Writer to Writer: “You Just Made My Day”   

March 30, 2023 § 22 Comments

By Charlotte Wilkins

When I sent a note of gratitude to author Laura Davis about her memoir The Burning Light of Two Stars, I said her writing was “close-to-the-bone.” Her heartfelt book examines the harsh reality of aging alongside her ailing and challenging mother, and I told Davis how on so many pages I’d read my own thoughts and emotions about my difficult mother, her illness, and death. Laura’s response to my note? You just made my day. I’m so grateful you took the time to write to me and so gratified by what you shared.

Wait a minute, I thought, I’m the one who’s grateful because your multi-dimensional depiction of your complicated mother—the way you made sure we also saw her beauty and felt the sweet moments—made me see how in my own writing my one-dimensional portrayal of my mother was unfair, blaming, and boring.

I get stuck in a box of my own making, bouncing off the cardboard walls, poking peek holes with my pen, alone, lonely, thinking Failure. Again. My poor-me-nobody-cares forgets that it’s impossible to be alone in this 7+ billion-person world. I forget we’re all connected whether I like it or not, and we all want to be happy, not lonely and disillusioned. I’m finding that gratitude helps me build community, one person at a time. This way we’re not overwhelmed by crowds, a doable step perhaps even for an introverted writer. We may think we’re building community lurking around an online group, hitting the “like” button often, but that never really fills the hole in our hearts.

Austin Kleon in Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered suggests that “If you look back closely at history, many of the people who we think of as lone geniuses were actually part of a whole scene of people who were supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas, and contributing ideas.” 

Daniella Mestyanek Young’s Uncultured: A Memoir brought an unexpected realization. The correlation she drew between her years in the Children of God cult and the army made me wonder about my participation as an adult in a cultic organization. Daniella’s book raised questions for me: Why didn’t I see that organization for what it was? What in my childhood blinded me from not only not recognizing a cultic atmosphere, but predisposed me to be drawn to it? Did the family I grew up fit the criteria of a cult? Daniella’s courage to ask the hard questions of herself and bleed the answers onto the page led me to explore a period of my life I’d written off as just another stupid thing I’d fallen for. Instead, a profound realization about my primitive need for connection was revealed, another layer of “family” was exposed, and I wrote my appreciation to Daniella and we exchanged ideas. She responded: All that to say, yours is probably the most gratifying review/response that I have received to date, because you specifically pointed out the ways that it made you think. 

A good book makes us think not just about the characters on the page, but about our lives, and the universality of suffering and joy, illness, old age and death.

The takeaway for me from these expressions of gratitude and ensuing exchanges with six women authors, five of whom generously responded, is it’s a win-win.

Here’s a couple of things I think about as I stumble into this communal practice of receiving and giving:

Feel it: Any writer knows that some days it’s a struggle to get one sentence on the page, let alone polish an essay or finish a book. Authors like to hear how their book specifically touched your life much more than “Loved your book!” Jeannine Ouellette’s last sentence in her response to my note of appreciation for The Part that Burns was, It means more than you know.

Find it: A passage or sentence or two that resonated and helped clarify something in your life or writing. I came across single sentences in memoirs that changed how I view a relationship, approached a difficult scene, or showed me why I need to reveal the equally lousy in me.

Connect it: Share how that author’s writing resonated in your life and perhaps stimulated you to write deeper into an aspect of your life, made you realize what was missing in your story, or open a new door of exploration. Most of us write to connect, to call to action, or to help others.

Later in Kleon’s book he writes: “A lot of writers I know see the act of reading and the act of writing as existing on opposite ends of the same spectrum. The reading feeds the writing, which feeds the reading.”

Like a mobius, we readers gain realizations, questions about our own writing, and skills by reading other’s work. When we pass on words of recognition and gratitude, and the author reads and take in that sincere energy, they feel heard, fulfilled, and perhaps fueled to write again. The circuit is a seamless connection and continuity we all benefit from.  


Charlotte Wilkins is a retired psychotherapist, a longtime meditator, and emerging memoirist. Her essays have been published in Memoir Magazine, the Brevity Blog, and Social Work Today. She lives in Connecticut with her spouse and two ridiculously precious cats who do nothing to earn their keep.

Is This the Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?

March 29, 2023 § 22 Comments

By Abby Alten Schwartz

Imagine you own a property. You sketch plans for a house, consult experts, allow yourself six months to build a solid foundation and ensure you’re up for the challenge. You reach that milestone and keep going, learning new tools and discovering which tasks you have a knack for and which are more cost-effective to outsource. Then one day, you look around and realize you’re living in this home you made and it’s lovely, comfortable, and secure.

That’s how it felt to build my own business from a thought I had in mid-2000 (what if I quit this job and worked for myself?) to a major part of my identity. Originally a graphic design company, I expanded to include copywriting and marketing consultation, and sharpened my focus to hospitals and healthcare organizations. The work was gratifying and provided the steady income and flexible hours I needed raising a daughter with a demanding chronic illness.

But here’s what happens when you’ve lived in the same house for 20 years. You start watching too much HGTV, envisioning what you’d choose if you ever decided to move. You still love your current house—this is just fantasy.

For years leading up to the pandemic, I’d felt a restless creative urge, a sense there was something more I was meant to do. My gut told me there was a collaborative element to it but the rest remained elusive.

Then, in the summer of 2019, Cheryl Strayed posted on Instagram that she was teaching a memoir writing course the following spring at Kripalu Center, a five-hour drive from my home. Terrified, yet powerless to resist, I registered.

Of course we all know what happened in the spring of 2020. And while there would be no weekend workshop with Cheryl Strayed, fate stepped in to usher me onto my new writing path, quarantine-be-damned.

On the day I would have arrived at Kripalu, I discovered The Isolation Journals (TIJ), a pandemic-borne online journaling project founded by Suleika Jaoaud. I began writing daily in response to Jaoaud’s prompts and sharing my mini essays with the private Facebook group. I found my voice and realized it was time to build an addition onto my creative house.

These last three years have been transformative—Dorothy stepping into a Technicolor world. A friend from TIJ introduced me to an expansive and generous community of writers. I took online courses where I met more writers, learned to pitch editors, got my first byline and my second and my twentieth. I found a coach and started my memoir, wrote essays, satire, reported stories, prose, formed critique groups, ventured to HippoCamp.

Every day I gazed in wonder at the new structure rising from the earth around me. This was no mere addition. This was my aspirational dream home, right out of a Nancy Meyers film.

Every day I’d trudge back to my other home, knowing my fantasy house wasn’t sturdy enough to live in or sustain a family.

Then one day I thought, if I can’t live in my new house, maybe I can borrow some of the furniture and accessories and spruce up my old place. And I started integrating bits of my personal writing life with my professional one.

I added journalism to my LinkedIn profile and posted links to my bylines, explaining them as writing I did to keep my creativity sharp. I’d previously separated these halves of my identity, wary of crossing professional boundaries and revealing too much of my personal life. I also worried my clients would mistakenly think I had one foot out the door. My clients not only liked my pieces, they asked about them in meetings.

The truth is my corporate writing makes my personal writing more enjoyable. Sure, I’d love more time to devote to the latter, but because it’s not my primary source of income, I can take a more playful, curiosity-driven approach. When the stakes are lower, there’s greater freedom to aim high. The worst that can happen is I get a rejection.

Still, writing essays and memoir has unleashed in me a greater desire for authenticity and genuine connection. So, brick by brick, I’m lowering the walls dividing my two halves.

I’ve been thinking about the word integrity—a core value of mine and an ideal I try to live by. The word means more than honesty and morality. Integrity is the state of being whole and undivided.

I’m now taking further steps to bring my creative identities into better alignment and give each the attention and respect they deserve.

I’m writing a proposal for my memoir-in-progress, with the goal of landing an agent and publishing deal in 2023. I’ll continue to pitch stories that interest and excite me, including pieces about chronic illness, wellness, and mental health, informed by my expertise in healthcare communications. I’ll continue to work with hospital systems but will also develop content for major healthcare brands. And I’m preparing to launch a design service for writers, offering book cover consultation and art direction as well as creation of promotional materials.

An old client I reconnected with a few weeks ago asked me, “What kind of work do you really have fun doing?”

It’s a question I hope I never stop pondering.


Abby Alten Schwartz is a Philadelphia-based writer whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, WIRED, Salon, The Belladonna Comedy and elsewhere. She also works as a healthcare copywriter, designer and marketing consultant and is writing a memoir titled Hypervigilant. Follow her on Twitter @abbys480, visit abbyaltenschwartz.com and subscribe to her free newsletter, Name Three Things.

Why I Love Shame

March 28, 2023 § 10 Comments

Connect connect connect connect.

By Nerissa Nields

How to fall into a shame spiral:

1.  Rent your AirBnB studio for 30% off. Forgive the guest for nicking your van. Give him a 5-star review anyway. Watch as the ingrate gives you your first ever 4-star review. The kicker? His comment: Not worth the value.

2. Come across a high-school paper for a course you excelled in. Think, I’m going to show my 16-year-old so she can see how smart her old mama was. Turn to the last page to admire the A. Be appalled to see, instead, a B+. Teacher’s comment: Does not quite rise to the next level.

3. Observe the vortex forming at the center of your chest, pulling all of you into it, like one of those puppets that disappears into a hand-held cone. Like a black hole, it feels as weighty as…well, as a literary rejection. Your writing is beautiful, the agent says. It’s a really hard call for me, but I’m going to have to pass. I just don’t feel the passion I’ll need in order to represent you.

In other words—B+.

My husband doesn’t like the novels I’ve been writing for umpteen years. He wishes I would stop polishing sentences, deepening the characters, creating new plotlines, and just self-publish the damn things already. Generally, he loves my writing. Just not these novels.

“Be done with them,” he says. “Move on to other things!” Most days, I tolerate this betrayal. After all, they’re based on my life as part of a folk-rock band, which I co-founded with my sister and my first husband. Would I want to read about his former marriage?

Then, I see a dedication in someone else’s novel: I want to thank my wife who believed in my book when I could not.

So I rip the scab off, trying once again to figure out why my husband doesn’t like my books. Too much about the music business? Was he threatened by my past? Could it be he’s an asshole with a terrible personality and bad taste?

This only wrecks the day for both of us.

I Google, Spouses who hate their partners’ art but instead of discovering happily married folk who blithely disregard their spouses’ genius, what comes up are images of storied literary marriages: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. Even Catherine Blake, illiterate when she married poet-artist William, believed in his genius unconditionally. I conclude I am either the only great writer who has chosen a witless partner, or else…my partner must be married to a witless writer.

I begin to wonder if my anger at Tom is really just my own self-doubt. Reading over a draft, I saw how many ways I’ve failed. At the moment, it’s a definite B+.

What if I knew that it might never get above a B+ no matter how many years I work on it?

Would that be liberating? What if my best work really is ahead of me and I can’t write it because I’m obsessively tinkering with these books?

On the other hand, would I self-sabotage by pulling the trigger too soon? The idea of self-publishing depresses me. I think highly of self-publishing—but I would miss working on the books. This fictional world is my playhouse. If I publish these books, I can’t change them. Then what am I going to do for fun?

It used to be fun to send my work “out there,” throwing CDs of my band’s demos to the wind. We got lots of rejections but enough valuable connections to build a 30-year career. I used to post silly videos, half-edited blog posts, incessant questions to my social media followers. What’s stopping me doing the same in my literary life? And why, come to think of it, have my various profiles all gone silent?

Trusting a suggestion to visualize “my life’s purpose,” I saw a view of Earth from space. There I was, a dot on the east coast, em-dashes of gold shooting steadily in multiple directions––like a graphic Internet companies use to demonstrate that the modem is connecting to the router. Steady on, these little golden flashes of mine, all over the world. Blink, blink, blink. Connect connect connect.

What’s keeping me from this simple job of sending out my words, music, novels, essays, videos? Nothing but my old acquaintances Fear and Dishonesty.

I don’t want to tell you about my husband’s dislike of my fiction. I’m afraid you’re going to think I’m merely a B+ student, 4-star AirBnB host, and an average writer. The lie I try to get you to believe is that I’m brilliant, extraordinary, essentially the cat’s pajamas. But why? Don’t I know by now that the safest place is also the most vulnerable place?

Tom’s inability to see that my novels are the cat’s pajamas means that every single day I get to practice toughening my skin, an essential attribute for any writer. It’s no one’s job but mine to love them. Moreover, that stuff inside my black hole of shame is the primordial ooze of me, the very material stories are made of. There is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in, writes Leonard Cohen. Each little dash of light emanating from my spot on the planet is my own unique morse code that sings the world’s song, endlessly noble, endlessly humble: connect connect connect connect connect.


Nerissa Nields is a musician and writer living in Western MA. Her work has appeared in J Journal and Maine Review. She’s the author of the YA novel Plastic Angel (Scholastic); All Together Singing in the Kitchen: Creative Ways to Make and Listen to Music as a Family (Roost Books/Random House) and How to Be an Adult (Leveller’s Press). She is the director of Writing It Up in the Garden Workshops and Retreats and holds an MFA in Creative Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Second in the Story

March 27, 2023 § 5 Comments

A Ghostwriter’s Desire to Become the Subject

By Jody Gerbig

Recently, I signed a work-for-hire contract to ghostwrite a friend’s memoir, a task I have found as much self-reflective as other-contemplative. I have doubted that my voice matters. I have wondered whether I write for the credit or for the pleasure or for the money or to convey truth and beauty. I have even asked—in this new world of ChatGPT—whether anyone can write another’s story, or, in this case, does it have to be me?

These questions have arisen because, as a ghostwriter, I know I must become—and remain—invisible. This invisibility is the very undercurrent of the term, ghostwriter, and is likely not a new identity for many writers, including myself, even if they have never worn the label. If we have ever worked as copywriters, technical writers, speech writers, or researchers, we are used to getting no recognition—maybe even no credit. Instead, our art is treated as a product. And because, in many respects, that kind of writing-for-hire feels more objective than, say, a short story or poem, writers accept that distance. But, when writers devote themselves to ghostwriting an entire book-length story, considering arc, style, voice, and tension, that distance can become harder to see, much less accept, especially when our names do not appear on the page.  

These are the issues I find myself wrestling with now. Though assuming another’s voice isn’t technically difficult, it has been emotionally challenging. And, while I might be used to professional anonymity, I didn’t anticipate the discomfort of hearing someone else using the phrase “my book” when discussing the document open on my laptop.  

Mostly, however, I did not realize I would grow jealous, not of my subject, but of other ghostwriters receiving credit for their work, maybe even for the wrong reasons. In almost every conversation I have had about Prince Harry’s memoir Spare, for example, J. R. Moehringer’s ghostwriting has overshadowed Harry’s story. Since the memoir landed on shelves, I have heard “Are we supposed to believe Prince Harry—and not the ghostwriter—was thinking about the symbolism of that bird? Really?” or “I doubt Harry compared himself to Hamlet as he and Charles walked through that cemetery,” or, my personal favorite, “I read it for the writing, not for the royal.”

When hearing such comments, I can’t help but think Moehringer eschewed Harry’s voice to bolster his own, a disconnect that renders Harry a different kind of spare, this time to a Pulitzer-prize winning ghost.

While my intellectual or professional side criticizes that coup, my writerly ego secretly wishes I could do the same. Perhaps I feel this ambivalence because, while ghostwriting, I am both a creative director and nameless Other. Consider my process: After getting to know the subject’s values, speaking and thinking style, priorities, and goals, I conduct the interview, recording the often-nonlinear answers while mentally noting which information should probably not go in the book and which should take center stage; I write the major beats and organize them into outline form; I listen to the recording and fill in details and check facts; I revise for style, precision, and coherence, considering my subject’s voice and personality; finally, I fact-check with the subject.

I am doing a lot of work here—dare I say most of the creativity—teasing out the central story, molding and shaping the narrative into a cohesive, gripping piece, all while remaining true to the subject’s voice, personality, and journey.

Perhaps the most arduous of these tasks, though, is reminding myself that these choices are not mine to make. Rather, they are obligations. I am a vehicle through which the story will be told. And, really, this role may be no different than others I have assumed. Many fiction writers say the same about writing fictional characters, the true drivers of their stories; writers are merely listening to their characters’ instructions and the story is writing itself. Only, fiction writers get to write their names on their covers. Ghostwriters do not.

I am coming to accept that inevitability. I have come to realize that being true to mine “own self” is not, in the case of ghostwriting, flourishing my own style or voice, but recognizing that the story existed before I placed words on the page. I wasn’t the one who wanted to give up in the face of extreme conflict but didn’t. I did not suffer or cry for this story. In other words, I did not live it. I am merely a bard, retelling and passing it on.

In that way, I do not need to haunt the page. I am no Hamlet’s ghost. The story has already happened, and I, like its mentor, merely allow it to grow.  


Jody Gerbig lives in Ohio with her husband, young triplets, and too many pets. Her work appears in Columbus Monthly, Brevity, Ruminate, Litro, and has been nominated for both a Pushcart and Best of the Net. She currently serves as a senior editor for Typehouse Magazine. Follow her on Twitter or find her other work at her website.

Everyone Loves a Metaphor—But What if the Metaphor Doesn’t Love You Back?

March 24, 2023 § 4 Comments

Sometimes a metaphor isn’t gonna help.

By Peter Mountford

As a writing instructor and coach, I encounter many people starting in their writing life who are positively smitten with metaphors, similes, and figurative language. It’s understandable. But figurative language only really works at all when it works really well. At its worst you get cliches, or you get something like: 

Gary was so tall that being near him was like standing beside a giant.

Does this mean he’s twenty feet tall? Or . . . what does it mean? It can get worse:

Gary was a redwood tree of a man.

Now I really have no idea how tall he is. I’m just confused. And an inapt metaphor, more often than not, creates confusion.

At best, metaphors can express something that isn’t perfectly available through the literal description.

Note: I use the term “metaphor” casually to cover what we often consider metaphor and simile. Last year, Ocean Vuong caught a lot of heat after a similar conflation. A simile usually involves the word “like, or “as” while a metaphor doesn’t. But if it’s okay, I’ll mostly just say metaphor as the umbrella term because “figurative language” is cumbersome.

Sorry (not sorry)! These things—analogy, too!—do roughly similar work.

The Perfect Metaphor

To be clear, I swoon over Lorrie Moore’s prose, carpet-bombed as it is with all manner of metaphors. Often, she stretches a metaphor well past the breaking point, to the ridiculous and absurd:

People talking were meant to look at a face, the disastrous cupcake of it, the hide-and-seek of the heart dashing across.

It works partly because it’s Lorrie Moore, and she’s having so much damn fun that we’re just pleased to join her. Never mind that she’s dropped a triply-or-more mixed metaphor. This face is a cupcake playing hide and seek. The heart—that chest organ pumping blood—is dashing across the face, which is a cupcake? Or maybe the heart is a cupcake?


Certain writers break rules well, and it’s a great pleasure to watch. The rest of us proceed with a modicum of caution.

The sunset is one of those everyday events that tend to devolve to cliches, with descriptions of the sun as one more “fiery orb” or fireball or runny yolk, but it can be done:

The sun in the west was a drop of burning gold that slid near and nearer the sill of the world. —William Golding, Lord of the Flies

Soon it got dusk, a grapy dusk, a purple dusk over tangerine groves and long melon fields; the sun the color of pressed grapes, slashed with burgundy red, the fields the color of love and Spanish mysteries. ― Jack Kerouac, On the Road 

Layers of orange like a buttermilk pie cooling on the horizon. ― Barbara Kingsolver, Demon Copperhead

Back to tired metaphors, briefly, we grab cliches because we’re tired and don’t want to do the dirty work of digging up our own buried treasure—errr, let me work on that one. Still, you might be tempted to let the cliches rip:

Opal wears her heart on her sleeve, a real open book. She carries a torch for Archie, who eats like a horse, swims like a fish, and is eagle-eyed.

Still, even if Archie is a chimera Opal cooked up in her home bioweapons lab, it’s just not helpful.  

When to avoid or use metaphors

Sometimes a metaphor isn’t gonna help, in moments of physical intensity—violence and sex, for example, or sporting events. The reader’s just trying to understand what is literally happening in the scene.  

Still, metaphors are often great for characterization. In her new novel I Have Some Questions for You, Rebecca Makkai writes:

The boy is wiry and alert, always tilted forward, looking for his next wisecrack like an animal watching for prey.

Not flashy, but it’s evocative, different, and makes sense. Metaphors act powerfully in the hands of witty or erudite narrators because they often reflect the narrator’s arch or knowing mind.

If your metaphor lands a bit flat, try something vivid, visual, and specific. Something telling us about the observer while dishing on what’s observed:

Gary was so tall I worried for his skull every time he walked through a doorway.


Gary was so tall I was always aware of the unruly situation with his nose hairs—a natural hazard for people of his stature.

We can hear empathetic narrator’s worry or fastidiousness.

I’ve come to believe that with figurative language, if it’s even slightly out of place or not apt, it won’t work. Better to go without than have it askew. Metaphors need to click in perfectly.


Writing coach and developmental editor Peter Mountford is the author of the novels A Young Man’s Guide to Late Capitalism (Washington State Book Award), and The Dismal Science (NYT editor’s choice). His work has appeared in The Paris Review, Southern Review, The Atlantic, The Sun, NYT (Modern Love), Granta, and The Missouri Review. Peter teaches at the MFA program at the University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe.

Writing for Modern Love? Join Peter Mountford and CRAFT TALKS webinars March 29 ($25) to learn tips and tricks for publishable essays anywhere. Find out more/register here.

Who Gets Final Say in Our Family Stories?

March 23, 2023 § 11 Comments

By Esther Aarons

My mother killed my memoir. My father helped.

I’m not angry with my father because he didn’t lead the charge. If this had happened ten years ago, we would’ve fought for days, then made peace. He’s not up to leading a charge now. He gets lost driving to the grocery store. I don’t know that I’ll ever be livid with him again. I miss it.

My family has a lore: My grandparents were Jews who fled Nazi Germany with my father and his siblings. They smuggled just enough money out to buy a small store in the American south; by the 1990s they had vastly expanded the business through hard work, business savvy, and fierce determination. It’s an inspiring story with resonance and heart, of immigrants who arrived with almost nothing and achieved the American dream.

But of course it’s complicated–isn’t everything? In my memoir I questioned how Jews who fled Nazi Germany could implement, in their store, the very Jim Crow-era mandates that Hitler and the Nazis had looked to when concocting their hateful Nuremberg laws. Our store had separate bathrooms for whites and Blacks, separate water fountains. How could we escape from oppression only to turn around and engage in oppression? What is it about human nature that permits that kind of shift? Isn’t it important to try to understand it, to fight to overcome it?

I find these questions vital. My mother thinks they needlessly and irrevocably taint the family’s upstanding and civic-minded reputation, which they worked long and hard to build.

My father insisted that if we had flouted Jim Crow laws, we couldn’t have stayed in business. I don’t doubt it. “What else could we have done?” he asked, after reading my memoir. Then he said, “I guess we could’ve settled somewhere else.”

I spent years working on the memoir and only showed it to my parents when my agent was ready to go on submission. This timing coincided with the wave of protests after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer while other officers watched. The protests were largely peaceful, but some demonstrators set fire to cars, some smashed windows. My mother believed my memoir depicted the family as racist and worried that rocks would be thrown through the windows of my parents’ house. Was I putting my family in harm’s way? I think I painted a nuanced picture; I don’t think we come across as villains. Still, we don’t exactly live in a time that prioritizes nuance.

When my parents read the memoir, they learned what I really think of the family legacy they spent their lives building and protecting. In response my mother told me all that was wrong with the book I’d spent years writing. She disapproved of how I portrayed myself, and her, and my father’s mother. She thought I aired family tensions that should stay hidden.

In response I said, “You want to know why you come across in my writing as not caring about your children? This is an example of why.” Finally we agreed not to say another word about it.

The story of my life is that I can’t figure out how much say my family should have in the story of my life.

It’s no surprise that they disapprove of my version. I’ve always seen a different story. Even as a girl, when each of my siblings seemed eager to go into the family business, I told my parents I’d never end up working there. I was drawn to the energy and excitement of the clan, but I always felt on the outskirts. I always had a different take. Now, after decades of living far from my parents and taking no role in the family business, here I am still, on the outskirts, with my own take.

What on earth made me think my parents would sanction it?

There are benefits, though, of lifelong patterns. My parents and I fight. We act cruelly. Time passes. We pretend nothing happened. We almost forget something did. Then we fight again.

I’ve set aside the memoir and started a novel based on my family’s story. But fictionalizing the story hasn’t untethered me from my parents. When I told my mother about the novel, emphasizing that she would get no advance look because it’s a novel, she sent me this text: “When writing your work of fiction, please be sure to honor your grandparents and parents. We love you very much.” She doesn’t care if it’s made up; she worries readers will believe it. In my mind she’s reading over my shoulder as I type, whispering in my ear when she believes something reflects badly on the family.  It’s impossible to write this way. So I’ve created an alter ego: Esther Aarons. She’s the author of my novel, just as she’s the author of this essay. I love having her. I can’t write about the issues that consume me without getting tangled up in whether I’m upsetting someone. But Esther can. Nobody’s ever heard of Esther; nobody sends her undermining texts. Esther is entirely free.


Esther Aarons is a pseudonym.

The Lyric Essay as Resistance: An Interview with Zoë Bossiere and Erica Trabold

March 22, 2023 § 2 Comments

By Laura Laing

The lyric essay is not new, but 25 years after Deborah Tall and John D’Agata gave it a name, the form is being anthologized and has earned a place within the literary academy. Zoë Bossiere and Erica Trabold’s The Lyric Essay as Resistance: Truth from the Margins (Wayne State University Press) collects lyric essays that not only resist form and content but also our expectations of the world at large. In this Q&A, essayist Laura Laing talks with Bossiere and Trabold about their book, as well as the state and future of the lyric essay.

Laura Laing: Why lyric essay?

Erica Trabold: Well, there’s the academic answer, and there’s the personal answer, right? For me, lyric essay, because it’s what I know best. Zoe and I both studied creative nonfiction in undergrad. It always felt like this same conversation over and over. But it always gets stopped at that gatekeeper question, “What is the lyric essay?” We had a lot of favorite lyric essay writers that weren’t always represented on those reading lists. There’s space for many [lyric essay anthologies] to exist, and we figured we needed to contribute.

Zoë Bossiere: I wanted to show students the range of what the lyric essay could do. The anthologies that I was choosing for the class would include a couple of examples of lyric essays. And they’re very good. But sometimes, when students are exposed to only that very small fraction of what’s out there, they begin to think, “So this is what a lyric essay is and this is what it can do. And that’s it.” They come away with a very narrow definition of what the lyric essay is. We wanted to completely turn that upside down with a book that includes lyric essays that do things that essays shouldn’t be able to do or that resist even the idea of narrative. It was really exciting to put this together with all of that in mind.

ET: It was even fun thinking about how we would order them. How could we arrange it in a way where just when you think that you’ve figured out what a lyric essay is, the next essay will completely turn that on its head and be a total zag away from whatever definition you’ve formed? We didn’t want to try to nail down anything to do with definitions. It was just to offer the widest range possible.

LL: I’ve been thinking a lot about essay as the larger umbrella term. Essay is kind of the kid in the family who doesn’t want to fit in or behave. If you agree with that notion of what an essay is, where does the lyric essay fit in with that?

ZB: Essays often break things within a structure, so there’s this surprising but inevitable break that happens in a lot of idea-based essays. A hermit crab is going to escape or transcend the form in some way. Or in a braided essay, at some point the braid is going to come undone. And that’s maybe a genre expectation of essay and for each different form. But what I love about the lyric essay is that it has this genuine surprise. Anything could happen. Because each one is making itself. If you read a lyric essay, you read exactly one lyric essay. And [that essay] doesn’t tell you something about the next one you’re going to read. So I would say, it’s the most essayistic essay possible.

ET: Yeah, well, I think that’s right. It’s the most essayistic essay. I just always fall back on the idea of [the lyric essay] being this this quality of poetic sensemaking that essays at large may or may not have to do in the same way. Breaking something is very necessary.

LL: That brings me to the next very big question: why now? Why has the lyric essay become its own space?

ZB: We talked about this in the introduction, how there are examples of what we might call the lyric essay throughout history. It’s just that they weren’t called the lyric essay. And I think a big reason for that is because the lyric essay wasn’t seen by the center. The lyric essay has become begrudgingly and sort of uncomfortably accepted by the academy. And certainly more and more teachers are utilizing it in the creative writing classroom. So it’s being studied in a way that it wasn’t before.

ET: I think that shifting from the margins to the center is exactly right. But I would even broaden it and backup a little too, because that’s the whole story with the genre of creative nonfiction. It’s only relatively recently been a genre that you can study, right? That’s where Zoe and I really started. The seed of this idea was talking about how we were maybe one of the first generations of students who actually came up in the academy where creative nonfiction was already an existing track that you could study. Lyric essay is a narrowing down of that margins-to-center idea, all the way back to the larger genre conversation as well, which I think most creative nonfiction writers can understand and empathize with to some degree.

ZB: Oh, yeah. And what’s really fascinating about the lyric essay, like within that entire structure, is that even though like, you know, we are seeing it in center spaces, it still doesn’t fit there quite neatly. The essays that are included in the anthology, are all examples of essays that don’t I think exist within the academy in this readily accessible way to the center.

LL: That makes me wonder: What happens if the lyric essay is widely accepted by the center or is no longer in the margins?

ET: I don’t think you have to, as a lyric essayist, find yourself in the center in order to find readers or people who appreciate your work or can recognize some aspect of themselves in it. The important idea we took away from bell hooks was that it’s vital to maintain the perspective of the margins. Because that’s not something—if you’ve always existed at the center—you can accumulate. But it’s something that is vital to hold on to, because although your circumstances may change to a certain degree, you’re not like a different person. And those perspectives and those stories can only be told by you.

ZB: And to be accepted by the center is not necessarily to be of the center. The center has its own aims, and it wants to hear from certain marginalized perspectives for its own reasons, and those are sometimes icky reasons. Maintaining that tie to the margins is really important. Because if you don’t, it’s really lonely. If there isn’t a book like the one that you need, you get together with writers that you really love and admire and you put one together. That was the project of this anthology, to create something that we wished that we had had when we were students ourselves and when we were first starting to teach.

ET: I don’t think that anyone but Danielle Geller could write “Annotating the First Page of the First Navajo-English Dictionary.” I have trouble with even thinking about another person with a different way of looking at the world and different experiences could even work within a similar form.

LL: Let’s talk about the whole idea of resistance. To me, the lyric essay feels like a double whammy. It’s not just the form as resistance, but it is the content as resistance.

ET: I think the third dimension is that it resists something in the real world about our expectations. [“The Dry Season” by Melissa Febos] does all those things, right? It resists any type of chronology or linear structure that that you could invent. It’s chaos. It also, in the real world, resists sex, right? She’s celibate. That’s the project for a year, which is radical. And it’s also resisting some assumptions even that we would have about the lyric essay, because it’s doing some funky things with research and movies. When you try to describe all the things that [these essays] are about, and that they do, it just almost always sounds like it shouldn’t work.

ZB: Yeah, it’s the kind of trifecta of resistance.

Zoë Bossiere is the managing editor of Brevity: A Journal of Concise Literary Nonfiction and the co-editor of The Best of Brevity (Rose Metal Press, 2020). Her coming-of-age memoir, Cactus Country, will be published by Abrams Books in 2024.

Erica Trabold is the author of Five Plots, which won the inaugural Deborah Tall Lyric Essay Book Prize in 2018. She is an assistant professor at Sweet Briar College.

Laura Laing’s essays have appeared in Creative Nonfiction, The Rumpus, and Consequence. She is currently writing a hybrid memoir that blends lyric memoir passages with abstract mathematics.

Writing For Craft, Not Clicks

March 21, 2023 § 15 Comments

Social media often feels like a distraction from our writing work, or weirdly transactional (I posted 10 minutes ago, did anyone like it yet?) But mindful social media makes us better writers. Ignore follower counts and clicks—instead, consider Twitter, Instagram, LinkedIn, blogging and newsletters as literary forms.

One of the world’s greatest short-form writers contemplating the delivery of his next publicly-available serial content.

A great Facebook post is a 100-word microflash essay with a beginning, middle, ending, and a strong premise that engages readers. A great Tweet is a great sentence—whether you follow or violate traditional writing “rules.”

Sharing our work publicly and regularly also keeps us in the habit. Writing advice often starts from the premise that we’re all going to sit down and bang out our word count for an hour every morning—or we should be. But not only do you not have to write every day, a lot of writers can’t write every day. They have families. Or they’re caregivers. Or demanding jobs consume their creative brains. This does not make them—or you—any less a writer. Plenty of excellent books have been written in short spurts. Books are built from blogs. Or from texts. Or from writing a little at a time. Social media lets us write in short, manageable chunks on busy days.

But if I write something every day, what if it’s not good? What if it’s not a diamond-sharp, multiply-revised presentation of my Best Thoughts Ever?

That’s kind of the point. Whether or not the 10,000-hour theory is correct, the number one thing that makes us better writers is deliberate practice. Social media is a place to practice publicly, to raise the stakes just enough to make each sentence count, while not becoming a permanent record. Social media is brief. Brevity helps you write more often, using your available time. Don’t feel guilty if you don’t have an hour—feel good that you got out any amount of words to share. Remember that the medium is the message: readers don’t expect literary genius in an email. Write your best, but don’t worry about perfection.

Great short-form public writing, whether an 850-word blog or a 400-word newsletter or a 280-character tweet, has key principles:

Practice writing at the sentence level. Anchor your sentence beginnings and ends with concrete nouns and strong verbs. See what word combinations have punch.

Share a moment that is a whole moment. Stay in one scene or a single thought.

The medium is the message: there is no “and then I realized…” because the venue says that for you. Publishing on a social platform already establishes, “I thought this was important to crystallize and share with my readers.”

Both literary and commercial constrained forms depend on vertical takeoff. How fast can you bring a reader into your mood? How much emotional impact can you create in under a minute? Can you draft a killer first sentence that makes readers click to read the whole thing? That’s a skill all writers need for work in every medium.

Social media often feels random and chaotic. We’re stepping into a room where a million people are practicing their voices, trying out what they have to say and waiting to see who’s listening. Limit your time and figure out who you want to listen to. At the same time, find your own audience. It’s not weird to make online acquaintances and spontaneously participate in their conversations. They can directly respond to your joke, question, micro-essay or impassioned political or emotional point, and you can block them if you don’t like what they have to say.

When I’m posting regularly on social media, I see more stories in the world. I’m more likely to ask questions of the people around me, and truly listen to their answers. This spills over into my longform writing, making me more curious about my characters and more conscious of the circumstances that make people who they are.

One of the most beautiful essays I’ve ever read (in any medium) is Tucker Shaw’s fragmented recollections of the AIDS crisis, triggered by an overheard conversation on the subway. The nature of Twitter—short, sequential, slightly-but-not-really disconnected suits this essay. Each tweet feels slightly forced out, excavated from the pain of memory, heightening the meaning of the work. Did Shaw write it in advance and piece it out in 140-character bursts? Maybe. Did he write it as he tweeted it? Also possible. Either way, he’s used a social form to advantage, not only creating a beautiful and meaningful work, but also reaching thousands of people who either don’t read literary magazines or wouldn’t have subscribed to a particular one that published the piece.

Sure, an MFA is great, but have you made a joke land on Twitter? When we explore literary forms deliberately, not as “content creators” but as writers, we practice craft. Share writing news, personal stories behind your work, strange happenings and moments of joy and poetic wonder. Don’t sacrifice your writing time to random scrolling. But by all means, pick a platform you like, set a specific amount of time for reading and writing there, and use it to practice your craft and read meaningful work to inspire your own.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. Find her on Twitter & Insta @GuerillaMemoir. Want to write better with Social Media? We’ve got a webinar for that. April 5th, replay available.

Why Finding the Right Image Can Be So Challenging

March 20, 2023 § 13 Comments

By Ben Berman

I place the six-pack of beer on the counter.

The clerk looks up at me, then down at the beer, then back up at me, then leans in and says, I thought I was gonna have to ID when you first walked in, but now that you’re up close I can see all the gray hairs on your head.

I’m not sure whether to be flattered that he thinks I look twenty years younger than I actually am or upset that he’s noticed that I am starting to go gray.

Although, after I get home and examine my head in the mirror, I realize that there is something about the word, gray, that feels off—as though it is too generic a word to capture the intricate blending of complementing colors sprouting from my head.

Later, at dinner, I ask my wife and daughters if they will help me find a more evocative, surprising, and accurate description of my hair.

My wife suggests that my head looks like the lovechild of a panda and koala bear, but my seven-year-old seems downright offended that my wife would compare me to animals that are so adorably cute.

What about storm clouds? I offer. Or campfire smoke?

Both of these images seem somewhat accurate in terms of color, and I like that they speak to the impending dangers of a midlife crisis. But there is something too billowy about their presence. The grays on my head aren’t about to be blown away, and I need an image that is more accurately textured.

Salt and pepper, my wife suggests.

That one’s familiar, of course, and I kind of like it. But it feels imprecise. My hair is mostly the color of pepper with a little dash of salt mixed in. Pepper and salt would be more accurate, but even then, the secondary meaning of the word pepper seems to suggest that it is the black peppered about.

Part of the challenge is that I want to find an image that speaks to the rapid changes of aging. For forty years, I have enjoyed thickly settled jet-black hair, and now all of a sudden, it is as though the top of my head is being gentrified—all these little white clusters popping up all over the place.

I think your hair is beautiful, says my five-year-old. Like the color of a princess’ poop.

This comparison is certainly surprising, evocative and tonally complex, but unless that princess has been taking iron supplements it is also totally inaccurate. And yet, I appreciate the absurdity of my five-year-old’s suggestion and how it frees my mind to traverse the surreal.

It’s never easy coming up with an image that works on both a literal and figurative level, and I am looking for something that is both visually accurate but also reflective of my resistance to the fact that my youthfulness is beginning to fade.

My hair’s not gray, I suddenly say. It’s Dorian Gray.

My daughters look at me like I am an idiot, and even though there isn’t anything visual about that line, there is something about the mixture of playfulness and seriousness that I like.

I’ve always considered myself young at heart, but now my body is starting to tell a different story.

And later, when I sneak into the bathroom and use tweezers to pluck a white hair or three, I can’t help but recognize what feels like an ancient literary pull, a deep and existential tug.

From Writing While Parenting © Ben Berman, 2023. Used by permission of Able Muse Press.


Ben Berman is the author of three books of poems and the forthcoming book of flash essays, Writing While Parenting. He has won the Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry, has twice been shortlisted for the Massachusetts Book Awards, and has received awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, New England Poetry Club and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches creative writing classes at Brookline High School. You can reach Ben at his website.

Inventing the Wheel: Hosting a Successful Virtual Book Launch

March 17, 2023 § 4 Comments

By Caroline Goldberg Igra, Ph.D

January 2022: Publication date was approaching. Time to launch my book. I couldn’t stop thinking about the lovely launch of my first book, people milling around and smiling, picking up a copy and asking for my signature, attentive faces regarding me as I read aloud.  I’d felt loved and appreciated by the crowd of supporters that had gathered to hear my words on that summer evening. But this was different. We were in the middle of yet one more wave of the coronavirus pandemic and get-togethers were just not possible.

I explored the idea of doing a virtual launch but found little precedent, and even fewer tips online. I’d have to invent the wheel. I rolled up my sleeves and went to work.  

Here is my plan for a successful launch online:  

The Invitation

—There are many easy options for designing an attractive invitation. Canva is a good one. I opted for an invite that looked like an announcement and incorporated the cover image of my book. The goal: Attract attention—don’t get overlooked in the recipient’s inbox.

—Send invites to both personal and professional contacts (those in literature, art, whatever your focus of interest.) Don’t hold back. Aim for a diverse crowd.

—Clearly state the date and time and list the different time zones on the invitation to make it easier for your international attendees. I launched from Tel Aviv on a Sunday evening, which translated to noon EST, 9:00 am PST. An hour is a good timeframe for the event.

—Don’t require an RSVP but encourage an informal response, via text or email. It’s always nice to know which familiar faces will be joining you.

Toast and be toasted! Prepare champagne or a similarly celebratory beverage. Invite your attendees to do the same. Since my guests were from around the world, there was a delightful mixture of cocktails and coffee, champagne flutes and mugs.

The Program

Greetings.Acknowledge your guests as they enter the Zoom room, just as if they have arrived at your front door or a bookstore for an onsite launch. Share their location and your connection with the other attendees.

Announcements. Update the attendees on any awards, good reviews, or forthcoming book events.

Describe the book. Many attendees may not know what it’s about. Prepare a synopsis, something like what’s on the back book cover. Juice up that short text with a few interesting facets of the storyline and the characters involved.

Reading. I read a few pages from different sections to give a taste of both the story and its characters. For others, one chapter might be best. Allow about 15 minutes.

Q & A. Suggest that participants write questions in the Zoom chatbox as you go along.

Thanks. Don’t forget to thank everyone for attending and reiterate how much their support helps. Gently ask that they spread the word via reviews. I suggested Goodreads and Amazon, which get the most traffic.

Goodbyes. Endthe event by acknowledging the participants, one by one if time allows—perhaps by city, or the institution/organization you share if there are too many to thank individually.

The Day Of

Quiet your recording environment. Noise on your end makes it harder for your participants to stay engaged. 

Mute the participants. If you don’t want to globally mute the participants, then request that they mute themselves. Remember that Zoom is programed to pass the baton to whoever is making the most noise.

Ask for cameras on. While there will always be a few attendees who prefer to be faceless, being able to see the participants makes for a far more personal experience for everyone.

Record the event. You will want this valuable souvenir for posterity. This also ensures that you will have a record of the additional comments in the chat that are hard to track during the launch.

Hold your book low, beneath your chin while reading. The participants will be more engaged if they can see your face while you’re reading. 

Answer questions by first repeating the question. This will slow your pace, which can get quite rapid as the adrenaline flows! Allow at least 15 minutes for the Q&A.

Give the attendees a chance to speak and make additional comments via “raised hands” before you finish up. It’s important to step off the stage and let your audience share their thoughts.

Keep the event moving. Stay under an hour as advertised but don’t be stressed if there are still questions to be answered. Keep an eye on your attendees and tie things up when they’re still actively engaged and radiating enthusiasm.

Screen Shots: Ask a couple friends, in advance, to take a few screen shots so that you can memorialize all those smiling, attentive faces.

Despite the return to inhouse events, I will opt for a virtual launch when I publish my next book. It was an incredible success on all counts, just as exhilarating, nerve-wracking, and celebratory as any I could have arranged in-person. It allowed for a much wider, global range of attendees and offered an excellent way to engage with readers and create buzz for my book.


Caroline Goldberg Igra, Ph.D., is a freelance writer, art historian, triathlete, and mother. She lives in Tel Aviv, Israel, but maintains close ties with her hometown, Philadelphia. Her nonfiction has been featured in Collateral, Away Journal, Mothers Always Write, Pandemic Journal, and Another Chicago Magazine among others. She has published two novels, Count to a Thousand (Mandolin Publishing, Jerusalem, 2018) and From Where I Stand (Koehler Books, Virginia, 2022), and is working on her third.

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