How to Survive Writing About Death

April 9, 2020 § Leave a comment

Silverman_book jacket webBy Dinty W. Moore

I’ve been a fan of Sue William Silverman’s work for more than twenty years, and was looking happily forward to her latest collection How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, never expecting the book release would coincide with this frightening pandemic. But it did, and aside from the peculiar irony of the book’s title, Sue (like many authors right now) faces cancelled readings and book signings, and the general frustration of trying to let readers know about her latest book in a time when we have so much else on our minds.

So, I asked her some questions.  It was easy to do that while still socially-distancing, and aside from being a greatly-talented writer, Sue is a powerful teacher and master of the craft.

So, here we are:

DINTY:  Your book How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences was released just as the 2020 Coronavirus pandemic stopped us in our tracks. It is frustrating for all authors publishing this season, I’m sure, to have book tours cancelled and book stores closing, but the irony with your book is that it speaks directly to our current fears, of death, of illness, of trauma, of what the final moment might feel like. How odd has it been, trying to talk about a book such as yours at a time such as this?

SUE: It’s oddly ironic, indeed. Many people have commented on the book in the context of our current pandemic. Of course I started writing it over six years ago, so had no factual knowledge this maelstrom was heading our way.

At the same time, given that I’m a hypochondriac terrified of death, the book underscores how I’ve always been on the lookout for Death—pandemic and otherwise. The book is structured, in part, around a metaphorical road trip, as the narrator tries to outrun and outdistance death.

So I’m also not the least surprised by the coronavirus; on some level I’ve been expecting it. I’ve been flying with a face mask, literally, for over 15 years! And in the book I list all the unguents and potions I use to survive death: for example, Thieves Oil. A different formula was developed during the Plague, but I use the modern version to stave off all sorts of new plagues and viruses.

In short, yes, my instructions on how to survive death are ironically relevant.

Pandemic aside, the book is relevant for anyone who generally fears death. However, thematically, it’s also about how to survive life—how to live an emotionally authentic life that will be transcendent.

DINTY: But your book,  though focused on “death and other inconveniences,” is full of humor too, gallows humor on some pages, flat out funny moments on others.  What are your thoughts on our need for humor right now, as the world faces this frightening and previously inconceivable challenge?

Silverman, Color_72dpi, CROPPEDSUE: I’m pleased you see the humor in the book, which I was trying to convey by the title. Humor, gallows and otherwise, revels in the absurdities of life.

When you’re in the middle of a tragedy, the humor isn’t always obvious, of course. The power of creative nonfiction is that we implement a reflective voice to look back and better understand the past, which can involve seeing humor in a situation that didn’t seem funny when we were living it.

One of the essays in the book, “Flirting with the Butcher,” is about my first 12-step meeting of Sex Addicts Anonymous. This was during the time Jeffrey Dahmer was arrested, and his whole nightmare was in the news. In my then-current state of emotional disarray—I was also struggling with an eating disorder—and I became obsessed with Dahmer. I mean, my anorexia seemed “small potatoes” when I considered there were people with the ultimate eating disorder—cannibalism—out roaming the streets!

Perhaps the most absurd thing about this is that it didn’t seem absurd to me at the time.

DINTY: And of course, the ordeal we are living through now, COVID-19, includes undeniable tragedy – death to some, sickness to others, separation from loved ones for almost all of us. But even this moment will, as hard as it may be to fathom right now, eventually be fodder for humor, maybe even absurd humor. The Greek masks, comedy and tragedy: one comes off, the other comes on. You’ve made a career of writing with wit, grace, and honesty about difficult issues – abuse, incest, addiction, death. Do you have advice for other writers who want to strike that sort of balance in their own writing, the tipping point between too bleak and too lighthearted?

SUE: I don’t think there’s a right or wrong way to strike that balance. Mainly, it’s important to write in a way that’s emotionally authentic for any given narrative. For example, my first two books, one about incest, the other sex addiction, are darker than the two more recent books, The Pat Boone Fan Club: My Life as a White Anglo-Saxon Jew and now How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, even though they address a few of the same issues. The newer books are more ironic mainly because that’s how I now see those moments in my past. As my feelings toward my experiences change, so does my writing.

In order to discover your own particular viewpoint, it’s crucial to start from a small, specific detail and write outward from that. In other words, for me to write about the COVID-19 pandemic, I might begin my narrative, say, at the moment I told my partner I couldn’t kiss him goodnight because he’d been to the grocery store that day. Maybe a molecule of virus, lurking in the produce aisle, had adhered to him! I begin with the smallest personal detail in order to discover the universal. The universe, like the devil, is in the details.

Don’t get wedded to one voice. Don’t impose how you think an essay or memoir should sound. Listen to how the piece at hand wants to sound. Experiment. As an exercise, try writing a scene two different ways: one perhaps very serious, even melodramatic, the other, say, ironic, humorous, even absurd. Which voice helps you uncover some truth? Which makes you go, “Ah, ha!”

DINTY: When most people think about death and what lies beyond, they imagine either a sort of nothingness, or else some personal image of paradise. Both seem nebulous, which isn’t much help for a writer. How did you address that challenge? What strategies did you use to bring order to ill-defined territory?

SUE: The book is structured in three sections, each titled with the name of one of the Three Fates. There are also six brief sections written as if through the voice of these Fates. This structure is a reminder that death is ever-present, and we have to be creative, lucky, and tenacious in our ability to outwit it. So there’s both a memento mori (“remember you must die”), and a memento vivere (“remember you must live”).

As a writer, I focus on the creative option to live. My aforementioned road trip to survive death is also a vehicle to journey through my life collecting memories, as it were. I “drive” through all areas of my life, from youth to the present, not just amassing memories, but reflecting upon them, making metaphorical sense of them, making sense of my life.

In short, if all else fails—if I’m sadly not able to survive physical death—then I’ve preserved my memories to outlast me. They are now collected in my books after all. The art we leave behind transcends death. There are many reasons to write and create art. For me, cheating death is one of the most central.

Dinty W. Moore is editor-in-chief of Brevity magazine and the Brevity blog.

Sue William Silverman is author of How to Survive Death and Other Inconveniences, the memoirs, Because I Remember Terror, Father, I Remember You and Love Sick, and a memoir craft book, Fearless Confessions.


Collaboration in the Time of Covid-19

April 7, 2020 § 3 Comments

wade and millerBy Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade

Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade’s piece “Notes From Isolation” was published by Green Mountains Review online on April 2, 2020. Here they describe their collaborative process on the essay.


I’m lying in bed after a fitful night’s sleep, staring at my phone. It’s become a bad habit, to pull my phone into bed with me upon waking, searching out any form of communication: email, text, Instagram. Already I’m feeling lonely and alone, more so than usual, since self-isolation began in earnest a week ago. Self and Isolation: two words that now wed together uneasily, though for me they’ve always been convivial roommates.

And then I see, coming into view on my email queue, the name that always makes my heart glad: Julie Marie Wade. Julie was my graduate student decades ago; we’d kept in touch over the years, and then by serendipity and chance, began collaborating on lyric essays. We’ve now written dozens of them, always starting with a simple word or phrase, writing quickly with a sense of play and discovery, making up rules and forms as we go along.

I open her message. It says, Would you like to write an essay called Notes from the Isolation Booth? Oh yes, I breathe, yes, yes, yes.



In the beginning, I was thinking of an isolation booth as something positive: game show contestants briefly sequestered but soon released to various reveries, including the possibility of “winning big.” This is how collaborating with Brenda has always seemed to me—a big win!—ever since we wrote our first essay together in summer 2015.

Brenda lives in northwestern Washington State, about twenty miles shy of the Canadian border, while I live in southeastern Florida, less than a hundred miles from the Keys. So we’re already isolated from each other in the physical sense, but words bring us close. The intimacy of the page somehow transcends the 3300 miles between us. Collaboration is a kind of correspondence after all, and these missives in a virtual bottle arrive just moments after each of us presses “send.”

There’s that sense of anticipation, too, which I imagine the game show contestant feels as she waits inside a clear glass tube or just off-stage in a separate room, speculating about imminent prizes. What’s being said? she wonders. What’s soon to be revealed? I’m gripped with a similar curiosity and delight each time I click the electronic paper clip next to Brenda’s name. A little pause, to build suspense, and then the Word doc flickers open.

I only suggested we change the name of our essay to “Notes from Isolation” after I realized this time in our lives was not going to be brief, even by the most generous definition of the word. It wouldn’t be much fun if the occupant of the isolation booth were told to eat and sleep inside, their release time perpetually postponed. And then, in an alarming twist, I read online that isolation booths are sometimes used in UK schools as punishments. They’re a version of American “time-out,” where troublesome students are removed from class and placed in spare, silent rooms alone. This policy is also known as “occupy and ignore.”



Julie begins by describing what she sees outside her window. I respond in kind with my own witnessing of the world as it passes by. This is how our collaborations often unfold: one of us begins with a small observation, the other picks it up and continues, and we pass our words back and forth, spurring each other on.

In this case, Julie has placed an asterisk after her short contemplation of the boats outside her ocean-view window. I study that asterisk—such a small thing but so powerful—and instinctively know I must make an effort to reach across it, this boundary, to connect. So I dip into Julie’s section, picking up a few of her words as seeds for my own. I mirror the length and tone of her section as I explore the measure of our collective loneliness.



A couple years ago, Brenda and I collaborated on an essay for the risk-themed issue of Creative Nonfiction. I remember as we were writing together then, cataloguing many risks we encounter in our daily lives—but of course, never dreaming of the risks we face right now—how I suddenly noticed the “risk” inside the word “asterisk.” Heard it. Felt it. I even made an entry for “asterisk” in our essay.

Here, perhaps, the asterisk—instead of a double space or another symbol to mark my section’s end—was a semi-conscious invocation of that sense of risk again. To collaborate is always to reach across a boundary between two separate lives. Now in a time of profound isolation, reaching across this boundary feels more radical and necessary than ever. Writing together is, paradoxically, the safest way and the riskiest way to connect with another person. Each entry exposes a little more vulnerability, plumbs a little deeper into its author’s hopes and fears. The trust between Brenda and me, as writers and also now as friends, makes this literary intimacy possible.



We volley back and forth quickly, our sections expanding and deepening as we go along. A new routine materializes for me: I wake up—sometimes too early—and have my oatmeal and coffee, then, still wearing my bathrobe, settle into my couch with my second cup of coffee and read what Julie has sent me the day before. I do this before turning on the radio, before any other words can reach me.

I start a new section by picking up where Julie has left off. While the theme of isolation remains a murmur, our writing—as it always does—leads us further afield. My mother makes an appearance, as does my dead father. John Donne shows up alongside Virginia Woolf. I write about singing while Julie listens to R.E.M. on her daily run.

I write without stopping for a half hour. The house is quiet around me. My dog has gone back to sleep, her snores a soothing accompaniment. I write as if Julie is in the room with me, and she is. That is what collaboration means, even at a distance.

The last section I write begins with a phrase from a song I sing with my choir, You are not alone…. And I believe it now, more than ever, though my body is lonelier than it’s ever been.



Right now my quarantine is a crowded one. A month ago, my partner began a permanent remote position as the technical support librarian for a college consortium. We never imagined I would soon be working exclusively from home as well, teaching lyric essay classes online in the bedroom while she teaches professors from other schools how to use their remote resources in the living room. Suddenly, we’re tandem-Zooming! The apartment is noisier than ever before! Our cats wander from workstation to workstation, making cameos on our visual calls, meowing at the strangers who smile back at them through the screen.

Collaboration is the quiet side of my quarantine, a place I can retreat when the world is too much with me, as it surely is now: construction workers on scaffolds just outside our high- rise windows; frantic emails from students who fear they are falling behind; aggressive hold Muzak played by airlines and hotels; and of course, the news—the news!

When I write with Brenda now, sometimes sitting on the cool tile floor in the bathroom with the door and blinds and windows closed, I can finally recollect in tranquility, begin to reckon with the larger isolation we are living now. Soon, there’s a phone call, a cat scratching to come in. But briefly, I find my chosen isolation booth, the credo of which is “occupy and essay.” Or, put another way—be present and try.


Brenda Miller and Julie Marie Wade have published their collaborative work in Rappahannock Review, Creative Nonfiction, The Normal School, River Teeth, Punctuate, Phoebe, Tupelo Quarterly, and Kenyon Review. Their work has also been reprinted in the anthologies The Spirit of Disruption: Landmark Essays from The Normal School (Outpost 19, 2018) and They Said: A Multi-Genre Anthology of Contemporary Collaborative Writing (Black Lawrence Press, 2018). Their book, Telephone: Essays in Two Voices, is forthcoming from Cleveland State University Press.


On Translation: An Interview with Wenguang Huang (Part Two)

April 7, 2020 § 2 Comments

WenguangWenguang Huang has worked as a teacher, public relations specialist, literary translator, reporter, memoir writer, and more. In part two of the interview, he talks with Brevity Associate Editor Victoria Buitron about how his creative nonfiction and literary translations are intertwined and offers advice to memoir writers. Read part one of the interview here.

You came to mind during my last MFA residency because a poet who translates from Portuguese into English was invited, and she said she would never translate poems without access to the writer. What’s your stance on that?

I totally agree. Before I accept a translation assignment, I always propose certain conditions or rules. My first rule is that the writer has to value my work as a translator. When possible, I always try to meet with the author or at least talk with the person on the phone. In this way, I can gauge if he or she is easy to work with. Otherwise, you put so much of your life into it, and the author might not even appreciate it. Sometimes, when we’re given an opportunity to translate a book that we truly like, or to work with a famous writer who can greatly enrich our resume, we tend to ignore our incompatible personalities or working styles. From my own experience, such collaboration always ends up badly. The whole process could be miserable for both the author and the translator. I’ve been there and done that. At times, I think writers—when somebody translates their work and they’re not the translators themselves—they don’t appreciate our work or give us enough credit.

Secondly, I always request direct access to the author when I run into questions during my translation. In this way, we can save time and avoid unnecessary misinterpretation. Also, because of the cultural differences, one cannot simply translate something word for word. In many instances, the translator has to work with the author to do some adaptations, such as adding some background information and adjusting the narrative structures. The author certainly has to be willing to make the changes.

I know your trajectory into translating and writing is very unique, but what suggestions would you provide to someone that is interested in becoming a literary translator?

I think you need to be a writer first or at least receive training in creative writing in order to be a good literary translator. Oftentimes there’s a misconception both by writers and the general public. They say “oh, he speaks Portuguese very well,” and they think if you speak the language very well you’ll be a good translator, which is not the case at all. Translation is not just about knowing the language very well. It involves recreating a piece of literary writing in a different language. In my case, I don’t have any training in creative writing, but I was trained as an English-language journalist and have written for various newspapers and magazines for many years. My journalistic experiences have taught me how to tell a good story.

After I read your memoir, I began reading Woman from Shanghai: Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp by Xianhui Yang and translated by you. Both your own stories and the translations you’ve worked on have to do with China’s history and the Cultural Revolution. Could you share what draws you to this topic?

I was drawn to nonfiction works by independent writers such as Liao Yiwu and Yang Xianhui because they have truthfully documented ordinary people’s lives under Communism, and chronicled the brutalities of the totalitarian rule under Mao.

As China is now emerging as a world economic powerhouse, the Communist leadership has tightened its ideological control by systematically whitewashing history and using the powerful state-controlled media to brainwash its citizens.  Nowadays, if you ask a young person born after the 1980s about the Cultural Revolution, the Anti-Rightist Movement, or the student pro-democracy protest movement of 1989, it’s highly likely that he or she hardly knows anything. You can’t get a lot from the internet in China because of the censorship.

In other words, I consider my translation as a feeble attempt to preserve history and to help Westerners understand China.

Preserving memory is really important.  At present, people in China are obsessed with .  The government encourages people to forget the past and move on. My point is, if you don’t confront the past, you’ll never get over it. You can never move on without facing your past. It will come back to haunt it.

What is one of the toughest aspects of translating from Chinese to English?

One of the difficulties I have encountered is the narrative structure.  Many Chinese writers do not follow a linear line and their storytelling can be winding and go in circles. As a result, Western readers might find them hard to follow. To me, this has presented a huge challenge. In 2005, when I first submitted my translation to a magazine, an editor turned it down because he said the narrative was not straightforward. This was a great lesson for me, so I decided to reconsider my strategy. Instead of just being the translator, I also became the editor. I consulted with the author and we reorganized some of the contents to make sure that the story line is what English readers are accustomed to.  By doing this, translators also run the risk of altering the original and stepping into the area of adaptation, rather than translation. So, it’s a fine line.

The second tough thing for me is the translation of Chinese idioms or proverbs, which imbue Chinese writings and conversations with local flavor. They’re so vivid and cultural-specific that it is very hard to translate. Sometimes, when I do find an English equivalent, the flavor of the original writing is lost. For example, I once encountered a Chinese phrase “An ugly toad is lusting after the flesh of a swan,” which describes a man who pursues a beautiful and intellectually superior woman.  I initially translated it as “ask for the moon.” As you can see, the translation has lost the vividness and vulgarity. What is the solution? I just do a direct translation. Of course, in cases where a proverb has a story behind it, that’s a bit hard.

Can you discuss any works of translation or a book that you’re currently working on?

I have just finished translating “1566,” a Chinese bestseller that revolves around a series of fictional events that unfolded during the last five years of Emperor Jiajing’s reign in the 16th Century. The book, a page turner, offers an unflinching look into the brutal power struggles inside the imperial court, and the deceitful alliances between politics and business.The book was adapted into a popular TV series in China and the public see it as a parody on current Chinese politics.

In addition to translations, I’m also working on an autographical novel, which is based on a murder story that I had heard of long ago. The story depicts the dramatic political and cultural transformation in the aftermath of Mao’s death in 1976. In a way, it’s a sequel to my memoir.

What do you recommend to people who want to dive into memoir writing? 

My first advice to people who think they have a great story to tell is to find time and write it. After my memoir came out, I’ve met a lot of people who have shared their incredible family stories with me and asked how to go about writing them. I always tell people to stop talking about their ideas and get them down in writing. Jot down whatever comes to you mind. There’s no need to worry about the logic or the narrative structure. Once you have a first draft – no matter how bad it is, in this way it becomes real and more productive. If you don’t write it down, you end up talking about it for ten years and it’s simply an idea.

The process of memoir writing, especially the initial stage can be arduous because it brings up all your old memories and repressed feelings. When I first started, I had problems sleeping at night. For about a month, I would go to bed at six in the morning. The writing dragged me back to my past. A lot of the memories are quite unpleasant. There are a lot of regrets.  Sometimes, the feelings were so intense that it felt like I couldn’t even breathe. The process forces you to face your past honestly.  Look back, it’s really a self-healing process.

Once you go through this self-examination stage and get a draft down, you should step back for a few weeks. Then, you can gradually improve on your first draft, restructure it, delete or add more stories. Often times, your second draft might be completely different from the first draft but it gets you going.

For those who are not sure if you can find an agent or publisher for your memoir, I would recommend that you pick segments of what you have written and turn them into short personal essays. Send them to a newspaper or magazine. If the essay is about your parents, submit to a magazine during Mother’s Day or Father’s day, when the publications always need good stories. Getting it published will give you the attention and the confidence you need.

Lastly, get a real job first and do your memoir writing or translation in your spare time. That’s just my experience.


Wenguang Huang, a Chicago-based journalist, writer and translator, is the author of The Little Red Guard,  a memoir that chronicles his growing up in central China during the 1970s and reveals his family striving to fulfill a grandmother’s last wish during a period of rapid societal change. The book was a Washington Post Best of 2012 pick. In 2014, he co-authored A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel with Ho Pin. The book chronicles the fall of Bo Xilai and depicts the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party. Huang started introducing contemporary Chinese writers to the West in 2004, when he translated Chinese writer Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom Up. His other translations include Liao Yiwu’s God is Red and For a Song and One Hundred Songs and Xianhui’s Women from Shanghai. Huang is the recipient of the 2007 PEN Translation Fund Award and his translations and journalistic writings have  appeared in, the New York Times, the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the Paris Review, and Chicago Public Radio.

Brevity’s Associate Editor, Victoria Buitron, graduated from Hunter College CUNY with a degree in translation and interpretation. She is currently an MFA candidate at Fairfield University’s low-residency program. Find her at and on Twitter at @kikitraveler30.

On Translation: An Interview with Wenguang Huang

April 6, 2020 § 1 Comment

Wenguang Huang is the translator of The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories, China from the Bottom Up by Liao Yiwu and Woman from Shanghai: Tales of Survival from a Chinese Labor Camp by Yan Xianhui. In 2012, he published the memoir The Little Red Guard, which revolves around growing up in China and the lifetime reverberations of being selected by his father to guard his grandmother’s coffin.

Brevity’s Associate Editor, Victoria Buitron, who graduated from Hunter College CUNY with a degree in translation and interpretation, talks to Huang about the art of translation and how he became a memoirist.

This interview has been edited and condensed, and will appear in two installments.

The Little Red GuardIn The Little Red Guard, you describe the different jobs you ventured into, including journalism. Could you discuss more about the path that led you to become a translator and memoirist?

 When I first arrived in the U.S. in 1990, I studied journalism with a focus on Congressional politics. I was determined to be a real American, to think like an American, and to assimilate. After graduation, I worked as a PR manager for an international agribusiness company. I hardly had the opportunity to speak any Chinese. After a while, even though Chinese was my native language, I became really rusty. When I occasionally talked to my family members, they thought I had undergone brain surgery because I couldn’t even finish a coherent Chinese sentence without switching to English words. But I was kind of proud of the fact that as a foreigner, I wrote English press releases targeting the American audience, and I composed speeches for American business executives. About four or five years later, I started to feel lost, and began to question if it was truly possible or wise to be cut off from my Chinese heritage. I thought that perhaps I should do something that would both connect to my Chinese background and relate to an American audience.

In 1995, there was an opportunity for me to work as a researcher for The New York Times in Beijing. I went back to China for about two years, and during that time I traveled extensively in the country and became reacquainted with my roots. When it got too tough to be a journalist because of the political climate there, I returned to the U.S., and once again worked in Public Relations. The experience in China prompted me to write about my native country for an American audience. So, I became a freelancer and began focusing on Chinese culture and politics for publications such as The Asian Wall Street Journal, The Christian Science Monitor and Chicago Tribune.

One day in early 2000, I heard a radio program about a Chinese poet and writer, Liao Yiwu. He was jailed for four years for writing a poem in 1989 to condemn the Chinese government’s crackdown on the student protest movement. Upon his release, he became homeless. As he wandered the street as a musician, he met many interesting characters, such as a gambler, a professional mourner, a human smuggler, and a public toilet manager. He interviewed them and collected their stories in a book, called Corpse Walker.

His stories intrigued me. He reminded me of Studs Terkel, whose writing had inspired me back when I was in school. I decided to translate Liao Yiwu’s book, which I believed would help Western readers understand the real China. I contacted Yiwu in China through a friend and obtained his permission on the phone.

When I first started this project, I had no idea whether I was going to get his stories published or not.  At the recommendation of a friend, I applied for the PEN Translation Fund Grant. I submitted some samples, but didn’t get the award. But Esther Allen, a prominent translator and educator, read Liao Yiwu’s stories. She liked them so much that she recommended my translations to Philip Gourevitch at The Paris Review. Philip took the extraordinary step of publishing three of the interviews in his magazine. It was a great feeling to see my first translation in print, especially in this very prestigious magazine. Esther and Philip ushered me into the world of translation. While working as a corporate PR person during the day, I started to translate Chinese books at night or during the weekends. Fortunately, my translations have been picked up by major publishing houses.

WenguangHow has translating influenced your own stories?

Translating books about the tumultuous lives of ordinary people living under Communism in China triggered a lot of my own childhood memories and it gave me the confidence to write my own book. For years, I had thought of writing a story about my grandmother who played an important role in my upbringing.  I used to tell my friends about how my father had bought a coffin as a birthday gift for my grandmother, who was still alive, and that I slept next to the coffin for years. They were often shocked and encouraged me to write my story. But I didn’t feel that I was ready to turn the story into a book.

In 2009, when the financial crisis hit, I lost my day job. The severance package enabled me to take a one-year hiatus. Rather than looking for another job, I decided that it was time to write my memoir.

Oh, wow, so you wrote the memoir within that year?

I finished the writing in seven months. Writing was relatively easy. The hardest part was to organize the stories. The book dredged up lots of old memories. I needed to find a common thread and string them together to weave a compelling narrative. I had lots of sleepless nights.  In fact, my first draft was in the form of a long personal essay about my grandma. I sent it to The Paris Review, which fortunately published it. I have received tremendous feedback and I felt very encouraged.  So, with the help of an editor, I expanded the essay into a book.

While writing the memoir, I came to realize that a translator and a writer have two completely different processes. I don’t know whether you have a similar experience.  When I try to multi-task and do translation in the morning and writings in the afternoon, I find it very hard to transition from one to another. I have to stop a translation for two or three days until my mindset completely changes, and then I can start writing again.

Oh yes, it’s kind of like changing gears in a car but it doesn’t happen as quickly… Like you said, I feel like I need my brain to rest a little bit, and then I have to change gears to something else.

I’m glad you feel the same because sometimes I wondered if it was just me. When I work on a translation, my mind tends to get into the passive mode because somebody else has already created it and my job is to recreate it in a different language. Whereas in writing, you start from scratch. That’s why when I translate a book, I tend to go all the way until I’ve finished a few chapters. If a writing project comes up, I have to stop my translation and spend a few days reading before I can write my own story.

Read PART TWO of this Interview

Wenguang Huang, a Chicago-based journalist, writer and translator, is the author of The Little Red Guard,  a memoir that chronicles his growing up in central China during the 1970s and reveals his family striving to fulfill a grandmother’s last wish during a period of rapid societal change. The book was a Washington Post Best of 2012 pick. In 2014, he co-authored A Death in the Lucky Holiday Hotel with Ho Pin. The book chronicles the fall of Bo Xilai and depicts the inner workings of the Chinese Communist Party. Huang started introducing contemporary Chinese writers to the West in 2004, when he translated Chinese writer Liao Yiwu’s The Corpse Walker: Real Life Stories: China From the Bottom Up. His other translations include Liao Yiwu’s God is Red and For a Song and One Hundred Songs and Xianhui’s Women from Shanghai. Huang is the recipient of the 2007 PEN Translation Fund Award and his translations and journalistic writings have  appeared in, the New York Times, the Asian Wall Street Journal, the Chicago Tribune, the Paris Review, and Chicago Public Radio.

Wash Your Lyric (Essays): A Writing Prompt for a Strange Time

March 23, 2020 § 7 Comments

AML_Author_PhotoBy Alex Marzano-Lesnevich

Maybe you’ve been able to get some writing done this past week, even focus. If so, I applaud you. I certainly haven’t. The situation, as we all know, changes by the hour, sometimes by the minute. What seemed unthinkable yesterday is the new normal; what seemed unthinkable last week—well, last week was a different era entirely.

I teach at Bowdoin College, which was and is on spring break, and which, when classes do resume next week, will switch to online-only for the remainder of the school year. With only a few necessary exceptions for those who don’t have anywhere else to go or have visa issues, students will not be returning to campus. I feel for them, especially the seniors whose college lives have evaporated with no chance at in-person goodbyes, and those whose home lives are unwelcoming or abusive. And I feel for them even more as they, and all of us, are subsumed into this whirl of uncertainty.

As an epidemiologist friend of mine put it, if the situation feels unprecedented in our lifetimes, it’s because it’s unprecedented in our lifetimes.

There is, in other words, plenty for us to think about. And so I will admit: I haven’t been thinking about writing.

When I emailed my students to check in, asking how they were and what I could do, I assumed they hadn’t been, either. But the responses came back: they’d like a writing prompt, please. A prompt like the kind I usually start each class with, a place for us to practice the making of art together, practice putting whatever is in our hearts and our minds and our memories to the page. And right now, a place for us to put all this uncertainty.

So for them, and for me, and all of us right now who could use a short assignment, a brief encouragement to acknowledge and feel this moment and turn it into art, here’s a writing exercise we can do together.

You’ve seen the handwashing diagrams, the ones intended to give us something—anything—else to sing beyond yet another rendition of Happy Birthday, many of them made through Wash Your Lyrics, a website created by 17-year-old William Gibson, using a poster from Britain’s National Health Service. Here’s one for Sisqo’s “Thong Song,” which I fully remember dancing to when I was my students’ age and 9/11 was still two years away, and we hadn’t yet had our worlds as disrupted as these kids just have:

handwash 1


Good, right? Makes you smile, keeps time while you keep safe. Gives you, in other words, a short assignment to keep your anxiety at bay.

Now try this:

handwash 2

I wish I knew whom to credit for turning Lucile Clifton’s poem “won’t you celebrate with me” into a handwashing diagram—it was making the rounds on Twitter—but when I saw it, something unlocked. It made me wonder: what if we treated the handwashing diagram as inspiration for a hermit crab essay?

In Brenda Miller and Suzanne Paola’s Tell it Slant, they define a hermit crab essay as one in which the essayist borrows the form—the hard, hermit crab shell—from elsewhere in the world, and treats it as the container to shelter some deeply personal thing to be explored. “It is an essay that deals with material that seems born without its own carapace,” they write. “[M]aterial that is soft, exposed, and tender, and must look elsewhere to find the form that will best contain it.”

Soft, exposed, and tender—sound like anyone you know right now?

So for a prompt, try writing into the handwashing diagram, seeing what text you can pair with each step. (The Wash Your Lyrics website has a place for you to enter your own text.) What memories come up for you, as you write? What do the instructions suggest to your subconscious? And how can their orderly progression of steps shelter the disorderly progression of your thoughts in this time?

And—important, too—is there anywhere you want your essay to become less orderly? For the words to overspill the diagram? If that starts to happen, let it. Write into that uncertainty, and explore. What tension have you uncovered? What is at stake in your refusal, now, to be contained by the form? (For inspiration, here, try checking out Jill Talbot’s “The Professor of Longing,” in which the narrator’s life and anxieties gradually overspill the hermit crab form of a syllabus.)

Then take it further, beyond handwashing. Are there other found or hermit crab forms you can see in the world around you, in its response to the virus? Other forms you might use as inspiration for an essay? Perhaps one of those ubiquitous sales emails from a company talking about its virus response; or a text chain as you try to convince your loved ones to stay inside; or even instructions for a Zoom cocktail hour?

Have fun with it. Explore. A different form—a different short assignment—for each day.

I hope it becomes something that shelters you, as art must for all of us.

Alex Marzano-Lesnevich is an assistant professor at Bowdoin College and the author of THE FACT OF A BODY: A Murder and a Memoir. Their most recent piece was “Body Language” in the December 2019 Harper’s.

Author Photo by Greta Rybus



The Heart of a Story: Writing Toward Voice

March 12, 2020 § 16 Comments

Photo of a white woman with long dark-blonde hair, wearing salmon tank top and statement necklace. She is smiling broadly.By Marilyn Bousquin


Early in my writing journey—we’re talking 1980s—I took a creative writing class with a famous novelist professor. One day the class workshopped a story I’d written about an adolescent girl with anorexia. Lo and behold, my classmates liked it. One boy was so captivated by a scene of the protagonist puking into her mother’s kitchen sink he asked, “Did you, like, have that experience?” (Spoiler alert: Yep, the story was thinly-veiled fiction.)

Then my famous novelist professor chimed in. He said, “I don’t hear a voice. Do any of you hear a voice?” My classmates shuffled in their seats. We hadn’t had a lesson on the craft of voice, much less the implications of voice for someone who has been conditioned to silence her truth. “You can have all the energy of Tolstoy,” he said, “but if you don’t have a voice? You’re not a writer.”

I aborted my fledgling plan to pursue an MFA in creative writing.



Voice or no voice, after college I continued to write my life as fiction. But now the question Do I have a voice? peppered my notebooks. I read everything I could find on writing and voice. I also studied voice as intrinsic to female conditioning. I learned it’s not uncommon for an adolescent girl to internalize shame as her body develops, and that such shame can silence her voice.

My studies on women and voice led me to Gail Collins-Ranadive’s course Writing Re-creatively: A Spiritual Quest for Women. Gail said, “We will write to tap into what’s already within us, hidden, hibernating, waiting to be reawakened and given voice.”

In Gail’s writing circle, I tapped into something within me that felt larger than me. A voice, I began to understand, derives from the spiritual essence of oneself; you can no sooner not have a voice than not have a soul.

Do any of you hear a voice?



Years passed. By day I worked for a magazine, wrote book reviews, became an educational writer and editor. I continued to write and began to lead women’s writing circles.

One day, browsing a bookstore, I discovered Pat Schneider’s Writing Alone and with Others. Pat said, “Those of us who teach—really teach—know that we are simply midwives to that which is already in our students. Our only task is this: to prepare a place, to welcome, to receive, to encourage.”

Yes, oh, yes.



During a writing prompt in Kate Hopper’s course Motherhood & Words, my mother’s red medical book appeared on the page. Uh-oh. There’s a story I swore I’d never write: The time my mother opened her red medical book to human papilloma virus and shamed me in the aftermath of a rape I was not then able to name.

Kate said, “I want to hear more.” Then she said: “When you’re ready to write it.”



Twenty-five years after the famous novelist professor said I don’t hear a voice I got my MFA in creative nonfiction. But guess what? I completed my MFA without writing a single word about my mother’s red medical book. That’s okay: I was not yet ready to write that story. Readiness I have learned is essential to the memoir-writing process: We write our way toward emotional readiness.

Instead, I wrote stories that skirted the red medical book even as, unbeknownst to me, I wrote my way toward it.

I wrote my way toward my voice.



I don’t hear a voice. Do any of you hear a voice?

I wish I’d said something back then on my behalf, but I was years from knowing that a voice, like a self, can retreat into hiding. It’s taken me time and experience as a writer and teacher to understand that, yes, everyone has a voice, and part of a writing teacher’s role is to create a safe space for that voice to emerge. “Finding our voice has to do with finding our safety,” Julia Cameron says.

Safety, it turns out, induces readiness.



Every turn in my writing journey readied me to write the story I once swore I’d never write. I’m now writing my memoir Searching for Salt. At the heart of this story? My mother’s red medical book.

The girl with anorexia? Yeah, her, too.

Patricia Hampl says (I’m paraphrasing) we write in service of the story that wants to be told, which may or may not be the story we want to tell.



Know this: A voice for any given story emerges from the subject at the heart of that story. If shame shrouds a story’s subject so, too, its voice may hover beneath shame. A memoirist whose subject has been silenced by shame must write past shame to the voice at the heart of her story.



What’s your red-medical-book story?

I want to hear it. When you’re ready.


Marilyn Bousquin is the founder of Writing Women’s Lives™ Academy, where she teaches women who are done with silence how to claim their voice and write their memoir stories with confidence, craft, and consciousness. Her own memoir stories appear in River Teeth, Under the Gum Tree, Superstition Review, Pithead Chapel, The Rumpus and elsewhere. Follow her on Facebook.

Post-AWP Bargain: Field Guide to Flash Nonfiction, Low Price, Free Shipping

March 10, 2020 § 3 Comments

Flash-NonfictionFieldGuide-300x426Since so many writers and readers had to change their plans to attend the Association of Writers and Writing Programs Conference last week (#AWP2020), and miss the bookfair, Rose Metal Press is offering a we-couldn’t-go-to-AWP online sale, with all books nicely discounted and free shipping too (use the code AWPFREESHIP).

Actually a lot of presses that had to miss the conference are offering post-AWP discounts, and please support them all if you can, but Rose Metal is home to The Rose Metal Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction, a book, frankly, toward which we feel a great fondness.

But, hey, listen to Phillip Lopate: “The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction … is a lot more than flashy. These thoughtful, thought-provoking essays and exercises have the paradoxical effect of slowing down our attention and encouraging an expansion of the moment, while seeming to be saving writing and reading time. A very useful compilation.”

Great for teaching, and perfect for the the individual writer in need of prompts and inspiration!

The sale only lasts through March 12th, so jump on it today!


Writing with Power(Point)

February 20, 2020 § 9 Comments

A vacuum on a beige carpet, picking up shiny confetti“Hey, let’s go make PowerPoint slides!” said nobody ever. We all became writers to escape the dreary corporate world, right? We’re not wearing ties or pantyhose, we show up on our own schedule, and we certainly don’t make “presentations.”

Unless part of our writing is…teaching. Or giving a TedTalk about our process or a PechaKucha about the topic of our book. Or leading a workshop. Or speaking at conferences. Yes, sadly, there are many opportunities for writers to embrace slides. But just as social media can make us better writers, creating slides lets us practice strong imagery, writing craft, and (of course!) brevity.

After five years of speaking, I’ve learned a few tips and tricks for engaging, informative slides—and writing better prose, too.

Get a good template. Most pre-loaded slide themes are aggressively corporate, with blue gradient triangles and racing stripes galore. Free presentation templates on Canva, Graphic Mama and SlideCarnival include fun, creative themes that still look sleek and professional.

When you’re writing, make sure you’re reading. How are books and essays you admire structured? Can you experiment with someone else’s and your own content? Would a hermit crab or braided essay “template” suit the material you’re working with? Very often, the exercise of shaping our words into a fixed form illuminates connections and highlights important moments.

Show OR Tell. Memoirists can “tell” a bit more than novelists, because the writer’s retrospective voice can express deeper realizations from the actions the past self takes. As Sue Silverman teaches, the “voice of experience” tells the story, and the “voice of innocence” lives it in the past. We still need to show key scenes and allow the reader to experience what we felt at the time, but we can give context and share what it all means to us now.

With slides, avoid reading the text on a slide. Most of your audience can read faster than you can speak, so let them get the gist while you share the larger meaning of your key concepts, and “show” the application and purpose of what you’re teaching with vivid, specific stories. Likewise, go for a fun or unique photo over one that purely illustrates what you’re talking about. I can tell a roomful of writers “Clean up your manuscript with a good copy-edit because typos are distracting to the reader,” but the vacuum sucking up glitter shows that idea more than a marked-up page. We’d all be distracted by glitter on the carpet; we can imagine typos as confetti strewn over our manuscript. Ideas sink in better when the associated image conveys a feeling.

Which brings us back to showing in our writing: when expressing an abstract concept, or a state of being, or family history, or a relationship, use a concrete image:

My aunt used to sit on the blue velour couch and re-sew her underwear for her daughters.

—strong situation, right? But let me expand in an unexpected direction:

We weren’t poor.

Instead, the men in the family controlled the money, and the women made do. Now we have an image, plus the immediate pity, plus outrage at the next discovery. A memorable and emotion-evoking detail on which to build a scene. For great scenes, explore your memory; for great images, check out stock photo sites like Pixabay and Unsplash.

Keep it tight. Here at Brevity, we love your 750-words-or-less essays. But even a 120,000-word fantasy novel or historical fiction should have no wasted words.

In your slides, evaluate each one: do you need it to express a point? Does it follow logically from the previous slide, and lead us to the next one? Does more than one slide express this point? Trim text to the minimum number of words. Bullet points of six words or less; not more than six bullet points on a slide. No more than one slide per minute of total presentation time. Yes, you’ll go through slides faster than a minute each, but that gives time for questions at the end, or to spend more time on complex points.

If you’re trimming down your memoir, make a list of scenes. What “point” does each scene make?

  • This scene with my mom is how I learned my value was based on my appearance
  • This scene with my dad is how I thought alcoholic behavior was “normal”
  • This scene with my ex-boyfriend is about him valuing me only on my appearance…hold up, do I need this? Do I need all of it? Do I need it here?

I’m a weirdo who genuinely enjoys making slides. Even if you don’t join me in this folly, imagine your essay, memoir or novel as a series of static images. What are you watching? What do those images say? What key points should the reader take away? Smooth your transitions from one scene to the next. Weed out duplicates. Trim unnecessary words. And breathe a deep sigh of thankfulness that you’ll never have to try to make Quarter Two’s Sales Numbers memorable.

Like to see these techniques in action? I just added slides for “Beyond Spellcheck: Editing Your Brilliant Next Draft” to my Instagram highlights. It’s meant to be viewed on a phone (it’s sideways), but you can turn your laptop—that’ll be a memorable image, too.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor and leads the Rebirth Your Book writing retreats in Costa Rica, Pennsylvania and Tuscany.

World’s Best Writing Advice

February 19, 2020 § 8 Comments

Matthew Duffus Author PhotoBy Matthew Duffus

I was packing for an Easter Break trip when the phone rang. Without Caller ID—this was in 2001, the age of landlines—I had no time to prepare for the voice of my thesis advisor, Barry Hannah. Even after two-plus years, he scared the hell out of me, no less because he was then reading a draft of my entire thesis for the first time. He had cancer, and I’d hated to bother him earlier, so I waited to send him my draft, justifying procrastination as consideration for his illness.

As always, he cut to the heart of the matter. “Five of these stories need new endings,” he said, vaporizing my vacation with one sentence. The final draft was due in less than a week. I had no idea where to begin.

“Do you have any advice?” I said.

He sighed loudly enough I could almost smell cigarette smoke through the receiver. Finally, he said, “Endings are hard.” I waited for more, but that was it.

Days earlier, I’d had a dream that he’d approved my thesis. I’d awoken so relieved that thirty minutes went by before I realized the truth. Now, I went back to square one, with six days to correct mistakes that were years in the making.

Nevertheless, I wrote new endings, altering the entire trajectory of some stories, pushing others beyond the points I’d selected as conclusions in previous drafts. Barry still frowned at half the stories, while another member of the committee conveniently disapproved of the other half. Though it took me weeks to overcome the stress of my hour-long defense, I’ve discovered over the many years since then that endings are hard is exactly what I needed, and still need, to hear.

What I’ve taken away from this saying is that no silver bullet or incantation exists to help writers succeed. Similarly, bromides and prescriptive comments are of little use. Instead of searching for short cuts, we are better off putting in the work necessary to make each story, novel, poem, or essay as good as it can be.

For instance, when writing my novel, Swapping Purples for Yellows, I found the notion that a drafting writer should always be moving forward, without looking back, unhelpful. I’d done this in the past, only to end up with a draft so messy its problems overwhelmed me so much that I never found a way in for revision. This time, I wrote a chapter or two and then went back over them, even if only to line edit, before pushing on. This took longer, but when I completed the draft, I knew I had something I could work with, even if some of the line edits were for naught when scenes went by the wayside.

I internalized my take on Barry’s advice for my short-story collection as well. I wrote each of the stories in Dunbar’s Folly and Other Stories using a process specific to the demands of that individual work. One story, “The Soprano at Midlife,” appeared to me so completely that I wrote all twenty-eight pages in one eight-hour sitting. Other stories, such as “Enjoy Your Stay,” lived in my mind for more than a year before I put pen to paper, fingers to keyboard. If I’d attempted to fit this story into the same drafting process I’d used for the earlier one, I’m sure the story would have come out half-baked, without the nuance and depth I hope it contains.

This pertains to my nonfiction writing as well. When an essay idea forms quickly, I try to keep up with it; when an idea needs to gestate, I try to be patient and not pin it down on paper too soon. A recent essay on a fallow period in my writing life hit me all at once, ironically, and it was all I could do to slow down long enough to complete the reading I wanted to do for background before I resumed typing. The idea for the piece you’re reading is almost twenty years in the making, but while I’ve often used the anecdote in conversation, it wasn’t until that fallow period that I was able to stop and reflect on what I’d taken from that off-hand comment.

Barry’s advice has illustrated what another mentor said about him. He told me Barry was among the most intuitive writers he’d ever met. Based on this advice alone, I see the truth in that comment. Barry didn’t believe in telling writers what to do. Even if his exacting line editing discouraged me at times, he never once declared that I should do X in revising a story. Instead, he told me what each story seemed to be about, taking on the role of engaged reader, exactly what I needed as a young, insecure writer. Nothing made me prouder than the day he announced, upon reading my latest work, “This is a story that needs to be told.” In the end, though, his vaguest piece of advice was worth the years I spent working with him. Not bad for three little words.

Matthew Duffus is the author of the novel Swapping Purples for Yellows. His poetry chapbook Problems of the Soul and Otherwise and story collection Dunbar’s Folly and Other Stories are both forthcoming. He lives in rural North Carolina, where he is an instructor of English and writing center director at Gardner-Webb University.

I Can Show You Better Than I Can Tell You

February 18, 2020 § 17 Comments

Selfie of a black woman with shoulder-length braids and a big smile against a background of greeneryBy Ramona M. Payne

My mother learned at an early age how to take care of herself. Her father died when she was six and life for her, her sister, and their mother was hard. I imagine that because her life was shaken by death and financial struggle, she sometimes had to go along with whatever other people decided was best. No point in arguing; she was a child. Even as an adult, some people thought they could treat her as if she were a child. And as a Black woman growing up in the forties and fifties, the best interests of other people did not always align with what was best for her.

Many times, I listened to her stories about one person or another who had underestimated her. She would chuckle, amused by their need to tell a grown woman about what she could and could not accomplish.

“That’s alright,” she said, “I can show you better than I can tell you.” She didn’t have to say it to them—it was enough that she knew what she was capable of achieving. Her determination to take control of her own life defined who my mother was to me. She was not going to waste time convincing others, begging for understanding, asking permission, or most importantly, giving them an entire backstory or explanation to obtain their consent.

I can show you better than I can tell you. It was simple advice—pay attention to what you see me doing, because I am not wasting words on you.

I remember my first writers’ workshop, many years ago in Virginia. I knew my piece required some work and I braced myself for constructive feedback. After a decade in corporate jobs, my business writing with its memos, annual plans, and recommendations required that I get to the point, and quickly. The life and color had been sucked out of my earlier writing and replaced with numbers and case studies.

That week, I sat in the room with other writers, some already years into writing careers, others like me, trying to make the shift from business to writing. There were elements of my piece the group liked—the story, description, and the main character. But my voice was not always consistent, and my story lacked any real conflict. I had not established a clear sense of what these characters wanted.

We sat in the windowless room, several women, all Black except for one, and two white men, one of whom led the workshop. We discussed the importance of telling our stories and using writing as a way to share them. The instructor, an award-winning novelist and literary journalist, dismissed the idea that everyone had a story.

A young emerging writer, who has gone on to a distinguished career in both print and digital media, disagreed. “I think everyone has a story to tell.”

The instructor arched a bushy white brow and peered through his glasses, perhaps considering his audience. “Well maybe everyone has a story, but I’m not sure everyone needs to write it.”

Thanks to my mother, I had not arrived to my late thirties assuming that everyone who sat at the head of a conference table was infallible, so I filed away the remark, but largely ignored that bit of advice.

But one writing tip proved useful. The workshop included an adage new to me at the time, but I have heard it in classes and read the advice in writing craft books many times since. Show don’t tell. Don’t spend time rehashing facts; instead, engage the reader’s emotion and imagination by inviting them to use their senses—feel what’s happening, hear it, see it. Exposition and summary are not enough. Regardless of how lovely the description or likable the characters, my writing had to make a reader feel or think something, and know something was at stake.

These days the advice has shifted somewhat, from show don’t tell to show and tell. Nonfiction both maps out the story and background for the reader, and uses reflection and the retrospective voice to share what I have made out of what happened. Nonfiction writers dig deeper than the facts as we see them; we try to discern what it has all meant.

Which is what my mother had done all along. She could have sat you down, given you the entire backstory, complete with a rationale for why she was going to take a certain action. She could have told you not only the expected outcome, but how she got there.

But she was wise enough to know that excess dialogue doesn’t always lead to better understanding. On the surface, it sounds more direct, but it pushes out room for discovery or letting you make your own conclusions. I take my mother’s advice with me when I sit down to work—I can show you better than I can tell you—and try to share a world and characters who reveal who they are.


Ramona M. Payne’s writing appears in essay collections and magazines. She completed the Creative Writing program at The University of Chicago Graham School, has a liberal arts degree from the University of Notre Dame and an MBA from Duke University. She supports local theatre, practices Pilates, and leads her expressive writing workshop, Write.Pause.Reflect. Follow her on Twitter @RamonaPayne1 or Instagram @writepausereflect.

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