A Writer’s Ritual for Rejection

May 31, 2023 § 30 Comments








All these phrases come from rejection letters I’ve received. Not from love interests, but from literary publications. The language around sending in writing for publication—submitting—mirrors the language of dating and relationships. And the rejection can sting nearly as much. No matter how nicely worded, a literary rejection can pierce one’s fragile sense of belonging (as a writer, as a person).

I still remember my first rejection letter at age 28. I’d gone to law school because I suspected (rightly) that I’d be good at writing legal briefs, but my true love was creative writing. While clerking for a judge at the Minnesota Court of Appeals, writing bench memorandum and draft opinions, I also compiled a manuscript of poems entitled, Scars of Strange Faithfulness. I submitted it to one contest. I received one rejection letter. I stopped writing. For a decade.

I began writing again in 2009, after discovering blogging (as a relative latecomer). I wrote a blog about imperfect mothering (no longer online) and one where I wrote a poem each Wednesday for a year, ending up with 52 poems. If this blog is still available online (I don’t dare look), it’s only because I no longer remember my password and can’t take it down.

Blogging led to writing a memoir (not published), led to an MFA program, led to numerous literary publications. But I honestly felt more “Writer” in my early days of blogging, when I alone decided to “accept” my words each time I pressed “publish” on a post.

While it’s empowering to publish yourself, if you find yourself (as I did), craving the validation of the “academy,” I offer you my personal ritual for calming the sting of rejection. (I also, by the way, have a much shorter submission, or “send you off” ritual).

Rituals celebrate movement in one’s life. Through engagement with ritual, one can reframe rejections as simply movement (not failure). Honor the answer you received and then, move forward.

To begin, submit an essay to a dream publication today. Then, if the piece (not you) is rejected, begin this ritual (or create your own).

  1. Light a candle to invite your muses into the room. If a candle is not possible, look skyward, to the sun or moon (even if you’re inside) and give yourself a moment to appreciate these constant sources of light.
  2. Put your right hand on your heart. Tell yourself tenderly, “I know, I know, I know. This hurts. This feels bad. It won’t always feel this bad.”
  3. Take out a sheet of paper. Write down words that capture just how badly the rejection feels. I know you’ve got this one covered; you’re a writer.
  4. Read Rumi’s poem “A Guest House”—you should be able to find it online with very little trouble. Then tell yourself, “I am being cleared out for a new delight.” Repeat this until it begins to feel true. Then say, “Thank you sorrow and rejection. I know you’ve been sent as a guide to what comes next.” Say this too until you begin to believe it (even a small spark of belief).
  5. Sweep the bottoms of your feet with your hands. Three times a foot.
  6. Put on some tunes and dance it out. Here are some of my rejection favorites:
    • Cowboy Junkies “Good Friday” (enough of all this shit);
    • U2 “Gone,” or “Mysterious Ways,” when “Gone” feels too slow;
    • Simple Minds “Alive and Kicking” and “Sanctify Yourself;”
    • The Pretenders “Brass in Pocket” (got a new Skank);
    • Frazey Ford “Done” (whoa, I’m done); and,
    • Lizzo “Stayin’ Alive” and “Good as Hell.”
  7. Tear up and toss, or burn, your list of bad rejection vibes (from above).
  8. Inhale slowly (filling up your low belly). Exhale even more slowly, releasing the way you’d hoped things would go. Repeat twice.
  9. Put your left hand over your heart and say, “I welcome movement. I welcome what’s next.”
  10. Bow briefly and thank your muses (or guides).
  11. Blow out your candle or blow a kiss skyward if you’re working without a candle.
  12. Lift the corners of your mouth and nod (your “acceptance”).

Begin again … tomorrow.


Heidi Fettig Parton’s writing can be found, or is forthcoming, in BrevityForge LiteraryFugueMultiplicity MagazineNorth Dakota QuarterlyRiver Teeth Journal’s “Beautiful Things,” Sweet LitThe Manifest-Station, and more. Her Brevity essay, “The Once Wife,” was recently nominated for the Best American Essays 2023. More at www.heidifettigparton.com.

The Hover

May 22, 2023 § 21 Comments

By Carolyn Roy-Bornstein

When I retired at 65 and closed my medical practice, I looked forward to long stretches of time to write, something I rarely had when I worked.

My days then were filled with sick visits and well-baby checks, hospital rounding and conference calls. For all my adult life, writing had been catch-as-catch-can. I carved out time in the morning, before the rest of the household woke up, to add a few precious paragraphs to that half-written essay, to polish and submit a short story. I’d pull out my young adult novel every couple of Novembers and add a few chapters during National Novel Writing Month. I kept notebooks in my car and purse, a voice recorder at my bedside, jotting or recording ideas for future pieces.

And I accomplished a lot. I wrote two memoirs. I saw my pieces published in the New York Times and the Washington Post. I edited an essay collection, all while doctoring hundreds of patients and raising my own brood. Time management was my super-power. Imagine what I could get done now that I had hours (days!) of nothing but time stretching before me. How I looked forward to filling that void with my words.

Except I didn’t.

I gardened. I pulled weeds and laid down mulch. I planted peonies and phlox, dug compost around hydrangea roots. I kayaked and swam and stand-up paddle boarded. I picked blueberries with my granddaughter. I took yoga classes and boot camps at the gym. I did everything but write.

I still thought about writing. I still worked with words. I developed a curriculum for a creative writing class, which I taught at my local library. I continued my work as an assistant editor for a literary journal focused on healing and the arts, reading other people’s essays with a keen eye. I led narrative medicine seminars for physicians-in-training which involved close readings of short literary works followed by reflective writing exercises based on prompts I created from the poem or story we’d just discussed. I reviewed books, doing my part to elevate my fellow authors’ work.

I was still a good literary citizen. I just wasn’t producing original creative work of my own. With the “gift” of time, I found myself blocked.

But maybe this period, this very early stage of my retirement, is meant to be a fallow phase. A pause in my word life. A season of rest and recovery before another cycle of great productivity begins. Writers can’t be all output all the time, after all. We must also read, visit art museums, and take in a ballet. Fill the generative well so we can create our own art once more.

When my yoga teacher leads us in a final meditation of the class, she tells us, “Take a moment. Hover between the inhale and the exhale.” Maybe this part of my retirement is that liminal space, too. The hover. Between the inhale and the exhale. Between taking in and putting out. Between a practice of writing in snatched moments and one where I fill my days with my own words.

I know the writing will come. Maybe as I’m paddling through the mist at sunrise, an idea will form. Maybe it will take shape while I’m thinning the pole beans and staking tomatoes. Maybe my epiphany will emerge while I’m perfecting my crow pose, not thinking about writing at all, just trying not to topple over.

The words will all come.

And I don’t mind waiting. I have time.


Carolyn Roy-Bornstein is a retired pediatrician and the writer-in-residence at the Lawrence Family Medicine Residency Program. She lives and writes in Massachusetts and Maine.

Writing With Your Breath

May 12, 2023 § 1 Comment

By Evan Youngs


In her essay collection Drawing Breath: Essays on Writing, the Body, and Loss, Gayle Brandeis experiments with the structure of prose to explore the complexities of womanhood, motherhood, and authorhood. Her writing ranges from the deaths of her parents to the use of breath as a symbol. I had the pleasure of asking Brandeis what inspired this collection and what impact she wants to leave with it.

Evan Youngs: Whether the subject is motherhood or the use of breath as a metaphor, in Drawing Breath you place yourself in conversation with other writers. Where do you see yourself in the writing world?

Gayle Brandeis: What a fun question, one I’m not sure how to answer. I think I see myself as a drop of water in a rushing river—part of something much bigger than I am (and happy to be so.) I have a lot of writing friends and students who I am in literal conversation with, so I can picture myself in those specific communities, again, as part of a thriving ecosystem, but of course I’m also in conversation with everything I’ve read, everyone I’ve been inspired by. I’m just a tiny molecule in a vast literary sphere, and am grateful to be that, grateful to have built my life around words. It always surprises me when people I don’t know have read my work—when we were about to move cross country and I was talking to someone from a big moving company I had found online to get a quote, the guy said “Are you Gayle Brandeis, the writer?” and it was shocking to me that he knew who I was (apparently his girlfriend was a fan!). So I guess I may stand out as bigger than a molecule to some people on occasion, but I’m fine with being a tiny part of a huge conversation that stretches through time.

EY: You structure many of your essays in very experimental ways, such as separating parts of a piece with dictionary definitions for “press” and “pool,” or formatting the essay into the shape of a waveform to represent breath. What inspired you to try these unique styles of structure?

GB: I love finding ways of weaving together form and content so that each one can amplify the other. Definitions of words are so rich and juicy to me, so word etymology often inspires me in one form or another (and the words “press” and “pool” are both so evocative). Sometimes it takes a while to find the right form for a piece. I tried to write “Room 205” in different ways, but it didn’t come together for me until I realized there was a formal constraint written right into the title. I decided to write the story of the four Room 205s my dad lived in during the last years of his life by writing it in 205-word chunks. Once I made that decision, the piece sparked to life. I knew early on that “Rib/Cage” was going to look a bit like ribs on the page—it just felt right. I can’t take the credit for the wave shape of “Drawing Breath.” I had divided the essay into “Inhales” and “Exhales” to mirror breath, and then the brilliant designer Jenny Kimura thought we could make it look even more like breath on the page by having the text expand and contract. I loved that idea—it takes the form to the next level!

EY: Womanhood is a guiding theme of this collection. “We Too” is essentially a manifesto for women writing in the collective first-person. What do you think we can achieve by writing as a “We”?

GB: I think that it’s good to remember that even though our individuality is precious and important and needs to be honored and protected, we are also connected to other humans and animals and plants on this planet, and there’s beauty and meaning and power in that interconnectivity. I think recognizing our connection can be especially powerful for women, whose voices have been historically silenced and denigrated. When women write as “we,” we can raise our voices together in a way that can’t be ignored. There can definitely be power in numbers, and sometimes that’s what we need to make change—a chorus of women speaking out and demanding equity and justice (and of course white women like me have been heard more than BIPOC women, so when BIPOC women speak in chorus, it can be all the more culturally transformative).

EY: In “Self Interview,” you continuously answer the same question—”How did writing your memoir change you?”—in different ways. At the risk of repeating the cliche, I’ll bite the bullet and ask, how did writing this memoir change you?

GB: I would say the biggest, most concrete way this book changed me was it made me see how much I longed to return to the Chicago area, where I had grown up. I hadn’t realized how much I had written about Lake Michigan over the years, but as I compiled the book, Lake Michigan kept showing up, and I realized how much I missed it. I’d been on the West Coast since 1986 but moved back to the Chicago area last year. I’m not sure that would have happened if I hadn’t put this book together.

I’d also say that compiling these essays into a book allowed me to understand the trajectory of my life more clearly and helped me see that even though I’ve changed over the years, my core obsessions and devotions have been remarkably steadfast; they’ve coursed through my subconscious like an underground river. So perhaps how this book has changed me is by helping me see how much I haven’t changed at the very center, and how much my writing has allowed me to give voice to that truest, most central, self. I’m excited to see what will emerge from that place next!


Gayle Brandeis is the author of most recently the essay collection Drawing Breath: Essays on Writing, the Body, and Loss. She teaches in the low residency MFA programs at University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe and Antioch University.

Evan Youngs is an undergraduate at SUNY Oswego, where they are studying journalism and creative writing. Their work has appeared in Rain Taxi and the Great Lake Review.

My Daughter Has an Intellectual Disability. Should I Be Allowed to Write Her Story?

May 11, 2023 § 29 Comments

By Catherine Shields

“I’m gonna write a story about you.”

My thirty-year old daughter, Jessica, says this in her sing-song voice. It almost sounds like a taunt. I look up from the sink to see her flash a smile. It’s seven a.m. on a Sunday morning. Yesterday I picked her up at the group home for our weekend visit and tonight, she’ll go back. I am unwilling to admit it, but I have already started the countdown to the end of this day. For a moment, my impatience subsides.

Jessica gives a snort of laughter. She thinks she’s being funny and wants me to laugh, but I’m irritated and not amused. I’m still annoyed with her because she got up in the middle of the night and refused to go back to sleep. As I look at her face, I can tell by the way her mouth sags that she is overtired, but I can also tell she’s awaiting my response.

“Oh yeah?” I ask. Tiny soap bubbles drip off my hand as I playfully wag a finger in her direction. “How are you going to do that?”

Alia, my oldest daughter, sits beside Jessica at the kitchen table, sipping coffee. “You want to write a story because Mom is writing one about you? Jessica, you should totally do it. I’ll help you.”

Although I appreciate Alia’s support, sometimes I wonder whether she purposely eggs her sister on. Jessica nods her head up and down like a wind-up toy. She likes this idea.

“Mom, you hear that?” Alia opens her laptop. “I’m going to help Jessica write a book about you. Jessica, what should we say?”

The side door cracks open and Sarah, Jessica’s twin sister, enters and throws her backpack on the counter. Alia tells her about the book idea. Sarah sits down beside Jessica and asks her what she’d like to say.

Jessica’s blue eyes crinkle and she twists her fingers together. “Alia, do it.”

“But what would you like to say about Mom?”

Jessica tips her head. “I don’t know.”

“Mom?” Sarah is looking over Alia’s shoulder, studying the screen and reading the words Alia has already typed. “You asked both of us, but did you ask Jessica if you had her permission to write your book?”

I don’t blame the girls for asking.

“Of course, I did. She said yes.” Are my other two kids suggesting I’ve done something wrong? I begin over-explaining how every time I’ve asked Jessica if it’s okay, she said “yes,” but I leave out the part about how her “yes” is always quick and emphatic. A small part of me wonders if she truly understands the question. A birth injury caused severe developmental delays. She has the intellectual capacity of a very young child.

When I asked my girls if they were okay with me writing about them, about my experience raising them, Alia, the oldest, joked it would be her only path to fame. I offered to change their names and she insisted on keeping hers. She quipped, “I want to be able to Google myself.”

Sarah mulled the question over with more care but came back with a yes. She wanted me to tell our story, to let the rest of the world see what it’s like to live in a world with diversity.

Their questions about Jessica remind me of an editor I once butted heads with. She identified as a person with a disability, and she insisted it was unethical for me to write a book about my daughter. She admonished me for assuming I could share my daughter’s story. She argued that she wouldn’t want her mother writing about her and that her experience was hers alone.

It’s a question every memoirist must ask—Do I own this story? Is it solely mine? Or do my stories also belong to my family, to the other people, even strangers, who weave in and out of my life, or to a rude, old lady shooting me dirty looks when Jessica threw the tantrum in Burger King? My life has been so shaped by being Jessica’s mother. How can I tell my story without that?

I understood the editor’s concerns. She wanted me to give my daughter control over her own life. And I’ve done that. I fought for Jessica to be heard by doctors, by teachers, and by the group home staff. I screamed at the emergency room nurse who asked if Jessica could even answer questions, but that nurse had refused to listen when my daughter responded. I have spent Jessica’s whole life learning her signs and signals. I can see when she’s tired, scared, or overwhelmed. I know I am not Jessica’s voice, but I can be her amplifier.

I wonder about the story Jessica would write, the experiences she’d share.

I’ve reasoned that if all three kids are okay with my decision to pen my story, I have no cause for concern. I would never try to write from Jessica’s point of view because I can’t know that. But I can write about being her mom.

When we’re on our way back to the group home, Jessica returns to the idea of writing her story about me. Again, I ask her what she wants to write. I think I’m fine with whatever she has to say.

Without missing a beat, she blurts, “I love you.”

I drop Jessica off at her group home. It’s a quick exchange, because like ripping the band aid off a healed cut, there’s still always the tiniest moment of pain. And then I’m in the car, alone with my thoughts. I can’t stop wondering if I have done enough, until I tamp down the self-doubt and remind myself to listen to Jessica’s story.

The sum of all the parts.

I love you.

The End.


Catherine (Cathy) Shields writes about parenting, disabilities, and self-discovery. In her debut memoir, The Shape of Normal, Cathy explores the truths and lies parents tell themselves. Her writing has appeared in NBC Today. Newsweek, Bacopa Literary Review, Grown and Flown, Brevity Blog, Mother Magazine, U Revolution, Kaleidoscope, Write City Magazine, and The Manifest-Station. Cathy resides in Miami, Florida, with her husband, to whom she’s been married forever. They enjoy taking long bike rides and kayaking in Biscayne Bay. Follow her on Instagram.

On Witty Asides and Sly Insinuations

May 10, 2023 § 1 Comment

In our May issue of Brevity, launched this past week, Jack Lancaster looks at works from Jia Tolentino Joan Didion, and Zadie Smith to explore the power of a carefully constructed parenthetical aside, the perfect sly insinuation:

Understanding what the writer says between the parenthesis, and why they do, lets you feel like you’re on the inside of an inside joke. In nonfiction, these asides follow the shot of action with the chaser of the writer’s voice, an embodied clarity that the writer wants to tell you something directly. To me, they illustrate what Alexander Chee beautifully illustrates in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel when he states, ‘“’When the writing works best, I feel like I could poke one of these words out of place and find the writer’s eye there, looking through to me.’”’

But too much is too much, he warns:

By nature of their form, most asides tend to share something subtle, a secret message in the midst of a narrative. Perhaps that’s why I, as a collector of secrets, enjoy them. But I still take caution to not overuse asides, just like I have learned from my youth to not share secrets. 

You can read the full essay here: On the Aside Looking In

Negotiating the Writer Editor Relationship Successfully

May 8, 2023 § 2 Comments

In our May issue of Brevity, launched this past week, Amanda Le Rougetel reminds us that the writer/editor relationship, when approached with skill and respect, can be fully rewarding for both author and editor.

Le Rougetel writes:

At its best and most productive, the writer/editor relationship is based in respect and unfolds as a creative process that aims to realize the full potential of a piece of writing. Every writer stands to benefit from the input of a qualified editor; however, many writers fear the process, because they believe that comments equal criticism equal failure. 

Citing specific feedback from a recent essay edit, she adds:

This was revelatory for me, because it meant that the editor—a stranger to me—was taking my work seriously, that my writing stood on its own merit, and that it would be published but still needed some work. I was ready to do that work, but when I read the editor’s fabulous comment in relation to one sentence and love this paragraph in relation to another section, I was ready to work my fingers to the bone for this editor-stranger. This is what creative collaboration looks like: The writer being open to feedback, the editor providing clear direction on what needs work while also offering forthright praise for what is already working.

You can read the full essay and learn how good editors approach suggestions and corrections here: Writer and Editor as Creative Collaborators

Flash Essays as Fireworks

May 5, 2023 § 2 Comments

In our May issue of Brevity, fresh this week, Leslie Jill Patterson uses examples from Brenda Miller, Jenny Boully, Erin Murphy and other flash writers to explore how micro-essays are like “a single bloom that bursts then swells into meaning, unfolding while we read.”

Extending on her fireworks metaphor, Patterson writes:

Lately… I’m attracted to flash essays that act like ghosts—firework shells that contain multiple peonies that burst in layers, each subsequent flare seeming to appear from nowhere. How, I ask myself, do writers generate ghost narratives—a turn we didn’t see coming, an unexpected destination?

You can read more of Patterson’s analysis of essay endings that burst and swell and see examples of the effect here: Ghost: The Flash Ending That Appears from Nowhere

Finding Heart Through American Idol

May 3, 2023 § 6 Comments

By Rebecca Francesca Reuter Puerto

I am watching American Idol intently this season. My heart has been captured by one of the contestants, Iam Tongi, a Hawaiian teenager living in Seattle because his family was “priced out of paradise.” His showstopper rendition of “The Sound of Silence” moved me to tears and silenced the audience.

How does he do it?

“To connect with the audience, sing from the heart,” the American Idol judges offer as advice to contestants. 

The first version of my memoir about a ten-day trip to Cuba I took with my Cuban-born mother, read more like a travelogue than a heartfelt coming-of-age mother/daughter story. I captured details of the Cuban flag flying over the land it represented. Of the soldiers standing on the tarmac with semi-automatic rifles. Of what my mother and I said to each other and why our relationship was complicated.

This early draft of my memoir read like I was the Margaret Mead of my life. A scientific observer jotting down the facts of what I saw without emotion but some interpretation. 

With two degrees in science, I was taught to avoid humanity in my research findings—with the result that during my first MFA program residency, my instructor told me my work lacked vulnerability. She implored us as memoirists to be vulnerable on the page. I had no idea what she meant. She once asked us to free-write about an experience that made us angry. I listed things that triggered anger. 1. Ignoring me, 2. Cigarette butts on the beach, 3. Anything my mother says… I then wrote what sounded like a scientific analysis of why those things made me angry.

“If you cry while you write, your readers will cry too,” she said. 

Maybe that is why I cry when I hear Iam Tongi sing on American Idol. His heart broke when his father died recently, and each time he sings, he is reminded of his loss. His emotions are translated into his singing. He sings with vulnerability. 

Meanwhile, feedback on my subsequent chapters during my MFA would say, “How did the daughter feel?” Another would say, “Linger here, build the characters’ relationship.” The best one read, “Description feels removed, impersonal.”

I wasn’t used to sharing my feelings as they were happening. I am more the type that analyzes my feelings first, then shares my findings. In high school, I would sit with my best friend over cappuccinos and we’d discuss our feelings stoically, not through tears. Was my German heritage to blame? Did I inherit my father’s stoicism? 

“Write from the heart,” my instructor said.

The summer after my MFA, I participated in a manuscript boot camp. “Your story sounds like you are at the front of a ballroom giving a presentation,” the instructor said. “Write like you are having an intimate conversation with a friend in a dark corner of a café.” My analytical brain struggled to connect with the concept of writing from the heart. 

After two more revisions, I pitched my memoir to several agents. When the rejections came in, I thought it was because I hadn’t written with vulnerability. I placed my memoir on the proverbial shelf.

I couldn’t write like Iam Tongi sang. 

Now, a year later, after attending the AWP Writing Conference and watching a few American Idol episodes, I am inspired to revisit my manuscript. To get into the mood, I queued up an album of Cuban music. When the piano intro of the title song “Cuba Linda” began to play, I was entranced. The singer, with his raspy voice sang lyrics that yearned for the country he hasn’t seen in a long time. Tears welled in my eyes. I was at a funeral singing, Beautiful Cuba, I will always remember you.

Where did this emotion come from? The singer was singing from his heart to mine. He tapped into a deep part of my psyche—where emotions flow freely, unconstrained by the rules of scientific writing and German stoicism. Where I relive my Cuban family’s loss at being forced to leave their island home. Where I replay the complications of my mother-daughter trip to Cuba.

Emotions I hadn’t translated to the page of my memoir.

That day, I opened up my memoir manuscript for the first time in a year. My new tool in my writing toolbox is to begin revisions by listening to music that opens my heart. I hope future feedback says, “I can really feel your heart on the page.”


Rebecca Francesca Reuter Puerto is working on a revision of her memoir, Finding the Girl from Guantanamo. She received an MFA in creative writing from the low-residency MFA program of the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe NM. She has a BA in Biology and an MS in Marine Science. She is a November 2019 alum of the Vermont Studio Center. Her nonfiction writing has been published in Raven Chronicles, Teatime magazine, Scotland magazine and Insider. She resides in Seattle WA with her husband and their cat, Esperanza. Find her at her website.

It’s Going to Have All the Right Stuff

April 27, 2023 § 23 Comments

By Victoria Lynn Smith

I’ll write the best damn piece of shit that I can write today.

I’ll bare my soul, not keep anything back, not be afraid to reveal my inner being to the world, you know, I’ll get real. Truth will explode from the prose.

I’ll hybrid, genre bend and mix, braid and twist, and be lyrical in all the right places, in just the right measure.

It will have a hero’s-journey, three-act-play, save-the-cat plot all rolled up into one.

The tragic will be seasoned with a dash of humor—the ironic, wry kind that only the best of readers will get.

Backstory will be pertinent, inciteful, limiting, expanding, and perfectly placed.

You’ll know what all my characters want, and who doesn’t want them to have it. And perhaps, in a warped turn of events, they will sabotage their own desires.

You’ll immediately recognize the validity of my characters and the veracity of their words. Even the unreliable narrators will speak a form of truth.

The characters will be so dimensional that they’ll stand up on the page, illuminated holograms of themselves. You’ll declare, This character is just like my arthritic uncle Joe, my first love in third grade, my obnoxious roommate in college, the butcher who smelled of booze at the meat market.

My badass characters will be loveable in a dark, mysterious way. You’ll want to sleep with them, and you might, but if you do, it’ll be a one-night stand. Because they’re just a little too badass. But you’ll remember them, wishing you could’ve reformed them just enough.

My goody two-shoes characters will be flawed in a light, bubbling, tickle-your-nose-with-champagne way. You’ll want to sleep with them, and you probably will, but if you do, it’ll be a short-term fling. Because you’ll both move on to other stories. In your golden years, you’ll recall them as the ones that got away.

My villainous characters will harbor all your darkest fears, will be unredeemable and keep you up at night. Unreformed, they will haunt your quiet corners.

Dialogue will be snappy, understated, overstated, implicit, explicit, and like two ships passing in the night, talking about different icebergs they’re trying not to hit.

Taste and smell and sound and sight and touch will pulsate in every passage. You’ll taste the sunsets; smell the tunes little chickadees sing; hear the moonbeams bounce off the earth; touch the air, feeling its atoms; and see the odors of wet dogs lying on the floor.

Twists and turns of plot will give you a thrilling ride. Sitting in your roller coaster car, you’ll see those twists and turns yet not see them, and when you ride over the sentences and paragraphs and pages, you’ll zip along, screaming, “I didn’t see this coming, but I bloody well should’ve.”

I’ll start in the middle of the action, so you’ll be in the middle of the proverbial car chase/love affair/homicide/dysfunctional family that will lead to a bad accident/broken heart/dead body/estrangement, denting up more cars/hearts/bodies/egos than you can find in a junkyard/pickup bar/morgue/family reunion. And dismembered limbs/vases/bullets/insults will be flying everywhere. And you’ll turn the page and keep reading because you’ll want to know how it all comes out. You’ll want to know: Who started this? Who made it worse? And who in the hell is going to stop it? And in the end, squad cars and ambulances will come. Fire trucks will douse flames. Traffic will be redirected. Counselors and therapists will arrive. Characters will be hauled away. Messes will be cleaned up. And everyone will be changed, damn it.

Just as I started the story late, I’ll leave early, before you know all the answers. Overt is passé, implied is chic. You’ll need to figure out what it all means in the grand scheme of the universe. Form a book club to discuss its deepness, its symbolism, its thematic reverberations. I’ll include discussion questions at the end.

Maybe my best damn piece of shit won’t turn out to be the finest. But I’ll write anyway because I love to.

It’s much better than doing dishes.


Victoria Lynn Smith writes short fiction and essays, with varying results. She was inspired to write “It’s Going to Have All the Right Stuff” after reading Charles Baxter’s essay “All the Dark Nights—a Letter” from his book Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature. In his essay Baxter recounts his early days as a writer and his ups and downs. Because it was late at night, and because she was overly tired, and because Baxter’s words struck a cord with her, Smith was laughing out loud by the time she finished his essay. Instead of going to bed she grabbed her laptop and started to write. Read more at Writing Near the Lake.

How Breadcrumbs Are Making Me a Better Writer

April 26, 2023 § 21 Comments

By Amanda Le Rougetel

They say teachers make the worst students, but I am loving my writing apprenticeship program—and I am top of the class.

True, it’s a class of one and a self-initiated, self-directed training program, but naming it My (big fat) Writing Apprenticeship makes it real and fuels my drive to keep learning my craft.

During my college-teaching days, I taught communication skills across a wide variety of trades—from electricians to plumbers. Their apprenticeship programs focused on the practical application of their learning; therefore, we focused on how to communicate effectively with their clients in real-life situations.

Every day brought new challenges, as the students turned their hard-learned theory into hands-on practice. Learning by doing—that’s what made sense to them, and I think of them often as I pursue my own program.

I launched it in April 2018 by reading Jane Friedman’s seminal text, The Business of Being a Writer. I took copious notes, signed up for Jane’s free newsletter, and began to read her blog. I learned about developing an author brand, using social media to build a platform, preparing the different types of bios authors need (kitchen sink, capsule, social media, and professional), working for exposure versus working for pay, and so much more.

Using the “breadcrumb method”—where one resource leads to another and to another—Jane’s blog introduced me to Marion Roach Smith’s The Memoir Project and her iconic algorithm: “It’s about X as illustrated by Y to be told in a Z.” For example, it’s about learning the craft of writing as illustrated by my apprenticeship program told in a Brevity Blog post. I play with the formula when I am mapping out a piece of writing—so helpful to have something concrete to fill that daunting blank page.

Like any decent program, mine includes electives. I am a long-time reader of the Jungle Red Writers blog: “7 smart and sassy crime fiction writers dish on writing and life. It’s The View. With bodies.” While I don’t aspire to write mysteries, I do read them for pleasure and have learned a lot from the JRW blog about plotting and planning and promoting books—learning that is transferable to my own much shorter pieces. Some of the JRW authors write more than one book a year: an output I see as a masterclass in the discipline of an exacting daily word count.

My program also knows the value of throwing the student into the deep end as a way of testing knowledge and priming confidence. So, I began to co-teach local writing courses in a community classroom. I had to do a lot of research—talk about breadcrumbs!—which led me to Brenda Miller and Dinty W. Moore.

From Brenda, I learned that creative nonfiction is about “telling it slant,” that the hallmark of a CNF essay is the intimacy of the writer’s voice speaking to the reader, and that essays can be, among other things, braided.

From Dinty, I learned about flash CNF and flash fiction, soon arriving at Brevity, then Brevity Blog, where my writing world was split wide open. Oh, the jubilation when I discovered a whole community of people who, like me, prefer to write short!

Over the past 18 months, my program has ramped up, with increased expectations. Sheesh, this program is not for the faint of heart. It demands that I read widely, write daily, and submit consistently. I do all three, and in addition I attend webinars led by Brevity’s own Allison K Williams, as well as by Marion Roach Smith, Jane Friedman and others.

Along the way, I encountered Mark Dawson’s Self-Publishing Formula program, a book-focused community of authors who publish their work independently and share their experience in Facebook groups and podcasts. I also joined online writers’ groups and routinely click on the links in authors’ bios to explore their websites and publications. That is how I discovered Becky Tuch’s Lit Mag News on Substack. Last October, I took a four-week flash fiction workshop through Smokelong Quarterly, and in January, I made it through to round two of the NYC Midnight Madness micro fiction contest.

Breadcrumb learning is fun, productive and rewarding. I have had pieces published here on Brevity Blog, on 50-Word Stories, with others forthcoming on Brevity and Five Minute Lit—proving to me that the effort I am putting into my bespoke apprenticeship program is paying off.

But does that mean graduation is in sight?

Well, no. Graduation is not part of this program. Any apprentice worth their salt knows that learning never ends and craft demands that we apply our skills in ever-more challenging contexts. My (big fat) Writing Apprenticeship Program will be running for as long as this student can put finger to keyboard.


A retired college instructor, Amanda Le Rougetel now blogs at Five Years a Writer and teaches courses through Writing as Tool for Transformation. Her focus is flash-length CNF essays, 50-word fiction, and 100-word micro-memoir. Find her on Chill Subs.

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