Print Study Room: Speculative Nonfiction

‘Speculative Nonfiction Workshop’ with Associate Professor of English Melora Wolff

Are the words nonfiction and speculation at odds? This online creative writing workshop explores the effects of speculative prose in literary essays about visual art, history, and politics. How does empirical knowledge, conveyed in nonfiction by documented facts, invite or demand imaginative style? How do we clarify and amplify facts through the art of speculation? In this class, students will choose art from the Tang collection to inspire their own speculative nonfiction essays.


How do literary essays on visual art employ psychological speculation to explain or animate the image? What rhetorical techniques activate inscribed effects of visual art? Write a speculative essay on one artwork from the Tang Museum. Your speculative essay should reveal, amplify, and explore the content of the work through personal associations, memories, inquiries, and sensory description. Your essay must document the visible elements and acknowledge the invisible elements of the visual art. Allow memoir to converse with objective fact, as you write the effects of image on consciousness.

My high school mornings always began on the subway. I would read the New York Times “Morning Briefing” in the company of sixty strangers huddled involuntarily close to one another. Since the subway stop for my school was Wall Street, my train’s demographic consisted primarily of middle-aged white business men in suits and coats with their respective newspapers, magazines, and crossword puzzles. There were usually a few women, presumably in their late thirties, in long, awkward-fitting charcoal gray pencil skirts, clutching black handbags, with high-heeled shoes poking out to replace the geriatric sneakers they wore for their train rides.


“I believe in the imagination. What I cannot see is infinitely more important than what I can see.” – Duane Michals

When Duane Michals returned to his hometown of McKeesport, Pennsylvania, in 1985, I imagine that he did not expect to work. Well, perhaps he was always working, if work for Duane is making art and making art is work. He was always creating. But I’m sure he did not expect to pick up his camera on this trip, for this was a strictly personal and ruminative visit.

In the painting, the grass, although green and healthy, is trapped. It sprouts from narrow fractures in the ground, suffocating under barbed metal fences. The cracks emerge from a mound of brassy rock that’s sizeable, yet feeble in appearance. Tall pillars of a factory sit on the top of the rock, crushing it, weighing it down. Above, clouds of relentless smoke pollute the sky, which has already faded to black. While the factory emits greenhouse gases into the air, never slowing down, the plants in the rock cling to what little fresh air they can find; they begin to decay.
Nan describes her Ballad series as an autobiography as well as a collection of images depicting drug abuse, and violent and aggressive couples. In that context what makes this image so hard hitting is its vacancy. The passive violence and aggression of emotional manipulation by which the lover executes, through his absence.
When I look at Robyn O’Neil’s 2004 drawing To Receive Willingly What Comes Next, I am drawn to the simple complexity of the scene. My heart cries out in longing and melancholy angst; I find myself staring into O’Neil’s mind, translated to paper through her hand. In her mind, shown to me through her artwork, I see radical acceptance of the world and everything within it.
I’ve come across a great piece of artwork lately, the Burlesque comedienne in her dressing room, Atlantic City, N.J., photographed by Diane Arbus, the artist slash photographer who dedicated her career to depicting the marginalized. In a review of Arbus in The Guardian, the editor suggested that she understood instinctively the conflict of “people who are pathetic, pitiable, as well as repulsive,” and then exploited them artistically. The review, of course, spiked my esteem, trapped me in the sway of the anxiety and discomfort of a show woman, and furthered my speculation of the story behind her, the burlesque comedienne.
Two young black girls in front of Lady D’s stand on a checkered linoleum flooring in the way of the door to the shop entrance. Two young, playful girls posing for the camera, in front of the ice cream parlor in 1976. Signs in the shop window advertise ice cream, 55 cent hot dogs, and chicken n’ chips. Behind the window there are bags of popcorn and jars of candy, the store inside seemingly empty. Pictures of ice cream cones are painted, or pasted, on the glass of the windows. To the tunes of Stevie Wonder they’d been dancing, or jumping, or giggling just before this photo was taken, when the photographer said Smile! Or maybe he’d said Pose! They had felt like movie stars, in front of the camera’s eye. A vision of childhood innocence.
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