The Life-Changing Magic of Brevity’s 54th Issue

January 17, 2017 § 1 Comment

salvage-slideBrevity’s January 2017 issue looks at typos, teeth, Toledo, lunch lady arms, and Einstein’s theory of time and space, featuring fine flash nonfiction from Brenda Miller, Daisy Hernandez, Sonya Huber, Sean Thomas Dougherty, Sean Lovelace, Beth Ann Fennelly, Lucinda Roy, Jill Talbot, Lori Jakiela, Elizabeth K. Brown, Paula Cisewski, Eleanor Stanford, Allegra Hyde, Michele Morano, David Naimon, Staci Greason, and Maya Zeller. With original artwork by Allison Dalton.

In our craft section, Brandon Schrand considers our ability to equivocate artfully in the essay, Peter Selgin examines the need to resist total seduction by sounds and surfaces, and Rachel Tolliver and M. Sausun discuss nonfiction and social justice in the new political era.

Exactly what are you waiting for?

A Writing Life, Despite

January 16, 2017 § 8 Comments

zz_nina_bw_02smallBy Nina B. Lichtenstein

A few years ago I took a fancy-schmancy aptitude test in an elegant historic brownstone in Boston. I had just completed my PhD in French lit, and had fast come to realize that a little “portfolio diversification” would be wise, considering French departments were shutting down across the nation, and that to each job opening there were typically 400+ applicants; this regardless if it was for a tenure-track or a contingent faculty position, or if it was in Muskogee, Oklahoma or at a small New England private college where I had envisioned myself growing old amidst the climbing ivy and quintessential campus quad.

I decided it would be worth the rather steep price for the two-day testing with a follow-up session deciphering the results, because as long as my work could involve writing of some sort, I was committed to keeping an open mind to options beyond academia. I wanted, or hoped, to leave with some proof on paper of other useful abilities of mine that I could combine with writing. What if I was really cut out for being a dairy farmer or social worker instead and just didn’t know it? The idea intrigued me as much as it horrified me. While I was afraid to learn things I was not prepared for, I also needed to find out that I hadn’t come this far for no reason.

After two days of intense testing, I left with one big, strange new word in my pocket: Ideaphoria: “An experience where one feels a constant onslaught of new ideas, creating a euphoric state of idea creation.” I, however, remain convinced that this term is just nice talk for ADD, the state of mind that can be both a blessing and a curse.

I know that this “diagnosis” might be a common problem among writers: Many of us keep generating neat ideas for essays and short stories, and we sit ourselves down, like Anne Lamott tells us to, butt in chair, and begin to write with enthusiasm and energy, only to find that after the second or third paragraph, we open another document, feeling urgently the need to move on to the next exciting idea, of which several have revealed themselves by association as we were writing. Enthused anew like a butterfly in its mid-morning ecstasy on a mild summer day, fluttering from flower to flower in an instinctive and euphoric search of the sweet nectar, we move on.

The problem is, of course, that few things are completed this way for humans looking to develop their vocation as a writer.

I can tell you that this ideaphoria thing feels like being high, and when it hits I run as if airborne to my computer where my fingers dance on the keyboard while I float, gleefully, like I’m catching an exhilarating ride on the wings of a butterfly. However, contrary to the butterfly who might be rescuing a colony of pupae, or ensuring the continuity of a genus of wild roses as it moves on to the next source, my fluttering remains just that: a sweet but brief lingering among fertile but incomplete paragraphs that cannot and will not develop unless I pollinate them consistently and with conviction. The result is that I have countless folders of undeveloped barely begun stories.

Just now, for example, I feel an immense and uncomfortable restlessness because since I sat down this morning and began writing this piece, I have a new, brilliant, and urgent idea for a blog post. I also thought of a pitch for “Israel Story,” the Israeli version of “This American Life,” that I simply must pursue, like now. Waiting until I’m done here feels like torture. Or masochism, since I don’t have to take it, but do anyway.

But, I will take it this time, because it would be too ironic if I leave this page now.

Since I was born and raised both in a time (1960s-70s) and in a country (Norway) where diagnosis such as ADD and ADHD were neither made nor medicated, I must have taught myself how to adapt and adjust. I recall report cards reading, “Nina disrupts in class and walks around the room without asking permission,” and as a kid I didn’t hide under the covers with a flashlight and book, but roamed my neighborhood in search of curiosities I would get in trouble for exploring.

Somehow, I managed along the way to complete a BA, an MA and then the PHD, requiring no small effort of task completion. I forgot to say that I’m also insanely stubborn and have occasional perfectionistic tendencies: curses in relationships but blessings in the business of finishing a project, although more often the butt out of chair kind, like painting or re-organizing my closet.

I have come to realize that in many ways I’ve learned to navigate this “diagnosis” ever since those early years in Oslo, since although I struggle to bring all the ideas I get so euphoric about to paper, and then onward toward completion, the stubborn part in me enables me to eventually finish a few of them, and send them out into the world. And there is struggle: the frustrations and disappointments from rejections as well as the inevitable self-doubt laced with resignation and self-loathing. But, occasionally it happens, an essay is accepted, and a veil is lifted as I realize I can do it. In fact, this sounds just like what I keep reading a writer’s life is often like.

And nobody said it was going to be easy.

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Nina B. Lichtenstein is a native of Oslo, Norway, and holds a PhD in French literature from UCONN. She has lived, studied/taught, and raised three sons in CT. A fresh empty-nester, she migrated north to Maine to pursue a quiet writing life, which is constantly interrupted (see diagnosis). Her first book Sephardic Women’s Voices: Out of North Africa just came out, and currently she lives in Jerusalem working on a new book project. Some of Nina’s writing lives on her blog https://vikingjewess.com/, and other essays have been published in The Washington Post, The Huffington Post, Lilith Magazine, and Literary Mama, among other places.

Rejection Apocalypse

January 13, 2017 § 11 Comments

zz-roger_099By L. Roger Owens

John, author of the Bible’s book of Revelation—his apocalypse occurred on the island of Patmos. Mine began in a shopping plaza parking lot two days before Christmas.

I’d just dropped my wife off at the grocery store to buy the final foodstuffs for Christmas Eve dinner, along with everyone else, judging by the traffic. I decided to walk to Wine & Spirits to buy her a bottle of Bailey’s Irish Cream, the one gift she wouldn’t expect. As I stepped out of the car I pulled out my phone so I could check my email, which I hadn’t done it in the past two hours. We’d just finished a long lunch with friends at the new Indian restaurant, during which I managed to keep the thing out of sight. But I’d checked it often the past two days, expecting confirmation that a magazine piece I’d written had been accepted. An associate editor praised the piece two days earlier and forecasted that the buck-stops-here editor would say, “Great; do a little editing.” I was weaving among the parked cars like a lab rat mazing his way toward cheese when I saw it. But I didn’t have to open the email to know its contents. I could see enough from the first two lines—an obligatory “thank you,” an ominous “but,” a definitive “not.”

I thought of my ten-year-old son. Last spring he auditioned for the middle school honors band. He was a rising six-grader, the best saxophonist in his elementary school band. He brimmed with confidence. A week after the audition a letter arrived. Daddy-spy that I am, I held it to the light before giving it to him. I saw typed on the band director’s floral-print stationary, the font inappropriately cheery, her judgment: “not this year.”

“It’s probably the letter telling me I got in,” my son said as I handed it to him.

“Well, there’s no way to know what the competition was like, or how many sixth-graders she accepts,” I warned. As he read, the confidence leeched from his face, his expression turned from hopeful to puzzled to sad, saltwater pooled in his eyelids.

Now frozen in that parking lot, flurries whirling around me, I became a ten-year-old boy again—deflated and confused. Until an impatient SUV driver honked to hasten me along.

By the time I made it to Wine & Spirits disappointment had turned to anger, the kind that keeps you from thinking straight, which explains why I was looking for the Bailey’s in the domestic whites aisle. Why did that first editor have to give me false hope? I thought, as I wandered the store aimlessly. I needed someone to blame.

Apocalypse: in the popular imagination, a cataclysm. But really it’s a revelation, an unveiling. An apocalypse doesn’t destroy reality. It discloses reality by destroying illusion. John’s revealed a cosmic battle between good and evil. But they don’t have to be cosmic in scope. A rejection email can occasion one on a blustery day in a strip mall parking lot.

I began to see that in the past two days I’d invested that article with a significance embarrassingly beyond its due. I imagined the future: my academic dean passing around the magazine at a faculty meeting, as she does with faculty publications, and my wine-sipping colleagues admiring my article. They nod their approval, finally seeing the value in my dabbling in creative writing. The essay would certainly secure my receipt of tenure.

I imagined the senior editor of the magazine loving it so much he invites me to become a contributing editor. Roger, you simply have to write for us every month!

I imagined the acquisitions editor of a major press asking me to turn it into a book—the book destined to secure my promotion to full professor.

“Dreams of fame and fortune die hard,” Frederick Buechner once wrote, “if they ever die at all.” It took a rejection email to kill these dreams, to reveal them for what they were: sad delusions. This little crow-bar of an apocalypse began to pry apart the joints of the imaginary mansion I’d been living in until all that was left was a pile of rubbish. And watching the demolition hurts.

Until it doesn’t anymore. Because seeing clearly will always—eventually—feel better than living in the mist of make-believe.

Many have written about writing as a spiritual practice, usually referring to the act of writing itself: facing the terror of the blank page, keeping the hand moving, relinquishing perfectionism, not fearing what shows us, not so much you won’t put it on the page—all of this, the spirituality of writing.

But it also includes the disillusionment caused by rejection. Because before we can see what’s there, what’s real, we have to break off our love affair with illusion. Let the dreams of fame and fortune die. Submit to apocalypse. We can choose not to—we can keep spinning the narratives in our minds, keep blaming the editors or writing-group members or anyone else whose reaction to our work doesn’t fit into our imaginary world.

Or we can let the revelation do its work.

Now that my essay doesn’t bear the weight of winning me tenure or wowing book editors, I can begin to see it for what it is: a decently crafted piece that—as the senior editor said—would fail to capture a reader not already familiar with its subject. I can begin to remodel it, improve it. I can explore other publications, even less prestigious ones, that might make a better home for it. And I can see that making this essay do what it can do—all that it can, but not more than it can—is no one’s responsibility but my own.

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Roger Owens teaches spirituality at Pittsburgh Theological Seminary. He’s written for numerous publications including The Christian Century, Weavings, and Faith & Leadership. He is the author of, among other books, Abba, Give Me a Word: The Path of Spiritual Direction.

Collaboration as a Form of Love

January 12, 2017 § 3 Comments

zz-carol-guessBy Carol Guess

The things I can’t do with bodies I can do with words.

The things I can’t do with your body I can do with your words.

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When I was a dancer I stood at the barre, inches from others. During grand battements we leaned in or away so as not to get kicked, or kick someone’s pink shoe.

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I fall a little bit in love with my collaborators, and become angry at them when they leave the page.

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The delight is in wondering what comes next. Preparing, poised, for the bright thing thrown. This has expanded my understanding of what’s possible as well as probable.

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An ex-lover once told me I don’t share very well. But to send someone half a story is to share the best and most vulnerable parts of myself: not just language, but process, interrupted. To stand half-clothed and say, this is what it looks like when I think.

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Secretly I always think their words are better. This means I have to reach for a stronger line.

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Initially, my biggest fear was that collaboration was cheating – that the finished piece would not be mine. That taking credit for it, even shared credit, was stealing. That working alongside another artist would cancel out the pleasure I take in pronouncing, “I made this.”

This feeling was gone by the time I finished the very first poem I wrote in collaboration. It literally disappeared, replaced by delight in the playfulness and surprise of sharing. Because what had been missing from my work for so long was play. After my MFA, after publishing several books, after teaching countless students and mentoring so many young writers, after hoop jumping and the long road to tenure, I was burned out. Writing stopped being fun during my MFA program, and by the time I had tenure around 8 years later, it felt like a chore, like part of my job.

When I began collaborating, I noticed that my writing got funny again. Sound returned, and musicality, but best of all the will to write.

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Collaboration occurs with a gap in time. The risk is in that gap.

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To collaborate is to refine your ambition, angling it so as not to wound the other person.

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With every collaboration, you expose your weaknesses and vulnerabilities to your partner. A good collaborative partner notices these weaknesses, but never alerts you. The best partner views your weaknesses as strengths.

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Collaboration is sexy – give and take, release, the pang of the unexpected.

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When you collaborate, you both create space, and you both create structure, so what emerges, even if you haven’t written it, comes from an atmosphere you had a hand in creating. You learn to take joy in someone else’s success, in their happiness. It’s anti-capitalist. It’s generous. It feels good to want someone else to succeed.

When a collaborator takes a project in a very wrong direction, it can be acutely painful to see your words twisted, especially in relation to aesthetic or political ideologies you don’t believe in.

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Collaboration is easier when you actually like the person.

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Collaborating across identities feels complex, often risky and difficult. Most of my collaborators have come in the bodies of queer creatures, female identified at birth, white and middle class, and this has made identification part of our language. Of course I wonder whether that identification cancels out elements of imagination. What can happen in a collaboration that sets identity in contrast, rather than in control? I’m scared to collaborate across racial lines because my racism – it’s there, you can see it through my skin – will pulse through, and then my collaborator will know the worst things about me. Whatever unconscious beliefs I’m holding will bleed to the surface, and then bloodbath. When I collaborate in a non-queer context, at least so far, I’m surprised by how quickly the standard heterosexual romance narrative shows up. It’s disappointing. I don’t want to disappoint anyone, but I don’t want to teach my collaborators stuff, either. Collaborating is not teaching, not the place for teaching. You need to feel like a peer.

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So far I’ve played it safe with my choice of collaborators, but I’d like to take risks, even if that means mess.

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It’s harder to publish a collaboration than a single author collection, especially in poetry. This doesn’t matter, but I thought you should know.

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Alphabetical order is always the way to go when naming names. We’re not in a lab, no one’s lead author here.

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Working solo, I’m precise. I craft every line, tending to each word, spending weeks, months, years getting the music right. As a collaborator, I have to move fast or I get scared. I think the seams should show. There should be a few loose ends.

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Collaboration is always already happening – with whatever you’re reading, the street you live on, the person who shares your bus or your bed. Talk to someone. Wait for a reply. Let their voice resonate, let collaboration start with listening.

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Carol Guess is the author of numerous books of poetry and prose. A frequent collaborator, she teaches in the MFA program at Western Washington University.

 

 

A Review of Mary Cappello’s Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack

January 11, 2017 § Leave a comment

9780226356068.jpgBy Joey Franklin

All my life I have been a browser of dictionaries, a Sunday-afternoon flipper of phone books, a belly-on-the-carpet peruser of atlases and anthologies. I’ve been a geek for information since I picked up my first children’s illustrated encyclopedia. But I also love a good story, which is probably why I read essays. Who can resist the genre’s uncanny alchemy of information and personal narrative steeped in the mind of a thoughtful observer? Life is chaos, as information is chaos, but the essay reveals order, structure, and meaning in both. It’s the kind of literature that helps us find, rather than escape ourselves—the essay as atlas to the heart, dictionary of our own self-definition or, as Mary Cappello describes it in her new book, an almanac to mood.

Cappello’s new collection of essays, Life Breaks In: A Mood Almanack, is a 300-page thought experiment on mood, but calling it a collection doesn’t do justice to the scope of Cappello’s project. These essays don’t merely play off one another. They are distinct, stand-alone attempts at describing the often ineffable nature and origin of mood, part and parcel of one another—much the way that moods themselves are distinct and unique, but collectively make up the reality of who we are.

If you’ve read her book Awkward: A Detour, you’ll recognize in Life Breaks In what I call the Cappello Approach. It’s a disciplined, if idiosyncratic, dive into a subject, a Mariana Trench-level exploration that defies metaphor, or else demands a mixing. She’s not only turning her subject over to see it from every angle, but cutting it open, and cutting it up, tincturing bits in alcohol, grinding some into powder, spinning some in a centrifuge. Her subjects go under the knife and under the microscope; she looks under the hood and under the bed.

Subjects that get the Cappello Approach in this book, to name a few: clouds, the View-Master, family photos, mood rings, the physiology of hearing, parent/child relationships, taxidermy, dioramas, the classic children’s book Good Night Moon, and, most interestingly, a 19th-century orphanage-turned-natural-history-museum. Through all this, Cappello develops a subtle argument for mood as an essential piece of the self-discovery puzzle. She writes, “If mood defies representation, we should be protective of it, for it must have something to tell us that we cannot see and need to know.”

The Cappello approach is to the essay what I imagine the Swiss Army knife is to the toothpick, what Majong is to tic-tac-toe. In Life Breaks In, she confesses her love of “writing that resists its reader.” “I’m suspicious of the easy invitation that bows to protocol,” she writes. “Or the stuff that chatters recognizably, incapable of interestingly interrupting my day by making my heart skip a beat or requiring that I listen with my eyes.” Studious. Funky. Playful. Brooding. This is not a book you bring to the beach. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t a joy to read. On the contrary, Cappello is the best kind of daunting. Life Breaks In is inspiring in the way of performances by preternaturally gifted musicians and athletes—a “wouldn’t it be great if I could jump that high, pluck strings that beautifully, sing with such grace, pull a double-pump-fake lay-in from under the rim with my tongue hanging out” type experience; except, it’s not Mike I want to be like, but Mary.

How about a classical author comparison? Cappello is at times as cerebral as Bacon, but where Bacon’s essays amount to a series of declarative statements that imply an immense amount of introspection, Cappello’s work is an immense amount of introspection that implies a series of assertions. If Bacon posits himself as a font of wisdom and right thinking, Cappello posits herself as a font of curiosity and deep thinking. And her mood is never Bacon, always Montaigne.

Near the beginning of Life Breaks In, Cappello claims, “in order to write or make art one must be in love, not with an individual per se, but with life itself.” And it may be Cappello’s passion that comes through most clearly in this book—a passion wide enough and deep enough to encompass life and all its many moods.

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Joey Franklin’s first book, My Wife Wants You to Know I’m Happily Married, won the 2015 Association of Mormon Letters book prize for nonfiction, and was a finalist the 2016 Utah Book Award. His essays have appeared in Writer’s Chronicle, Ninth Letter, The Normal School, Gettysburg Review, and many other publications.  He teaches creative writing at Brigham Young University in Provo, UT, and is currently at work on a memoir about the saints and scoundrels hiding in his family tree.

Yoga and Creative Nonfiction in Costa Rica

January 10, 2017 § 4 Comments

img_1304In addition to writing, editing, and teaching, Creative Nonfiction founder Lee Gutkind is also a devoted yoga practitioner, and Lee plans to share his enthusiasm for both his interests this spring in a Yoga and Creative Nonfiction Immersion in Costa Rica.

Lee, a frequent speaker about the genre of creative nonfiction, has always stressed the need for writers to keep a regular schedule, as he has for decades. “It can be exhilarating, frustrating or exhausting experience — and sometimes all three,” he writes. “My yoga practice helps me reflect on what I have written and prepare for my next writing day.”

The yoga and writing immersion will take place April 8-15 at the Blue Spirit Resort, located on an isolated five-mile beach (also a turtle refuge) along the Pacific. “We will write every day, then discuss the craft of the genre and share our work. There will be daily yoga and meditation sessions.  Not to mention good food and drink,” Lee explains.  “At the end of the week, I am hoping that we have written something we feel good about and that we have established a schedule and a rhythm of work we can follow when we return home.”

Lee will be joined by Sean Conley, a former NFL kicker turned yoga instructor. Conley is author of the book, Amazing Yoga: A Practical Guide to Strength, Wellness, and Spirit.

More information and a registration link can be found on the Amazing Yoga Website.

IOTA: Inspirational Space, Inspired Writing

January 9, 2017 § 2 Comments

By Melanie Brooks

zz melanie

Melanie Brooks

In the summers of my childhood, my parents would load our pop-up camper with dented pots and pans, melamine dishes, a Coleman stove, deep, rectangle coolers filled with easy-to-cook food, mosquito coils, sleeping bags, pillows, board games, and whatever else necessary to sustain our family of six for a week in the outdoors. They’d hitch the trailer to our wood-paneled station wagon, load us all in, and set out from our home in Moncton, New Brunswick, to destinations around the Canadian Maritimes. The Bay of Fundy region was a favorite, and we’d often travel by ferry from Blacks Harbour to camp on Deer Island or Grand Manan Island. Day trips would take us to the third of the “Fundy Sisters,” Campobello, for hikes on its pristine trails or visits to the beaches and lighthouses that inhabit the island, home to Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s summer retreat. These vacation days stretched long in the luxury kind of way. Time that in “the real world” rushed us from one necessary thing to the next, took on a different cadence. We were together. We were focused on each other and, for a little while, we were in-tune to the quiet beauty of the world around us. Nostalgic images of these family trips by the sea nestle in the folds of my memory.

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The Roosevelt Cottage, Campobello

Thanks to Iota: The Conference of Short Prose, directed by author Penny Guisinger, these memories reawakened when I spent four days last August in a charming cottage turned conference center overlooking Friar’s Bay in FDR International Park on Campobello Island. Under the guidance of visiting faculty – author and Brevity editor Dinty W. Moore and poet Mark Doty – I dove into the world of crafting short-form prose. Daily workshops, facilitated discussions and nightly readings provided me the opportunity to immerse in community with twenty-six other writers, a fundamental refueling for my motivation to keep plugging away when the confines of my desk and laptop feel lonely.

But, Iota’s setting, this quiet, unassuming New Brunswick Island, also held that familiar tug toward what was once, for me, home. A separate world almost, where people like Theresa, our facility manager, represent nine generations of island residents. A place where life isn’t quite so hurried.

There, embraced by briny air, breeze-rustled leaves, pebbled shores, and panoramic ocean views, I found what I tend to forget I need the most: space. Space to ignore the pull of responsibility to work and family. Space to disconnect from public events and politics. Space to, for just a little while, dwell in simple tranquility. My mind was free to wander in that space to creative intersections where language and images collide to make something meaningful, even beautiful. I wrote. Words. On the page. And some of those words were actually good. Good enough, at least, to take home to work on some more.

How fitting that a conference called “Iota” helped me to understand that surviving this writerly life is not about excess. Sometimes all we need is a bit. A bit of space. A bit of time. To linger a little. To breathe a little. To remember that just a moment can fill us completely.

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This year’s Iota conference will be held July 8-11, with faculty members Abigail Thomas and Debra Marquart. Information on registration can be found on the Iota website.

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Melanie Brooks is a writer and college professor from Nashua, New Hampshire. Her recent work has been published in the Washington PostBustle, The Manifest-Station, Hippocampus MagazineWord Riot, the Huffington PostModern Loss, the Stonecoast Review, and The Recollectors. She was awarded the Michael Steinberg Prize for Nonfiction for Solstice Literary Magazine’s Annual Writing Contest, and her first book, Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma, is forthcoming with Beacon Press in February 2017.

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