Chill Subs—A Fun New Resource for Writers

February 27, 2023 § 18 Comments


By Andrea A. Firth

In January of 2022, Karina Kupp, 26, a writer and web developer, launched the website and database—Chill Subs, where you can find places to submit your writing, share your work, learn about residencies, contests, presses and other resources, track submissions, connect with other writers and more. Think Duotrope 2.0 but cooler and free. A couple months later, Benjamin Davis, 33, a writer and editor, joined Karina to help manage and grow the project. Brevity Blog editor, Andrea A. Firth, talked with Karina and Benjamin about Chill Subs and their work-in-progress.

Andrea A. Firth: How and why did Chill Subs get started?

Karina Kupp

Karina Kupp: At the end of 2021, I was researching places to submit my writing, poems and essays. I created a spreadsheet of journals I liked, but the process felt overwhelming. I wanted it to be more fun. At its core, Chill Subs is a convenient, humane database that has great tools that make the submission and publishing process easier and less exhausting. I’m the creator and engineer. Ben handles content and the day-to-day management.

Benjamin Davis: I write and publish poetry, fiction, and creative nonfiction. I also maintained a huge spreadsheet of literary magazines and thought there could be a better way, better tools. Then I saw an interview that Karina did with Becky Tuch at Lit Mag News Roundup after Chill Subs launched, and I was blown away. The website, the tone of it, everything was exactly what I felt was missing. I sent Karina a gigantic message with ideas I had to support the project. She responded with more ideas. We kept up the exchange and found we were really in sync. We want Chill Subs to have a strong human connection. Humor too.

AAF: Can you expand on what you mean by a “humane” database?

KK: We’ve tried to create a warm, personable space. Journal editors are people that want to read your work. They have names. You have names. We’re a community. We include lots of details about the magazines and the submission process to make it feel less cold and scary. We continually add new features, like user profiles where writers can list all their publications and other services they provide. We have examples of cover letters to use and blog articles on a range of submission and writing topics. The calendar function shows all the open calls and deadlines. We keep adding.

BD: People are drawn to Chill Subs for the database and the useful tools. But there’s a big learning curve to the publication process. Putting yourself out there can be lonely and confusing. Sometimes it hurts. Submitting and sharing your work should be fun. We want to create a supportive community, and a place that’s both useful and welcoming.

AAF: How has Chill Subs grown over its first year?

KK: Over 7,000 writers have created user profiles on the site and subscribed to our weekly newsletter. Right now, we have 2,100 journals in the database, and we’ll reach 3,000 by mid-March. We source and input that information, but editors can create their journal listing directly on the website too. We verify all the data. Plus, we have a list of over 1,200 contests and track submissions too. We recently hit 20,000 tracked submission and rolled out acceptance rates and response time stats for all of our listings.

BB: We’re always looking for creative ways to be more than just a database—to integrate all of the information about the magazines, presses, contests, and residencies with the writers who are contributing. We also want to create a space where a writer’s work doesn’t die once it’s published, which I think is a huge pain point in the industry. For example, when Chill Subs users put their publications in their profiles, that connects to the journal listings too. So, when you search a journal, you will see examples of published work from other writers in our community

Benjamin Davis

AAF: In the midst of the changes at Twitter, you launched something called [ugh]. What is it?

BD: For context, Karina and are not big social media people. But we got feedback from Chill Subs users who wanted a new space where they could interact with each other. When I explored the available options, it felt like more of the same self-promotional, follow for follow, sort of thing, which was what we didn’t really like about social media. Our reaction was, “ugh,” thus the name. In response, we created a “writerly social media element” on our site where writers and editors can post. Again, we want it to be fun. The interactions have been very positive.

AAF: How do you plan to keep Chill Subs sustainable?

KK: The database and the resources currently on the website will always be free. To financially support the project, we’ll be adding some advertising, but not those ugly banner ads that distract you. We’re exploring sponsorships and some fee-based features. We want to be fully transparent, so we’ll be posting a page about our financials on the website too.

AAF: Sounds like it’s been a lot of work. Are you having fun? What’s next?

KK: So much fun. It’s been really nice to brainstorm and work with Ben. The community response has been very positive. We’ve got some major things planned for 2023 that we think people will love–but first we need to max out our database and get through a big redesign.

BD: I love it—the constant exchange of cool ideas, creating these tools and sharing them with thousands of others. Next? More magazines. More contests, resources, indie presses. More tools for writers and editors. And, most importantly, more fun to be had. Of course, we have some major goals in mind, but we like to surprise people.


Karina Kupp is a writer, musician, web developer, and creator of Chill Subs. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in North Dakota Quarterly, BULLSHIT LIT, The Daily Drunk and Corvus Review. She can often be found creating yet another Spotify playlist, taking a spontaneous trip to the other side of the world, or thinking about her next startup idea. Follow her on Instagram.

Benjamin Davis is a traveling word salesman, recovering fintech journalist and free-range columnist with a book of poems, a radio play, a few zines, comics, and short works appearing in Booth, Hobart, Maudlin House, Better than Starbucks, Five on the Fifth and elsewhere. When he is not ghost writing for clients or writing for pleasure, he runs Chill Subs with his friend Karina.

Andrea A. Firth is a writer and educator. She is an editor for Brevity Blog and the co-founder of Diablo Writers’ Workshop. Learn more at her website. Follow her on Instagram.

Just Write a Paragraph: On Assignment in Outback Australia

February 10, 2023 § 11 Comments

By Denise Mills

Driving along the loose red dirt on the way to Booka on the Warrego River, outside Bourke, the car slips sharply to the right and I wonder, briefly, if this is how I meet my end. But I have faith in the driver, my partner. He’s the kind of man it’s easy to put faith in. Broad shoulders, big hands. Yet he has a softness about him. He’s a thinker. I like a thinker. Sensing that everything is okay, or will be soon, I hold my breath and wait for the moment to pass and for him to regain control of the car. Which he does. I breathe out again. Neither of us speaks as he slows down and turns off the music. Looking out on the horizon I’m surprised by the flatness of the land that surrounds us. Not a mountain in sight, or even a hill. Shrubbery, pockets of bottle green scattered across bold red earth. “It was flood land, once,” my partner says, piercing the silence. He explains why it’s no longer flood land, which I do not find interesting, so I nod in the appropriate places. We arrive at our destination; a large tent sitting beside the muddy, wide river. “Glamping” is what they call it. The outside of the tent is made of the typical mustard-coloured canvas-looking material, but inside are wooden floors, a double bed, two leather chairs, a desk for writing and a fridge (we check: it works). Behind a flap of canvas for privacy there is a bathroom area, complete with toilet, wash basin, bathtub and a shower. We unpack a little, make the bed with fresh sheets, jump in and unmake the bed, then decide to go for a bush walk. A few steps behind, I watch my partner as he bends to pick up stones along the way, rubbing them between his thumb and index finger. He stops every few minutes to talk about a tree. I’m tired and don’t care, but I attempt to engage. “What sort of tree is this?” I ask, my hand resting on rough, deeply cracked bark. “A coolabah tree. Remember? See how the branches are nice and smooth at the ends?” I vaguely do remember. We walk past a low-lying fence made of wood from a gidgee tree, which he explains is an exceptionally strong wood. Then we pass a living gidgee tree leaning casually to the right with a thick, dark, almost burnt looking trunk. I think it’s saying, “Check me out, this is how I used to look.” As we head back to the tent, I ask my partner about his mother. He tells me a little, answering in two or three words while focusing his attention elsewhere. Equivalent, perhaps, to how I felt about the trees. Back at the campsite, he sets his tripod by the river as the sun is setting while I pour myself a glass of thick red wine. Well, a mug of wine. You know those chipped enamel camping mugs? Nothing says “roughing it” quite like those mugs.
I sit outside on the deck, dripping in insect repellent, my unopened laptop on the bench in front of me. Watching the Warrego River, I notice the pink and orange sky has oozed below the horizon and into the muddy water beneath it, giving it a mirror of colour. If the image were turned upside down, I notice, it would look exactly the same. I take a photo, or three. My partner steals an accusatory glance and asks if I have started writing yet, which is why we are here. I consider briefly whether to be offended, then shake my head, defeated. He suggests, “Just write a paragraph. Get the creative juices flowing. Don’t write the whole article, just a paragraph about what you’ve seen and done today.” So that’s what I’m doing. With my chipped enamel mug of wine, sitting beside the tent that by no means, can actually be called a tent, I’m writing. Let’s hope these articles flow just as easily as this (ahem) one paragraph.


Denise Mills saves herself from existential crisis by writing. Her creative nonfiction has been featured in Epoch, Complete Sentence Lit and many other publications. She lives in the historic village of Millthorpe, a twenty-minute drive from the regional city of Orange, NSW, Australia. You can find her at

Writing Prompts for Getting Lost

September 15, 2022 § 2 Comments

In a Craft Essay featured in our in our newest issue, Jill McCabe Johnson traces the literary roots of lost and found narratives — reaching “at least as far back as the French poetic form, the Chanson d’Aventure, when medieval poets ‘lost’ themselves in the countryside until they encountered or ‘found’ something inspiring and transformative” — and offers useful prompts, based on the work of Roxane Gay, Victoria Chang, and Joanne Nelson.

Here is a sample prompt:


Draft a letter to someone from your past whose journey entailed loss. This could be to a loved one who journeyed from life to death, or a relative sentenced to prison, or a friend who left home. Ask about what they saw, heard, smelled, ate, or carried.

Read Jill’s full essay in the new issue for the full discussion and numerous additional prompts: Getting Lost—and Found—in Personal Narrative

Brevity by the Numbers Part 2: Word Clouds and Other Squishy Results

September 8, 2022 § 4 Comments

By Leslie Stonebraker

Welcome to part 2 of “Brevity by the Numbers,” a three-part series detailing my discoveries from analyzing the hard (and squishy) data related to five years of Brevity essays. If you want to learn why I began this research, how I built my data set, and what qualifies me to write about it (spoiler alert, not much beyond chutzpah!), go back and read Part 1: How I cheated my way into a Brevity byline.” In this installment, I make pretty word clouds and sad discoveries.

Piling up five years of Brevity essays and titles into one long document, I find a total of 138,991 words, of which 23,678 are distinct, according to 210 writers published between 2017 and 2021 agree on this top five: “the” (7,907 instances), “and” (3,811 instances), “to” (3,271 instances), “of” (2,839 instances), and “in” (2,390 instances). “My,” “on,” “you,” “that,” and “is” round out the top ten. Onward down the list: it, he, with, for, her, was, his, she, we, as, at, but, when, from, your, like, not, me—all solid, functional words. Utilitarian. Common words that till the fields to present bushels of barley to their liege terms, those canorous locutions.

But I do not seek royalty, the kind of words I must gossip about with a dictionary to get the inside scoop. I seek, instead, middle-class words, words you see on a Sunday, wearing a yellow hat on the way to the flower market. Removing special characters and stopwords, FreeWordCloudGenerator drops the distinct count across every essay in this census to 15,375.

One. Back. Know. Time. Say. Day. Just. Even. Says. Man with 162 mentions, body 158, want 156, home tying think with 153. Freud may have been right—our Oedipal complexes apparent in mother besting father by 119 uses. We’re obsessed with love, and something, and everything. We have eyes and faces and red hair and old skin. We want. Feel. Need. A hand to hold. A dog at the door. A little something. Maybe nothing. Words that make a world.

Former The New York Times senior software architect Jacob Harris would be appalled by this analysis. In a 2011 article for Neiman Lab titled “Word clouds considered harmful,” he cautions that word clouds “can be wildly misleading,” warning amateur researchers like myself not to “confuse signifiers with what they signify.” He then gets needlessly hurtful, writing, “Every time I see a word cloud presented as insight, I die a little inside.”

I wouldn’t want to kill your insides, Mr. Harris formerly of The New York Times. I’ll try to do better. After segmenting the essays into 55 categories (from “illness – COVID” to “nature”), I find the most popular subjects are parent-child and romantic relationships (22 and 19 essays respectively). Slotting the 55 categories into overarching themes, 20% of the essays cover illness; 20% relationships; 14% death; 6% racism; 6% crime, rape or abuse; 6% gender or sexuality; 4% mental health; 4% infidelity, divorce, or contraception; 1% disability; and the remaining 19% a hodgepodge of self, religion, language, travel, news, food and the like.

Does the subject need to be universal to work in a space so small? Most of the Brevity essays are about entirely human experiences. The minds in flash do not float in antiseptic tanks, waxing philosophical on whether thinking is being. These minds are muddy, messy with bodily fluids, and suffering a panic attack, or Alzheimer’s, or dysmorphia. So few of the bodies in Brevity are joyful that I found myself celebrating each one in Excel marginalia, jotting “happy! how lovely” by Scott Loring Sanders’ “Bee Man,” “a celebration!” beside Amie Whittemore’s “This Abortion is an Act of Love,” and “more joy! now at the end” next to Brenda Miller’s “Typos.”

I wonder at Jack Pendarvis’ “Shana’s Father Wins a Monkey.” Who is the speaker? Who are they speaking to? I turn this essay over like a stone in the mouth, loamy on the tongue. Though I am exactly half the narrator’s 70 years in “Solving for X,” I see myself in her questions. How many more words will I write? How many chances will I get? How do I make them count?

The last lines of Jeff Newberry’s “Butchering,” echo in my head: “Like Michelangelo before a stone, I sometimes think the story exists buried in language. I forget that before I take up my knife, I have to invent the creature who roams the woods alone.” Have I invented that solitary animal here, or am I carving up nothing into smaller pieces of nothingness?

Data is the opposite of nothingness. I still believe the data can save me. I pivot my unwieldy table once, twice, three times, and ask the numbers to talk dirty to me. 

Data about titles

86% of titles contain fewer than five words. Though in theory it is possible to have a title longer than the flash it crowns, I have yet to see one. Single word titles are nouns (or rather, 79% of them are). A trinket to clutch to your chest. Hold close. Real. Though the strategy is growing in poetry, only five of the 228 essay titles stand in for the start of the first sentence. Beware of trends, for they may not get you published.

Data about contrast

42% of essays sport a 26 to 75-word difference between their longest and shortest sentences. Only 7% stretch that difference to more than 300 words. Short is quick. Long takes a whole lungful of air. Every single essay breathing thin atmosphere at this altitude achieved such heights by containing a sentence less than four words in length.

Data about dialogue and scene

If you have scene, you have dialogue exchange. If you have not scene, you have not dialogue exchange. This rule, like all rules, is not exact enough to be tattooed onto one’s body.

Data about you

You need not be a creative nonfiction writer (though it probably helps). 46% of Brevity’s writers are poets and fictioneers. You need not be traditionally published. 39% of Brevity’s writers had not a single book to their byline at the time of publication. You will probably get one shot. 92% of Brevity’s writers were featured only once in the journal during this five-year sample.

But this is all just foreplay. Stay tuned for part 3 of “Brevity by the numbers,” where I try my hand at the kind of hard math that could unlock the true form of the flash essay. 

Leslie Stonebraker spends her professional life telling stories with data, her personal time chasing around a husband and two kiddos, and whatever free time is left writing flash nonfiction. You can read more of her work in The Kenyon Review Online, Motherwell Magazine, Typehouse Literary Magazine, Invisible City, and Entropy, and she has pieces forthcoming in Upstreet and River Teeth. She is an MFA candidate in creative nonfiction at Vermont College of Fine Arts. Reach her with feedback, critiques, or more offers of undeserved bylines at

Welcome to Heidi Croot

September 1, 2022 § 27 Comments

The Brevity Blog keeps expanding, growing in readership and fielding an increasing number of quality submission, so we’re expanding our team. A hearty welcome to Andrea Firth and Heidi Croot who join us as Blog Editors, alongside Allison and Dinty who are still on the job, looking for fresh voices and fresh perspectives. Andrea introduced herself yesterday, and Heidi does so today. We are thrilled to have them on the team.

Heidi Croot

Brevity Blog is that place writers dream of.

The writers’ café.

Worn pine floors, rickety round tables crowded together, fragrance of coffee and cinnamon—the place where writers meet for fellowship and deep dives into the kind of craft talk many of us can’t access at home. The place where we get to share our despair with protagonists who refuse to “arc” and rejection letters that missed the point. The place where we exult in our successes knowing others understand what it took.

I love it here as a reader and a writer, and I’m going to love it even more as an editor. Words have been my solace and surprise since I wrote my first (okay, only) novel at 10 and, later, turned in weekly columns about secondary school life to the village newspaper, edited by my mother.

From there it was on to an Honours BA in English at London Ontario’s Western University with no thought to the future other than I wanted to read books and write essays. Happily, I landed a decades-long career in corporate communication that involved writing strategic plans, speeches, trade press articles, and annual reports for both the private and public sectors. Being edited and editing others was just part of the job.

In 2006, I went freelance, and a few years later, feeling edgy and unfulfilled, eased out the screen door and into the garden. I wanted to be a creative writer. 

Writers’ groups were my way in—three at last count—resulting in several shelves of “how-to-edit” books. I was terrified. I knew how to edit for business, but poetry? YA science fiction? Speculative fiction?

What powered me through was the joy in learning that comes with editing and applying those new skills to my own writing, including my memoir, now in its final edit (excerpt here). More joy from admiring what sparkles, noticing where a bridge needs repair, and helping writers add their voice to the buzz in the writers’ café and beyond.

Thank you, Dinty and Allison, editors extraordinaire, for the opportunity to join the Brevity Blog team.

And to the 87,000 Brevity Blog subscribers, those burning with ideas and those rocking the fence: Read the guidelines and submit. This is your time. We are eager to embrace your words. 

Welcome to Andrea Firth

August 31, 2022 § 35 Comments

The Brevity Blog keeps expanding, growing in readership and fielding an increasing number of quality submission, so we’re expanding our team. A hearty welcome to Andrea Firth and Heidi Croot who join us as Blog Editors, alongside Allison and Dinty who are still on the job, looking for fresh voices and fresh perspectives. Andrea introduces herself below (and Heidi will do the same tomorrow). We are thrilled to have them on the team.

Andrea Firth

Hi! I’m a writer, editor and educator based in the San Francisco Bay Area. I have an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing and I publish personal essays, literary journalism, and hybrid writing. (Read more of Andrea’s work here.) Five years ago, I co-founded Diablo Writers’ Workshop, which provides writing classes, editorial services, and a vibrant writing community for adults—it’s a big, wonderful part of my life.

Like you, I’m a writer trying to create my best work and get it published. I’ve been reading the Brevity Blog for years (usually with my morning cup of tea and my cat). Starting my day with another writer’s insight into the world of creative nonfiction has taught me a lot about the craft of writing, the ins and outs of the publishing world, and new ways manage this thing we call a literary life. Let’s face it—writing is a solo venture. (My loyal cat keeps me company through my writing days, but she doesn’t say much.) Having a network of writers that I can tap into, who I can support, and who can support me, is essential. In an eight-minute morning read, the Blog gives me that.

At the onboarding Zoom call with our newly expanded editorial team, Editor-in-Chief Dinty W. Moore described the Blog as a conversation, which has been ongoing more than fifteen years now. And I thought, yes, that’s it! We are a community of writers and friends having a regular, intelligent, thoughtful conversation about what we do and how we do it.

I’m excited and honored to be an editor of the Brevity Blog and hope you will consider submitting a post. Join the conversation. The Blog’s guidelines outline what we’re looking for, but just like literary magazines, the best way to understand what we’re all about is to read it.

What am I interested to see more of? I love when personal narrative and technique demonstrate the craft point, or the story underlying the story—get meta! The Blog is focused on CNF, but genres lines are blurring—what can we CNF writers learn from autofiction, hybrid memoir, and experimental prose? And, of course, surprise us.

A Fan Letter to Brian Doyle

May 27, 2022 § 16 Comments

By Jason Poole

If I had written a fan letter to Brian Doyle before he died, I’d have told him how he (almost singlehandedly) changed my life, starting with the time I read one of his pieces in Creative Nonfiction magazine, in an issue about bringing joy back to writing, because, at the time, there was so little joy in my writing life, and I wondered who this man was who wrote such long-and-winding sentences, and then it dawned on me: this man was writing with joyful abandon and his words were like kids rolling in the grass, like that moment when Carrie, from Little House on the Prairie, goes running down the hill in the show’s opening credits, and then she wipes out, but nothing terrible happens; instead her head pops up above the greenery, and even though the moment is grossly overscored by the show’s theme music, you can almost hear her laughing, and that’s how Doyle wrote (but never saccharine or sappy), and I know that to be true because after I read his piece in the magazine, I immediately went online and searched the database at The Strand and found out they had several of his books, his collections of “proems,” and the next day I went there and climbed up one of those dangerous ladders which resemble staircases (the ones which look innocent but if you make a false move, they’ll send you sprawling and crashing into those impossible shelves on the main floor, maybe knocking down and an old person, or two, who’d only come inside to get out of the rain or the sun, who might’ve been enjoying a temperature-controlled moment in the quiet of the stacks and o! thank! god! that didn’t happen), and I bought all the Doyles without even opening them to read a page or two, because I trusted that anyone who could write like that—like rolling down a grassy hill—would be my new favorite writer, and then I walked across the street to Au Bon Pain and stood at the counter in the window (because they never have an open table), and I read the first book and got all misty-eyed, and then—afraid people would see me as a simp—I poured myself into a cab and went home to read them all, cover to glorious cover, while lying on the couch and crying into a cup of lukewarm coffee in the safety of my own home, and my world shifted, I think (picture pulling on an ingrown hair, which on the surface may look like just a little black speck, but when teased with the tip of tweezer, reveals itself to be as long as an arm and wildly twisted like the root of a tree), all those words and images, those grainy images, growing clearer and sharper and smarter as I read them, making me want to push myself to be a better writer, and I wish now I’d written to him, dear Brian Doyle, and thanked him and told him I loved him before he died.


Jason Craig Poole is a word nerd who plays in all the literary sandboxes. His work has appeared in riksha, Paterson Literary Review and his songs and story are featured in the documentary, Sons of Hālawa. He’s currently working on his first novel for middle grade readers. He lives with his family in South Orange, New Jersey.

Brevity 70 Springs Forward

May 24, 2022 § 2 Comments

Our newest issue, live this morning, features exceptional flash essays from Debra Gwartney, Jessica Handler, Cherri Randall, Anne Panning, Todd Davis, Aliki Barnstone, Amy Miller, Lori White, Wendy Wallace, Mariah Rigg, Tyler Whichard, and Bhante Sumano.

In our Craft Section, Lori Tucker-Sullivan discusses revising her one hundred-word Tiny Love Story for The New York Times, Degan Davis uses the words of Dante, Mark Doty, Rebecca Solnit and others to explore “how to keep our eyes open in the darkness of our writing process,” and Randon Billings Noble examines the “daringness” of the lyric essay, how it relies on intuition more than exposition, image more than narration, and question more than answer.  

Plus exquisite photography by Laura Oliverio.

What Am I Doing? A Writer at Eighty

March 30, 2022 § 55 Comments

By Abigail Thomas

I’ve always been curious about why one chooses fiction for one story and nonfiction for another. For me it’s pretty simple—some stories need to be served straight up. That’s nonfiction. Others need more architecture, that’s fiction. It’s a decision best left to the gut.

It has been a long time since I wrote fiction, it felt like flying when it went well, but then so does everything; it was thrilling to go chasing some bright scrap of cloth, or a pregnant Dalmatian, or a wild goose, but sooner or later, once I’d had my fun, I’d have to put a roof over its head, give it a place to live and a reason for existing. 

Nonfiction comes easily. When something catches my eye, or keeps cropping up, I write. I’ve been at this long enough to know the next interesting thing often shows up in disguise, a bug, say, or a certain shade of blue, or a joke someone told that wasn’t funny. These bits and pieces don’t have to get dressed up for the occasion. I am distilling, not decorating. All I have to do is get it down and get it right. Get in and get out. It’s when I’m not quite hitting the bullseye that I am flummoxed. There are any number of fragments I have brooded over for days, trying to find that elusive missing bit, needing to get rid of the unsatisfied feeling when I read it aloud to myself. I’m better at cutting. My friend Chuck used to call me the samurai editor.

I love the word, “fragment.” It has a jagged quality. I looked it up in my “Dictionary of Indo-European Roots” and found it’s a straight shot back to the beginning, because its ancestor, bhreg, meant “to break.” I’m not sure writing is our way of fixing what’s broken, although that’s often a by-product of writing. Sometimes the word fragment could be more accurately defined as shrapnel, and the trick is to determine where the pain originates, remove the foreign object with surgical precision, and see what it is. Painful, but it’s part of the deal. 

I never know if what I’m writing will add up to anything but I’m always curious to see where my mind goes when it’s off-leash. What does it stop to inspect, what does it return to? What the hell am I doing? What are all these memories doing in here? Then there’s a physical rush, like falling in love, when what I’m doing begins to reveal itself. I had my 80th birthday in 2021. What am I up to? I’m an old woman picking up the pieces of her day, wondering where they might lead, loving the journey.

Abigail Thomas is eighty years old. A new book of her essays will be published by The Golden Notebook later this year.

The Unspoken in Writing Family Histories

February 11, 2022 § 6 Comments

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack

Premarital sex. Abandonment. Divorce. A love child. Mental illness. Domestic abuse. Betrayal. Alcoholism. Suicide and other tragic deaths.

Many of these subjects lurk, often unspoken, in our family histories. Yet those of us who want to write our family histories need to decide how to handle these skeletons. I dealt with all of these situations in my family history, If We Can Winter This: Essays and Genealogies, The Gordon Family of County Leitrim, Ireland, and The Norris Family of County Tyrone, (now) Northern Ireland.

I’ve written a dozen family histories in my career as a professional genealogist, both for clients and on my own families. In every person’s family tree, there are bones rattling in closets. But I write only about dead people, never the living. The living have rights to privacy; the dead do not.

If you have solid documentation or reliable sources, you do not need anyone’s permission to write about the dead (public figures are a different story). Consequently, you may have some disgruntled relatives once your book comes out. If you feel you need to ask permission, be prepared to hit delete if someone has a problem with what you’ve written. I had a client who made me cut material. I had written that the average, everyday woman in the eighteenth century, one like her ancestor, was not particularly focused on housework for cleanliness. While historically correct and documented, she felt this cast her long-dead, many-times-great-grandmother in a bad light, so she wanted that taken out. You never know what will upset the living.

If you’re writing your own family history, you decide what to include and what not. I don’t believe in sugar-coating ancestral life stories or asking anyone’s permission to write about dead relatives. My feeling is our ancestors were human, and we need to be honest about their lives. They struggled. And with those struggles comes inspiration and hope for the living.

What makes their stories more compelling and less shocking, though, is putting a person’s conditions into historical perspective. Times may change, but people do not. For example, I have several relatives who suffered from mental illnesses. Not only did I research mental illness for the given time period and circumstances, but I also consulted with a psychotherapist to understand how these people likely suffered. After all, until fairly recently, mental health diagnoses and treatments were considered shocking and rarely discussed.

Thankfully, my health insurance covered mental health visits with a $10 co-pay, so I made an appointment. When I arrived, and he asked me why I was there. I said, “Oh, it’s not for me. I’d like you to help me diagnose my ancestors’ mental illnesses.” Once his surprise wore off, he was most accommodating.

I explained that my great-aunt, forty-nine-year-old Mary (Gordon) Clark, a widow, was afraid to live in her house in Greenwich, Connecticut, which I learned from a newspaper article. In 1908, she told her sister, Annie, someone had tried to break in. Annie, living in neighboring Port Chester, New York, took Mary and her young son in while renovations were done on the house to make her feel safer.

Mary wasn’t always fearful, though. Before moving in with Annie, Mary managed her sewing business well, and she made a comfortable living for herself and her son. But an incident a few months prior triggered her instability. Mary had boarded a trolley car in Greenwich, and finding no seat available, she stood. As she reached to grab the leather ceiling strap, the car lurched forward. Witnesses said she “fell heavily”—she being a “large woman”—and struck the back of her head.

After a few weeks, all the renovations had been completed. Mary and her twelve-year-old son would return to the house in Greenwich. But that afternoon, Annie found Mary in the kitchen, blood seeping onto her shirtwaist.

Mary had a deep wound in her abdomen. A knife on the table had no blood on it, but a can opener did. But the knife had to be the weapon. Had Mary wiped the knife clean? Mary made no attempt to deny or affirm her action.

Annie called Dr. Quinlan, who came to the apartment. He did what he could to dress Mary’s wound, but decided it was best to call for an ambulance to take Mary to Ladies Hospital.

Mary died five days after she stabbed herself. Her death certificate records that her self-inflicted wound became infected. But her chief cause of death was “Burns of scalp, neck and shoulders. Laceration of abdomen.” Contributing was “peritonitis (septic), self inflicted stab in abdomen. Set fire to her hair.”

I showed the death certificate to the therapist. Although ruled a suicide at the time, that isn’t exactly what happened to Mary. Historically, women tended to swallow pills or overdose on laudanum, or they slit their wrists. They didn’t stab themselves in the abdomen.

The therapist also said that a person attempting suicide wouldn’t have wiped clean the knife everyone believed was the weapon. Yet, there was blood on the vintage can opener.

The therapist suspected Mary heard voices. She was already paranoid before hitting her head on the trolley, and we don’t know if that caused brain swelling or bleeding. The injury could have exacerbated her symptoms. Perhaps more likely, Mary tried to cut out of her body her perceived intruders with the can opener. And to silence the voices in her bedeviled mind, she set her head on fire. She wasn’t trying to end her life, but her fear.

By putting Mary’s condition into modern-day light, I was able to remove the stigma of suicide about the aunt no one ever talked about. I was also able to give her illness a probable diagnosis, something that wasn’t likely to happen in 1908.

While we don’t want to take ancestors out of their historical context, we do want to portray them with sensitivity and without judgment as human and sympathetic individuals. So no matter what the unspoken skeleton is in your family history—and I have many in mine—in most situations, you can handle it with care and empathy by researching the context of the times and shedding new light on their circumstances.

Sharon DeBartolo Carmack is a thirty-plus-year veteran Certified Genealogist® with an MFA in Creative Nonfiction Writing. She is Brevity’s copy editor, and the author of twenty-five books in addition to If We Can Winter This, including You Can Write Your Family History, Tell It Short: A Guide to Writing Your Family History in Brief, the biography In Search of Maria B. Hayden: The American Medium Who Brought Spiritualism to the U.K., and her forthcoming memoir, Midlife Medium: A Genealogist’s Quest to Converse with the Dead (Koehler Books, June 2022). Visit her websites, or

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