Red Flags for Writers: When Publishing Goes All Wrong

May 26, 2023 § 23 Comments

By Lainy Carslaw

This is not an easy story to tell. Mostly because it’s embarrassing and I’m ashamed of my stupidity. And also because I still don’t know how this story ends.

But I want other writers to learn from my mistakes in their efforts to publish. So here we go.

At the beginning of 2021, I landed an agent (Yay!) I was on cloud nine and imagined that I was within reach of my life-long dream of publishing a novel.

I should have known better. There were signs.

It all started the previous year with me reading an article about a certain agent in the Huffington Post. She sounded professional—worthy of the book I’d been working on for close to a decade. Off my first 50 pages went.

The agent got back to me the next day (red flag # 1.) She said my book didn’t look quite ready but that it had promise. (Yay!) If I hired her editor and reworked it with her, she’d take another look. So, I was paired with a published author and I paid her to read my work.

The feedback was okay. And it got me excited to dive back into a redraft. Was it worth the $3,500 I paid her? (Probably not.) But when I was done, I resubmitted with the agent.

While I was awaiting a response, I came across an article in my Facebook feed entitled “Writers Beware.” I clicked on it and soon learned that companies that make you pay for in-house editing services are likely a scam. (Oh shit. Red flag # 2) My cheeks burned red and I began to panic. I sent my concerns to the agent in an email.

Just a few days later, she accepted my book (surprise, surprise!) Maybe that timing should have been red flag # 3, but I didn’t want to see it. So off to publishers she sent it…or so she said.

I started posting about having an agent and my expectation of finding a publisher and announcing that my book was about to be published! That’s when my former MFA director called me with some bad news. She had researched that agency and felt I needed to end my contract—immediately.

Did I listen? (No, I did not.)

I understood her worry but how could I quit when I was this close? What if I couldn’t find another agent? I couldn’t bear the thought of starting all over.

At the end of three months, my book was not picked up (surprise, surprise) but the agent said she had a solution—just pay her for more editing, the cover art, the marketing and she would publish my book through her own services. That’s when the last red flag fell down and beat me over the head.

I was finally able to walk away.

It’s been two years since then. Two more years of edits and queries and beta readers and I have to tell you—I’m done. I put my heart into that book. And I believe in it.

I refuse to let it die a lonely death in my file folder.

A few weeks ago, I made the difficult decision to self-publish. It was not an easy choice, but I have come to believe that’s what is right for me, right now. I have a full-time job. I have three kids. I don’t have a lifetime to waste writing the same query, the same synopsis over and over in hopes of finding an honest person to represent me.

I have come to believe that I have to represent myself.  

A self-publishing company just sent me back my copyedits. For the first time since landing that sketchy agent, a part of me feels hopeful, like my book might actually be held in someone’s careful hands someday.

The other part is doubtful, and scared. There is still so much I don’t know about publishing and this whole process can seem daunting, so unfair. Writers have enough working against them (so, so much!) And to think there are those out there ready to prey on our dreams is almost unthinkable. I know I didn’t want to believe it. And yet, there they are. Hybrid publishers, vanity publishers, terrible agents…

Before I decided to self-publish I received an email from a local hybrid company offering to publish my book. I thought, maybe they’ll be different. But as luck would have it, I met someone who had worked there. “I had over 500 books I was in charge of,” this twenty-three year-old girl said. “They accept any book and then make as much money as they can off of you.” (WTF people!)

That’s the moment I knew I was done.

I pray for my fellow writers. I pray we can navigate this competitive, volatile, tricky landscape and get our words out into the world. I pray we can negotiate what is fair for our years of passion dedicated to our projects. I do not have the answers, but I know we need to weigh them carefully. We need to do our homework and not jump on the first thing that comes our way. (Oops!) I pray you are smarter and more aware than I was.

I pray our books find a home. We deserve that much.  


Lainy Carslaw is a writer, gymnastics coach, and mother of three boys from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania. She holds an MFA from Chatham University and her work can be found in The Sandy River Review, The Nasty Woman Anthology, Pink Pangea, and several editions of the Madwomen in the Attic Anthology. She also writes for her local newspaper, The Hampton News. Her goal is to publish her book, Regrip, by the end of the year and do a better job when trying to publish its sequel. You can follow her on Instagram @lainycarslaw.  

Why I Write – Two Truths and a Lie

May 25, 2023 § 13 Comments

By Alexander Forston     

I have no traditionally valuable skills; by this I refer to those that are commonly called “marketable” or “in demand.” I do not understand money management nor the value of labor nor why all of society’s functions must occur in the daylight. I have been a night owl since I was born; you can ask my mother about it. I often find it unpleasant to talk to strangers, but I can do it when I must. I perform diligently and to the best of my ability when I have a job, but I cannot remain at a position for more than six months without falling into existential panic and quitting abruptly. I can’t do a pull-up. Of all the things that are possible, in fact, I doubt that I can do most of them.

But when all that lies before me is the empty page’s untouched white expanse (or dark gray, in the case of my word processor’s night setting), none of that matters. I am unbound by expectation, preconception, or capability. I am reminded of how shamelessly I can fall in love with my own voice, how deeply I can find catharsis in the thoughts that arise from the packing and unpacking of daily life, or from nowhere at all. I am allowed to revel in not knowing myself, to accept that this unknowing is not a weakness, but a journey. Who is that hunched little man sitting in the dark before a computer screen? He is unconscionably pale and wears a hard expression, yet I feel so safe with my chin on his shoulder. I hold him fast and he smells like me, for who else could he be? What strange things will I show me tonight? What futures will we write into being? The person we could become tomorrow is but the dreamy invention of the one who sleeps below the surface today. I did not choose to be a writer, but there can be no greater exertion of free will upon the course of my own life.

When people ask me what I write, I never know what to tell them, though I often suspect that the question is asked more for social obligation than genuine interest. I primarily write fiction, this is true, and I have become a deft hand at playwriting in my own time. Fiction is the mode that comes most naturally to me, as my earliest memories are couched in the texture and movement of the prose narrative. The richest lives, after all, are those which are granted the posthumous laurel of “storied.” Nonfiction and poetry are vast, mysterious lands to me, and perhaps I shall explore them one day. At present I visit them as one might travel to a foreign country; I am awed by their depth and history, but have not cultivated the discipline to learn their language. My relationship with these forms is greedy and one-sided, but with time and patience I might develop into their familiar confidant.

But what do I write? I write short pieces, I write long pieces. I write good pieces and bad pieces. Pieces begrimed, pieces ablaze. I edit and revise, and sometimes I don’t. Rarely I will write a story and then lock it in the basement of my mind, acknowledging its existence only to deliver stale cut-off bread crusts and a glass of murky water through a slot in the door. I don’t think about those stories, and neither should you. Maybe they’ll get to come out when they’ve learned their lesson (or I have, whichever comes first). And since I’m confessing, I must admit that I lied to you earlier; I’ve never written a play in my life. Lying is the dirty little secret genre that writers can only perform in their own thoughts. But in some backward sense, I don’t write anything because I have not yet been published. In the end, what is the measure of a story unread? That’s Schrödinger’s Writer: nonexistent before they’re published, but a sell-out after. You can never win against that childish part of yourself, so pick up your ball and go home.

In the decade-plus that I have been writing, nobody has ever asked me why I write. And perhaps that’s why this little essay is the way it is: wistfully meandering, occasionally bordering on penitent. This is an uncertain answer to an unasked question, a justification more to myself than to anyone else. There is no correct answer, but there are true answers and false ones. In the spirit of that logical dichotomy, I would like to frame my final response in the form of a time-honored icebreaker game: Two Truths and a Lie. Feel free to play along at home.

So Alexander, why do you write?

A, I believe that living without writing is not living.

B. I have an endless supply of stories that must be told.

C. I need to leave this world with undeniable evidence that I Was Here.


Alexander Forston (he/him) is an upcoming voice in the worlds of literary and speculative fiction. He is an MFA fiction writing student at Lindenwood University and has served as an editor for The Lindenwood Review.

5 Things I’ve Learned from Writing (and Editing) Mental Health Stories

May 24, 2023 § 4 Comments

By Katie Bannon

Mental health is often branded “taboo” and, for writers of memoir and personal essay, these stories can be our most vulnerable and challenging material. But there’s a reason these types of narratives are so sought after. At their best, they speak to our darkest truths and teach us what it means to be human.

I’ve been writing about mental health for over a decade now. And as a developmental editor, I’ve worked with dozens of memoirists and essayists writing their own mental health stories.

Here are the five most important lessons I’ve learned about crafting mental health narratives:

There’s a difference between getting messy and being mushy. Mental health stories lend themselves to plenty of emotion and vulnerability. Yet we must ensure we have enough distance to shape the material for the reader, without veering into cliché or sentimentality. Journaling about mental health is important, but fundamentally different from the work of creative nonfiction. With creative nonfiction, we are deploying craft techniques that make the story resonant to an outside reader, beyond our own catharsis. We can (and should!) go to messy places in our writing, but the reader should always feel the narrator has control over the story.  

Your situation may be “unique,” but the story should feel universal. For instance, I write about living with a compulsive hair pulling condition called trichotillomania. While most people don’t experience the urge to pluck hair, absolutely everyone has felt alone, alienated, and ashamed—the themes at the heart of my manuscript. Challenge yourself to dig deeper in your personal narrative, connecting your story to something larger about the human experience. 

Mental health doesn’t exist inside a vacuum. Mental illness is influenced by outside forces in our lives, including family dynamics, social and gender norms, poverty, xenophobia, racism, and more. In our writing, we can also examine the larger forces and systems surrounding our mental health. This gives us the opportunity to turn the microscope both on ourselves and on the systems, institutions, and cultural forces around us. Tyrese Coleman’s personal essay “What It’s Like Having PPD as a Black Woman” is an excellent example of investigating the intersection between mental health and race.

There’s no one way to tell a mental health story. Esmé Weijun Wang looks at schizophrenia through the lens of a scholar and cultural critic. Jenny Lawson’s essays about depression and anxiety will make you laugh out loud. Just because mental health can be a serious, personal topic does not mean it must be soberly told. There’s no “right” way to write a mental health story – how you craft the narrative all depends on your purpose and audience.

Writing about mental health can be a psychosomatic experience, making self-care crucial. Creative nonfiction about mental health can be emotionally destabilizing, even triggering. We need a toolbox of self-care techniques to accompany our craft strategies. Some techniques I have found helpful when writing intense, vulnerable material:

  • Write in short, timed bursts. When writing difficult scenes, set a timer for ten minutes. Try to keep your pen moving or fingers typing the whole time, without rereading what you’ve written. Then take a break. This practice can help set limits on how long we spend inside challenging memories. 
  • Lean on your support system, particularly when writing traumatic and/or potentially triggering scenes. For instance, you might have a friend or partner “on call” during these writing sessions so you can get reliable support if you need it.
  • Embrace side projects (writing-related or otherwise) to reset your mind and body. It’s easier to write vulnerable content when there are opportunities to recharge and/or shift gears to something low-stakes. A lighter writing project or even a hobby activity will refill your tank when the personal writing gets tough.  
  • Record yourself speaking. Speaking and writing are different experiences. For some of us, writing certain scenes may be triggering, while speaking them aloud might feel safer. Your phone’s audio recording app likely also has transcription capabilities; most newer phones take dictation from the keyboard, too.
  • Know when to stop. Some memories may be too raw and/or triggering for you to revisit right now, and that’s okay. Ask, Am I resisting this scene because it’s difficult, or is my body resisting this because writing it would be psychologically damaging? Here is an excellent article on evaluating when and how to write about traumatic memories. 


Need more guidance on how to write compelling mental health stories? Join Katie Bannon and CRAFT TALKS for Dark Truths: Five Tools for Crafting Compelling Mental Health Narratives, 2PM ET May 31 ($25).

Katie Bannon is a writer, editor, and educator whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, ELLE Magazine, NPR, Narratively, and more. Her memoir manuscript was a finalist for the Permafrost Nonfiction Book Prize. A graduate of GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator, she holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Emerson College. She is a developmental editor who loves working with nonfiction writers to find the “story” behind the “situation” of their memoirs and essays. She teaches at GrubStreet and lives in the Boston area.

Lucky Author Syndrome

May 23, 2023 § 24 Comments

By Sandra A. Miller

When my friend Lisa and I received our MFAs in 1996, we both immediately scored New York literary agents with our just-finished manuscripts. Within a few months, Lisa, twenty-six to my thirty-two, sold her novel to a major publisher and went on to land a series of book deals that set her on the literary path she still walks today.

My road was rockier. My MFA novel, although admired for its fine writing and plot twists, received a pass from all of the Big Ten publishing houses. At that point, my agent pruned me from his client list, leaving me with an unsold manuscript and the feeling that I was unlucky. I really believed my book was saleable. Didn’t my early readers deem it a page-turner? Had I not landed a good agent? So what was the problem, if not bad luck?

A recent TikTok trend called Lucky Girl Syndrome, encourages people to create their own luck by thinking it so. For anyone who remembers being seduced by “The Secret” twenty years ago, this is basically that, with a youthful rebrand. Lucky girls (or anyone who is willing) can supposedly wish their longed-for partner, job, baby, book deal—you name it—into existence.

When my novel didn’t sell all those years ago, I didn’t quit. I couldn’t. There wasn’t another career that I cared about. If anything, I went after a publishing deal even more ferociously. While raising two children and teaching part time, I tried my hand at every kind of writing that called to me, or that I thought might bring me my Lucky Author break. I wrote a middle-grade novel, finished a few movie scripts, and outlined a self-help book with my psychologist husband because a psychic saw it in our stars. When none of those projects landed, I sold essays and articles to anyone who would take my work.

I never stopped writing, but, at some point, I started questioning. Would it ever happen for me in a bigger way? Would I get the thing I wanted more than any number of estimable by-lines or grateful kudos on my end-of-semester evaluations? 

The rejections on my long works stung, and then they thickened my skin and thinned my heart, leaving me both doggedly undeterred and achingly vulnerable. When writer friends launched their books, the genuine joy I felt for them mixed with my jealousy served up a cocktail many writers drink on the regular. “Always the bridesmaid…” I once joked to Lisa when, for the second time, I found myself in the acknowledgements of her book.

To protect my ego, I blamed the industry. Agents take on so few projects. Publishing houses are merging, leaving fewer places to submit. When writer friends and I met for dinner, we’d talk about how impossibly hard it was. Even my Lucky Author friends–the ones with book deals–struggled for publicity, reviews, and whatever it took to be a success.

Beneath the complaints, I felt inherently unlucky.

Then in 2013, after experiencing a series of personal challenges, I began writing a memoir called Trove. It was about my hunt for a treasure chest in New York City, as well as a metaphorical search for a connection to my parents. This project appeared from an internal place so unexpected and organic that I knew it had chosen me. I felt it in bones, my head, my soul, and even my aching heart that I sometimes think had to be broken over and over for me to finally write that memoir. 

With a finished manuscript, I landed an agent whose last name means “luck” in German. She would try for several years to sell that project. Every time a “Sandra’s a talented writer with a resonant story” turned into a version of “good luck elsewhere”, my skin got thicker and thicker, except around my heart. But I took the feedback from rejections and kept working on it. It didn’t matter that I was an unknown writer with a small platform, barely big enough to stand on. I believed.

As luck would have it— or not—my agent didn’t sell my manuscript to one of the big houses. But I could not abandon Trove. My beta readers and my own instinct told me that it was good and true, and that it needed to be in the world as a published book. When I searched for a publisher on my own, I soon placed Trove with a wonderful small press in California that did right by me in every way. A beautiful cover. Great marketing. Best of all, I could finally hold my book in my hands.  

After twenty years, I had cracked the formula for “Lucky” Author syndrome: the trifecta of the right project, hard work, and belief. Once I was committed to uncomplainingly giving that manuscript my everything, and was flexible enough to relinquish the “Big Ten” book-dream, I not only felt lucky—I knew I couldn’t fail.

When Lisa talks about her early book deals, she says she got lucky. I know it was more than that. She was preternaturally talented and dedicated to her craft. But in the end, those book deals made her work even harder, just as the chase made me plug away with persistence. And the right projects made us both write what we were meant to.

Could I have wished a book into existence simply by deciding I was lucky? I don’t think so. Did it help that I figured out how to keep the faith though the four long years I devoted to that project? Definitely.

I’ve since written and sold Wednesdays at One, a novel that is coming out with Zibby Books in July. An advanced copy sits on my coffee table. The other day, I picked it up to study the cover yet again and give it a little hug. “I feel so lucky,” I said to my husband who was sitting across from me.

He laughed a big whooping exaggerated laugh and said, “Lucky? You feel lucky? You’ve worked your butt off for this.”

Sandra A. Miller is the author of the award-winning memoir, Trove: A Woman’s Search for Truth and Buried Treasure. Her debut novel, Wednesdays at One, will be published by Zibby Books in July. She teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and can be found online at

The Hover

May 22, 2023 § 21 Comments

By Carolyn Roy-Bornstein

When I retired at 65 and closed my medical practice, I looked forward to long stretches of time to write, something I rarely had when I worked.

My days then were filled with sick visits and well-baby checks, hospital rounding and conference calls. For all my adult life, writing had been catch-as-catch-can. I carved out time in the morning, before the rest of the household woke up, to add a few precious paragraphs to that half-written essay, to polish and submit a short story. I’d pull out my young adult novel every couple of Novembers and add a few chapters during National Novel Writing Month. I kept notebooks in my car and purse, a voice recorder at my bedside, jotting or recording ideas for future pieces.

And I accomplished a lot. I wrote two memoirs. I saw my pieces published in the New York Times and the Washington Post. I edited an essay collection, all while doctoring hundreds of patients and raising my own brood. Time management was my super-power. Imagine what I could get done now that I had hours (days!) of nothing but time stretching before me. How I looked forward to filling that void with my words.

Except I didn’t.

I gardened. I pulled weeds and laid down mulch. I planted peonies and phlox, dug compost around hydrangea roots. I kayaked and swam and stand-up paddle boarded. I picked blueberries with my granddaughter. I took yoga classes and boot camps at the gym. I did everything but write.

I still thought about writing. I still worked with words. I developed a curriculum for a creative writing class, which I taught at my local library. I continued my work as an assistant editor for a literary journal focused on healing and the arts, reading other people’s essays with a keen eye. I led narrative medicine seminars for physicians-in-training which involved close readings of short literary works followed by reflective writing exercises based on prompts I created from the poem or story we’d just discussed. I reviewed books, doing my part to elevate my fellow authors’ work.

I was still a good literary citizen. I just wasn’t producing original creative work of my own. With the “gift” of time, I found myself blocked.

But maybe this period, this very early stage of my retirement, is meant to be a fallow phase. A pause in my word life. A season of rest and recovery before another cycle of great productivity begins. Writers can’t be all output all the time, after all. We must also read, visit art museums, and take in a ballet. Fill the generative well so we can create our own art once more.

When my yoga teacher leads us in a final meditation of the class, she tells us, “Take a moment. Hover between the inhale and the exhale.” Maybe this part of my retirement is that liminal space, too. The hover. Between the inhale and the exhale. Between taking in and putting out. Between a practice of writing in snatched moments and one where I fill my days with my own words.

I know the writing will come. Maybe as I’m paddling through the mist at sunrise, an idea will form. Maybe it will take shape while I’m thinning the pole beans and staking tomatoes. Maybe my epiphany will emerge while I’m perfecting my crow pose, not thinking about writing at all, just trying not to topple over.

The words will all come.

And I don’t mind waiting. I have time.


Carolyn Roy-Bornstein is a retired pediatrician and the writer-in-residence at the Lawrence Family Medicine Residency Program. She lives and writes in Massachusetts and Maine.

The Treachery of Words

May 19, 2023 § 7 Comments

after René Magritte

By Kristina R. Gaddy

This is not truth.

It is my version of events.

It is how I remember it happened.

It is how they remembered how it happened.

It is an oral history.

It is what someone dares say on the record.

It is the story of someone who wants to be on the record.

It is what the person asking the questions wants to hear.

It is the version of events that can be found in the historical record.

It is the story the police chose to write down.

It is the diary that someone saved.

It is the letter that someone didn’t burn.

It is an account from someone who had access to pen and paper.

It is an account from someone who knows how to write.

It is what I have.

It is not the truth.

It is not the emotional truth.

It is not the memory that has been suppressed.

It is not the story they could never tell.

It is not the story she didn’t think was important enough to share.

It is not the interview he was never able to give.

It is not all of the evidence.

It is not the story of the so-called perpetrator.

It is not the diary that ended up in the bottom of the river.

It is not the letter that was burned.

It is not the story of a woman who was never allowed to write her own story.

It is not the history no one was there to record.

It is not made up.

These are the pieces I choose to share with you.

It is the connection I want you to draw.

This is a truth.

Kristina R. Gaddy is the author of Well of Souls: Uncovering the Banjo’s Hidden History (W.W. Norton 2022) and Flowers in the Gutter: The True Story of the Edelweiss Pirates, Teenagers Who Resisted the Nazis (Dutton 2020)

Witnessing the Self

May 18, 2023 § 2 Comments

By Joanna Penn Cooper

Faith is found here, not in a destiny raiding and parceling out knowledge and the earth, but in a people who, person by person, believes itself.  Do you accept your own gestures and symbols?  Do you believe what you yourself say?  When you act, do you believe what you are doing?

–Muriel Rukeyser, The Life of Poetry

How might writing memoir and personal essay help us as we claim our role as observers and shapers of our own lives?  On a simple level, when I think about writing that I personally love, I notice a common thread of writers who are living the questions—inhabiting life’s inexplicable, wondrous, even perplexing moments with an openness that lets readers in and asks them to inhabit those questions for themselves. What are we doing as writers and as lovers of writing, if not standing in the middle of our lives wondering at it all? 

I believe that every writer needs permission to find his or her own observations worthwhile, and also that this granting of permission to ourselves to nurture our own creative sparks is vitally important.  We get forms of that permission from mentors and from authors we love, but ultimately we must grant it to ourselves. In her amazing 1948 work The Life of Poetry, Muriel Rukeyser wrote, “Facing and communicating, that will be our life, in the world and in poetry. Are we to teach this? All we can show to people is themselves; show them what passion they possess, and we will have come to the poetry. This is the knowledge of communication, and it is the fear of it which has cut us down.”  

Practice observing the world around you and believing that your observations are worthwhile.  Allow the stillness necessary for a deep sort of noticing of your own desires and impulses. Believe your own words and gestures.   

In teaching online writing courses in flash memoir and lyric essay, I have realized that I want to remind my students, mostly women somewhere in the middle of their lives, that it’s ok to follow their own interest and observations and threads of thought throughout the day, to witness the world and its textures, as well as the textures of their own minds, that this is the life of the artist, of the person striving to be awake in her life. I realize that this has been my project of the last several years—to claim one’s noticing and in this way work to be more human, and—as a middle-aged woman and single mother— I wonder how this works for women, specifically. How we need to give ourselves and each other permission to notice and celebrate our delights and also to notice and pay homage to our griefs, both. How they are part of one larger cloth of our lives, of all our lives. 

Asking ourselves what feels most urgent in our life narratives and the narratives of our communities is a way to hit rich veins of material.  Find the urgency and follow that. This interest in your own mind, your own perception of the world doesn’t have to be a heavy, serious thing.  You could think of yourself as Harriet the Spy with her notebook or as anthropologist of your own local society. You could see yourself, as Shirley Jackson did, as always writing, whether the people around you realize it or not:

I cannot find any patience for those people who believe that you start writing when you sit down at your desk and pick up your pen and finish writing when you put down your pen again; a writer is always writing, seeing everything through a thin mist of words, fitting swift little descriptions to everything he sees, always noticing. Just as I believe that a painter cannot sit down to his morning coffee without noticing what color it is, so a writer cannot see an odd little gesture without putting a verbal description to it, and ought never to let a moment go by undescribed.

– From Jackson’s lecture “Memory and Delusion,” as collected in Let Me Tell You

Whatever works, really.  Whatever delights you and also connects you to that thread of creative exploration that makes you feel alive when you’re doing it. We need more people who feel alive.


Discover your voice and who you are on the page in Finding Your Voice: Flex Who You Are to Enliven Your Prose, a CRAFT TALKS webinar with Joanna Penn Cooper. Wednesday May 24th at 2PM Eastern time (replay available), $25. More info/register now.

Joanna Penn Cooper is the author of The Itinerant Girl’s Guide to Self-Hypnosis, a book of lyrical prose, and the poetry books What Is a Domicile and Crown. Her current project is a memoir in essays about motherhood, origins, and power. Joanna holds a PhD from Temple University. She lives in Durham, North Carolina and teaches at Muse Writing & Creative Support.  

Five Mental Health Tips for Writers

May 17, 2023 § 7 Comments

By Sweta Srivastava Vikram

What’s common between Ernest Hemingway, Virginia Woolf, Edgar Allen Poe, Sylvia Plath, and F. Scott Fitzgerald? These writers all struggled with mental health challenges and dealt with painful ends. A few died by suicide and others battled depression and alcoholism. According to Kay Redfield Jamison, a psychology professor at Johns Hopkins who wrote Touched with Fire, writers are around eight times as likely to suffer from mental illness than those who don’t pursue writing as a career.

“Is mental illness essential or merely incidental to the creative process?” I read this question somewhere, which unsettled me. Some writers believe that being affected by mental health issues is the source of their creative fire. I believe, instead, they should be getting help. How can we be grounded in our storytelling if we are unanchored ourselves? 

I remember attending a writing retreat once where a writer was standing with her forehead pressed against the wall at 3pm. I was the first to find her and thought she was sick and about to collapse as her body wasn’t moving. Turns out, she was drunk. Later on, at group dinner that evening, the same writer ordered a few martinis and unleashed her whole life’s story. She dissolved into tears, cussed at her parents, cringed at her partner. When we were all leaving, I asked if she managed to get any work done. With all that fire and passion, I was curious how it impacted her creativity. Apparently, she barely wrote anything. This writer has an array of mental health issues … so, alcoholism as well as lack of structure during the day only made things worse for her. 

Here are five tips to nourish your mental health.

Establish a non-negotiable routine: Be it sleep, meals, exercise, rest, or creative time, set yourself a clear routine. In the world of yoga, there is the concept of Abhyasa and Vairagya. Abhyasa means effort/practice; Vairagya means letting go and detachment. Instead of rolling out of bed when it works for you, establishing a routine, even around your writing, helps build the writing muscles. And if it turns out to be a non-productive writing day, practice vairagya (detachment). Tomorrow is a new day. The dance between effort and detachment is key to nurturing your mental health, so you don’t take on unnecessary pressure or procrastinate all day or develop unhealthy habits.

Know the dangers of loneliness: Writing requires us, writers, to work in isolation. For hours, if not days, at a stretch, we live with our words, characters, thoughts, and stories. Buried under our notebooks or hunched over our laptops, we spend far too many hours with no company. Too much solitariness can be detrimental to your mental wellbeing. Mankind is a social being, and by neglecting our need to connect, we put our mental health at risk. According to this article in the World Economic Forum, emotional conversations, support, positive vibes, and affirmations can all help to enhance our mental health.

Don’t mess with your circadian rhythm: Not all, but a large majority of writers are night owls. They come alive when the world goes to sleep. Those who work a full-time job and write part-time fit in their writing at strange hours. How else do you navigate writing if you have little kids or eldercare responsibilities? But know that you are playing with fire in messing with your circadian rhythm. “An irregular circadian rhythm can have a negative effect on a person’s ability to sleep and function properly, and can result in a number of health problems, including mood disorders such as depression, anxiety, bipolar disorder, and seasonal affective disorder,” according to the article from Harvard Medical School.

Get outside more: I don’t mean this just from the perspective of exercising, which is integral to solid mental health. Aren’t we all guilty of existing in silos the minute there is a book or article deadline? Getting outdoors and spending time in nature can help lower anxiety and stress, improve your mood, help you feel connected to something bigger than you, and force you to relax. It also helps you connect with your local community and shift your focus from only writing to other fun things in life.

Break those stereotypes: Poor mental health doesn’t have to go with the territory of being a good writer. I am not sure how it got started, but have you noticed that the mentally healthy creative people are barely represented in the creative world? We hear about suicide by death or alcoholism or infidelity or bipolar disorder or instable mental states of writers etc. etc. But where are the writers with less dramatic life history? The ones who may serve as positive models, whom others may want to follow.

May is Mental Health Awareness Month. While these holistic self care tips can be very useful in empowering your mental wellbeing, if you are suffering, please get help from a mental health professional. Between the stigma around mental health as well as lack of support and awareness, so many people slip under the radar and don’t get the medical help they need.

 Sweta Srivastava Vikram is an international speaker, best-selling author of 13 books, and Ayurveda and wellness coach who is committed to helping people thrive on their own terms. Her latest book, “A Piece of Peace,” (Modern History press) was released in September 2021. As a trusted source on health and wellness, most recently appearing on NBC and Radio Lifeforce and in a documentary with Dr. Deepak Chopra, Sweta has dedicated her career to writing about and teaching a more holistic approach to creativity, productivity, health, and nutrition. Her work has appeared in The New York Times and other publications across nine countries on three continents. Sweta is getting a doctorate degree in Ayurveda, is a  certified Ayurveda health practitioner, and holds a Master’s in Strategic Communications from Columbia University. Voted as “One of the Most Influential Asians of Our Times” and winner of the “Voices of the Year” award (past recipients have been Chelsea Clinton), she lives in New York City with her husband and works with clients across the globe. She also teaches yoga, meditation, and mindfulness to survivors of sexual assault and domestic violence as well incarcerated men and women. Find her on: TwitterInstagramLinkedIn, and Facebook.

What Stephen King Taught My Husband About Writing 

May 16, 2023 § 11 Comments

By Marie F. Cahalane

I looked busy—piano, interior design projects, laundry, Candy Crush Saga—but the swirl of activity I generated belied a larger issue.

I couldn’t fool my husband, Tim. He noted my lack of engagement in revising my memoir, or in any writing task, but fortunately for him, he stayed quiet. 

Until he didn’t.

Tim’s no writer but he reads—a lot, and as much as I love to read, we differ stylistically in how we attack a good book. Tim reads like he consumes a pasta dinner—with voracious gusto. He reads for enrichment, not technique.

I read to enhance my craft, examining word usage while appreciating the storytelling and meaning making in each scene. While I question my husband’s level of retention, considering his reading speed, his ability to engage me in cogent, topical, book-related conversation always amazes me. His nightly reading habit brings him to the dinner table ready to share interesting tidbits, and I always enjoy his off-handed observations and spontaneous reviews.

One evening, Tim picked up my copy of Stephen King’s On Writing from a pile of books in the living room. He hunkered down to read until dinner was ready.

A while later, Tim strutted into the kitchen and announced, “You need to write every day.”

His unexpected, out-of-character mandate surprised me. As a temporarily inert writer, it was a horrific turn of events. Every writing instructor I have ever known has touted the importance of a daily writing habit, and now, under King’s literary tutelage, Tim apparently fancied himself an expert. His directive failed to inspire me, even if it did come straight from the prolific Stephen King via a most unexpected mouthpiece. 

A few nights later, I braced myself as Tim sat down at the dinner table.

“You know, it’s as important for a writer to read as much as it is to write,” he said with authority.

“Yes, I know,” I said. “You see me read.”

He looked at me quizzically, clearly doubtful. I stared back blankly, hoping to disarm any further advice. I admit his channeling of King got under my skin, and not in a good way. He hoped to motivate me; instead, his prodding shredded any remnant of desire I had to write. 

It wasn’t long before Tim assumed his King-inspired coaching persona in one last attempt to break the back of my writing malaise and get my butt into the chair.

“Don’t worry about grammar and spelling when you are writing a draft,” he said, as he sat down to his chicken cacciatore and penne. “Just get the words on paper.”

My dear husband meant well but I began to draw parallels between him and Annie Wilkes, the sadistic antagonist from King’s thriller, Misery. Annie resorts to torture to coax her favorite author, Paul Sheldon, to write, while professing to be Paul’s “number one fan.” Tim’s no Annie (I had no fears I’d get a foot, or a thumb, chopped off) but he is my most fervent supporter. He thought he could help me by sharing what he had learned from reading King, and in a way, he did.

He had irritated me enough to exorcize my writing demons. Thanks to Tim and his “encouragement,” I managed to write this essay. 

Thankfully, Tim has finished reading On Writing and I am writing on a more consistent schedule. In the meantime, to preserve my sanity, I’ll stash the rest of my craft books where they are less readily accessible.


Marie F. Cahalane is a writer based in the greater Boston area. Her work has been published in WBUR’s Cognoscenti, Grand Magazine, Herstry, and her blog, Mami Knows Everything. She is a graduate of both the Memoir Generator and the Memoir Incubator at Boston’s prestigious GrubStreet writing center. When she’s not writing, Marie works with college-bound students as an independent college advisor. Find Marie at her website.

Books are Compasses

May 15, 2023 § 8 Comments

By Shawna Kenney

My first trip outside of the United States was a month-long backpacking trip in Europe. I’d saved money from many jobs for two years so I could treat myself after graduating from college, heading out with a friend, a Eurail Pass, and the Lonely Planet’s Shoestring Guide. This was the mid-90s, so we depended on the hostel phone numbers, the suggested itineraries, the historical snippets, and the occasional tip-off to vegetarian-friendly establishments.

Of course, sometimes the information proved to be outdated, like the day we hiked up a long, steep street in Lausanne, Switzerland, to the promise of a vegan restaurant, only to find a sign on the door saying they were under renovation and “closed for 3 months.” We found a nice Italian restaurant instead—and accidentally stumbled into a “blue movie” theater, something we joke about to this day.

Two weeks into the trip, my friend chided me on the train through Italy, “Get your nose out of the book! You’re missing everything.” It was true—but I couldn’t help myself. I have always read everything I could get my eyes on. As we moved on to each new city, I lightened my load by tearing away sections of the heavy tome and throwing them away.  

My second trip to Europe was seven years later on a book tour promoting the UK edition of my memoir. This was an entirely different experience—staying in Bloomsbury, imagining Virginia Woolf walking those streets; staring in reverence at the earliest printing of Rikki Tikki Tavi in the British Library; studying cuneiform texts on 7th Century clay tablets in the British Museum. My travel buddy—now husband—and I were whisked around by a publicist from bookstore to bookstore, where I shared my own work and signed stock, giddy and grateful for the opportunity.

When we toured the publisher’s warehouse, they invited us to take a copy of any forthcoming book. My husband chose 1421: The Year China Discovered America. It not only put our existence and experience into context, but I teased him that it weighed more than the original Shoestring Guide.

I still have a penchant for reading stories set in the places I’m traveling. It’s a heady mix of movement and mind. This transcends genre, perhaps because growing up in a household full of non-readers in a small rural town often referred to as the “middle of nowhere,” trips to the library meant books—my lifeline, my portal to the rest of the world and worlds that existed only in our minds. A good story is a good story.

Now, reading about places I’ve been or plan to visit is like a literary score for lived experience. I devoured Gioconda Belli’s The Country Under My Skin: A Memoir of Love and War just after visiting Nicaragua. Before flying home to Los Angeles from Sweden years ago, a friend handed me the first English translation of Stieg Larsson’s The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo. I knew nothing of the author, plot or genre but inhaled all 500+ pages by the time the plane landed, easily imagining Lisbeth Salander running around Stockholm and Mikhail Blomquist’s snow-sprinkled waterfront flat.

Books create associations with locales, if not help define them. Deanne Stillman’s Blood Brothers: The Story of the Strange Friendship Between Sitting Bull and Buffalo Bill, followed by the audio version of Lakota America by Pekka Hämäläinen, accompanied me on my drive through the Black Hills of South Dakota. I read Babette’s Feast in Denmark for the first time. While others were taking the Harry Potter, C.S. Lewis or J.R. R. Tolkien walking tours in Oxford recently, a friend and I did the basic Bodleian Library tour, where I gleefully recognized The Bodleian Oath I’d just read in The Dictionary of Lost Words by Pip Williams (and yes—I bought a tea towel conveying the covenant). And once, while driving through Louisiana, I actually said out loud “this is werewolf country” while pointing to a sign for Shreveport, thanks to Charlene Harris’ Sookie Stackhouse novels.

I couldn’t help but see the Los Angeles of Joan Didion, Raymond Chandler or Charles Bukowski everywhere I turned over 20 years of living there, while preferring the poems of Wanda Coleman to show me “from L.A. to El Dorado” and the entire canon of Michelle Serros showing me her beloved Oxnard.

I have done a little travel writing myself through the lens of food, pop culture and outdoor activities, which has given me even greater respect for writers who can make place a character so well. I hope my words have guided someone to the places their hearts desire.

Now, whenever traveling, I trek to the local bookstore, quick to ask for a recommendation of a book set in or about the region. I ponder what I will write of my new home in southeastern North Carolina, if this setting chooses to appear in my work. Otherwise, I will just keeping looking for it in someone else’s.


Shawna Kenney is the author of four books, most recently Live at the Safari Club: A History of Hardcore Punk in the Nation’s Capital (Rare Bird Books). Her work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The New York Times, Playboy, Narratively, the Brevity Blog and more.

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