On Scaring My Creative Writing Students

November 19, 2018 § 14 Comments

bentonBy Lynette Benton

At a newly renovated library a couple of towns away from where I live, I showed up for the first class of a writing course. Students arrived on my heels, and chose chairs at the long tables arranged in a rectangular U. All were adults, most in their thirties, well dressed in casual clothes. A few women in their sixties from another writing course I teach grinned and waved to me on their way into the room.

I introduced myself and my qualifications. Then I asked the students to tell me what they wanted to write. One by one, they stated their goals—memoir or family histories, mostly. Their perspectives on their stories sounded commonplace, as lifeless as a report. They spoke in vague, questioning terms. “I want to write about my family?” It seemed as if an idea had nibbled at them, but that if given their druthers, they’d prefer to talk about it over drinks with friends in a bar.

Though it wasn’t their responsibility to sell me on their tepid ideas, I was immediately deflated. If they didn’t care about their stories, how could I?

One student wanted to write a novel. Perplexed, I explained that this was a memoir writing class. Then I reconsidered since, for reasons known mostly to publishing professionals, memoirs are now required to mimic novels. So I told him he’d probably get something out of the class, and he seemed happy with that.

None of the students read memoir nor evinced any interest in the genre. When I asked how they planned to write what they were unfamiliar with they giggled. Had any of them brought writing to share with the class for feedback? None had. All confessed they had never written anything outside of formal schoolwork.

Only the students from my other class knew the distinctions between memoir and autobiography. The others hinted at publishing dreams, until one asked outright about getting an agent.

Hearing her question, my self-control inexplicably collapsed. I revealed—forcefully—how difficult it can be to get an agent, how hard it is for an agent to sell work that’s not exactly like work that’s already been successful. (“I see your memoir as the next Eat, Pray, Love!”) I even mused aloud about the folly of trying to write a whole book when they’d never even written anything shorter. The students cocked their heads like puppies trying to understand a “Sit” command.

I told too much to these never-having-written novices (my students from the other classes the exceptions), who, I sensed, imagined they would pound out a manuscript in a month, send it off, and voila, learn a few days later that a kindly literary agent would get them an impressive advance and see their book published if they’d only Sign Here.

After class ended, two of the students (a young, chic married couple) lingered a moment to say that they’d be out of town the following week, but would return to class after that. They might have been trying to spare my feelings; I never saw them again. The following week, of the original 12 in the first class, only eight reappeared.

None had written anything in the week between class meetings. They raised more questions about publishing.

I had been where they were, eager to see my work in print. The difference between us was that I had spent decades learning all I could about writing, practicing unceasingly, willingly starting at the bottom to get my work noticed by increasingly reputable publications. I’d read hundreds of accounts by writers of their daily routines, their best advice for writing, their failures and successes. Who did these students think they were? Why should they expect a fast track to success, when the rest of us had had to slog unrelentingly to get noticed? (I sound to myself like parents to kids: “When I was a child I had to walk to school uphill—both ways.”) Unlike some novice writers I know who work like the dickens to produce writing that’s worthy of a publisher’s consideration, these students were cheapening an endeavor I cherished. My resentfulness toward these students who wanted to publish without learning, without writing, was staggering. I wanted them to fail. I would rejoice in it; it would prove me right.

Of course these thoughts opened a gulf between us; in my sudden, baffling lunacy, I began considering thee students my enemies.

I put a question to the remaining students:

What’s the one thing all published authors have in common?

They smiled, waiting.

The answer: A manuscript.


Now I know I should have given them exercises to work on in class. I should have helped them excavate something meaningful from their uncertain ideas.

We could have started small: Write a single scene that could go into your memoir. Write one poignant memory of your past. Write a short profile of someone in your family.

Instead I assigned them homework so they would have writing to share the following week. Over the course of the next three classes, none except my former students brought a single sentence to present for feedback.

The second week, only six attended the class. The last week, only four.

What prevented the other students from sticking it out for four one-hour classes? Did they assume writing would be glamorous? Maybe it wasn’t an illusion of glamour that attracted these naive pre-writers, but the desire to be heard. I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that most writers are middle children, as I am. Our voices typically were trampled in the hubbub of our families.

Perhaps the missing students weren’t serious about writing in the first place. One student who stuck it out for the whole course told me she was just happy to have something to do one afternoon a week.

Were they all, with the exception of my students from other the courses I taught, just wafflers? Should I have left them to their dreams, their illusions? But what if two years later they ran into me in Stop and Shop and accused me of misleading them, as every agent they had approached had ignored their manuscript, assuming it ever got written?

But the fault was mine. I had pushed too hard to get them to start that book they’d been talking about for years. They’d made it a point to tell me, “All my friends say my experiences belong in a book.”

I refrained from saying that maybe their friends should write that book.

I failed to offer them the guidance I would have wanted from a teacher. I should have met them where they were. Why didn’t I?

I didn’t know how. At the other places I taught, students—most blazing with motivation, direction, and commitment, all eager to get down to the business of writing—often followed me from one course to another, from one town to another. Attendance swelled, rather than diminished. I was a different teacher in those venues—lively, interested, generous with patience.

But in that classroom in the town near mine, I overwhelmed the students with discussions about dialog, structure, scenes, and settings. The use of similes and images. I flung my bottomless cache of resources at them—the books and articles (I had waved my arm to indicate the library bookshelves visible through the glass walls of our classroom), including my own, filled with free knowledge. None of them pursued them. Among these adults I felt as many high school teachers say they do: as if I were talking to an indifferent audience that needs to learn but doesn’t care to.

Neither these students nor I got satisfaction. They wanted me to say they would get published. But I had no confidence in them, and none in my ability to aid them. I should have overcome my lack of faith and eased them nearer to fulfilling their dreams. But my frustration was fierce, and I took it out on them. Maybe at the time I was grappling with my own writing, longing to shout at them: “Writing is all struggle and doubt!”

Lacking understanding, I silently accused them of arrogance, but I was the arrogant one. I should have encouraged them to believe they might someday, somehow, be published. It never occurred to me that they focused on the end—publishing—because they feared the beginning—writing.

I vowed that the next time I taught in that town, I would begin differently. I’d hand out simple, straightforward exercises for them to do in the classroom.

Books are being published every day, I’d tell them. There’s no reason why yours shouldn’t be one of them. Now, let’s get started!

Lynette Benton
 is a published writer and writing instructor. She guides others in writing about their lives or families.  Her essay, “No More Secrets and Silence,” about how she wrote her memoir, My Mother’s Money, won first prize in the contest sponsored by National Association of Memoir Writers and She Writes Press. It was also anthologized in the collection, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey. Her work has appeared in numerous online and paper publications, such as the Brevity blog; Women Writers, Women’s Books; and local newspapers. An excerpt from her memoir was a finalist in a 2014 memoir-writing contest. Visit her web site, Tools and Tactics for Writers or connect with her on Twitter @LynetteBenton.

How to Make the Most of a Multi-Day Writing Conference

July 9, 2018 § 8 Comments

Full_without_dateBy Donna Talarico

It’s conference season! Wait. I think it’s always conference season. There’s always something happening, from coast to coast—and beyond. The literary and publishing world is filled with events of all shapes and sizes where we can learn, share, network, explore, and grow. And if writing isn’t your only job, your other industry(ies) may also offer some amazing professional development opportunities.

I’ve been attending conferences since 2006 as part of my marketing career, and I fell in love. Hard. I adore conferences so much that I now run one. (It’s called HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers.)

To help you prepare for your next conference as an attendee or speaker, I’m sharing some tips on how to make the most of your event, from how to stay organized to how to stay healthy.

Take Notes…. By Hand

Research shows we often remember things better when we write them down vs. typing. I’m a big fan of hand-writing notes. If you’re a visual learner like me, you can also doodle in the margins or format your pages in a way you like for better recall. (Example: I use a lot of arrows and circles when I take notes.) By all means, jot down your ah-ha moments the best way for YOU, but consider going back to analog. Plus, you’ll have a tangible memory of your time at your conference!

Get Out of Your Comfort Zone

One of my favorite conferences each year is called HighEdWeb—or, Higher Education Website Professionals—and I’ve been fortunate enough to be a speaker at this event each year since 2011. My first HEWEB, as we call it, I heard a piece of advice at the conference orientation: to go to a session I’d never think of attending. Now, for a conference like this one, the subject range is really broad, from highly technical to content, so there may be more to choose from, topic-wise, than a niche, writing-related conference. But still, peruse the schedule and find something that gets you out of your comfort zone. You may surprise yourself by what you learn—and what new inspiration you leave with.

As a professional marketer and content writer, at web conferences I’d gravitate toward the “word stuff,” but now I always take in at least one technical session so I can expand my horizons. I may not ever be a die-hard programmer, but at least by exposing myself to content from brilliant folks outside my specialty, I can learn a little more about “how the sausage is made” and meet people I may never have met.

Take Breaks & Unwind

I’ll admit that when I present at a multi-day conference, I often sit out the session before my talk so that I can have a “zen moment” before I go on. (I don’t like missing conference content, so if it’s a one-day event, I might not skip a time slot…) I found that when I’d race from one session to get to mine on time, I’d be flustered, winded even. So, I now take a moment for myself to regroup. If the event is in the same hotel I’m staying in, I’ll go to my room and not exactly meditate, but just spend some quiet time so I can be focused and ready to engage the crowd. Otherwise, I’ll find a quiet place, such as a sitting area in a far-off nook.

Whether or not you are speaking or volunteering at a conference, it can be helpful to take a breather from the action. To decompress. To reflect. At HippoCamp, we realize people may need some downtime, so starting in 2017, we introduced a Relax & Recharge room that has some tables, chairs, couches, and chargers. People can escape to this room to recharge themselves and their devices. Many conferences, in fact, have started creating “introvert corners.” So be involved in the conference as you can—that’s why you’re there!—but take care of yourself.


Donna Talarico

Participate in the Back Channel

This is my favorite one. I should have put it first, but I wanted it to be a gem in the middle of this post. Twitter, I think, is what made me fall in love with the conference community. Or maybe it was conferences that made me fall in love with Twitter? I’m not sure which came first. But back in 2008 when I worked for an ecommerce company and we were exhibiting at the Internet Retailer conference in Boston, I did my first live-action Twitter contest. To this day, at Association of Writers and Writing Program Conference, I toss out trivia questions as part of the Hippocampus Magazine booth (with prizes.) That’s on the exhibitor side. For the attendee side, the back channel can be a wonderful place, long before the conference even takes place! I’ve seen friendships blossom on the HippoCamp hashtag (this year, it’s #hippocamp18), and then get to witness people meeting each other in real life for the first time at the event. (To help facilitate this, we put Twitter usernames on badges when they’re provided at registration!) It’s even better when I see the conversations continue after the conference.

During the conference, though, you can use the hashtag to share nuggets of wisdom from speakers—we also put speaker Twitter handles on the program to make it easy to quote them. Some people I know even use Twitter as a way to take and save notes.

I do firmly believe you should be present at a talk and pay attention to the speaker, but tweeting a few times during a session is acceptable in my book. After the conference, then, people can look through the hashtag to see what happened in sessions they didn’t attend. An active back channel is an amazing way to bring people together, to show the amazing things happening, as well as get people “watching at home” excited about the event too.

Hydrate & Take Your Vitamins

Self-explanatory and obvious, I know… but especially if you’ve flown into the event from another time zone, you may already have some adjusting to do. I know many people, myself included, who always feel a little off after traveling. (If not a cold, at least a little fatigue!) So, stay hydrated and healthy! Maybe pack some Emergen-C or Airborne.

Be Positive & Cordial

One of my favorite graphic t-shirts says, “Work hard and be nice.” It’s a fitting shirt for how I like to live life and, well, it’s also a nicely fitting shirt because the fabric is so cozy. Along the lines of that t-shirt saying, one thing I hear often about HippoCamp, from in-person feedback or post-conference surveys, is that it’s a warm and welcoming environment. I love that our conference exudes friendliness, and that’s thanks to our attendees! Each conference begins to have its own personality and vibe, and I am so proud of what we’ve cultivated together at ours.

I’ve attended conferences—in various industries, not just writing—where the environment wasn’t as nice. No matter what event you’re attending, you’re bound to find a differing opinion, a session that wasn’t what you expected, a dessert bar that didn’t have something you liked, or something else you weren’t 100 percent sure about. However, to help make whatever conference you’re attending to remain on the “nice side,” I encourage you to save any useful critique for after the event, such as in private post-conference surveys or notes to the organizers, rather than turn to your neighbor or to Twitter to vent in a stream-of-conscious-y kind of way simply because negativity can be infectious. (For example, I’ve seen some hurtful things posted about conference speakers at an event or too, and this negativity bothered me.) Instead, in general conversations and the back channel, try to be positive to one another and keep that uplifting spirit going. I think doing so adds to the energy of any event!

Find Your “One Thing”

Back at my first HighEdWeb, I also heard the line: “find your one thing.” While you will leave a conference with lots of great ideas and new information, it can also be overwhelming to have so much activity in that brain of yours. So find that “one thing” you want to focus on first. What is your number one takeaway? This is not to say you can’t implement various things. Rather, set some short- and long-term goals.

Stay in Touch

Keep the conversations going, online or off. If you exchange cards (yes, many writers still have amazing paper business cards, and I love them!) or emails with someone, follow up. Even if it’s just a quick, “Great to meet you at Conference XYZ! Please stay in touch!” One of the most rewarding things about running a conference is seeing what develops between people after the event. Book ideas. Assignments. Workshops. Just lots of collaboration between people who didn’t know each other yet. And that, my friends, is why conferences are such a good investment. It’s not just about taking in X-mount of hours of classes or meeting ABC instructor. It’s about EACH OTHER. We try to help facilitate this at HippoCamp with a conference Facebook group, at least to get people started before they take conversations offline, where the magic really happens.


Everyone conferences differently. These are just some tips I’ve learned along the way that have helped me make the most of my professional development events, and many of them which I tried to use as a conference organizer to enrich the experience for my own attendees. Feel free to share your own conference tips in the comments!

Donna Talarico is an independent writer and marketing consultant by day, and she also is founder of Hippocampus Magazine and its books and conference divisions (Books by Hippocampus and HippoCamp.) She loves greasy spoon breakfasts and road trips, lives in Lancaster, Pa., and has work in The Writer, mental_floss, LA Review, and others.

The Year of the Writer

December 21, 2017 § 33 Comments

Vintage sepia photo of young girl with dark curly hair sitting at desk holding a paper and looking thoughtful

Next year definitely the Booker longlist

How was 2017?

OK, a dumpster fire, yes, but how was your writing in 2017? Because now is a great time to consider what you got done. Not scold yourself for what you meant to do and didn’t, but genuinely take a moment and sit with your accomplishments.

Did you write an essay or a paragraph or a sentence you’re really proud of?

Get a piece accepted? Submitted to places you want to be accepted?

Help another writer with insight or feedback or supportive critique?

Make it to a workshop or a class or a conference or a coffee date with another writer?

Read a book you really loved that showed you something about writing? Read a craft book and tried some exercises? Researched something new?

They all count. So bask in the feeling of accomplishment. Make some notes about what felt great to get done, and why it worked to do it that way. Congratulations.

When you’re done, look ahead. What kind of writing year do you want to have in 2018? Sure, a year is an arbitrary designation–maybe you operate on some sort of fiscal year, or you’re still a fan of the Julian calendar, or your new year starts February 16th. But it’s a good time to mentally reassess, because other people are happy to talk about goals right now, and gorgeous new notebooks and diaries deck the bookstores.

Make a little list–not too many things or it just gets overwhelming–of your writing plans. Think about the classic “SMART” goal: Specific, Measurable, Attainable, Relevant, Timely. Specific like “I want to be published in Brevity” (and we hope you do) rather than “I want to be a published author” which is a bit wide-open. The Measurement on that one’s easy–this time next year, either you did or you didn’t, and if you didn’t, maybe you got a different venue for your essay and we lost out. Attainable is also key. I’m not aiming for the Nobel Prize quite yet, plus I think someone Swedish has to nominate me. And really, winning a Nobel isn’t especially Relevant to what I want to be writing. Timely can be a deadline, or a number or pattern of attempts, so the goal feels like something you can take action on.

Here’s what I’m thinking about:

What kind of writer do you want to be? I want to write more travel pieces for mass media, so I’m making a list of places to pitch, reading their stories for tone and structure. I also signed up for a big industry convention next month, to collect business cards for tourist boards, meet media reps, and check out travel trends. Do you need help to be this kind of writer?  I’ve hired a coach to help refine my first few pitches and give feedback on story ideas.

What big project do you want to finish? Definitely another pass on my young adult novel, with a plan about how many chapters to do a week and when to start querying again. I’m organizing a writing retreat in India, and need to finish budgeting and start marketing. How are you going to do that? They’re both check-off-able tasks: chapter by chapter, email by email–“write a book” would be as nebulous and difficult as “lead a retreat.” One project is creative and the other’s business, but I’ll approach both with a defined process.

What do you want to read? More paper books and less news on my phone. How can you make that happen? Maybe turn on parental blocking on the websites that are my “I’m momentarily bored” crutches.

What do you want to stop doing? What’s occupying time you’d rather have for something else? I’m restructuring my freelance editing to do only one full manuscript at a time, with gaps between for my own work.

I realize that all sounds very organized. But it’s an effort to pull out only the most important from the giant pile of “things I’d love to do” in my brain. It’s very hard to look at the amount of time relative to the things that fill it, and be honest about what I can actually accomplish. In a way, it’s like tapas or sushi: order all at once, and you’re likely to have more food than anyone can finish. But grab the thing you love best first, enjoy it, and then order the next thing you have room for, and the next. One dish at a time. One step on a goal. And no, you do not have to order vegetables first. Choose the goal you love the most, not the obligation.

Got any questions you’re mulling over for 2018’s writing year? The comments are wide open. Ask us what you’re asking yourself. Tell us what you did–and what you’re going to do next.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Manager. Happy goal-setting and see you in 2018! 

On Writing Damage: Zoe Zolbrod and The Telling

September 7, 2016 § 2 Comments

Zoe Zolbrod portraits by Elizabeth McQuern Oct 2015 -1b.jpg

Zoe Zolbrod (photo by Elizabeth McQuern)

Zoe Zolbrod’s memoir, The Telling, is a moving account of childhood sexual abuse and its aftermath. Zolbrod describes, not just the abuse, but her subsequent sexual relationships, and she refuses to offer easy answers.  The end result is a nuanced and compassionate examination of the ramifications of sexual abuse. Brevity’s outgoing managing editor, Kelly Sundberg, interviewed Zolbrod about the notion of sexual abuse as damage, writing as therapy, and how to craft a good story out of such difficult material.


KS: I’m interested in the ways in which you discuss “damage.” You write that, based on the narratives of sexual abuse that you had been exposed to, you knew that you were supposed to be damaged, but you weren’t really sure what that damage was. It seems like, in a way, you maybe even performed that damage. I wonder if that performative element of “abuse as damage” came into the writing of the book?

ZZ: Yeah, I did experiment with performing the damage, especially in my late teens and early twenties. I implied to certain people that I had some messed-up but interesting depths because of this early experience of mine. I also performed not being damaged to other people—projecting a confidence that the abuse had no effect on me. In both cases, I was aware even at the time that my words and outward attitude weren’t matching what I actually felt, which was more of a muddle.

One reason I wrote was to analyze both the muddle and the performances—where did I get those roles from, what purpose did they serve for me? In the writing, I wanted to work against performing—against giving the expected narrative, speaking the expected lines. I tried to get as close as I could to my actual feelings and motivations. I was nervous about stating them at times, because the last thing I want to do is provide fodder for those who argue that childhood sexual abuse is not that bad, or to undermine others who are wrestling with the legacy of being abused. But it was important to me to untangle my own responses from the narratives about abuse I was absorbing. Of course, writing a book is also a kind of performance, so at times worried that in my effort not to perform damage, or perform lack of damage, I was performing authenticity, and thus not being authentic after all. There’s a rabbit hole!

KS: When I started writing about domestic violence, a man wrote me on Twitter and asked me if I was worried about being labeled a “domestic violence writer,” and I balked at that. It does seem like, too often, women who write about traumatic events get labeled as trauma writers, and this can be dismissive of their craft. Your situation was different than mine, in that you already had a novel published, but were you ever worried about being reduced to your story rather than your craft as a writer? If so, how did you deal with this or fight back?

telling-cover-3.jpgZZ: I don’t know if you feel this way about domestic abuse, but even outside the literary sphere, I worried about being pigeon-holed anytime I mentioned that I had been sexually abused as a child—that that would become the most important fact about me in people’s eyes, and that they’d think they knew things about me.

And then, yeah, within the literary sphere there remains a tendency both in the industry and among readers to regard certain subjects as less literary than others, especially in writing by women. Like, if the topic can be found in the recovery aisle, or if it merits advocacy, then it’s not literature. (And vice versa, too. If it’s too literary—nuanced, structurally or linguistically complicated—there’s not going to be a place for it in the recovery aisle.) I encountered this attitude firsthand. Not by everyone. Not even by most people. I have a really supportive writers group. But even a few comments can sting. The way I fought back was by refusing to let it affect my writing, by continuing to believe in my project.

Claire Vaye Watkins’ essay “On Pandering” came out after I had finished work on the book. I recognized the dynamic she was describing, and I recognized my younger self in her accounts of watching boys do stuff, and in sometimes unconsciously trying to fit a mold, or to avoid another one. I thought it was a really smart and accurate piece. But it made me realize that I had grown out of this mindset; I had refused to pander in writing The Telling, and I was willing to write off a certain audience if that was the consequence.

This probably has something to do with my age—I’m 48. I care less about impressing people, especially men or anyone viewing literature through a male-informed perspective. Also, I have a certain luxury. I didn’t achieve the kind of early success that Watkins did, and I make my living outside the literary world, so I can write what I want (if I can find the time) and still support myself and my kids no matter what the market or the guardians at the gate think. And anyone who actually reads my book can see it’s written with care. I’ve been gratified and relieved that the reviews have noted this.

On the flip side, I’m surprised by how willing I am to be seen as an expert on child sexual abuse, and to speak on it outside literary circles. I mean, the word expert can still give me flare-ups of imposter syndrome, but to much less of a degree. I want to raise awareness on this topic among a general audience, and I don’t care how this overlaps or doesn’t with my literary reputation, such as it is.

On a related note, I’m wondering how you feel when you’re asked whether writing your book is therapeutic, or told that it must be therapeutic.

KS: I actually wrote about the idea of therapeutic writing in a Brevity blog post here, where I ascertained that there should be a difference between therapeutic writing and literary writing (although I don’t think there is anything wrong with therapeutic writing). I’m further along in my own memoir writing process, and the truth is that the writing has been therapeutic. I’m delving deep into why, on a cultural and personal level, the domestic violence in my life occurred, and in the process, I’m learning some hard-earned lessons. How could that not be therapeutic?

I’m not writing the book for the purpose of my own therapy. I have therapy for that. And who would be interested in my own therapy anyway? But yes, I’m finding that writing the book is having the side effect of being therapeutic.

When it comes to this subject, it seems like there are two responses: strangers who say, “Oh, your writing must be therapeutic!” as though that’s a good thing. And writers, such as Jessa Crispin (who wrote about this subject in her essay “Wounded Women” at the Boston Review) who seem to think that therapeutic writing can’t be literary.

What are your thoughts on the subject of therapeutic writing? How have those thoughts affected or constrained your process?

ZZ: Oh, I remember when that Jessica Crispin piece came out. I was like: welp, guess there’s another prominent critic who will never like my book.

In some ways, I’m having a similar experience to what you describe. I certainly didn’t start out writing a memoir as therapy, and would have been insulted at the suggestion. Especially since, as I mention in the book, I’ve been reluctant to go to actual therapy all my life. I have some hang-ups around it and about the self-help aisle in general. But now that The Telling is out in the world and I’m out in the world too, talking about it, I can see that the whole process of writing and publishing has been enormously therapeutic.

Five years ago, just describing what I was working on when someone asked was difficult for me. The first time I wrote about being sexually abused as a child—just a few sentences as part of a larger piece—I felt sick to my stomach in the hours before the essay went live. I was shaking. I had so many fears and so much defensiveness. Now, I can talk about the subject comfortably and confidently with anyone. And I feel lighter, just generally freer—both more in control but also OK with not being in total control of, for example, how people see me. These days, I sort of want to shout from the rooftops: It’s OK if your writing is helping you! It doesn’t mean your writing is not good or smart or complex!

Part of the stigma against therapeutic writing seems to be the assumption that if you’re writing for personal discovery, you’re not concerned with craft. You’re just blurting things out. But I think for those of us who are writers, the choice of a word, the form of a sentence, the rhythm of the prose, the juxtaposition of images, these are part and parcel of making meaning. I had done a lot of journal writing over the years. But it was writing with the intention of publishing a literary book that really led me to a breakthrough.

KS: I think that the intention is what matters. We aren’t in control of what happens while we’re writing the book (whether therapeutic or not), but we are in control of our goals for the book, and how we plan to achieve those goals. One of your goals in the book was to portray a more nuanced view of what can happen post-childhood sexual abuse, and I don’t believe that you ever use the terms “victim” or “survivor.” Was that a deliberate decision? If so, what was your reasoning there?

ZZ: It was deliberate. For one thing, I wanted to be thoughtful in my use of language. The terms victim and especially survivor were coined with intention, and have had helped shape the public conversation around this topic in important ways, but at this point they get thrown around reflexively—almost the way we refer to tissue as Kleenex, or a bandage as a Band-Aid, we refer to someone who experienced sexual abuse as a victim or survivor, and we drag along the connotations without examining them.

But I’m also uncomfortable with the connotations themselves. The words imply that someone is either continually undone by the abuse (victim) or over it, beyond it (survivor). They don’t allow for nuance. Can’t we discard these black and white terms and still acknowledge that sexual violence is wrong? Right when my book came out, I read this amazing essay, “The Forced Heroism of the ‘Survivor’” by Parul Sehgal. I thought: hey, she encapsulates my whole book in two pages. But instead of feeling scooped, I felt admiration and relief. Here’s a choice quote, though there’s so much more:

“Those who have faced sexual violence are so commonly sentimentalized or stigmatized, cast as uniquely heroic or uniquely broken. Everything can be projected upon them, it seems — everything but the powers and vulnerabilities of ordinary personhood.”

I’d like The Telling to be part of a larger movement toward asserting the personhood of any of us who’ve experienced violation, which means we have to leave room for a variety of responses to it, that can change over time.

KS: Wow, I love that sentence: “Everything can be projected upon them, it seems—everything but the powers and vulnerabilities of ordinary personhood.” That really resonates with me, and I very much sensed that vulnerability of “ordinary personhood” coming out in your book. Part of that vulnerability was also in the way that you described other people in your book with such nuance. You were kind to your characters, but you didn’t shy away from honesty. How was it writing about people with whom you are still so close? Did you have a way of dealing with the psychology of that? What was your process? For example, did you show your parents the book ahead of time? Or let them wait until it came out? (Personally, I’m not going to show anyone in my memoir the book until it’s ready for publication because I don’t want to be influenced by their thoughts).

ZZ: The first year or so I was writing this book, I didn’t get much done. I’d carve out a precious writing day and end up spending most of it with my hands suspended over the keyboard, stock still as I worked through the emotions and ethics about being public with this material. It’s my story, but it involves so many others. I ended up setting a few rules for myself: to include only what I absolutely needed to about others even when there were additional compelling details; to avoid recounting or implying others’ thoughts and feelings as I’d do when writing fiction; and to offer what privacy I could, especially in the case of people who had their own histories of sexual violence.

I also made a list of three people that I planned to let read the manuscript before it was published, and one person I planned to contact just to let her know the book was coming. My situation was different from yours in that I didn’t have a publisher while I was writing it, so I told myself that until publication was guaranteed, I was just going to follow my rules and write freely within them.

Framing things that way really helped me, and at some point, I was able to set my concerns aside and write relatively quickly. I did get my dad’s explicit permission to reveal a couple things, but he was on my short list of pre-publication readers, and he declined, saying he didn’t want his reaction to influence my editing. That was generous. Another friend on the list read and had some issues, which was hard for both of us. I tried to address them. I went through the book one last time before it was typeset to make sure I was being as fair and judicious as I was able to be, I changed all the names and a few identifying details, and then I held my breath and let it go.

The book’s been out for several months now, and I’ve heard from a number of people from my past and extended family members. It’s not all been frictionless, but overall, the reaction so far has been better than I’d hoped. On some level I’ve been holding my breath for years about this, and now I can exhale.

KS: What are you reading right now? Who are the writers you can’t put down?

ZZ: I’m reading Gina Frangello’s novel Every Kind of Wanting. I got to know Gina when we were in graduate school together in the 1990s, and she’s been my great friend, colleague, editor, and writing group co-member since. I’ve read the manuscript for this novel at least twice already, but her characters have so much depth there’s always something to discover. When she was finalizing the book, she kept lavishing praise on the skills of her editor Dan Smetanka, so he must deserve some credit for what a taunt, page-turning read this emotionally dense (but also funny) book has become.

Before that, I read José Orduña’s memoir The Weight of Shadows—which I highly recommend to any memoirist who’s combining research and personal narrative— and Chloe Caldwell’s I’ll Tell You in Person. I’ve loved her writing since I read the first essay of hers in The Rumpus so it’s pure pleasure to have more. Melissa Febos is one of my favorite nonfiction writers, and I feel super grateful and fancy to have an advanced copy of her essay collection Abandon Me to read next. I just picked up The Fifth Season by N.K. Jemison at the library. I’ve been dipping my toe into fantasy and science fiction lately, for the first time in decades. I still can’t get into William Gibson, but I really liked The Water Knife by Paolo Bacigalupi.

KS: Finally, what’s next for you? In your writing life? Your editing life? Your life-life? How do you plan to move on from this massive undertaking?

I’m restarting work on a novel I put down during the process of publishing and promoting The Telling. (It’s set in the near future, thus my new interest in science fiction.) To free up some time and mental space for that, I’m stepping down as co-editor of the Sunday Rumpus.  I work a full-time day job in educational publishing and am raising two kids, and sometimes I’m not sure how I’m going to write another novel on top of all that. It takes a level of compulsion, and it’s hard to balance compulsion with my desire to be present in my family life and also just to get enough sleep and relax sometimes. Those things are important too! But having done it before makes me more confident that somehow I can do it again. I feel so much more engaged in the world when I’m writing. And also when I’m talking about writing. Thanks for asking me these questions, Kelly

Zoe Zolbrod is the author of the memoir The Telling and the novel Currency. Her essays have appeared in Salon, Stir Journal, The Weeklings, The Manifest Station, The Nervous Breakdown, and The Rumpus, where she is currently the Sunday co-editor.

Kelly Sundberg is a doctoral candidate in creative nonfiction at Ohio University. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in Gulf Coast, Guernica, Slice, Denver Quarterly, The Rumpus, and elsewhere. Her essay “It Will Look Like a Sunset” was anthologized in Best American Essays 2015, and a memoir based upon that essay is forthcoming from HarperCollins in 2018.



5 Tips To Get The Most Out Of Your Writing Conference

May 4, 2016 § 6 Comments

Mare Swallow

Mare Swallow

By Mare Swallow

With the season of summer writing conferences just around the corner, I’d like to share some tips for getting the most out of your conference experience. Refer to these tips any time you attend a conference. And remember, no matter which writers’ conference you attend, it’s your conference – make it work for you.

  1. Attend with broad goals.

It’s good to have specific goals, but very few writers actually land an agent or get a book deal at a conference. Give yourself broader goals like “I want to be inspired,” or “I want to meet other writers who are writing memoir.” Go with an open mind and open attitude. The best things I’ve gotten from conferences were inspiration, fun, friends, delicious cocktails, and a writing group.

  1. Go towards your “nah.”

Try something you normally would not. Attend a panel that you think isn’t for you. When we listen to something that we think doesn’t apply to us, we can learn something surprising and useful. I once attended a talk by Eric Charles May on ‘Causality in Fiction.’ I thought, “I write non-fiction; this doesn’t apply to me,” but I had some time to kill, so I went. Eric’s lessons blew me away – and were applicable to my nonfiction.

  1. Talk to your fellow writers.

Open your mouth and talk to each other. Yes, many writers are introverted, but your next writing buddy or feedback partner may be sitting right next to you. And you never know who might be a resource for you! Attend the social events, even if it’s just for 30 minutes, and chat.

Need some prompts? Try:

“What did you think of that last speaker?”

“Have you attended this conference before?”

“Are you going to the cocktail party afterwards?”

  1. Buy books, subscribe to newsletters, and connect online.

Stay in touch with your fellow writers (assuming you like them and want to stay in touch). Follow each other on Facebook or Twitter, or Snapchat or whatever your preferred method of social media. Buy books on writing or books by the authors who inspire you at the conference. Follow their blogs and social media, and subscribe to their newsletters so you’re in the loop and in touch with your writing community beyond the conference.

  1. Take notes, and commit to action post-conference.

Note what you get from each session, and commit to using it once you leave.

Whenever you hear something you want to remember, write it down. Also give yourself concrete action steps you’ll take after the conference, and use verbs: “Email query to Literary Agent I met today.”

“Subscribe to Suzy Writer’s Blog.”

“Draft the first 100 words of my novel.”

Education is great, but education without action is useless.


Some upcoming Conferences of note:

Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference

River Teeth Nonfiction Conference

Kenyon Review Writers  Workshop

Antioch Summer Workshop

Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference

HippoCamp 2016

Iota Short Prose Conference

And more here: Poets & Writers Listings


Mare Swallow is the founder and Executive Director of the Chicago Writers Conference. She speaks at conferences throughout the nation year-round. An essayist, she can be found sharing her stories on Chicago’s Live Lit Scene. Visit chicagowritersconference.org for more information.

Lunch Ticket: The Care and Feeding of a New Literary Journal

September 30, 2015 § 6 Comments

A guest post from Arielle Silver on growing a succesful literary journal:

lunchWhen I took on the Editor-in-Chief role at Lunch Ticket, the online literary and art journal of Antioch University Los Angeles’ MFA program, beyond the obvious goals of ensuring we get quality submissions, publishing the next issue on time, and trying not to blow up the website, I also vowed to craft an official mission statement. We’re a journal strongly guided by certain values, but in the push to launch in 2012, and then with the rapid growth that has taken us from a nobody on the literary landscape to being a widely respected publication, formulating an official statement became a lower priority. In honing in on what exactly Lunch Ticket is about, I’ve reflected on the nuts and bolts of what make us unique, and how we’ve gotten to where we are. Unsurprisingly, our uniqueness has influenced our trajectory.

From its inception, Lunch Ticket was to be an ambitious literary journal with a special emphasis on community engagement and the pursuit of social justice. These two concepts are entwined, but somewhat separate.  As an MFA-affiliated publication we seek to publish excellent writing on any topic by any writer.  But as an Antioch-affiliated journal we also hope to promote the university’s mission of social justice by publishing work that fosters new conversations about the world in which we live, and helps enact change.

Arielle Silver

Arielle Silver

Early on, thanks to the three editors who came before me and an inspired advisory team of MFA faculty and staff, Lunch Ticket managed to break through the clutter and get the attention of writers whose work we wanted to showcase. One of the ways we did this was through our funded, no-entry fee contests. We launched The Diana Woods Memorial Award in Creative Nonfiction in our second issue, which helped us quickly garner outstanding CNF submissions by offering a prize of $250 to a winning essay every six months. Several issues later, we added a second contest, The Gabo Prize in Literary Translation and Multi-Lingual Texts. This contest, which offers a $200 prize, reflects the Antioch MFA program’s commitment to literary translation.  By supporting the work of translators who bring global literature into English, we strengthen Lunch Ticket’s dedication to community engagement and social justice. Both of these contests are offered with no entry fee and have been an invaluable boon for the journal. We currently review contest submissions each February and August, and hope to add additional no-fee contests in other genres in the near future.

Further, we have been able to build our readership by offering content published in between our twice-yearly full-scale Lunch Ticket issues. Amuse-Bouche is an every-other Monday feature showcasing work by a single writer or artist. We welcome new literary submissions for Amuse-Bouche twice a year, in January and July, across all genres. Our weekly blog, meanwhile, is published every Friday, and offers craft-based essays written by current students in the MFA program. Topics range from how to portray diverse characters, to approaching writer’s block, to creating tension in a narrative. Both Amuse-Bouche and the Friday Lunch Blog are headliners in the subscriber newsletter we send to readers every other week.

Lunch Ticket’s editorial team is scattered across the country (sometimes globe), due to the fact we are a low-residency MFA program, and represents writers of all backgrounds. As a diverse editorial team, we strive to support writers and artists of all colors, religions, races, nationalities, backgrounds, genders, politics, and sexual orientations. The Review Review recently lauded our gender balance. We stand behind our policy of blind submissions, but also know that we could do better at soliciting work from writers outside of our current networks. As I contemplate our trajectory and the mission of our journal, I am brainstorming new ways to reach underrepresented writers. This is, in the end, our primary mission as we solidify our standing alongside top-tier journals: to publish meritorious work by established and emerging writers, that reflects diverse experiences, and moves beyond well-worn grooves.


A NOTE TO WRITERS AND ARTISTS: Lunch Ticket accepts fiction, creative nonfiction, poetry, young adult (13+), literary translation, multi-lingual text, and visual art submissions for the main issue twice a year, February 1-April 20 and August 1-October 31. We are currently reviewing submissions for our Winter/Spring 2016 issue. Amuse-Bouche reviews work in January and July. There is no fee to submit.

To read Lunch Ticket, go to www.lunchticket.org.

Arielle Silver daylights in the music industry, moonlights as a yoga teacher, and sunrises as a candidate for her MFA in Creative Nonfiction and Literary Translation at Antioch University Los Angeles. She is Editor-in-Chief at Lunch Ticket, her songs have been licensed internationally, and her essays have appeared in Moment and RoleReboot.

Time Travel

January 1, 2019 § 58 Comments

It’s midnight in New York but I’m already twelve hours into 2019, because I’m in India. Last night I ate Chinese food and passed the leftovers through a taxi window, saying to the beggar, “It’s non-veg, OK?” Last night my taxi driver pulled over by the side of the road so he could pee against a wall. Last night I was already in bed and mostly asleep by midnight, waking only to type a little bit on a book-in-progress, because my personal superstition is that whatever I’m doing on New Year’s, that’s what my year will be like.

Last week I had almost no WiFi, power or heat, and crashed my computer moments before getting on a plane to a part of north India with no Apple Store. Mostly, it was exhilarating, and good to be off social media. It was also a pain in the ass, making it difficult to return editing projects or even work on them. In one of the few moments of cell reception, I instinctively checked my email.

Of course there was a rejection, a painful one. I’d tied a lot of hope into that submission, and the rejection was kind and thoughtful and had a bit of feedback. But for the first time I had the feeling I’ve heard other writers describe but hadn’t personally felt: I wasn’t a writer any more. This was it. I didn’t want to write anything again, ever. Sure, I’d probably edit some people’s work for money, but writing wasn’t for me, it wasn’t about me, it wasn’t a world I belonged in. I was wasting my time. Part of my brain was gently reminding me, You tell writers all the time that one rejection doesn’t mean anything, it only means your work wasn’t the right fit for that person at that time. But I cried myself to sleep as quietly as possible so I wouldn’t wake my husband, and I’m crying as I write this now, because it still sucks.

That’s the missing piece for most of us as writers. We believe that somehow, somewhere, there’s a place for us where writing doesn’t suck. Where we’re happy with our quality of work, we’re getting published enough in the places we want that rejection still stings a little but doesn’t debilitate us. Where we can see the light at the end of the tunnel, even when the tunnel’s long.


That’s writing’s nasty little secret. That’s the horrible underbelly of great art, the Achilles’ heel of incredible physical prowess, the flip side of being good at anything.

Being good doesn’t lift you out of failure.

In fact, the better you get, the more awful failure feels, because you can’t let it go with “Oh, I wasn’t ready,” or “Yeah, that magazine is just really hard to get into.” You start to feel like you’ve paid your dues, you’ve put your time in, and when is success going to show up please, because it’s getting late?

Olympic gymnasts still break bones. Olympic hopefuls don’t get on the team because someone they beat in practice ran faster than them today. Movie stars don’t get cast because the producers aren’t sure how they’ll do in the Asian market. Writers don’t get published because their book doesn’t land on the right person’s desk at the right time. Or because they aren’t ready. Or because they suck.

All of those situations feel the same on the other end. They all feel like “I suck,” and “I suck” is a hard feeling to climb out of.

As writers, we are told over and over again, it’s hard work. Just keep doing it. We try our hardest to believe that, while still hoping it’s not true. While hoping the feeling of writing something wonderful, something we’re really proud of, will carry us through rejection and writer’s block and ennui, and sometimes it does.

The day after the Olympic trials, the gymnast who failed has two choices: Quit, or go back to the gym. It sucks to go back to push-ups and flip drills and conditioning when you know your friends are training for the big time. But it’s easier to condition than to create new choreography from the depths of heartbreak. It’s easier to embrace the routine.

Right now, what I’d really like to do is get on a plane and fly across time zones until I’m back when the rejection hadn’t happened yet. What I’d like to do is quit.

What I’m actually doing is writing a blog post in a hotel lobby, after working a little on a novel and a lot on a writing craft book. Trying to practice what I preach about showing up when it’s not fun. Putting together my writing goals for 2019: Finish another novel, finish the craft book, write another play. Say yes to enough editing to make money. Say no to enough editing to have time to write. Show up for my fellow literary citizens. Show up for Brevity readers. Show up for the writers whose work is going well and for the writers who feel like they suck. Show up to the page. Show up, show up, show up.

See you there.

According to my superstition, my 2019 will have low-key charity, unexpected public urination, and writing whether I suck or not, because I’m committed to the routine.

What will your writing year bring?


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor, and truly sorry for being such a downer today. Why not leave your 2019 writing goals in the comments, and we’ll check back in six months?


October 17, 2017 § 12 Comments

Women in 1920's apparel at a long wooden desk, writing letters

Day One and Counting

Sometimes it’s all about brevity. Other times, the writing practice is all about length. Fifty thousand words in thirty days, to be exact.

Yes, coming up in November is the annual National Novel Writing Month–NaNoWriMo. If you’re not already familiar with it, the goal is to blaze through a first draft of 50K words, in one month. There are online forums for checking in and discussing your work, and timed “sprints” on social media. Many cities have in-person meetups to sit and write. And a fair number of agents dread December, when inexperienced writers send out their newly completed “novel” without realizing there are a few more steps between getting the idea on paper and a submission-ready manuscript.

NaNo has its fans, and for good reason: it’s a great way to start a habit if writing more frequently is your goal; online support is everywhere; and joining a regional group can be a way to connect with writers you didn’t know you lived near. But there are plenty of detractors. Jim Breslin blogged about his experience in 2010:

During Nanowrimo, I’ve tended to breeze through certain points because I’m trying to make my word count. For me, slow and steady may prove to be a better way to win the race.

My most successful NaNo experience was a few years ago, when I joined the Mumbai online group–I was heading to India at the end of November and thought it would be nice to know some writers before I got there. I didn’t finish a novel, but I met some terrific people, taught some workshops, and still love having a tenuous connection to that literary community.

Whether the idea of whipping through that many words in that short a time appeals to you or not there are some useful takeaways from the NaNo process.

What writing pace suits you? NaNo is all about speed, sometimes at the expense of craft. Breslin quotes another blogger quoting Kurt Vonnegut:

…there are “swoopers” and “bashers.” Swoopers can write a first draft quickly, where bashers tend to plod along slowly, perfecting each sentence, each paragraph as they go. Marc identifies himself as a basher and makes a valid argument on why Nanowrimo is really an event for swoopers. I’ve come to believe my style is also more basher than swooper, and that my next attempt should be written away from the Nanowrimo playing field.

I’m a basher. I also tend to write the first third, then the ending, then fill in the middle of a novel, not necessarily in order. At some point I make an outline and figure out what’s missing. I polish and edit as I go. NaNo is often better suited to writers who, as Alice’s King of Hearts suggests, “Begin at the beginning, and go on till you come to the end: then stop.”

What could you accomplish in a focused time over a number of days? We all love workshops, conferences and residencies. As well as community and a setting conducive to focused work, it’s also focused time. By setting numerical goals, whether that’s word count or chapters or number of submissions, for a specific period, we feel a little more obligated to get to the page–and a little more entitled to stay there, despite laundry, spouses, and children calling our names. We’re not just dicking around with that writing thing we do, we’re working on something.

How much prep do you need? Just as NaNo’s word-count goal gives us a target to reach in a hazy process, it’s also a reason to think through our plans. The most successful participants are often those with a detailed outline, a substantial pile of research, and a focused idea as of November 1st. The act of preparing for the run can help solidify ideas, think through plots, consider which incidents to include in a memoir. The decision to participate brings our work to mind more regularly, then gives us a deadline to shift from preparation to the creation stage.

Whether you’ve got NaNoWriMo coming up or plain old November, it might be worth setting out a project with specific goals and a dedicated time. Maybe send out X number of submissions, or revise a set number of pages. Read a group of books you’ve been meaning to get to, and boldly give away the ones you don’t like after all. If you like the community aspect, pair up with a writer buddy who’s got a project of their own. If you need accountability, enlist a friend of iron will to report to when you hit a milestone, or plan rewards for your accomplishments.

Whatever you plan, pick something with an end you can tick off when you get there and feel satisfied. That’s the real strength of participating in NaNoWriMo: you know when you’re done.


Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. If you’d like to receive her bimonthly TinyLetter of adventure postcards and travel stories, please do join here.

Teaching Brevity: A Little Bit of Brevity by My Side

September 22, 2017 § 16 Comments

lisa2bromeo2b2-2015by Lisa Romeo

Do I teach creative nonfiction by incorporating Brevity? You may as well ask if I teach writing that involves using words.

I teach across a range of models and levels – undergraduates  (on-campus CNF elective); MFA students (all-online program); CNF writers of all skill levels (In-person regional workshops and classes); private writing clients (in person and/or online). Brevity is included in all of those scenarios.

Often, as soon as I mention Brevity, I see heads nodding, or get Yes! Yes! on-screen messages. But just as often, I encounter blank stares or “Never read it” notes. Either way, I’m pleased. Those who already know Brevity will, I hope, be exposed to different pieces and other craft essays than they might have found on their own. And for those who have not yet explored Brevity, I get to play enthusiastic tour guide, pointing out not major current highlights and treasures from the archives.

I have my stand-bys of course, pieces I’ve loved since I first read them, those that to me are excellent, specific examples of craft, form, voice, tone, or structure. Every few months, however, I challenge myself to dig deeper into the archives and read more pieces I probably didn’t have time for the first time they appeared. Or, a student will ask me a question or be struggling with a draft, and I’ll dimly recall a Brevity piece that may perfectly illustrate a way forward.

When that happens, and I’m off in search of a piece, it may take me a few minutes or it may take me an hour or more, because I get lost, distracted by so many shiny things I haven’t yet read. I kind of like the latter better. What’s not to like about reading—again or for the first time—such good work? Finding gems I didn’t even know were there?

Sometimes, it’s just a matter of sending off a Brevity link to the student with a few notes about why I suggest the reading. But not too many notes; I want the student writer to read without too much expectation, and just see what happens.Often, I copy and paste a full piece (and link) over into WORD, make a pdf for future teaching use, sometimes as a reading assignment followed by discussion. Always, I add the new piece’s title and link into a running list I keep of pieces that illustrate great writing—and I include notes so I can easily remember why I tagged it: one basic major reason, and additional notes maybe on content, take-away, author, or any backstory I might know.

For example, the notes on Erika Dreifus’s “Before Sunrise” readSuperb example of second person. Raises race/privilege issues from white POV. City life/crime. Trauma, injury, assault. She’s pubbed other second-person & a first-person piece on the further events connected to this experience at (links). The “Before Sunrise” narrator is not a young adult, yet the piece always resonates with undergraduates who want to write about difficult life experiences, but are challenged by the exposure of an *I* narrator. Soon after we read and analyze this piece together in class, coupled with a craft lesson on second person, I begin to see second person pieces in which the students not only confront their difficult stories, but have stretched and developed their voices.

For Brenda Miller’s “Ordinary Shoes”—introduced to me by a writer friend (a great benefit of Brevity’s reach)—my note says: Strong example of moving back and forth in time. Object as memory trigger. Nicely done speculative/imaginary scenes between narrator and parent. Nostalgia without sentimentality. Recently, I’ve paired a close reading of this piece with an assignment to sort through old objects for one that elicits strong emotional memories tied to a friend or relative, and then write a reflective story the object spurs.

For “Devotion” by Sarah Lin, my notes say Sensitive writing about someone else w/a disability. Developing secondary character with good details. Narrator grappling w/past behavior—knowing & not wanting to know. An essay that tries to understand something from childhood/teen years. When I teach this, it opens a discussion on what stories we have the right to tell, considerations of how others appear in our nonfiction, and how to convey emotions not by explaining them, but via scene, dialogue, and description.

When possible I encourage students to print out, so that they can do the close reading on paper (though the undergraduates will fight this). I want writers to use highlighters, sticky notes, colored pens, and margin notes as we discuss issues of craft, structure, organization, pacing, rhythm, characters; I want them to put their mark on the page in ways that tie the piece to their own thinking and writerly understanding.

For online students, I will sometimes paste the piece directly into our private discussion forum, and use highlighting, underlining, bold, and my own notes (in a vivid color) to draw attention to what the author has done—and spur discussion about those choices.

One of my goals for CNF writing students is to have them not just read one or two things I’ve directed them to read at Brevity, but to establish their own relationship with the site, to start to think of it as something personal that offers them insight and endless lessons for developing their own craft. I want them to learn to follow their nose, to crawl through the Craft Essays section as well as the featured pieces archive, not just when we’re working together, but going forward, so they can look there to find guidance at various points in their future writing life.

Sometimes, I assign students to browse and locate any two or three craft essays that seem of interest; read them, and then explain: how they might use this newly acquired advice their own in-progress piece(s); what the craft essay brought up for them; whether they either agree or disagree with the craft essay’s points. Sometimes the “disagree” reasons provoke the best class discussions on the topic.

While Brevity is itself a deep, wide, and rich resource, I also want to show writers more of the literary world, using Brevity as a launching pad. So I will often recommend that writers read one particular featured piece at Brevity, then assign them to move from that piece away from Brevity to learn more and read more. How?  Begin with the writer’s bio at their Brevity piece. See where it leads. Visit the writer’s website or blog. Look up the writer’s books, find their other published short works. Then, read. Very often, when writers do this, they begin to talk about and perhaps  begin to understand how a singular piece fits into—or breaks out from—a writer’s larger body of work, typical style, tone, or voice.

I don’t encourage undergraduates to submit to Brevity, though I do hold it up as a future goal for those who seem interested (I give them a list of undergraduate-focused journals instead.) For MFA students and private editing/coaching writers, Brevity often turns up on their own lists of dream-to-be-published-in venues, as it should, and we talk about ways to get there. I encourage them to follow the Brevity blog, to get a glimpse of how CNF writers navigate projects, productivity, writing lives—and then to get more curious about those writers, and go find them in other places around the web or bookstore.

Since I was fortunate to be published in Brevity (“On the Near Side of the Tracks, in the September 2016 special issue on race), on occasion, I’ve taught from this piece, coupling it with the Brevity blog post I wrote which details my writing and submitting process. I do this as a way to break down for others any mystery surrounding how one might get published in a bucket list venue. (Key takeaway: write your brief piece for Brevity, rather than yanking a short section from a longer piece.)

I use my own work not because I think it’s fabulous (though of course I like it!), but because I can answer questions—about narrowing my idea, writing early drafts, revisions, submitting, working with an editor. I also use it to draw them to the other pieces in that special issue on race, as a timely and robust way to explore writing about difficult issues. Many students want to tackle personal experiences around explosive topics and need as many examples as possible of ways to approach them.

I’d need way more words—it wouldn’t be brief!—to talk about how Brevity infiltrates my own creative writing life. But one thing I will mention here—because I like to share it with my students, as an example of  the value of a developing one’s own writing community—is that when time permits, I like to let a Brevity writer know when I’ve read, admired, learned from (and/or taught from) their work. Reaching out this way (via email, Facebook, or Twitter) has led to a few lovely conversations with writers I might not have ordinarily “met,” and further demonstrates the power of a strong online journal like Brevity, to foster connection not only through the original writer’s words, but in ways beyond.

‘Teaching Brevity‘ is a special blog series celebrating the magazine’s 20th Anniversary, edited by Sarah Einstein. Read the other teaching posts here: 1, 2, 4, 5, 6.
Lisa Romeo teaches creative nonfiction in the Bay Path University MFA program, at Montclair State University, with The Writers Circle, and privately. Her nonfiction is listed in Notables in Best American Essays 2016, has been nominated for a Pushcart, and appeared in Brevity, Hippocampus, Under the Sun, the New York Times, O The Oprah Magazine, Sweet, Word Riot, River Teeth’s Beautiful Things, Harpur Palate, and many other places. Her memoir, Starting with Goodbye: A Daughter’s Memoir of Love after Loss, will be published by University of Nevada Press in 2018.

An Inside Look at HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers

August 23, 2017 § 6 Comments

zz 0813 HippoCamp 1697By Donna Talarico, Founder and Organizer of the HippoCamp Writing Conference:

The right time to stop learning is never. Last year around this time, for the Brevity blog, I wrote about why investing in professional development is important.

We writers have many options when it comes to professional development: writing retreats, workshops, online classes, continuing education courses, one-on-one coaching, and, of course, books and articles. All these options, from a conference ticket to a magazine subscription, are purchase decisions we don’t take lightly. We need to choose the opportunities that fit our goals, values, personality, and available time and budget.*

When I founded the HippoCamp conference, I sought to build an experience I’d enjoy as an attendee, often taking cues from other industries. It’s important for me to note that one conference model is not better than another—and that’s the beauty of what the literary world has: something for everyone, from close-knit retreats in an exotic locale to the gigantic, always-abuzz AWP. And from magazine- or genre-specific events to all-encompassing expos.

At Hippocampus Magazine, we found the approach that works for us and our audience, and, in this guest post, I share what we think makes our annual conference, HippoCamp unique (aside from its “punny” name) and, in other cases, familiar.

Now, in all honesty, it felt a little awkward for me, alone, to share what makes us different, so I also put out a call to some past attendees for their thoughts as well.

But before I do that, I’ll explain the name. If you aren’t familiar with Hippocampus Magazine, the name “HippoCamp” out of context can sound silly. Our magazine was named for part of the brain that helps us form long-term memories, the hippocampus, which is shaped like a seahorse (which explains our logo)! Couple our name with the summer-camp-like feeling you get from spending so much time with like-minded people. That’s how we arrived at this perfect, play-on-words of a name**!

Focus on Creative Nonfiction

We know we’re not the only conference catering just to those who love true stories, but we’re a small bunch, us CNF-specific mags and gatherings. So this aspect definitely makes us, along with our fellow memoir, flash, and essay friends, different from the majority of conferences out there.

Rae Pagliarulo , returning to her third HippoCamp, says, “There are so many different kinds of true stories, and this conference provides a way to learn about lots of them. Nonfiction is so much more than memoir, and I love having the chance to meet writers and authors and editors and agents who represent the whole diverse genre.”

Vicki Mayk, another repeat attendee, says, “It’s so energizing to be in an atmosphere 100-percent devoted to nonfiction.”

Returning attendee Stephanie Anderson says, “You could feel the heat of the genre and the business buzzing around you there, and it was exhilarating.”

The Solo-Presenter Model

I love when one rock star can get up in the front of the room and ignite a crowd. There’s an energy to this format that you just don’t get at most panels, where each person gets a small snippet of time. HippoCamp is mostly a for-attendee, by-attendee conference, and we’re open to break-out session proposals from writers and speakers of all skill-levels. At HippoCamp 2015, one attendee who helps plan another writing conference took notice of this, and at her organization’s 2016 conference, they broke away from a mostly panel format and introduced solo talks. I am hopeful that more and more conferences will follow this lead, and see there’s value—and not just default to panels.

Mayk adds, “I feel that presenters reflect a great balance of people at various stages of their writing careers. There are first-time presenters, seasoned teachers, and folks who would fall in between. I think this combination of writers presenting perspectives from different places in their writing journeys contributes to a feeling that HippoCamp is a place where there is an open dialogue about the craft of nonfiction.”

The Right Size

HippoCamp draws about 200 writers, and we’ll likely cap attendance at 250. Lara Lillibridge likes this size: “…[it’s] not too overwhelming for introverts like me!”

Lillibridge noticed that “thought has been put into helping introverts like me to open up to strangers…” citing examples such as breakfast topic tables, snack breaks and receptions, and the addition of the Twitter handles to name badges. “That made it easy to identify people I ‘knew’ online but hadn’t met in real life,” she said.

Andersen also liked the intimacy, but said that at HippoCamp she “also felt a similar energy to, say, AWP, especially during the readings from the authors, Mary Karr’s keynote [2016], and opportunities to meet with agents.” Andersen added that the size of breakout sessions allowed for more discussion, and that “everyone felt comfortable sharing their questions and experiences with the rest of the group.”

The Programming

Most of HippoCamp’s programming is devoted to the Saturday breakout sessions, but we also have keynote speakers, a few panels, flash talks, readings, and optional workshops and pitch sessions.

Lillibridge likes the jam-packed schedule. “I have a lot of time to write at home, so I’m not looking for workshops with extensive writing time—it’s a conference, not a retreat.”

The People

Running a conference can be hectic and overwhelming, but it’s crucial to be positive at all times. And I think that makes a difference.

Lisa Cottrell said, “The entire atmosphere is warm and welcoming, thanks to Donna, and all of her staff right down to every volunteer. Her husband Kevin is also awesome!”

Along with this, because of the presenter model, speakers are attendees too! I truly feel this contributes to the positive feedback we get about the welcoming atmosphere. Lillibridge said, “I love that the presenters mingle freely with the attendees. It conveys a feeling that we are all in the trenches together. There is nothing snooty or pretentious about HippoCamp!”

Cottrell agrees. “Everyone there is someone I want to connect and talk with, and they reciprocate. Mary Karr [in 2016] didn’t just sign my book, she took time to have a conversation with me, and it was amazing!”

The Special Touches

Our post-conference surveys always mention the little things.

Cottrell, for instance, said, “Seriously, the food. This is the only conference I’ve been to that boasts a mashed potato bar at the opening cocktail party, then closes with a last afternoon break on Sunday including chocolate chip cookies and milk (chocolate milk too!).”

This year, we’ll have a mobile charging station and an attendee break room for those who want to relax between (or even during) sessions.

What Happens After

Any conference organizer hopes that attendees leave energized and ready to write, promote, and publish. That’s why feedback, like this from Stephanie Andersen, makes us beam with pride.

“Within a month of HippoCamp, I had established a new writing routine that would result in my finishing a book by March of this year. I had created a website, stepped up my Twitter game, and landed an agent before year’s end,” she said. “As I look at this year’s line-up of speakers, I see a few who inspired me last year, and I want to tell them that what they said helped me move my writing career forward in many ways. I’m so excited about this year!”


These are the things that we think work for HippoCamp: A Conference for Creative Nonfiction Writers. But if you reflect on any conference you love, and maybe even attend year after year, you’re likely to come up with reasons why you’re drawn there again and again.

No matter what type of writing event or learning opportunity, I think it’s key to remember your audience, what they want from your event, and make it happen. Also, it’s important to recognize that all conferences and events can’t be everything to everybody, which, again, is why the literary community is fortunate to have such a selection. Each one is special, each one has a purpose, and each one surely has its biggest fan! I’m proud of what we built, and proud that HippoCamp is just one offering among many.

No matter what your personal conference, retreat, or workshop preference is, keep. on. learning.


HippoCamp 2017 runs Sept. 8-10, 2017, in Lancaster, Pennsylvania. Pre-registration ends August 28. More details here.

*Note: Of course, not everyone can afford the time or travel, but the good news is that there are excellent no-cost ways to keep your skills sharp and knowledge current. Twitter, for me, is my go-to professional development tool! There are also blogs, podcasts, and the essential practice of reading good writing with an eye to learning from the choices other writers have made.

** One of my favorite higher ed web and marketing conferences is playfully referred to, unofficially, as “Geek Camp” so it’s also a nod to that. And, spoiler alert, one day I hope to have an RV and do readings across the country in what we’ll call the HippoCamper. I’m serious!

Author’s note: In full disclosure, Dinty W. Moore, founder of Brevity, is our closing keynote speaker. We’re grateful he allowed us to share a few words about our upcoming event here on his magazine’s blog.


Donna Talarico is an independent writer and content marketing consultant from Lancaster, Pennsylvania. She’s founder and publisher of Hippocampus Magazine, and tweets at @donnatalarico. Learn more at donnatalarico.com.

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