The Joy of Detail in Nonfiction

October 4, 2021 § 8 Comments

By Sonya Huber

“Detail” is a word I say so often that I maybe don’t even hear it anymore. But the benefits and the joy of chasing detail in the real world and putting it on the page never get old. Maybe it’s the way that, once you summon those details—not the eyeglasses in the dish, but the pink/mauve frames with your old prescription in the cobalt glass butter dish you found at a yard sale in Georgia—you’re summoned back to yourself. I am summoned back to myself and summoned back to the world where I live. I wonder sometimes if this trick, too, is the core of teaching writing, that once you teach someone the magic trick of making the world shine, making the everyday talk back, the person might never forget that feeling.

In this act—stop time and linger not on forward motion but on color, shape, shadow, substance, material, weight, origin, impression—there is the secret to living forever, temporarily, the secret to time travel. And, too, there is the subtle compassion for one’s self that I find so difficult to call on at the edge of the present moment. In looking to the past, handling these objects, choosing them, wondering what I stored in the butter dish that left a mysterious rust stains etched in the glass, I remember a self with a different kind of broken heart. The details bring my past and present selves together, and the doubling adds dimension, then makes the present richer for its shadow.

I’ve wanted to write an account of a day, morning to night, for years, spurred on first by the beautiful stream of consciousness in Virginia Woolf’s The Waves and Mrs. Dalloway. When Ander Monson began his lovely project, “What Happened,” he offered everyone a day, pre-chosen. Writers who signed on had to make an essay, or an entry, about that very day and whatever it brought us. It was amazing, a nonfiction kind of Christmas: we were living an essay together in real time! (You can read collections of these on the “Essay Daily” website.) After I participated in that, I wanted to see if maybe I could do a bigger one. And then eventually that want came to fruition in my new book, Supremely Tiny Acts: A Memoir of a Day.

It’s about getting arrested at a climate protest in 2019, and the day itself is the day I go to court for that. So I kind of cheat because there’s dramatic action, but the substance of it is in my boring thoughts ordering tacos in Grand Central Station, in my awkwardness and the crap that’s in the bottom of my shoulder bag. In sifting through the mundane material.

I read somewhere, or heard, that faith is an underlying confidence that there’s an order to things. Not that the order is good, or that it’s protective, but simply that there’s a pattern that might mean something unseen. I think I like chasing the details in nonfiction because I glimpse, just out of the corner of my eye, mutely and partially, a wink of light in pursuing those details in order to intuit the pattern of myself and the mark I make in the large cobalt butter dish of the world.

Sonya Huber is the author of the award-winning essay collection on chronic pain, Pain Woman Takes Your Keys and Other Essays from a Nervous System. Her other books include Opa Nobody and Cover Me: A Health Insurance MemoirHer work has appeared in the New York Times, Brevity, Creative Nonfiction, and other outlets. She teaches at Fairfield University.

The Indignity of Confession

October 24, 2019 § 4 Comments

By Sarah Boon

I have always struggled with finding balance in the personal essay, between telling too much and not telling enough, between exposing myself versus keeping myself under wraps. In 2017, Jia Tolentino wrote in The New Yorker that the personal-essay boom was over. “There’s a specific sort of ultra-confessional essay, written by a person you’ve never heard of and published online, that flourished until recently and now hardly registers.” At Slate, Laura Bennett wrote disparagingly of “solo acts of sensational disclosure that bubble up and just as quickly vaporize.”

Some writers agreed. Over at LitHub, Lorraine Berry quoted Virginia Woolf’s grumpiness about the proliferation of personal essays:

Almost all essays begin with a capital I—‘I think,’ ‘I feel,’—and when you have said that, it is clear that you are not writing history or philosophy or biography or anything but an essay, which may be brilliant or profound, which may deal with the immortality of the soul, or the rheumatism in your left shoulder, but is primarily an expression of personal opinion.

Berry added,

Woolf urged writers to stop writing crappy book and theatre reviews and put something real on the page…Tolentino is telling writers to stop writing personal essays where the “I” on the page has an experience that cannot be related to the greater structures in which we’re operating…We need to treat the personal essay with more dignity than we have done. There are infinite glimpses of human truth to be had in personal writing, but it really is okay not to publish every single thing you write.

This line resonated with me, as I find that too many authors think it’s important to publish everything they write, and in the process they end up publishing overly confessional essays.

Other writers were firmly opposed to Tolentino’s essay. Susan Shapiro fought Tolentino’s statement that it’s mostly women writing these essays, asking “Is it uncouth for a woman to admit to wild adventures without proper repentance while making good money?” Here on the Brevity blog, Zoë Bossiere wrote that “to compare the personal and the confessional is a common false equivalence, and a great underestimation of all that first-person nonfiction writing encompasses.”

I agree with Bossiere that the issue isn’t the personal essay itself, but how it is defined. As Emily Fox Gordon points out in The American Scholar, there is a difference between essays that confess and those that confide. “What’s always most important about a confession is its content; what’s often most important about a confidence is the relationship it creates or furthers.” This is exactly how I think that personal essays can be divided, and it’s the latter that makes the most impression on readers.

The personal essays that Tolentino was calling “dead” were those that confess.

Recently, Tolentino published Trick Mirror: Reflections on Self-Delusion, her first book of—you guessed it—personal essays. But these nine chapters are heavily researched, transcending the confessional to discuss how women exist in today’s web-obsessed world. The personal is used to draw the reader in. In “The I in Internet,” Tolentino describes her use of the web when it first started, then pivots her viewpoint to engage with several books outlining how we use the web today, and are increasingly merging our professional and personal lives online. She makes the personal political by focusing on how the internet is built to distend our sense of identity, how it encourages us to overvalue our opinions, maximizes our sense of opposition, cheapens our understanding of solidarity, and destroys our sense of scale.

Through the essay, we not only discover one writer’s personal history with the web, but a detailed discussion of the internet’s role in present day society and of social-media addiction. Tolentino herself is not immune to the siren call of social media, writing, “Still, on occasion, I’ll shut down my social media blockers, and I’ll sit there like a rat pressing a lever…masturbating through the nightmare until I finally catch the gasoline whiff of a good meme.” While deeply personal, the essay connects with readers by expanding our knowledge of the negative aspects of social media in the context of the author’s personal experience. Her addiction is an example, not the whole point.

Tolentino’s research extends to her own history. In “Reality TV Me,” about being on a reality show in high school, she goes back and interviews the director of the show and the other cast members. By interrogating their experience and combining it with her own memory of the events—and her current perspective on them—she pulls together an engaging essay on how her reality TV experience “simultaneously freed me from and tethered me to self-consciousness by making self-consciousness inextricable from everything else” and was a precursor to her life on the internet, where personal and professional blur into a single online presence.

Ultimately, Tolentino proves that the personal essay—the confiding rather than the confessional—is not dead. Writers like Robin Wall Kimmerer, Kathleen Dean Moore, Sarah Menkedick and others produce work that brings the reader in with personal details, then opens up to broader topics and ideas. These are writers who definitely treat the personal essay with dignity, and I hope to count myself among their ranks.

Long live the personal essay!


Sarah Boon‘s work has appeared in Outside Magazine, Catapult, The Millions, Alpinist Magazine, Longreads, LA Review of Books, Chicago Review of Books, Literary Hub, and more. She is currently working on a book about her adventures in remote field research and blogs at Watershed Moments.

Angel Talk

August 2, 2018 § 27 Comments

A guest post by Melissa Ballard:

I’m sitting at my desk, getting ready to write.

Translation: I’m checking Facebook.

I hear a rustle, followed by a sigh, and I see movement out of the corner of my eye. When I look up there is a tall, slim woman with spiky blonde hair lounging on my upholstered chaise. She is wearing black Vans, ripped jeans, and a black t-shirt with “Rabid Feminist” in white letters. Her scent is that of excellent coffee; the to-go cup she’s holding must be from the Slow Train Cafe.

“Who are you?” I ask. “How did you get here?”

“I’m your angel, Gloria. Never mind how I got here. So, how many words have you written this morning?”

“Um, I don’t do word counts. That doesn’t work for me. I just write, mostly when I’m inspired. Sometimes for a long time, sometimes not for very long.”

She snorts. “So, then, none? Zero? You haven’t written anything and it’s almost noon?”

“Wait, are you the Angel of the House that Virginia Woolf wrote about? I thought you’d be smaller, and wearing gauzy robes, with long hair in a loose knot. But if you are that angel, you should know I cleaned the refrigerator this morning.”

Gloria rolls her eyes. “Are you kidding me? This is the 21st Century. I’m here to make sure you’re writing. So, what’s the problem?”

“The fridge was really dirty. I found sticky stuff that had dried in all the ridges of the vegetable crisper. And in the fruit drawer, bits of the orange plastic mesh bags from the clementines we ate six months ago. Oh, and a couple of cat hairs. We don’t even have a cat!”

“Great. Next time write first, then clean. And now that you’ve cleaned, why aren’t you writing?”

“Well, right now, I’m composting.”

Gloria sniffs. “In your office? Why don’t I smell anything?”

“No, no, it’s a term from Natalie Goldberg’s Writing Down the Bones. It’s when you’re thinking about what you’re writing, but not actually writing.”

Gloria squints at me. “What’s that noise? Oh, it’s Natalie. She’s groaning at the way you’ve used her idea about the need to process some experiences before you can write about them, and turned it into a procrastination device. How many books about writing have you read, anyway?”

“Oh, I don’t know. A few.”

Gloria rolls her eyes again. “I have something for you. Catch!”

I usually miss when someone says “catch,” but this time I reach up at just the right time. It’s a good thing, too, because the object is small, but heavy and sharp.

It takes me a minute to realize: it’s a one-inch picture frame.

I smile. “Anne Lamott. Bird by Bird! Right? It’s a metaphor for focusing on one small part of a piece, instead of constantly worrying about the bigger picture.”

Gloria groans. “So, you’ve read that one, too.”

I nod. I squirm in my desk chair, hoping to block her view of the shelves behind me, which are crammed with writing manuals, collections of essays about writing, and memoirs about writing.

“So, it’s not as though you don’t know what to do,” she says. You just need to get out of your own way and write. My work here is done.”

Gloria disappears as quickly as she came. I stare at the empty chair.

Perhaps I imagined her.

As my eyes wander back to my computer screen, I read a card I’ve placed on my desk, in my line of sight. It’s a quote from Natalie Goldberg’s Wild Mind:

Forget expectations.

Just write.

And, finally, I do.


Melissa Ballard composts, checks Facebook and, occasionally, writes from her desk in Oberlin, Ohio. You can read her essays at

Killing the Angel in Order to Write

January 29, 2018 § 17 Comments

HagemanauthorphotoBy Shannon Hageman

“Killing the Angel in the House was part of the occupation of women writers,” Virginia Woolf wrote in her essay, Professions for Women (1931). I’d like to believe that women have come a long way; I wasn’t even born until forty years after Virginia Woolf advised women writers to kill the Angel of the House. I know we’re not expected to be Angels anymore, but there are expectations. Expectations I picked up from the housewives in my family –grandmothers, godmothers, and aunts. Expectations I built while scorning my own mother who worked full time, let my father do most of the cooking and cleaning. There’s a constant nudging: be the mother portrayed on social media with her perfectly assembled outfit and frizzless hair in the carpool lane, who sends her kids to school  with well-balanced, organic cold lunches packed in Bento boxes. Mothers who don’t just pin, but create Pinterest masterpieces. The mother who balances the full-time career while maintaining a full time housewife status. A mother whose children do as their told, look adorable, make the grades, and function without therapy.  I’m supposed to be the Angel of the House; the mother, nurturing, accommodating, serving, sympathetic, pure, and utterly selfless.

I killed her, my Angel of the House, back in undergrad, so I could write essays for my creative nonfiction class. In a fit of frustration and procrastination, I etched her onto the lined paper that was supposed to hold my shitty first draft. I drew her, shaded her wings neatly. Then I jabbed that pencil right through the center of her tiny dot eyes. I pinned her to the cork board hanging above my desk. Every time I wanted to return to my domestic duties, I paid homage to Woolf and once again stabbed the Angel corpse hanging on my corkboard, killing her and my guilt. Eventually, the corpse was battered enough to earn her final resting place in the recycle bin.

But she’s back, haunting me from her grave, as I sit at this dining room table where my laptop taunts me: write something, anything.  I worried this might happen, when I decided to register for the grad program at my local university. I worried she’d return to haunt me with guilt and expectations. There are laundry piles surrounding me, neatly folded and sorted by bedroom. There are homemade pumpkin energy bites cooling in the kitchen, something I’d put together for tomorrow’s breakfast, a request from my teenage sons. Across from the table, an overstuffed chair holds my sewing box and my youngest son’s school uniform shorts that still need the button reattached. Spread out on the other end of the table are an array of school papers needing checked over, a permission slip waiting for my signature, a handprint turkey drawing my daughter doodled while waiting for help with her homework. I have twenty minutes before I’ll pack my husband’s lunch and send him off to work the third shift. My middle son hollers from down the hall, “Someone grab toilet paper from downstairs! This bathroom is out!”

And the laptop taunts me: write something, anything, I dare you.


If I am to be a writer, what purpose does it serve?  I’m a wife and a mother and a teacher and those vocations easily serve a purpose. But what purpose does writing serve?  Most days I want to preserve specific moments, my side of the story, my view from this little corner of the world in which I live. That’s a selfish reason to write, that isn’t really the purpose. So I try to find purpose and put more intention to my writing. I set out to challenge myself to write better, to write more, to seek publication. Then the guilt seeps in. Guilt over perfecting my craft of writing rather than perfecting my mothering, wife-ing, homemaking.  I should be nurturing my children, not writing about them. I should be cultivating memorable experiences, not preserving them. If writing serves no other purpose than self-preservation, then every time I sit at this computer, I am being selfish and avoiding my purpose-driven vocations.


When we have a spare moment, I’ll tell my husband about the Angel that haunts me. He’ll remind me we’re a team. He’ll throw in a load of a laundry. He’ll grill some steaks and help our kids with their homework. He’ll make sure that everyone has their school things ready before they go to bed. He’ll send me to my room, with a charged laptop and coffee he brewed fresh. “Write something, anything,” he’ll say. He’ll close the door and leave me alone with the Angel.

And then, I’ll kill her.


Shannon Hageman lives with her husband and their six children in a small town near Omaha, Nebraska. She is an English teacher at an alternative high school and is a graduate student at University of Nebraska-Omaha. Her essays have been published in Saint Mary’s Review and Catholic Digest.


Blackbird Habits: A Letter to Virginia Woolf

April 20, 2016 § 4 Comments

By Emily K. Michael

Emily K. Michael

Emily K. Michael

Dear Mrs. Woolf,

I hope you will not mind bending time to receive my letter. I have wanted to write to you since the day I closed A Room of One’s Own and realized that you could be talking to me.  You published that book in 1929, and I read it in 2005. I was seventeen then, turning the pages of a cheap paperback and underlining in smeary purple ink. I filled my own notebooks with stories and poems, thought essays belonged to academia.

I want to tell you about a ritual I invoke every semester.

First, you must know that I teach writing to young college students, and our discipline has wandered away from literature. These early level classes concern rhetoric, and I must tuck poems and stories into the slight half-spaces between research articles. My students are often crushed into ambivalence by the density of mandatory course texts.

Each semester, I rearrange the course schedule to place your essay, “Women and Fiction.” Will I nestle it between scholarly articles on discourse and academic convention—or slide it into the section that questions the value of writing rules? The essay has lived in several places on the syllabus.

But when we read the essay is much less important than how we handle it. My students arrive to class having read the piece and answered some basic questions about it. They expect a conventional discussion of content and style. They watch  me arrive, deposit my bag, and arrange papers on my desk.

To begin, I divide the class in half, making them count off so that the grouping is arbitrary. I tell them to gather at opposite sides of the room. Then I announce that we are traveling back to Victorian England—the era just before your work. We will explore the conventions that shaped your essay, the criticism of women’s writing that prompted your response.

But we won’t travel as ourselves. I designate one side of the room as husbands, and the other side as wives. Regardless of gender, each husband must find a wife. Any extra wives can join existing couples as sisters (or spinsters). At this point, there is a lot of giggling as women on the husband side stride manfully across the room to claim their partners.

The real fun begins when I unveil the rules of the exercise. In Victorian fashion, each wife’s opinions must be filtered through her husband. The husband may translate correctly or creatively—or censor his wife’s comments.


Virginia Woolf

Once we know which voices will fill the next hour, we investigate how attitudes become stereotypes, how binary genders often lead to strict opposites. We track the influences of war and peace on aspects of masculinity—bravery, duty, physical strength. We disavow makeup, corsets, and high-heels as  exclusively feminine resources—citing their use in Georgian England and at Versailles. In short, we watch the evolution of gender through a social and historical lens: the model you provided in “Women and Fiction.”

Your essay responded to the criticism of female writers. Male critics said women weren’t suited to writing—and they used the sparse shelves as evidence. A handful of novels written by women, that’s all they had: if women could write better stuff, they would have done so.

You disagreed.

You said that a woman’s pen was stalled by the cries of children, the mounting chores. Her time was given to the managing of a household, and her experiences were limited to that domestic space. Unlike her male contemporaries, a woman couldn’t be a sailor, a soldier, a rover. Society prescribed spaces for her. So she wrote novels—which could be set aside when the family needed her—or she didn’t write. Critics should not measure the quality and potential by the number of women writers on the shelf.

You demystified the process of writing, Mrs. Woolf. You said what I strive to teach to every writing student—the self-assured expert and the shaky novice. You cast out the myth of talent, what we in contemporary education call “inner-directed teaching.”

If a woman wants to write, she needs money, leisure, and a room of her own.

When my students work several jobs, live in crowded spaces, don’t have time to sit under a tree and read for pleasure, your words ring in my ears. I know what they need, what all writers need.

You addressed women called to write and women living by their pen: “In the past, the virtue of women’s writing often lay in its divine spontaneity, like that of the blackbird’s song or the thrush’s. It was untaught; it was from the heart. But it was also, and much more often, chattering and garrulous—mere talk spilt over paper and left to dry in pools and blots. In future, granted time and books and a little space in the house for herself, literature will become for women, as for men, an art to be studied. Women’s gift will be trained and strengthened.”

I wonder whether the blackbird and thrush work at their songs, what they need to make them. When we call their work “divine spontaneity,” we speak from a place of privilege and vision. What looks and sounds to us like magic must still be created, even in a method unknown to us.

We can map the songs of blackbirds, but we can’t map their divine spontaneity. If they knew English, I believe they could give us a hint. Perhaps it’s better that they don’t.

I offer students your work because they need your blackbird habits—kernels of passion carefully measured. They need to understand, as you wrote, that the extraordinary depends on the ordinary. Even in a class of silence or sullenness, I cannot forego these discussions. Perhaps some stray phrase will act like a snatch of thrush’s song—speaking to a listener in a voice they don’t yet understand.


Emily K. Michael is a blind poet, musician, and writing instructor, living in Jacksonville, FL. Her poetry and essays have appeared in Wordgathering; Artemis Journal; Compose Journal; Disability Rhetoric; Breath & Shadow; Bridge Eight; Narrative Inquiry in Bioethics; and I Am Subject Stories: Women Awakening. She develops grammar workshops for multilingual learners, and participates in local writing festivals – offering workshops on the grammar of poetry. She has essays in the forthcoming volumes Barriers and Belonging: Autoethnographies of Disability and Mosaics 2: A Collection of Independent Women. Read more of her work at her blog On the Blink.


AWP 2012: Virginia Woolf and Our Nonfiction Foremothers

March 3, 2012 § 8 Comments

By Renée E. D’Aoust

Modernist Nonfiction: Virginia Woolf and Her Contemporaries / Tracy Seeley, Joy Castro, Marcia Aldrich, Joceyln Bartkevicius

In the midst of panels focused on putting yourself out there in the literary world rather than engaging in the literary world by being a conscious literary citizen, four accomplished creative nonfiction writers presented a refreshingly straight-forward, no-nonsense, and fascinating panel about foremothers of the creative nonfiction form. As Joy Castro said, “VIDA take note!”
The panel began with Jocelyn Bartkevicius’s paper on Virginia Woolf, suggesting the focus on perception and interiority (of the Modernist movement) was always a useful strategy for contemporary writers. Woolf references “that peculiar form” of the essay that has a “curtain that shuts us in, not out.” Bartkevicius first encountered the essay through Woolf, so Bartkevicius thought that all essays were lyric. Suggested readings: Woolf’s “The Sun and the Fish”; Dillard’s “The Totally Eclipse”; Woolf’s collection “The Captain’s Death Bed.”
Panel organizer Tracy Seeley presented a paper on Alice Meynell, suggesting that the personal essay of the 1890s was “associative, anecdotal, and reflective” rather than “story driven”. This type of essay can be difficult reading for contemporary writers/readers because Seeley suggests it is “hard to be invited into the essay”; however, the third-person stance Meynell uses, Seeley argues, “creates a surprising intimacy.” Meynell also found “self-revelation horrifying.” Suggested readings: some of Meynell’s essays are available through Guttenberg online.
Panelist Marcia Aldrich, who is enthusiastic about the ferment of creativity and possibility within the contemporary creative nonfiction form, presented a paper on Louise Bogan. Bogan worked on a memoir for many years and invited the difficulties of the form onto the page. Aldrich suggests this useful strategy for contemporary writers who may not find epiphany. Aldrich argues that Bogan had “no progression to illuminate” and found “the art of non-catharsis.” Suggested readings: Elizabeth Hardwick’s “Sleepless Nights”; Elizabeth Bogan’s biographer was Elizabeth Frank; and, of course, Louise Bogan’s work.
Panelist Joy Castro talked about the “body-centered, life-affirming energy” of the essay and emphasized that women were on the side of the avant garde (in the Modernist period—and I would add now). Castro discussed Meridel LeSueur’s labor movement reportage. The period from 1890 to World War II was a an amazing literary and cultural revolution that offers works often showing tension that is devoid of a narrative that drives the essay, per se. Suggested readings: “The Ripening” volume; Margie Latimer; and the novella “The Guardian.”
All panelists agreed with Adlrich who suggested reading Elizabeth Bishop’s and Marianne Moore’s essays.
Renée E. D’Aoust is the author of the collection “Body of a Dancer” published by Etruscan Press. She will be reading at Women & Children First Books in Chicago on March 8 at 7pm. For more information about reading dates, please

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