Swimming Out of the Safe Zone

January 25, 2023 § 19 Comments

By Rose Saltman

It’s that time of year again…the comment desk is looking for your evergreen pitches for December/January. Send to [The Guardian] with SUMMER PITCH in the subject line.

This tweet arrived towards the end of October. There was no guidance on word limit—I’d asked—so I decided to punt on a piece that suited the theme and was ready to go. My pitch celebrated the delight of ocean swimming in Australia and cited a 30-year history of doing laps at my local beach, one of Sydney’s most loved destinations, as evidence that I was qualified to write about this topic.

I was about to follow up two weeks later when I received an email from the deputy opinion editor.

Thank you for sending this piece. This is a lovely read, but with more than 3,000 words it’s too long for our purposes. Would you be open to editing your piece down to around 1,000 words? Thank you for considering it, best wishes.

I didn’t reply immediately. The piece was barely out of the starting gate, with only two other journals having declined it. I could put The Guardian’s offer to one side and keep trying to find a home for the long version. Going down this path, of course, risked rolling rejections.

The alternative was to grab the offer with both hands. The Guardian has a daily print-edition circulation of 111,000 and more than one million digital subscriptions worldwide. Half of the latter are outside the UK, dominated by US, Australian and European Union readers. Who was I to be precious about an acceptance predicated on something shorter?

The editor suggested I do the first cut, offering tips on where to start. Excising content peripheral to the theme—the boats I swam past, my wetsuit, a waterfront restaurant—dropped the word count to 2,700. I was now in uncharted territory, having to decide what more to prune without losing the general structure of the piece. I’d done it often enough with other writers’ work. Could I do it with my own?

I began with easy fixes: turning passive into active voice and whittling away at adverbs and adjectives. “I stop for long enough to line up a passage that will lead me to…” became “I line up a passage to….” A paragraph that wasn’t germane to the story took care of 121 words.

I assumed readers would know that the top of a hill is a good spot for admiring the view, shedding another four. The word count fell with each click of the shears, but if I wanted to get anywhere near the target, I’d have to be ruthless.

A sadness overcame me. I’d spent weeks crafting my story, its rhythms and cadences redolent of my intimacy with the ocean. It spoke to, for and of me as well as the collective that shares my enthusiasm for ocean swimming. To see this exercise through to the end I would need to don the mantle of executioner, killing darlings as dispassionately as a bulldozer clearing centuries-old oaks for a freeway.

I asked myself: did the reader need to know the history of daily sea temperature recordings (107 words), how swimmers feel about shark threats (170 words) or that the former net was both an eyesore and trapped rubbish (151 words)? No. The test was always the same: whether the piece could stand without this or that sentence or paragraph. If the answer was “yes,” out it went.

I was at 1,200 words, amazed that I’d shaved more than 60 per cent off the original. I emailed my draft to the editor. That’s a wrap, I thought.

Days passed with no response. Surely The Guardian hadn’t changed its mind?

I followed up at the end of November. Yes, things were still ticking along, she said, and I’d hear in the coming weeks about further edits and a publication date.

The editor contacted me two days before Christmas.

Thanks for your patience with this. I’ve now done some more edits additionally to the ones you’ve done, and which are great. The piece is now at around 850 words, which is perfect for our purposes. Please let me know if there’s an issue, preferably today, as it’s my last day before going on leave for two weeks.

Eight-hundred-and-fifty words? I didn’t believe that a work of such brevity could be a creature of mine. Gone were ignorant swimmers, memories of childhood squad training, how I navigated a course through moored boats, and why I had to cut short a winter swim due to hypothermia. I asked my husband for his opinion. We agreed that it was faithful to the intent of the original.

In taking the word count to 835—I double-checked!—the editor had spotted what I could no longer see: further opportunity to trim fat without compromising the piece’s cohesion.

A Solitary Morning Ocean Swim is a Salty Sanctuary for Introverts like Me was published on 27 December 2022 and syndicated across The Guardian’s global network. The response at home and abroad, has been overwhelming.


Rose Saltman is an urban planner, writer and editor who lives in Sydney, Australia. She has a Master of Arts in Non-fiction Writing from the University of Technology Sydney. Her short stories have appeared in Seizure, Overland Literary Journal and The Guardian, among others. She blogs at Someplace in Sydney. You can reach her at her website.

Revising Your Nonfiction Using “Lenses”

January 19, 2023 § 3 Comments

In our latest offering of Brevity Craft Essays, accompanying our first issue of 2023, Bryan Furuness joins Sarah Layden to advocate for using “lenses” in the revision process, and they also provide a series of highly effective editing prompts. Here’s an excerpt from that essay:

When the poet Tom Lux revised his own work, he used an approach he referred to as “lenses.” He took multiple passes over a poem but only focused on one aspect per pass. If he was reading the poem through the “cliché lens,” for example, he only looked for clichés. Then he might take another pass with the “verb lens,” looking for passive voice and questioning every verb ending in -ing (e.g. the dubious “looking” and “questioning” in this sentence). Then another pass with the “line break lens,” and so on.

Lux’s approach can be useful for nonfiction writers, too, because it gives you a specific and limited job for each pass. As an added benefit, your understanding of your manuscript and its architecture will deepen with each reading draft, so that after several passes with different lenses, you’ll see the bones of the manuscript more clearly than you could after the first or second read.

Ready to try?

You can read the entire essay, and the extremely useful suggestions for “lenses” to use on your own work-in-progresss, in Our Craft Section, here.

How My Vaudevillian Great-Grandparents Taught Me to Love Shameless Self-Promotion

January 9, 2023 § 25 Comments

Hap Hazard

By Melissa Hart

I started writing when social media meant word-of-mouth, an article in the newspaper, or if you were lucky, a minute on the radio to plug your project. Before Twitter and Facebook and Instagram and TikTok and all the rest, “shameless self-promotion” ranked up there with the F-word. Somehow, readers were supposed to find out about your work without your input. And so, I blushed at the audacity of the poet I met at a writing conference wandering the halls with a wagon full of paperbacks and a t-shirt that read “ASK ME ABOUT MY BOOK!”

My own first memoir, picked up by a small press, came and went without fanfare. I barely publicized it, and the publisher didn’t, either. When a different editor purchased my second memoir, my mother—a veteran public relations manager—stepped in.

She’d learned from the best; my great-grandparents had been comic performers in circus and vaudeville, and their success depended on their ability to promote their act in surprising ways. Mom sat me down at her favorite coffeehouse in Ojai and proceeded to teach me everything they’d taught her.

“Honey,” she began, “You need to get this story out there. Figure out how it’s of use to people, then come up with fun ways to promote it.”

“Of use to people?” I repeated. “How is a memoir of use to people?”

She pointed her omnipresent purple marker at me. “Is your book inspiring, educational, or entertaining?” she asked, and answered for me. “All three. You mention Frito Boats in the second chapter—you could make a mock cooking video with your book strategically placed.”

I cringed. “Too in-your-face,” I groaned.

She pursed her lips. “You want this thing to sell? Then figure out a way to promote it.” Then she intoned my great-grandmother’s favorite line. “And make it a spectacle.”

My great-grandmother, Mary, met my great-grandfather in the early 1900s circus when she was a bareback rider, and he was a wirewalker. They developed a comedy juggling act for vaudeville and U.S.O.. She loved to recount how they flew from theater to theater in a biplane with my great-grandfather’s stage name—Hap Hazard—painted on the wings. When he neared a city, he flipped the plane upside down so people could read his words. . . the ultimate self-promotion.

Hap Hazard and Mary Hart

“Comedy was crucial back then,” my great-grandmother said more than once. Audiences reeling after World War I and struggling during the Great Depression craved entertainment. Even more so after the second World War. Audiences needed what my great-grandparents were selling.

Mary curated their decades of glossy black-and-white headshots, their posters and newspaper reviews. None of this embarrassed her. You had a product, and you figured out a way to get it into people’s hands. If that product was a circus bareback and juggling act, you literally paraded it through the streets of town alongside elephants and acrobats. If you had a vaudeville act, you flew into cities upside down. The idea of spending years perfecting one’s art and then not creating a spectacle, seemed to Mary–and to my mother–ridiculous.

I ended up making the Frito Boat video, channeling my comedic relatives to teach viewers, with mock gravitas, how to cut bags of corn chips along one side and spoon in chili and cheese. The film resonated. Directors of writing conferences saw it and invited me to present. Booksellers asked me visit their stores. I got an agent and another book deal. Mary and my mother were right.

These days, shameless self-promotion is the rule rather than the exception. Even venerable Broadway stars have taken to twerking on TikTok. My great-grandparents would approve. Social media gives us permission to celebrate our creations, to acknowledge our work and our sacrifice. It’s allowed us to give generously of our knowledge.

I’m thinking of Caseen Gaines, author of Footnotes: The Black Artists Who Rewrote the Rules of the Great White Way; he makes TikTok videos about Black history and popular culture. His recent post about two Black psychologists who helped to desegregate schools has—to date—27.5K views.

I’m thinking of queer Dominican American author Claribel Ortega whose forthright, witty social media posts helped turn her into a New York Times bestseller. I’m thinking of the fans who, like vaudeville audiences long ago, help their favorite entertainers succeed with word-of-mouth. My great-grandparents would have put their biplane up on TikTok in a hot minute and reveled in their success because they knew they had a value-adding product.

My mother and my great-grandparents are gone now, up in that happy vaudeville theater in the sky. But I sense their presence every time I launch a piece of writing or teach others to do the same.

Last summer, I taught at a writing conference, and a lovely silver-haired woman raised her hand. “I’ve got a novel coming out next month,” she told me. “I want it to find readers, but I find self-promotion vulgar.”

Melissa Hart

Around the room, other writers nodded in agreement.

Up at the podium, I suggested gently that she reframe her thinking. “Is your book inspiring, educational, or entertaining?” I asked, recalling helium balloons and trolleys and painted biplanes and circus parades. “Figure out how your book adds value to the world,” I told her. “Then come up with a way to promote it.”

“And one more thing,” I added. “Make it a spectacle.”


Melissa Hart is an Oregonian journalist and the author, most recently, of two middle-grade novels—Daisy Woodworm Changes the World and Avenging the Owl, as well as Better with Books:500 Diverse Novels to Ignite Empathy and Encourage Self-Acceptance in Tweens and Teens. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, Smithsonian, CNN, Longreads, and numerous other publications. www.melissahart.com and social media @WildMelissaHart .

A Whole Life: Essay Collection as Miscellany

January 6, 2023 § 13 Comments

By Steven Harvey

The beech tree rising in our bow window finds its own shape without any help from me. It is a gift from my friend, the artist and naturalist Dale Cochran, who walked the woods with me before I built my house spotting which trees to keep. “Definitely that one,” he said pointing to the healthy beech sapling with a split trunk, each one about as wide as my arm, that I have watched bulk up mightily over the years. He was right. In the summer it sprouts lovely, light-green leaves that turn coppery in the winter and rattle in the wind, and the bark is a smooth gray with scars that mark any blow it has taken. The word “book” can be traced back to beech tablets where the ancients carved sacred texts in runes, and in German and other modern European languages the word for book and beech are the same. As I wrote the essays that eventually filled the collection called The Beloved Republic, the tree inspired me.

The Beloved Republic began as separate essays that over a quarter century of writing became a book. While I worked on it, I raised four children and enjoyed five grandchildren with one more on the way, taught at one college, played in one musical group with whom I still perform, and lived with my wife in this house where I have spent nearly half of my life. The book had no predetermined focus. While I wrote it, I became who I am, and it tagged along, and in the shadow of the tree that looms overhead, I slowly discovered what it was about. The essay as a form began in this desultory way, as a loose collection on random subjects that Michel de Montaigne called essais, the French word for attempts. Some of the finest collections in the past likewise grew organically out of the author’s life finding their shape over time. Many, like mine, began as magazine pieces and later, almost as an afterthought, were collected in books. This kind of nonfiction miscellany has fallen out of fashion, I fear. Contemporary readers and publishers apparently prefer a focused book that drives home one idea, predetermined or discovered early by the writer. These focused collections take the shape that the author consciously gives them in advance. Thoreau’s Walden with its theme of living deliberately boldly announced in its first essay is an example.

What I admire about the miscellany is that it is held together not by a vision, discovered early and pursued single-mindedly, but by a whole life. As essayists put together such collections written over decades, they do not explore a concept or a set of related concepts; rather, they reveal who they are, and, perhaps, why they are here. Like the beech, they grow into themselves over time. It is not easy going for the reader who has to begin anew with each essay and in this the miscellany is much like a book of poems, meant to be read slowly, but as in poetry, the rewards can be great as reader joins writer on a quest to discover willy-nilly what one life is about. There is an intimacy in this method, a sense that the parts are cherished, glowing by their own light without ulterior motive.

But if the writer is lucky, the sum is greater than its parts, and a vision, as well as a life, can emerge, and that is what happened for me in my book. The glue, the ultimately unifying discovery of The Beloved Republic, is the old idea that creativity is valuable in itself, a view that goes in and out of favor. In an age when the planet and its people face unthinkable, unspeakable horrors, the need for social relevance is obvious, but as I wrote, I discovered that art generates meaning and offers beauty to a troubled planet, and in its very freshness, is profoundly spiritual and political. It generally brings out the best in us and helps us weather evil. Those who do this work form the “Beloved Republic,” a phrase E. M. Forster coined for the peaceful and fragile confederacy of kind, benevolent, and creative people in a world of tyrants, thugs, and loud-mouthed bullies. He described it as “an aristocracy of the sensitive, the considerate, and the plucky.” They are “sensitive for others as well as for themselves, they are considerate without being fussy, their pluck is not swankiness but the power to endure, and they can take a joke.” They form an invincible army of losers in the service of love. My book slowly opening in surprises over decades can be read as dispatches from this beleaguered land. It grew into the idea and, like the beech, took its own, sweet time.

Steven Harvey is the author The Beloved Republic which won The Wandering Aengus Press Award and will be published in early 2023. His books include a memoir, The Book of Knowledge and Wonder, a book-length essay, Folly Beach, and three collections of personal essays: A Geometry of Lilies, Lost in Translation, and Bound for Shady Grove.  He is a founding faculty member at the Ashland University MFA, a Contributing Editor at River Teeth, and the creator of The Humble Essayist website. He lives in the north Georgia mountains with his wife, Barbara.

36 Hours in Cobblestonia

January 2, 2023 § 6 Comments

By Russell Frank

*By early 2020, The New York Times’s 36 Hours column had been running for nearly two decades. The series — one of the Travel section’s longest-running — offers readers a recommended itinerary for a weekend trip in a bustling location…Now, 36 Hours is finally back. – New York Times, Oct. 7, 2022

**With apologies to Stan Mack’s “Real Life Funnies,” every word is guaranteed verbatim from The New York Times, except the name of the town.

With its inventive food scene, excellent beaches and “Night of the Iguana” mystique, Cobblestonia makes the perfect weekend getaway.[1] This urban jewel offers innovative restaurants, gorgeous parks and gardens, and museums that celebrate the area’s many cultures.[2] The many cobblestone, pedestrians-only streets in the town’s historic center give the city an intimacy that belies its population of over 60,000.[3]

In some ways Cobblestonia seems like a city frozen in time: cobblestone streets and clay-tile roofs, men and women in indigenous garb selling fruits and vegetables, and meticulously preserved traditions and relics dating back centuries.[4] Now, thanks to a blossoming creative scene, there are also new, ambitious restaurants and plenty of contemporary art and design to complement the old.[5] A new Cobblestonia is taking shape, and palpable energy is flowing to downtown areas.[6]

In this famously diverse city you’ll find an energetic food scene, vibrant street culture and cocktail wizardry.[7] This scenic city offers quirky museums, outdoor markets, great shopping and a creative food scene.[8] There are also outlying neighborhoods to explore, along with natural wine bars, street art and pop-up markets.[9] Just a 15-minute walk from the cobblestone alleys of the Old City, trendy restaurants and boutiques — even coffee bars that double as late-night performance venues — have blossomed.[10]

The city offers a dynamic cultural landscape, with world-class chefs, design-forward shops and energy to spare.[11] But you’ll also find a rich cultural heritage reflected in traditional temples and shrines, street food and homegrown art.[12] Compact and easy to navigate, Cobblestonia remains underrated despite its picturesque center of cobblestone streets lined with medieval pink-hued buildings, well-preserved Roman sites and dozens of churches.[13]

Beneath the grit, there’s a kinetic urban energy that can be savored in Cobblestonia’s street art, restaurants, music clubs and markets.[14] The cobblestoned district — often compared with Paris’s Montmartre, and where your hotel will likely suggest that you have dinner — is filled with traditional taverns, where bands of five to six musicians move from table to table singing folk songs and taking requests.[15]

This multicultural hub is known for its mild climate, rich culinary and craft traditions, and complex history.[16] The city is filled with art and stunning architecture, but nature, too, is an integral part of urban life.[17] Cobblestonia is laid-back and outdoorsy, but its sophistication shines in its expanding art scene, thriving fashion industry and a new generation of chefs embracing native ingredients.[18]

The city has its own distinctive culinary, wine and cultural scene.[19] There are enough old and new flavors to keep visitors satisfied for a weekend.[20] We found ourselves snapping pictures of the stray (but evidently well-fed) cats that stalk the cobblestone plazas and nap on stone staircases.[21]

Cobblestonia is emerging as a proud city, known for its progressive start-ups, energetic art scene and great dining and coffee.[22] A new generation of chefs is championing locally sourced menus, and a relaxation of liquor production laws has led to a boom in microbreweries.[23] The city, with its cobblestone streets and complex history, has become a cultural hotbed and gastro-magnet.[24]

Explore the city’s innumerable charms — ruin-studded gardens, a growing contemporary art scene, diverse regional cuisines.[25] A short walk will take you to the boutique- and gallery-lined cobblestone streets.[26] With chaotic yet charming cobblestone streets, bathhouses steaming with sulfuric waters, and crumbling Soviet factories repurposed as hipster hotels, Cobblestonia is a study in contrasts.[27]

Cobblestones? Check.[28]


Russell Frank is a folklorist by training and a journalist by trade. He worked as a reporter and editor for newspapers in California and Pennsylvania for 13 years before joining the journalism faculty at Penn State, where he has been teaching since 1998. He has visited Cobblestonia.

[1] Puerto Vallarta

[2] Victoria

[3] Troyes

[4] Cuzco

[5] Chiang Mai

[6] Rio

[7] Toronto

[8] Geneva

[9] Montreal

[10] Jerusalem

[11] Santiago

[12] Singapore

[13] Verona

[14] Johannesburg

[15] Belgrade

[16] Oaxaca

[17] Oslo

[18] Auckland

[19] Lugano

[20] Amman

[21] Montenegro

[22] Kigali

[23] Calgary

[24] Charleston

[25] Delhi

[26] Tel Aviv

[27] Tbilisi

[28] Bucharest

Reimagined Book Launch: A Brew Hall, Beer, and Books

December 16, 2022 § 7 Comments

by Nancy Jorgensen with Elizabeth Jorgensen

The bookseller tilted and steered her dolly past the bartop where green-jerseyed Packer fans lingered. In the corner, poets waited for my book event to begin, heads inclined to each other—rock tunes muffled conversation. Meanwhile, the Packer fans hurled curses at the television, blaspheming the Washington Commanders.

Raised Grain Brewing Company was not known for literary affairs, but I loved the vibe. Soaring ceiling, crisp modern architecture, comfortable seating at high-top tables or low sofas, towering tanks humming in the background. RG embraced beers that “are a reflection of our drive to branch out, break convention, and celebrate the art…”

Everyday Warrior—an India Pale Ale

When I requested the Brew Hall, Rex had said, “Sure. There’s a $300 rental fee plus a catering minimum.”

“I wish I had a budget,” I said, “but I’m hosting a book launch and celebration of writers. But I hope one hundred or more people show up—paying customers.”

“Sorry—management policy.”

I said I’d check around for free venues and maybe call back.

“Oh, f*** it!” Rex said. “I can’t turn down one hundred sales on a Sunday afternoon.” The room would be ours, no charge, from 4:00 to 6:00 p.m.

Quick Release—Amber Lager

I posted on Facebook, Instagram, and Twitter, tagging Raised Grain. I hoped to draw a crowd not only to support my book’s launch, but to justify Rex’s gift. I did an interview for my local newspaper and posted again on social media. Launch day arrived, and I looped a slideshow on a giant welcome screen—Available today: regular pours, five-ounce pours, flights!

The airy space sprawled behind the taps. White oak tables and benches marched in perfect rows. Stools and a narrow countertop hugged the perimeter. A soaring glass wall showcased RG’s state-of-the-art steel fermentation vessels.

To launch our book, Gwen Jorgensen: USA’s First Olympic Gold Medal Triathlete, my co-author and I had posed a question: How could we design an event to celebrate a community—of authors, of businesses, of our county and state?

We settled on a shared affair and invited local writers to join us. Poets, essayists, novelists, romance and young adult authors. Each would deliver a three-minute pitch on their latest title.

Book launches typically transpire in bookstores to support a literary establishment. But ours would be in a brewery. Writers and brewers share traits. Both are creatives. Both sell products. Brewers market beer. Writers peddle words. Beer devotees purchase brews to smell and/or taste. Readers buy books to see and/or hear. The two sectors traffic in sense as well as cents. We hoped to champion both.

Chasing Giants—India Pale Ale

One after the other, writers commanded the front of the room. Some read a poem or two, one told a story, several elicited laughs. The audience sipped ales, lagers, and IPAs and followed a “tasting sheet” with cover photo, title, author, genre, page count, and price. A few patrons from the bar ventured by to investigate; several literary fans wandered in, bought books, and left.

After the elevator pitches, audience members browsed the bookseller’s table while authors answered questions and signed books.

Rex checked in and seemed happy to see our people ordering taps and cans. And pleased to watch waiters zig-zagging our space to deliver pizza and chicken tenders for those who ordered via QR code.

Mello Rillo—Session Hazy IPA

As the crowd broke up, I collected my computer, bookmarks, and business cards. My co-author and I helped the bookseller pack up and cart boxes to her van.  

Then we perched at the bar—my co-author with a Haze Before the Storm (Triple India Pale Ale), me with a Paradocs Red (Imperial Red India Pale Ale)—for a quick autopsy. We surveyed sales, which weren’t stellar for any one author, but profitable for the bookseller. And judging by the glasses and mugs we spied, the brewery made money.

But what about bigger goals? Does a brewery partner well with poetry and prose? Is the whole greater than the sum of poets plus novelists plus essayists plus beer? Could two authors and one book influence more than sales?

Our afternoon highlighted eight Wisconsin authors, sixty Wisconsin readers, thirty Wisconsin brews, one Wisconsin bookstore, and two titles featuring a Wisconsin Olympic champion. Like a Badger State yeast culture that ferments into Miller High Life, Wisconsin literary culture bubbles up robust and hearty too. It appeared a literary community could thrive alongside Packer cheeseheads.

Badgerland—Hazy IPA

Suddenly, overhead lights bathed the bar—Raised Grain closes early on Sundays. I downed the last of my glass, gathered my things, and closed the tab. On my way out, I slipped Rex $100.

Rex wore a look of gratitude. “Hey, thanks. Worked out great. Let me know if you want to do this again.”

Santa’s Sack—A Christmas Ale “like a gift…”


Elizabeth Jorgensen and Nancy Jorgensen are a mother/daughter writing team. Elizabeth is a creative writing teacher, and Nancy is a music educator. They recently collaborated on a biography of their sister and daughter: Gwen Jorgensen: USA’s First Olympic Gold Medal Triathlete. Their credits include Elizabeth’s recent release, Hacking Student Learning Habits (Times 10 Publications), Nancy’s Things They Never Taught You in Choral Education (Hal Leonard) and their family memoir, Go, Gwen, Go: A Family’s Journey to Olympic Gold (Meyer & Meyer Sport).

On Publishing My Memoir While My Mother Is Living

December 6, 2022 § 21 Comments

I’ve made accusations and judgements.

By Sonya Ewan

“Do you want to hear the introduction to my book?” my mother asked me in a recent phone conversation.

A week after that conversation, as I hit “send” to submit my memoir manuscript to an agent, I flashed back to a web link that had popped up after I googled Educated, by Tara Westover. That link directed me to a book cleverly titled Educating, by LaRee Westover—Tara’s mother. On Goodreads, LaRee writes that she has always known she would write her memoir, and that some of the impetus for publishing it is Tara’s memoir. She feels “a compelling desire to shine a light of accuracy…” and tells a conflicting story to that of Educated.

In my own memoir, I’ve shared a lot about my and my mother’s time together and—spoiler alert—the details aren’t all positive. When people learn that my mother is living, they often ask whether I’m using my real name for my book, Tall: A Memoir of Growing. After careful consideration, I’ve decided that the answer is yes. And yes, I’m nervous about that. I’ve made accusations and judgements and I’ve held my mother accountable. I’ve said that I believe she has narcissist personality disorder. I haven’t used my mother’s first name in the manuscript, but our surname is the same and what I’ve written may make our family, her friends, and strangers think poorly of her (or of me). Regardless, I’ve waited as long as I can to tell my story.

As an undergrad, I experienced a practice run with both memoir and my mother’s reaction after reading it. For an autobiographical paper, I diligently interviewed my mother, quoting her verbatim with the assistance of a Casio recorder (it was 1989), and reporting what she had described to me. Yet she was disappointed with the final product—even angry about some of what I had written—which confused the heck out of me. It was also a valuable lesson that people whom I’ve interviewed won’t necessarily interpret what I write afterward as I expect they will.

While I was writing Tall, my mother re-read her copy of that college paper. This time, she said she loved it. I figured she was hinting that she imagined she’d prefer the college version of my memoir to the modern, post-therapy version.

My mother once told me about Tall: “Write it like I’m not going to read it.” A month or so later, we debated whose memory was more accurate. “I can see I’m not going to like any memoir you write,” she snapped. Later still, my mother said, “I wish I could read your book before you publish it to be sure you remember everything accurately.”

I rolled my eyes. No one remembers everything accurately. But her statement did remind me of Augusten Burroughs being sued by the Turcotte family, whom he lived with during his adolescence and then wrote about in Running With Scissors.

I’ve fantasized about my mother reacting as Mary Karr’s mom did as she was reading The Liars’ Club. I recall from The Art of Memoir that Karr’s mom repeatedly commented, “I was such an asshole.” The reality is, Karr’s mom’s was not the reaction of a narcissist mother, and I’ve acknowledged that.

Reading reviews of LaRee Westover’s Educating, I was reassured by the abundance of support expressed for Tara. And after my mother read aloud her own memoir introduction, I was less anxious about whether she might contradict me and more convinced that she would be writing about experiences that had little to do with me.

There’s no denying that my mother will love and hate anything I write about her. No doubt the experience of hearing my mother’s reaction to my memoir will be challenging. The entirety of our relationship has been challenging. It’s taken me decades to arrive here, but I’m finally at a place where I value myself more than my mother’s feelings. Ariel Leve has said in an interview on her similarly-themed memoir, An Abbreviated Life, that, “It felt like I had to write this book in order to be free.” I second that.

Sonya Ewan has contributed features to Women’s Health and The Hockey News and was a regular contributor to Albuquerque The Magazine and East Mountain Living. She lives in Minneapolis with her husband and four air-purifying plants. Find her on Instagram and Twitter @sonyaewan and read her introspective blog at sonyaewan.com.

How to Write Respectfully About Nonbinary People

November 23, 2022 § 7 Comments

By Rey Katz

More than 1 million nonbinary adults live in the U.S., about one in every 330 people, according to an estimate in a 2021 study. As a nonbinary, queer writer, I reported on how to write about trans people with respect. Nonbinary people are underrepresented in journalism and publishing. It is so important to include our community when writing creative nonfiction.

In this post, I share 3 pieces of advice to make your creative nonfiction more inclusive towards trans, nonbinary, and agender people. Inclusive writing will increase your audience. The trans community and allies will promote work that speaks respectfully and correctly about trans people.

  1. Use people’s correct names and pronouns.

If you’re quoting or referring to anyone, trans or cis, please take one minute to double check which pronouns they use, such as “they/them,” “she/her,” or “he/him.” This information is often found on a person’s website, email signature, or social media bio. If you’re not sure and you are in contact with a source, you can simply ask, “What pronouns should I use for you in my piece?” It can be frustrating and hurtful if a piece is published with the wrong pronouns, especially in print where the mistake cannot be corrected. People’s pronouns should be treated as one more fact that should be checked for veracity, just like the spelling of a name, credentials, or title.

They/them pronouns can be straightforward to use with a little practice. When most people talk about an unknown person, they use they/them pronouns naturally. “Someone brought an apple pie and I want to thank them, but I don’t know if they left already.” If you are writing about someone who uses they/them pronouns, trust your intuition for what sounds right when referring to this person as “they” or “them.” For example: “Rey Katz met with me to discuss their research. They have been working in this field for five years, after finishing their previous project.”

Verbs should be singular when used with a person’s name, but plural when used with “they.” “Rey is here,” is correct, not, “Rey are here,” even though “They are here” is correct.

If a person uses “she,” “he,” or “they” pronouns, you can go ahead and use the correct pronouns without explanation. If someone uses multiple pronouns (e.g. both “he” and “she”) you may wish to provide a brief explanation.

  1. Write about trans and nonbinary people in a similar way as you write about cisgender people.

Ask yourself, is this person’s gender identity crucial to my piece? If not, don’t mention it. Focus on introducing a source or reference with the information that matters to your narrative, for example, their name, occupation, organization, or the name of their book.  If you don’t mention that one of your sources is a male, cisgender scientist, don’t mention another source is a nonbinary, trans scientist later in the piece. Your sources’ gender might be relevant to a story about workplace discrimination, but not if you’re interviewing a medical researcher about a new breakthrough.

Don’t use the phrase “identifies as.” For example, “Rey Katz, a nonbinary writer, met with me at a coffee shop…” is more correct than “Rey Katz, who identifies as nonbinary, met with me…” Saying “identifies as” implies the writer is skeptical that this person’s identity is innate and real, which is disrespectful. Don’t say “identifies as they/them,” either. A person is not the same as their pronoun.

  1. Share and elevate the work of trans, nonbinary, and agender people, especially Black and Indigenous people and people of color.

A writer who I respect called me out on this point years ago and I am grateful. I, a white nonbinary person, had workshopped a personal essay about being nonbinary, and the only person I quoted was a white cisgender man. My classmate, a queer person of color, told me it’s important to choose whose voices we share. I replaced the quote in my essay with a quote from a trans person of color.

In your book reviews, recommendations, and lists, consider work by nonbinary and trans authors, especially people of color.

Consider citing trans experts, even if (especially if) your piece is not about being trans. It matters who you quote or interview. The authors and other experts you bring into your work gain a larger platform every time their words are shared with a new audience of your readers. Pay attention to the diversity of people you cite and interview and do the work to find and reach out to people from underrepresented communities.

We need more nonbinary and trans representation at all levels of publishing, including editors, agents, and leadership of news organizations in addition to journalists and writers. If you are in a position to hire, please consider qualified candidates who are not cisgender.

Every small step towards more widespread positive representation of trans and nonbinary people makes an impact. Together, we can uplift and share the true stories of the experts in our LGBTQ community.


Rey Katz is a nonbinary writer with an undergrad physics degree from MIT and a black belt in aikido. Their writing appears in publications such as Catapult, The Postscript, Massive Science, and Drizzle Review. They blog at nonbinaryconnection.com and post on TikTok and Twitter as @reywrites.

How My Modern Love Essay Saved My Memoir

November 14, 2022 § 9 Comments

By Mary Alice Hostetter

A gentle question from a member of my writing group is how it all started. “Don’t you think you might include your coming to terms with being a lesbian in your memoir’s arc?”

“I do not want to be the poster child for Mennonite lesbians,” I responded, perhaps more forcefully than her innocent question warranted.

I thought I was finished with the first draft of my memoir, a quiet story about growing up in a Mennonite farm family in Pennsylvania. It was a tale of trying to fit into the Mennonite community, my teenage rebellion against the rigid rules, and escaping to fit into the bigger world. Introducing the lesbian theme, I worried, would change the whole focus. After all, I didn’t even know what a lesbian was until I was an adult.

“Did you ever come out to your parents?” another member of the writing group asked.

“Interesting you should ask,” I said. “I wrote an essay about that a few years ago, and it tells the whole story.”

I had written the essay about how my gay brother and I made the decision to write “coming out letters” to my ninety-five-year-old father, a bit fearful of how he might take the news, but needing to do it nonetheless. We delighted in his surprisingly accepting response, “Well, that doesn’t seem like the sort of thing that should tear families apart.”

I shared my essay with the group, and the instructor said, “You should submit this to Modern Love.”

I knew about Modern Love essays, read them from time to time, but not religiously, and most certainly did not know that for nonfiction writers getting a Modern Love essay published was like finding the literary holy grail. Articles were written on how to write the perfect Modern Love essay. Who knew it was a thing?  If I had known that, I may have found the prospect of submitting too daunting, but I naively thought, “Why not?” and went about shortening my piece to comply with the submission guidelines.

Imagine my shock when a few weeks later I got the email from Daniel Jones, the Modern Love editor. He wanted to publish my essay. Me in the New York Times? And then I thought about the implications. It’s not that I was closeted exactly, but coming out as lesbian in the Times was a higher level of coming out than I had ever imagined. I took a deep breath, feeling already a bit exposed and vulnerable, but the idea of it also felt freeing. The notion of being fully out to family, friends, and all those readers was strangely liberating.

The essay, “Dear Dad: We’ve Been Gay for a Very Long Time,” was published, and the responses, mostly positive, started coming in from all over. Daniel Jones forwarded one to me from a young Mennonite girl in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania, where I grew up. The church was then in a bitter dispute about whether they would allow gay members, and a self-righteous intolerance was splitting both the church and families apart. Her note expressed gratitude for my essay and ended with, “Your essay gave me reason to hope in very dark times.”

I was working on what I thought were final revisions of my memoir, sticking with a variation on what I had planned as my original arc, continuing to skirt around any explicit mention of coming to terms with being a lesbian. It was as if my story ended with an acceptance of being happily single, what my mother chose to call “an unclaimed blessing,” finding the term spinster derogatory.

However, after coming out to the hundreds of thousands of NYT readers, I realized that keeping the lesbian piece out of my memoir didn’t make any sense. And, if including it had the potential of “giving hope in dark times,” if only for a few, omitting it seemed an act of callous cowardice. A thoughtful reader would certainly sense important information was being held back and suspect that what was on the page, though not dishonest, was incomplete.

I began rewriting the memoir, keeping a new and more honest ending in sight, discovering markers along the way I had not previously noticed and digging deeper to explore those. I knew an introverted writer may not be poster child material, no matter the cause, but I could feel in my bones the new ending was where my story needed to go, an ending that might never have happened had the essay I wrote, mainly for myself, not been published in Modern Love.

Mary Alice Hostetter grew up the tenth of twelve children in a Mennonite farm family. She had a career in education and human services before devoting more time to her writing. Among her publications are The New York Times (Modern Love), Gettysburg Review, Hippocampus, Prime Number, Appalachian Review, storySouth and HuffPost Personal. Her debut memoir is Plain: A Memoir of Mennonite Girlhood (University of Wisconsin Press, December, 2022).  She lives with her wife in Charlottesville, Virginia. For more information, visit her website.

Hello, It’s Your Book Proposal. Stop Ignoring My Calls!

September 27, 2022 § 4 Comments

Writing your proposal will help you finish your book.

By Lisa Cooper Ellison

You’ve been avoiding it for years, but deep down you know it’s time. I get your procrastination. What artist wants to work on a business document, let alone one with nicknames like “soul crusher” and “creativity killer”?  

Like you, I once banished book proposals to the level of hell that contains root canals, moth-ball-scented stickers, and elementary school violin ensembles. But working on my proposal—and helping others build ones that have sold—has given me a new perspective on how, and more importantly, when, to work on one.

It’s sooner than you might think.

Top reasons for query rejections include:

  • lackluster writing
  • not understanding your target audience
  • someone else already published your idea
  • being an unknown quantity.

While revising your manuscript is the only way to improve your prose, working on certain parts of your proposal before completing your manuscript can help with the rest.

Author Platform Assessment  

Of the parts of the proposal emerging writers like to avoid, the About the Author section ranks just below the Marketing Plan. We’ve been told size matters, and most writers fear their author platforms won’t measure up. Here’s the good news: you don’t need to be a social media influencer to sell your book. You must, however, be able to reach readers. Bylines, guest posts, podcast interviews, and speaking engagements are a few common ways writers engage with their audience. These platform side hustles have the added benefit of helping you identify and refine your book’s narrative arc.

Got platform envy? There’s a simple cure. Assess your author platform well before you begin querying. To do this, complete two versions of your proposal’s About the Author section. In the first, create a snapshot of your current reach, including publications, speaking engagements, social media numbers, and people who could possibly write reviews or blurbs.

If your pages include a lot of white space, don’t panic.

In step two, write an aspirational About the Author section that includes the things you’d love to do, as well as your ideal reviewers and blurb writers. This isn’t just daydreaming. Imagining your successes will make you more likely to take the steps needed to turn your aspirations into legitimate entries on your final proposal.  

Comparable Titles Spot Check

Comparable titles—“comps”—help you understand your topic’s landscape. Jane Friedman suggests narrative and traditional nonfiction writers do an exhaustive comp title search before getting started. I heartily agree. Who wants to write a proposal or spend years on a draft only to find out another author has beaten you to the bookshelf?

Memoirists might wonder when to begin their official search, given how long their projects might take. Start too soon, and you can end up with a list of great books that are no longer relevant. Start too late, and you might find out someone else has written a book about a similar experience from the same angle.

If you’re a memoirist, the best time to build your tentative comps list is after you understand your personal story, but before you’ve finished your book. This will allow you to identify which conversations your book belongs to. Once you know the conversations, and the gaps within them, you can figure out the fresh new thing you’ll say. This might lead you to explore your book from a different angle, research an element you might not have considered, or try a unique structure that ties everything together without feeling crushed by rejections, or like you’re starting over.

If you’re looking to publish traditionally, this is essential. Gone are the days when you can write solely about your personal experiences. Memoirs that are currently selling are about how the author’s life intersects with something else.

Carol Smith’s Crossing the River (Abrams) is about what feature writing taught her about grief. Poe for Your Problems (Running Press) by Catherine Baab-Muguira shows you how Edgar Allen Poe can help your neuroses. Daniella Mestyanek Young’s Uncultured (St. Martins) explores the cults we malign, the ones we unwittingly sanction, and the brutal conformity both require.

Finding your angle and pumping up your platform while working on your draft will give you the confidence to write clearly and query more effectively.

So what are you waiting for? Answer your proposal’s damn call!


Want to understand the proposal and learn some tricks that will help you not just nail yours but motivate you to complete your book? Join Lisa for The Three Essential Questions Every Agent Hopes Your Book Proposal Answers on 9/28 and Writing the Proposal: How to Finish and Sell Your Nonfiction Book on 10/5.

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