Assay@NFN15: “The Poessaytics of Form”

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Barrie Jean Borich, Harrison Candelaria Fletcher, Lynette D’Amico, Paul Lisicky, Brenda Miller

Barrie Jean Borich: read a piece that argues for this hybrid while enacting it via fragmentation, juxtaposition, and wordplay – argues for a focus on language and true subject matter over labels of genre.

Harrison Candelaria Fletcher: How do we make sense of images, pictures, fragments, debris? He used the example of Joseph Cornell’s boxes as a visual parallel, that makes use of the language of image, symbol, context, negative space, and the interpretive associations the reader/viewer brings to a piece. Quotes Simic’s Dime Store Alchemy: “we are all fragments in search of an unutterable whole.”

Lynette D’Amico: writing toward and away from images in book-length nonfiction projects, citing Barthes’ Camera Lucida: the link between photography, madness, and something else he can only call the pangs of love. For her talk, she focuses on 3 books: Lawrence Sutin’s Postcard Memoir, in which the pictures (postcard images) don’t relate to each other, only to the text/memory inspired by it, though the text creates a composite memoir in vignette fragments; B.J. Hollars Dispatches from the Drownings, which writes mostly real and some fictional (though Hollars does not distinguish) accounts of drownings that occurred 1875-1922 around Eau Claire, WI and pairs them with unrelated photos from the same period; and Paisley Rekdal’s Intimate, in which the author’s Norwegian father and her look at Curtis’ collection of photos of natives while her Chinese mother is hospitalized, written in poetry, prose, and photos that reflect on the author’s own mixed-race family narrative.

Paul Lisicky: used the example of hearing a quartet play in a subway station to reflect on the wish for simultaneity in writing – music can incorporate 4 (or more) things going on at once via harmony, counterpoint, fugue, but this is difficult in writing. Woolf attempted this via parentheticals, David Foster Wallace via footnotes, and Alison Bechdel via graphics, but it still involves a wrenching back and forth of the attention. Nonetheless, he finds himself resisting the unified “one thing” that ignores the possibility of multiple viewpoints.

Brenda Miller: details her experiments adapting traditional poetic forms to the essay, transposing these forms’ formal conventions into lyric essay versions – what rules am I bound to? which ones can be dropped and still retain the spirit/intent of the form? She experimented with the villanelle, ghazal, sonnet, haiku, and pantoum [she read her villanelle and pantoum experiments] and talks about what works/didn’t work, and whether the result seemed to engage with prose enough, or whether it just seemed like a formal poem taken out of its lines.


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.

Assay@NFN15: “Performing the Essay”

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Can a song, a drawing, or the smell of soap be integral components of something we could call an essay?  Would that influence how we define the essay, or even the purpose of essay?  Five writers presented their attempts (their “essays”) at alternate presentation forms at the NonfictionNow! session entitled, “Performing the Essay: Combinations and Permutations.”

Lucinda Strahan described finding her voice for a long piece in her newly discovered (“never mind where”) anger.  She’s aiming for something to fit music critic Greil Marcus’ description of punk music: “the voice of teeth ground down to points.”  Lucinda earned the right to that description; she was a member of a rock band profiled in a fashion magazine in the early 2000s, where she was described as “angry and expressive.”  Never mind that her band was so superficial they had photos, stickers, a website — but no music.  Lucinda compensates by playing her own guitar songs — albeit without knowledge of chords or scales and without benefit of musical ability.  Her neighbors tell her how much they appreciate that, but she must do something with “this murderous rage.”  

Sophie Cunningham is driven by the inability to find words to describe her father’s slide into dementia.  For her the words are there, but her father loses words every day.  Can she capture this — a death so slow, so cruel that it escapes any narrative shape?  She tries to walk or run from her father’s decline.  Walking introduces new facts (“this neighborhood was once an island in the Hudson”), but maybe those facts don’t need to be organized and put in perspective.  Maybe walking itself is enough of an essay; maybe she’ll keep walking and stop writing.  And maybe that’s just bluster.  Either way, that’s the only way she can think: “on her feet.”

Papatya Bucak outlined her attempts to define “collage,” not in rhetorical terms, but in reference to visual art.  Collage is disturbing, deliberately out of place, “ugly” — but revealing.  And if we produce Frankenstein’s monsters with our words, the ugliness by today’s standards may become a future norm.  Visual collage is layering — covering one complete image with parts of other images.  Not one thing next to another, but many things on top of one another.  Can this be done with the written word?  Bucak is uncertain, but thinks the concept worth pursuing, because “collage can be confusing and hard to figure out…just like the truth.”

Francesca Rendle-Short, who facilitated the discussion, also presented her take on performance essay, again drawing (literally) on a reference from the visual arts.  She read seven sketches of her father — snapshots from various stages of his life and hers.  Accompanying these verbal sketches, Rendle-Short’s hand drives a pen, scrawling outlines of a craggy face, with wrinkles shading deep eyes above an unyielding mouth.  The physical portrait is reproduced with slight variations during each verbal sketch — the same subject differently rendered, exactly as her words render different aspects of the relationship between herself and her aging father.

Peta Murray brought out an “Essayesque Dismemoir” valise from which she extracted bits and pieces of her life.  Leveraging her background as a playwright, Murray’s gloved hands reverently removed a bunch of plastic flowers and a bar of pear soap — those elements that trigger memories of her Aunt Connie who died of old age, “with all her marbles, but problems in her legs, like me.”  A “student of the year” scarf brings stories of the things she wrote as a child (a play in the style of Beckett, some bad poetry) and the things she did not write (the school compositions her mother would complete).  In ten half-improvised minutes Murray introduced her fears, her favorite words, her record of caring for her mother as she faded from life, and the Essayesque Dismemoir itself — an art form that “has already forgotten what it sets out to be.”  

In the final panel discussion Strahan maintained that the written page is an unnecessary constraint whose form limits the essayist.  The alternatives appear to be more ephemeral, moving away from mass-distributed records towards the realm of performance art.  Perhaps Murray spoke for them all when asked if she lamented that a “perfect” performance would not reach further than the audience in a single room.  “I don’t need to ‘bottle up’ the perfect performance,” she said, “I’m past that.”


Richard Gaughan (@rgaughan_writer) is a science writer whose intermittent posts can be found at, and who will soon be launching a general-interest science site at

Debra Marquart’s “Hochzeit”

Screen Shot 2015-04-21 at 11.10.06 AMControlling metaphors are often reserved for the realm of poetry, rarely in nonfiction do we speak of such things. It makes sense, too–after all, poetry is known for its density, its scarcity of words. But nonfiction, too, has its moments of controlling metaphor, moments where images take hold of writers, saying, “Use me!”

Debra Marquart, in her brief essay “Hochzeit”–which later appears in her memoir, The Horizontal World–employs an image, the accordion, which gives structure to this economic, finely wrought piece of prose.

Marquart’s German-from-Russia upbringing was marked by dancing, by wedding celebrations, by, as she says, “circles.” From the get-go, the reader knows where she is: she’s at a dance, and the room is swaying, pulsing: “I remember circles–the swirling cuff of my father’s pant leg, the layered hem of my mother’s skirt. A neighbor lady polkas by[.]” This opening establishes the form and function of the piece: saddle up, reader, you’re in for a swinging good time, and you might get a little dizzy from the dancing along the way.

Throughout the piece Marquart takes time to observe and document the dance: the Ray Schmidt Orchestra is playing, young women wear patent leather shoes, chiffon dresses, mothers’ lips are smeared red. We’re in Lawrence Welk country, and the party is just beginning.

Marquart presses the reader deeper into the psyche of the region, meditating on the odd instrument of keys and bellows, manuals and ranks: “[F]ather and son take turns playing the accordion, the bellowing wheeze of notes, the squeeze, the oom-paa-paa.” Not only can the reader see this, the squeezing of the accordion, but we can hear it, too, with Marquart’s precision of language: oom-paa-paa. We learn, too, that the accordion is the instrument in this part of the world, that the son is the “heir apparent to Lawrence Welk,” where Marquart definitely states, “This is polka country.” Not only does the accordion define the structure of this piece, the accordion defines the structure of this region.

We step back from this moment, from the sound of the music, and continue to swirl. We’re with the author–her childhood self–soaking in the wonder and dizzying effects of this evening dancing. “A man who looks like everyone’s Grandpa makes the round with a tray of shot glasses, spinning gold pools of wedding whiskey.” Don’t you just love the humor of that observation, a man who looks like everyone’s Grandpa? And the swirling continues: “three sips for everybody, no matter how small.” Libations help heighten the sensory detail of the rest of the essay.

And then we’re off again, returning to the dance where our narrator is lifted-up, but she’s not sure by whom. “An uncle, an older cousin?” And so she is trot around in circles, lifted in the air, as the accordion pulses; eventually the narrator returned to the old women at the tables. We know the setting is congenial, that we’re among friends, as the oom-paa-paa continues to flow across the dance floor.

The dancing continues. “The music speeds up, the accordion pumping chords like a steam engine.” And now the focus shifts from the narrator to her parents, “the best dancers on the floor.” The scene mimics the pulse of the accordion: “The dance floor flexes and heaves like a trampoline. Women swing by in the arms of their partners. High whoops and yips emit from their ample bosoms. They kick their big, heavy legs and throw back their bouffant.” This is when the metaphor is pressed deepest: We see the room mimic the accordion, we can picture the women, see the men holding tight. We are in the land of the controlling metaphor. Oom-paa-paa.

Before the scene ends we press deeper into the moment, focusing on Marquart’s parents: “My father secures his arm around my mother’s waist. They spin and reel as they polka circles around the room.” The accordion is not only the defining instrument of this region, it is, or so it seems, the vehicle for dancing in the Marquart family. The spinning continues.

In seven brief paragraphs Marquart weaves together the accordion, polka, and dancing like a finely made tapestry. We swirl and spin with her, listening to the bellowing and pulsing of the music as the Hochzeit, the wedding celebration carries on. In nonfiction, like in poetry, there are moments where the skill of a controlling metaphor increases the depth and clarity of scene, this, is seems, is something worth stealing from Marquart.

-Taylor Brorby is a contributing editor at Assay.


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AWP2015: Telling Our New War Stories: Witness and Imagination across Literary Genres

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PM(Benjamin Busch,  Phil Klay,  Siobhan Fallon,  Brian Turner,  Katey Schultz) It has been argued that credibility requires direct witness, that true war stories can only be told by those who have been there. The fact is that stories from Iraq and Afghanistan are arriving in all literary genres and from multiple perspectives, some using imagination to create equal truths. These five authors, writing through short fiction, essay, poetry, memoir, and nonfiction, will discuss how the fragmentary nature of the war narrative can be written from inside or outside the uniform. Continue reading

AWP2015: Recent Trends in Nonfiction

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMPanelists: Janet Heller, Laura Julier, Hila Ratzabi, Kim Wyatt

Beginning with a brief history of the creative nonfiction’s’ emergence as a popular art form (Heller) and ending with a focus on more specific, regional trends (Wyatt), “Recent Trends in Creative Nonfiction” mimicked the form of a collaborative essay, meandering in and out of four distinct perspectives, developing in four main movements.

Janet Heller cofounded the journal Primavera and began publishing nonfiction in the late 1970s, a time when it was difficult to find jobs teaching in the genre. During the panel, Heller tracked the current emphasis on radio essays and hybrid forms. However, she explained that hybridity is not “new.” Hybridity, rather, informs every genre, dating back to works such as Don Quixote and Tom Jones. In addition to hybridity, Heller outlined characteristics that editors are currently looking for in nonfiction writing: 1) research and a personal angle, 2) an original approach in topic or form, emphasizing detail, and 3) unique insights, topics, or images.

In her portion of the panel, Laura Julier, editor of Fourth Genre, focused on the emergence of the video essay. Fourth Genre has recently begun to generate video essays from nonfiction content originally published in the journal. Julier calls this process an “act of translating.” Video essays often include a sequence of drawings and cutouts layered with an audio track. It has taken the Fourth Genre staff almost two years to create their first video essay, which will be published as online content in the coming months. Julier emphasized that video tests the very form of the essay, allowing its unique aims to infiltrate online spaces.

Hila Ratzabi, poetry editor for Storyscape, began by interrogating “the genre’s expansiveness.” Storyscape does not publish writing under traditional genre categories. Rather, writers submit their work as “truth,” “untruth,” or “we don’t know and they won’t tell us.” Ratzabi described a few scenarios where these categories have been particularly helpful for writers, including a fictional piece that contained an emotional “truth” and an author who considered her remembered “truth” to be flawed. Ratzabi stressed Storyscape’s interest in the in-between. “The notion of truth is a comforting fiction,” Ratzabi said. “Unlike reality, it holds us and does not let us go.”

Kim Wyatt of Bona Fide Books in Lake Tahoe closed the panel by sharing recent trends in collaboration and regionalism: “People really want to read about where they live.” Books help build communities, said Wyatt, and in the areas surrounding Lake Tahoe, these trends are being driven by readership. People are requesting more writing about where they live from Bona Fide Books, and the press has responded by releasing at least one regional title per month.

Nonfiction trends related to technology and hybridity probably hold the most potential to excite nonfiction writers. However, this panel felt balanced by its attention to simple guidelines and the reemergence of regional publishing opportunities— the discussion held something valuable for nonfiction writers of every kind.

Erica Trabold (@ericatrabold) is a writer of family and memory. Her essays and comics have appeared or are forthcoming in Seneca Review, Weave Magazine, Penumbra, and others. She writes and teaches in Oregon, where she is pursuing an MFA in creative nonfiction.


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

AWP2015: Mr. Capote’s Nonfiction Novel: A 50th Anniversary Retrospective of In Cold Blood

Screen Shot 2015-04-12 at 5.17.02 PMOn Thursday of AWP, I attended the panel celebrating the fiftieth anniversary of In Cold Blood, Truman Capote’s classic. It is widely to be considered to be the first creative nonfiction novel. The panelists were Bob Cowser, Dinah Lenney, Joe Mackall, Kelly Grey Carlisle, and Ned Stuckey-French. Each panelist came up and talked about their thoughts on the novel.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

AWP2015: The Voyage of Graphic Literary Forms

The panel “The Voyage of Graphic Literary Forms” was moderated by Mercedes Gilliom and included Brian Evenson, Diana Arterian, Tom Kaczynski, and Erica Mena. (Information on all the writers, their presses, etc. can be found on Mercedes’ blog: Claire Translation.)

The panel centered around the idea of translation and the challenges of transforming work from one language, or one medium, to another.

Brian Evenson discussed his work translating Incidents in the Night from the French with his daughter Sarah. Incidents in the Night is a series of books (so far 2) that he referred to as “albums in a continuing series.” Later, he referenced this idea again as a way of explaining that tor the author and artist, David B., as well as for other French graphic artists, the organizing principle is not so much a narrative arc as serialization. Evenson discussed the unique challenges posed by “careful integration of text and image in a way that strengthens both.” As an example he discussed word bubbles and how fitting the text to the shape was one of the factors that affected word choice, the length of words, etc.

Diana Arterian discussed the publication of a book, Bindle, a collaboration between poet Elizabeth Frost and artist Diane Cornberg. The collaboration uses both words and artwork, so it presented distinct challenges in how best to transform this project into a book. Arterian wants to bring Fine Art to a literary audience, so her process was one of learning how to preserve the artwork while being able to publish a literary book.

Tom Kaczynski is an artist and the publisher of Uncivilized Books. He discussed the difficulty of publishing books that included multiple text styles, such as cursive and special effects. Figuring out how to represent these text styles added to the time it took to bring the book to print. He also discussed several other projects, including Iranian Metamorphosis, and his own book Beta-Testing the Apocalypse.

Erica Mena translates work from Spanish; her latest project is an apocalyptic science fiction text from the 1950s. She talked about the challenge of translating neoligisms from Spanish, including the title of her latest translation, which she wanted to translate as Eternonaut but will be published under the title Eternaut. Many of the challenges she faced were in securing the rights to the project.

Mercedes presented several questions to the panelists, engaging them in conversations about the most troubling aspects of translation.

Brian Evenson explained that working with people who know less English than they think they do is challenging because they sometimes insist on translations that are not exactly right. The best case, he said, was to work with those who knew no English. Evenson also said that the French texts tend to be wordier than English. Tom K. said that in one case he had to ask Brian to write a longer translation of the French so that it would fill the word bubble.

Erica Mena explained that she found Eternaut via luck. She was translating a poem that was an allusion to the text Ethernaut, so she found it and read it in Spanish. She wondered why it had not yet been translated. Because of her connections at the University of Iowa she was able to get in contact with the heirs. She felt that this was the right time for the project and now it will find the right audience. Now, she says, it can reach the audience it deserves, a literary audience as well as those interested in graphic texts, and those interested in science fiction.

Tom K. discussed how at this cultural moment the comics’ market is moving away from the super hero paradigm and there is amazing work being done.

Diana talked about the compromises she had to make in bringing Bindle to the market. She had to choose a trim size that would make the book marketable, also choose paper that would be affordable, but still look good with reproduced artwork. The artist, she said, did a great job in preparing the artwork for the book. For example, the artist included a shadow in reproductions of the art to give to make it feel “like you are holding an object.”

All the panelists stressed the importance of sending graphic projects to multiple publishers. They also discussed publishers who like graphic work, and translation projects, including Drunken Boat, Pen America’s new project with comics, and presses run by the panelists.

Lynn Kilpatrick’s non-fiction has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, Brevity, and Ninth Letter. Her first book of fiction, In the House, was published by FC2. She teaches at Salt Lake Community College. 

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

AWP2015: Narrative Expectations in the Personal Essay

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

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

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

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


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

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