Authors’ Note: We completed this essay in the early days of November 2016. At the time, we felt like our manifesto—our call for an urgent craft infused with social justice—was an outlier, a push from the margins of nonfiction discourse. We thought it was possible that the audience of Brevity could be resistant to, or perplexed by, our conflation of writing practice and social-justice concerns; we assumed that “craft for craft’s sake” was the default for many readers.
You are reading this essay in January 2017, in what feels like a radically changed world. In the early hours of November 9, we watched digital swaths of the American map change from pink to red. As that map shifted, the boundaries of our national reality shifted, too. Social justice was suddenly far more central to our writing communities and our writing lives.
We assumed that we were writing this essay in the context of business as usual. However, the very idea of business as usual comes from a standpoint of privilege. In the lived experience of disenfranchised communities and writers, business has never been as usual; “craft for craft’s sake” has often not been an option. We wonder, now, what audience we had envisioned; when we were calling for craft as social justice, who was it were we trying to convince?
Perhaps the default setting of “craft for craft’s sake” is part of a larger national complacency—maybe even national arrogance—which, for us, the recent election has disrupted. Personally, we are both on guard against normalizing an administration that is likely to test many of our ethical priorities and commitments. As writers, it will be tempting to return to the safety of the bounded page, of sentences and paragraphs, of perfecting our “craft for craft’s sake.” Moving forward, we must make conscious choices to live within November 9’s disruption, within a space where business is not as usual.
At the end of this essay, we speak of urgency; that urgency has only intensified in our new political reality. There is much work to be done. It is our hope that we will all engage in that work with humility and boldness, and with radical empathy for all people.
A year ago, we gathered with three other students and our teacher, Lee Martin, around a table that seemed unusually large and desolate. But that didn’t stop us from attempting to hide. We reminded ourselves that we didn’t have to make friends. Our task in this nonfiction workshop was to talk about elements of craft and provide practical feedback for our classmates’ essays. We’d both been in plenty of workshops, so we knew the lingo: point of view, voice, character, scene, dialogue, plot, theme. We knew we could hide in those dispassionate mechanics. We knew that the argot of craft would provide us with corporate, objective language. All we had to do was talk about mechanics, give useful notes, say goodnight and go home.
Thanks to Lee’s quirky wind-up toys and fondness for puns, the workshop’s uncomfortable atmosphere soon dissipated. The semester progressed, and our small class formed into a gentle, empathic, uplifting community. It became evident, early on, that, while everyone in that room valued nicely honed craft, we all had writing interests that stretched beyond effective dialogue or a well-wrought scene. In our essays and our conversations, in our critiques and our small community, we found that our craft discussions were rarely about just craft. Instead, they were about the point of view created by privilege, the settings linked to national identity, the metaphors manufactured by our understanding of race. These difficult questions, even more than our great discussions of craft, drew us together, turning a room of wary strangers into a room of trusted friends.
As nonfiction writers, our writing lives are dedicated to craft—shaping sentences, honing dialogue, chiseling scenes into recognizable shapes. The work itself becomes absorbing, detail-oriented: a narrowed frame of vision. We look at our own process, we critique the work of others, and—although we might not articulate it this way—we become committed to “craft for craft’s sake.” While craft might not ring as lofty as art, we are still tempted to see it as transcendent. Meanwhile, the concerns loosely grouped under the category of “social justice” can feel limiting, ancillary or simply mundane.
We found, in our magical nonfiction workshop, that an element of this writing community was our collective commitment to cultural and political issues whose urgencies extend beyond craft. The typical workshop model asks us to avoid bringing “personal baggage” into discussions of writing. But “personal baggage” can be a derogatory term for lived, embodied experience—the violences belonging to race, class, gender, sexuality and disability. These violences are written onto bodies long before the nonfiction writer writes them. The five students sitting around the workshop table learned quickly that we were all interested in writing about those kinds of markings, whether we’ve experienced them ourselves or whether we empathize with the ways others experience disenfranchisement.
The fact is, craft and issues of justice are inextricable. As David Foster Wallace succinctly put it in the subtitle for his essay “Authority and American Usage”—“‘Politics and the English Language’ Is Redundant.” We believe that constructing a character or a point of view or a line of dialogue is always political. In fact, a writer’s personal/political/subjective point of view is an important part of their creative voice and creative project.
If writing and reading are, as Lee Martin often reminded us, acts of empathy, is mere technical proficiency sufficient? And if an empathic relationship is our ultimate goal, is “craft for craft’s sake” really enough?
If you’re worried that we’re going to suggest that creative nonfiction should be a launch pad for progressive politics, please take a deep breath and know that this essay has passed the climax of its didacticism. It is all denouement from here. In what remains, we’d like to turn to our own nonfiction, specifically two flash pieces written in Lee Martin’s workshop and published in Brevity 52: “Shenandoah” by Rachel Toliver and “Roots” by M. Sausun (a pseudonym).
Up to this point, we have employed “we” to push against “craft for craft’s sake”: the idea that the writer’s highest goal is to fulfill an individual aesthetic vision. Now, we turn to first-person singular because each person’s gendered, raced, queered, disabled, and classed experiences are their lived experiences, unique to individual standpoints and particular ways of knowing.
When I was young, my maternal grandmother lived in an apartment on the third floor of our house. Her apartment smelled like talcum powder and lavender closet sachets. She laid out blue-lined sewing patterns, sent her rick-rack scissors through velvet and corduroy.
My parents still live there, in that house surrounded by yew trees, in the neighborhood where both my mother and my grandmother had grown up. Inside that house I was a lonely kid, plucking at the memories of petty schoolyard injustices, watching an olive green rotary phone that never rang. Inside that house I knew myself to be a white girl, and I knew that I was privileged, although I didn’t know the word privileged, and wouldn’t know the word for quite some time. House and neighborhood, inside and outside, privileged and its opposite. These were the binaries that structured my understanding. Outside the house there was my Philadelphia neighborhood: a community that was mostly black and mostly working class, and I was always aware of that outside, how it was different from my world. Still, I had no idea about the state execution of black bodies, and I’d never heard of systemic racism, and I didn’t understand why most of the kids in my neighborhood went to different schools—perniciously under-funded public schools—while I attended a private Quaker school. When I think about the space outside my parents’ windows, I think of everything I didn’t know, the empathy I didn’t have, the limits to my point of view.
What does this have to do with my essay “Shenandoah”? In the workshop last autumn, our first prompt from Lee was to write a scene from childhood. I grew up in my parents’ lovely house, with its fireplaces and fuchsia plants and NPR on the radio at dinner time. My childhood was mostly peaceful, mostly happy… Which is why I don’t often write about my childhood. I wanted to write about my grandmother’s death, but I also thought, as I drafted the essay, that the loss of a grandparent wasn’t essay-worthy. The story just seemed so… small. Ultimately, the voice and point of view of “Shenandoah” came out of this quandary. My childhood experience was solipsistic, and my suffering was a narrow, demarcated territory. Instead of keeping my narrator at the perimeters of this problem area, I chose to situate my narrator at its center, to have the narrator speak from the core of the essay’s problem. In the end, this produced an overlay of voices: the voice of an inward-looking child, and the voice of adult loss.
I have learned this craft strategy from my attempts at writing about social justice. I am still situated in the house of privilege, looking out the window. I am a straight, white, able-bodied person, but I am motivated by social-justice concerns, drawn to being an ally. However, I sometimes wonder whether the world really needs my voice, my point of view, framed as it is by a stone threshold, by beautiful oak doorways. Sometimes it feels like I am still the kid in the essay, like I am hemmed in by the petty inconveniences of my comfortable life—the residencies I haven’t gotten, the jobs that haven’t come through. As a little girl, on vacation in the Shenandoah Valley, I felt entitled to the horseback riding I’d been promised; as an adult, in an MFA program, I can feel entitled to immediate success, to opportunities, to accolades.
I have lived within my particular experience, frizzy-haired and well-educated and more or less bodily safe. But the justice issues I care about are situated outside my experience: in my childhood neighborhood, in struggles that I cannot fully inhabit but have nonetheless found myself adjacent to. When I write, I endeavor to be honest about where I’m narrating from; I allow this to inform the essay’s tone, voice and point of view. In other words: the challenge comes from my interest in social justice, but the solution can be found in craft. Instead of skirting the problem area, I steer right into its center. Inhabiting the problem area (I hope) results in a narrator that readers can trust. This trust is hard to win, but it is absolutely crucial.
“Roots” is a collection of words I can’t say out loud. The one time I did, in Lee’s workshop, my voice quivered so uncontrollably and my face grew so florid that when I finished I hurried into the hallway and called my partner to ask whether I should quit the workshop. This isn’t a standout or exemplary moment in the history of my bodymind  : I’ve dropped classes because the classrooms were too small; selected apartments based exclusively on their distance from people I know; given up on old friendships because I said something that maybe could have been misunderstood as coldness or violence. Last week I elected not to unpack my lunch from my bag so I could use “I forgot my lunch” as an excuse to go home during lunchtime and allow the panic attack I felt coming on—that heaviness behind the heart—to run its course. For me, anxiety manifests as strategies of reclusion, methods of distancing myself from others—of hiding. But I also believe we long to be who we are not, and that through this longing anxiety can manifest as an ethic of self-care, if only temporarily. It is this sense of longing and becoming that (I hope) “Roots” performs.
A lot of anxious questions come out of “Roots.” Some are interpersonal: What will my father think if he reads this piece? Would he threaten to sue Brevity like he threatened to sue Word Riot for the piece I published there in 2013? Other questions are more traditionally political: How am I representing drug addiction? Or Iranianess? Am I reifying the old, racist stereotype that Iranian men—Iranian fathers—are abusive? How should I navigate the problem of violent stereotypes when my experience, my story, seems on face value to confirm them?
These anxious questions manifest throughout “Roots.” They manifest in the byline, where I elected to protect my father and myself by deploying a pseudonym. They manifest in multiple formal elements, where, like Brenda Miller in her essay Swerve, I too elected to try on the tenor of apology, and to allow long, meandering sentences to check against the thematic foreclosure—the shutting down of vulnerability—that more ostensibly “tempered” or “polished” syntax sometimes leads to. Like Professor Miller, I too wrote this piece in one sitting. That’s key. I would have deleted the file had I not written my way to the last line, redeeming my father, in the first go. Interplay between anxiety and self-care also manifests in the brief slippage between English and Farsi: “pedasookteh, deh borroh deh” does not exactly mean “son of mine, go away from here,” but writing it that way allows me to convey one meaning to my father—only to my father, if ever he reads this piece—and another meaning to the reader. Even the title negotiates between anxiety and self-care: “Roots” evokes pedigree, serves as a subtle acknowledgement that I am my father’s son, that my father is his father’s son, and the fact that we no longer speak to one another doesn’t mean we don’t recognize the tenderness and goodness and love we sometimes felt we had to bury, to conceal. The title, then, is an acknowledgment of the violence of masculinity, its genealogy, the anxiety and dissonance it produces, but also its tenuousness, the possibility of redemption through memory.
To put all of this another way: there’s little difference between the dramas of my bodymind and the formal/craft elements of my work. Generalized anxiety disorder and its intersections with the violences of masculinity, or with the difficulties of racial representation and identity—these are craft issues for me, written in and on and through and by my bodymind. I’m glad I didn’t leave Lee’s workshop because it was there, when I returned from the hallway, that Lee gave me a language for beginning to think this way. He said: “This essay works because it’s embodied.” And I learned in the discussion to follow that such vulnerability and honest embodiment is precisely what self-care looks like for me—and that such vulnerability produces decent work. Suddenly that big workshop table wasn’t so big anymore—I wasn’t so far from everyone else—and for the first time in a long time, I was okay with that.
We write this in the summer and fall of 2016. We have never lived through an American season like this one: a lurid season, a knuckle-to-the-jaw season, a blood season. We’re coming to the end of an incredibly brutal presidential election. Again, we think of David Foster Wallace’s subtitle quip: “‘Politics and the English Language’ Is Redundant.” This has always been true, but these days it feels especially urgent. In Donald Trump, we’ve seen a presidential candidate who relies on repetition, connotation and chanted epithets in place of verifiable facts. We fear that this language, and its violence, will continue to smolder, virulent and noxious, even after November 8th. In the aftermath of the Pulse nightclub shooting, in Florida, we saw how the specific lived stories of queer Latinx individuals were rewritten, subverted to support old narratives of Islamophobia, nationalism and xenophobia. And we’ve seen, in the state-sponsored killings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, how our national characterization of black bodies and communities results in the execution of innocent men and women. In Columbus, Ohio, the city we call home, we’ve been grieving the shooting of 13-year-old Tyre King; we have witnessed, once again, a black body—the black body of a child—rewritten and destroyed as threat.
In this season, we have come to interrogate our own work and its place in the world. We both care deeply about craft. However, we feel that, in the urgency of this particular moment, we are no longer interested in “craft for craft’s sake.” Now is not the time for the mechanics of plot, point of view, scene or dialogue; now is not the time for the safe, polite conversations they engender. Rather: within those mechanics – rising up from them – we find their true use, purpose and necessity.
Rachel Toliver has work published or forthcoming in Puerto del Sol, American Literary Review, The Chattahoochee Review, The Pinch, The New Republic, PANK, Third Coast, and Brevity. She is an MFA student in nonfiction at Ohio State University.
M. Sausun (a pseudonym) is a Ph.D. student at Ohio State University, where he teaches writing and rhetoric. Before returning to Ohio, he lived in New Mexico, where he taught high school English, and Colorado, where he completed an MFA in fiction.
 “Politics and the English Language” is a 1946 essay by George Orwell.
 Margaret Price borrows this word for Disability Studies in her 2011 book Mad at School: Rhetorics of Mental Disability and Academic Life.