A Writer’s Notebook: Kevin Sampsell and Chloe Caldwell’s nonfiction workshop

So, as I promised yesterday, here are (some of) my notes from Kevin Sampsell and Chloe Caldwell‘s excellent nonfiction workshop at Crow Arts Manor today.

I’ll include a couple of quick headings in the notes so you know what you’re reading, but I’ll write more about some of the things we talked about afterward. For now, I just want to dive into the scribbles I jotted down.

A quick brainstorm of essay ideas, specifically thinking about writing “list essays”:

  • (2) I want to be like my Papa
  • (1) The imminent death of my cat
  • The fake-pregnant ex-girlfriend stalker
  • Wetting the bed — the machine
  • Injuries (end with broken hearts?) [I always wanted broken bones]
  • Revisit “things my father said” as a list
  • (2) Missing both my grandparents’ burials
  • Students I’ve tutored
  • Rejections (literary) — the most painful/disappointing
  • (1) Animals I’ve killed
  • Rejections (romantic) — the most painful/disappointing
  • Crushes I’ve had — the most ridiculous (once I fell in love w/ a girl I saw in the mall)
  • Libraries I’ve visited(?)
  • Cemeteries I’ve visited (?) — visit some more
  • (1) Pets who’ve died
    • Scout eaten by Vietnamese?
    • Puppies baked in the sun
    • Peanut who tried to run away to die
    • Mom drying Kea
    • BS hanging himself
    • Rowdy shot w/ bb


Develop one idea into a list essay:

My first dog died when Vietnamese people kidnapped him to cook in their restaurant. Or so my dad told me. All I knew was that Scout had run away. I was seven and I wanted to go looking for him, begged my parents to out me in the car and drive the neighborhood streets. That’s when my dad told me that Vietnamese people patrolled the streets looking for stray dogs to kill and cook in their restaurants. I didn’t believe him. Part of me thought my dad had sold my dog to the restaurants. Mostly I just thought he didn’t want to look for Scout. Later, I believed he knew my dog had run away and been hit by a car, and he just didn’t know how to tell me. Whatever the reason, when I was seven, I wanted to blame my dad, but I couldn’t.

My second dog was killed by a sheriff driving through our neighborhood. He was stopped down the street to chat with my dad and a neighbor. My dog Punkin, like so many of our dogs, escaped our back fence and ran down the street — he wanted to chase tires. The sheriff tried to drive away, rolling in first gear just a few miles an hour, but Punkin got himself up under the wheels anyway. He yelped, ran a few yards, and collapsed. The sheriff drove away. I yelled, ran home, and collapsed into the couch, face down, tears in the cushion. Punkin died at the vet’s of internal bleeding. I couldn’t decide whether to blame the vet or the sheriff, so I blamed them both.

My third dog wasn’t even my dog. He belonged to my dad, a jumpy dachshund aptly named Rowdy, who got out of the fence all the time. The last time, I was closest to him and I chased him through the woods and backyards, calling his name and cursing him. Then I heard a pop and a yelp and Rowdy burst past me in the undergrowth. I stood over the brush and saw a neighbor pump his pellet rifle, again and again and again. We stared at each other a moment, his dark eyes, his dark beard, the rifle ready in his hands. Then I chased Rowdy back to where I found him collapsed and panting. He died in my arms. We all blamed neighbor, except for the sheriff when my dad filed his report, so then I blamed the sheriff too.

The list essay, as we were working with it in the exercise, is a repetitive structure that builds on a formula sentence opener. Kevin Sampsell also likes to call it the “riff” essay, as though you’re a musician riffing off a theme or an idea. Chloe Caldwell’s essay “My Mother Wanted to Be Betty Boop” is a list essay that riffs off the opening phrase “My mother wanted…”: “My mother wanted to be a dancer.” “My mother wanted me to be an artist….” “My mother wanted to be Betty Boop.” And so on.

That last block of text in my exercise was supposed to be a list essay, and in the sense that I start each paragraph the same way, it sort of is. I break the form pretty much right away, and I develop ideas far beyond those opening sentences so it doesn’t quite have the same rhythm as a good list essay (each of Chloe’s opening paragraphs in “My Mother…” is only a handful of lines long). But I think I’m getting away with it for now because I also end each paragraph on the same note. My first dog dies –> who gets blamed. My second dog dies –> who gets blamed. And so on. Plus — and this was an accident of the process — I moved quickly from the original list idea (“Pets who’ve died”) to the focus on dogs; and each paragraph isn’t just about my dog’s death, it’s also about my dad. Kevin and Chloe agreed that the structure works, and Kevin talked at length about how the list essay exercise is just a leaping off point, a means of generating ideas and possibly structure without necessarily tying us into a particular formula. Which is cool.

I like the piece I started and I plan to follow through on it. (I should point out, too, that I’m not entirely certain about how old I was when Scout died — I might have been six, I could have been eight — and I’m skipping over some details in all these stories in the interest of brevity. That’s something I might play with in future revisions.) Also, I love a lot of other ideas in that initial list, and I think I’ll take a crack at those later, too. (I have a couple of good ideas for how to approach the cemetery essay, for example, and I kind of like the possibilities in the injuries list.) Oh, and those numbers in the list are ideas for how I might connect some of the essays into longer pieces, or arrange them side-by-side in some sort of collection. Always thinking ahead, me. 🙂

We did some other exercises as well, and I have gobs of other notes — it was a fantastic and productive workshop — but this post is long enough already, so I’ll save them for future Writer’s Notebook posts. But seriously, huge thanks to Kevin Sampsell and Chloe Caldwell for such a great experience, and thanks to the other writers who showed up to share their work as well.

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