Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: Diverse Voices in a New Anthology

May 4, 2022 § 5 Comments

By Rachael Hanel

After years of teaching media writing to undergraduates, I received the opportunity this semester to teach creative nonfiction to MFA candidates. Ever since I learned that Debra Monroe had published an anthology of creative nonfiction in 2020, I knew I wanted to use that book in a class.

What excited me most about the anthology, Contemporary Creative Nonfiction, was Monroe’s clear intent to new, diverse voices among some of the CNF stalwarts we’re used to. Of course there are many great CNF readers out there, Philip Lopate’s The Art of the Personal Essay being one of them. Others on my shelf include In Fact: The Best of Creative Nonfiction; Literary Journalism: A Reader, and The Literary Journalists.

These fine volumes do what any CNF reader should do: present diverse offerings in terms of subject matter and form. Beginning and practiced CNF writers alike can learn a lot from them.

But they don’t always represent a wide diversity of voices. When I teach media writing, I primarily use examples from the world of literary journalism. Those anthologies rely heavily on the New Journalists of the 1960s that broke with the traditional journalistic form and made themselves part of the story: Gay Talese, Joan Didion, Tom Wolfe, John Updike, Hunter S. Thompson. No comprehensive study of literary journalism is complete without reading works by these trailblazers.

But it is 2022, and so many skilled CNF writers from traditionally underrepresented groups are contributing mightily to the diversity of voices. Monroe put together her collection precisely with an eye toward diversity, and the result is splendid and rich.

My students are responding positively. Not only do they like the variety of form and subject, but they see themselves in the writers. Says one: “I’m rarely exposed to writers who come from the same ethnic, linguistic and cultural background as myself, so it was interesting this week to read two essays from Mexican American writers.” I was thrilled to hear that, but also a little sad: He’s a graduate student in his mid-40s, and this is one of the few times he’s been exposed to writers who share his background.

Monroe’s book, Contemporary Creative Nonfiction: An Anthology, is also helping me diversify other examples I use in class. I’m not going to throw away some tried-and-true essays that stand the test of time: “The American Male, Age 10” by Susan Orlean and “Frank Sinatra Has a Cold” by Gay Talese. But when I wanted to find examples of long-form journalistic profiles, I turned to my collection of The New York Times Magazine and chose a profile of Gayl Jones, a Black writer who seemingly disappeared from public view, as well as a profile of Questlove—both modern examples from 2021 that showed so well what a good profile can do.

I asked Monroe some questions about her anthology via email.

RH: What was the impetus in creating this anthology?

DM: As my friend, a poet, said: It’s the genre where the most is happening. It’s in an exciting state of change—open to influence, so suited to this era. Existing anthologies were already fifteen years old, with traditional essays. Do you remember when creative nonfiction used to be described as “like fiction only true.” I wanted an anthology with experimental essays and lyric essays, too.

And my campus is minority-white. Ten years ago, I ordered an anthology people recommended, and when I saw the table of contents, I thought: OK, I’ll photocopy essays by writers of color. But I walked into my class and saw my students. I didn’t like implying that writers of color were special status: photocopy-only. So I photocopied every reading assignment, aiming for variety. I discovered that many creative nonfiction teachers were photocopying for similar reasons. Sometimes, I’d order a few essay collections by single authors but didn’t get the sampler effect, the big range. And my craft lessons were a disorganized amalgamation. I wanted craft lessons in one place, synthesized in an accessible but not reductive way for readers just encountering the genre.

RH: There are so many excellent essays spanning centuries. How did you choose which ones to include?

DM: I’m indebted to Sarah Einstein for suggesting that the turn of the century is a good cutoff date for “contemporary.” I tried to stick to that. There are 48 essays in the anthology—500 pages of essays!—and the oldest, just four, by writers everyone considers essential, were published in the late-1990s.

Being inclusive affected decisions, too. Every campus isn’t as diverse as mine, but the country is. I used demographic percentages from the U.S. census as benchmarks. After that, I selected for variety in forms, styles, subjects. I consciously included well-known writers as well as writers who should be known.

RH: The release of this book got caught up, like many others, with the arrival of COVID-19. What was it like promoting a book during lockdown?

DM: I’d asked the textbook publisher to rent a booth at AWP—before the pandemic, prelapsarian times. My publisher does a lot of English titles, but was new to creative writing. When I sent a follow-up email asking for rented space for an off-site reading, explaining that this is how writers launch books—readings in bars—I never got an answer. So I rented, out of pocket, a private room in the Liberty Bar, a PA, a lectern. Four contributors agreed to read: short, sweet readings, five minutes each. Ira Sukrungruang, Camille Dungy, Sonja Livingston, Sayantani Dasgupta, Bonnie Ilza Cisneros. I sent invitations and had so many RSVPs I worried about the space being too small. You recall the slow-fizzle confusion as AWP had trouble deciding whether to cancel the San Antonio convention. As COVID news got worse, my readers began to cancel, and then I canceled. The only other publicity has been me posting on social media and one interview in Assay. Promoting the anthology has been like everything during COVID, subdued and solitary.

RH: It’s a large book with heft and depth. You told me that some people have commented about the size, but it’s comparable to fiction and poetry anthologies. Do you think the size signals that CNF is as worthy as other genres of a large reader?

DM: Yes, this magical genre deserves a big anthology! As teachers, we dip into big anthologies again and again, in different ways for different students or courses. Students find themselves seduced into reading essays not on the syllabus, and they keep these anthologies long after the semester is over, as resources.

RH: From my experience teaching out of this book, students are responding positively. You told me in an earlier conversation that one writing instructor reported a student said the anthology opened the world of CNF to her. Can you expand on that conversation? What else are you hearing from students or instructors?

DM: I recently taught out of it for an undergrad literature class that also included fiction and poetry. Students, nonmajors who’d never heard of the genre, loved creative nonfiction the most. On their evaluations, they said things like: These essays are about life now. These are the most relevant readings I’ve been assigned in college. That was a literature class, but their remarks remind me of what someone teaching creative writing in Oklahoma said. She sent this note:

It’s an amazing anthology, a game-changer. It makes a case, without being didactic, that we are in this together. One of my students said, “‘For the first time ever, I feel like I am living in the middle of history and my experience matters.” You do realize that the whole anthology, with introduction, headnotes, prompts, constitutes a radical pedagogy?

I included over a hundred writing prompts, and I’ve heard from people teaching graduate classes that the prompts have generated great essays. Writers gravitate toward their most unsettling experiences, and these experiences bubble up into even innocuous topics in interesting ways. I think how, in medical terminology, to “express” means to release something trapped, swollen. But the direct approach doesn’t always make for an artful release. Prompts help students make inroads into otherwise daunting or overfamiliar topics. Essays in the anthology cover many subjects, but those that cover dark subjects approach these sideways, as if by stealth. A student said to me last week that a few essays clarified for her that trauma isn’t always compelling, but, she added, “our imperfect buoyancy afterward is.” She’s already such a good writer. She put that well.

____

Rachael Hanel teaches media writing and creative nonfiction at Minnesota State University, Mankato. Her book of narrative nonfiction, Not the Camilla We Knew: One Woman’s Path from Small-Town America to Symbionese Liberation Army, is coming out in December from the University of Minnesota Press. Her memoir, We’ll Be the Last Ones to Let You Down: Memoir of a Gravedigger’s Daughter, was published in 2013.

AWP 2014: Hidden Populations Panel: The Saddest Place

March 4, 2014 § 5 Comments

Seattle AWP Starbucks logoJacqueline Haskins guest blogs on the “Hidden Populations” panel:

Sonja, a panelist, painted it for us with words. Naked railroad tracks under empty sky. Trains roaring past in stink and noise. Sonja parked down there, because who’s going to pay to park on campus? So every work day she walked past it, the saddest place on Earth. Beside the tracks. A squat, windowless, cement-block building. Its parking lot cracked and fissured. A blood-bank; a place to sell your blood. Scattered across the busted asphalt, dented cars, where people sat with a window, or maybe a door, wide open, music wafting, waiting their turn to sell their blood. Across the parking lot, Scutties. Walking past, one glance told you Scutties sold beer and lotto tickets. Convenient.

Sonja Livingston walked on, to the writing workshop she teaches. One morning, as the group sat sipping take-out coffees, waiting for workshop to begin, a student mentioned the blood bank. And it seemed someone did pay to park on campus, because a second student asked, “blood bank?”

“You know,” Sonia put in. “The saddest place on Earth.”

A third student looked up from her paper cup. “I know that place,” she said. “When I was a single mother, I used to go there to sell my blood.”

Sonja sat there kicking herself in the butt until the start of workshop let her be busy and in charge. “I’m telling this story now,” she told us, shame still in her face, “because I used to be Catholic, and I still love to confess.”

The place she had dismissively called the saddest place on Earth belonged, in a deep and intimate way, to somebody. That place was a complicated place, full of memory and resonances. A place a single mother might sit in a dented car, if she had one, maybe thinking about her little one left with a neighbor, maybe leaving with enough to get by until payday.

Locate beauty in the hard places, the panelists reminded us. Resist easy labels. One panelist recalled pearls of moonlight seeping through outhouse walls. Light and shadows on a single sunflower. Dialect? Yes, use it—to create poetry.

Panelist Karen Salyer McElmurray told us, “The first time I was a hidden population I was in 4th grade.”

Her 4th grade teacher asked the class to write about their family and their house. What is the name of the street you live on? What is your Mama’s name? Your Daddy’s name? asked the 4th grade teacher.

So great was her dread, the shy child slipped up to the teacher’s desk, desperate for a way out of the assignment. Yes, she had a mama and a papa. No, she didn’t mind telling the name of the street she lived on. But she didn’t want to tell her mother’s name. None of the others would have a mother’s name like that. A mountain name. A back-woods name.

“Don’t get above your rasin’,’” one panelist was told. But others were told: You can do anything, be anyone, in this world.

“Grandpa told me I could do anything,” blogged a student who had given permission to a panelist to share her story. “But what he didn’t tell me is that if I did it, if I made it, I would be angry almost all the time.”

Angry to be the only student at the mandatory 5 am dorm meeting called to impress upon students that dishes need to be returned to the kitchen. Her dorm-mates instead paid a $25 fine, and were sleeping blissfully. Angry as day after day she carried others’ dishes to the kitchen. Angry that the other girls never seemed to wonder, or notice, how dishes magically clean themselves away.

Angry that her classmates went to poetry readings in the evenings, as she headed to one of her jobs. That her classmates applied for unpaid editing internships while she spent the summer waiting tables and cleaning houses.

And back home? “No one wanted to hear about someone who made it out,” she wrote. Back home was a lot of anger too. Things stolen, friends gone cold, even punches thrown. Anger, she concluded, is the unspoken side effect of social mobility.

Panelist Lee Martin told us the rural working class /poor whites may be the most under-represented population on America’s elite campuses. He asked: how can we be deliberate in adopting a pedagogy of inclusion? Do we want literature to be filled with outsiders? Then start by making the writing workshop a safe place.

First generation college students, children of the working class—for whom hard work may be one of the highest values—often must deal with deep skepticism from their communities of origin that learning is truly work. “Writer” is an identity their families may not recognize or understand.

Have you ever been tempted to “pass” as some who has always had a subscription to the New Yorker? How much greater this pressure on writers from the working class, and/or below the poverty line. These writers may face even more difficulty than most of us in claiming our identity.

The rural poor, just like [insert population of your choice here], wish to be neither ridiculed nor mawkishly romanticized. Instead, as in all good writing, celebrate complexities and contradictions.

As a writer, the greatest challenge for me, and I suspect for many of us, is to both claim and critique our own heritage. If this is hard for us, how much harder might it be for a quiet woman beside us in workshop who, we may never have suspected, has sold her blood to pay the electric bill.

The panelists turned the question back to us: How do we live in a broken economy?

Creative writing, the panelists reminded us, can be that rare place of meritocracy. So invite outlaws into the classroom, they said. Kill the silence around social class. Create, says Claire Watkins, a culture of inclusion within this structure of exclusion.

One panelist recalled the ache in her legs after standing all day on hard, cold cement, bent over trays in a greenhouse. A five-dollar-an-hour ache. Exhausted, she did not write at the end of those days. Still, she saved up the stories.

Back then, she says, the question she stood on every day was never “is this worth my time?” The hard, cold, but strangely untrue question that defined her everywhere she went and every choice she made was: “am I worth it to spend this much money?”

Sitting in the audience, we had the opportunity to wonder, to notice, whether we are worth it. What might it mean for us as writers to be worth it? We sat there, silent for just less than the time it takes to poke one hole in the greenhouse tray and slip one seedling inside, pondering the worth of one human story. And of stories about places, of the human home, our planet. Of moonlight through outhouse walls, of rage, of the saddest place on Earth.

All the panelists in the “Hidden Populations” panel R223 were fabulous, and I can’t wait to get hold of their books. Dorothy Allison was unable to attend. Nonfiction panelists: Sonja Livingston (award-winning Ghostbread). Authors of both nonfiction and fiction: award-winning Karen Salyer McElmurray (memoir: Surrendered Child: A Birth Mother’s Journey) and Pulitzer finalist Lee Martin (latest memoir: Such a Life). Fiction panelists: Claire Vaye Watkins (award-winning Battleborn) and Carter Sickles (award-winning The Evening Hour).

Jacqueline Haskins is a biologist of wild wet places, from cypress swamps to glacial cirque swales, and has a forth-coming essay collection, Eyes Open Underwater. Her nonfiction has received a Pushcart nomination and been a finalist in Oregon Quarterly’s Northwest Perspectives Contest. Her non-fiction, fiction, or poetry appear in Cordite Poetry Review, Raven Chronicles, Cirque Journal, and elsewhere.

On the Origin of “Girl Fight”

February 3, 2014 § 1 Comment

Joey Franklin discusses how his recent Brevity essay “Girl Fight” came to be:

joey

As a child, and even into my teens, I was what you might call a crier. One day in little league I got hit in the crotch by a ball while running from first to second base, and I cried myself off the field, pretending I was hurt to mask the shame of getting out on an interference call.  On the high school football field, I once let a goliath from the opposing team scare me so badly at the line of scrimmage that I jumped off sides twice in a row and then broke down in tears during the next huddle with my frustrated teammates. I cried during snowball fights and games of tag. I cried at the chalkboard when I didn’t know the answer, at the bus stop when the big kids pulled my ears, and at home when I didn’t want to vacuum the living room or help with the dishes.  I cried when a girl no longer liked me, and once, as in the case of “Girl Fight,” because a girl still did. One of the most persistent emotional memories of my childhood is the frog-throated sensation of heat that rose to my ears right before I melted into sobs.

And even though at thirty-three I don’t cry much anymore, I still suffer from acute moments of shame that haunt me for days, sometimes years after the fact. I second-guess what should be simple conversations with colleagues in the hall, I wonder what people really think of me, and wish I could take words back. And even in sports, I haven’t escaped it. I play basketball twice a week with other faculty at my university and if I have a particularly bad day on the court—miss a lot of shots, make some bad passes, foul somebody harder than I intended—I begin to wonder if I should play at all, if I’m ‘that guy’ everyone hopes won’t show up.  And, of course, recognizing my own self-consciousness is an exercise in embarrassment itself—the very act of worrying about what others think quickly becomes another source of shame.

Emmanuel Levinas writes that shame is the “pure essence of being”—that moment when we can no longer stand the reality of our own existence, but find ourselves inextricably bound to the source of our own nausea. It’s that sensation of wanting to escape our own skin, but realizing that like it or not, we are stuck with ourselves.  Certainly shame is partly about being naked in front of the world, but more importantly it’s about being naked in front of ourselves.  And I think it’s for this that essay is so well suited. When we cannot turn away from ourselves, we can, hopefully, turn to the essay, and in some ways project that shame onto the page. When we wrestle honestly with our naked selves, we begin to mitigate the effects of shame—we begin feel, as Lopate put it, “a little less lonely and freakish.”

And this brings me to “Girl Fight,” an essay born a few years ago from a writing prompt in Jill Patterson’s CNF workshop at Texas Tech. We’d read Sonja Livingston’s short fragment, “Thumb-Sucking Girl,” and then Jill asked us to explore a traumatic childhood memory using a child’s perspective. I wrote about 75% of the essay in one sitting, and felt pretty pleased with how easily I’d worked through this moment of childhood shame. But that first draft focused too much on what I remembered (feelings of embarrassment and humiliation), and not enough on why I remembered it (it was one of the first times I failed to honor a friendship). I discovered that accessing the emotional significance of the moment meant I needed to include not only the voice of the memory, but the voice of the remembering as well. It took several more drafts, but what eventually emerged were a few moments of adult-voiced reflection on my unwillingness to put Heather’s friendship first.

In The Memoir and the Memoirist, Thomas Larson refers to this multi-voiced approach as a “layered simultaneity,” and believes the tension between the remembered voice and the remembering voice constitutes the “primary compositional conflict of a memoir.” Larson writes: “Those voices, collected over time and spoken now, may best reflect how we perceive ourselves, having lived with ourselves as long as we have.” In other words, if the essence of being is shame and our inability to escape it, then perhaps the essence of memoir is memory and our ability to reflect on it. And if that’s the case, then for those of us who feel so bound by our own shame, memoir may be our best hope for salvation from ourselves.

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