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Conference Insider: NonfictioNOW

From social justice to video essays, this fact-focused conference is deeply grounded in modern-day truthtelling.

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“Nonfiction is such a vibrant and contested art form, particularly now in these times of ‘fake news,’” notes Australian author and NonfictioNOW co-president David Carlin.

Jewish-American author Robin Hemley, former director of the Nonfiction Writing Program at the University of Iowa, founded the NonfictioNOW conference in 2005. The annual three-day event, held in a different international location each year, has a core purpose “to celebrate, discuss, and discover the many creative forms nonfiction takes, to debate its thorny issues, and to speculate about where it might go next,” Carlin explains.

Each year, over 400 participants passionate about nonfiction storytelling gather to attend panels and readings that focus on everything from literary journalism and travel writing to video essays and graphic memoir, lyric essays, and performed nonfiction.

“It is a conference by practitioners for practitioners, bringing together writers, students, teachers, critics, and other artists,” notes Carlin. “It is big enough to be immersive and small enough to be inviting and inclusive.”

What you’ll learn

The 2017 NonfictioNOW conference, held in Iceland, included panels on multimedia essays, interactive video gaming, and how to mobilize nonfiction to address climate change. One panel explored “Writers Fighting for Social Justice: Outsiders, Insiders, and Voices in Between.” Another examined “Nonfiction as Queer Aesthetic.” Participants could study the genre as it pertains to the female body, the physical landscape, and both natural and personal disasters.


In 2018, the same wealth of topics will enlighten participants and inspire them to discover new ways of approaching the genre. Conference attendees will have multiple opportunities to mingle with one another as well at coffee breaks and evening receptions, at informal dinners, and at roundtable discussions called húselsturs.

In our conference in Reykjavik, Iceland, in 2017, we were introduced by our Icelandic hosts to the notion of the ‘húselstur,’ Carlin explains. “A húselstur is an old Icelandic tradition of a household reading event, which we’ve adapted to make space in the conference for a series of topical conversations interspersed between the panels and keynotes.”

Conference attendees can submit a paper of 500 words on húselstur topics including Translation, Writing for Social Change, Writing the Body/Self, and Hauntings – described on NonfictioNOW’s website as “ghosts, memories, ‘the other.’” Moderators read the papers, then share them online with other húselstur participants to inspire a lively in-person roundtable discussion at the conference.


Featured presenters

Keynote speakers at the 2018 NonfictioNOW conference include award-winning Australian Aboriginal writer Melissa Lucashenko, and Montana/Hawai’i writer Gretel Ehrlich, author of 15 books of poetry, fiction, and nonfiction, including an exploration of how indigenous people in the Arctic have been affected by climate change.

Travel writer Stephanie Elizondo Griest will give a keynote. She’s the author of the memoirs Around the Bloc: My Life in Moscow, Beijing, and Havana; Mexican Enough; and All the Agents & Saints: Dispatches from the U.S. Borderlands, and the guidebook 100 Places Every Woman Should Go.

Francisco Cantú, Arizona author of The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border, will speak as well. Cantú spent several years as an agent for the U.S. Border Patrol in the deserts of Arizona, New Mexico, and Texas.


Dozens of published authors, professors, journalists, and students will speak on panels over the three-day event. Check NonfictioNOW’s conference schedule online at for details.

NonfictioNOW. Photo by Tangled Lilac Photography

Advice for first-time attendees

Carlin urges first-time participants in NonfictioNOW to immerse themselves in the conference experience. “Every single session offers the chance to discover exciting new voices and perspectives as well as to be challenged and inspired,” he notes. “Unlike some conferences where people tend to say that all the good things happen in the corridors and coffee breaks, at NonfictioNOW we work really hard to ensure that all of the different elements of the conference are lively, memorable, and engaging.”

He points out the numerous opportunities to meet new people at a conference that feels warm-hearted and supportive. “The great thing about NonfictioNOW is that it is neither an academic conference – which can be dry and formulaic – nor a writers festival, in which all of the writers and presenters are just there to flog their latest book,” he notes. “It is about listening, art, politics, dialogue, and all the things that really matter.”

Contributing editor Melissa Hart is the author of Better with Books: 500 Diverse Novels to Open Minds, Ignite Empathy, and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Teens (Sasquatch, 2019). Web:



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Originally Published