Tagged: creative nonfiction


I overdid the first half of this summer.  In the past two months, I’ve traveled to Seattle, Venezuela, Aruba, Frostburg MD, and Aspen, as well as finished my first year of graduate school.  Fortunately, that time is almost over–only one trip left for quite a while.

My trips to Frostburg and Aspen were both for “conferences.”  The whole conference system is such a fascinating part of academia.  In my experience/reading/conversations, they can be almost equal parts professional/social/vacational (I just made that word up, don’t worry).  I’ve spoken to people who hate going to conferences, and see them largely as a necessary evil + time drain.  In Aspen, several of us compared it to summer camp.  The popular writers’ conference Bread Loaf apparently has the nickname “Bed Loaf,” after what goes on in the evenings.

Frostburg was a purely academic conference.  I discussed it in my last entry – the conference was the 2013 Computers and Writing gathering.  I presented on a panel about crowdfunding, and spent my time outside of that presentation listening to other people’s panels, eating the provided lunches in a gymnasium, checking out Frostburg’s local scenery, and attending a karaoke night targeted directly at the conference-goers.  Two notes on that last one – 1) It had the highest average skill level of any karaoke night I’ve sat through and 2) Apparently we left right before a fist-fight between two conference attendees.  Yes, I was very disappointed.

There’s so much going on with conferences that I have a hard time wrapping my head around all the little facets.  Conference presentations often end up as a line on a student/professor’s resume/CV, even though for most entry-level academics hardly anyone shows up to your presentation and thus there is no metric whatsoever of quality.  If you bomb, or even completely skip out on your presentation, there is nothing stopping you (outside of some rare circumstances) from listing it anyway.  The only thing that gets reviewed (for my field, anyway) is an abstract proposal you submit months before you present or, in most cases, even begin creating your paper/talk.

Then there’s the economic/professional incentives of the conference organizers themselves.  There’s a sense of competition between the hosts of various years when they’re at universities.  The larger ones that are hosted at hotels and conference centers instead of universities receive bids from the hosting locations way in advance to convince them to head that way.  The 4C‘s (composition’s largest conference), for example, will be in Indianapolis next year, and that’s not chosen at random.

Creative writing conferences have their overlaps with academic conferences, but there are a lot of differences as well.  Since they’re not as much for professional development, and most people attending are not academics, there’s a greater sense of the participants wanting to be there.  As I mentioned, several people compared the class to attending summer camps as a kid, in the sense that it’s a brief isolation from your normal life in a space that’s fast-paced, emotionally intense, and slightly uncomfortable.  This analogy holds extra true for my two trips to Aspen: I stayed in a shared hostel room complete with bunk beds both years.

Both types of conferences are known for their social scene.  I have yet to attend something like this that didn’t include an extensive discussion of where the evenings’ drinking would take place, or of hearing whispers of who was hooking up with whom.  Networking of the more professional kind happens at both as well, and a little charisma goes a long, long way in the room.

I’m curious to hear from others on the topic.  When it comes to academic conferences, I have yet to find someone who is more than lukewarm on them–the best thing I’ve heard on the subject is how excited they are to see their friends/ex-colleagues.

I’m also planning on tackling the actual content of the creative writing conference classes I’ve taken in the near future.

Outside content:  Really, really excited that my article’s abstract is up.  Hoping a hard copy is in the mail soon.  A second link since I don’t want to overload the self-promotion (ha-ha, a BLOG trying to limit self-promotion) – an interview between Charlie Rose and David Lipsky, the latter of which was my fantastic instructor in Aspen.


Lots going on right now.

  • I had a piece published in the Indianapolis based mag Punchnel’s, which has a ton of smart stuff that you should be reading.  Their site is here, my piece is here.  It’s a short, humorous essay about iced tea, and looks satirically at the way we can be so judgmental about personal preference.  I learned a few interesting things during the writing and publishing of it:
    • I feel the need to constantly clarify that I adopted a persona for this piece when sharing it with people.  It’s sort of ridiculous to assume that people wouldn’t know that at first blush, but I’m still insecure about someone thinking I’m serious in the denunciations of the piece.  I got the idea while looking at a pitcher of lemonade and a pitcher of tea sitting in front of me at a buffet, and thinking about how hard it was to find some good iced tea in Aspen, Colorado.
    • Less is more.  I had a section in this essay about long island iced tea, which didn’t fit in with the other items in the list at all.  I had put it in because I felt the piece was too short and so I stretched for more material, but the first thing the editor did was ask if they could remove it.
  • Current writing projects:  Aspen is like a movie set, comparison to the uncanny valley of animation/robotics.  Started this last summer, not happy with it, trying again.  Also, I got the genealogy bug last summer, and I’ve been having a hard time explaining the appeal verbally to friends and family, so I’m trying in essay format.  By the way, if your family is from western Kentucky, we’re probably related.  Finally, polishing up an essay about David Foster Wallace’s essay “E Unibus Pluram“, in which he explains how dangerous television can be to the psyche.  I use scholar Kenneth Burke to argue that Wallace is describing a very purposeful, rhetorical move on the part of television to captivate audiences by simultaneously making them feel like they are part of the TV world and that everything outside of the TV world is not good enough.
  • And, finally, I’ll a part of two different panels on university Writing Centers tomorrow.  One is on the differences between small and large writing centers and how they can learn from each other, the other is on strategies for English Language Learner writing tutoring.  In writing the piece for the ELL panel, I realized that there is a big similarity between the difficulty of describing effective ELL strategies and Gifted Education strategies–namely, that a “good” ELL or Gifted strategy will almost always apply to education as a whole.  Broad concepts like being flexible, listening to the needs of the individual student, and building mutual respect are especially important for a student who might not be as comfortable in the peer/academic environment, but how could you argue that you shouldn’t practice those things at all times?   You can’t, and it’s hard to verbalize,  but the fact is as educators we can’t be all things at all times and we need to know when to emphasize what aspects of our pedagogy.  I’m not sure how useful that is to think about.

What’s going on in your life?  Here’s your outside content for today, David Lipsky being interviewed by Charlie Rose.  Lipsky will be at the Aspen Summer Words Festival this year, which makes me much more hopeful about returning.

Welcome to the New Year

Let me open with a quick news round-up from Gifted Education:

2013 doesn’t look good for the return of federal funding for Gifted Education.  Refunding the Javits Act is not included in Obama’s new budget, and the TALENT act is still in limbo in Congress.  Please consider calling your representative in the House of Representatives and asking them to support the TALENT act.  For more information on these and other legislative issues related to Gifted Education, check out the NAGC page on the topic.

January 12, the New York Times published another in a long line of articles about race disparity in gifted classrooms.  I liked this article because it dug in really deep and tried to identify some of the reasons why the identification process is flawed, but I wish it hadn’t stopped short of saying that a lot of the identification measures are skewed toward not just the class/race majority, but also toward achievers and teacher pleasers, not academically gifted fast learners.

January 22, CNET writes that Jim Parsons of “The Big Bang Theory” is set to produce a TV show entitled “Prodigies”, which would look at young geniuses (the initial list in the article is STEM oriented, but the associated Youtube channel includes creative/athletic prodigies as well).  I’m curious to see how this turns out, as it could lead to a heightened awareness of the needs of the academically gifted and the difficulty for a lot of people to fulfill those needs, or it could emphasize stereotypes and lead to a “child beauty pageant”-like side-show effect.  Given the current state of reality television, I don’t have high hopes.

Finally, the World Council for Gifted and Talented Children has announced its 2013 conference will be held in Louisville, KY August 10-14.  I’m especially excited about it, as Dr. Julia Roberts is one of my personal heroes and I’m glad to see her heavily involved with this.  If you’re interested in applying to present, the deadline is May 25.  Bonus – the keynote speaker is Dr. Joseph Renzulli, and if you’ve done any research at all in Gifted Education, I’m sure you’re familiar with his name.

In my world, a new year also begins a new semester of graduate school.  This spring I’m spending an entire class looking at creative nonfiction, both memoirs and essays, taught by author Tom Grimes.  In one of the first pieces we read this semester, Adam Gopnik’s introduction to The Best American Essays of 2008, he describes the three types of essays:  the review essay, the memoir essay, and the odd-object essay.  The first two are simple, a review of a book, an event, a place, or something else; and a personal experience with broader meaning.  The last one, however, struck my interest the most.  Gopnik describes odd-object essays as using small objects to talk about large subjects, the same way that Atul Gawande uses dental health to segue into our current societal attitudes to end-of-life finances and medical care in one of the first essays of the book, “The Way We Age Now”.  The more I think about this idea, of zooming in on something and then panning out to gain meaning and relation, the more I think this applies to every essay, even if the odd-object is instead an event, a person, or a completely normal object.  After all, aren’t many reviews of creative works used to comment on the genre or medium as a whole?  I’m thinking specifically of the recent reviews of The Hobbit which became a critique of the–apparently–too realistic quality of 48 FPS and 3D on a huge screen.  And, are personal essays meaningful/valuable if they don’t connect on a more global level with people’s experiences that are not the same?   Another example from this book, Bernard Cooper’s essay “The Constant Gardener”, describes caring for his HIV infected partner, an experience that I haven’t come anywhere close to.  Yet the questions this essay addresses:  What will we do for those we love?  How will we measure up in the face of overwhelming life events?  What qualities do we bring to a relationship, and what qualities do we need in a successful one? all pertain to my life, and are all questions I’ve pondered in some form before.

“The essay begins with an ordinary object–a goldfish dies–and ends, the essayist hopes, with an unexpected subject: what is death?” -Gopnik, xviii

Likewise, in my writing that I’ve discussed in this blog, I seek to draw a line in the reader’s mind between my grade school experiences and gifted education as a whole.  It is also possible to look at gifted education specifically and use it as a perspective on our culture’s attitudes toward education and academic achievement on a broader scale.  What Gopnik describes in naming the odd-object essay isn’t reserved for good essays, but for good writing in general.

A Gifted Counternarrative

A few posts back, I was worried about what to write on for my final paper in a course on using narratives in academic writing.  My first two papers had been on gifted education, so I knew my last one would as well, but I didn’t have a solid direction on it.

My final product ended up being a piece on why academically gifted students need a counternarrative.  A counternarrative is a story that goes against what is common knowledge.  In this case, the “official” narrative (which has also been expressed as myths about gifted students – see here and here) that I addressed was that academically gifted students will be fine without extra services because of their abilities, with some attention paid to the related narrative, that gifted education services are elitist.

I would like to say up front that of course, some gifted education services are elitist, and some are unneeded, but that’s due to flaws within the system, not due to the concept of gifted education.  At my high school, classes aimed at the academically advanced (Honors/AP classes) appeared to serve primarily as a racially/class segregating tool, not to implement any kind of meaningful curriculum differentiation.  I also believe that the label itself, “gifted,” serves to further reinforce the narrative that the programs are elitist/extra, but that’s not a battle I’m up for fighting.

Instead, what I wrote about was my belief that gifted education would be best served by showing specific cases of how a lack of gifted education hurts via storytelling, as the research is already on “our” side and it hasn’t done much for us.  I gave my own high school experience as an example–I dropped out of high school at sixteen due to a lack of options–and used it to springboard to an argument I’m still wrestling with: gifted education should be treated like special education and/or academically gifted students should have access to the same types of resources as the athletically gifted.  I especially like the athletic metaphor because academically gifted students vary as much in what they’re skilled in as athletes vary between sports, but the special education comparison is also valid, as academically gifted students vary as much from the norm in terms of IQ scores as students in need of special education do.  (Big note, not advocating IQ as a meaningful measurement here, just as a quantifiable example).

What writing this paper (and continuing this blog) showed me is that I’m constantly learning more, and even my interpretation of what I’ve read/experienced has changed from the first paper I wrote in this class to the most recent one.  Probably the most significant shift would be giving up on meaningful differentiated education within a mainstreamed classroom, but that’s a topic for another entry.

I think it all comes back to Dr. Kettler’s talk at the TAGT conference – the most important strategy in gifted education and in education at large is to be flexible.  Both mainstream education and gifted education have to fight against the notion that a one-size-fits-all solution exists, and we do a disservice by trying to make that nonexistent solution appear.

Your link of the day – Radio has emerged as an awesome vehicle for storytelling as advocacy, here’s just one example of some powerful stories that can shift public opinion on crucial issues.

Stories as Life, Life as Stories

In the past year or so, my work and my interests have been pushed heavily toward personal storytelling.  Call it what you want–narrative, creative nonfiction, memoir–I’ve been all about it.  Last year, my first real publication came thanks to Texas State University’s Front Porch Journal with a short piece I wrote entitled “The Language of Cancer“, and while the piece wasn’t about my own experience, it was a breakaway from the traditional fictional short stories I had been writing.  Since then, I was able to attend an awesome workshop at the Aspen Summer Words Festival in Narrative Nonfiction with Bill Loizeaux, and I’ve had a second, more personal nonfiction piece published again by Front Porch called “Elastic“.  Finally, I found out that the Harvard Educational Review is going to publish an essay I wrote on my experience as an academically gifted high school student.

And while I’m still writing fiction, I’m becoming more and more enamored with the romanticism of putting a personal story out there for an audience.  There’s the obvious example of the power of This American Life, but I’m excited for more, like the very cool Radio Ambulante which is providing a similar Latino-centric voice.  There’s the slew of really, really good memoirs and combination memoir/biography+contemplations that have popped up in the past few years.  I’m thinking here of some more clasically structured memoirs like Tina Fey’s Bossypants, Debra Monroe’s On the Outskirts of Normal, and Elizabeth McCracken’s An Exact Replica of a Figment of my Imagination, but also books that have nudged the boundaries of the genre, like Jonathan Safran Foer’s Eating Animals, Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home and Are You My Mother, and David Lipsky’s Although You End Up Becoming Yourself (also see his older work Absolutely American for a fantastic bit of storytelling+investigative journalism) (also, this hybridity deserves more, later).  And finally, there’s the inherent storytelling aspect to our increasing reliance on social-based news sources and media.  Is reality television an extension of this?

Which is to say that I am all about some creative nonfiction right now.  I’m also lucky enough to be in a graduate class on narrative research, and I’ve used that class to springboard into further work on the stories I want to tell, specifically more on gifted education.

One of the topics that frequently comes up in class discussion is the difference between a fictional and a nonfictional narrative.  I don’t have a good answer for that, yet.  On one hand, as a reader, I feel like knowing whether a story is true or not should not influence my enjoyment of it.  On the other hand, I feel drawn toward these stories that are labeled as true, which I hope is not just because of that label, but because of some combination of content and format that elicits an innate resonance in me….  Or maybe it’s just really good marketing.  From a writerly point of view, though, I think the nonfiction approach invites you to use outside content in a way that fiction doesn’t necessarily do–the stories of others, research, things the reader can follow up on (thinking of Eating Animals a lot here, but others as well).  Not that fiction can’t supply these things as well, but the cohesion level is rarely the same.

Questions for you, reader:
Why does a “true” memoir versus a fictional memoir hold more or less value for you?  Is it a false dichotomy?
What are your favorite sources of personal storytelling?

And, finally, a bit of humor for the day after elections – Nate Silver 2.0