“Weave It, Braid It, Make It Into A Collage”: Judith Ortiz Cofer on Creative Nonfiction

by Sarah Fawn Montgomery

Filed under: Blog |

The August 1st deadline for the Prairie Schooner Summer Creative Nonfiction Contest is fast approaching. The entry fee is $18 and gets you a one-year subscription to Prairie Schooner. Winner receives $250 and publication in our Spring 2015 issue. The contest is open to all types of creative non-fiction essays, up to 5,000 words. A few additional guidlines: your entry should include a cover letter with the submission's title and your contact information, your name and contact info shouldn't appear anywhere on the manuscript, and, finally, multiple submissions are encouraged, but an entry fee must be paid for each submission. Click here to submit.

The judge of this year's contest is Judith Ortiz Cofer. I was able to ask Cofer a few questions about why creative nonfiction excites her and what sort of essays that catch her attention. Read the interview below, get a feel for what Cofer is looking for, and submit while you still can.

1. What initially drew you to creative nonfiction? What still excites or surprises you about the genre?

I began writing creative nonfiction before the term existed. In my first autobiographical collection of essays and poems, Silent Dancing, I gave myself permission to do what Virginia Woolf recommended to writers of nonfiction: follow the tracks of memory to one's "moments of being." I have been following my tracks ever since I discovered how satisfying it is to delve into this malleable genre. The creative nonfiction essay can take almost any form: you can weave it, braid it, make it into a collage. For me it is a vehicle for exploration, not only of myself, but of any subject that interests me.

2. What kinds of essays catch your eyes, ears, and attention? What kinds of stories or styles speak to you from the page? Why?

I have an eclectic reading list in nonfiction. I am interested in everything from brain science to essays on the most personal of topics. It is not the subject for me, but the writer's skill in involving us in her/his explorations of the topic. I especially enjoy essays that are unafraid of using form like a painter uses a palette. I have read medical essays that become lyrical as the writer expresses awe in the face of a biological mystery, and I have also read "personal" essays that sound like a treatise. I admit that I am narrative driven; that is, the story matters most of all. I like to know what drove the writer to want to write on a particular topic. If it matters to her and she can make it matter to me, this is the key to a successful piece for me.

3. Can you tell us a bit about your latest project? What inspired the writing?

I have just finished a book-length memoir about returning to my native Puerto Rico at the time of my mother's final illness and death in 2011. It is not just a personal memoir of loss of a loved one, but also a sort of cultural elegy for my loss of native language and cultural connections. It will be published in 2015 by the University of Georgia Press.

4. What new works are on your current reading list? What old favorites do you return to time and again?

I am trying to catch up with books being published by my former writing students (a joy to have so many prolific young writers whose first stories and poems I had the privilege of reading years ago). Because I am planning to write essays I am preparing to re-read Joan Didion's Blue Nights, and My Year of Magical Thinking, David Foster Wallace's collected essays, and Roland Barthes's A Mourning Diary, Camera Lucida and others. I return to Flannery O'Connor's Mystery and her Collected Letters for inspiration