As the Creative Nonfiction Editor for Connotation Press, one of my great pleasures is reviewing the pieces I’ve presented over the past year, in order to identify the best of the best for our yearly retrospective issue. It’s always a difficult process, since the reason I published all of the pieces in the first place was because they’d convinced me of their excellence.
And so I say what I say every year: I take a kind of arduous joy in crunching my brain in order to arrive at the best creative nonfiction of the past twelve months. Since there’s no way to place the pieces in order of quality, here they are in alphabetical order, with my original comments that introduced them. That I had more to say about some of them is no reflection on the pieces’ relative quality—some of the work I published in the past year toggled various personal issues of mine, while I saw other work as more “universal”—whatever that means, as each reader’s experience is singular. Ultimately, then, let us allow each of these fine pieces speak for itself.
Eric Barr’s “Where Is My Light?” is ostensibly about a flashlight, but it’s also about health issues in a family, and like any family story, it’s about a lot more than what you’re being shown on the surface.
When Faye Rapoport DesPres sent me her new essay, “Lifeguard,” she told me “I finished the piece with only one editor in mind—you. I think you will understand why after you read it.” She has written an affecting story about her father, and she is referencing my seven and a half years of caring for my elderly parents at home. While telling an editor that a piece was written at least partially with him or her in mind might not be a bad strategy for capturing editorial attention, I would publish a story this good no matter what it was about. Why? Because DesPres is that good a writer.
“Abbeyleix Affair,” by Macy French, is a fabulous and promising vignette, just a taste of what this promising young writer is capable of doing. She works in multiple genres—fiction, nonfiction, and theater are just three that I’m aware of—and I have no doubt that we’ll be hearing much more from her in literary journals and in longer formats in the years to come.
D.E. Goodroad’s “February, Winter” is about the weather in Ohio, but it is also about the realities that lead a person to live in such weather—the actual weather the story is about is personal and interpersonal.
“On Bridges, Beaches, and Britney Spears,” by Jennifer Schomburg Kanke, is a magnificent and vigorous look at a series of varied disturbances. It brings a complex structure that reflects its complex takes on a number of realities that may seem, at first encounter, to be rather facile—but this would be a deception, as Kanke’s multilayered technique quickly makes evident.
“Age of Consent” by Jayne Martin, on the surface, might appear to be a series of images from the 1970 Flower Power era, although it is actually a meditation on feminism and relationships.
“As Though We Had Always Been Kind” by Gale Massey, on the surface, might appear to be a series of vignettes about the author’s deceased mother, when it is actually a meditation on sexual orientation.
“When Blacking Out Was a Lifestyle Choice,” by Joe McDade, while not strictly a father story (though a father-in-law does feature prominently), does speak to a concern that is personally close to me and to many others. Over the past thirty years that I have not had a drink, I have heard and read any number of sobriety stories. Some of them focus on what is harrowing, others on what is hopeful. All of them take you to bottom and back up to redemption, and with his dedicated attention to detail, McDade’s story is one of the best I’ve read in the genre. He demonstrates H.O.W. sobriety is done—with honesty, openness, and willingness.
Although it was several weeks before the 2016 presidential election that I decided to publish Keenan Norris’s “To the Chi: Imagining, Recounting and Re-Thinking Three Chicago Migration Narratives,” I find that in the wake of the election, his work is more relevant than ever. At this juncture in our national life, we are presented with two visions of America that are starkly at odds. Are we the America of the “melting pot,” where everyone is equal and has the same opportunities and rights? Or are we now something less than that? Norris’s investigation is a great ethnographic survey, convincingly arguing for America as a perpetual melting pot, rather than the current ascending paradigm of America as the exclusive province of conservative white “Christian” men of a certain age. Norris’s voice would be a very welcome one at any time, but is especially vital and relevant at this dangerous time in our national narrative.
Finally, I’m always looking for new essays to publish. I invite you to submit nonfiction on a topic of your choice. I’m looking for creative nonfiction, narrative nonfiction, memoirs, and personal essays—with the understanding that these categories often overlap. Up to 10,000 words. Please submit work directly to me at [email protected]. I look forward to reading your work—and who knows, you may even find yourself honored next year in my “best of” column!