#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

AWP2015: University of Minnesota Press Looks Both to Past and Future

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMA university press: Home for all things obscure, scholarly, and regional.

Right? Not quite, as was clear at the University of Minnesota Press 90th anniversary panel held Friday morning at AWP.

Three UMN Press authors—Karen Babine, Kate Hopper, and Sarah Stonich—read from their widely appealing works and entered into conversation with Erik Anderson, regional trade editor for the Press. Continue reading

AWP2015: Revising the Personal Essay

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMPanelists: Penny Guisinger, Sven Birkerts, Alexis Paige, Sarah Einstein

“Wowee,” is what Penny Guisinger began with, happy to see such a packed room. She said that there are many metaphors for revision – layers of lasagna, a spider web, 5000 arrows pointing in 100 different directions – but the metaphor she wanted to use was that of a rock band. Sven Birkerts, lead guitar, would give us the view from the plane as the band flew into town. Alexis Paige, player of a shiny white piano, would give us the view from the hotel penthouse. Penny Guisinger, manager, would give us the street view and Sarah Einstein, bass, would get closer still with venues, transportation, strategies, etc.

Continue reading

Best American Essays, University Writing Programs, and their Literary Journals: A Work in Progress

Red FlowerCuriosity is the best part of an essayist’s job. This fall, I got curious about the relationship between Best American Essays, the journals represented, and the writing programs that house those journals. Thanks to Assay’s editorial assistant, Nick Nelson, we have more data than I expected–and it’s thought-provoking enough that we want to share it. We are presenting that information without commentary or opinion, but just as straight data. Make of it what you will. We didn’t intend this data for public consumption, only for our internal information, but we believe it’s interesting enough and important enough to share with the wider world, even at this stage. There are some errors here and there, but again, we did not intend this for an audience beyond our own staff. We also don’t pretend this is comprehensive or complete.

Nick’s process unfolded this way: he took the last five years of Best American Essays (excepting 2012, which I didn’t have on hand for him) and he collated all the journals represented in the Notables and the frequency of representation. Nick then took that information and investigated the university writing programs attached to the journals in the top 30 spots. In the interests of transparency, we are including here the raw Top 30 (which includes commercial journals not attached to writing programs, like The New Yorker), but we are also including the Top 30 with those commercial journals removed. We anticipate adding more years and more information in the future.

I am incredibly grateful to Nick for doing this work–thank you!


BAE University Data Best American Essays and What It Shares

BAE Journal Data

BAE University Data

 Assay Home Page

The Pissing Dog and the Hydrant: A Meditation On Nonfiction & Editing

B.J.HollarsB.J. Hollars is the author of two books of nonfiction–Thirteen Loops: Race, Violence and the Last Lynching in America (the 2012 recipient of the Society of Midland Author’s Award) and Opening the Doors: The Desegregation of the University of Alabama and the Fight for Civil Rights in Tuscaloosa (the 2014 recipient of the Blei/Derleth Nonfiction Award)—as well as a collection of stories, Sightings.  He has also edited three books: You Must Be This Tall To Ride: Contemporary Writers Take You Inside The Story (2009), Monsters: A Collection of Literary Sightings (2011) and Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction (2013).  His hybrid text, Dispatches from the Drownings: Reporting the Fiction of Nonfiction will be published in the fall of 2014. An assistant professor of creative writing at the University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, he lives a simple existence with his wife, their children, and their dog.

It could have been any of you in here. And probably, it should have been many of you. But the difficulty of editing a nonfiction anthology such as my own, Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction, is that the work is too great and there is too much of it. Of course, in many respects this is a wonderful problem and speaks to the strength of our genre. Not only do we have a surplus of stories, but we have a surplus of stories worth telling. You don’t need to take my word for it. Pick up any issue of Creative Nonfiction or Fourth Genre or Brevity, or any of a hundred others, and the proof will be in the pages.

We are a genre thriving, and though the people on this panel represent various anthologies, even with all our collected work combined, there are still plenty of omissions. We can champion great work, sure, but we can never champion all of it. Continue reading

New Face at Assay!

Screen Shot 2014-10-01 at 12.26.05 PMHey, Assay!

My name is Nick Nelson and I’m excited to be a part of the team. Currently, while also assisting the blog and editing process on Assay, I’m also working hard to finish my BA in English Writing at Concordia College (I’m a junior) in hopes to pursuing my MFA in Minneapolis. I also am working toward a minor in German specifically to gain insight about the world around us and where we stand within our own culture. One of my German professors, Madelyn Burchill, would advertise the language programs saying you must know another language to truly understand your own and I took it heart. Learning the English language from a foreign perspective, I learned how intricate and elaborate it can be.

I’m so glad to be a part of Assay and start working and editing in the nonfiction field because I love wrapping the real world into words. It gives me the chance to engage in topics I wouldn’t have the opportunity to learn about in my everyday life. That’s is another reason I cannot wait to work, read, and edit pieces about the natural world.

-Nick Nelson