AWP Thursday Event: Flash (Nonfiction) to the Future
March 22, 2022 § 3 Comments
If you are attending AWP this week, please drop by Flash (Nonfiction) to the Future: A Speculative Brevity Reading on Thursday morning at 10:35 am, in Room 124 of the Pennsylvania Convention Center.
Deesha Philyaw, Natalie Lima, Ander Monson and Ira Sukrungruang will discuss future possibilities for the flash nonfiction form and genre hybrids just now emerging, along with brief readings and audience discussion. Brevity’s founding editor Dinty W. Moore will moderate.
With the popularity of flash rocketing forward, it is a good time to explore what’s next for this incredibly rich genre, why it is so perfect for the classroom, how it helps us write about trauma and other difficult subjects, the overlap with poetry, and the growing body of memoirs in flash.
Following the panel/discussion, authors from The Best of Brevity anthology wll be signing copies of the book at the Rose Metal Press Table in the Bookfair, Table 550. The signing should start around noon (depending on how long it takes us to walk over.)
See you in Philly!
Brevity Podcast Episode #9: Rhiannon Navin and Ander Monson
April 5, 2018 § 1 Comment
This episode, Brevity takes a detour into fiction, speaking with debut author Rhiannon Navin about making fiction from fact and how she turned her real-life emotional experience into a novel. Then it’s back to our regularly scheduled creative nonfiction, with Ander Monson, editor-in-chief of Diagram.
Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.
Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below.
Next episode, it’s time for our listeners’ very own One-Minute Memoirs! Audio Editor Kathryn Rose and I will discuss what made the winning submissions stand out, and how to make your own story pack maximum punch in minimum space. And you’ll hear 15 fantastic, very short memoirs.
Show Notes: Episode #9 People and Books
Find out more about:
Charley Douglas and the “laff box”
Useful Adjectives and Adjectival Phrases to Describe Ander Monson:
- bad boy
- future addict
- serious and accomplished
- brainy but beautiful
- more than likely delusional
- bright but misguided
- hurt, badly, baldly
- trying real hard to be good
Additional music by John Stebbe, Ars Sonor, and Kai Engel via freemusicarchive.org.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!
Essays Are For Lovers
February 11, 2016 § Leave a comment
We’re here because we love essays, memoir, creative nonfiction. They’re not always easy to find on the shelf, and the Amazon browsing process can be…flawed. (Inspired by your shopping trends, this print of Iron Man. Yep, got it in one.)
Over at Essay Daily, notable nonfictioneers including Ander Monson, Maya Kapoor, Brian Doyle and Jill Talbot have listed some of their favorite essay collections, including our own Dinty W. Moore’s Dear Mr. Essay Writer Guy and Southside Buddhist by Ira Sukrungruang, and also mentions of individual essays, including several at Brevity.
The booklist is itself a catalog essay of sorts, with the editorial comments from the recommenders as charming as tracking down the essays they adore. From Aurvi Sharma:
Eliot Weinberger’s ‘An Elemental Thing’
I read this collection of essays pretty much entirely on the NYC subway and often wanted to grab the person sitting next to me and say, ‘Read this!’ Apparently Eliot Weinberger is not that well known the the States. Must be rectified.
Sei Shonagon’s The Pillow Book Are these essays? Poems? Journal entries? Fiction? We don’t know but Sei Shonagon’s late 10th century words make us question our assumptions of what makes what, and that’s a good enough feature of nonfiction in my book.
Go check out the list…and choose a book for your Valentine.
Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor and the author of Seven Drafts: Self-Edit Like a Pro from Blank Page to Book. Want writing news, events, and upcoming webinars? Join the A-List!
The View from the Slush Pile, Part 2
November 10, 2015 § 5 Comments
Jen Palmares Meadows recently returned from NonfictioNOW, held this year in Flagstaff, Arizona, and offers part two of her two-part report on the panel The View from the Slush Pile. You can READ Part One Here.
Field Notes from NonfictioNOW: The View from the Slush Pile, continued:
Please heed the following friendly advice when observing a panel of literary beasts.
- Wear unobtrusive clothing. Avoid offensive lotions or perfumes.
- Interact with panelists by moving head up and down when they speak.
- While live-tweeting is encouraged, you might missing some nuances of the panel, or risk panelists believing you are bored and texting your bff.
- Should panel open to questions, cautiously raise hand. When called upon, speak coherently and loudly.
- To avoid being trampled, devoured, or attacked by fellow observers, refrain from mansplaining. In the event of scorn, drop microphone immediately, and seek safety outside the conference room.
- If afterwards, you wish to speak with a panelist, adopt a non-threatening stance and patiently await your turn.
- For a reasonable price, consider purchasing a panelist’s book, and ask them to sign it. Hold the book in your outstretched hand with the cover clearly visibly.
- Request a panelist pose in your selfie at your own risk.
Panelist #3: Stephanie G’Schwind
Species: Non-writing Editor
Affiliation: Colorado Review (founded 1956, published continuously since 1977, publishes 3x a year, accepts nonfiction, fiction, and poetry)
Further Reading: Essay Daily: An artful placement of needle against album
Colorado Review accepts nonfiction year round. Of the 1500-2000 submissions it receives each year, about 500 are nonfiction.
The Slush Process: Colorado State MFA student slush pile readers read first. If a work receives the thumbs up from two readers, it gets forwarded to the editor. Sometimes, G’Schwind will go directly into the slush and read first.
Almost all of what Colorado Review publishes is unsolicited, about 80-90%. Of 35 published pieces, 3 might be solicited.
G’Schwind: “We are committed to publishing the work that comes through the slush pile. If you charge a fee, you have to be attentive to that. We don’t read cover letters until after reading the submission.”
Colorado Review never knows exactly what they might like. They once published, ‘The Big Pin,’ an essay on boys’ high school wrestling, a topic they didn’t expect to find interesting.
While the Colorado Review is a traditional sized magazine, they don’t publish exclusively traditional work. They often enjoy pieces that play with form. G’Schwind enjoys longer works, 20-25 pages long.
G’Schwind: “We host experiments.” Colorado Review is not looking for perfect work, but understands that essayists are attempting/trying something. Colorado Review observes a 90% rule. A work might be accepted if it is 90% there, and requires at most, two hours of revision.
ADVICE: Don’t get discouraged. Do the work. You have to read. Read lots of magazines. Read essays. Read nonfiction. Don’t get discouraged.
Panelist #4: Ander Monson
Species: Writer, Editor
Affiliations: DIAGRAM (published since 2000, is the second oldest literary journal still publishing, released 6x a year)
Further Reading: New Michigan Press, Essay Daily, Letter to a Future Lover, Neck Deep and Other Predicaments
DIAGRAM is better known for their nonfiction, though they do not differentiate between genres. They also publish poetry, fiction, images, interactives and videos. DIAGRAM receives 200 essay submissions per year, of which they publish a dozen. 70% of its submissions are poetry, and almost all their readers are poets.
DIAGRAM does not charge for submissions, nor do they pay contributors, but they have a faster operation, and aim to reply to submissions within a month.
Monson: “I think cover letters are an opportunity for good or bad pageantry. I am prepared to like or not like your writing based on the cover letter. I’ve always loved cover letters—the bad ones are the best.”
Monson: “By the end of the page, I can reject or forward 70% of the time. You can tell if it’s going to be accepted. But we make sure a couple readers give each piece a read.”
Monson: “I look for forcefulness, particularly towards the end.”
Monson often personally responds to nonfiction submissions because he feels as a creative nonfiction writer, he is in a better position to offer advice on how to improve a work.
Monson: “It’s an honor to read it. Fire it out. Send us work.”
Advice: Don’t be too precious about the submission process. Participate in the ecosystem. Don’t carpet bomb journals. Build relationships with editors—those submissions will get read differently. Please do not send sea turtle essays.
Jen Palmares Meadows writes from northern California. Her work has appeared in The Rumpus, Brevity, Denver Quarterly, The Doctor T. J. Eckleburg Review, Essay Daily, Memoir Journal, and elsewhere. She is currently at work on a collection of Vegas stories.
A Review of Ander Monson’s Letter to a Future Lover
August 7, 2015 § 2 Comments
The sun seared skin, turned limbs pink, and I underlined: “This is what we hope for, to lose ourselves in stream and look up some hours later and note that the world has moved: the cat’s crept closer, following the sun.”
Except that today it was so hot, the neighbor’s cat crept closer to my shadow to escape the sun, while I hadn’t crept at all—a testament to the spell of a good book.
A similar sort of spell seems to have a hold on Ander Monson: purveyor of libraries, collector of marginalia, seeker of errata, translator between the past and future selves who inhabit pages. He asks, “If not of books, if not of boxes, if not of libraries or echoes, if not of lines of text paper-chained together, then of what are we composed?”
Letter to a Future Lover: Marginalia, Errata, Secrets, Inscriptions, and Other Ephemera Found in Libraries is composed of essays that Monson wrote in response to books that the author “spent an hour or more inside.” To answer his question with a series of questions: if I am composed of books, what does it say about me that I read Letter to a Future Lover in its alphabetical order, rather than skipping around, as is suggested on page five? And what about my reluctance to underline and make marks in margins with a pen? Or that the only time I ever use a pencil is when reading? Or that I refuse to read at all in the absence of a pencil? If I were someone else, I could be less careful—like the Defacers.
“I didn’t always care like this,” Monson writes. “Look what books have done to me.”
Look: the sudden urge to write in fragments, to underline in pen, to steal from libraries, to write letters to future lovers and leave them on the shelves, to incessantly question, to risk sunburnt skin if it means reading a few more pages, to feel like I could slip into the cracks beneath the pages and nest inside the binding, because it’s more than a book—it’s a conversation, it hums, it is the deepest, most thoughtful mode of communication: “Every sentence is a ping where I am from, bit pulse sent to test a circuit, check to see if someone or something’s listening on the other end. The response could be a year or a century from now, but we still make the call.”
e.v. de cleyre is a semi-nomadic writer, currently residing in the Pacific Northwest. She holds an MFA in nonfiction from New Hampshire Institute of Art, and her essays and reviews have appeared in Ploughshares online, The Review Review, and ayris.
NonfictioNow 2015: The Flagstaff Conference
March 12, 2015 § Leave a comment
The next iteration of the popular NonfictioNow Conference will be hosted by Northern Arizona University in Flagstaff, AZ, from October 28-31st, 2015. The conference began in Iowa City in 2005, repeated twice in Iowa, and moved to Australia for 2012. This year’s conference – the fifth in an irregular series – is discussed by conference organizer Nicole Walker, in an interview conducted by Erica Trabold:
Erica Trabold: NonfictioNow is a relatively new conference for nonfiction writers. What do attendees typically find most appealing about the conference?
Nicole Walker: Although this conference is centered around nonfiction, nonfiction itself is a somewhat hybrid, inclusive, bending genre. Fiction writers, poets, essayists, and journalists gather to really consider what is nonfiction and how nonfiction is shaping and defining itself as its own genre and in a conversation with other genres. So in some ways, its exclusive title is just a tricky way to be incredibly inclusive. This conference, too, is working on establishing an international understanding of the genre— writers will be attending from Hong Kong and Singapore, among other places.
ET: In the call for proposals, you expressed interest in work that focuses on genre boundaries, tensions between art/facts/truth, and “forms beyond the strictly literary.” What can you tell us about the proposals you’ve read so far and, perhaps, selected?
NW: We haven’t selected proposals yet. We’re still compiling them. We’re received over a hundred panel proposals for about 50 spots, so the competition will be stiff this year. Still, glancing quickly at the spreadsheet that my MFA student and conference-organizing-assistant Stacy Murison has put together, I see excellent titles like “The Beasts Amongst Us: Essayists Narrating The Animal World,” “The View from the ‘Slush Pile’,” “Author Versus Narrator,” “Rewriting Those We Love,” “Breaking Up is Hard to Do: Perspective, Agency, and the Tools for Getting Both on the Page.”
ET: What might attendees recognize about this year’s conference, and what will be brand new?
NW: As in the past, we’ll have keynote speakers who are as diverse in content as they are in form. Roxane Gay, Ander Monson, Maggie Nelson, Tim Flannery, Brian Doyle and Michael Martone will bring their unique vision of what nonfiction is to the conference. We will have panels during the day and readings around town at night, integrating the town of Flagstaff with the conference, as happened in Melbourne and Iowa City.
For the first time, we are hosting a book fair. We’ve limited the book fair to 20 tables so attendees aren’t overwhelmed by the vast number of lit mags and presses out there. Those exhibitors will be able to promote their books, magazines, and commitment to publishing contemporary nonfiction.
We’ll also host a game show night— which happened before but will be a little more formal this year— with Patrick Madden and Elena Passarello. On opening night, Alison Deming and Joni Tevis will kick off the conference with a reading sponsored, we hope, by the Arizona Arts Commission. It’s going to be nonstop nonfiction, but, even more inclusively, we’ll have discussions about how fiction and poetry are informed by nonfiction.
ET: What part of this year’s conference has you the most excited?
NW: I’m incredibly excited how many speakers we have coming to the conference. Six! Plus two more on Wednesday. And readings hosted by Milkweed, Diagram and Hotel Amerika in spots around town. And the influx of editors from magazines and presses will add a new dimension to the conference. We’re hosting the conference in the High Country Conference Center, which is attached to the Drury Hotel, where a number of our guests will be staying. It will be great to have a centralized space for everyone to convene and hang out and attend the panels and the keynote speaker sessions. The conference center is only a couple blocks from downtown so it will be easy to connect Flagstaff businesses and restaurants with the conference, making it a destination conference as well as a professional one. And true to form, I care most about the food, so I’m excited to bring a number of local restaurants on board to help sponsor the conference by advertising their restaurants and offering deals to visitors. I want people to know how excellent Flagstaff’s restaurants are. (Hmm. That was a lot of “ands.” It was too hard to pick just one.)
Brevity blog readers can visit nonfictionow.org to register for the conference and learn more about confirmed panelists and speakers as information becomes available.
Erica Trabold’s (@ericatrabold) essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Weave, Seneca Review, Penumbra, and others. She writes and teaches in Oregon, where she is pursuing an MFA in nonfiction.
Nicole Walker is the author of the nonfiction book, Quench Your Thirst with Salt which won the Zone 3 creative nonfiction prize, released in June 2013 and a collection of poems, This Noisy Egg (Barrow Street, 2010). She edited, along with Margot Singer, Bending Genre: Essays on Nonfiction, published by Bloomsbury Press in 2013.
Why Don’t We Essay in the Road?
June 2, 2014 § 3 Comments
Jill Talbot discusses the ideas behind the upcoming special “road” issue of Sundog Lit, featuring “creative nonfiction and other works that blend genre, that bend and experiment, that rumble down new roads.” July 1 deadline. Full submission guidelines can be found at the end of the interview.
- What inspired the theme for this issue, (Letters from) the Road?
When Justin L. Daugherty, the editor of Sundog Lit, announced that Brian Oliu would guest edit the first theme issue, Games, I e-mailed Justin to ask if I might guest edit at some point, and in keeping with the one-word theme, I suggested Roads.
I write overwhelmingly about the road and connect with essays that do. It would appear your editors do as well. Roxane Gay’s “There Are Distances Between Us,” Brenda Miller’s “Swerve,” Bob Cowser Jr.’s “By A Song,” B.J. Hollars’s “On the Occurrence of March, 20, 1981 and on the Occurrences of Every Night After,” Sven Birket’s “anti-road” essay, “Green Light,” Sean Prentiss’s “Tonight (the Big Dipper, You Leaving,” Steven Church’s “Overpass Into Fog,” and my own, “Stranded,” all appeared in Brevity.
Every chance I had in graduate school, I got on 84 west out of Lubbock. Yet the moment I discovered I was drawn to roads in literature happened while reading a road scene in Leslie Marmon Silko’s Ceremony, and if you’ve read that novel, you know it’s a road of destruction and drunkenness. Desperation.
In fact, the tag line on the Easy Rider film poster in 1969 read: “A man went looking for America and couldn’t find it anywhere.” And Steinbeck, in Travels with Charley: In Search of America, declares, “I was born lost and take no pleasure in being found,” as he acquires the Wolfean knowledge that You Can’t Go Home Again.
I like the way the road can be the catalyst for self-inquiry, how William Least Heat-Moon in Blue Highways discovers: “I had learned what I had wanted to know because I hadn’t known what I wanted to know. But I did learn what I didn’t know I wanted to know.”
Road narratives are imbued with a search for what may not be found. They’re a desire not to leave, but to leave something behind. And because it’s a genre derived from the Western, a chord of violence or its threat trembles at least once within each narrative: Thelma and Louise. Cormac McCarthy’s The Crossing (or The Road). Don DeLillo’s Americana. More recently, Cheryl Strayed’s Wild. Mary Miller’s The Last Days of California.
But it’s not all threat and edge. It’s also contemplative, ruminative. And for Virginia Woolf, a haunting—“For if we could stand there where we stood six months ago, should we not be again as we were then?”—just one of the questions she poses in “Street Haunting: A London Adventure.” The road narrative offers side roads we never intended, but find. For this reason, it is essayistic.
I worried announcing the special Sundog Lit issue as simply “Roads” would invite either clichés or Kerouac imitations, and I’m invested in the ways in which writers modify, innovate, and deconstruct conventions (essay and road). So I wondered, “What would imply a voice of distance, of then/now, here/there, Wolfean/Woolfean wisdom?” And then I had it: “(Letters from).”
- Some people claim every essay is an experiment, given the root word assay, or “to try.” So what, in the current state of the literary essay, makes an essay experimental?
The essay foregrounds thought, what Phillip Lopate refers to as “an intuitive, groping path” which, paradoxically, is carefully crafted by the writer. The essay is a sleight of hand.
So in that way, the experiment is the reader’s—we start reading, and we don’t know where we’re going, and we hope to be taken aback by what we find. What did Eric LeMay say on this blog not long ago? Oh, yes: “An essay, by its very nature, isn’t finished by an essayist; it’s finished by a reader.”
But I also think an essay is an experiment when it expands our thinking about the possibilities of the essay (form). Dinah Lenney. Marissa Landrigan. Ander Monson. Always, always, Marcia Aldrich.
As to the experiment of the “(Letters from) the Road” issue: I’m seeking essays, first person fiction, prose poems, photographs, and digital work in order to usurp genre with mode and create an essayistic issue.
For example, one of my favorite journals is Smokelong Quarterly because each story takes essayistic turns. Some examples: Kevin Sampsell’s “True Identity,” Jeff Landon’s “Thirty-Nine Years of Carrie Wallace,” and Jennifer A. Howard’s “Amateur Trailmaking for $1600.”
I recently discovered Anders Carlson-Wee on a night when he read his poems to a hushed room, and I whispered out loud with awe: “Those are essays.”
So my aim for the issue is to expand and extend the idea of “essay” beyond the boundaries of genre.
- Which do you like better, Willie Nelson’s “On the Road Again,” or the Beatles’ “Why Don’t We Do it in the Road?”
I am more (“Whiskey River”) Willie than I ever will be Beatle, that’s for sure, but this is an excellent opportunity to highlight the tone of Sundog Lit, a journal that “publishes writing that scorches the earth.”
So if you’re not familiar with the “rusty-nail” writing Sundog Lit publishes, listen to Paul McCartney wail “Let’s Do It In the Road”—his voice a rage, a ruin, the last mile of a day-long, desert-heat drive.
The Far Edges: Interview with Joe Wilkins
April 10, 2014 § Leave a comment
It is The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre Week here on the Brevity blog. Earlier this week we posted an interview with one of the anthology’s editors, Sean Prentiss, and an excerpted chapter of the book from John Rovner. Today, in our final installment, a follow-up interview with Sean’s co-editor Joe Wilkins, conducted by Steve Coughlin.
What are the limitations of a craft book?
JW: A craft book is by adjectival definition a book that explores a particular craft. We’re lucky in the creative writing world in that our craft is the very medium of which most books get built, so our craft books—I’m thinking here of some of my favorites: The Writing Life, The Situation and the Story, Burning Down the House—both explain and model; we get to hear about and hear how we might craft a deeper, more powerful piece of writing. All this is to say, I don’t think there are many limitations on creative writing craft books. The books I mentioned above contain chapters and sections that read like personal narratives or lyric investigations and chapters and sections that much more explicitly outline how to (or how not to) go about the craft of writing. With The Far Edges of the Fourth Genre, we’ve tried to honor that tradition by gathering essays that are coming at craft from all different directions. Some, like Kim Barnes’s “The Art and Absence of Reflection in Nonfiction: What is the Why?,” are more proscriptive. Others, like Lia Purpura’s “Advice” and “On Writing ‘Advice’,” dodge and feint, attempting to spin the reader’s usual notions of craft around.
I am fascinated by the technique in nonfiction of the composite character. At what point does the combining of characters and the framing of narrative push an essay into the genre of fiction?
JW: For me, it all depends on the story. Does the frame fit the story? Does it allow the story to truly become itself? The same kinds of questions apply, I think, for composite characters or time compression or many of the other “controversial” techniques in creative nonfiction. Ander Monson, Bob Shacochis, Nancer Ballard, H. Lee Barnes, Erik Reece, and other writers included in The Far Edges speak not exactly to but through these questions, helping us as writers fixate not on the controversy but on the fundamental reasons—from nonfiction as translation to nonfiction as a unique space of literary witness—we might choose to write true stories the way we do.
As nonfiction continues to experience more innovation, do you have any concerns or reservations of form taking precedent over content?
JW: I don’t mean to be glib, but I’ll just say, nope. Think about a sonnet or an epistolary novel: the form doesn’t take precedence over or constrict—it allows. Though as creative nonfiction writers we do have the obligation to toe the line of truth as best we can (though I’d argue that obligation, too, is a kind of form that allows rather than constricts), I think the vast and varied forms we’re seeing in contemporary memoirs and essays are fascinating and exciting—and, very often, true.
What obligations do writers have in acknowledging verifiable truth versus what is often referred to as personal truth?
JW: Okay, this is my assignment answer: go read Robin Hemley’s “Lines That Create Motion,” Sean Prentiss’s “Eternal Sunshine of the Nonfiction Mind: A New Philosophy for Understanding Truth and Creative Nonfiction,” and Judith Kitchen’s “Gone A-Sailing: A Voyage to the Edge of Nonfiction (in which I Follow My Own Exercise for Writing about a Photograph),” all of which are included in The Far Edges, and report back to me.
What excites you most about the future of nonfiction?
JW: Last semester, in my literary nonfiction class, one of my students wrote a smart, challenging, heartbreaking essay partially built around standardized test questions she’d invented. My student is of Native Hawaiian and white ancestry, and with her essay she really got a hold of so many powerful questions: Who am I? Who are my people? Where do I belong? That essay excited me, as did so many others I read in that class, as have many of the memoirs and essays I’ve read in the past year. Nonfiction is simply at an exciting moment in its history. All kinds of powerful stories are being told in all kinds of striking ways.
Joe Wilkins is the author of a memoir, The Mountain and the Fathers: Growing up on the Big Dry, winner of the 2014 GLCA New Writers Award and a finalist for the 2013 Orion Book Award, and two collections of poems, Notes from the Journey Westward and Killing the Murnion Dogs. He lives with his his wife, son, and daughter in western Oregon, where he teaches writing at Linfield College.
Steve Coughlin‘s poems, essays, and stories have appeared in the Gettysburg Review, New Ohio Review, Michigan Quarterly Review, Gulf Coast, Pleiades, Seneca Review, and Slate.com. He has never won a Pushcart Prize.
Essay Daily’s Advent Adventure
December 5, 2013 § 1 Comment
If you haven’t yet discovered the Advent calendar of essays over at Essay Daily, let us be the first to show you the way. Smart thinkers who write well explore various facet of the form, each and every day of Advent.
Our favorites so far:
Pam Houston extolling the virtues of Rick Reilly’s Sports Illustrated profile of O.J. Simpson, suspected murderer and golf addict.
Michael Martone’s experimental look at the fictive essay, Billy Pilgrim, and Vonnegut.
And Ander Monson’s Short Lessons in Hybridity.
Well that’s three out of four, and the fourth, from Phillip Lopate himself, is pretty nifty as well. Bookmark the site — they’ll be adding new gifts every day for a few more weeks.
Exploring the Fringes of Nonfiction
March 2, 2013 § 5 Comments
A guest post from B.J. Hollars, editor of Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction:
One day I woke troubled by the hard fact about facts; that is, that their factuality is often in flux. Sure, the world is round today, I reasoned, but hadn’t that observation once nearly cost Galileo his life? And more recently (and perhaps more troubling to my own understanding of the universe): Wasn’t Pluto once a planet? What the hell happened to Pluto anyway?
My heart broke further upon learning that not even photographs were as factual as I gave them credit for. Take National Geographic’s 1982 cover photo—the one of the Pyramid’s of Giza—which, as a child, was solely responsible for hurling me headlong into my mummy phase. Imagine my surprise when I learned, decades later, that those pyramids weren’t exactly as they appeared. That those pyramids were, in fact, the victims of a digital alteration. Apparently, an overzealous layout editor had crammed them tightly together so the photo could better fit the magazine’s frame.
If we can move an ancient pyramid with the click of a finger, I reasoned, who’s to say how far we’ll go?
As my grumbling grew louder, I began to realize that my frustration with facts was far less productive than my exploration of their unreliability. And I figured if anything could put truth in a headlock and wrestle it into submission, it was the essay. Not just any essay, mind you, but an essay that understood the value of the surprise attack, one willing to get the jump on truth by coming at it in a new way.
And so, weighing in at 268 pages, I humbly present to you Blurring the Boundaries: Explorations to the Fringes of Nonfiction—an anthology of genre-bending essays that (at least according to the back cover copy) continually toe the line between “truth and memory, honesty and artifice, facts and lies.” Rather than whining ad nauseam about pyramids and Pluto, I asked 20 of today’s most renowned writers and teachers to help me put truth on trial by fiddling with form, fragmentation, structure, sequence, and all the other traditional conventions essay writers hold so dear. I was seeking a new definition of nonfiction—or at least a renewed debate on the matter—and I was grateful for the legion of intrepid explorers who dared enter into the wilderness alongside me. Writers like Marcia Aldrich, Monica Berlin, Eula Biss, Ryan Boudinot, Ashley Butler, Steven Church, Stuart Dybek, Beth Ann Fennelly, Robin Hemley, Naomi Kimbell, Kim Dana Kupperman, Paul Maliszewski, Michael Martone, Ander Monson, Dinty W. Moore, Susan Neville, Brian Oliu, Lia Purpura, Wendy Rawlings and Ryan Van Meter.
Not only did they embark into this wilderness by offering their essays, but they even provided helpful maps in the form of mini-essays—each of which sought to give the reader new insight into the writer’s own explorations of genre. Add to this pedagogically-practical and thematically-linked writing exercises, and readers now had a complete guidebook for this burgeoning terrain.
Taken together, these essays challenge and confound, but it’s my hope that they might also create a new space for the essay form, or at least encourage other writers to assist in mapping a landscape we know little about.
Who among us will put the pyramids back to scale or return Pluto to its planetary state?
Or more importantly, who will subvert what we think we know by showing us what we don’t?