I’m not sure what the hell I was thinking when I applied to begin the MFA program at UAA in 2013, but I seemed to ignore the “creative” half of the “creative nonfiction” box when I indicated a genre focus. My idea of nonfiction was that one began at the chronological beginning, and concluded at the end of the events under examination. A-to-Z, easy day. Journalism plus an occasional literary flourish to keep things interesting. Shoot, maybe even use the word “I” once in a while.
That first semester of reading blew my damn mind with essays like Eula Biss’s “Pain Scale” and Janet Burroway’s “Embalming Mom.” If our reading assignments amounted to a literary drive, Biss and Burroway put my sense of the familiar a few exits in arrears. They didn’t look, smell, feel, or taste anything like what I’d expected. And yet there they were, anthologized as if solely for the purpose of disrupting the expectations of students like myself.
More importantly, those essays encouraged me to pursue my own sense of structural adventurism. And I have to tell you: It was liberating. For me, abandoning the strictly journalistic approach to nonfiction meant that I could find a way to wrestle, right there on the page, with emotion, meaning, and all those squishy things I thought we were supposed to avoid as the willing minions of truth.
Open form essays – the umbrella which we might throw over braided, segmented, fragmented, mosaic, and all the other varieties of unexpected essay structures – offer a lot of ways in which we might seek unexpected truths. They can shatter post-trauma reality into pieces; effectively replicate the associative nature of memory; resist power structures and traditional hierarchies; they can even make 1 + 1 somehow equal 3. Luckily, the editors of literary journals have come to recognize this, and it’s no longer uncommon to open one and find an open form essay. Creative Nonfiction dedicates a section of each issue called “Exploring the Boundaries” to open forms, and I’d argue that Diagram is essentially an open form essay journal.
Next month, I’ll be teaching an introductory class on open form essays, and I hope you can tell that I’m excited. We’ll do a little reading, a little writing, and a little listening. All of which will be in the name of disrupting the expected and getting outside our literary comfort zones. Join me on 9 December and let’s see where it takes us.
Matthew Komatsu has published open form essays in Brevity, The Normal School, Southeast Review, and even snuck one past a New York Times editor one time. He’s a graduate of the University of Alaska MFA in Creative Writing (Nonfiction) program, has essays forthcoming in two anthologies due out in 2018, and is a Nonfiction Editor for the literary journal War, Literature and the Arts. As a serviceman, he’s obliged to remind you that none of his literary endeavors reflect official policy or position. You can follow him at www.matthewkomatsu.