New Media Scholar

Test for Courting the Peculiar



Ames Hawkins

A truly collaborative piece, “Courting the Peculiar: The Ever-Changing Queerness of Creative Nonfiction,” began as a co-written conference proposal for the Association of Writers & Writing Programs (AWP) National Convention in Seattle, Washington, February 2013:

What do we mean when we claim that creative nonfiction is a queer genre? Four queer-identified panelists collectively position creative nonfiction as a genre welcoming of writers and writing that embraces the peculiar, courts the unconventional, and opens to forms yet to be imagined. At the turn of the 20th century, Gertrude Stein in Tender Buttons proposed: “Act so that there is no use in a center.” How can practitioners of creative nonfiction today use language to express truths still to come?
Upon acceptance, the four participants—Barrie Jean Borich, K. Bradford, Mary Cappello, Ames Hawkins—discussed a desire to “do something different,” something other than the expected independently written and sequentially delivered four single-authored papers/pieces/essays, connected, perhaps, as essays in a collection, but remaining fairly discrete. We decided to move away from thinking of our pieces and presentations as a mine, hers, hers and hers, and consider the possibility of an event featuring a shifting Barrie–K.–Mary–Ames voice that did not leave our audience confused. We established that the writing was the engine for/of the project, while still opening ourselves to formic possibility, emphasizing that we were as interested in what each other had to say as we were in what each of us had to write.

In short, we queered the panel presentation.

We asked ourselves a series of questions. Four seemed about right given the time constraints of panels. Each of us wrote three-to-four-minute long answers. The reading/performance lasted about an hour and was seen as a whole. We each chose images to accompany our written answers. Positioned within a PowerPoint, using design frames of an old movie theater proscenium and silent movie placards, our images highlighted the interconnections between genres and the simultaneous ancestry/history/legacy of artistic work.

As a final move, we considered delivery. Using the questions as the organizing principle, we read our responses back-to-back, as a four-part single answer, so the audience could hear and appreciate the differences (and traces of similarity) in the four writers’ perspectives. Then, to embrace Stein’s challenge to “Act so that there is no use in a center,” we rotated the order of readers, round-robin style, as we moved through the questions. We began in alphabetical order, but then the lead reader would, for the following question, become the final reader, the second become first, and so on, until, by the final question, all of us had read in each of the four spaces in the order.

It was a simple alteration, but the impact on the reading was profound, for the authors as well as the audience. We had not shared our responses prior to reading and were as engaged with the process as the audience. Each question created new openings, each its own unfolding and unfurling, each answer a making/remaking/unmaking.

What we have for you here is a digital reconstruction of that AWP presentation. We read aloud to you, via audio files that accompany our visual images, our responses positioned here in the order in which they were originally read. We invite you to consider the voices here as both collective and individual, as distinct and shared. Consider the spaces between, the timber and tone of both syntax and speaking voice, the consonances and consonants, the dissonances and distances. Enjoy the peculiar particularities of each author. Hear them as invocations, as welcomings, as call.

What do we mean when we claim that creative nonfiction is a queer genre?

Barrie Jean Borich

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K. Bradford


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Mary Cappello


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Ames Hawkins

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What does it mean to you, to your writing, to “act so that there is no use in a center?”

K. Bradford



Mary Cappello


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Ames Hawkins

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Barrie Jean Borich

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How can a practitioner of creative nonfiction use language and/or form to express a yet-to-be-imagined queer future?

Mary Cappello


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Ames Hawkins

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Barrie Jean Borich

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K. Bradford



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What is the relationship between creative nonfiction as a form/genre and queer history, queer geography, queer memory, the queer body, queer fill in the blank?

Ames Hawkins

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Barrie Jean Borich

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K. Bradford



Mary Cappello


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Authors & Transcripts

Barrie Jean Borich

Barrie Jean Borich is the author of Body Geographic (University of Nebraska Press/American Lives Series), winner of a Lambda Literary Award in Memoir and an IPPY (Independent Publisher Book Award) Gold Medal in Essay/Creative Nonfiction. Her previous book, My Lesbian Husband (Graywolf), won the ALA Stonewall Book Award. Her work has been cited in Best American Essays and Best American Non-Required Reading and she’s currently working on a book-length essay about repurposed industrial landscapes, urban joy, and riding her bicycle on the mean streets of Chicago. Borich was the first creative nonfiction editor of Hamline University’s WaterStone Review and is currently a member of the creative writing faculty of the English Department/MA in Writing & Publishing Program at Chicago’s DePaul University, where she edits Slag Glass City.

“What do we mean when we claim that creative nonfiction is a queer genre? ”: I’ve meant many things over the years when I’ve claimed creative nonfiction as a “queer.”

I’ve spoken of the work as “queerly formed,” as in not looking like all the other so-called “normal” forms, with an off-kilter sense of sound, shape, and fashion;

I’ve talked about CNF as transgenre, which is not the same as transgender but shares a desire to refuse binaries, which embraces hybrids, which strives to be a non-genred genre that contains aspects of all the other genres;

I’ve meant, in my own work, that the queerness—the lives of LGBTQ people—is written as the center rather than the margin of both the history and present tense of human experience.

I suppose I still mean all of this, but I’m more interested now in thinking about queerness as an angle of observation. By this I mean perhaps we can further turn inside-out common notions of the “normal” in terms of not only how we narrate our own lives but also how we narrate the life of the world. This requires us to engage in a deep revision of self-understanding, seeing our own lives, with our full voices and experiences honored and intact, as life itself rather than an “other” life. What then do we see when we look back out on the larger queer and not-queer world? What if we apply “the queer eye”—if I may take that term back from pop culture—to more than lifestyle and fashion, to all of our witness and rendering?

Literary nonfiction provides opportunity to make the personal literary and artful while also allowing the literary artist to act as the old documentary photographers did, to bring into view that which was not fully seen. But seeing is complex. We don’t all see the same thing. So what then of the actual world do we see with our individual and collective queer eyes? What do we find of beauty other eyes might find ugly? What in all the old world has deemed beautiful do we see good reason to critique?

“What does it mean to you, to your writing, to ‘act so that there is no use in a center?’”: This question feels easier to articulate as a reader and teacher than as a writer. As a teacher to have no center means to me, in part, that there is no one canon, no one mandatory reading list, no center bar to which we are all to aspire. This means when I teach I focus on authorial intention, within a world view where the author and the world the author speaks from is their own, while still attempting to embrace all the ways one writer’s center may not be another’s. This means we cannot assume there is only one reading audience so also can’t assume there is only one answer to the question “is this good?”

But as writers, the sense of having no center is more instinctual and perhaps more risky, because all comes down to developing and writing from a fully owned and sometimes quixotic voice. It’s probably safe to assume that any center a queer writer claims is not the same center as that of the queer writer sitting next to her. So is a queer center a singular center? Or a center-less center? But wait, as I write this I realize I am having trouble with no center, that some part of me assumes there is always a center, either their old center or our new center, or all our new centers.

When I published my first book, Restoring the Color of Roses, I used as the epigraph those famous lines from Yeats about the center that will not hold because I felt, as a young queer writer, that we were the rough beasts of our families and communities, the harbinger of the old things falling apart, and with that understanding came a sense of both apocalypse and reinvention. Now, further on down the line, I feel myself as less a breaker and more a maker, and when I make whatever I am writing I am remaking that center again, a middle that’s always green and growing. So perhaps that’s what it means to be a queer writer. Rather than constantly circling that same establishment center we are repeatedly recreating the points around which we circle, and in doing so reconstituting queerness as a progressive and ever-materializing location.

“How can a practitioner of creative nonfiction use language and/or form to express a yet-to-be-imagined queer future?”: Perhaps we can write forward toward a greener and yet still-citified world. Perhaps we can imagine a literature where the us and the not-us are eager to look through each other’s windows? See through each other’s bodies? Perhaps we find ways to answer questions through layers of expansion and relief, rather than with the neat rise, turn, and fall of a narrative arc or the slick pavement of argument? Perhaps we can write the body with the body, the language of our long slow kisses, first inviting the next word to hover closer, then grazing, a whisper of touch, then a meeting, a pressure, a connection, a current, a shiver, not thinking, not a goal-taking, but rather a home that keeps ascending, both built and growing like prairie grass, an engulfing of change, the new breaking through not abandonment, not brokenness, but instead a way of both keeping and reclaiming? Everyone wants, I know, a good story, not this messy garden, this fragmented shit, not this do-goodie-greenery and you-say-I’m-a-dreaminess, but we still have and write about our dirty little lives. Perhaps too we write toward stories that renew rather than end and where what we come to is a light visible in some small moment of change, containing us?

“What is the relationship between creative nonfiction as a form/genre and queer history, queer geography, queer memory, the queer body, queer fill in the blank?”: Is polyphonic. Is multiple. Is all that was and is. Is a sequined curtain in the upstairs bar. Is a woman who’s not trying to be pretty. Is that girl three seats ahead in history class with rain straight hair. Is the 100 butchest women on the internet. Is a beehive and a cigarette. Is a fist. Is the only woman on the stage. Is the history underneath the history. Is a bar no wider than a hallway. Is her shaved head. Is craggy and handsome. Is cufflinks. Is an upturned collar. Is muscle to muscle. Is a shadow. Is two dresses. Is three tuxedos. Is an inked-up arm. Is an unseemly woman. Is the table of women who have never lived with men. Is that charisma straight strangers see, but can’t identify. Is a skirt on a bicycle. Is false eyelashes and a hoodie, headed to the Halsted Street bars. Is those two aunties who’ve shown up for all the weddings. Is the niece who hears about gay marriage on the radio and asks “but what about my aunts?” Is all you ever wanted to know about fucking. Is lip-synching for your life. Is yelling at the usher who won’t let your lesbian husband use the ladies room. Is laughing about it later because she does look damned handsome in her suit. Is the skinny barista in the coffeeshop singing along to Lady Gaga. Is the boys on Broadway who squeal when our pretty poodle mix dog wears her boots. It’s those two older gentlemen in the store around the corner who kiss each other on the cheeks before they part. Is the conflation of natty date night fedoras and heroin-dead actors and gender-blurry authors who’ve been the subject of award-winning biopics— all conflated when the panhandler on Wabash tells my spouse she looks like Truman Capote. Is the local drag queen I see now on TV commercials. Is the old lesbian in the art gallery who says as soon as they put up those rainbow flags all the gays moved away. Is remembering that same street in the 80s with its macrobiotic bakeries and garden level sex toy stores, blue grottoes glimmering out onto the sidewalks. Is the state-by-state civil rights schizophrenia. Is the Chanel headpiece on the former figure skater on TV, broadcasting from a country not his own where it’s against the law to be so fabulous. Is two old lesbians in blue jeans and with rock and roll hair hugging before one climbs up onto the bus. Is all this, is none of this, is history and privacy, is orgasms and head bashings, is all that is actual, both one and many stories, is nonfictions and fictions and songs, is what requires paper that scratches away like a lottery ticket or a book that cracks like a mirror when we read it, or a skyscraper with another country on each floor, is one form that must be many to contain so many stories of the naked and the queer.

K. Bradford

Bio for Author

“What do we mean when we claim that creative nonfiction is a queer genre? ”: Being queer is a creative nonfiction. Nonfiction as realness. Realness as the physical. The physical plane as these bodies we live in, or borrow for a time. Nonfiction then is the body, and as queers we inhabit that nonfiction realness of the body, queerly. We interrogate the body as we live in its permutations of desire and gender—the queerness we have to work to find whether at age six or 13 or 19 or 42 or 63. Queers activate the body as a site of becoming. The given of the body is exploded, ours to inspect and marvel at and transgress and theorize. We wear our bodies, we make real what we seek to be-desire-imagine-conjure: the body as a bodyform. We bend, experiment, invent, parade, modify these bodyforms, of our own making from what we know and stretch to know. We make this nonfiction more real than its own realness. We inhabit our form, we emblazon it, we bend it queerly. We queers are walking creative nonfictions.

As we craft the bodyform, we craft the pageform. We bring our bodies to the page and the pages back to our bodies. Many queers have been shaped and made by the queer writings we’ve read that helped us to find and map and see ourselves.

Are we queers not then pagebodies? Bodies marked by the pages we have found refuge in, found our survival, politics, desire, outrageousness in? And the pages shaped by the storied bodies we traffic in, flock to, make vanilla or kinky love to, the bodies we make community and culture and queer family with?

Are the two women in this image not pagebodies? Their flare and brazenness – whose words and stories shaped their making?

In Audre Lorde’s words, “Your silence will not protect you.”

And Wayne Koestenbaum once stated, “The world was doing its best to ignore the fact that I was a writer.”

In our bodies as on our pages—the ones we read or write—this form, this place is where we let out our bentness, our strangeness, our realness, our silences, our peculiarity out—where we court it and brave it. We flock to the page to shape its form, to let it shape us, and the pages flock back to us in a circuit where the raw, the grit, the boldness, the trauma, the love, the desire, the revelation, the celebration is our very queering.

Our queer pagebody holds it all, even the rough, uneven stories, with flare.

“What does it mean to you, to your writing, to ‘act so that there is no use in a center?’”: Living and writing from the site of a queer body-mind, I implode a center. Because my queerness is kaleidoscopic and my gender multiplicitous, because the positioning of my whiteness and class do not subscribe to their companion monoliths—I move, think, act, love, fuck, speak, perform and write to activate a circuitry of shifting voicings and articulations. My impulse is to speak and write as a polyphonic chorus, one that asserts a shifting archaeology of voices and positions that might rub against each other, disrupt each other, get a rise out of each, refute each other, and still exist as a layered kinship.

As I trouble the center, I work to create a kinship of decentered micro-centers.

Rather than writing linearly or toward a privileged center, I refigure the center as a constellation of interconnected, divergent, overlapping, intervening cells.

A Polyphonic Chorus:

As my curly goatee tells you one story, other parts of my embodiment tell you different stories. How I strut. How I soften. How I listen. How I rage. How I let my hair grow. How I hold my hands. How I tie a tie. How I sway. How I top. How I bottom. How I bottom from the top. How I top from the bottom. How I look at another genderqueer I don’t know in the eyes. How I shrink. How I take up space. How I speak. How I command. How I back down. How I fight back.

On the plane to Seattle I sat between two men, both white. One was my size, and we chatted briefly about the wireless on Southwest. The guy to my left was a tall, hulky dude who took up a lot of space, never said a word, and watched a movie the whole ride. I ate a pizza. Read part of Eleni Siklianos’s book California Dream and worked on questions for my conference panel. When we landed, I walked off the ramp and headed to baggage claim. Bleary eyes landing on bronzed fish embedded in the floor, signs of the Pacific Northwest. I looked up and caught the eye of the hulky dude walking away from the ramp as he said something inaudible, with his head tilted vaguely my way. I said, did you say something? He launched into me saying that I was the most miserable traveler ever, to which I said, because I ate a pizza? He growled at me about my elbow being in his ribs the whole time. His attack rapidly turned into a series of disconnected insults until he called me a bitch and then, with a hand gesture at my whole body, from head to toe, he spewed: This whole thing. Is this whole thing working for you? I don’t think so!

I looked at him and said, actually yes, it is. As I turned and walked back toward the plane to exit the hurling flight path of his assault I said, You can take your rage somewhere else. I didn’t see him again.

Yes. This whole thing is as intricate and complicated as this hater fears. This whole thing is more fierce and shifting and terrifying and awesome than this hater can imagine. This whole thing unleashes safe containers. This whole thing speaks in multiple tongues. This whole thing holds trauma and desire in one topography. This whole thing does not give up when the world doesn’t know where to put “it”. This whole thing is not an easy solution to what it means to be a human being. This whole thing will look you back in the eye when you show signs of social venom. This whole thing writes this past into a future in one breath stroke. This whole thing will not conform so that others can feel comfortable. This whole thing will take the worst attacks, from a total stranger or a close love, and convert that hate and cowardice into fuel. This whole thing has learned to not turn away from itself no matter what. This whole thing burns the more brightly for it.

This whole thing is a network of pulsing, buzzing centers, an intricate decentered language that this dude at the epicenter of the center fears because this whole thing threatens to undermine the singularity of a center he doesn’t know how to live beyond. This hater did not know who he was fucking with.

Because this whole thing is whole: a whole working thing, a network of multiplying, mobilized centers that speak to other fierce and defiant centers that talk across time across gender across race across borders across space to other bodies who burn the more brightly for all of our whole things decentering the center.

“How can a practitioner of creative nonfiction use language and/or form to express a yet-to-be-imagined queer future?”:

“Although wherever you are going is always in front of you, there is no such thing as straight ahead.”

― Jeanette Winterson, The Passion

A hiving kind, spirals of queer labor finding and remaking home.

The queer body, not as resting place but a site where we do and undo from all we make happen from all that happens to us with lovers, strangers, family, ourselves we unravel, we build up we cocoon in, we chrysalis out.

We knit stich a future; it is of us already. Wrapped, we move, layers of queer time, not fixed or stable ground, queering onward, fluid, or flux, conjuring, inventing, upending, we do not yet know all we are making from everything around us. We hive queer futures.

We are sleeping & we are waking.

We are dreaming & we are stirring.

We are breathing & we are dying.

We are falling & we are rising.

“What is the relationship between creative nonfiction as a form/genre and queer history, queer geography, queer memory, the queer body, queer fill in the blank?”:

(Four decades of queer stitches and ruptures)

Provincetown, late 1970’s.
My first queer memory—fuzzy, vague, cinematic. My mother, brother and I in Provincetown for a reason I don’t remember. It was summer and we walked down a street with shops and people coming and going. My mother told us in an informative, almost tour-guide-like way that this is a town where lesbians live. I didn’t know where to put this idea. It floated around for years, an unhinged memory cloud. A disembodied queer nation I didn’t yet know my body belonged to.

Oberlin Ohio, 1989.
I lived in a lesbian, feminist collective, the same one Alison Bechdel depicted in Fun Home. We had weekly house meetings where we talked about house chores, lesbians, and lesbians. The lesbians we were reading, the lesbians who were shaping us, the lesbians our gaze was upon. I was also taking classes that birthed my feminist lesbian thinking and radical politics. My consciousness, midwifed by Cherríe Moraga, Gloria Anzaldúa, Adrienne Rich, Audre Lorde, Angela Davis, bell hooks. That year was also the first year I was dating a man for the first time in a more than two-month kind of way. Duly note: he was going to Brown, 1000 miles away. But I felt in love. I was in love. I was fucking for the first time—having adventurous, romping, tender sex. As the year went on, I started waking up in bed with this long-haired man having dreamt about kissing women. I told him about the dreams and asked him if he dreamt about men. Dreams, and currents of desires—conflicting and converging—hovered over the bed I sometimes shared with this boy. I was a split topography that year; my mind lived in one place, my body in another.

Houston, Texas 1992.
After college, I moved to Austin, and my activism went into full tilt. The grassroots organizing building on Congress Ave. housed meetings of Act Up, WAC (Women’s Action Coalition), The Lesbian Avengers and other collectives I threw myself into in the 90’s. The little city of Austin—echoing the fierce activist resistance across the country—crackled with the energy of radicals, liberals, artists and freaks splitting the seams of the Reagan-Bush era and its aftermath. The summer of 1992, the Act Up chapter I was in drove to Houston to protest the Republican National Convention. My best friend (later my girlfriend), her girlfriend and I jumped in a pick-up truck and hurled our way toward sweaty Houston. We met up with Act Up chapters from all over the south at Diverse Works, a progressive arts space downtown. We broke into caucuses for our different causes and in different corners of the warehouse, made up chants, designed posters and ranted, laughed, found kinship. Queer bodies converging, radical pods amassing, to put our bodies on the line. The AIDS crisis combined with the repression of the Reagan-Bush Era called forth our deepest urgencies. Silence = Death. Desperate times called for sharp, blunt words. We knew that assembled together, our bodies were a language more than words. We knew this when the riot cops appeared out of nowhere, when the helicopters descended, when without warning the riot cops turned their horses on us and charged. In the midst of the riot, in the midst of the chaos of bodies charging, dispersing, running, is a single image, stilled, of my friend Lisa getting beaten by a cop. Five years later, she committed suicide and how I remember her most is on the bus that drove us all away from the riot with her lip busted up but laughing brazenly and how we all ranted and laughed and surged as the bus carried us back through the streets where we had marched, a small travelling nation—sweaty, shaken, but unbroken.

Columbus, Ohio 2001
After hitching rides from Texas to Chicago to Ohio, I landed in a camp of all camps: hundreds of drag kings from across the country and Canada ready to trot out of their glorious, subversive outrageousness. In the green room, two kings stood in front of a mirror meticulously applying spirit gum and facial hair to their chins, upper lips, and chops. They inspected each other’s handy-work, gave each other tips, and went back to grooming. This was the first of many drag king convergences. On the mainstage for the first time, I lip synched to the Bee Gee’s How Deep is Your Love and pulled flowers out of my pants and gave them, one by one, to the audience. Redact that. This year, at a Christmas drag show in LA, I pulled sugar out of my pants and threw it over the audience as snow-cum. Back in 2001, I was raw and fresh and cock-strutting. But I pulled the flowers from behind my back. And rubbed the petals across the faces of the audience, who were hungry for whatever you dished up to them from that genderfucking stage. Queer women, genderqueers and trans men converged from all over for workshops, talks and drag king shows. There was a whole lot of swooning in those early days of the drag king movement. A combustive heat filled the rooms and clubs where we shared, tested, and flaunted our latest theory or embodiment of subversive genders and queer desires. A heat from all falling in love with each other—in the most collective, queer way. Hell yeah, there was a lot of chemistry and lust firing off, and a line-up of couplings, short and long-term, were born from this space. But the hot joy rippling through us all was about a larger, public queer body—a collective constellation that held and celebrated a wild range of queer geographies, politics, desires, cultures. We knew that each body, each expression, each history, made this collective—and together, we were a wilder, smarter, hotter queer geobody. We staged our minds (our humor, irony, wit, politics) through our bodies, spinning a queer vision that stretched the limits, memories and dreams of who we thought we were. For those days and nights, we were more than our own body or town or troupe or home—and we could feel the orbit of that public queer vision, watching with pleasure the very orbit we were spinning.

Mary Cappello


Mary Cappello’s four books of literary nonfiction include Awkward: A Detour (a Los Angeles Times Bestseller), and, following Maya Deren, a ritual in transfigured time titled Called Back. Her most recent book, Swallow, emerges from the Chevalier Jackson Foreign Body Collection in Philadelphia’s Mütter Museum. A recipient of The Bechtel Prize for Educating the Imagination from Teachers and Writers Collaborative, the Dorothea Lange-Paul Taylor Prize from Duke University’s Center for Documentary Studies, and a Guggenheim Fellowship, Cappello is a former Fulbright Lecturer at the Gorky Literary Institute (Moscow), and currently Professor of English and creative writing at the University of Rhode Island. Her recent essay-novella, “My Secret, Private Errand,” appears in Salmagundi magazine; she is currently completing a book-length essay on “mood.”

“What do we mean when we claim that creative nonfiction is a queer genre? ”: There’s something resplendent about the question of creative nonfiction as a queer genre, and it’s not just reducible to calling upon Mother Minelli for one’s inspiration over and against Father Montaigne—or, if we must hail creative nonfiction’s essayism as a paternity, could we at least admit Montaigne’s inventions having emerged from his love of another man? Getting to it though, I feel a rush, a cornucopia, like the colors that both blind and wake me into the senselessness of the American musical—a camp fantasia that isn’t so much surface as it rends the redness of the red, offering me some alternative tap dance of saturated rapture. As a queerly conspiring creative nonfictor, I was reared on Ann Margret and Fred Astaire, and my work is ever hopeful to find a language that exorbitant and embodied: can the slender tuxedo jacket of form accommodate the bosomy reader within? Maybe that’s what I’m after, or I’m its after-effect: call it debonair spillage.

There are so many ways to think of creative nonfiction’s queerness, and my own glossary includes the extent to which it allows me to court incongruity, dis-continuity, dis-identification, and filial impiety. The file folders of queer nonfictive practice could include: allowing the wild in; inhabiting your language like a foreigner; investigative self-estrangement; chance operations, accidents and mistakes; architectures of the real; archives of the true; archaeologies of the actual; exquisite demands; laborious play and feeling-ful mentation; escape from polemic; notes on notes; disruptive beauty; or, the politics of forgetfulness, to name a random few.

For the sake of three minutes, let me, like a Dadaist, reach randomly into the D’s: what’s queer about creative nonfiction is the genre’s dereliction; its dilettantism and dandyism; its desperation no longer quiet but sung; its not being interested in being done up and its never being done; its dorkiness; its Druidism; its decrudescence; its dappledness; its dump [comma] what a; its decrescendo and diminuendo; its density; its disparateness; its delicacy and its doggedness; its disturbance [comma], varieties of; its Dionysian energies; its deadpan demeanor; its drollery; its anti-dogmatism; its love of dolphins (huh?); its dudes [comma], all the young; its delightful, delectable Cole Porterisms; its delinquencies; its anti-determinism; its down to earthiness; its documentary foundations.

In what sense is creative nonfiction a form of queer documentary-making? If a documentarist, I’m an odd sort of one because I’m not interested in any and all documents but those that resist either our filing or our handling or our placings. Improper documents: a surrogate father’s death certificate, my grandfather’s unsent letters, my father’s unfinished stories. “Here are all the notes;” my father pushes the scraps of paper toward me, scraps that too readily resemble the bits of pieces of jotting, the anglings and inklings, the ambles and paper estuaries, the bits and fragments of traces that make the materials on my own writing desk. I still compose by hand. “Maybe you can finish it for me,” my father says.”

What am I to do with them? What have I to do with them?

“What does it mean to you, to your writing, to ‘act so that there is no use in a center?’”:

“…Please excuse /the wandering / writing—Sleeplessness / makes my Pencil / stumble—Affection / clogs it—too— (A 742)

…Threading with you / this lovely Maze, / which is not Life / or Death—(A 734)

…Sweeter/ of course than / not writing, be- / cause it has / a wandering /Aim… (A 744)

…for I am / but a restive / sleeper and often / should journey / from your Arms / through the happy / Night… (A 740)

…the Bible says very / roguishly, that the / “wayfaring Man, though / a Fool—need not / err therein”; Need / the “wayfaring” Woman? / Ask your throbbing / Scripture—(A 740)

That’s Emily Dickinson, queer co-conspirator whom I keep ever nearby, inscriptions from her late letter fragments with thanks to Marta Werner and the Emily Dickinson Electronic Archives where Werner gives us these fragments in her illustrated essay, “Fly Leaves: Toward a Poetics of Reading Emily Dickinson’s Late Writings.”
[If hyperlink does not load, insert:]

I never begin where I’ve been trained to begin; the way I write, and the way I try to live, is to listen well and respond from someplace else.
In Awkward, I wrote an entire book about the pleasures and perils of off-centeredness. In classrooms devoted to decentering nonfictions, I ask my students to identify the narrative conventions that accrue to a particular type of trauma memoir—abuse, abortion, alcoholism, adoption, and to write athwart those; to identify the absent interlocutor who is the tacit addressee of one’s prose and consciously replace that persona with another; to understand how the unidentified addressee determines the position that the prose’s autobiographical Subject can take. I believe in the necessity of observational notebooks: of practicing seeing, of cultivating sight, but the question is always what do I look for? Where do I look? Seek out the periphery, I suggest. Don’t look where you are trained to look, but make a collection out of a category that might even seem absurd or banal. Wallpaper, say, or overcoats. Maybe truth emerges out of our assembled notes on looking-elsewhere.

In a recent suite of meditative collaborations with David Lazar [If hyperlink does not load, insert:] I proposed that digression isn’t sufficient in describing what creative nonfiction does best because it privileges both a point (as singular vantage and aim), and a center. But essays at their best, I said, think like Gertrude Stein and therein lies their pleasure and their difference: “act so that there is no use in a center”; “aim less”; “I do not write in order to be right.” Even when an essay conveys information, it does something more than or different from pointing. I think there’s a big difference between digressing and wandering.

Digression feels neurotic (a Poe-esque imp of the perverse?) whereas wandering takes courage, and it’s also not the same as “changing the subject;” it’s a staying with the subject that requires that we approach from numerous different pathways.
Might creative nonfiction’s allowance of a wending repair a history of the imagination’s pre-emptive intrusion in any writer’s life, from childhood forward? Creative nonfiction writing wanders, waywardly, in an attempt to restore all of the paths that had been cut-short, headed off at the pass, de-railed, even if worded byways are more dangerous than wooded paths, even if the way of writing is ill-lit, and most of all braced by the uncertainty of solitary passage.
Try starting out without needing to know in advance where you will arrive: it’s the directive of both the essay and of creative nonfiction. Try asking a better question than what it is, like what kind of work does it do? What is the nature of the peaks and valleys of its field of play?

Emily Dickinson begins a letter to her beloved Susan,

                     “at Centre of

the Sea,”

and closes it by opening with a question,

“Should I turn in

my long night, I should

murmur, ‘Sue’?

Emily.” [1]

“How can a practitioner of creative nonfiction use language and/or form to express a yet-to-be-imagined queer future?”: On more than one occasion, in interviews, French philosopher Michel Foucault speculates that homophobia is not so much motivated by people’s abhorrence of what they perceive to be aberrant sexual acts as it is a response to the fact that homosexuality produces new forms of friendship, makes new forms of love possible, even restructures the meaning of kinship: “To imagine a sexual act that doesn’t conform to law or nature is not what disturbs people. But that individuals are beginning to love one another—there’s the problem” (From “Friendship as a Way of Life,” Gai Pied, April 1981, p.137).

When you ask me to imagine a queer future, I turn back to Michel Foucault and the sort of radical kinship structures I find in the work of Hilton Als, identification, and dis-identification; communitarianism born of something other than blood ties and the domestication of desire. Writing as a form of friendship, and friendship as a way of life.

Does this future we have in mind require a teleology of present and past? Like the essays we were taught to have beginnings, middles, and ends? When you ask me about a yet to be imagined queer future, I find myself looking back: to William Blake, a visionary who looked through time and beyond it: who died painting his wife in the nude and singing Allelueia! Who remarked, “what is now real was once only imagined,” in his Marriage of Heaven and Hell, an ecstatic word/image experiment that un-did binaries of good and evil.

I think the best answer I can give if we’re going together to imagine a queer future is to be critical of the question itself, considering we might have to start by asking the question that no one else is asking. To admit when we can that the Emperor (not to be confused with Catherine Blake) is wearing no clothes. In order to imagine a queer future, we’d need to ask a question that doesn’t already anticipate its self-fulfilling future, its answer. In place of how do we use form, I’d ask how do we form—to re-inhabit form as a verb rather than a noun, and to reconceive “expression” as a relay of impressions or of soundings.

Can creative nonfiction’s sterling moment be a trans-generic one? The arrival of that day when readers are invited to read writing rather than authors, to eke out styles and novel relationships to language, to find ourselves in a place of collocations: creative nonfiction sharing a room with visual art and music, film and architecture and performance. Collocations and appositions: if opposition cancels, apposition makes apparent; if opposition negates, apposition fosters and opens. Can we imagine a writing fueled by a love of incompatabilities, a yen for placing side by side?

Each repetition of an available sexism has the power to make me indignant, but when you ask me to imagine a queer future, I remember Susan Sontag, who confronted with same said, you can’t spend your life being indignant. Can we turn to creative nonfiction for a tone other than indignance: can we play beyond an octave of tones and incite new structures of feeling?

Can we parse queer futures by purveying the books we all have on our desks or in our queues that we hope, intend, aim, want, long, or expect to read over and against those that we truly are reading? The writing that I most like to read is a literature in search of a reader and sometimes a literature that demands the creation of a reader that, prior to the writing, does not yet exist. The books I want to read are those that teach me newly how to read.

In the queer future I imagine, I go back to the point of a non-familial familial origin, re-learning primarily the Italian habit of resting mid-day and enjoying on Sundays a walk called passagietta. I am also in this future fluent in Arabic; that’s one of my desires. How can we write the future when we’ve barely learned to read the past? Why not a writing trained enough on the moment to incite new forms of care?

“What is the relationship between creative nonfiction as a form/genre and queer history, queer geography, queer memory, the queer body, queer fill in the blank?”: On chemotherapy, I want to translate everything that is written to me into a language other than English, and in this way, transform the most banal utterance into a declaration of love so that I can pine, long for, and imagine being wanted. It’s the privilege of being at loggerheads that I miss on chemotherapy; it’s the enchantment of being en rapport.

By all accounts I ‘do’ extremely well on chemotherapy. My ability to exercise daily, to fold, empty, tidy, sort, to hydrate, put me in a tiny subcategory of women on these drugs according to my oncologist. What I cannot do during this time is read and write. Reading must be akin to eating, I decide, and writing to preparing a meal. Pictures replenish me. For a period of time, I eat paintings; I live on reproductions. I lift a hand to remove an ingot as if to recite the secret phrase that will unseal the opening to a cave. I bring down tomes otherwise unopened on my shelves—on chemotherapy, I look through picture books.
The painting that holds me best and most is Marsden Hartley’s Summer—Sea Window No. 1, and through it I experience pieces of a landscape as comfort food. If this painting were a recipe, it would instruct the cook to bring to a shimmer rather than a simmer. “If it’s beauty you’re after, hide the roses inside their leaves,” the painting says. “If it’s a view you need, consider looking through a baffle.” Because all of its planes are equalized, no part of this painting’s scene is privileged, and yet two elements in its arrangement appear to be in competition for my gaze: off to one side, slender, tall, a bunch of roses emerging from a vase, and at the front center of the painting, weighty, thick, a book. The book orients a view of (seemingly edible) clouds and a boat through the window—the book as ledge rather than ledger.

Where do you have to be standing to experience the dock as a desk? What’s the true center of the painting?—a book, a boat, or a rose? The book is rose-colored; it’s saturated pink, and as such is not a book at all but a block of color, an outward form, a surface for reflecting roses. Just as a painting can’t be opened, neither can this book, and since I can’t read anyway, I drift. I sip some water, keen to tally another glass put in, and drowse toward what I think I can recall: Hartley had written an essay on Emily Dickinson. Was it possibly the first critical commentary on Dickinson’s work I’d ever read? “Alone and in a circumstance…” “This world is not conclusion…” “The name of it is Autumn…” Scarlet. Resumption. Crimson. Surcingle. Vermillion. Contusion.

Pang. Heft. Husk.

Propitiation. Blush.

Incautious. Acorn. Dimple.

Twig. Pluck. Wrinkle.







I drift toward tidings, beginnings of something greater, something still to come.[2]

Ames Hawkins

Bio for Ames Hawkins

“What do we mean when we claim that creative nonfiction is a queer genre? ”: What I mean when I claim that CNF is a queer genre is that I find more value in claiming that I am a transgenre writer able to simultaneously identify with David Lazar’s assertion that the essay is a queer genre, with Kazim Ali’s statement that, “Genre, like gender, is not so much passé as it is boring.”

Which is to say what I want more than anything is to not have the writing process be rote, to not already know where it is I’m going, sure of my argument, confident of my approach.

Which is to say I could tell you about how I teach a course called Queer Writings, could locate the answer in texts, in Audre Lorde’s joins, in Wayne Koestenbaum’s prick, in Hollingbaugh veins, in Despentes’ dick.

Which is to say I claim creative nonfiction in my body as literature, as much as it is a body of literature.

Which is to say when I finally re-located my desire, sliding away from some particular final answers, toward the ecstatic thrill of writing in hot pursuit of these questions, I could finally get started.

Which is to say I can’t stop thinking about Gayle Salamon’s exploration of Merleau-Ponty’s elastic ideas regarding sexuality: “The join between desire and the body is the location of sexuality, and that join may be a penis, or some other phallus, or some other body part, or a region of the body that is not individuated into a part, or a bodily auxiliary that is not organically attached to the body.”

Which is to say I can claim that I locate my sexuality in the body auxiliary of particular texts, a join I trace to my ninth year when I was equally titillated by both the story of Harriet Tubman and the poetry of Shel Silverstein.

Which is to say my Derridean be-coming as a transgenre writer begins puberty in my body as literature in 1978 as both unknowable dark matter and latent language-kink spiral.

Which is to say I think about my sexual desire not so much in heterosexual and/or homosexual terms, but as something more like syntaxual and languagual.

Which is to say I am genreamorous: never narratively or identifiably faithful to or in any one form.

Which is to say I understand my sexuality as located both in my writing and that toward which my writing bends.

“What does it mean to you, to your writing, to ‘act so that there is no use in a center?’”: Last year, I was building myself an office, a room of my own. I was building it in a lake house, a second home newly acquired with my now ex-partner. It is a grand 3500 square foot salt-box, pine-paneled, lodge-style structure situated on the edge of protected wetland in a National Forest, and the space was situated in the back of the master bedroom, a 10×12 foot area with pine floors and a slanted ceiling. In preparation, I had removed the perimeter of white pressboard shelving on which the past owner stored all her many bins of fabric, and had begun constructing a wall into which I’d already inlaid a stained glass window that used to be a part of a church in upstate New York in which my grandfather once preached. I imagined for the office a door of a style I began to covet while watching the Showtime series Masters of Sex: heavy, wooden, with brass handle and large square a pane of glass on which can be hand-painted in black the office-owner’s name.

This would have been the first home-office I’d had since I was nine, when I lived on the third floor of a redbrick Georgian colonial, when I did all my writing inside red brick buildings, learning all the different sets of rules: what I would have to do to make myself visible.

Both houses remain where they were, largely as they were. My material connection to them does not.

For the past thirty-five years, I bitched about not having a room of my own, not having a spatial creative center. But if I’m being honest, this fact not only hasn’t seemed to stop me from writing, it may have helped me to come to understand my own de-centered writerly desire.

Now, as I find myself in a two-bedroom apartment that I share with my sixteen year old son, having recently separated from my partner of nearly two decades, I think about the fact that though I had started creating an office of my own, once again, I am without one.

I think about the fact that even though I can write anywhere, I’m most attracted to library cubicles: small spaces without décor, without windows, without distraction. Little writing closets, Steinian spaces of possibility where, “A whole centre and a border make hanging a way of dressing.”

What would it mean to acknowledge that though I tried, though I thought I wanted it, though I believed I needed it, for some reason, the office never materialized? Does it matter that it isn’t just a room of my own that I now have, but an apartment where I have the choice of writing in the front room, or in my bedroom, next to a double-wide closet?

Do you know the pro-queer bumper sticker: Closets Are for Clothes? When I first read that, my closet held dresses and kilts hanging next to mom-ironed button down oxfords hung in color-coded order. Now, my closet is full of shirts and pants, and most importantly, ties. A center made of colorful strips of silk, each individually hanging limp, expectant with radical use.

What I realized: When I write, I am usually fully dressed, often using a tie, wearing a borderland, feeling my way to whatever center the piece I’m writing seems to need, to desire.

Here, I’ll border-hang; everywhere I’ll dress-write.

And, I’ll never leave the center where I tied it.

“How can a practitioner of creative nonfiction use language and/or form to express a yet-to-be-imagined queer future?”: 1: I’m nine, visiting the library with my mother and brother. With two hands flat against the heavy oak door I loved to break the vacuum created by time and air conditioning. I reveled in the moment that the smell of the sunbaked cement transitioned into the scent of gardenia-dipped librarians sprinkled with cotton-ragged paper and recovered books. That summer, my mom signed the cards giving me permission to take books out from anywhere in the library. I would race to the back, to the shelves of adult fiction and quickly find another Agatha Christie Miss Marple novel. I did this as fast as I could so I would have as much time as possible to sit on the floor in front of the children’s biography section and re-read for the zillionth time Harriet Tubman: Conductor on the Underground Railroad, by Ann Petry, ever conscious of two facts: 1) that this was a “true” story; 2) Harriet and I had nothing in common but we were unquestionably connected.

2: I’m nine and I’ve just spent all weekend memorizing because that was the assignment: choose a poem of over 10 lines to recite in class. I could have memorized “The Raven”— a favorite of mine—but I was also already keenly aware of the notion of audience. I didn’t just want to impress the teacher; I wanted to garner the attention of my peers. Two years prior I had won a writing contest at school. The 1970s were the golden age of the democratic experiment in education, so while the teachers had been the ones to choose the finalists, the ultimate decision as to who was winner was decided by popular vote. My dramatic reading of an original tall tale about a 99-pound weakling who, by some deus ex machina, ends up with superpowers enabling him to toss barbells around at will, brought down the house. With confidence garnered through this past experience, I proudly stand when Mr. Jacobs calls my name, and enthusiastically begin, “Sarah Cynthia Sylvia Stout would not take the garbage out…” I don’t get two lines when he stops me and says: “That’s not written by a real poet. You’ll have to choose another one.”

In 1978, we move from Sterling Heights, Michigan—a middle/labor class second wave white flight community outside metro Detroit—to Grosse Pointe, Michigan—an old-moneyed, long-time white community that shares city limits with Motown. Five years hence, I will get my first clear understanding of why this place has become for me not just a context, a spatial container for my experience, but a second skin, a life-giving organ, inseparable from who it is I am and how it is perceive reality. In this repeatable future I’ll be ever reading Lisa Birnbach’s The Preppy Handbook. In the section titled the “Basic Body Types,” Birnbachs’ elision of the Amazon and the Aesthete, I will not only see who I am, but will sense the explosive unknowable, erotically frightening possibilities of who I am—will and can be—to come.

“What is the relationship between creative nonfiction as a form/genre and queer history, queer geography, queer memory, the queer body, queer fill in the blank?”:

They Courted Me Peculiar

First, Harriet. Plain and dark and tall.

From the children’s section she came to call

On androgynous me when I was nine,

All baseball hats and spit and shine.

And though I was privileged —unmistakably white—

I read her story over with all my might.

Something secret, sacred, yes underground too

Was there in her tale left for me as a clue

To who I was then and who I could be later:

Liminal. Transgender. Transgenre. Narrator.

Others came calling. Sojourner and Anne

Amelia and Helen and Clara but then

Harriet sweet would give me her hand

And we’d reunite in my promised land.

And in the same moment Harriet gave me a self

I discovered that words also come from the shelves

That it isn’t just beginnings, middles, and ends

But aesthetics and syntax and language, my friends!

These are the secrets to loving, to play,

In and outside words all night and day.

I could be faithful to Harriet, and I would!

And Shel taught me playing the field could be good.

I memorized “Cynthia” (that much is quite true)

But I’d have done “Ickle Me Pickle Me Tickle Me” too.

I’d lay down with unicorns, with losers as well,

Be they ticklish constrictish whatifish or swell.

And for rejecting my desires for no reason he’d tell,

Shel taught me my teacher could just go to hell.

Now, the fact that the day after I was born

In Folsom prison Johnny Cash first performed

Shel’s queerish tall tale of that poor boy named Sue

Makes me believe in the existence of universal truth,

Bodily connected across time and space

When I list some of the names that were given her face:

Moses, General Harriet, black Joan of Arc,

“The most of a man,” said John Brown (which wasn’t a lark).

Courting, flirting my latent creative desire,

These two peach-popped my word-lust and set me on fire.

Thus in every here-now and in every there-then

Of my writing production in everywhere-when

I will eventually find language through gender/genres that bend

Always walking and writing where my sidewalk ends.







Images in “Courting the Peculiar”

All images found here are believed to be in the “public domain;” some of the images displayed are of unknown origin. We do not intend to infringe on any legitimate intellectual rights, artistic rights, or copyright. If you are the rightful owner of any of the images posted here and you do not want it to be displayed, or if you require a suitable credit, please contact the authors and we will immediately arrange for the image to be removed and/or provide credit where it is due. Access to all content on this site is free of charge and therefore we do not gain any financial benefit from the display or download of any image.

The images in Barrie Jean Borich’s sections of “Courting the Peculiar” were obtained here:

Part I: The Female Gaze, by Brooke, on Flickr.

Part II: Hartísimo de fotos ya by Gabri Solera, on Flickr.

Part III: Save Our Planet Building. Original image source unknown; assumed to be in the public domain.

Part IV: Film Still, Kim Novak in Pushover (film noir/Richard Quine).

Some of the Images in Mary Cappello’s section of “Courting the Peculiar” were obtained here:

Part I: Marilyn Monroe reads Arthur Miller. June 1951 photo by photographer Ben Ross for Parade Magazine.–103215312.html

Film still from opening of Bye, Bye, Birdie, directed by George Sidney; cinematography by Joseph Biroc, Columbia Pictures, release date April 4, 1963.–1963/

Part IV: Marsden Hartley, “Summer—Sea Window No. 1, ” oil on board, 1939–1940. This work is in the public domain.

All other images are the personal property of the authors of “Courting the Peculiar.”

  1. See Hart, Ellen Louise and Martha Nell Smith, Open Me Carefully: Emily Dickinson’s Intimate Letters to Susan Huntington Dickinson, Ashfield, MA: Paris Press, 1998: 131–133.  ↩
  2. Excerpted from Mary Cappello, Called Back: My Reply to Cancer, My Return to Life, New York: Alyson Books, 2009, pps. 124, 125, 127,126, 128.  ↩

Audio Interview as Writing Assignment

I recently gave a talk on presentation on incorporating an audio interview as a writing assignment into my first-year writing classroom. I’ve decided to make a bunch of the resources available to anyone who might not have attended, but are still interested. Below, I’m including a video of the talk, audio of the talk, the slideshow itself, a description of the assignment, and a few embedded student examples. Please feel free to comment or email me if you have any questions. Thanks. (Aaargh! The video doesn’t actually start until 32 seconds in. Waaay too much work to re-export the file. Sorry.)

Audio interview assignment presentation from Ryan Trauman

As far as the audio file goes, before the presentation, we had a discussion of Cindy Selfe’s “The Movement of Air, the Breath of Meaning: Aurality and Multimodal Composing.” The more formal presentation picks up at about the 20:45 mark of the audio.

Streaming Audio:

Audio Download: MP3 File


Assignment Description:

For this assignment, you will interview another student in class about the work he or she does. That student will then interview you right back. Prior to the interviews, you’ll work together to negotiate some questions, so you know which questions you’ll be asking, and what questions you’ll be asked. There will also be some parameters that I will assign. Once you agree on the questions, you’ll conduct at least one practice interview. Then you’ll record your interview with the other person, you’ll edit their responses into a single piece, add a scripted and recorded introduction and upload the file to a social networking site. You’ll also write a short reflection on some of the choices you made along the way. The final audio text will be 7-9 minutes long*, and your written reflection will be at least 300 words.

The raw, unedited recording for this assignment will be due before midnight, April 2nd. This file will be a recording of your partner talking about her/his work (not you talking about it). You will upload this file to, and you’ll title it: “[Your Parnter’s Name] Raw Interview.” Then you will embed this Soundcloud text into a new post titled: “[Your Parnter’s Name] Raw Interview.” (no written reflection due on 10/30).

The final edited file and written reflection will be due before 11:59 pm, Thursday, April 16th. This file will be a “Remixing” and “Presentation” of your partner’s work. For this stage of the assignment, you’ll take your partner’s answers to his/her questions and you’ll edit them into a 7-9 minute audio text. The first part of the audio text will be your voice introducing us (your listening audience) to the person we will hear for the rest of the recording (your partner). After you introduce your partner, you’ll give us a preview of some of the things we will soon be hearing. You need to offer more than just the topic. Something more than just “You’re about to listen to Steve talk about what it’s like to be a house painter.” That might be a great place to start with your introduction, but you need to give us more than that. Just a brief preview. But try to present it in a way that stirs our interest. Remember to generate some sort of curiosity about Steve. For instance, what does Steve like most about being a house painter? If it’s something that we might not expect or something that needs more explanation, that would be a good place to start. Whatever you tell us we’re about to hear, just make sure it doesn’t sound boring. You might hint at something that we should want to know about house painters. You might suggest that we’re about to learn something about Steve or house painters that we wouldn’t have expected. After your introduction, we should hear your partner speaking… most likely her/his response to one of the interview questions. But remember, we won’t ever hear you asking the question. Just her/him talking about it. Then you move on to your partner’s next question. You might consider how you plan to convey that one question is done and the next one is beginning. Maybe a second or two of silence between questions. Maybe a litlte music. Maybe a sound effect or some appropriate noises. You’ll continue to do this until you have a piece that is 7-9 minutes long. Your piece will have to have some music and/or sound effects to open and close the piece (that is, before your introduction begins and after your partner says his/her final words.

To submit this assignment, you’ll upload it to your Soundcloud account. Then you’ll embed it as a new post on your blog. In both places, you should title it: “[Partner’s Name] talking about [his/her work] — An Interview by [Your name]”

The last part of this assignment (also due before 11:59 pm, Friday, April 18th), will be to post a reflection on this assignment on your blog. Minimum 300 words (total) responding to the following three questions: What did you find most satisfying about creating an audio text? What did you find most challenging about creating an audio text? If you could conduct your interview over again, how would you handle it differently? For each of these questions, of course, you’ll want to explain your answer.


The 7-9 minutes is a hard limit. The idea is that you’re shooting for 8 minutes, but you’ll have sixty seconds of leeway, either way. You’ll lose points for submitting something that is less than 7 minutes or more than 9 minutes.

(I’ll be providing more notes as they seem relevant to our class discussions.)

The Beginnings of a Tech Review Process Workflow and Checklist

a checklistAs I mentioned in my last post, I’m starting to experiment a bit with tech reviews of hardware and software appealing to novice and more experienced digital scholars and digital storytellers. I’ll be writing most of the reviews for the Center for Digital Storytelling blog, and those will later be posted here with a month lag-time. I’ll also write a few just for this site, if they aren’t all that relevant for digital storytellers. That said, I’m trying to find ways of being more productive, focused, and efficient when it comes to my professional work. One of the things I’m going to work on is putting together checklists for tasks which require not only creative/critical thinking, but which also require a relatively automated and complicated workflow. So I thought I could work out this process workflow and checklist here in a public post. Here’s what I’ve got so far…

Produce some texts.

Test the hardware or software with micro texts. For audio products, make short audio recordings. These tests should be very short. Provide logical comparisons. If you’re reviewing a microphone, keep the recording set up the same, but switch to a different microphone.

Make an actual text with the hardware or software. This will force you to use the product in a variety of situations, and it will offer a more comprehensive understanding of its function throughout the entire production process. For the sake of conserving your creative energy, you might consider reproducing a previous text in some way, rather than producing new content.

Create quality audio and visual elements.

Produce quality photos and/or video for use in a written review. Luckily, it’s possible to produce quality images with something as ubiquitous as a smart phone, but an entry level DSLR with a kit lens can produce impressive results for both still images and the video you might shoot. Here, lighting is key. If you can get your work surface near daylight, you won’t have to worry about getting the lighting right. Otherwise, it might be a good idea to invest in some portable lighting. This might or might not apply if you’re producing a video review, but in some cases you might want to produce some discrete pieces which can be embedded within a written review.

Use your own photos/videos/audio to add authenticity of the review. DIY audio/visual elements imply or demonstrate that you actually used the product, and they strengthen your ethos as a reviewer. They also allow you to frame shots in ways that better convey what you’re after. For instance if you’re trying to illustrate a design flaw or a software bug, you will almost certain need to produce your own image to show it. There are also copyright advantages, but more on that below.

Share the resources.

Post the video, photos, and audio elements to public sharing spaces. Use a Creative Commons license. You might want to consider platforms like Flickr, Instagram, YouTube, Vimeo, or Soundcloud. There are lots of reasons for this advice. You might think about the shared resources like breadcrumbs leading back to your review. If someone runs across one of your resources on Flickr or Soundcloud, they might follow the link you provide back to your review.

Embed the posted raw elements in your written review. You can embed the materials, rather than hosting them yourself. This benefit is especially handy if you’re writing a review for a site other than your own. It allows them more user-friendly access to incorporating them into your written text on their own site. Embedding from sharing services also reduces the amount of material you have to host and traffic from your own server. Hosting some of the raw elements of your review on other sites allows readers to reuse them. That is they might borrow one of you images for their own review, or repost it to a more generic social network like Facebook or Twitter.

License your content with a Creative Commons license. Most sharing sites now have some sort of licensing choices built into the uploading process. Creating your own images offers you rights-control of the images in the review. It also protects you from breaking copyright by using someone else’s images or sounds. Using a Creative Commons license will encourage others to share, reuse, or remix your resources, again supporting the circulation of the work.

Produce multiple reviews.

Produce multiple reviews in across more than one medium and/or for a variety of audiences. In my last post, I covered a lot of ideas about what sorts of information might be most useful/productive in a tech review for digital scholars or storytellers. I also offered some ideas about strategies for structuring that information. So for that sort of content, I encourage you to check out the previous post. Just make sure you’re thoughtful about how you’re appealing to each audience and that you’re choosing the right venue, platform, and media for than audience. YouTube is starting to become the Powerpoint of product reviews, in that it is now the overwhelming default choice for reviewers, regardless of whether or not the review might work better in Soundcloud or as a written piece.

Get the reviews circulating.

Post the reviews to Facebook, Twitter, and whatever other social networks you use frequently. This one is a no-brainer, but it’s also the most important. It’s the core of getting your review seen.

Shop the review to other appropriate venues. This strategy won’t likely pay much if any money, but it should help with circulation. This strategy can be especially useful if you’re writing the review as an opportunity to market something else.


  • create microtexts
  • produce an example text
  • take photos,
  • take videos
  • record screen captures
  • post to Flickr, CC license, tag
  • post to YouTube, CC license, tag
  • post to Vimeo, CC license, tag
  • post to SoundCloud, CC license, tag
  • pin images to Pinterest
  • produce written review; send to client if applicable
  • produce audio review
  • upload to SoundCloud, CC license, tag
  • produce video review
  • upload to YouTube, CC license, tag
  • upload to Vimeo, CC license, tag
  • query sites to place review
  • schedule unplaced reviews for posting on own site


Experimenting with Tech Reviews

I’m trying to experiment with a new genre: the Tech Review. Not because I love them. Most of them are just not very good.(exceptions) Low production values. Poorly structured. Or just plain dull. I’m currently working on a series of tech reviews for the Center for Digital Storytelling. Mostly I’ll be covering recording hardware and software for digital storytellers. But their blog is really very good–The writing is generally strong, if not outright beautiful–and I’d prefer not to muck it up with typical blunders of a tech reviewer. So I have some new ideas that I’m going to try out during this series. I guess I’m trying to think of this as an exercise in working out a set of best practices for the type of review I’m after. In no particular order…

  • Establish a narrative to the review. That is, try to consider a specific workflow or set of practices within which a reader might use the hardware or software. Also try to incorporate a sense for the learning curve involved. I’m conceptualizing my audience as a bunch of people who are just getting started recording voices for stories, so I’d like to offer a sense for what it’s going to take not just to use the product, but to learn to use it as well.
  • Use original photographs and video of the product. I think this practice will make for a bit more realism in the review. It will also allow me to make the audio and visuals freely available for circulation, reuse, and remix via a Creative Commons license. Mostly, I think I’ll be using Flickr, YouTube, and Soundcloud. But these aren’t perfect. For instance, Soundcloud’s free account is pretty limited in terms of how much space you can have, which means that I have to come up with a back-up or alternative. More thinking to do on this one.
  • Focus on the positive, but be honest about value. It’s important to remember that there are digital storytellers with all sorts of different technological comfort levels. There’s also plenty of variation regarding how much a person is willing or able to spend on this endeavor. If someone can’t afford to buy Apogee or Roland equipment, and needs to start out with  Behringer or Alessis products, there’s no reason to insult them, or to imply that their equipment is subpar. And especially as it relates to software, free is not always better.
  • Make something with the product and include it as part of the review. If it’s recording equipment that I’m reviewing, it seems only appropriate that I share a recording. If I’m reviewing a storytelling site (like, or something), I should probably signup, make a story, and include it in the review.
  • Cover the features of the product, but spend more time on the benefits of those features. For instance, a unit might have XLR inputs, but it’s more important to note that XLR inputs allow you to connect a wider variety of microphones. I think it will be tempting to make a list of features without really explaining how they are good for my intended audience.
  • Find the most appropriate technologies for presenting the information. One of the biggest failures of the common tech review is set of bullet points listing the features of a product. Taking advantage of a platform like allows me to upload a product photo and then add interactive buttons to the image. When a user hovers over a button, text appears which can identify the feature, as well as explaining how it might be useful for digital storytellers. To tell you the truth, I can’t really imagine that it’s not a WAY more popular strategy. I actually haven’t seen another review use it at all.
  • Get the review circulating across a variety of platforms. It will also be important to make sure the design resources are interconnected across those platforms. When someone runs across an image of the iTrack on my Flickr account, I should have a link back to the review somewhere in the notes. I should also try to link out directly to those resources on those various platforms from within the review itself.

As an example, I’ve included below an interactive ThingLink image I’ll be included in the Center for Digital Storytelling review to be published on April 3rd.

Exceptions. There are some folks out there actually producing some consistently high-quality reviews. For instance… B&H Photo;;;

An Audio Review of the Focusrite iTrack Solo Audio Interface for the iPad

This is just an audio version of a review of the Focusrite iTrack that I produced for the Center for Digital Storytelling. I’m just getting started with these tech reviews. I want to make sure to give a big shout-out to my good friend HARLEY FERRIS for producing the soundbeds at the beginning and end of the show!

Production Notes… Microphone: Rode Procaster, via XLR into a Focusrite iTrack Solo, via datalink cable into a 3rd-gen iPad. Audio editing in Hindenburg Journalist application on a Macbook Pro.

Let me know if you’ve got any tips. Thanks.

Reconsidering Jenkins’ Transmedia Storytelling

I first encountered the idea of “transmedia storytelling” in Henry Jenkins’ Convergence Culture. Using the phenomenon that was The Matrix trilogy of movies, he suggests that the film was marketed in a groundbreaking and particularly effective way:

A transmedia story unfolds across multiple media platforms, with each new text making a distinctive and valuable contribution to the whole. In the ideal form of transmedia storytelling, each medium does what it does best–so that a story might be introduced in a film, expanded through television, novels, and comics; its world might be explored through game play or experienced as an amusement park attraction. Each franchise entry needs to be self-contained so you don’t need to have seen the film to enjoy the game, and vice versa. Any given product is a point of entry into the franchise as a whole. Reading across the media sustains a depth of experience that motivates more consumption. […] A good transmedia franchise works to attract multiple constituencies by pitching the content somewhat differently in the different media. (95-96) [Apologies for the long quotation.]

I think Jenkins uses “media platforms” to refer to a variety of technologies or strategies, rather than thinking about media as materials. This isn’t a criticism, but the distinction is important. I agree with his observations about marketing and finding new ways to engage an audience. But the scope of his argument covers more ground than my own interests. His formulation of “media” doesn’t quite foresee the crossover and mixing between television (network and cable), newspapers, radio, and the Internet. In Jenkins’ model, the distinctions are still clear. But with the encroachment of Netflix and other avenues for streaming media, what used to look like a variety of media now looks more like a soup. But that soup, as amorphous and mutable as it might be, still manifests some distinctions between media. They just diverge from the model Jenkins offers. Instead of television and toys and websites, the model now looks a lot more like Facebook, Twitter, Youtube, tablet apps, cinema, television, Hulu, Netflix, etc.

What makes Jenkins’ argument increasingly dated is that it formulates media as a set of distinct targets at which marketers or storytellers are taking aim. At the time of his analysis, I think he couldn’t be more insightful and clear. But now there’s a growing trend toward spreadability (not sure who coined that term, and I don’t like it much, but it’ll do for now). Sure, I’m referring to viral videos and caption memes, but those are really just the tall peaks on a landscape of engagement. What interests me most are two relatively new phenomenon: sharing and embedding. Sharing has to do with the buttons you’ll often see floating around the edges of a news article, blog post, or almost any other discrete piece of content on the internet. These buttons allow users/readers/viewers to “share” the content somewhere else like Facebook or Twitter. This usually means that the user will post a link in her/his social network or venue of choice. The link takes a reader back to the original content. Embedding is similar, but it’s a bit more involved. Instead of posting a link pointing back to an original location, embedded content is accessible on-the-spot in the actual location where it has been posted. Whereas in Jenkins’ model readers/viewers are primarily consumers, in this new model, readers/viewers are also distributors. In other words, the goal is no longer only to get people to watch/listen/read, but it also to get them to distribute or spread the content.

So this is a slight adjustment to Jenkins’ model. If the engagement goal switches from a consumption-across-media model to a sharing-across-platforms model, how does that affect Jenkins’ notion of “contribution to the whole”? I don’t think it changes it significantly–at least not in practice. I think that with Jenkins’ model, once a user/viewer became invested in a particular story, regardless of his/her point-of-entry, he/she would seek out additional avenues of consumption. But now, I think there’s less seeking out, and more sharing. And it follows that with more sharing, comes more receiving. And thus continues the spreading.

In series of new posts, I’ll be reflecting a bit more on some of the roots of transmedia storytelling. We’ll start by considering some of the marketing around the 1951 Superman movie with George Reeves. Then we’ll jump to the era of the original Star Wars trilogy (late seventies; early eighties), focusing especially on action figures. Then, I hope to revisit Jenkins’ arguments in the context of those two examples. From there, We’ll take a look at Lawrence Lessig’s arguments about transitioning between a “read-only” culture and a “read-write” culture. Eventually I’ll touch on Donald Norman’s working definition of “affordances,” as well as Jenkins/Ford/Green’s concept of “spreadability” (Yeah, it’ll be here where I admit that Jenkins is obviously well aware of the contemporary partial obsolescence of “transmedia storytelling,” and that his updated thinking is still innovative and clear.) But the ultimate goal of this series of posts is to explore how the concepts of transmedia storytelling and spreadability might demand that we reconsider contemporary approaches to scholarship and “making meaning” in the worlds of Computers and Writing, Digital Humanities, and Rhet/Comp.

Your First Microphone: A Review of the Audio-Technica ATR2100

(This review was originally published on Feb 13th on the Center for Digital Storytelling’s blog.)

The Audio-Technica ATR2100 Dynamic USB/XLR Microphone

The Audio-Technica ATR2100 Dynamic USB/XLR Microphone

Between our voices and our digital stories, there is a microphone. It’s important to get it right. If you are  someone just getting your bearings as a digital storyteller, or someone who needs to buy several mics for a group of storytellers, you’ll certainly want to consider the Audio-Technica ATR2100. Not only does it sound great, but it’s also inexpensive, durable, and easy to use.

In order to properly record your voice narration, you’ll need a few essential components: a computer, a way to get sound into that computer, and some way to edit that sound. It would be easy to spend hundreds of dollars on digital audio equipment and audio editing software, and if you you know how to use them, they’ll sound great. But if you’re working on a small budget or need to stretch it to purchase multiple mics, I highly recommend you choose a dynamic microphone with a USB connection. (See the note at the end of this post for more info about different microphone and connection types.) At less than $60, the best value at the entry level for microphones that fit those two requirements is the ATR2100.

Most importantly, the ATR2100 sounds great. Here’s a sound comparison. Below, you’ll find two versions me reading a beautiful selection from Rainer Maria Rilke’s Letters to a Young Poet. The first is recorded with the on-board microphone from a Macbook Pro. The second is recorded by the ATR2100 connected to the same Macbook Pro via USB connection. Here they are…

You might notice that there’s very little background noise with the ATR2100. That quietness is due partly to the fact that dynamic microphones in general tend to be less sensitive than condensers. As a result, you get a little less sensitivity and subtlety, but you also get rid of most of that background noise. However, there’s another drawback to this microphone: the recordings tend to be very quiet. You will usually have to crank up the gain (sensitivity setting or input volume) on your computer. And if you or the storyteller you’re recording have a soft voice, it might be difficult to always get usable recordings. The loudness of most recordings can be easily raised in post-production extremely, but the background noise usually rises, too, which isn’t always preferable.

Connections at the base of the ATR2100. Note the XLR, USB, and 3.5mm headphone jack.

Connections at the base of the ATR2100. Note the XLR, USB, and 3.5mm headphone jack.

To be honest, the comparison isn’t at all scientific, and it’s not that fair either. Almost anything sounds better than the on-board mics from most laptops. But I wanted to embed it to let you hear just how clean the ATR2100 can sound. For a better comparison, you might want to play some YouTube videos of varying quality to see where the ATR2100 stacks up.

The base of the mic features three ports: mini usb, headphones, and an XLR connector. Although I recommend using the microphone primarily with the USB connection, the XLR connector does increase the versatility of the mic. It makes it more compatible with more audio interfaces, and it allows the microphone to be used with a PA system, too. The headphone jack, though, is a great addition. When using the microphone, I prefer to have my headphones plugged into the jack at the base of the microphone rather than the headphone input on my computer. Generally, the headphone jacks on the computer are very low quality. When the mic is plugged in via the USB port, you can route all your sound output to the microphone and listen via headphones. It’s a simple setting in your preferences or dashboard. You’ll get a much better sense for the sound you’re recording if you listen directly through the headphone jack.

The steel grill covering the microphone capsule.

The steel grill covering the microphone capsule.

These microphones are also quite durable. The body is made from heavy-duty die-cast aluminum and the capsule inside is protected by an internal windscreen and steel mesh cover. Because of the lower recording levels, many people will have to get very close to the microphone. I highly recommend adding an additional foam cover to go over the external steel mesh cover. You can pick them up for very little on ebay or at your local music shop.

The biggest reason I can confidently recommend this microphone, though, is how well it works for the students in my writing classes. They use the ATR2100 for recording podcasts and the audio components of digital stories. The mics are “plug-n-play” for Macs and most Windows operating systems after XP. There are no drivers to install and the microphone will work with almost any software. They just need to be plugged in so that the machine can recognize them.

The included XLR cable.

The included XLR cable.

The only part of the ATR2100 that I really don’t like very much is the stand that ships with it. Although the top part, the microphone clip, is strong and secure, the tripod it screws into is a bit flimsy. We haven’t had one break yet, but I think it’s only a matter of time. Also, the mic stand is very low, which is frustrating because most people have to lean down in order to get close enough to the mic to record.

Some other notes worth mentioning:

  • The microphone ships with everything you need: tripod, microphone clip, usb cord, and an XLR cord.
  • I really don’t get the on-off switch. Most situations call for the mic to be turned on/off via the computer interface. I suppose this physical switch would be useful if you were using the microphone connected to a PA system.
  • Lifetime Warranty. Seriously.

All-in-all, this is a excellent, no-nonsense, inexpensive microphone. If I lost all of my equipment today and I had to start over acquiring equipment, this is the first microphone I would buy. Also, if I had to buy another 10 microphones for my classroom, I’d get a bunch of ATR2100’s. This mic is just perfect for beginners or those on a strict budget.

(And if you’re not yet convinced about the ATR2100, you might also consider the Shure SM58/x2u combo, or the Blue Yeti Pro. Both options have XLR/USB options. The Shure is dynamic, while the Blue is a condenser. Each of them have their merits, but you’ll notice by the prices that they’re not nearly the value of the ATR2100.)

Three general notes about microphones for voice recording:

  • I’ll try not to get too bogged down in the details about microphones, but there are two very important factors to consider when purchasing your first proper microphone. First, there’s a huge difference between dynamic microphones and condenser microphones. Condenser microphones tend to give a cleaner sound, but they require phantom power and they tend to pick up a lot of background noise. On the other hand, dynamic mics require no additional power, and they are great at reducing background noise. But they sometimes result in very low-volume recordings. For beginning storytellers, or anybody who isn’t really interested in becoming an expert on microphones, I’d recommend getting started with a dynamic microphone, rather than a condenser.
  • The other factor to consider is the type of connection you want your microphone to have: USB, XLR, or a small headphone jack. Intermediate to professional microphones tend to use XLR connections because they are durable, reliable, and are a professional industry standard. However, getting sound into your computer from an XLR jack requires either a good quality adapter or an audio interface. A mic with an XLR connection can be a perfectly good choice; it just adds a bit of extra cost and complexity to your setup. You also might be tempted to grab a microphone with a headphone jack connection, but they generally aren’t a very good value. Most mics with headphone jacks are designed for use with video cameras, rather than voice narration. Another option is to choose a USB microphone. Just a few years ago, it was difficult to find a quality USB microphones, and they required the manual installation of specialized drivers. Luckily they’ve come a long way. Now USB mics are almost universally plug-n-play and they sound every bit as good as most entry level XLR mics.
  • As should be said for any microphone you’re thinking about purchasing, you’ll likely want to purchase from a well-known seller with a sales policy which allows you to return the microphone if you’re not satisfied. I know that Amazon and B&H both have excellent return policies to go along with competitive prices and excellent selections. I think that most people will find that the recording levels with the ATR2100 to be satisfactory, though.
The included Standard-USB-to-Mini-SUB cable.

The included Standard-USB-to-Mini-SUB cable.

The curious on-off switch.

The curious on-off switch.

Five Places to Find Great Audio Texts On the Web

I listen to a lot of audio texts. On the train on my way into work. On one of my dog’s three 20-minute walks everyday. While I’m folding my laundry. While I’m cooking. On long drives. Every once in a while, I’ll commit to a nice long audio book (Dr. Penumbra’s 24-Hour Bookstore was great!). But most often, I turn to podcasts. There is so much quality audio material out there that I just have to share some of it with you. Obviously, this list isn’t definitive. I myself subscribe to more than a dozen podcasts, and I’m listening to other stuff I find on the web all the time. In no particular order, I offer you five resources for absolutely great listening and/or thinking about audio production…


RadioLab logoThe show’s homepage describes itself as “a show about curiosity. Where sound illuminates ideas, and the boundaries blur between science, philosophy, and human experience.” What I like most about the show is how inventive and experimental it is. The way the producers manipulate and weave together sound effects, conversations, metaphor, science, and commentary is truly stunning. I have to say that there’s really nothing else out there quite like it. The show’s hosts, Jad Abumrad and Robert Krulwich, strike a perfect balance between curiosity, fun, discovery, and storytelling. Given the show’s overt commitment to educating fascinating its listeners, it would be easy for the show to bear some resemblance to PBS or children’s programming. That couldn’t be farther from the truth. The subject matter and the complexity of the exploration firmly establish that this is a show for adults (and smart, supervised kids, too). Here’s an episode to get you started: “23 Weeks 6 Days.”

This American Life.

This American Life logoThe show’s site describes itself like so: “There’s a theme to each episode, and a variety of stories on that theme. It’s mostly true stories of everyday people, though not always. There’s lots more to the show, but it’s sort of hard to describe.” It is hard to describe. Mostly everyday people. Sometimes with ordinary stories. Sometime extraordinary. But there is no audio program in the country that demonstrates the power of storytelling. The use of theme across stories and an obvious attention to narrative skills are the main reasons why this is most popular podcast in the United States. Here’s an episode to get you started: “Harper High School, Part One.”

Public Radio Exchange.

Public Radio Exchange describes itself as “an online marketplace for distribution, review, and licensing of public radio programming. PRX is also a growing social network and community of listeners, producers, and stations collaborating to reshape public radio.” More simply, it’s a repository for some of the best audio content available. From single sort texts to longer documentary texts to ongoing audio shows, PRX  probably has more absolutely stunning content than any other source. What it lacks in cohesiveness, it more than makes up for in its variety, accessibility, and the wonder of stumbling onto something you never heard coming. If you have a habit of losing hours at a time down the rabbit hole that it YouTube, you might want to be careful with PRX. Or bring a friend to keep your head about you. The experience can be overwhelming. Here’s a page for one of PRX’s more popular series to get you started: “The Moth Radio Hour.”

How Sound.

How Sound logoThese last two sites have a bit more to do with production than with consumption. How Sound’s tagline is: “The Backstory to Great Radio Storytelling.” The format is pretty consistent. Rob Rosenthal, the show’s regular host, usually begins by introducing a topic relevant to producing audio documentaries. They he offers and example of a text that has addressed the topic in a successful or innovative way. Often he manages to track down the original producer of the text he’s introduced, and interviews them about producing the text. The show is manages to remain understated and unassuming, despite the fact that it is essentially a showcase series. The analysis and behind the scenes explanation for production challenges and innovation are always fascinating and instructive. Here an episode to get you started: “The Loneliest Creature On Earth

Transom. logoThe show’s website offers its mission: “ channels new work and voices to public radio through the Internet, and discusses that work, and encourages more. Transom is a performance space, an open editorial session, an audition stage, a library, and a hangout. Our purpose is to pass the baton of mission and good practice in public media.” This site is rich with all sorts of different resources. Like “HowSound” mentioned above, the site offers several engaging and high-quality texts. But I think the most valuable resources that Transom offers are the process reflections of audio heavy hitters like Catherine Burns (The Moth Radio Hour), Sam Greenspan (99% Invisible), Andrea Seabrook (Decoding DC), and way too many others to mention. I also find Transom’s reviews of microphones, portable recorders, and editing software particularly helpful, as the reviews are always focused on Electronic News Gathering practices (interviews, etc.) instead of the recording and producing music. I’ve learned more about audio production from Transom than from any other sources. Here’s a re-issued classic text from Jay Allison called “The Basics.”

So that’s it. I’m running across great resources all the time, so I know there must be plenty more out there. Please feel free to respond to these or add your own. Use the comments below, respond to this link in FB, tweet it to your followers, or whatever it is you do when you’ve got something to say. Just don’t be shy about letting me know you responded somewhere. I’d love to see what other resources people know about out there

P.S. More programs I think are quite good: Grammar Girl, Studio 360, A Prairie Home Companion, 99% Invisible, The Moth Radio Hour, Moyers and Company, Fresh Air.