How It Is: Writing Towards Wonder in Creative Nonfiction

Jessica Nelson

Dates: Tuesday, Nov 16, 2021 – 


Jessica Hendry Nelson is an assistant professor of creative writing in the VCU Department of English.


This talk explores the concept of wonder in creative nonfiction writing and pedagogy. It argues that in the best art, wonder is often the creative imperative, subject matter (or a lens on subject matter), and compositional directive. Wonder here includes the embrace of contradictory truths (joy and terror; pain and beauty; empathy and apathy) and requires sustained attention, embrace of the carnal, and investment in the long exposure. As a pedagogical tool in the creative writing classroom, an emphasis on ‘writing towards wonder’ insists on the profundity of ordinary experience and why it is as worthy a subject for art as suffering, which is of course also ordinary. To write towards wonder is to acknowledge that joy is as rich an emotion as sadness, and wonder needs both, needs all. The writer Garth Greenwell once said in an interview, “It’s an aesthetic failing but also a moral one […] to see happiness, even very ordinary happiness, as somehow less profound, variegated, interesting, less accommodating of insight, than other kinds of experience.” Many writing students have known trauma and hopelessness worse than even this harrowing time of plague and polemics, but unless they can also find and evoke joy through a practice of attention, their ability to cultivate wonder in their work is limited. This is what makes writing toward wonder a political act, too, as nonfiction writing inherently always is—because when we find joy in moments of crisis we can subvert shame, insist on our own humanity, and anticipate a different future.

Event contact: Catherine Ingrassia,