Burning Questions

Minnie Bruce began to teach me thirteen years ago in a cramped circle of tiny desks in a windowless room next to a stack of her notes and an electric kettle. Before our first meeting, she asked the class to email each other our “burning questions,” the “myster[ies] or dilemma[s]” that would frame our work together. And then, for two frequently harried summer weeks, we wrote and revised in response to fifty prompts as we followed these questions. Minnie Bruce provided the space to reckon with something pragmatic, something profound: we faced the reality that a single piece of writing could never actually deliver the urgent desires that demanded it.  

More menacing still, it seemed we couldn’t actually begin to grapple with these demands without first producing drafts. Many of them. Each one with the knowledge that no amount of revision or feedback would ever ensure the writing’s sufficiency to ourselves.  

Earlier this year, preparing to teach in my first faculty position following my PhD, I tried to use my syllabus to share Minnie Bruce’s lessons on the promises of writing and revising in community. My draft claimed that she described our burning questions as the “visceral, urgent, but often underexamined questions that motivate our intellectual work.” But my description of the burning question is absent from my final syllabus. Then, like now, I knew something was missing. I had made a mental note to email Minnie Bruce. I didn’t. 

There were—are—so many of us who depended on Minnie Bruce for pithy and crisp language when we brought her a morass. Minnie Bruce taught us to use a single, located, sensuous moment as a key to the world. It seems so silly to think about the lilt of her voice over the dusty linoleum of a humanities building, as If a mundane moment in an unremarkable classroom could say anything about her you don’t already know.   

This writing is not sufficient. I’ve had Peitho’s short call for memorial writing about Minnie Bruce open on my screen for weeks, but I could only write when the option was to something insufficient or nothing at all. Our sole job as writers, according to Minnie Bruce, is to produce something that is honest and accountable enough, and then to let it go. I want to believe I have the wherewithal to contribute to an archive of our love for her, using the tools she helped me develop. Yet, I’m wallowing in the worst kind of irony in trying to write about the mentor who helped me find my voice. It seems my voice just won’t stay found. 


Tribute to Minnie Bruce Pratt

 a group of eight people smiling and standing in front of a white wall. Minnie Bruce Pratt is on the far left, and Eileen Schell is the fifth person from the left.

a group of eight people smiling and standing in front of a white wall. Minnie Bruce Pratt is on the far left, and Eileen Schell is the fifth person from the left.

Brilliance. Generosity. Warmth. Revolutionary Communist, Anti-Racist, Feminist Consciousness. All of these qualities were on full display any time Dr. Minnie Bruce Pratt was in the room. Many of us know Minnie Bruce as a renowned feminist, poet, essayist and activist;  I had the good fortune of being her colleague at Syracuse University 2005-2014; I also was fortunate to serve as her Department Chair from 2007-2012.   

I first met Minnie Bruce when she came to Syracuse, NY to give a poetry reading at the YMCA Downtown Writers’ Center. Star-struck, I listened to her read her poetry and approached the podium with a book for her to sign. I found her to be warm and approachable. After the reading, my colleague Margaret Himley strategized with me about bringing Minnie Bruce to Syracuse as a colleague, and she worked tirelessly to make that happen.  Upon arrival at Syracuse University, Minnie Bruce was jointly appointed in the Departments of Writing Studies, Rhetoric, and Composition and Women’s and Gender Studies at SU. She was centrally involved in the 2006 launch of the LGBTQ Studies Program in the College of Arts and Sciences. She taught courses across all three areas and immediately drew a following of students. 

Minnie Bruce’s courses changed lives and changed consciousness. Her cross-listed WRT 422/QSX 400 course “Stranger than Fiction: LGBT Creative Nonfiction” asked students to respond to the question: “The hidden facts and unspoken truths of life can sometimes be ‘stranger than fiction’—and when that is so, how do we write believably and convincingly about those complex realities?” (“Syllabus” 2014). Students read LGBTQ creative nonfiction and wrote creative nonfiction on themes of bodies, genders, and sexualities. She also taught a remarkable interdisciplinary advanced Creative Nonfiction course at the graduate/undergraduate level labeled WRT 438/CCR 638/WGS 600 Advanced Creative Nonfiction: “Writing In-Between” that took place over a two-week intensive Maymester session.  The course was set up around “tracking the answer to a burning question” through creative nonfiction (“Syllabus” 2015).  Populated by a mix of undergraduate students, graduate students across disciplines, faculty, staff and community members, the course enabled so many to work on figuring out their writing projects through creative nonfiction. I took her class the last summer it was taught and saw first-hand the incredible camaraderie and investment that people had in each other’s work.  These courses were more than writing courses; they were communities of writers and activists who wrote, supported each other (see Navickas). Writers often ended up publicly sharing their work in the Department of Writing Studies, Rhetoric and Composition Nonfiction Reading series. Minnie Bruce was instrumental in helping me start this series in 2008 when she headlined the Department’s Spring Conference “What is Nonfiction?” along with Judith Kitchen.   

In addition to her pivotal teaching, Minnie Bruce was on the frontlines of almost every major campus and community protest in Syracuse. She and her partner Leslie Feinberg were active in labor struggles, anti-racist, and queer liberation movements across the country and world. Minnie Bruce served as a journalist and managing editor of Workers World/Mundo Obrero newspaper. When I was Chair, I remember her sitting in my office with a stack of Workers World, sharing her latest pieces. Her work as a journalist was on top of all the organizing, teaching, writing, and workshops she was doing at Syracuse and elsewhere.  As she shared on her website: “The struggle—for social justice and for workers and oppressed people, against racism and imperialism and for liberation for women and all gender and sexually-oppressed people—is my life” (“La Lucha”). She lived those words daily.   


a group of thirteen people standing together and smiling in front of a dark red wall. They are in two rows: six in the front and seven in the back. Eileen Schell is the third person from the left in the front row. Minnie Bruce Pratt is the second person from the right in the back row

a group of thirteen people standing together and smiling in front of a dark red wall. They are in two rows: six in the front and seven in the back. Eileen Schell is the third person from the left in the front row. Minnie Bruce Pratt is the second person from the right in the back row

None of us in Syracuse were ready for the news of Minnie Bruce’s illness and death. We had watched her care for Leslie through the advanced stages of Lyme disease until hir death in 2014. We had attended Minnie Bruce’s remarkable retirement party in 2015, which featured readings by some of her creative nonfiction students. It was inconceivable that less than ten years after Leslie passed away that Minnie Bruce would pass away from glioblastoma.  

At her “Celebration of Life” service on September 30, 2023 at the May Memorial Society in Syracuse, I met her two sons, grandchildren, chosen Syracuse family, former students, and comrades. Infused in that event was the community that Minnie Bruce and Leslie had built together. All of us were given the opportunity to carry away a memento in the form of a pair of clip-on earrings. Minnie Bruce did not have pierced ears, but she loved wearing clip-on earrings, and she had a huge collection for all occasions. As I stood with colleagues and friends looking at the trays of her earrings, we reminisced about Minnie Bruce: her colorful scarves, stylish hats, smile, laugh, wise advice, revolutionary writing, and activism. We talked about the electric energy in the air in her classes, readings, writing, activism, and her stories about growing up in Alabama. I carried away a pair of Minnie Bruce’s simple silver spiral earrings, which symbolize to me her beautiful, revolutionary spirit and life that touched and fortified so many of us for the struggles ahead.  

Works Cited 

“La Lucha: The Struggle.” Minnie Bruce Pratt website.https://minniebrucepratt.net/the- https://minniebrucepratt.net/the-struggle-la-lucha/. Accessed 30 October 2023. 

Navickas, Kate. “The Limitations of Liberation in the Classroom: Lessons from Minnie Bruce Pratt.” Pedagogy, vol. 20, no. 1, 2020, pp. 49–58. 

“Syllabus:  WRT 422/QSX 400: Studies in Creative Nonfiction,” Fall 2014, Syracuse University.   

“Syllabus:  WRT 438/CCR 638/WGS 600 Advanced Creative Nonfiction: “Writing In-Between,” Maymester 2015, Syracuse University.   

The Power of Narrative: A Memorial for Dr. Minnie Bruce Pratt

I met Dr. Pratt in the summer of 2016 during the first year of my doctoral coursework in the Composition and Cultural Rhetoric program at Syracuse University. That summer, Dr. Pratt was teaching an Advanced Creative Nonfiction (CNF) course. Reluctant to take any course that required me to write personally, I was not going to pass up the opportunity to take a class with the Minnie Bruce Pratt. I was already an admirer of her work and activism and countless graduate students in my program had described her course as “transformative.” In fact, many discovered their dissertation project in her course. I entered the first class meeting a bit skeptical of CNF but eager to learn from a legend. Dr. Pratt slowly ate away at my skepticism with daily writing exercises that amounted to hundreds of pages over the eight-week course. Scared to be vulnerable or to share something that would out me as the impostor I felt like, my writing remained performative over the first few weeks. I began the course trying to write in a way that I thought would impress Dr. Pratt.  

As a working class, first-generation woman in the South, I was raised to not share my dirty laundry or negative feelings with people I didn’t know very well. Everything is always “fine” in front of “company.” With direct but generous guidance, Dr. Pratt helped me see the power in my own voice, the value in my own story, and how to confront my own limitations and biases as a writer and reader. By the end of the course, I had used the daily writing exercises and larger assignments to begin to process the crushing grief I felt after my father’s death the year before. In addition to the personal impact of taking her course, Dr. Pratt helped me unlearn the fabricated boundaries between research and narrative, theory and reflection, and academic and personal writing that I had been taught. The reading, writing, and collaborating I did in her course irrevocably changed the scholar and teacher I am today. Once staunchly resistant to personal narrative, reflection and feminist storytelling are central in all my scholarship today. Looking back at my final reflection from the course now, I feel overwhelmingly grateful to have been able to study with her: “Writing in this way seems more powerful than I ever imagined. My own identity as a ‘strong woman’ is being tested by my surveys into the past, into my memories. Writing like this becomes a way for me to parse through the outside voices to truly find and exercise my own.”  

It’s impossible to capture what we’ve lost with Dr. Pratt’s passing, just as it’s impossible to capture her lasting impact on so, so many. Rest in power, Dr. Pratt, and thank you, truly thank you, for everything.