Assay@NFN15: You Lived Through It; Do We Have to Read About It?

Editor’s Note: Sejal Shah’s panel report concludes our coverage of NonfictioNOW. Thank you, all, for your generous contributions, which made it possible for those unable to attend to take part. See you at AWP 2016!

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Sandi Wisenberg (Moderator), Elizabeth Kadetsky, Thomas Larson, and Janice Gary

Panel description: Much has been written about the therapeutic benefits of writing for survivors of traumas such as war, disasters, slavery, disease, rape, incest. Writing is generally agreed to be good for the mental health of the amateurs. When does nonfiction writing about trauma rise to the level of art? What makes some artful, and others, self-serving? The answers are subjective, but we will explore the questions and hazard some answers. Speaking as writers, readers, and editors, we will examine successful and unsuccessful creative nonfictions and tease out our reasons for making those judgments.


Sandi Wisenberg:

The title of Sandi Wisenberg’s piece is “Notes on Distance and Density.” In it, Wisenberg looks at Joan Didion’s “Goodbye to All That,” an essay (“The Mother, the Daughter, and the Holy Horse: a Triology”) by the writer Judy Ruiz; Wisenberg also mentions Toni Morrison’s writing about slave narratives “as a form of autobiography”—and says that within this genre, Frederick Douglass is able to convey an “exploration of inner life.”

Wisenberg asks, “What if, in describing your desperation on the page, you fought against revealing this desperation on the page?” Joan Didion “famously recorded the despair of her twenties in ‘Goodbye to All That,’ but “her distance contains her feelings of crisis.” Didion writes, “I was not yet then guilt-ridden about spending afternoons that way [beer can cut, gazpacho, crying, etc.] because “I still had all the afternoons in the world.” Wisenberg describes Didion’s iconic essay as an elegy for the single life and the time we all had then.” She notes, “The analysis makes the piece. Didion knows even her feeling of being unique is universal.”

Wisenberg also mentions writing letters (blue aerogrammes!) when she was in Paris at 20 (and “miserable as usual”) and later keeping a blog when she was diagnosed with breast cancer—and about both of these forms of writing (letter and blog) as places where there is both emotion and also opportunity for writing that is not only in the midst of the suffering; she suggests there is more of opportunity in the blog than in the aerogram, but does not dismiss the aerograms and what can be found there, as well.


Thomas Larson:

Tom Larson began his talk, “My Trauma, My Deconstruction,” with a discussion of his memoir, The Sanctuary of Illness: A Memoir of Heart Disease, in which he wanted to “chart the psychological and relational rapids of [his] three heart attacks, which struck between 2006 and 2011.” He discussed the transformative power of the trauma memoir. “I believed (and still do) in the transformative power of the trauma memoir.” He asks himself, “Why was I chosen? Perhaps once I write the story, I’ll have a better idea. Which, at best, can only be inconclusive. Trauma is that experience which should have killed us but didn’t.” Larson says his audience is less of those “who are from where I am now and more of those who lie with my pre-heart-attack self.” As examples, Larson brings up Primo Levi’s Survival in Auschwitz, The Drowned and the Saved, and The Leftovers, and describes them as “death-obsessed.” “We authors,” he explains, “often mistake making it through as proof of a cracked or purposeful design.”

Larson asks, “Where was my book when I needed to read it? If I wouldn’t have read me, why did I, why do I, expect others to follow suit?” Larson says, “I do know memoir as preventative medicine often does not work… our lives are slumbers, we see in retrospect.” Larson says he does not know why some “tragic/redemptive stories” work on readers and others don’t. He quotes Carl Jung, who said most people seek self-knowledge, but they fail because they start out too late and run out of time. Larson wants to think “the trauma memoir might be of assistance in this awakening.”


Elizabeth Kadetsky:

In her talk, “Flash Memories and Misery Memoirs,” Elizabeth Kadetsky spoke first about the stigma and popularity of what historian Ben Yagoda termed “the misery memoir.” She also discussed the more reputable tradition of memoir “as testimony—documents of a communal justice.” This category included ethnic American and African American autobiography and Holocaust memoirs—some of the most popular titles include Eli Wiesel’s Night and Malcolm X’s autobiography.

Kadetsky said that during the 1980s the “impetus to testify about one’s individual versus communal trauma began to win respect.” Kadetsky attributes this in part to the trauma studies movement. She mentioned Shoshana Felman and Dori Laub’s book, Testimony: Crises of Witnessing in Literature, Psychoanalysis, and History, Judith Herman’s essential Trauma and Recovery and the idea that in order to heal, the one who has undergone the trauma must speak and must be heard. Kadetsky uses the example of Eli Wiesel—in Night— who asks the question ‘How does one describe the indescribable?’ She said, “This question—how to describe the indescribable—is the task set forth for the writer who seeks to rise above the misery memoir.” She suggests that the answer lies perhaps in the actual definition of trauma, which has been medicalized as a syndrome in the DSM as Post Traumatic Stress Disorder.

Kadetsky says that trauma is “experienced in an immediate way that bypasses the narrativizing constructs of the brain that give context and meaning to most experience.” She said that it seems some of the success of successful trauma memoirs may be owed to moments that “mimetically illustrate the experience” of PTSD by “using elements of writing craft such as…insistent images from the past, intrusive thoughts that disrupted chronology, and even a kind of deflection or avoidance.” As examples, Kadetsky lists Maggie Nelson’s Bluets, JoAnn Beard’s “The Fourth State of Matter,” and Joan Didion’s The Year of Magical Thinking. Kadetsky notes that Didion successfully invokes the state of grief through repetition, fragments, and disconnected memories, artfully rendered.

In her own experience, Kadetsky has written three essays about an episode that led, in the six months after, to her mother’s death and her sister’s homelessness. Kadetsky said that she kept the question, “Why would your story matter to me?” in mind when writing and recreating her own experience.


Janice Gary:

Janice Gary’s presentation is titled, “Given Sugar, Given Salt: On Trauma and Memoir.” Gary begins with these lines: “You work with what you are given,” from a Jane Hirschfield poem in Hirschfield’s collection titled, “Given Sugar, Given Salt.” Gary addresses the sense we as writers might have (quoting an agent)—once there’s a great memoir in the field—there doesn’t need to be another one on the same topic written. Gary says, “As nonfiction writers, as writers of memoir, we work with the shapeless, clay-like material of our life. Given sugar, we write about sugar, given salt, we write about salt.” She made the point that “given trauma, we write about it- not because we think it is sensational material, [but] because we cannot not write about it.”

Gary points out that there is a “very high bar set for memoir—especially those dealing with trauma—and a lot of prejudice…. A writer has to be willing to face their own reluctance and societal pressure not to tell just to get it on the page.” Gary discussed her own memoir, Short Leash. She was afraid no one wanted to hear about her rape or read another memoir with a dog in it. But then Gary also read “beautiful memoirs about difficult lives” including Lucy Grealy’s Autobiography of a Face; Gregory Orr’s The Blessing; Richard Hoffman’s Half the House; Katherine Harrison’s The Kiss. Gary said, “In all of these books, it was the writing that held me in thrall, not the subject matter. These books and authors transformed life into art.” She cited Dani Shapiro in Still Writing: “The thing you’ve been writing is not a diary…contrary to the notion you have …you have chosen every single word, you’ve crafted each sentence.”

Gary said she has read many moving and beautiful memoirs. In one memoir she found to be not as successful, Margo Fraguso’s Tiger, Tiger, there was too much scene, scene, scene, and not enough reflection. “The what happened—trauma itself—is not what a memoir should be about.” Gary quoted John Updike who said, “Literature is the most subtle self-examination known to man.” The writer examining her life, attempting to “discover who they are in relation to what has happened to them—that’s what I look for in a memoir—trauma or no trauma. Writing about what is supposed to be kept silent is not only a literary, but also a political act.”

At the end of her remarks, Gary answered the panel’s question (asked in the panel’s title), “You Lived Through It; Do We Have to Read about It?” She said, “No, you don’t have to read it. Just don’t tell me not to write it.”


Q &A: Included Hope Edelman asking about reader response in the age of Internet criticism—the ability to reach us easily; cyber violence against female memoirists. One of the only kinds of bullying allowed now. Criticisms often posted online became personal attacks.


Sejal Shah’s writing has been nominated for Best American Essays and the Pushcart Prize. Her lyric essays and short stories have appeared in various places including Brevity, Conjunctions, Denver Quarterly, Drunken Boat, Kenyon Review, The Literary Review, and The Marginsas well as being featured in The Huffington Post. She lives in Rochester, New York.

Assay@NFN15: Keynote Address by Michael Martone and Ander Monson

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Keynote Address by Michael Martone & Ander Monson

October 30, 2015, 7:10pm: not quite Halloween, but certainly in the neighborhood (the rich kind that kids travel to—on real Halloween—for full-sized candy bars). It was this night that played host to Michael Martone and Ander Monson’s keynote speech for Flagstaff’s NonfictioNow Conference.

And, given what the speech turned out to be, the proximity to Halloween was apropos timing.

Starting from the introductions, this keynote was dressed up, disguised even. Both authors were introduced through a thick mixture of truth and lie so thorough, and transparently untrue at times, that one with no background on the speakers would have had nothing but a façaded Halloween mask of creative nonfiction writers: they live in the southwest, are from the Midwest, perhaps they have written books claimed by other authors, or have written books that don’t exist at all (apparently, Ander Monson is the author of Michael Martone by Michael Martone). Either way, true or false, both were dressed up in suits for the personas that speech giving demands.

The keynote itself ended up a costumed version of a “keynote” as well. Ander Monson claimed that they could not highlight “key” points of a nonfiction conference, and that Michael Martone was only interested in surface, not depth, anyway, so, instead, they examined the surface of the word “key” in detail. The speakers dressed up their keynote in a haphazard manner, giving the sense that it was, to a degree, unplanned. Martone had a stack of papers that he gave to an audience member who, in turn, gave them back to him throughout the keynote, in a random order, I’d assume. Monson decorated the conference room with a slideshow of various key-related images which he bounced around throughout the talk, sometimes even commenting “eh, let’s do this one now.” The speakers covered everything from falling keys proving gravity for babies to garish pictures attached to bathroom keys. The chaos, though, fell into place, and, right before the audience, a spectacle of surface emerged into Halloween’s habitually spectacled season.

I haven’t been to many other keynotes in my time, and certainly none that focused on the anatomy of the word. But, through their exaggerated attention to the fiction of a keynote address—the personas of the speakers, the pretending to know exactly what a conference is about, the illusion of organization—Martone and Monson were able to focus on a collage of simple nonfictions: what keys mean in their lives.

As I left the keynote, I couldn’t help but feel an extra weight in my own keys, as I’m sure everybody that night did, while unlocking my bike from the bike rack just before riding off into Flagstaff’s jack-o-lanterned streets heavy with fake, exaggerated spider webs.


Lizzy Nichols is an undergraduate student at Northern Arizona University where she studies English, French, and the delicate art of being a hipster. She has a forthcoming short story in the Fall 2015 edition of Cardinal Sins. A link to some online work is here 

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Lizzy Nichols and Nicole Walker for the opportunity to republish coverage of this keynote address, which was first posted at the NonfictioNOW 2015 Conference Blog.

Assay@NFN15: The Beasts Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating the Animal World

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Panelists: Kirk Wisland, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Elena Passarello, Steve Church

By Jen Palmares Meadow

All literary conference attendees who work in the field should keep a field journal. In it they ought to record every panel they attend. No matter what kind of literary beasts they might be studying—whether they be poets, novelists, or essayists—their journals contain the study on which much of their work might be improved. The following are my NonfictionNOW field notes from the panel “The Beasts Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating the Animal World”.


Conference: NonfictioNOW

“The Beast Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating the Animal World”

Panelists: Kirk Wisland, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Elena Passarello, Steve Church

Date: 30 October 2015, 10:45-12:00PM

Location: Flagstaff, Arizona, High Country Conference Center, Humphrey’s Theater

Steve Church opened the panel by warning the crowd, “This panel is not pumpkin spiced, but it should be fun.” He read an excerpt from “Seven Fathoms Down,” an essay included in his collection, Ultrasonic. Did you know that noodling is fishing for catfish with your hands? He also read an unsettling piece about consequence.

Kirk Wisland read, “What the Hawk Needs”, an essay concerning a red tail hawk caught an apartment sliding door, and other “instances of perforation.”

  • What good can come from the shattered glass?
  • Dear Neighbor, Be warned. There may be a hawk in your apartment.
  • Dear Hawk, Be warned. There may be a window in your sky.

Alison Hawthorne Deming read from the introduction to her book, Zoologies: On Animals and the Human Spirit. She asks, “What are we interrogating when we are writing about the animal kingdom?” and discussed what it means to be a human at this particular time, during the “incomprehensible diminishment of animals.”

  • “We owe our lives to the animal kingdom. We owe them our care and attention.”
  • “Animals are the core of what we are as creatures, sharing a biological world and inhabiting our inner lives, though most days they feel peripheral.”

Elena Passarello read from her in-progress collection, Animals Strike Curious Poses, in which each chapter is named after an animal of historical record, including: Dolly the Clone, and (hopefully) a robotic bee.

  • Arabella, a spider was the first female in space
  • Sackerson, the baited bear made famous by Shakespeare


  • Is it uncouth to personify animals?
  • Once you start writing about animals, they start showing up everywhere.
  • Affection for animals is what sends me to the library.

Audience Question: What are the risks of speaking from the perspective of the animal?

  • Deming: Because we have no idea what animals are thinking or feeling, it’s really easy to get wrong. “It’s important we don’t misrepresent animals to serve us—we’ve done that,” and also, it can be construed as offensive to people’s oral traditions, people who have the right to speak from these animals.
  • Wisland: I teach a class on sustainability, so anything that get kids interested…I think the hawk gets a pass.
  • Steve Church: The Normal School once published a story entirely from the perspective of a bridge. It can be done.

Audience Question: How do you avoid sentimentality when writing about pets?

  • Deming: If you feel like you’re getting cheesy and sentimental, turn to science.
  • Passarello: I posted an essay on Twitter, entitled, “My Cat Sharky”, and I lost ten followers.

Works Referenced During Panel:

  • “What is it like to be a bat?” by Thomas Nagel
  • “Ordinary Wolves” by Seth Kantner
  • “Dog Tags”
  • “For I Will Consider My Cat Jeoffrey”, by Christopher Smart


Jen Palmares Meadows writes from northern California. Her work has appeared in Brevity, The Rumpus, Denver Quarterly, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Memoir Journal, Kartika Review, Essay Daily, and in other places. She is currently at work on a collection of Vegas stories, where she writes about sex, gambling, and church, not necessarily in that order, but sometimes all at once.

Editor’s Note: Many thanks to Jen Palmares Meadows for an incredible job live tweeting during the NonfictioNOW Conference. Search the hashtag #NFNOW15 to see conference tweets, and follow Jen at @jpalmeadows.

Assay@NFN15: Exploring Women’s Bodies, Sex and Sexuality in Writing Non-Fiction

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Anna March, Heidi Czerwiec, Jen Fitzgerald, EJ Levy, Ashley Perez

Panel description: Our physical lives and sexuality are central to human experience
and therefore worthy topics of consideration in our writing. However, writing the female body/sexuality presents unique rewards and challenges for non-fiction writers and readers alike. This variously diverse panel will explore, through a feminist lens, these issues and their intersection with under-representation of women in publishing non-fiction. As a group, we will explore the frequently cited concern that contributions by women to the non-fiction field are disproportionately in the area of memoir/personal essay. We will interrogate whether that is a valid concern or if it’s a veiled diminishment of the worth of those categories. We hold the position that women’s bodies and sexuality deserve rich, serious, diverse, nuanced and varied consideration and will discuss how we can broadly foster such writing.

Anna March introduced the panel as a discussion of how women’s sexuality and bodies are valued or not, and how that affects our writing.

Jen Fitzgerald drew from her experience as the former VIDA Count Director to describe the current literary climate from a gender perspective. In addition to counting bylines in magazines, Fitzgerald counted bylines in every volume of Best American Essays, Best American Poetry, and Best American Short Stories from 1986 through 2010. Allowing for margin for writers who don’t identify along traditional gender binaries, she found that Best American Essays was the series most heavily dominated by male writers. According to her counts:

  • 53% of works published in the Best American Short Stories series were written by male writers.
  • 61% of works published in the Best American Poetry series were written by male writers.
  • 71% of works published in the Best American Essays series were written by male writers.

Fitzgerald pointed out that, as with counting bylines in standalone journals and magazines, counting Best American bylines provided real data to support anecdotal evidence of gender disparity in publishing.

Since 2010, female writers have gained some ground in the Best American Essays series. From 2010 through 2015, 62% of the works published in Best American Essays (and 53% of the works listed as notable essays) were written by male writers.

Fitzgerald also noted that Best American anthologies edited by male guest editors always skew more heavily toward male writers, while those edited by female guest editors are either balanced or skew slightly toward male writers.

VIDA counts have documented, not changed, the literary landscape, Fitzgerald said. She encouraged writers to challenge the status quo, for example by interrogating recommended reading lists and building foundations on which women’s writing can exist.

Heidi Czerwiec discussed how her work constantly requires her to navigate the ethics of writing about bodies that aren’t her own. She described four recent projects that in some way appropriated the stories of other women:

  • The poetry collection Self-Portrait as Bettie Page incorporates the story of pin-up model Bettie Page.
  • The poetry manuscript Maternal Imagination draws on women’s birth stories to offer a female perspective on the monstrous body.
  • The poetry manuscript Sweet/Crude investigates the sex trafficking of women in the Bakken oil patch.
  • In writing about her adopted son, Czerwiec tells his birth mother’s story.

In all of these works, Czerwiec seeks to bring to the page underrepresented issues in need of representation, such as:

  • Sexual and artistic agency
  • Historic shaming of mothers
  • Effects of the Bakken oil boom on women
  • Socioeconomic divides in the experience of motherhood

Czerwiec writes about other women’s bodies in order to amplify their voices. At the same time, she implicates herself within her own writing, explicitly acknowledging her privilege and culpability.

Anna March introduced herself as a writer focused on relationship/marriage and feminist issues, as well as an inheritor of three generations of sexual shame. She characterized writing about women’s lives as an act of rebellion, quoting Muriel Rukeyser: “What would happen if one woman told the truth about her life? The world would split open.” Writing about women’s lives, she said, is taking ownership and wielding political power.

In light of the gender disparity in publishing, as documented by VIDA, March made four recommendations to women writers:

  1. Do the writing. Don’t stop.
  2. Listen to women’s stories, read women’s stories, buy women’s books and publications.
  3. Push back with editors and agents when writing about women’s bodies and sexuality. Be willing to articulate why these topics are important.
  4. Clamor for the writing we wish to see. Write to editors. Be part of creating a world in which this writing is upheld.

March acknowledged several barriers facing women who write about their bodies, as well as suggesting ways to overcome each barrier.

Barrier: Internal shame

Overcome by: Knowing that other women will come forward with similar stories after you’ve shared your story

Barrier: Fear of negative comments

Overcome by: Realizing that those people will find something negative to say no matter what a woman writes

Barrier: Fear of damaging real-life relationships

Overcome by: Being upfront with the people you write about

Ultimately, you may choose not to tell certain stories, March said, but don’t let fear keep you from telling.

Ashley Perez described the process of writing an essay about her experience with sex and pain. She recalled feeling consumed by this story and unable to find peace until she told her truth in writing. Beyond the cathartic benefits of creating an initial draft, Perez shared several insights she gained while working with an editor to shape the story for publication.

  • As with other writing, narrow your focus. Determine what specific thing your essay is about. That one thing defines this piece of writing. Don’t worry that it defines you or all of your writing.
  • Consider whose voice has authority in your writing. Whose lens are you writing through? Even when we think we’re writing from our first-person perspective, we might discover that we’re letting other voices speak for us.
  • Decide who will have access to your drafts while you are writing. Avoid sharing drafts with people who will pressure you to censor your work.
  • Sit with the parts of your writing that make you uncomfortable. Those may be the most important parts of your story.
  • Engage with a literary community to find supportive editors and readers.

EJ Levy noted that at least one editor at Harpers claimed that unlike men, women tend not to pitch again after they’ve been turned down once. She encouraged women to pitch repeatedly until the door opens.

Levy then read a piece titled “Notes Toward an Essay on Hair,” a portrait of her female body exploring the ritual of shaving her face.


Kim Kankiewicz is the co-founder of Eastside Writes, a community-based literary arts nonprofit outside of Seattle. Her essays and reviews have appeared in Full Grown People, LARB, McSweeney’s Internet Tendency, The Washington Post, and con-text. Find her online at Twitter: @kimprobable

Assay@NFN15: Weird Places and Particular Spaces

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Bill Carter, Tim Flannery, and Annette McGivney, with Jane Armstrong moderating

Panel description: Our panel will demonstrate the nonfiction narrative’s unique ability to provide an intellectual and imaginative space in which the author can describe, explore, analyze, contemplate, interrogate and speculate upon his or her relationship to specific places. Our panelists, all of whom have journeyed widely to places real and imagined, close to home or distant and dangerous, employ the nonfiction narrative as a mode of transportation to carry readers far afield to foreign lands or ever deeper into the richly contoured landscape of the individual writer’s mind, showing, ultimately, the dynamic and recursive relationship between self and place as the writer builds an environment on the page while the environment simultaneously shapes the writer.

The conversation began with Jane Armstrong riffing on the panel description, noting the humor of a self-described “shut in and hermit” moderating a panel of wilderness obsessives. She went on to expand the definition of the wilds to include one’s own backyard, explaining how defamiliarization was the nonfictionist’s technique for making strange even the most familiar of places. “All writing is place-based writing,” she said, because we can’t extricate ourselves from our biography. Defamiliarization asks us to imagine that we can. Jane gave a brief lecture on the X and Y axes of nonfiction, where X is the external world and Y is the internal self—one could plot any essay or book on this graph. The other axis governing nonfiction: timespan, which could range from brief to geologic. Jane expressed an interest in liminal spaces where time moves oddly. Her example? The airport. “Every flight is a continuation of every other flight.” She then read a brief essay that explored how place could warp time, using a childhood memory of the first time she flew on a plane to meditate on the loss of her mother: Loss warps time just as flight does. The flight perpetually delayed mirrored the narrator’s desire to endlessly defer her mother’s death.

Annette McGivney took a different tack, describing how she used the wilderness as a space to contemplate how humans work. Her research focused on wild places that have returned from the brink of destruction at the hands of humans, wild places that were “all-consuming and clearly in charge.” She discussed the difficulty of writing about wilderness as the task of narrating the act of “living in the moment; of capturing a process of unfolding.” She read a chapter from a book set in Twilight Canyon wherein the narrator hikes with an inexperienced friend and they nearly run out of water before stumbling on an oasis made all the more lovely by their brush with mortality. “Go in without a safety net,” she said, and the piece revealed how life is often like hiking in inhospitable terrain: the Canyon just makes this truth obvious and visible. “I know how to find my way in the wilderness,” Annette wrote, but “not in the so-called civilized world.” The wilderness can be healing, she said, especially from the trauma of an abusive childhood.

Bill Carter began by reading an excerpt from his book, in which he has a dream that he’s drowned in a fishing net. His work is interested in places where “no one belongs; where nature is violent without apology. Where no one drinks green tea and reads self-help books.” He talked about travel as a good way to jumpstart writing. “Books are about doing things. So keep involved in things.” Of his first book, on the Bosnian War, he said “it was a beautiful place during a horrific time.” He felt that hard labor had always been a cure for him (much as Annette talked about the wilderness as healing). “Exhaustion was healing after the brutality of war.” He was especially focused on honesty in nonfiction: “There are so many ways to disguise human emotion,” Bill said. “I try to cut through all that.”

Tim Flannery talked about attempting to write place through the lens of geologic time, to tell “history in deep time.” He claimed that “you can’t understand a place until you can think expansively about time,” and went on to offer dozens of beautifully wrought examples. One particularly lovely one involved the salt flats in Australia. Digging beneath the surface to excavate bones, Tim noticed the distinct smell of rainforest, a “humus” smell, moist and completely at odds with the arid landscape until he recalled that the salt basin in which he stood was once a lake some 30 million years prior. He pointed out how seeing the familiar (in this case, a smell rather than a sight: the scent of hums) when you are far away makes you see it differently. “The world is inexplicable without time,” was how he ended his talk.

The Q&A was brief: Jane asked how distance (in terms of time, but also space) from one’s subject helped (or hurt) one’s nonfiction writing. How far must you be from an experience (in terms of the axis of distance versus proximity) before you can write about it? Tim suggested focusing on longing: he tries to figure out why he longs for a given place, and why he longs to write about it. This is his way in to the work: understanding why and how a place affected him.

Another question asked about the use of metaphor to describe a place, and the panelists all felt that finding the right metaphor (Annette’s piece imagined the Grand Canyon as a woman, for example) was key—the right metaphor “helps me conceptualize what I want to do,” said Annette. Bill noted that the right metaphor wasn’t clever and instead “honored the place” it described. Tim ended the panel by answering a question posed by Brian Doyle about nature and culture, and how we’re used to viewing human consciousness as being embedded in culture rather than nature. Tim pointed to a book by Bill Gammage (The Biggest Estate on Earth) on aboriginal land management as an example that complicated this dichotomy.


Brooke Wonders is an Assistant Professor at the University of Northern Iowa. Her nonfiction has appeared in The Collagist, Diagram, and Brevity, among others, and she has reviewed for American Book Review, Essay Daily, and Entropy Magazine. She is about to step down as Nonfiction Editor at The Account: A Journal of Poetry, Prose, and Thought. She will soon join the North American Review as Nonfiction Editor.

Assay@NonfictioNow2015: Call for Guest Bloggers–Thursday!

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The long-awaited return of NonfictioNow to the United States has had us thrilled for months–and now the schedule of panels is up on their website. To make NFN more accessible to the wider world and because in the time since AWP in Minneapolis we still haven’t come up with an effective method of cloning so we can be in several places at once, we’re calling for guest bloggers to write up reports on panels for us to archive here at Assay. We’ll be posting a call for each day separately. Please feel free to sign up for more than one panel, more than one day. Use the comment section (below) to reserve your choice, and we’ll cross it off the list, so no one else will take it.

Your guest post should be around 500-700 words and can be a summary, personal thoughts, quotes, or anything memorable that our nonfiction community would love to know about since we can’t all be at everything.The goal is to give those who aren’t there a good idea of what went on. Once your post is ready, send it in the text of an email to assayjournal (at) along with a one or two line bio and we’ll post them ASAP. If you want to see how we did AWP, click here.

Please make sure to like our page on Facebook and follow us on Twitter–that way, we can tag you when your post goes live. Thank you, all!

Below is a call for guest bloggers for the first day of NonfictioNow. Stay tuned for the Friday and Saturday calls.


Thursday, 29 October 2015

9.00 am – 10.15 am

  • On Failure, or the Essay as Ruin (Lindsey Drager, Jenny Boully, Sarah Levine, Sarah Minor, Kristen Radtke)
  • Of Visual Essayistics (Denise Gonzales Crisp, Gail Swanlund, Ben Van Dyke, Joshua Unikel)
  • Mixed Media Memoir (Amy Silverman, Rebecca Fish Ewan, Deborah Sussman Susser)
  • First Person Dangerous (Anne Panning, Alexis Paige, Penny Guisinger, Karen Salyer McElmurray)
  • Meditations on Monstrous Characters (Marsha McGregor, Marcia Aldrich, Brooke Wonders, Amy Wright)


10:45 am – 12:00 pm 

  • Toward a Theory of Anthologies (Patricia Foster, David Lazar, Margot Singer, Patrick Madden, Paul Zakrewski)
  • Writing and Editing the City (Jennifer Acker, Curtis Bauer, Barrie Jean Borich, Aviya Kushner, Steve Wingate)
  • Beyond Scaffolding: Constructing an Essay Collection (Jennifer Bowen Hicks, Amy Butcher, Jericho Parms, John Proctor)
  • Writing from Within a Dissenting Subjectivity (Quince Mountain, Jose Orduna, Catina Bacote, Rachel Hansen, Toni Neali)
  • Theorizing Nonfiction (Travis Scholl, Beth Peterson, Joanna Eleftheriou, Corinna Cook, Jennifer Sinor)


12:15 pm – 1:15 pm

Keynote Address by Brian Doyle


2:30 pm – 3:45 pm 

  • Hydra-headed Memoirs & Well-connected Essays: Negotiating Your Book-length, NonFiction Thing (Steven Church, Steven Harvey, Sonya Huber, Tarn Wilson, Joe Mackall)
  • Exploring Women’s Bodies (Heidi Czerwiec, Jen Fitzgerald, EJ Levy, Wendy Ortiz, Anna March)
  • Writers on Essays that Took Forever to Get Right (Mary Margaret Alvarado, Amy Leach, Kerry Reilly, and Charles D’Ambrosio, Aviya Kushner)
  • A New ‘I’ on Nature: Explorations in Environmental Essays (Clinton Crockett Peters, Wendy Call, Stephanie Elizondo Griest, Angela Pelster, Yelizaveta Renfro)
  • Relocating Dislocation: Uncovering the Familiar in the Strange (Deanna Benjamin, Travis Scholl, Beth Peterson, Eric O Scott)


4:00 pm – 5:15 pm

  • It’s a Family Affair: The Exciting/Perilous Task of Writing About our Relations (Honor Moore, Hope Edelman, Maggie Nelson, Lucas Mann, Mieke Eerkens)
  • Literary Travel Writer (Bonnie Rough, Alex Sheshunoff, Colleen Kinder, Robin Hemley)
  • You are what you write…: What Happens When Nonfiction Writers Get Defined by Their Material (Sonja Livingston, Justin St. Germain, and William Bradley, Beth Nguyen)
  • Performing the Essay: Combinations and Permutations (Peta Murray, Francesca Rendle-Short, Sophie Cunningham, Lucinda Strahan, Papatya Bucak)
  • Entropy Magazine: A Case Study (Emily Stern, Brooke Wonders, Barrett Warner, Sara Finnerty Turgeon, Nancy Jainchill)


7 pm – 8 pm

Keynote Address by Maggie Nelson


9 pm

Soiree Readings: Iowa 30 Years Anthology