Review by Jessie Keary
Published by The University of Chicago Press in 2015, I’ll Tell You Mine: Thirty Years of Essays from the Iowa Nonfiction Program is not a “best of collection,” according to its editors, Hope Edelman and Robin Hemley. Instead, the 18 essays that make up this collection demonstrate a “consistency of talent” in “the nation’s oldest freestanding program devoted exclusively to the study and craft of nonfiction.”
Every essay was initially conceived while the author was a student of the nonfiction writing program (NWP) at The University of Iowa. While the program was founded in 1976, the earliest essay in this collection dates back to the mid-eighties. Arranged alphabetically by author, the collection is meant to create dialogues between NWP students, regardless of graduation year. The juxtaposition of these essays not only provides a glimpse into the evolution of writing at NWP, but also to show “how the craft of nonfiction itself has evolved over the past three decades.”
There is a reverence for this program throughout the collection. Its editors both attended NWP. Robin Hemley even acted as the program’s director until 2013. While this collection may lack objectivity and can, at times, feel a touch self-important, that is not to say it is without value. A note from the author accompanies each essay. The more I read, these notes began to take precedence over the essays themselves. Within these notes, authors are given the space to dissect struggles found in drafts long gone and detail the impact of NWP on their writing. According to the editors, the addenda are intended to “enhance the usefulness of the collection for aspiring writers and instructors of writing.” While the casual reader could certainly enjoy essays within this collection, on the whole, this is a book by writers for writers.
In a way, I’ll Tell You Mine is a sort of means for determining whether a graduate writing program is something personally worth pursuing. It demonstrates the worth of a graduate-level writing program in terms of community—professors pushing limits and peers providing feedback. This positive impact on the writer is illustrated in a personal favorite essay of mine from the collection, “Anechoic,” by Ashley Butler. In her note she writes, “When I’d arrived at Iowa, I thought of the essay as a linear, personal narrative in which the writer recounts a series of related events. This approach felt limiting, but I didn’t understand how to move past it at the time.” Butler goes on to credit an experimental essay class she took with John D’Agata for teaching her that “an essay could be a performance, a reflection of the essayist’s psychic landscape.” On a more micro level, Butler acknowledges a classmate who suggested she research Houdini’s relationship with spiritualists, a central component to the final draft of her essay; in fact, Houdini’s story woven throughout the essay feels so intrinsic to its telling that it is shocking to learn it wasn’t always there. This insight feels exciting—an Easter egg of sorts.
Overall, this collection has many insights into the essays featured, and a few on NWP as a whole. While at times I found it frustrating as someone on the outside of a tight-knit group, it was still interesting to see the interplay between participants of the program. There is something to be said for the reader’s ability to flip around this collection and see the aforementioned consistency and community. You can create your own juxtaposition, your own dialogues with the essays of NWP. I particularly enjoyed turning the page from Ashley Butler’s essay to John D’Agata’s essay, “Round Trip,” the person who’s class she credited as impactful—a fun compare and contrast where students and teachers merge into one and all are simply writers.
So while I’ll Tell You Mine may fall short of showing the evolution of nonfiction writing in general over the last 30 years, as it is only one program, although a prestigious one, there is value in getting to know this program. The essays all seem to have clearly evolved from the same bubble: “a highly selective program that admits only about a dozen students per year.” If that program interests the reader, it’s a must read, but remember, it’s only one program, one aspect of an ever-growing world of nonfiction writing.
Jessie Keary is a writer and improv comic living in Chicago. She fosters an unhealthy obsession with Russian literature and spends her time loitering in cafes. Her work has appeared in Peaches, Neat, and Silver Birch Press. Follow her on Twitter - @jessiekeary.