Senior Moments at the AWP Writers Conference

April 27, 2016 § 16 Comments

Len Lyons

Len Lyons

By Len Lyons

“Even the registration was overwhelming,” I said to my daughter. We were walking, heads lowered, through a wind tunnel created by the massive Los Angeles Convention Center to our left, and the Staples Center to the right. She told me, “That should be your opening line.” I had just told her my fantasy of writing about the experience that lay before me: attending the annual Association of Writers and Writing Programs’ Annual Conference, where I hoped to reconnect with a world I had once felt a part of, but one in which my citizenship was now arguable. That I had published two books in my thirties, two in my forties, and one in my sixties seemed not to matter. It had been ten years since the last book. Was it too late now to rejoin the cohort of twelve thousand writers attending this conference, most of them decades younger than I.

My daughter, Gila, is a 30-something writer riding the wave of a career gathering gravitas. She had been invited to be a panelist at a session on memoir writing and feminism. Among the thousands who had flocked from around the nation for this event were best-selling authors, aspiring neophytes, and the majority of us somewhere in between. But I felt I was in a category of one: a 70-something sometimes-writer, whose energy for generating books, or even journal articles, was palpably ebbing. I feared that all that was left of my erstwhile waves of creativity was the foam. Because I was in LA for my sister’s 75th birthday party, the conference drew me towards it, irresistibly, like a survival kit, a last attempt to confront the fear that the shelf life of my career had expired.

Earlier that day, when I first entered the cavernous West Hall of the Convention Center to register, I’d observed the long and fast-growing queue warily. As the line zig-zagged at a lazy pace towards the matrix of monitors for self-registration, I surveyed the 70 or 80 people ahead of me. They carried backpacks or dragged carry-on luggage behind them, their conversations were animated, punctuated by eruptions of laughter. There were plenty of tattoos, nose rings, and a remarkably large percentage of women with short blue hair. There were also a dozen or so middle-aged, conventionally dressed types, but no other senior citizens I could spot. Mathematically speaking, I was pretty sure that I raised the average age more than any other individual. Anyone here my age ought to be the dean of writers by now, I thought, not someone trying to get his game back. I wondered what I thought I was doing, I imagined ducking under the roped aisles and heading for the sunshine outside, opening a dependable New York Times, while nursing a nonfat latte at a ubiquitous Starbucks. I knew enough online, millennial English to think to myself, wtf!

What kept me in line, literally, was a snippet of conversation I overheard in the row of fresh young faces in front of me.

“I’m like totally bummed,” said a young lady in a tank top with blond curls falling to her shoulders. She was talking to a guy who gazed at her nodding earnestly, while his thumbs roamed with complete confidence all over the screen of his phone. “The agent was supposed to call me, but nothing. No text, no call.”

“Don’t worry,” said her friend.

“Fuck, man,” she continued, “she’s the closest I’ve been to getting my book published.”

“The conference hasn’t even started,” he assured her, “chill”.

Overhearing her frustration, her longing to get to a place I had already been, I was buoyed, briefly, by the feeling that I did have some right to stand there. At the same time, it didn’t begin to answer the real question: Could I write anything now, ten years after writing the most recent book?

Even more daunting was the question of whether I could write the way I had wanted to early on: from the inside, fueled by heart and imagination. It had always been easy for me to write about a topic, aiming at a known “market” for a book. I had published three books about jazz, composed on an IBM Selectric (William Morrow and Company), and two more about home computers in their infancy (Addison-Wesley), conceived on an Atari! After a brief (18-year) interlude as a technical writer (Sun Microsystems), I came off the bench and hit a solid single in 2007 about Ethiopian Jews struggling to find their place in Israel (Jewish Lights). But these topical books, which promised at least some predictable readers, now seemed like an easy target. But what about creating a feeling, a mood, an imagined story with memorable characters, struggling, failing or succeeding, a plot the reader had to see through to the end? This was what drew me to writing in the first place, the great novels, passionate internal explorations. Those were the targets I was initially after, but I had never really aimed high enough to test myself.

There was one more fleeting rush of confidence. A short story of mine, sent out on a whim, had been published in 2013 ( Full disclosure: it had been written 15 years earlier. Yet it was the kind of sustained, imagined truth that drew me to writing in the first place. That lonely spark from an internal fire, now mostly ashes, also helped to keep me in this line of writers, if only to find out once and for all if I belonged there.

The next opportunity to be overwhelmed came quickly on the morning the conference began. The program book offered a feast for anyone with an appetite for indecision. More than twenty panels met simultaneously during the first session at 9 a.m., but there was no doubt which one was meant for me: “Crashing Through Barriers: Confronting Writing Barriers and Rebooting Your Work.” It was comforting to be among close to a hundred writers for whom this panel was a compelling way to start the first day. By the end of the 75-minute panel, I had picked up one new attitude – writer’s block serves a creative function, letting your voice well up behind it, until it flows. I hope so. There were many practical tips. “Never throw out a draft,” said one panelist, a fiction writer who also edits a well-respected literary quarterly, “because you may revive it later on successfully.” Later that morning, I crossed paths with that editor and told him about my 15-year old story that, after some polishing, was published in a good online journal. “And I have more of them,” I said, as nonchalantly as possible. He invited me to send it and claimed he would remember me.

Not all picks were as obvious. “The Jazz Aesthetic” panel took place at the same time as “Grove Atlantic Writers Question Race: What difference does it make?” As a jazz author, who would love to incorporate the spontaneity of improvisation into fiction (think Murakami), I couldn’t pass that up. But my book about Ethiopian Jews had drawn me into investigating other Jews of African descent and ultimately the trope of “race,” which has recently been rejected as bogus by geneticists and anthropologists. The venues for these panels were a five-minute brisk walk from each other. I shuttled between them twice! Neither one lived up to my hopes, but I got my aerobic exercise for the morning.

Of course, I went to the panel “It’s Not A Love Story,” which featured five women writers, most importantly, my daughter. Among the 60 or so in the audience, there were only two men, and the other one looked close to my age. His daughter must be on the panel too, I thought. But this panel was enlightening for a guy like me who reflexively thinks of memoirs as a genre for famous people who hire ghostwriters. But memoir writing is not that. It is really not “navel gazing.” It is best explained by a book Gila gave me to read, The Situation and the Story by Vivian Gornick. The “I” is a character in the work, not the “I” who writes in a diary. For me, the most memorable statement in the session came during the Q & A from a young panelist who was responding to a question from the audience. She began by saying, “I actually had two boyfriends when I found out I was pregnant.” Did she realize that would be a perfect opening line for a short story?

Over the three days, I jotted down some pithy remarks that I think of as blossoms without stems, because I no longer know who said them. But they are in my notebook between direct quotation marks. Each one massaged my imagination and gave me something to contemplate that promised to nourish, mysteriously so, my quest to return to “real” writing. Here are a few: “A short story is like a bubble. Its surface reflects the world around it.” . . . “We don’t need chase scenes or shootouts to make a story succeed. We need to identify what is happening internally that transforms the self. That is drama.” . . .“It [the memoir] can’t just be about you, but about what other people can identify with in you.” . . . “I gave myself permission to write a thousand bad pages because writing badly is better than not writing at all.”

For the past ten years, I had committed the worst sin, worse than a thousand bad pages – not writing at all, or at least not the kind of writing that made me want to write. As the conference ended, I felt myself starting out again, rejuvenated or at least with a remodeled interior, an aspiring writer once again, now in his 70s. The question I had asked myself – Can I? – turned out to have an answer, but not the one I expected: I want to try, even if I can’t. I had to leave the landscape of known markets, topic-driven writing, and instead follow the writing itself and whatever creative instincts remain. There’s no telling where this will lead; so far, to what you’ve just read.

Len Lyons, Ph.D. in Philosophy (Brown University), is the author of six books on a variety of subjects, including jazz, philosophy, and computers and religion. His most recent book is The Ethiopian Jews of Israel – Personal Stories of Life in the Promised Land, about the struggle for acceptance in Israel of 140,000 Ethiopian Jews. His work has also appeared in Rolling Stone, Downbeat, Tablet, The Forward, Jewish Review of Books,, Journal of African Religions, and more.

Writing about the Landscape of Loss

October 17, 2022 § 28 Comments

By Rachel Dickinson

At 8:00 pm on February 6, 2012, the unthinkable happened. I was sitting in my dining room when I heard a loud noise come from the upstairs. I ran up the stairs and into my 17-year-old son Jack’s bedroom where I found him lying on his bed with a shotgun across his body. I can’t really remember what happened next.

The ensuing decade has been a nightmare for our family – Jack’s three sisters, his father, and me. We have all had bouts of severe depression, anxiety, anger, and rage, and most of us take a cocktail of prescription drugs in order to remain upright and somewhat functional. As distance from Jack’s suicide grows, we are learning to manage our mental health needs and are no longer in crisis mode. We are a family that has encircled, and is making smaller, the hole that ripped us apart.

When I started writing essays about what happened to our family – what happened to me – I found myself writing about everything but suicide. It was a word that was certainly too painful to speak and only slightly less painful to put on the page. So my essays – eventually collected into a memoir The Loneliest Places: Loss, Grief, and the Long Journey Home (Three Hills Press, October 2022) – tended to focus on loss and aloneness. I made a decision early in the writing process that this was my story to tell.

My strongest instinct was to run away from home. I was a moderately successful travel writer prior to Jack’s death and loved nothing more than packing one carry-on-sized wheelie suitcase and a small backpack and heading out for a two-week trip. I was very fond of small ship adventure travel and had managed to make my way to the coast of Siberia where I stood on deck and watched seabirds wheel and dive, and where in a desolate meadow I saw the endangered spoon-billed sandpiper.

This desire to turn to nature and birds and wild seas was magnified after the death of my son. Barely a month after his death I found myself 7,000 miles from home in the Falkland Islands gathering information on the 30th anniversary of the Falklands War. Several guides took me to battlefields where we walked the ground as they gave blow-by-blow descriptions of the fighting. It was horrifying, but not, because in my mind this information made sense. I was avoiding my own hellish battlefield in my house. I sat on a deserted beach and watched gentoo penguins ride in on the green-blue surf. I wandered through a jungle of tussock grasses whose blades reached above my head as I headed toward the braying rockhopper penguins that sat on rocky ledges above the crashing waves. Whenever I ran into people my age and older who had experienced the war I saw the look of the trauma of revisiting a devastating time.

I hitched a ride on a small sailboat carrying four research scientists to the farthest island in the Falkland archipelago. We motored through rough seas on the four-hour trip and I stood on deck and gripped the rail as the boat pitched and rolled and I watched huge black-browed albatross with eight-foot wingspans glide just above the waves. The wildness of the sea sent several of the researchers belowdecks but I couldn’t get enough of the rawness of the salty spray and the splendor of the enormous birds.

This aloneness – this need to be with people who didn’t know my story and in landscapes that were never occupied by Jack – was the only way I could figure out how to stay on this earth. The loss was so immense that I couldn’t speak of it. If I saw someone who had known Jack I burst into tears. This response lasted for a couple of years.

My family made cameo appearances in the essays – I was very conscious about not telling their stories – or that’s what I told myself as I wrote about landscapes and birds and wandering through unfamiliar cities. I excluded Tim and the girls from my life as I tried to make sense of what had happened to me. I missed funerals of lifelong friends in the little village where we lived (and where I had grown up) because I couldn’t make myself walk into the church because the last time I was there was for Jack’s funeral. 

Over the years, I began to feel lighter, like I wasn’t carrying the body of my son on my shoulders. My need for aloneness diminished a bit and my peripatetic way was satisfied by spending a month a year in a cabin in Iceland where I could see the volcano Hekla from my front porch. I always wished for an eruption – thinking that then nature would be mirroring what I felt – but that never happened. 

Writing your way out of grief seems like a cliché to me, but that’s what happened. My landscape of loss got less wild and began to include my family. As they’ve gotten older, at least one of my girls’ has found herself wandering in far-flung places and another has become an avid birder. I like to think there is a genetic component to wanderlust and birding, but maybe they are also turning to nature for answers.


Rachel Dickinson is a writer and painter. She’s the author of seven books including Falconer on the Edge (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 2009), The Notorious Reno Gang (Lyons Press, 2017),and the forthcoming memoir The Loneliest Places: Loss, Grief, and the Long Journey Home (Three Hills Press, October 2022). Dickinson’s work has appeared in numerous publications including Aeon, Salon, Audubon, The Atlantic, Outside Online, Smithsonian, Catapult, and The Saturday Evening Post. She holds a BA in geology from Kirkland College, did graduate work in American History at the University of Delaware, and received an MFA in Nonfiction from Goucher College. She lives in Freeville, NY, with her husband Tim Gallagher.

Body Politics: Writing Reproductive Rights and Justice During the War on Women

November 28, 2016 § 1 Comment

Gila Lyons reports from BinderCon:


The Body Politics Panelists

The third annual BinderCon took place October 28 – 30 when it seemed like Hilary Clinton’s win for the presidency would be imminent. The conference energy was high and celebratory as over 550 women and gender non-conforming writers gathered at NYU’s campus for a conference whose mission is to “empower women and gender non-conforming writers with the tools, connections, and strategies they need to advance their careers.” The conference is an offshoot of Out of the Binders, a women’s writing collective of tens of thousands of women formed in response to Mitt Romney’s gaffe during the 2012 presidential debates that he had “whole binders full of women,” referring to job applicants he’d received as Massachusetts governor. Now that Trump is our president elect, one of the panels, BODY POLITICS: WRITING REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS AND JUSTICE DURING THE WAR ON WOMEN, is more crucial than ever.

Panelists Irin Carmon, Britni de la Cretaz, Steph Herold, and Gloria Malone moderated by, Dr. Cynthia Greenlee, discussed how to write about abortion, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, queer and gender non-conforming identity, and other stigmatized and divisive sexual and reproductive issues, in a political and social landscape that is often hostile to women and marginalized people. They covered the ins and outs of working with editors, protecting oneself when writing personally about such hot-button topics for both online and print publications, and how to convince mainstream editors that they need to cover reproductive and sexual-health issues, and how.

For those who couldn’t attend the conference, or for those who were there but want a refresher, here’s a recap:

Britni de la Cretaz, is a social worker-turned-freelance writer who writes to shatter stigma and amplify marginalized voices. “I decided I’d tackle issues no one wanted to hear about and get them on mainstream platforms,” de la Cretaz said. She writes about having herpes and being STI positive, about addiction, pregnancy, and parenting. She strives to be gender-inclusive not just in the stories she covers but in the language she uses. “We’ve done a good job including the queer community in mainstream media but not so much trans or non-binary people,” she said. “It’s not just women who are getting pregnant or accessing abortion or nursing. Words have a big power and we have to change the way people think by the way we use them.” She suggests that instead of writing “nursing women,” we write “nursing parents,” and instead of “pregnant women,” we use “pregnant people” to include trans and non-binary people. “There is a war on marginalized bodies,” she said, and posited that writers can be allies to marginalized people by using inclusive language and covering their stories. In that vein, she’s written about trans people who nurse in What It’s Like to Chestfeed for The Atlantic, What to Expect When You’re Expecting—with Herpes, for Marie Claire, What’s life like with a transgender grandmother?  The Washington Post, and Inside the Misunderstood World of Adult Breastfeeding for Rolling Stone. She shared that she’s had good luck getting stories like these picked up by pegging them to new studies, books, politics, or celebrities. She also stresses the importance of asking subjects and interviewees their pronouns and fighting to get accurate pronouns used in published pieces and not to use “he” or “she” just because it’s default. “That’s sloppy and inaccurate journalism,” she said. “Work with editors to find gender non-conforming pronouns if your interviewees or subjects describe themselves that way.”

Also stressing the importance of thoughtful and accurate semantics was Gloria Malone, writer, speaker, and activist, who shared her story of becoming pregnant at fifteen years old and parenting as a teenager. Instead of “teen mom,” she uses the phrase “pregnant and parenting young person,” to speak with justice and dignity about young people’s right to make their own reproductive choices.  She is the co-founder of the #NoTeenShame, a site dedicated to “shame-free LGBTQ-inclusive comprehensive sexuality education and equitable access to resources and support for young families.” She says that pregnant and parenting young people encounter slut shaming, depression, anxiety, and social isolation at a time when they should be especially supported by family and peers. She wants people, no matter their age, to have choices over their own reproductive autonomy. As a consultant she works with nonprofits and local governments to ensure reproductive justice, dignity and respect for non-traditional families. Malone defines reproductive justice as “deciding if, when, and how one choses to raise a child.” She continued, “Harmful narratives have been constructed about pregnant and parenting as a young person; and when you’re black or Latina, as I am, even more so.” Malone feels that every aspect of her existence has been made into a public health issue, which inspires her craft. “I’m not a public health issue,” she said, “this is my life. I write to have my people represented, especially about abortion because it’s criminalized. It’s a fundamental right for people to make decisions about their bodies.” Her writing about the intersections of race, public policy, and lived experiences of black women and girls has appeared in The New York Times, Al Jazeera America, The Huffington Post, and more. Malone cited two organizations she works with that are particularly important for people to know about and support – The Women of Color Sexual Health Network and The National Network of Abortion Funds. She is also a member of Echoing Ida, a writing collective for black women and non-binary individuals.

The panel was moderated by a fellow Echoing Ida member, Dr. Cynthia Greenlee. Greenlee is an historian of the African-American experience and the law, and a senior editor at Rewire News, a site devoted to reproductive and sexual health rights and justice. She has written for American Prospect, Dissent, and Rolling Stone, among other publications. Greenlee laments how ahistorical journalism can be, and encourages writers to include a historical context for the stories they’re covering. “Even when covering something extremely timely,” she suggested, “look for scholarly articles on the subject and then seek out those authors to interview.”

Steph Herold, is a social scientist and activist with a background in abortion care and abortion funds. Herold is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of The Sea Change Program, whose mission is to “transform the culture of stigma around abortion and other stigmatized reproductive experiences.” She has served on the boards of the New York Abortion Access Fund and the ACCESS Women’s Health Justice board, and founded a site of stories of individuals who have dedicated their lives to making abortion safe, legal, healthy, and accessible to women and girls. Herold and her team partnered with the Berkeley Media Studies Group to look at 3000 articles in top 10 media outlets in 2014 – 2015 to investigate 1) How does abortion stigma manifest in news media, and 2) Why do journalists report on abortion and what difficulties do they encounter?

Some of their findings:

  • 36% of news articles contained quotes that frame abortion as murder and immoral
  • 21% of news articles contained quotes that portrayed abortion as harmful to women, either physically or emotionally
  • 15% of articles contained quotes that portrayed abortion providers as greedy, profiteering, and unscrupulous


  • 6% reported on the safety of abortion
  • 3% cited statistics about public support of abortion
  • 3% statistics related to the prevalence of abortion
  • 8% included a personal experience of abortion from a named or unnamed person
  • 4% mentioned the fact that most women who have abortions are mothers
  • 4% mentioned the historical presence of abortion in society

This study will be released in more detail in January 2017 at

Herold urged, “Anti-abortion talking points are a problem…but our lack of affirming abortion and connecting it to American values in our own talking points is a bigger problem.” She argues that we need to “embrace opportunities to talk about abortion as public health experience, and to bring voices of people who’ve had abortions to the forefront.” Some barriers she acknowledged to placing these types of pieces are institutional (getting editors to assign and champion the stories), related to journalist harassment (writers covering the issue have been trolled and threatened by anti-abortion advocates), and monotony of the issue (how to talk about abortion and related issues in a new way). But she reminded the audience of how important it is to keep trying. “News shapes public policy,” she wrote in her power point, “who is quoted in the news and what they say has an impact on how abortion is viewed and regulated.”

Irin Carmon is the co-author of Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and MSNBC digital and TV reporter on gender, politics, and the law, with a special emphasis on reproductive rights and the Supreme Court. Carmon described the importance of transparency, integrity and fairness as a journalist and sticking assiduously to reporting the facts and peoples’ first hand accounts. She showcased a recent project with MSNBC, Shuttered: The End of Abortion Access in Red America, which is a feat of interactive long-form journalism with written narrative, photography, sound recordings, video, and charts and graphs.


Gila Lyons‘ work has appeared in Salon, Cosmopolitan, Vox, GOOD Magazine, BUST Magazine, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Morning News, Ploughshares, Brevity, Tablet, Fusion, and other publications. She holds an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University, teaches college writing and literature, and is at work on a memoir about seeking a natural cure for anxiety and panic disorder but falling prey to the underbelly of the alternative health movement. Links to published work can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @gilalyons


Hot and Bothered: Writing about Sexuality at BinderCon

November 16, 2015 § 3 Comments

A guest post from Gila Lyons:

The Panelists

The Panelists

Two weekends back, about 500 women and gender non-conforming writers gathered at NYU’s campus for the second annual BinderCon, a conference whose stated purpose is to “empower women and gender non-conforming writers with the tools, connections, and strategies they need to advance their careers.”

The conference is an offshoot of Out of the Binders, a women’s writing collective of thousands of women formed in response to Mitt Romney’s gaffe during the 2012 presidential debates that he had “whole binders full of women,” referring to job applicants he’d received as Massachusetts governor. Panels and sessions ranged from Hot and Bothered: Exploring Sex/Desire in Creative Non-fiction and Fiction, to Pitching 101, to The Art of the Ghost: We Write Because They Can’t, and keynotes from Lizz Winstead, Jenn Pozner, Suki Kim, Adrian Nicole LeBlanc and more.

Glia Lyons

Gila Lyons

Here’s my recap of one of the most inspiring and instructive panels, Hot and Bothered: Exploring Sex/Desire in Creative Non-fiction and Fiction, which explored writing about desire, sex and sexuality in nonfiction and fiction, focusing on the work of women of color and queer women, and paying special attention to writing beyond shame, fear, and dealing with the ramifications of being a sexually empowered woman who will receive violent threats, judgment, and nasty comments from those threatened by such a woman.

Anna March:

March opened by claiming, “If you’re not a white 25-year-old cis guy and you’re writing about sex, you’re transgressive.” She quoted Rebecca Walker who said, “Good therapy leads to good writing, and good writing leads to good therapy, and I can’t imagine doing one without the other.” She shared that the two best pieces of craft advice she’s ever received: “1) sit down and 2) write.” Also, read well, and read variously.

March encouraged women who want to write about sex and sexuality to develop a network of writers, “not supportive people who will say, well honey, this is causing you trouble, so stop doing that.” But other writers who will encourage you to keep going even when nasty comments come in, harsh judgments, or threats. “It’s normal to have fear of what you’re revealing about yourself,” she said. “Acknowledge that. And let’s kill that motherfucker shame. Every time I’ve shared things I’m most ashamed of, my life has become so much richer. People come forth and say ‘me too,’ or ‘I’ve never been able to tell this.’”

March discussed the ethics of writing about sexuality, especially when writing nonfiction and others and their privacy are involved. She recommends:

  • be respectful and work it out with them ahead of time – what they’re comfortable with, if they want any edits made, if they want their identity concealed.
  • Remember that other people can want their privacy, and that’s fine, but you have a right to tell your story.

And you should do it even though this world is not a hospitable place for it. “We get told our lives don’t matter,” she said, “pregnancy, equal pay, our sexual lives, they don’t matter. There’s a rise in women essayists right now and a corresponding rise in being told to shut up. Be love in the face of hate. Because what else is there to do?” She ended with a powerful quote from Muriel Rukeyser, “If one woman told the truth about her life the world would split open.” Let’s split it.

Sofia Quintero:

“Let your sex writing be aspirational. My characters have much more exciting sex lives than I do. You will be exploring, expanding, and healing your own love map by writing about sexuality, even if no one else sees it,” Quintero said. She recommended Exploring Your Sexual Self: A Guided Journal, by Joan Mazza, which offers writing prompts and exercises to put women in touch with their sexual truths and desires. Quintero led the audience through a quick writing prompt from the book, “If you could say three things about the nature of your personal sexuality and really be heard and accepted and understood, what would you say?”

Quintero advised writers to cultivate compassionate awareness of their own sexuality – including what excites, intrigues, repulses, and scares them – in order to increase ease and competence in writing sex scenes. She recommended the book, Sex and Money …Are Dirty, Aren’t They? by Cheri Huber to explore and work through thoughts and ideas about sex.

Finally, Quintero wanted attendees to remember that the rules of good craft apply to erotica. “Setting, conflict, character are even more important when your characters are having sex. No one person engages in sex the same way every time. Really great sex scenes tell you about something other than sex.” Her final book recommendation was Juicy Mangos: An Erotica Collection, edited by Michelle Herrera Mulligan, for the “tremendous characters” in its stories.

LaShonda Katrice Barnett:

Barnett described the protagonist of her novel, Jam on the Vine, as an African-American lesbian living during the Jim Crow era who is sexually free and fulfilled. She wanted to have a black heroine who did not have sexual violence done against her, as so many black heroines do, but to have her filled with passion and lust and love and see where that would take her. “I had to fight to keep a dildo scene in the end of the book,” Barnett said. “My editor said, ‘No one ends a literary novel with a sex scene,’ but I wanted to end on an up note, a celebratory vibe.” She fought for it so readers would get to know a different type of black woman who owns her own sexual prowess.

Barnett credited Zora Neale Hurston with the best masturbation scene she’d ever read, the one in Their Eyes Were Watching God – and with writing the first black sexually empowered female character that pursues what she wants with great passion. She urged writers, “Mine your sexual experiences in your writing so they become autobiographical ethnography – our stories have so much power they begin to speak for the whole of us. Shun shame. Claim your sexuality because it’s part of your humanity.”

Ashley C. Ford:

Ford described her work as addressing sex, gender, sexuality, and race, seeking to honor the entire spectrum of sexual experience, “which means they’re not all good, passionate and can be kind of funny.” She writes about budding sexuality, specifically for young women “who get such mixed messages about their bodies and sexuality in general as they’re growing up and having their bodies mature before they’re actually ready to engage in sexual activity. How do you explore that?” She continued, “Black girls’ bodies seem to mature faster than white bodies,” and Ford is interested in exploring in her work how adolescent black girls are treated by men.

She also talked about being bi-sexual and being in a relationship with a cis man, and how much she didn’t want her current relationship status to discount her queer identity. She referenced an essay she wrote for Buzzfeed, My Boyfriend And I Came Out To Each Other about her and her first boyfriend coming out to each other after dating for six years. She also talked about the ethical issues in privacy of loved ones, as she maintains a column, Disrupting Domesticity at The Toast about living with her boyfriend while dealing with her PTSD, depression, and anxiety.

Jaclyn Friedman:

Friedman asserted, “The most important sexual relationship you’ll have is one with yourself.” She spoke about her most recent book, What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety not as a self help book that communicates, “you’re broken and this book will fix you,” rather as a book that says, “you’re fine, the world is broken, here’s how you can have good sexuality in a broken world.”

She said that for her writing about sexuality inherently meant writing as a survivor of sexual assault, and when she did that “all the trolls came out.” She actually doesn’t like to call them trolls, “They’re abusers, harrassers, ‘trolls’ sounds harmless and funny, they’re not, they’re abusers,” she said. Friedman admitted that nasty comments and threats can get to her, “I do take to my bed,” she said. But then she gets up and continues to work for women’s sexual safety and freedom. “I’m Jewish,” she said, “and there’s a Jewish saying that really helps me – It’s not yours to complete the work but neither is it yours to desist from it. It’s important to be part of a community so you can tap in and tap out.” When you need to take a break for self-care, she explained, take a break, shut off your devices, and tap out. When you’re ready, return. “It’s a marathon, not a sprint,” she said. “We come here to decolonize the body and we end up talking about violence and fear,” Friedman noted. “Whatever makes it possible for you to keep doing the work, that’s what I recommend you do.”

Panelist Bios:

Anna March’s essays and creative non-fiction have appeared in Modern Love in The New York Times, New York Magazine, Salon, The Rumpus, Tin House, PANK and numerous other publications. Her memoir, The Spectacular Remains, and novel, The Diary of Suzanne Frank, are forthcoming and she is at work on a collection of essays, Feminist Killjoy.

Ashley C. Ford is an essayist, editor and columnist whose work in Elle, PANK magazine, The Rumpus, The Guardian, BuzzFeed, and Literary Orphans addresses sexuality, gender and race.

Jaclyn Friedman is author or Yes Means Yes: Visions of Female Sexual Power and a World Without Rape and What You Really Really Want: The Smart Girl’s Shame-Free Guide to Sex & Safety. Friedman has been a guest on PBS News Hour, the BBC and numerous other radio and television shows, and her commentary has appeared in outlets including CNN, Time, The Washington Post, The Nation, Jezebel and The Huffington Post. She is a founder and the former Executive Director of Women, Action & the Media as well as a charter member of CounterQuo, a coalition dedicated to challenging the ways we respond to sexual violence.

Self-professed “Ivy League homegirl” Sofia Quintero is a writer, producer, activist, educator and speaker. Under the pen name Black Artemis, Sofia is the author of several hip-hop novels for adults including Explicit Content, Picture Me Rollin’ and Burn which are assigned in college courses across the nation. Under her real name she has published the chick –lit novel Divas Don’t Yield and her award-winning debut YA novel Efrain’s Secret and numerous short stories and novellas. Her latest novel is Show and Prove.

Novelist and playwright LaShonda Katrice Barnett’s debut novel, Jam on the Vine, was an Editor’s Choice pick at the Chicago Tribune and earned the Emerging Writers Award at the 2015 Tennessee Williams Literary Festival. She is also the editor of I Got Thunder: Black Women Songwriters On Their Craft and the story collection Callaloo. Twice-nominated for the 2015 Pushcart prize for her short fiction, Barnett holds a Ph.D. in American Studies.


Gila Lyons‘ work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Morning News, GOOD Magazine, BUST Magazine, Ploughshares, Brevity, Tablet, and other publications. Links to published work can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @gilalyons

Media Cleansing for Writers

August 6, 2015 § 14 Comments


Gila Lyons

A guest post from Gila Lyons:

In our culture of excess, cleanses are the new panacea. Cut out carbs, meat, wheat, plastics, microwaves, gluten, dairy, eggs, and you will glow with radiant health and well-being. There are juice cleanses, raw food cleanses, water fasts, the cabbage soup diet, and now, a media cleanse too.

Media informs, educates, and occasionally enlightens, but it also serve as an escape from one’s own mind, experience, ideas, and creative impulses. A writer’s mind can be refocused and sharpened in the absence of input just like a digestive tract can be reset and rejuvenated by a cleanse or a fast.

For a week this summer, the members of my Artist’s Way class were instructed to deprive ourselves of media – all books, newspapers, magazines, Facebook, and emails were off-limits. I extended the ban to TV, movies, and radio as well. In her book, The Artist’s Way, Julia Cameron explains, “We have a daily quota of media chat that we swallow up. Like greasy food, it clogs our system. Too much of it, and we feel, yes, fried.” The idea is we must periodically cleanse from media to refocus our energy, attention, and insights on our own experience and into our own work. Cameron writes that without distractions, “we are once again thrust into the sensory world” of our own experience, and that reading deprivation “casts us into inner silence” in which we might reorient ourselves to our own inventiveness and inspiration.

I teach writing during the academic year, and I’ve designated this summer solely for my own writing. I’ve cleared my calendar of work and most social engagements and responsibilities to leave swaths of unoccupied time. This is a massive blessing and an unwieldy freedom, one that can result in unprecedented productivity and also an uninterrupted descent into overwhelm, doubt, despair, and isolation.

When writing, especially personal essay and memoir as I am, I dig myself into a deep hole. It’s a necessary seclusion, but the urge to distract myself is huge and strong and relentless. A quick Facebook or email break is a welcome respite from writing’s discomfort and loneliness. Scrolling the newsfeed, my mind is blessedly blank of my own thoughts, filled instead with flashy GIFs, witty memes, compelling cat videos, and bright photos of fish tacos and Margaritas on the beach. It’s like a little hit of anesthesia, a shot of whisky. It takes the sting out of the work, calms my pressured ambition and struggle and need. I feel connected to the world outside my mind and anchored to the people who know me. I receive Facebook ‘likes’ as silent encouragements, acknowledging nods. Go on, we’re here, we see you, you’re not alone.

But I dread realizing I’ve squandered my summer on Facebook once September descends and it’s back to the halls of the college where I teach. As we all know, anesthetizing ourselves from our overwhelm and anxiety with Netflix or ice cream or reading or sex rarely satiates for long. What satisfies and fulfills in a deep and lasting way is that which is hard: creating something from nothing, giving expression to that which we didn’t realize we knew, the arduous work of digging up and straightening out thoughts, setting them down still squirming and supple on the page.

Quitting Facebook and TV for a week makes obvious sense. But reading? Cameron writes, “For most blocked creatives, reading is an addiction. We gobble the words of others rather than digest our own thoughts and feelings, rather than cook up something of our own.” It’s so much easier to read than to write, to consume than to create. Reading can be the prefect procrastination tool for those who need to feel productive. It’s entertaining and it educates, connects, informs, and relates to the craft. It’s an escape hatch, a distraction from the writing process, a numbing agent for intensity and strain. When I read I’m lulled into passive thought by the cadences of someone else’s syntax, they are thinking for me, they’ve done the deep digging, I just have to let my eyes drift across the page and imagine.

In fact, I worried about how I would fall asleep without reading before bed. Reading was my nightcap, my elixir towards oblivion, the transitional activity from lively engagement with the world to being unconscious to it. I can’t just write or create or converse, all my synapses firing, and then close my eyes and drift off. I need a sedative. So I modified the plan, I would allow myself one New Yorker article per night.

After just a day of media deprivation I felt my productivity increasing. Within a few days, pulling back to receive more, creating a vacuum for inspiration to rush into, I had more ideas, finished more essays, and reached out to editors and fellow writers to whom I’d been meaning to respond. I had more energy for my own writing since directing it less towards the work of others. When I needed a break I didn’t scroll down to the bottom of my screen and bring up Gmail or Facebook. I kept going. I read over what I had. I tweaked here and there, or left a chapter alone and worked on another. When I really needed a break, when my mind was overstuffed and sluggishly drunk on its own words, I watered my plants, checked on the progress of my tomatoes and peas, climbed to the top of the hill near my house and ate white mulberries from an old tree.

This is not a habit I want to adopt forever, I don’t think it’s responsible to live in a world in which I avoid books and the newspaper. It’s important to me to be an informed world citizen, and to understand and be moved by the work and experience of others. But I will take something of this week with me, mostly the understanding that consuming media can be used not only to inform and engage with the world, but to ignore and detach from my own.

When this week is over I’m looking forward to delving back into the pile of books next to my bed. I stare at others reading the way a dieter must watch diners sink into a burger – envious and hungry. But sometimes to write well, as to live well, less is more, deprivation leads to abundance, and quitting an addiction, even one as wholesome as reading or as prevalent as Facebook, can untether a blocked mind.


Gila Lyons‘ work has appeared in Salon, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Morning News, Tablet, The Forward, The Berkshire Review, and other publications. She lives in Boston, where she teaches writing and is at work on a memoir. Links to her work can be found at


Bottle Caps, Cat’s Eyes, and Literature

October 7, 2007 § Leave a comment

The Normal School / A New Literary Magazine / Cal State Fresno

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