Best American Essays 2015

We’re excited to say that Carolyn Kraus’s essay, “A Thing with Feathers,” from the Spring 2014 issue of 1966 has been selected as a “notable essay” of 2014 by the editors of The Best American Essays 2015.

You can read this wonderful essay here.

Congratulations, Carolyn, and thank you for allowing us to publish your work. And thank you to Robert Atwan, Ariel Levy, and the other editors at Best American. The Best American Essays series celebrates our genre every year and brings all of us amazing essays we might otherwise have missed. It also encourages a lot of writers and small magazines through the recognition of their work in the “notable essays” list. That encouragement means a lot and we’re grateful. You can purchase Best American Essays 2015  at your local, independent bookstore.

From our staff of writers

Most of our editors also write and occasionally they write for us about craft. Here is a reflection from assistant editor, Ryan Diller.

The Ethics of Personal Nonfiction

Ryan Diller


It’s hard to write creative nonfiction without bringing in the personal; even some of the genre’s great research writers, like Jon Krakaeur and David Foster Wallace, cannot help but embed their biases and experiences into their works. Many CNF writers have gone so far to argue that it is impossible to write without bringing in personal biases. After all, to break through the bland, detached style stereotypically associated with nonfiction – a style that masquerades as objective – is a hallmark of CNF. But when we insert our own perspectives into nonfiction, we face a tough moral question: how do we responsibly and respectfully write about others from our highly subjective viewpoints?

If we publish our works, we face offending the dubiously named “innocent.” It’s a legitimate, empathetic concern. Even I can’t say with 100% certainty that I’d like any and all aspects of my past broadcasted to the public. Some writers have tried to get around this obstacle by changing names and obscuring the features of the people who inspired their characters, but, as Ryan Van Meter demonstrates in his wonderful essay, “If You Knew Then What I Know Now,” this can defeat the entire purpose of writing nonfiction. In this piece, Van Meter recalls his attempts to turn an adolescent trauma – an incident in which two boys mocked him for his homosexuality, which he had not yet come to terms with – into fiction, but when he tries to rename the boys who harassed him, he can’t “find the perfect substitutes for the names Mark or Jared. Without Mark or Jared the story somehow won’t work.” For whatever reason, tiny, random details like these can be what make pieces ring true or false.

For me, what makes Van Meter’s piece compassionate and not an act of literary vengeance is the balance with which he tells the piece. Having written about my own personal traumas, I know that it’s extremely difficult to treat abusers mercifully, avoid blaming yourself, and be true to your strong visceral experiences all at the same time. Van Meter solves this dilemma in the essay’s conclusion by mixing them all at once, demonstrating the complexity of reencountering his abuser years after the fact. When Van Meter forgives Jared at a ten-year high school reunion, Jared gives him a friendly shoulder squeeze, which “feels a little like the warmth of comfort, and a little like the squeeze of danger.” Complexity and moderateness, empathy and self-honesty: they can seem contradictory, but it’s their blend that makes Van Meter’s piece so captivating and what I believe can make personal writing generous, rather than selfish.

Writing about the personal can be a deeply terrifying experience. Will my abuser contact me again (for this reason, I actually break from the Van Meter Principle. Also, I hold out the hope that maybe the perpetrator of my trauma has changed)? Will I alienate the ones I love? Will I remember the way my aunt’s nose wiggled correctly, or am I failing to do justice to my family’s mythos?

But to share one’s own past honestly can be a magnanimous thing when done well. It can assure others that they aren’t alone in their struggles, and it can maybe even result in your relationships with others actually getting better (hey, I’m trying to be optimistic here).


Welcome to the Summer Issue

We’re please to present our summer issue. In it, our writers contemplate the varied topics of professional wrestling, fracking and the prairie, migraines, nuns and love, Lauren Bacall and another Betty, pansies, the humanity of a drug smuggler, the death of a mysterious father, the sea urchin Diadema.

 We can’t help but notice that most of these essays talk about loss in one way or another, whether it be environmental devastation or the loss of love, freedom or family (and even the loss of pain). But so many of them also show how sometimes the universe gives us small gifts amid that loss, ways to make do without, salves to ease pain: the smell of pansies and dirt, memories of love, scientists and prairie activists, a wrestler’s dedication to craft, Bacall’s strong chin. And even in the bleakest of these essays, there is still this sign of hope: writers making shining art from the darkest places humans find themselves. We hope you find pleasure here, and failing that, strength.

Issue 4 is Coming!

Our fourth bi-annual issue of 1966 will make its debut this month! The Winter 2014 issue will have work by Sandell Morse and Angela Morales, as well as essays about coyote killers, teeth, and breath. We continue to accept submissions of research-driven creative nonfiction. Please consult our submission guidelines. Don’t forget to share our upcoming issue with all of your friends, including those that are avid readers and writers! From the staff here at 1966, we hope you have a wonderful winter holiday and a Happy New Year. This upcoming issue is our gift to you.

1966 and The Best American Essays 2014

We’re excited to say that three essays from the inaugural volume of 1966 have been selected as “notable essays” of 2013 by the editors of The Best American Essays 2014. They are:

“An Aristocratic Murder” by Judith Barrington and “Spook” by Lee Martin, from our first issue.

“On Saliva” by Alicia Catt from our second issue.

Congratulations, Judith, Lee, and Alicia, and thank you for allowing us to publish your work. And thank you to Robert Atwan, John Jeremiah Sullivan, and the other editors at Best American. The Best American Essays series celebrates our genre every year and brings all of us amazing essays we might otherwise have missed. It also encourages a lot of writers and small magazines through the recognition of their work in the “notable essays” list. That encouragement means a lot and we’re grateful. You can purchase The Best American Essays 2014 in October at your local, independent bookstore.

Thoughts on Research from our Authors: Miya Pleines and “These Orbits, Crossing.”

Lost in the Woods with Research

The essay, by its very nature, is a strange, rambly, unpredictable sort of thing. Often times, you start off going in one direction and by the middle of page two, you look up only to find you’ve made two left turns, one right, and now you’re no longer anywhere near the place were you began. It’s similar to taking a walk in the woods, promising yourself, “This time, I won’t stray too far from the path,” only to turn around hours later to find that exact promise has been broken. So, you spend the next few hours searching for a break in the foliage, or even a clearing for you to sit down and rest, all the while cursing yourself for being so daft but also marveling at the new sights all around you. It’s almost as if your feet disregarded common sense in favor of discovering something new. The essay has a tendency to be like that, as well. Often, the story you set out to tell seems to have set out to tell its own story, as well, leaving you with the difficult task of trying to figure out a way to make the both of you happy. Actually, maybe essays are more like getting lost inside a maze where the walls are constantly shifting, providing new discoveries at every turn, and for me at least, the research process is a lot like that as well.

The research for These Orbits, Crossing has been going on for quite some time. It started back when I was an undergrad just beginning to delve into the history of the Japanese internment camps. I traveled to Manzanar when I was twenty-one to stand on the same soil my grandfather stood on almost seventy years earlier, and I tried to figure out what that meant, and to some extent, am still trying to figure out. Since that summer, I have spent countless hours researching Manzanar and the internment. I have followed interesting pieces of information down numerous different trails until, eventually, I have found myself reading articles that have absolutely nothing and absolutely everything to do with the camps. Through my research, I’ve realized that everything is all impossibly connected to the point where we can go from one single man’s story about life spent in an internment camp, all the way to talking about the universe.

It’s possible this all started when I was a little girl sitting at the long row of mismatched tables in my grandparents’ basement, listening to my family exchange stories about their childhood while I sat quietly eating apple pie and listening. I heard about the hydrogen balloons, the model airplanes, the cornfields and the hands held in the air as a reminder, and I never forgot.

One could even say this began the day I went through my grandmother’s bookshelves and found my grandfather’s copy of Model Glider Design with his name scribbled inside the front cover. I snuck it into my purse without asking, and took it home to read. I read about wing design and lift and gravity and I thought about my grandfather, years ago, doing the exact same thing for very different reasons. I studied those pages for links into my grandfather’s past and I took notes and made diagrams and followed my research wherever it led me. The walls of the maze were continually shifting, and I shifted along with them until, eventually, I sat down and began to write.

My point, I suppose, is that the research for this piece has been constantly ongoing. I have been following it and trying to wrangle it for a very long time, and even though this piece is finished, I am still following it looking for more directions, more discoveries, more connections to be made. I have no process other than to follow the research, the ideas, the essays until eventually, I come to a clearing where all of us can rest and converse together.

— Miya Pleines

Thoughts on Research from our Authors: Natalie Vestin and “The Sea of Crises”

As writers ourselves, we’re always interested in our authors’ process. Here Natalie Vestin shares the inspiration and research behind her essay “The Sea of Crises,” which appears in our current issue: 

My essay “Sea of Crises” was inspired by one of my dad’s stories about Mare Crisium, a valley on the moon. I’d known about the moon’s Sea of Tranquility, but I didn’t know there were other geographic features with names on the lunar surface. Part of my research for this essay included Giovanni Riccioli’s Almagestum Novum (his 1651 atlas of space) and astronomer Thomas Gwyn Elger’s 1895 treatise The Moon. The rest of the research happened accidentally. I had the moon and the Sea of Crises in the back of my mind, and I was reading Vera Rubin’s Bright Galaxies, Dark Matters and books about science and religious faith. I was also walking a lot at night during the winter. January in Minnesota is nightmarish except for the bright, bright stars and planets; the sky becomes a sort of solace you can look toward when the rest of the outdoors is trying to kill you.

 While I was learning more about lunar cartography, I became fascinated with Riccioli, the Jesuit priest who drew maps of the moon and named its features. He’s a cipher; not much is written about him, save for a few accounts of his odd scientific experiments and his unfortunate testimony against Galileo. I was drawn to him, because I was thinking about why people love – really love – the moon, and here’s this astronomer priest trying to walk a fine line between using science to say what he thinks about God and attracting the attention of Inquisitors. What do you write when you’re too terrified to write anything? I guess you write about the moon.

I wrote this essay in a series of poems first – poems imagining this priest, poems about the broken moon, poems about how astronomy grew out of thinking about the physical nature of God. The facts that came out of the research were important, but I also wanted to capture what first fascinated me about the Sea of Crises – that moment when I learned about it and wanted to make it me, wanted to map the moon to myself and think that all bodies can have seas of crises. That’s what’s lovely about research: what you look at and write about has the ability to speak for you and map you when you lack other ways of expression.

–Natalie Vestin

What We Can Learn About Memoir from a Dog

An interesting memoir can come from anywhere and anyone. To back this up I direct you to my current favorite example of memoir: “Memoirs of an Owned Dog” a song by the duo now known as the Milk Carton Kids. The song is sung from perspective of a dog and delivers the funny and endearing tale of man’s best friend in a highlight reel of memoir tropes.The ordinary dog of the song proves there is room within the structure of memoir for humor, creativity, and profundity. I love a good memoir, and I love this song, the following lyrical analysis explains why.


The first lines:

“the food was as I like it… cold, wet & in that wonderful tin can shape
I had it marked in a paw print on the dog door the day that I finally planned my escape”

Like any good memoir the scene is set with solid concrete specific detail, and the beginnings of some conflict or action are alluded to.


“the milkman, he tried
you can bet I wanted to survive but the truck it just came far too fast
So I write on these scraps, my remembrances past, so you don’t blame yourself that I’ve died”

The inciting action is recounted and the impetus for committing of the memoir to paper is revealed.

After the chorus:

“I had dreams of walking the world on my own
four on the floor, every night all alone
I was ready to work for the scruff on my neck
yearning to find something of my own to protect”

The idealism of youth is established with great dramatic irony as the audience is already aware of the impending doom.


“my bark, then, was surely bigger than my bite
chewing the cud could’ve been my biggest dog fight
and you know how they say we only hear certain things that you say
well, it never mattered much to me but for the will of the way”

Insecurities and shortcomings are revealed through pensive musings on the activities of the everyday.

Then the chorus again:

“they put horses out to pasture
and the birds come home to roost
ain’t nothin’ for a puppy but the backyard on the loose
now I know my job was to lie idly beside
the way the sun retreats for the moon”

Universal themes introduced earlier in the chorus are repeated now to relate to the author’s personal story with poignant tugging at the heart strings.


“now I loosen this collar for a dog bone bow tie
to go up and meet the big dog in the sky
i’ll tell him when I get there I was spoiled in your place with the hopes that my spirit is honored by your grace”

Loose ends begin to resolve as the fate of the story is accepted. Special time is given to be thankful for the truly important things, and keep the mood hopeful.


“so after you read this memoir one day
or after you hear my lonesome song play
don’t you trouble your mind, this old hound’s doin’ fine
you know, goodbyes are just words like a clock is to time”

Wrapping the story up is typically sad, and requires words of assurance for the audience. Also included are a few final words of profound wisdom – something to grow on and ponder.


“so sorry I’m not with you
so sorry I can’t be
please know I was the best friend this old mutt could be
if you remember that spot where my favorite tree grows I hung up my leash on a branch, now it’s yours”

The bitter-sweet acknowledgements and epilogue tie everything up in an emotionally satisfying manner.


Click the link to see and hear some witty pre-song banter and a Simon Garfunkel-esque performance of the tear jerking “Memoirs of an Owned Dog.”

— Clay Reuter