Close Encounters of the Nonfiction Kind

In 1972, astronomer J. Allen Hynek published The UFO Experience, which included a classification system to describe three levels of “close encounters.” Though I am a skeptic regarding UFO sightings, Hynek’s scale intrigues me for what it suggests about how nonfiction writers might recognize promising subjects when they appear and encourage encounters of the deepest...

Getting Lost—and Found—in Personal Narrative

Getting lost is scary. As toddlers, my sister and I got separated from our parents in a giant store. I can still feel the verge-of-tears panic, the tightening of the throat. What if Mom and Dad abandoned us? What if strangers kidnapped us? That’s what’s frightening about getting lost, isn’t it? To be torn from...

Emotional Pacing: Lessons in Writing a Trauma Memoir

Writing a memoir about childhood familial trauma has taken me into fraught storytelling territory. The narrative centers on growing up in the shadow of my maternal aunt’s murder that took place when my mother was pregnant with me. She kept her sister’s murder a closely guarded secret throughout my childhood. This aunt was my mother’s...

Consider the Platypus: Four Forms—Maybe—of the Lyric Essay

What is a lyric essay? Lyric comes from the late sixteenth century: from French lyrique or Latin lyricus, from Greek lurikos, from lura ‘lyre.’ To the ear, “lyre” and “liar” sound the same, which I resist because I do not condone lying in essays, lyric or otherwise. But mythology tells us that the origins of...

Revising My Work One Hundred Words at a Time

Recently, I discovered a letter my late husband, Kevin, wrote to me but never delivered. I found it in a box of his things that I had avoided dealing with for a decade. In the letter, he admitted reading my journals but also said he missed the passionate writer who left so much emotion on...

Writing as a Doorway to the Unknown in Ourselves

Dante’s often-quoted beginning of the Divine Comedy has the narrator arriving at a dark wood, unsure of which way to turn. To many writers and artists, Dante’s predicament is a familiar, disquieting, and essential starting place. Leonard Cohen wrote, “I write to reveal not what I know, but what I don’t know.” And of an...

Waxing Episodic: On Meg Tilly, Early Trauma and the Rise of the Fragmented Memoir

I have fallen for a thirty-year-old memoir. That fact that a memoir snagged me isn’t surprising. For all the genre’s pitfalls—the dogged self-reference, unmitigated earnestness and occasional fibbery—when a story is both well-told and true, its power is unparalleled. A good memoir can magnify silenced voices, shed light on overlooked places and connect us beyond...

Structure: Lifeblood of the Lyric Essay

Writing mostly poetry for the last two years, I had pretty much given up on prose. Until I met the lyric essay. It was as if I found myself a new lover. I was on a cloud-nine high: I didn’t have to write a tightly knitted argument required of a critical essay. I could loosely...

Inside the Box: On Queering the Fragment

To preserve the author’s preferred formatting, this Craft Essay is available here as a PDF document.

Vulnerability is Strength

The most important thing writing has taught me is this: the more vulnerable you allow yourself to be, the stronger you become. It sounds counter-intuitive, I know. It sounds like bullshit. Here’s the thing: you can’t change the past, but if you can face it, both the present and the future will shift. And it’s...

Writing the Animal Other: Beyond Anthropomorphism

Some of my earliest writing advice was to beware anthropomorphism. Whenever an animal flew, stalked, or swam into an essay, I’d receive that warning at least once in any critique. Having come to writing in middle age after experiences as a naturalist, park ranger, field biologist, and graduate student of ecology, this happened often. Early...

Good Noticing: A Whole-Body Strategy

Several years ago, I took a beginning mindfulness class. It was held in a sad room in a hospital: no windows; buzzing fluorescent lights; uncomfortable plastic chairs. But I loved our instructor. She was probably in her late forties, with long russet hair and thick bangs that almost covered her eyes. When she sat in...

Here’s Looking at Me: Lessons in Memoir from Self-Portraiture

Conveying ourselves as characters on the page is tricky business, like expecting a butterfly to pin its own wings. As James Hall explains in The Self-Portrait: A Cultural History, when Montaigne put pen to paper, he referenced those who had put brush to canvas, citing King René of Anjou: “I saw…King Francis II being presented...

House as Home: Writing the Places That Raised Us

Childhood was rooms and doors, gaping lace in open windows, potted parsley in yellow kitchens, splintered floorboards, buckled carpets, the bug-zapper sound that the basement light made when your father pulled the string, and then that tube of violet light abuzz over his box of tools. Childhood was place as much as it was people,...

Odd Objects: In Praise of the Wunderkammer

No matter how abstract your topic, how intangible,your first step is to find things you can drop on your foot.—John Maguire The world is too big today, so I close my pandemic journal after I’ve made my notes for the day, and head to various mudlarking Twitter accounts, marveling at the clay pipes, Roman pottery,...