I’ve just come home from the NonfictioNow conference in beautiful Iowa City, a town known for its writers. This conference is the largest gathering of creative nonfiction writers and teachers in the nation. We get a little giddy as hundreds of us converge at the University of Iowa to not only discuss esoteric aspects of our craft, but to reconnect with one another and remember why we’re writers in the first place. Yes, we go to panels with names like “Nonfiction: A Hybrid Genre or a Highly Evolved Form?” or “Holding Back: Privacy and Disclosure in Nonfiction,” but we also go to readings like “Farthest North Nonfiction: Alaska Writers Read” and keynote addresses by such luminaries as Allison Bechdel, Rebecca Solnit, and John Edgar Wideman.
Not that I’m biased or anything, but one of the most enjoyable events for me was “Literature of Palpable Quality: A Bellingham Review Reading.” The reading was scheduled for 8:45 a.m. on a Friday morning, up against two panels filled with heavy-hitters that I myself longed to see. So I brought with me a box of Bellingham Reviews, hoping to bribe stray attendees to forego the talking “about” nonfiction and experience some fine nonfiction writing instead.
To my surprise, we did draw a respectable audience, including Robin Hemley, director of the conference and the previous Editor of the Bellingham Review. Robin was the one to bring the Review under the purview of Western Washington University and launched the magazine to national prominence, so when I took the reins from him about nine years ago, I was both excited and humbled by the bar he had set. Nine years later, I’m happy to report that we’re still going strong, as evidenced by the reading that unfolded that morning.
I had gathered together Julie Jeanell Leung, Alexandria Marzano-Lesnevich, Lauren Smith, and Ira Sukrungruang to represent the wide range of nonfiction we publish in the review. I knew the reading would be good, but I didn’t know how good it would be until all four readers enacted their pieces on that big stage, in the dim light, their voices bringing to life the words I had previously heard only in my own mind. It felt as though the magazine, itself, were up there, sitting in one of those hard chairs, pouring water into a plastic cup, nodding in approval as each reader showed us how powerful, startling, and persuasive creative nonfiction can be. As the Editor-in-Chief, I know my magazine intimately, but this reading drew me into a deeper relationship with the journal, affirmed for me that literary publishing does matter.
The audience seemed to agree. Not one person left the room to search out more stimulating fare, and they all applauded warmly at the end, with genuine smiles and interest. One person commented that though all the pieces were quite different from one another, they all had something in common: each narrator struggled to understand something difficult, something that cannot be reduced to easy answers. That, I realize now, is exactly what we look for when scanning the thousands of submissions that come into our office, in every genre: an articulation of this essential struggle, one that we can enter into with the author and come away changed.
In this issue you’ll see ample evidence of this kind of literary prowess, this willingness to engage in the big issues through the smallest details. You’ll see it in the winners of our annual literary contests; you’ll hear it in the lively exchanges in the three interviews we’re proud to publish. You’ll experience it throughout the magazine, in the wide range of poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction we found as we read, bleary-eyed, into the night—always grateful to find an authentic, vibrant voice willing to articulate the hard questions.
As I packed to return home from NonfictioNow, I had to cram in my suitcase new books, magazines, business cards. But the most important thing I brought home was my renewed sense of faith: faith that writing matters, that small journals matter, and that, most important, we matter to one another.