Becoming the Student: Jennie Case Reflects on the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writer’s Conference

This past summer, I prepared with some apprehension to attend the Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writer’s Conference. “Apprehension” because although I had attended graduate school, where I relished the conversations I had with other emerging writers, Bread Loaf marked four years since my last experience as a student. I had continued to exchange work with a few colleagues, and I attended conferences like AWP and ASLE, but between caring for an infant, finishing my dissertation, adjuncting, and then teaching, the time I had as a writer was simply that: time to write. It was my opportunity to sit down with a notebook, a computer, or a draft, and to craft something, read a collection of essays, or respond to a friend’s work. Outside of that, I was always the instructor: leading discussions and guiding students to analyze the structure of a published piece or to recognize the potential in their own developing drafts.

Sending my work in for a workshop at Bread Loaf Orion, as a result, brought back with it a surprising anxiety. Suddenly, I recalled how I had always felt when submitting work for workshops as an undergrad or a graduate student: that nervous anticipation, the second-guessing as I wondered if this essay was really far enough along, and how this roomful of people I did not know would respond to it—would respond to me. The anxiety my students wore on their faces in my undergraduate classes, I suddenly felt again in my own body: the way I bit my tongue, the way I sometimes reread my work and saw in it potential, but sometimes reread it and cringed.

Thankfully, I had no reason to feel intimated. That first day of our workshop in Vermont, I found myself surrounded by writers, and although some of us taught, others worked for the EPA, or as environmental journalists, or ran small farms, or wrote environmental journalism. Many had a much more extensive scientific background than me. Yet, everyone had submitted thought-provoking essays that explored the human relationship to place from interesting, compelling angles. We read each other’s work carefully, and we gave thoughtful feedback. I was reminded, once more, what it was like to be in a community of readers. A community of people who care about writing, and language, and what that writing can reveal about the human place in the world.

Outside of class, I attended lectures on fieldwork and using writing to break silence. I woke early to go on bird walks, getting back to the main lodge just as the breakfast bell rang and I loaded my tray with fruit and a bowl of oatmeal. In the afternoons, I attended mindfulness meditation sessions, where the instructor discussed how to use meditation to make room for creativity. At each and every event, I sat quietly, my notebook open, my mind open, ready to receive.

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What I will take with me the most from my experience at Bread Loaf, as a result, isn’t necessarily the feedback I got on that one essay, or the networking I did, but the reminder of how important it is to be a student: to find ways where I can step back, and simply listen to others and learn from them. To not try to be the authority, but to open myself to new perspectives and experiences—to go on a bird walk with birders far more experienced than me, and to sit in on a conversation with people who do something completely different from me for a living, to listen to lectures by accomplished writers and take rapid notes, to leave a workshop not thinking “I think that went well,” or “I believe I handled that part of the discussion effectively/ineffectively,” but with ideas and inspiration for my own work.

When I boarded the shuttle from Bread Loaf back to the Burlington airport at the end of the week, I did so with a satisfying exhaustion. The conversations and activities had been so engaging, I felt absolutely worn out. And yet, I also knew how necessary the opportunity was——and how rare. I will not be able to attend writing conferences like Bread Loaf every year. That simply isn’t an option right now for me and my family.

Yet I am reminded of the importance of becoming a student, not always the professor, and so I will make a point to seek out such opportunities, whether at future conferences down the road, at lectures hosted by my university, or at community events. They make me a better teacher, a better writer, and a better literary citizen. Placing myself in situations where I am not the expert reminds me what my students experience every day. And it reminds me how much there is to still learn from this world—and how joyful and challenging that learning experience can be.

Here is the reading list I gathered at the workshop:

Jane Brox’s The Wake of Silence (forthcoming 2018)

Belle Boggs’s The Art of Waiting: On Fertility, Medicine, and Motherhood

David James Duncan’s River Teeth

Leslie Jamison’s The Empathy Exams

J. Drew Lanham’s The Home Place: Memoirs of a Colored Man’s Love Affairs with Nature

Kathleen Dean Moore’s Great Tide Rising

Claudia Rankin’s Citizen

For more information on the 2017 Bread Loaf Orion Environmental Writers’ Conference (and to apply), please click here and here. The 2017 conference runs from Saturday, June 3 – Friday, June 9, 2017. The conference will take place at the Bread Loaf Campus of Middlebury College in Ripton, Vermont.

Editor’s Note: Please also read Jennie Case’s “In the Classroom” contribution “A Nerve for Excellence: Teaching Annie Dillard’s Pilgrim at Tinker Creek.”

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Jennifer_CaseJennifer Case’s poetry and prose have appeared in journals such as Orion, ISLE: Interdisciplinary Studies in Literature and Environment, Zone 3, Split Rock Review, English Journal, Poet Lore, and Stone Canoe, where her work received the 2014 Allen and Nirelle Galson Prize in Fiction. She is the Assistant Nonfiction Editor of Terrain.org and teaches creative writing, professional writing, and composition at the University of Central Arkansas.

A Truly Gigantic Journey: Uncovering Leah Lax by Stacey Engels

Sitting on the chest of drawers in my bedroom is a simple collage I made over a quarter century ago, after getting my heart broken. The message it transmits is no longer one I want to reiterate to myself, but I have left this little creation out, within view, because I still love Kafka. And because, as a writer trying to fathom the mystery of my own existence, I have to look back to that young artist whose fears and desires shaped the life I have now.

Affixed to a square piece of poster board is a smaller square of yellowed paper; a quadrant showing the pointillist face of Kafka in four phases of dissolution. In the upper left corner is a complete image: wavy, parted hair, elfin ears, thick brows, otherworldly stare. In the lower right corner, the all-seeing eyes are rimmed with darkness. The right side of the face is all but gone and the left side is shadowed. There is a cluster of letters above the thick, black brows: L I T E R A L I T E R L I. As the tubercular-looking man fades, his legacy – the words he has left behind – grows.

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Glued below this four-part portrait is a neat strip of paper on which I typed, in all caps:

THE JOURNEY IS SO LONG THAT I MUST STARVE TO DEATH IF I RECEIVE NOTHING ON THE WAY. NO PROVISION CAN SAVE ME. FOR HAPPILY IT IS A TRULY GIGANTIC JOURNEY.

This was my solution, at twenty-four: Just Write. That last, miraculous eight-word sentence – the headspinning unexpectedness of it, the discordant notes adding up to an indissoluble alloy of terror and joy – made me feel that writing was a religion to which I could happily sacrifice life.

Fifteen years after making that collage, I met Leah Lax at Yaddo. While some of us handled the free-time-bonanza that was a few weeks in an artists’ colony like addicts on a bender, disappearing into studios and interacting as little as possible with others, Leah was like an open water swimmer: at the end of the day, she stepped gracefully out of her creative flow, and you could tell she had covered distance. She was grateful to be among people, breaking bread, and she was grateful to return to her solitary work.

One afternoon, we went for a walk around the lake. We talked some about our lives and more about our projects: mine was a play based on the life and art of a Canadian painter, and Leah’s was a memoir about leaving her Hasidic community and beginning life as a secular lesbian. She had converted in her teens and her attraction to orthodox life had come, in part, from her desire to study holy written teachings, though of course her study was restricted because she was a woman.

Hearing her speak about the pull of the words themselves, about the world of light that opened out beyond the forest of little black symbols on the page, was to hear my own silent feelings given voice, even though my interest had only ever been in literature.

When, years later, we became friends on Facebook, I felt I could see Leah’s life story flowing by, a stream of photos and articles and videos and notes. In 2015, after ten years together and three months before gay marriage was legalized nationwide, Leah and her partner traveled from Texas to D.C. to tie the knot. Within months of this, her memoir was out in the world, and suddenly, Leah was uncovered: she and her book seemed to be everywhere.

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Part of the beauty of Uncovered is in how Leah conveys the love she felt for the rituals and language and the community in which she lived, while revealing her slow but neverending struggle to reconcile with her religion’s negation of the female. Throughout the book, she describes different experiences of mikvah, a ritual bath for purification after menstruation, communicating not just the details of an ancient and gynophobic ceremonial practice, but the solace and silence of women-only rituals.

From an early age, Leah’s secular life was infused with a love of art and music – her mother was a painter and Leah was a cellist. (She still plays.) We learn that disorder and mental illness in the home spawned her craving for a rigidly ordered life and witness the breaking away from her Law-governed life as complicated, frightening and often painful. Yet the recurring motif of ritual immersion crosses over seamlessly from her religious life to her artist’s life when she collaborates with photographer Janice Rubin on the groundbreaking Mikvah Project. In other ways, too, we see that art and the sacred have always been intertwined in Leah’s life.

A few pages into Uncovered, I found a line that reminded me how Leah and I had slid into such easy, heartfelt connection: “I would remain obsessed with grasping strange language for wordless things.” And toward the end, a description of her new belief system, which may explain the innumerable FB pictures of Leah smiling – at readings around the country, with Susan, with dog, with Dvorak piano quintet, with other writers: “Such a good, quiet joy rises in me, a profound sense of simple being, of presence… We are simply here. Now.”

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StaceyEngelsStacey Engels grew up in Montreal and has lived in New York City since 1995. As a playwright, she received grants from The Canada Council, NYFA and TCG-ITI and traveled to exotic locations like Sicily, Alaska and Bangor, Maine to attend readings and productions of her plays. A Hertog Fellow in the MFA Program in Memoir at Hunter College, Stacey is writing a book about walking the Camino de Santiago.

Read Stacey’s “In the Classroom” piece on Vivian Gornick’s book The Odd Woman and the City here.

 

Kyle Simonsen on My Favorite Essay to Teach: Susan Orlean’s “Meet the Shaggs”

Susan Orlean begins her essay “Meet the Shaggs” by noting that “depending on whom you ask, the Shaggs were either the best band of all time or the worst.” Unless you are asking my students. Then they are unanimously the worst.

I introduce my students to the band itself before I actually assign Susan Orlean’s essay. First, I play them a bit of the music: a twangy, off-key, discordant cacophony that many visibly react to. I ask them to write a short description of the music after they’ve listened to the song, threatening to play more if they stop writing. Then I show them the cover of the album, the three girls—Betty, Dorothy, and Helen Wiggin—posed on a dark stage with their instruments, and ask them to describe the imagery on the cover. They do so, and then I take volunteers to read their descriptions aloud.

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Some are more vicious than others, but they’re nearly universally disparaging and judgmental. One student called them “a trio of people who are as ill-clad as they are tone deaf,” whose earnest music sounds “like an electrified accordion taking a tumble down an escalator.” Another student wrote, “‘You can never please anybody in this world,’ they sing, which is true in the sense that you can never please anybody while playing them this awful, awful song.”

Then we read “Meet the Shaggs,” and we find that Susan Orlean, as part of her profile of the Shaggs, describes their music very differently. The judgments are still there, but they aren’t Orlean’s; instead, she quotes Frank Zappa and anonymous music critics from the Internet—the latter sounding much like the descriptions by my students. Instead, Orlean’s descriptions are, well, descriptive. She calls the music “winsome but raggedly discordant pop,” nailing down the genre, but also notes some potential influences: “the heptatonic, angular microtones of Chinese ya-yueh court music and the atonal note clusters of Ornette Coleman.” Yet she also manages to be conversational, writing that “something is sort of wrong with the tempo,” and wondering if “they are just a bunch of kids playing badly on cheap, out-of-tune guitars.”

What I like about an exercise like this one is that it focuses in on something essential about becoming a better writer: knowing what’s possible. In getting to compare the descriptions they write—first to each other’s, and then to Orlean’s—students get to see that the way they chose to describe it initially isn’t the only way, and that two very different descriptions can also both ring true.

Some of my savviest students have noted that the judgmental descriptions sometimes say more about the person doing the describing than the object they are describing, leading into discussions about tone, voice, and narrative persona—we know Orlean is smart, knowledgeable, and compassionate not because she tells us these things about herself, but because she demonstrates them in her descriptions of the music and her interactions with the members of the Shaggs as she interviews them for the essay.

Orlean’s knowledge, for instance, is evident in all the ways that she suggests the exhaustive research that informs the piece. She mentions her interview with the town historian from Fremont, New Hampshire, where the Shaggs grew up, and quotes from his book about the town. She hints at numerous interviews and conversations with music critics, local residents who knew the girls, and the Shaggs themselves. And yet all of this research fades into the background of the Shaggs’ origin story—I know this, because I see the sudden realization of the tangible legwork that went into the essay dawn on the faces of students as we comb through it.

The real reason this essay is my favorite one to teach, though, is Orlean’s compassion. I believe one of the greatest gifts of studying creative nonfiction is that it allows us to close the span between our lives and the lives of others, others who may be very different from us, to know them and understand them. This is important in memoir, of course, where the marginalized can tell their story in their own voice, but also in essays like “Meet the Shaggs,” where Orlean sheds light on the loneliness and suffering the Shaggs endured at the hands of their abusive father, telling their story and replacing our reaction of loathing with our capability for understanding—even if I doubt any of my students are listening to the Shaggs on their commutes home.

[Listen to “Philosophy of the World” by The Shaggs here.]

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kyleprofilephotoKyle Simonsen writes, edits, and parents two children from his home in Wahoo, Nebraska. He teaches at the University of Nebraska at Omaha. His writing also appears in Sidebrow, Opium Magazine, and Rain Taxi, among others.

Benjamin Batley on Anthony Bourdain: The Punk Rocker of Food, Culture, and Travel Blogging

The reason I use punk rock as a comparison to this blog is because it is unconventional and doesn’t follow the typical norms of travel and food writing. Anthony Bourdain has a very unique non-fiction writing style that is both credible and personal. Much like punk rock’s genre, the genre of blogging is fast-paced and informal, yet very significant and widespread. Like punk rock’s short songs, Bourdain’s blogging is concise and “to the point.” He is able to convey a lot of information about the true meaning behind many of his experiences in very few words. His writing, like punk rock, is “raw,” goes “against the grain,” and is political, yet remains aesthetically entertaining as well as alternatively fashionable to a wide array of readers. His blog provides a great way to gather insight into different cuisines, cultures, and travel destinations, but also provides the path to a plethora of resources that can enhance and satisfy the anthropological enthusiast’s knowledge and desire to learn through both the author and his subjects.

220px-kitchen_confidentialRenowned chef Anthony Bourdain is very well-known for his television shows, books, and speeches that discuss subjects such as travel, food, and culture based on his experiences as someone who has set foot on all seven continents. But, he also has a blog on Tumblr that provides even further insight into these experiences that weren’t necessarily covered in the final cuts of his more widely known publications. His writing is simple, edgy, and colorfully uncensored but has the ability to spark a significant emotional reaction within readers that could potentially educate and change readers’ perceptions about various different cultures both inside and outside of the United States. His blog writing, like most of his work, has the ability to touch on the deepest aspects of humanity in every culture, no matter what one’s inherent political beliefs may be.

In his blog post from May 12, 2016 entitled “Brown Dog,” he says, “You may be the most cynical, born and bred, citified lefty like me — instinctively skeptical of big concepts like ‘patriotism’, relatively foreign to hunting culture, unused to wide open spaces, but spend any length of time traveling around Montana and you will understand what all that ‘purple mountains majesty’ is all about, you’ll soon be wrapping yourself in the flag and yelling, ‘America, fuck yeah!’ with an absolute and non-ironic sincerity that will take you by surprise.”

This charismatic quote conveys a lot about Bourdain’s personality in a very brief snapshot of his blog work, which functions to show his talent as a very effective author. As a New Yorker that is far from home in the rugged terrain of Montana, he is honest, straightforward, and doesn’t mind publicly being able to identify and sympathize with other peoples’ viewpoints, even if they may contradict his own. One of his hallmarks as a writer is the conveyance of his unabashed and often hilarious opinions, but even more noteworthy is his ability to admit that maybe the other side has a point too. By being capable of this, he displays a very likeable persona that is highly opinionated, but still humble, writing in a way that is magnetizing to many people who enjoy learning about different cultures.

In a piece about Filipino culture in one of his episodes from the show Parts Unknown entitled “Unfinished Business,” posted on April 22, 2016, he discusses this particular episode’s focus on the humanity of Filipino people, not just the Philippines in a broad sense. He begins the post with an anecdote about Vangie, the Filipino baby nurse who helped raise his daughter and the close friendship that developed between both of their families. He writes, “This episode is an attempt to address the question of why so many Filipinos are so damn caring. Why they care so much — for each other — for strangers. Because my experience is far from unusual.”

This behind the scenes look is a strong example of what to expect when reading about the background of what went into the filming of many episodes of this show. He goes out of his way in this blog to give his fans an insight into how Filipino culture has personally affected him, and no doubt will be capable of appealing to many others’ experiences with Filipino culture as well, which is inevitably quite prevalent in the United States with such a large influx of Filipino workers, who often go unnoticed, but really have a significant impact in our society. Again, although his shows typically have the outer appearance of a focus of food, travel, and general culture, he really intends to, and succeeds, in appealing to the distinct human qualities of these cultures, which he expands on in this blog.

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batley-biopicBen Batley is an English teacher, graduate student, and local musician in Omaha, Nebraska. He received his BA in English at Loyola University Chicago and is completing his MA in English and the University of Nebraska Omaha.

Writers to Read: Karen Babine on Paul Gruchow

paul-gruchowI have a friend whose driving ambition is to convert people to the cult of Joseph Mitchell. I replied that if that was the case, then mine was to convert people to the cult of Paul Gruchow.

My readerly and writerly relationship with Gruchow started in a Minnesota Writers class during my sophomore year of college, the first time I’d ever read any work by any writer who had come from the state I grew up in. As we read Gruchow’s Boundary Waters: The Grace of the Wild, which had just won the Minnesota Book Award for nonfiction, it was the first time I realized that I could write about Minnesota, I could write about rural Minnesota, people would read it, it could be published, and it could win awards. It was, I realized in hindsight, the most important moment in my life as a writer. My state, my home, was valuable—I didn’t have to write about other, more “important” places. (This, if you will allow me a moment of pride, was intensely important when my (first) book won the Minnesota Book Award this spring. I wish he was alive so I could thank him.)

On 22 February 2004, Gruchow died by suicide. Paul Gruchow was born in 1947 in Montevideo, Minnesota, raised on the prairies of southwestern Minnesota, and after many years of living with and writing through depression, he took his own life. In 2012, his posthumous memoir, Letters to a Young Madman, was published, a draft of which he had finished before he died. I have not yet finished the book. To read of his bipolar struggles in the kinds of sentences Gruchow could write—that is not something I can bear for more than ten pages at a time. This book is, quite simply, the most devastating book I have ever read.

Gruchow writes of the places where he finds himself, and he uses those places to illuminate his world—and his readers’. His work is characterized by the precision of his attention to details, both of the natural world around him and the words on his page. John Henricksson calls Gruchow a “literary naturalist,” a distinction I feel hardly captures the mastery of words that Gruchow possesses when writing about the various topographies of Minnesota, from the farming prairie of Chippewa County in Grass Roots to the wildness of the North Woods in Boundary Waters. Gruchow writes in his Boundary Waters, “We confront in wild places evidence of powers greater than our own; this evidence humbles us, and in humility is the beginning of spirituality. Wildness matters not because it alone is sacred but because it arouses in us the sense of sanctity that makes visible the sacredness of everything else in life” (BW 201). Such awareness of the natural world brings the reader to a higher level of reality, both on a physical and metaphysical plane.

If writers never read solely for pleasure, if we are always aware on some level of what we can learn, then there is no more brilliant teacher of language than Gruchow. His writing is complex in its construction, with serious attention paid to each word and its placement in the sentence. He has mastered the use of poetic language within the prose, intuitively aware of the way the words sound against each other. Grammatically, appositives and parentheticals serve to break up thoughts, to add color to his descriptions, to add interest to a narrative passage, to work the language just one more way. His marvelous use of questions to open Grass Roots: The Universe of Home (1995), as well as elsewhere, serves to make the reader accountable to his or her own conscience.

Gruchow’s writing is full of unusual attention, which gives freshness to his descriptions of things that might seem pedestrian under the lens of other writers. He avoids descriptions that are ambiguous in their commonness, for instance, his rendering of Isle Royale, the largest island in Lake Superior: “I wish to avoid certain adjectives in writing about Isle Royale, words like beautiful, primeval, pristine, natural, wild. There is already enough ambiguity about such places. Certainly Isle Royale appears to be all of these things” (“Spring” 167).

In the essay “The Meekness of Angels,” Gruchow writes of an encounter with a bear: “The bear’s voice was as enormous and commanding as its physique—grander, less guttural, and more eloquent than the roars of the one lion I have heard” (44). Gruchow could have easily slipped into generalities in the descriptions, yet he does not, not ignoring the way grander and guttural sound together. Following this line, the actual description of the mother bear in “The Meekness of Angels” avoids trite and overused language, language which is slow enough to give evidence to Gruchow’s awe over her:

She was enormous and blonde. The silver tips of her venerable hair glistened in the long angle of sunlight filtering through the trees. She did not make a sound as she moved with athletic grace toward her purpose, her massive shoulders as fluid as water. She was like a waterfall on legs. The hump of her back was so prominent and her size so great, that in another setting I might temporarily have mistaken her for a bison cow” (42).

The sentence level attention continues in Gruchow’s impeccable diction. His tone is nearly always soft-spoken and humble, sometimes self-deprecating, something that so clearly follows his speaking voice. No matter his tone, however, his diction gives the reader no doubt as to the writer’s intelligence.

The way words taste in the mouth and vibrate in the ear is not neglected in Grass Roots. In “Rosewood Township,” after the initial description of the cattail marsh at the end of the north-south eighty at the beginning of the essay, Gruchow returns to it: “For me, the most important place on the farm was the cattail marsh at its north end” (20). He goes on to describe the marsh: “Here was a piece of Rosewood Township as it had existed for thousands of years, a surviving testament to the tallgrass prairie, and the richest and most complex representative of it.” He goes on to describe the marsh: “As summer wore on and the wet days of May gave way to dust August, the ponds evaporated, exposing ovals of black mud, ringed by rank growths of cattails, rushes, and tall wetland flowers. These ovals baked and cracked, the rich alkaline deposits in them collecting as fine white powder (21). There’s alliteration here, assonance, true rhymes and slant rhymes–nothing is overlooked.

Slowing the moments down to where the reader can appreciate the language only works if the writer is equally intuitive about where not to linger in his descriptions. In “Rosewood Township,” as he is recalling accidentally burning down his family’s barn, where not one of the panicked animals which had fled into the barn for safety had escaped. The description of the entire ordeal is two paragraphs, at the end of which Gruchow gives the reader a quick glimpse of how he felt about it: “I was out of my mind with grief and fear. I imagined being sent to prison” —this would seem uncharacteristically pedestrian and unoriginal, if not for the next sentence, which gives startling clarity to the young boy’s fear: “I had, as young as I was, a faint sense of what my carelessness would mean to family already dangling by an economic thread.” His fear had less to do with punishment than the welfare of his family. He continues: “The smell of smoke and burned flesh nauseated me. I took to my loft and could not speak or eat for days. Ten years passed before I found the courage to talk about that afternoon” (12). By the brevity of this description, he makes the reader take responsibility for reading between the lines. There is obviously more to what Gruchow-as-child felt, but Gruchow-as-writer knows that his readers are going to have a good idea without expressly stating it.Gruchow’s philosophies and epiphanies operate under the principle that the language has all the answers—and this is some of the finest examples of high exposition on any page.

Gruchow is just beginning to think in his 1986 Journal of a Prairie Year. He has not yet begun to know all the places his mind may take him. For instance, a moment from JPY:

Our language does not distinguish green from green. It’s one of the ways in which we have declared ourselves to be apart from nature. In nature, there is nothing so impoverished of distinction as simply the color green. There are greens as there are grains of sand, an infinitude of shades and gradations of shades, of intensities and brilliancies. Even one green is not the same green. There is the green of dawn, of high noon, of dusk. There is the green of young life, of maturity, of old age. There is the green of new rain and of long drought. There is the green of vigor, the green of sickness, the green of death. One could devote one’s life to the study of the distinctions in the color green and not have learned all there is to know. There is a language in it, a poetry, a music. We have not stopped long enough to hear it.

This moment of green is not as actualized as similar moments in later books, but Journal is, of course, the beginning. The movement towards high exposition, of a writer being able to hit the reader over the head in such a way that the whole world rings and echoes pleasantly inside the skull, is not a skill or gift that happens immediately. But the brilliance of Gruchow is that his writing has always offered the promise of a glimpse into a world that few are privileged to see.

As Gruchow becomes more confident of his language craft, we see that never does he let that language slide in the face of his epiphanies. For instance, from his 1989 The Necessity of Empty Places:

Experiencing a landscape is an act of creativity. Like any creative vision, it cannot be forced or willed. No amount of busyness will produce it. It cannot be organized on a schedule, or happen by appointment. If you would experience a landscape, you must go alone to it and sit down somewhere quietly and wait for it to come in its own good time to you. You must not wait ambitiously. You must not sing to pass the time, or make any kind of effort. The solitude is necessary, the wait is necessary, and it is necessary that you yourself be empty, that you might be filled.

This passage filled my ears like song when I sat on the boulders of Inishmore, in Ireland, overlooking the Atlantic. If anything, the rhythm of the words against each other illuminated whatever I may have been thinking as the waves pounded the boulders of Inishmore.

In Boundary Waters, everything Gruchow has worked towards comes to fruition: the sound and taste of the language, the rhythm, the etymology, the preciseness of his words in pursuit of that which will make the world make sense. One of my greatest pleasures in reading Gruchow has been in watching his craft develop from one book to the next. One of the best examples in Boundary Waters comes near the end of the final essay, “Spring: Wild Isle,” an essay which made the Notables list of Best American Essays in 1998. Gruchow writes:

There is no brief way to know a place even so small as this. Places can be claimed by never conquered, assayed but never fathomed, essayed but never explained. You can only make yourself present; watch earnestly, listen attentively, and in due time, perhaps, you will absorb something of the land. What you absorb will eventually change you. This change is the only real measure of a place.

(Those familiar with Assay will recognize this passage as our inspiration for the magazine’s name and its purpose.)

I’ll close with this thought: something amazing happens when the right writer meets the right place. I’m talking about the magic that happens when Bruce Chatwin is writing about Australia, when Tim Robinson is writing about the West of Ireland, when Bill Kittredge writes about Montana. Gretel Ehrlich speaks of this in The Future of Cold when she writes that “For years, Nietsche searched for what he called ‘true climate,’ for its exact geographical location as it corresponds to the climate of the thinker.” Part of that is the irreplaceable quality of the writer. Part of it is the brilliance in their technique. But most of it is the harmony between the inner and outer world, the organic particularity of place, and how it finds expression in ink.

 


_mg_8267Karen Babine is Assay’s editor. Her book, Water and What We Know (University of Minnesota Press, 2015) won the 2016 Minnesota Book Award and was a Finalist for the Midwest Book Award and Northeastern Minnesota Book Award.

#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.

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Randon Billings Noble author photo

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

 

CFP: Assay 3.1 and Beyond!

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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 Travel Writer-in-Process by Lauren Wilson

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I used to think that spending two weeks at home is more than enough time for a Christmas break—I’m usually more than ready to go back to school and my friends and enjoy the freedom that college allows.

That was before I had spent four months living in India though, and long before I had wrapped my head around the fact that I was about to leave for Ireland for another five months. With those facts looming over my head, two weeks was a terrifyingly short amount of time. Between the holiday celebrations, shopping trips I needed to make to get the necessary gear for Ireland (I somehow still managed to get to Galway without a rain jacket though…), and all of the different relatives I had to see, it felt like there wasn’t a whole lot of time for anything—much less writing.

I have now been in Ireland for a little less than a month and I haven’t written a single thing. Nothing about India, Ireland, or the holidays. I haven’t even done proper journaling. My poor little red moleskin journal who has followed me so faithfully around the world hasn’t seen more than a few quick scribbles here and there, much less any formulated notes on my experience. There are too many new things to see, too many bookshops to visit, pubs to try out, too many streets to wander down. The lure of Galway’s Latin Quarter with cobblestoned streets and musicians at every turn is one that I am unable to ignore. I have finally got a normal class schedule again (I’m back to lectures that take place twice a week, rather than four hours of the same class every morning), but none of my classes require writing until the end of the semester. Even then, none of it is creative writing. So it would seem as though I’m in the same situation as last semester—stuck with no incentive to write while I’m in Ireland. So I’ve had to come up with a few reasons of my own.

With stable access to Internet comes the ability to look for journals looking for student submissions. Some of them even pay, and Lord knows any college student could use that. So, to help give myself some incentive, most of my time spent on the computer is used looking for where I can send my next piece, and especially what topics editors are looking for submissions in. Even if nothing gets accepted, having a deadline to work with and a new topic that someone wants me to write about is enough of a challenge for my overly-competitive self to sit down and get to work. Even if nothing gets published, it’s still a good way to make myself write about new things and even look for new ways to do so. So far, I’ve found two that look like something I can do (if anyone has any ideas on others, I’d love to hear about them), and in addition to that, I’ve set a goal to fill the new journal I brought with. I might not specifically write about everything I’m experiencing here now, but if I can write it all down now, then I will be able to write about it all later. My journal has found itself a new home inside my purse, and if I have a few minutes between classes all start to catch up on things I haven’t jotted down yet. Also, I have no shame in pulling out my journal when sitting in a pub. I’m working on getting details of all of my favorite pubs and cafes while I’m sitting in them. Who knows, it could make an interesting essay someday.

So for now, I’m going to write what I can, read as much as possible (you have to read good writing to write good writing, according to Concordia’s English department), and have as many new experiences as I possibly can. I’m already planning adventures for the coming months (Greece for Easter break? Sounds good to me!) and my reading list for the classes I’m taking is long enough without adding my own books to the list. Between genre studies and a class on modernist/postmodernist writing, I’ve joined a sort of Book-a-Week club. AroundtheWorldcvrOn my shelf I currently have The Time Machine, Around the World in Eighty Days, Hamlet, The Driver’s Seat, Silas Marner, Mrs. Dalloway, Pale Fire, Herland, Ten Days in a Mad House, and Alice in Wonderland.

The list of my own books is a little shorter. The Good Girl’s Guide to Getting Lost by Rachel Friedman is there, along with Hemmingway’s A Farewell to Arms, The Loney by Andrew Michael Hurley, The Only Street in Paris by Elaine Sciolino, and I have my eye on Alone on the Wall by Alex Honnold, and a book on maps and how they affect our lives. It’s only a matter of time before I cave and pick those two up to add to my collection. With all of this going on, I’m going to focus on enjoying my time here, and I’ll write about it all eventually.

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LaurenWilsonEditorial Assistant Lauren Wilson is a junior at Concordia College, double-majoring in English writing and global studies. After study abroad experiences to Scotland, England, and France, she’s pursuing her interests in travel writing. She’s spending her junior year abroad: Fall 2015 in India, Spring 2016 in Ireland, and Summer 2016 in Australia. She will be posting monthly about being a writer-in-progress abroad.

Teaching “Captain Love” by James M. Chesbro

The first major assignment in my first-year Composition class is a literacy narrative. One of the biggest leaps I’m asking the students to make in the sentences they construct is to shift their guarded writing objective from trying to “prove” a thesis, to the more courageous attempt of trying to reveal a sense of humanity in themselves as narrators and the people they write about. They want to glorify or chastise, but I want them to consider how the writers in our curriculum create characters with some complexity, characters that are human.

The first drafts the students create regarding learning to read or write tend to include early memories of a parent or an influential teacher. I love teaching Jerald Walker’s “Captain Love,” published in River Teeth, because this concise and moving essay allows me to invite them to question how the honest narrator portrays his father.

Walker’s essay begins with his blind father coming home from his job as a high school teacher. A rainstorm had soaked his father’s white dress shirt, making the t-shirt beneath visible. The twelve year-old Walker deduces that his father had accidentally put on his eighteen-year-old brother’s t-shirt, on which was a picture of a man and woman having sex. Tshirts

As we enter into Walker’s opening scene, I want to navigate the students through the essay by pointing out how the writer develops his father into a person whose limitations go beyond the obvious physical impairment of blindness. As a boy, Walker knew his father would “explode” if he told him he was wearing a pornographic t-shirt, which had become visible. Even though Walker informs us both of his parent’s are blind, I want to emphasize that the adult narrator looking back on his twelve year-old self does not depict an angelic boy whose wings fly him above the challenges of having blind parents. In fact, he tells us that “sometimes,” while “feeling mischievous, as I was that late afternoon when my father came home wearing porn,” he enjoyed telling on his brother, “smiling at the thought of my brother’s fate.”

Exercise:

I split the room in half. One side needs to find assets and shortcomings for the father, and the other searches for these examples in the narrator. Each side of the whiteboard is dedicated to each character. I ask them to name a quality they observe from their assigned character and to list a short quote that demonstrates this characteristic.

Once they return to their seats, and we discuss what they have written on the board, it becomes apparent that the father is not unrealistically depicted as an invincible man with endless patience. After Walker told his father what he was wearing, the father curses. He takes the t-shirt off, and “snatched the T-shirt over his head so violently it tore, which set in motion a tearing frenzy.”

We re-read the paragraph where the adult narrator reveals his ability to see that “despite my father’s rage, he would one day forgive this too.” Walker states his father “forgave all of his children for our transgressions.” And eventually, together we settle into the specific examples of the “many violations” Walker shares,

like how we gathered our vegetables in our hands during dinner and, under the pretense of getting more milk, dumped them behind the refrigerator; how we kept our lights on in our bedrooms well after lights-off time; how we tiptoed into the kitchen to sneak cookies; how when told to turn off the television, we put it on mute; and how, if we were in the front of the house playing a particularly captivating game beyond our curfew, we remained silent as our father stood on the porch, his hands cupped to his lips, calling our names—transgressions we might have gotten away with if lights and televisions did not hum, vegetables did not rot, neighbors did not snitch, if cookies ate themselves.

Writing Prompt:

Toward the end of class, I tell the students to recall an experience that stands out in their minds about an adult figure they know very well. Summarize the experience on one side of the page, naming both the attributes and shortcomings of that adult. Then on the other side I challenge them to write this experience as a scene. Try to avoid any commentary. Include some dialogue. Take us to a specific place.

I remind them what makes Walker’s father “Captain Love” is after working all day to support his family, he comes home to realize he had been wearing his son’s pornographic t-shirt. He eventually moves past his anger and “forgave his children.” How is the adult they are writing about human?

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James_Chesbro.jpgJames M. Chesbro’s essays have been listed as notable selections in The Best American Sports Writing 2014 and The Best American Essays 2012, 2014, 2015. His work has appeared in The Writer’s Chronicle, The Washington Post, Brain, Child Magazine, Connecticut Review, The Huffington Post, AOL.comThe Good Men Project, Superstition Review, Weston Magazine, The Connecticut Post, and Spiritus. He is the co-editor of You: An Anthology of Essays Devoted to the Second Person (Welcome Table Press, 2013). Essays are forthcoming in Under the Gum Tree and Pilgrim. James teaches full-time at Fairfield Prep. He holds an MFA from Fairfield University, where he is an adjunct professor of English. He lives in Connecticut with his wife and children. Please visit his webpage and follow him @Jamie_Chesbro.

Writers to Read by Jois Child: Wide-eyed, a Little Breathless, and Falling Slowly Earthward

That’s how I felt the first time I jumped out of an airplane. And that’s how I feel reading James Agee’s sentences.

It is July, 1936. Young Jim Agee and Walker Evans are on assignment from Fortune magazine to document the lives of white tenant farmers (sharecroppers) in Alabama. They hardly know how they will do this, these northern, urban strangers. Evans will take the photographs, but Agee struggles with the words that will eventually become Let Us Now Praise Famous Men:

If I could do it, I’d do no writing at all here. It would be photographs; the rest would be fragments of cloth, bits of cotton, lumps of earth, records of speech, pieces of wood and iron, phials of odors, plates of food and of excrement.

But he can’t give us those things, so he writes hundreds of pages that read like a symphony and unfold like scenes from a motion picture.

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One of the first incidents Agee describes is being taken by white landowners to a tenant farmer’s house. In the telling of it, Agee’s lyricism interweaves the particular moment, the social history, and the dilemma of the outside observer:

A quarter of a mile back in a flat field of short cotton a grove of oaks spumed up and a house stood in their shade. . . . We drew up in the oak shade as the doors of this house filled. They were Negroes. . . . Here at the foreman’s home we had caused an interruption that filled me with regret: relatives were here from a distance, middle-aged and sober people in their Sunday clothes, and three or four visiting children, and I realized that they had been quietly enjoying themselves, the men out at the far side of the house, the women getting dinner, as now, by our arrival, they no longer could [emphasis mine].

The sparse, layered details of the scene (Sunday clothes, the far side of the house, getting dinner) are interwoven with the words of the strangers’ interruptions at crucial junctures, so that the word “realized” occurs between the introduction of the visitors and the description of their interrupted activities, and the word “arrival” appears where it will interrupt the getting of dinner as well as the general enjoyment of the afternoon.

The general feeling “regret,” becomes the realization of the situation – the Sunday ease, free from white outsiders – and then the final powerlessness to undo any of the harm: “now… they no longer could.” This single sentence structure carries not only the immediate and particular situation, but calls out and illustrates the overwhelming social codes in which Agee finds himself confined.

But the body of the book is about the lives of three white sharecropper families, told in such complex detail, so finely nuanced, that the sentences grow and grow in parenthetical and semi-coloned clauses, as here in a list of the particular qualities of several of these people at work:

the infants of three families, staggering happily, their hats held full of freshly picked cotton; the Ricketts children like delirious fawns and panthers; and secret Pearl with her wicked skin; Louise, lifting herself to rest her back, the heavy sack trailing, her eyes on you; Junior, jealous and lazy, malingering, his fingers sore; . . . Annie Mae at twenty-seven, in her angular sweeping, every motion a wonder to watch; . . . Mrs. Ricketts, in that time of morning when from the corn she reels into the green roaring gloom of her home, falls into a chair with gaspings which are almost sobs, and dries in her lifted skirt her delicate and reeking head; Miss Molly chopping wood as if in each blow of the axe she held captured in focus the vengeance of all time….

Reading such comprehensive sentences is a little like falling slowly earthward. One cannot read them fast. They require slowing down, breathing evenly, letting the colors and the weariness, the heat and the never-ending-ness fill the wholeness of life in this place and time.

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Jois Child writes and reads manuscripts from a tiny patch of forest in North Idaho. Her work has appeared in The Sierra Sun, High Desert Journal, and Women Owning Woodlands.