Madden, Matthew Gavin Frank, Sean Prentiss

Why do writing professors tell you what to do (show, don’t tell; orient us with setting; etc.)? Why are these important from a cognitive standpoint?

Nancer Ballard: conducted a survey about what books readers remembered over time and why [see handout]. For her talk, she focused on 3 characteristics: transformation/new insight into world, mystery, and vividity. She discussed 4 cognitive responses that support these:

  1. Sensory perception – how sensory input is processed [see handout for list of senses]
  2. Emotion – sensory info must evoke an emotional response to be encoded as important. Sensory input is processed, we react involuntarily, then we have an emotional feeling (cf Wm James: we don’t cry because we’re sad; we tell ourselves we’re sad because we’ve cried)
  3. Memory/Place – feeling/emotion lead to encoding as memory. Place is implicit in action and time, and essential to narrative – we have no way to process without the context of time/place/action
  4. Inconsistency – attention loves novelty because the brain filters out the “normal” to make space for new experiences which need to be processed

*Note: the brain behaves the same way when it reads something for the first time: you read words (sensory data) on the page, have a reaction, evoke an emotion (suspense, dread)

We complete patterns – what happens next? – for survival, to help make guesses about the future, to make sense of the world. Jumping to conclusions can be efficient, but can also cause problems – narratives are often about those who incorrectly complete a pattern, make an assumption, and the fallout from that. [see handout for CNF examples]

Dave Madden: Patricia Hampl: “what an essay gives you is a mind at work.” Madden asks, what is a mind at work? how does that happen? Cf Kauffman: essay is not just essayist’s thoughts, but the feeling of their movement, and therefore induce an experience of thought in the reader.

  1. Productive Juxtapositioning: artful sequencing of facts, data, memories, etc, so that meaning is created via order or form – how 2 things juxtaposed create a third thing between them, the literary equivalent of “brain cells that fire together, wire together.” “Leap, don’t creep” – don’t do all the expository work of connecting 2 things – just go there and trust the reader to connect them.
  2. Interleaving: switching among an array of things to study results in better long-term comprehension.
  3. Desirable Difficulty: grappling/frustration results in better learning
  4. Segmentation and Digression: tell stories or make points sequentially and recurrently rather than one at a time. Move your reader away from your topic for a time in order to better engage when you return to it. Interleave material – don’t block-sort it.

When drafting, don’t worry about these things! When revising, “leap, don’t creep,” consider digression and segmentation as a strategic move, not just an aesthetic one, and make the essay move as fast as the brain.

Matthew Gavin Frank: wrote The Mad Feast, about characteristic dishes from all 50 states – reactions were either rage (you got it wrong!) or glee (you nailed it!). Why do we feel so passionately about foods associated with a region? Home, food, and place give us a basis from which to understand the world. Taste/smell/texture of food intensely tied to memory, which is wired to place/time. If that’s challenged, our entire worldview encoded in our brains is challenged. Confirmation of this memory = a sense of community. The mouth is our most vulnerable point, our connection to food, how babies first experience the world – food is how we regularly invite the physical world into our bodies.

Sean Prentiss: how the brain perceives time is integral to coding memory. The body manages several clocks, both short- and long-term perceptions. So, how does the brain perceive time, and how can we use that in CNF?

  1. Fight or Flight – everything seems to slow down, because the brain is trying to take in as much info as possible so it can assess threat, so when we encode this memory, it seems slow because of its density of data.
  2. Aging memory – time seems to go faster when we’re older because we’ve had so many experiences – our brain only needs to encode the novel ones, so it skips the more routine memories.
  3. Drug use and perception of time – stimulants v. depressants v. psychedelics

Below, please see handouts for specific strategies and examples of how to manage time in CNF.




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.

Assay@NFN15: “Adventures in Poetic Biography”

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 Jessica Wilkinson, Dennis Cooley, Heidi Czerwiec, Benjamin Laird

Jessica Wilkinson opened by respectfully disagreeing with a comment made by Brian Doyle during his keynote address, in which he said that poetry got so involved in its feeling that it ended up talking about its left breast – she asserts that, as much as the essay, poetry can engage with nonfiction topics outside the self, and in fact has some formal strategies for doing so that the essay does not.

Heidi Czerwiec: her discussion of poetic biography focuses on how poetic form can enhance and embody the person being represented in the biography, and uses 3 of her projects to illustrate how. In Self-Portrait as Bettie Page, she explored the slippage between herself and ‘50s bondage pinup Bettie Page via the sonnet sequence, which paired well with the strictures of bondage. In “Rachel,” based on 17th C still-life painter Rachel Ruysch and depicting 3 periods in her life, Czerwiec riffed on a Baroque sonata in tetrameter lines with various leitmotifs in counterpoint. And in A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, about a 19th C Cantonese youth with a parasitic twin during the lead-up to the First Opium War, she used numerous forms to play with the instability of twinning and Sino-British trade, in particular an interlocking form borrowed from Greg Williamson called “double exposure.”

Dennis Cooley: discussed his project Bloody Jack, about Jack Kravchenko, a famous outlaw in Southern Manitoba before WWI which, inspired by Bakhtin’s “carnival of voices,” he chose to render as a play among several voices: letters to editors, love songs, newspaper clippings, Ukrainian phrasebooks, rope-skipping songs, lists, etc. [read excerpts]

Jessica Wilkinson: her work was inspired by Susan Howe, in particular My Emily Dickinson, and how the voices of her subjects led her to the form – by listening to the voices, she could meet them on the page. She discusses 2 projects. The first, marionette: a monument to failure, dealt with Hearst’s mistress, film actress Marion Davies. Because of Hearst’s influence, info on her is inaccurate and erased; because of time, films of her are crumbling. Wilkinson’s project called attention to this faulty/fragmented archive via a visual-based text full of fragments and white space. In contrast, Suite for Percy Grainger about the Australian composer is based in auditory play and draws from an overwhelmingly full archive – Wilkinson’s 5-part manuscript is a 5-fingered composition that portrays 5 different aspects of the complex man. Currently, she is at work on a MS about Balanchine in a text based on movement.

Benjamin Laird: his work deals with biographical poetry in programmable media, by which he means work written in code, web-based (JavaScript, html). He claims that the medium in which poetic biography is written changes how we experience it, and changes the person being represented. He discussed his project on 19th C spiritualist, activist, and lecturer William Denton. He cites Rachel Blau DuPlessis’ idea of segmentivity – that the meaning poems make occurs in smaller segments (phrases, lines, stanzas) that combine to create larger meanings (poem, book) – he plays with combining and recombining these segments to manipulate meaning. He also talked about the issue of versioning – how software affects poetry – since software is inherently incomplete and is constantly being updated/changing, and that while this creates difficulties and challenges for programmable poetry, it also highlights the constantly-changing subject and our relationship to it. He also mentioned Memmott on poem/software as a tool for making meaning. You can see examples of his work on Denton at thecodeofthings.com


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.

Assay@NFN15: “Crafting True: The Complementary Worlds of Narrative Journalism and The Essay”

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  • A bullet point summary by Angele’ Anderfuren @AngeleOutWest


  • Megan Kimble @MeganKimble
  • Lisa O’Neill @LisaMOneill_
  • Katherine E. Standefer @girlmakesfire
  • Hattie Fletcher of @cnfonline


  • The intersection of journalism and creative nonfiction.
  • The differences in reporting a story and telling a story.
  • The telling of our truths, of a truth, of another’s truths.
  • Objectivity and perspective.

Defining the topic:

Journalism is…

  • Reported material
  • A story based on verifiable facts
  • Not usually first person, but could be in some instances
  • The destination

Creative Nonfiction/Essay is…

  • Stories with less of a formal structure
  • Often first person in the story
  • The experience of discovering truth
  • Story out of what’s really happening
  • Using the devices of fiction to tell a true story


How journalism can help or hinder the form:

Katherine, comes from a fiction and poetry writing background before being a journalist:

  • Journalism helped me limit my scope and make sure the right stakeholders are involved in the conversation
  • Projects start personal and grow outwards
  • I became a better nonfiction writer by examining how other peoples’ stories related to my story
  • Asks, how do I bring a reader into the sensory world, how do I making meaning associatively?
  • One thing journalism has to offer is clarity of purpose in the story

Lisa, was a general assignments reporter for small newspaper in Louisiana, then did PR for a nonprofit:

  • I came to writing as a way to make sense of the world
  • I wanted to be a journalist because I saw journalism as a way to create change
  • I loved the diversity of the job
  • I found myself frustrated because I had opinions about things and felt that objectivity in journalism was limited and not entirely true
  • I was aware how I was shaping stories by who I was putting first
  • One thing I think about is: How much I need to be in the piece?
  • What do I have to offer as a narrator versus a witness?
  • It is really important to me to include other people’s voices

Hattie, Managing Editor for Creative Nonfiction magazine:

  • We don’t always talk about the history of creative nonfiction
  • There are two strands to the history:
    • St Augustan and Montaigne
    • An evolutionary strand from journalism and new journalism
  • Journalism was assumed to be authoritative knowledgeable, objective, just-the-facts writing
  • But a lot of writers came to say that is crap
  • There’s been a steady infusion of first person journalism, not the front page but in the features
  • CNF the magazine comes more out of that second thread, the new journalism thing
  • We have a preference for information-based narrative.
  • But we try to provide spaces to accommodate more of the genre.
  • We do more fact checking than most; we draw the line on calling people’s family members.
  • There’s enough of a debate in CNF already, so you must verify what’s verifiable. If you don’t, that undermines the credibility of the story that is being told.

Differences in craft…


  • First real job out of school was as an assistant for the LA Times. Was told, if your sentence doesn’t contain a paragraph’s worth of information, it is not a good sentence.


  • Creative Nonfiction magazine and the Atlantic article – a comparison

·      Recently Joe Fassler had his essay “Wait Times” published in CNF (4500 word version) and a shorter (2500 word version) published in The Atlantic with the title “How Doctors Take Women’s Pain Less Seriously: When my wife was struck by mysterious, debilitating symptoms, our trip to the ER revealed the sexism inherent in emergency treatment.”

  • The CNF version of the story has some reflection, about the medical system, what it is like to see someone you love in pain
  • The Atlantic had a better title, more grab-able and sharable, tons of comments
  • Fundamentally the same story
  • Joe preferred the longer version with the space to reflect, artistic space
  • “A lot of the nuance of the story got lost”
  • “It is a completely different reading experience.”
  • Internet journalism, it’s kind of about fanning the flames.
  • You’re not expecting to be surprised

Ethical obligation as journalists/writers of CNF…


  • Similar to the way a reader is going to show up differently, I show up differently depending on the piece that I am working on
  • I am sort of a character along the way but I don’t know what way I will appear in the story, how much will get cut out


  • Relationships are the priority in my writing
  • My time in public relations is really helpful
  • Some journalists would come in with no sense of the complexities of a person’s stories
  • I come out of that with a need to feel authentic and recognize the power dynamic at play
  • I consider when I bring in a voice recorder and when I don’t, putting in time with people
  • Who I am is really clear in the persona

What about the I…


  • Absence vs presence of the narrator changes the piece
  • I always have to ask, is this person necessary here?
  • The “I” can help guide readers and show them how to get there


  • Information rich writing also needs to be personal
  • The reporter needs to be present in some way
  • I don’t want the solution to be “put yourself in it,” but that is often what we need to answer, why you are writing this story.
  • A personal investment has to be shown in the narrative.


  • What is the lynch pin of the story?
  • Does something in my life or experience illuminate something in the story?
  • Can it bring something to the reader?
  • Will it be about me in a way that is distracting from the story?
  • Will it compromise what the story is truly about?


  • Book rec: Katherine Boo – Behind the Beautiful Forevers
  • http://www.behindthebeautifulforevers.com/
  • The final section of the book is on her research
  • She interviewed the same people multiple times to check out the story, interviewing other witnesses
  • She didn’t need her presence in the story to be credible
  • Including myself becomes this tool, it is credibility from recognizing the reporting of the reporting
  • What are ways in which I have to acknowledge my privilege and my understanding of the place or lack of understanding


  • Filtering the information that is the truthiness journalism through personal experience
  • What can any one person do with big issues?
  • Who am I to write this?
  • The I can be an accessible way into a daunting, big topic
  • Bringing readers along on that journey with you

Assay@NFN15: “The Essayist as Human”

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Kirk Wisland, Sarah Einstein, Cesar Diaz, Steven Church

Kirk Wisland:  Blogging is satisfying because the immediacy of what is published most closely resembles who we are when we wrote what was published. Wisland is worried that the previous versions of documents from 1997 MS Word might no longer be available because of technological advances. Also, worried that in the desire to write more meaningfully can lead to a desire to seek out the traumatic experiences. Was secretly grateful for writing inspiration after a friend had passed away.  Questions whether it’s fair to write about the dead, because it’s easier than having the reactions from writing about the living. “Maybe it’s the maybe,” he said. By being an essayist, we inherently question ourselves thereby redefining ourselves.

Sarah Einstein: Einstein said she made a mistake. A piece she wrote for an anthology was republished in Salon, with a new headline. When she wrote the piece, it was for an intended audience of an anthology and not for a perhaps less literary crowd. While she received support (and at times inappropriate support), her husband received backlash at a time when there was a death in the family. While she doesn’t regret that she wrote the piece—she had her husband’s permission—she regrets that she published something that would turn out to be so painful to someone she loved. For her, the question about “essayist as human” means learning about your mistakes. Before, when she saw a published piece, she felt comfortable saying whether a person ought be writing or working in academia based on what they’ve written. “I feel like we’re at a moment that we’re we need to think about the essayists humanity.”

César Díaz: Memoirist’s challenge is to gain a reader’s trust , which turns out to be difficult based on the placement of the reimagined world. The memoirist actively manipulates past experiences but readers track at how the writer arrives that the truth in the memoir. How does the memoirist do this? Díaz especially felt that he had to uphold the truth after an MFA workshop likened his life story as a migrant farm-working child as “myth-making” and an elevated way of detaching from reality. He attempted to return to his memoir using only facts. In his research, he discovered that everything he knew was wrong. Finally, he adopted Ondaajte’s idea of the constructed self: that narrative through improvisation. Gornick sees the memoirist’s responsibility as shaping their experience any way so long as the intent remains genuine. This mindset has set him free.

Steven Church: The last couple of chapters of Church’s collection of essays, “Ultrasonic” deal with challenges he faces as a writer. The chapter he reads is called “It Begins with a Knock at the Door.” In the narrative, an elderly neighbor comes to his house asking for help to pull out her older boyfriend out of the bathtub where he fell. After pulling him out of the tub, he feels he clumsily relates to the man by showing off a scar on his leg from his twenties. The elderly man shows off a scar on his leg from surviving war. After feeling that this man’s story is worth more than perhaps writing about flatulence, he accepts that who he is as a writer. 


Patti Wisland is a prose writer and the managing editor of New Ohio Review. 

Assay@NFN15: “The Lyric Moments”

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Matthew Olzmann, Justin Bigos, Sejal Shah, Bojan Louis

Panel description: When Samuel Taylor Coleridge set off in pursuit of “a semblance of truth sufficient to procure for these shadows of imagination that willing suspension of disbelief for the moment, which constitutes poetic faith,” the phrase “suspension of disbelief” entered the poetic lexicon. It can be argued that an equivalent poetic faith is at the heart of the lyric essay. However, despite sharing similar impulses and effects, the lyric essay and the lyric poem handle, develop, and court poetic faith in different manners. There is a distinct difference between the suspension of disbelief in poetry and the development or maintenance of actual belief in the essay. This panel of poets, essayists, and editors will discuss the lyric essay in relation to the lyric poem, and consider what constitutes a “poetic faith” in nonfiction.

Matthew Olzmann: This is a panel of poets talking about nonfiction – the panelists all consider themselves poets first. The lyric is defined as a mode of poetry short in form, concentrated in time, subjective in its observations, personal in nature, and musical in quality. He cites Coleridge’s poetic faith as a willing suspension of disbelief – how does the way in which lyric essays engage with poetic faith/belief compare and contrast with lyric poems? What are we willing to believe/willing to suspend disbelief about? Do we experience belief differently depending on genre?

He gives the example of Carolyn Forché’s piece “The Colonel,” which is labeled in books as a prose poem, a lyric essay, or flash fiction, though it seems to fulfill all of the parts of the “lyric” definition above. There are variations in its mode of delivery: short, declarative, detached sentences, which are broken by lyric moments that swerve into figurative comparisons – not reporting, but creating the experience for the reader. Yet he’s noted that students treat it differently depending on how it’s presented to them: if it’s essay or flash fiction, they analyze it for character; if it’s a prose poem, they assume it really happened and want to know why she was there, what happened next, etc.

Justin Bigos: Tony Hoagland considered himself as a poet who drifted toward narrative out of necessity, to give his poems structure, yet felt like the poetry was still the most important part. Bigos says he foregrounds lists, catalogues, and litanies in his work, and references Marianne Borich’s essay in In the Blue Pharmacy on the use of litany in poetry, focusing on its use by Whitman. He calls litany a suspension of time, suspension of a moment, and reads a passage from “Crossing Brooklyn Ferry.”

So how does this work in essay (as opposed to poetry)? Bigos cites Ross Gay’s Catalogue of Unabashed Gratitude, and shows how Gay uses litanies to simultaneously demonstrate belief as well as doubt.

Sejal Shah: Deborah Tall and John D’Agata quote Helen Vendler, who says of the lyric poem, “It is suggestive rather than exhaustive.” Shah also notes the use of verbs in John D’Agata’s description of the lyric essay: leaping, meandering, jumping.

Shah is interested in gaps, white spaces – what can’t be said? what fractures when we try to say it? how does trauma or grief fracture both memory and language? She’s also interested in leaps of faith and logic, the associative rather than the linear. She talks about the attempt to write “Street Scene” in Paris while grieving her best friend’s suicide, and how travel and walking seemed tied up in that – Anne Carson says that pilgrims are those who figure out things by walking. Here is a link to read Shah’s “Street Scene.”

Bojan Louis: spoke about trauma, abuse, and memory, and the blank spaces left by them, and the issues of belief/disbelief (by others, and of the self). He points to Afaa Michael Weaver’s Plum Flower Trilogy, three books of poetry that deal with a history of abuse, incest, racism, the death of his son, years of factory work, and of coming to poetry. [Louis reads selections.] Louis notes that poetry hasn’t worked for him while writing about trauma, though – that’s come through nonfiction.


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet, essayist, translator, and critic who has recent work appearing inAngle,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.

Editor’s Note: Heidi Czerwiec contributed many posts from #NFNOW15. We are most grateful to her for making the conference so accessible to those who were unable to attend & for preserving a record of these talks. Thank you, Heidi!