Why Finding the Right Image Can Be So Challenging

March 20, 2023 § 13 Comments

By Ben Berman

I place the six-pack of beer on the counter.

The clerk looks up at me, then down at the beer, then back up at me, then leans in and says, I thought I was gonna have to ID when you first walked in, but now that you’re up close I can see all the gray hairs on your head.

I’m not sure whether to be flattered that he thinks I look twenty years younger than I actually am or upset that he’s noticed that I am starting to go gray.

Although, after I get home and examine my head in the mirror, I realize that there is something about the word, gray, that feels off—as though it is too generic a word to capture the intricate blending of complementing colors sprouting from my head.

Later, at dinner, I ask my wife and daughters if they will help me find a more evocative, surprising, and accurate description of my hair.

My wife suggests that my head looks like the lovechild of a panda and koala bear, but my seven-year-old seems downright offended that my wife would compare me to animals that are so adorably cute.

What about storm clouds? I offer. Or campfire smoke?

Both of these images seem somewhat accurate in terms of color, and I like that they speak to the impending dangers of a midlife crisis. But there is something too billowy about their presence. The grays on my head aren’t about to be blown away, and I need an image that is more accurately textured.

Salt and pepper, my wife suggests.

That one’s familiar, of course, and I kind of like it. But it feels imprecise. My hair is mostly the color of pepper with a little dash of salt mixed in. Pepper and salt would be more accurate, but even then, the secondary meaning of the word pepper seems to suggest that it is the black peppered about.

Part of the challenge is that I want to find an image that speaks to the rapid changes of aging. For forty years, I have enjoyed thickly settled jet-black hair, and now all of a sudden, it is as though the top of my head is being gentrified—all these little white clusters popping up all over the place.

I think your hair is beautiful, says my five-year-old. Like the color of a princess’ poop.

This comparison is certainly surprising, evocative and tonally complex, but unless that princess has been taking iron supplements it is also totally inaccurate. And yet, I appreciate the absurdity of my five-year-old’s suggestion and how it frees my mind to traverse the surreal.

It’s never easy coming up with an image that works on both a literal and figurative level, and I am looking for something that is both visually accurate but also reflective of my resistance to the fact that my youthfulness is beginning to fade.

My hair’s not gray, I suddenly say. It’s Dorian Gray.

My daughters look at me like I am an idiot, and even though there isn’t anything visual about that line, there is something about the mixture of playfulness and seriousness that I like.

I’ve always considered myself young at heart, but now my body is starting to tell a different story.

And later, when I sneak into the bathroom and use tweezers to pluck a white hair or three, I can’t help but recognize what feels like an ancient literary pull, a deep and existential tug.

From Writing While Parenting © Ben Berman, 2023. Used by permission of Able Muse Press.


Ben Berman is the author of three books of poems and the forthcoming book of flash essays, Writing While Parenting. He has won the Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry, has twice been shortlisted for the Massachusetts Book Awards, and has received awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, New England Poetry Club and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches creative writing classes at Brookline High School. You can reach Ben at his website.

AWP: All Writers Pining (to be there)

March 9, 2023 § 32 Comments

Another year, another AWP

By Allison K Williams

Another AWP, another year of watching AWP happen on social media. Writer friends and writer acquaintances are coordinating meet-ups and announcing their readings. Editors I admire are posting about their panels, and how their panels went. Everything is liminal. Or intersectional. Or intersectionally liminal. In a few days, countless editors, writers and journal staffers will depart the giant conference in Seattle, heading back to their home institutions with swag bags, connections and newly autographed books.

But even if we’re not meandering the aisles of the giant book fair, awkwardly avoiding eye contact with big-deal writers we admire (we don’t want to look like fangirls) or hoping the staff of the magazine that just published our work will spontaneously recognize us (because introducing ourselves might be bragging), we’re still in this together. So if like me, you’re at home watching the literary world scroll by, you can still recreate the AWP experience.

First, you’ll need wine. Pour half a plastic cup of unfortunately-sharp white, and sip politely (hide those winces!) as you pull from your shelves every literary journal, small-press book, and poetry collection. Arrange the books on your dining-room table in a pleasing display. Rearrange three times. Settle on the original arrangement—it should be about the work.

Find the last free tote bag you got from a conference, NPR funding drive, or those Girl Scouts at the Super Walmart when you bought six boxes of Thin Mints. Fill the bag with twelve bookmarks, two souvenir magnets, five pens bearing the names of businesses you don’t remember patronizing, and some sticky notes. Print out the first fifty pages of your newest manuscript, just in case, and slip it into your tote bag while reciting your elevator pitch like a mantra.

Using Google Images, download photos of Dinty W. Moore, Terese Mailhot, Sue William Silverman, Ronit Plank, Lindsay Wong, the editor of any literary magazine you’ve ever wanted to be published in, and all your writer friends on Facebook. Create a slideshow, setting the time to 1 second per photo. As the pictures flash, guess who each person is. Each time you get one right, choose a book from your pleasing display and put it in your tote bag. Each time you get one wrong, practice saying, “It’s so great to see you! How is your work going?” and estimate how many minutes of conversation it would take to identify the person you’re talking to and whether you have in fact met before.

Scroll through Twitter, liking the tweets and following anyone using the #AWP23 hashtag. Retweet anything that makes you smile wryly.

Browse the books in your pleasing display and ask yourself of each one: Do I know this author personally? If so, why did they only sign their name on the flyleaf and not something that says how great I am and how much they can’t wait to be beside me on the bestseller list?

Turn the lights down. Put on a smooth jazz playlist. Go to that YouTube video of the coffee shop sounds and turn it all the way up. Pour yourself a beverage you actually like and call a writer you met anywhere last year, on speakerphone. Count how many times one of you says, “I’m sorry, can you repeat that?” As you converse, look through your display for any journals in which that writer’s work appears and add them to your tote bag. When you hang up, flee to the bathroom, lock yourself in and look through your tote bag journals. Find a piece so powerful, all you can do is lean your forehead against the coolness of the wall and wish you had written it, even though you have never even contemplated making a poem in Sapphics.

The next morning, visit the nearest coffee shop and order your usual. Go to Brevity’s list of craft essays and read six of them. Every time you find the word “ruminate,” drink. Scan the coffee shop. Does anyone look like they might be a writer? See if you can work up an excuse to talk to them without looking like a doofus. If they refuse to start a conversation, slink away, then drink. If they chat enthusiastically but are not a writer after all, drink. If you can’t figure out how to end the conversation gracefully, drink. Eventually you can excuse yourself to pee.

Go back home on foot. Enjoy the blissful silence. Leaf through the last few books in your table display and just take anything you want. Look at the Acknowledgements and start writing down agent names. One of them’s gotta be right for you. Carry the tote bag around your house for the next two days until you set it down to pick up something else and forget where you’ve left it. Gently mourn.

When you trip over the bag tomorrow, find the poem you loved in the bathroom and read it again. Imagine the writer you love most in the world feeling that way about your work. Imagine AWP happening in your house, and know that it kind of is, that you are a ‘real’ writer, that you’re allowed to talk to any author you want via tweets or emails or handwritten cards, that it doesn’t matter whether or not they talk back. Know that you’re part of this world, no matter where you are.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Need a writing event at home? Join her for Memoir Proposal Bootcamp April 1-2. Skip the struggle and write most or all of your proposal in a weekend with professional guidance and group support. More info/register here.

A Learned Lesson About Sharing Writing Before It’s Ready

March 6, 2023 § 5 Comments

By Jessica Carney

I bombed one of my first readings in the strangest place you can bomb—a hospice room.

As I was finishing writing my first book, my grandma had a medical crisis and was moved into hospice care. She was alert and not in too much pain, and because there are only so many things to do in a hospice room, my mom suggested I read some of my work-in-progress to her. It seemed like a good idea. The only problem with that plan was that my book was a draft, and some of it was rough.

My grandma’s regular room in the assisted-living facility had knickknacks that made the space feel like home, like the always-full candy dish she insisted visitors sample. Her drab hospice room was devoid of all that. Still, the space was made warm by family members buzzing in and out and by my grandma herself, who continued to be the sweetest person on earth. She was quite at peace with everything. 

She said, “I’ve lived a good life.”

So many staff from the assisted-living facility came to visit that my mom put a handwritten sign on the door: “Family Only.” My grandma wanted to see everyone, but the number of visitors was exhausting her. The sign didn’t work. Each staff member assumed they were the special exception to the rule because my grandma made them feel like they were. 

My grandma was originally estimated to have less than a week to live. I’d been by her room at least briefly every day, each time thinking that when I said goodbye to her it was going to be for the last time. Then, something unexpected happened. She stopped declining.

“Do you feel like you’re dying?” my aunt asked her. She said no. Although she felt ready, the universe wasn’t ready for her to go yet. Honestly—somewhat selfishly—neither were we. 

Given the bonus time, my grandma’s obituary was drafted and she approved it. She also approved her own urn, which still seems like an overly practical move to me. And we planned my reading. My mom, who had edited my book, suggested I read the chapter about former President Clinton coming to visit the venue where I worked in the leadup to the Iowa caucuses—a chaotic and funny story.

“Are you sure? That one?” I asked, feeling somewhere deep down that the chapter wasn’t ready to read.

But I agreed, thinking it would make my family happy. When I got to her room, the vibes were off. Everyone was having a hard time living in limbo, and we were all looking for a distraction. I pulled out my pages, began reading, and immediately started sweating. Hearing this chapter out loud, I realized that as I described my coworkers’ quirks, I sounded more mean than funny. Instead of highlighting the absurdity of the situation (i.e., preparing for the hordes of politically curious Iowans), I sounded annoyed. This piece of nonfiction wasn’t ready to go. 

A few paragraphs in, not one person in the room had laughed. I felt myself speeding up and breathing at weird times. The tension in my voice made the parts that were (maybe) funny—really unfunny. My grandma tried to follow along, she’s unfailingly polite, but there was no mistaking the boredom in her expression.

“Boy, that’s not going to make you any friends,” my aunt said after I was done.  

After that awkward reading, I didn’t read any more passages at hospice. Something amazing did happen, though. My grandma got out of hospice. She moved with her knickknacks back into her regular room. She wasn’t ready to go after all. 

I’ve learned with nonfiction—humor especially—that you must get all your thoughts out on the page first and then pull back and analyze the work. After you write a rough draft and grumble about whatever bothered you, then you can zoom out and find the humor in it. A humorous piece isn’t ready unless you’ve made that full transition. No one wants to read a rant. 

In my haste to share my writing, I forgot that humorous writing is almost never funny on the first draft, at least mine isn’t. I’m nicer and more self-deprecating in the second and third drafts. Writing mean things about people generally isn’t funny. Counterintuitively, you have to be nice to be funny. Being nice to others is certainly a life lesson I can take from my grandma.

Visiting someone you thought you said goodbye to for the last time is kind of a wild experience. We only sometimes talk about her hospice stay, because we can’t possibly talk about the serious stuff all of the time. Instead, we have to find the humor. Like the fact that her urn is gathering dust in the back of a closet.


Jessica Carney has essays published in HuffPost, Shondaland, and ManifestStation among other outlets. She’s currently querying a book about her 15 years as an event planner and all the chaos and times plans went awry. Jessica lives in Iowa with her spouse and her dog, Lucy. Learn more at her website.

Why Write When There are Thousands of People Out There Not Reading Your Work?

March 1, 2023 § 20 Comments

By Ben Berman

We were at the home of some friends when I found myself in a conversation with their six-year-old son.

My dad told me that you’re a writer, he said.

I am, I said.

Then let me ask you something, he said. How come I’ve never read anything you wrote?

That’s a good question, I said.

Think about it, he said. Right now there are thousands of people out there who aren’t reading any of your books.

He shook his head and walked away, leaving me all alone in the kitchen.

I grabbed a slice of lukewarm pizza and started laughing to myself. I’d recently published a small book of short prose and was well aware of all those people out there not reading it. It got me thinking about one of the two recurring dreams that I’d been having of late, which involved me walking into a bookstore to give a reading and seeing that there was only one person in the audience.

This, in fact, actually happened to me once, and although I laughed it off at the time—cracked some joke about the sound of one hand clapping—it was one of those moments that remind you of the fine the line between humility and humiliating.

We left our friends’ house shortly afterward, and although it was getting late we decided to give our five-year-old a bath.

Giving our five-year-old a bath is always a bit of a production: she likes to bring trays of Tupperware into the tub with her and pretend that she’s the star of some warped Disney film.

Look, I overheard her say at one point as I was walking by. I know you think that you killed my parents. But I have news for you. It is I who poisoned your parents!

Then she started laughing this evil, maniacal laugh.

I have no idea what the premise of her story was, but I wasn’t about to ask because if she knew that I was eavesdropping, she would have immediately stopped the show.

And as I stood in the hallway listening in, I started thinking about the other recurring dream that I’d been having as of late. In this one, I am taking a shower and when I step out, I realize that there is a full crowd of people waiting for me to read. I walk up to the podium and not only do I not have my book with me, I’m not wearing any pants.

I had always assumed that this was simply the converse of the first dream—rather than showing up with something to say and finding no one there, I show up with nothing to say and find everyone there.

But as I listened to my daughter play so freely in the bath—her imagination wandering in the most surprising and delightful of ways—I wondered if this dream was actually about the tension between the pleasures of writing and the pressures of being a writer.

On my better days, I’m able to compartmentalize the two. But whenever I’ve sat down to write, lately, I’ve found myself worrying about book sales and Goodreads ratings, about the reviews that people were writing and the reviews that people weren’t writing.

My five-year-old was starting to sing some song that could only be described as a ballad to her bum. I couldn’t make out all the lyrics, though, because she was laughing so hard as she belted it out.

And I realized that if I wanted to reclaim the pleasures of writing, I couldn’t worry about all those thousands of people not reading my books. Because that’s not why we write. We write for that single fleeting moment, as Merce Cunningham says, when [we] feel alive.

From Writing While Parenting © Ben Berman, 2023. Used by permission of Able Muse Press.


Ben Berman is the author of three books of poems and the forthcoming book of flash essays, Writing While Parenting. He has won the Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry, has twice been shortlisted for the Massachusetts Book Awards, and has received awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, New England Poetry Club and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches creative writing classes at Brookline High School. You can reach Ben at his website.

How to Stop Feeling Anxious When Telling a Deeply Personal Story: You Can’t

February 23, 2023 § 11 Comments

By Andrea Askowitz

The morning of a teaching gig at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, I woke up panicked, so I went for a run. The day was brisk, the way this Miami girl remembered the Philadelphia fall weather more than 30 years ago.

The Trustees Council of Penn Women invited me to teach storytelling at their annual conference alongside Meredith Stiehm, my college best friend and tennis partner. Meredith created the TV show Cold Case and wrote for ER and Homeland. The other presenters: one of the developers of the COVID-19 vaccine, a candidate for mayor of Philadelphia, and a former Congresswoman, who’s also Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law. I wondered: Why was I invited?

I ran up Locust Walk (Penn’s Main Street), past the counseling center, where my tennis coach sent me when my grade point average fell below 2.5. I remembered sitting on Dr. Hall’s couch feeling so dumb compared to my ivy league classmates.

I was an athletic admit and spent my college years feeling out-classed. I like to lead with my insecurities, so my classmates knew my SAT score was 1090. Once, in a drinking game that required nicknames, a woman from Connecticut was Pearl Necklace; a man—6’4”—was Nose Bleed; I was 1090.

I ran past the metal tables where Meredith helped me re-write a paper. I’d gotten a D. After her help, I got a C-. Now, running on campus, I felt like 1090 again.

In the shower after my run, I incorporated the Wim Hof method, which is two minutes of cold water. Cold water improves focus. I do two cold minutes whenever I teach or perform. This time, holy shit. Philadelphia cold is not the same as Miami cold. I counted to 60 twice and turned off the water.

Black spots formed in front of my eyes. I swung my arms wildly and snatched a towel, then made it to the bed, half blind. This brain freeze was way beyond any frozen lemonade I’d sucked down too fast at the Farmer’s Market.

My head pounded. I needed to relieve tension, but was running out of time so I grabbed my phone, opened Google and tapped Porn Hub. Then, I had an out-of-body experience. I could see myself from above. I thought: This is how they’ll find me. Alone in a hotel bed, naked, phone in hand. My wife will know what happened. She’ll declare: death by anxiety.

I got dressed, hit the bathroom one more time, then went to teach 80 distinguished Penn alumnae.

Since I like to lead with my insecurities, I told the group “I’m not sure why I was invited, but now that I’m here, Meredith asked me to tell you how I got into writing.” Meredith laughed, but I knew she worried what I was about to say might be too revealing for this buttoned-up crowd.

I told them how 20 years ago, I was a single lesbian who got pregnant on my own. At the time, I thought I’d be waiting until my kid got to college before anyone would touch me again. Then a man I vaguely knew from work offered to give me a massage. I thought “massage” meant sex. Lesbian or not, I went for it.

I acted out the part where he rubbed my pregnant belly and boobs, full on. I explained how he worked his way up my legs and how my clothes landed on the floor. I demonstrated my frog position by lifting one leg, wide. His thumbs kept rubbing against me, I told them, and that’s when I begged the man to get in bed with me. Instead, the massage man stopped, stepped back, and said, “Your kitty is pretty.” Then he left.

I swore back then I’d never tell a soul. Then, I told the Penn women, I went to my writing class. My teacher gave a prompt, which could have been a time you were desperate and pathetic. Or maybe she threw out a single word like, cat. Whatever it was, I wrote about the massage. When it was my turn to read, I wanted to pass, but no one had ever passed. So, with my heart pounding in my ears, I read my story.

My classmates howled. They leaned over, slapping the table. They laughed so hard, some had tears. I’m sure none of my classmates were pregnant lesbians who’d thrown themselves at a man, but by the way they reacted, I felt understood, even loved. That’s when I knew I wanted to become a writer and teacher.

Following my story of the story, The Penn women applauded. One woman stood up and said, “I want to be a pregnant lesbian,” and I knew I’d nailed it. Then, I gave the group their writing prompt: Your most humiliating moment.

After the designated time to write, a few women shared their stories with the group, we workshopped, and it was over. As I gathered to leave, a line formed in front of me, like always when I share something vulnerable. Woman after woman told me a humiliating story and I realized I wouldn’t want to stop feeling anxious because that vulnerability is what people connect to. Bad SAT scores or not, I know how to get people to open up. That’s why I was invited.


Andrea Askowitz is the author of the memoir My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy. She’s written for The New York Times, Salon, Washington Post, Huffington Post, The Writer, and Glamour. She’s the co-host and producer of the podcast Writing Class Radio. Find her on social media @andreaaskowitz.

How to Write About the Boy You Once Loved: A Guide by My 18-Year-Old Students (and Me)

February 14, 2023 § 4 Comments

By Maddy Frank

Assert that past you is a fool compared to present you. Past you had crushes on boys who were wrong for her. Past you swooned. Past you was influenced by swoopy hair and smirks. Present you would never stoop so low. She writes about it, but she does not succumb to it. She has narrative distance from herself.

Describe any middle or high school love interest with a healthy dose of grace. He was actually quite nice to you. He was in upper-level math. His swoopy hair was moderately becoming. He was an 11th grader, but he was also a god amongst men.

Admit that past-you, though still a fool, had decent taste.

Add in a rival. Not only will this lend credibility to your taste in boys, but it will also give the reader someone to root against. (They will not be able to root against the boy, because the swoopy hair thing he has going on distracts from his flaws.) This rival should preferably be a frenemy—more interesting than a friend, more emotionally complex than an enemy.

The narrator of this story, you, should be slightly more mature and funny and self-aware than her peers. She must also be slightly less pretty. You want your readers to relate to you, but you don’t want them to feel like narcissists because of it.

Tell the story of how you met the boy, how you fell in love, how your feelings were reciprocated and/or rejected and/or reciprocated and then subsequently rejected. There will probably be a scene from prom. There will definitely be a scene by the lockers. If you’re lucky, there will be a kiss. (Note: If you’re unlucky, there will also be a kiss.)

Acknowledge that your story is cliché, commonplace. Acknowledging this gives you a free pass to lean into it. You know you are not special, and knowing that makes you special. Not all love is patient and kind and blind, but yours was.

Write a paragraph about how this love has stayed with you despite your best efforts. Write about the hurt you still feel and the pictures you still look at, the ones where you’re in the backyard of his parents’ house on that swing set that’s one push away from falling apart. Write about your fear of change that aches and heartbreak that tears up your liver and kidneys and pancreas. Write about how past you and present you feel awfully similar. Write about how that scares you, present you.

Delete that paragraph.

Make another joke about the swoopy hair.

End the love story with you, the narrator, alone. Successful relationships make for unsuccessful essays. You didn’t end up with the boy, but you learned something new about yourself along the way (probably about no longer trusting your heart, never mind that it’s the boy that did this to you, that continues to do this to you). You do not feel good. You do not feel bad. You feel bittersweet about this journey.  

Maddy Frank is a Third Year Fellow in creative nonfiction at Washington University in St. Louis. When she’s not teaching the undergrads, she’s skateboarding around campus and picking up cool rocks. Her work has appeared in Driftwood Press and Sheila-Na-Gig.

Publicity Lessons: A Cautionary Tale

January 26, 2023 § 20 Comments

By Linda Murphy Marshall

Except for a book I co-authored on the South African “click” language Xhosa, this is my first book, so most of the advice I offer I learned looking through a rearview mirror. I’ve made mistakes.

Even if you can afford a publicity team, they’re not holding your hand 24/7, and their tenure doesn’t extend indefinitely after your book publication. You’re on your own.

* Approach friends or publications willing to include a review or interview, if that’s your goal, but make sure you have enough lead time, at least three months.

* Submit your manuscript to Kirkus, though there’s a fee. I’ve shamelessly parlayed my starred review into a major publicity plug. There’s no guarantee they’ll favorably review your book, but you can choose not to have it published, or can cherry pick words/phrases you like, even if those positive words are drowning in dross.

* Build a website. I did not have one initially and, given my lack of technical expertise, hired a talented web designer to create mine. In the do-as-I-say-not-as-I-do category, make sure you know how to update it. I’m a linguist, but honestly, the instructions seem like a language I will never master, so that has been challenging.

* Court libraries. I wrote an e-mail to everyone in my address book (but only bcc contacts) asking them to request that their library buy my book. You’re just asking them to do something you can’t do, while also getting the name of your book “out” there.

* Approach bookstores and libraries from your hometown or — if different — where your book takes place, in my case a suburb of St. Louis, where I grew up. Reach out to your undergraduate university and, if relevant, graduate university. The goal is to appear in your school’s Alumni Notes, the least the school can do, considering the boatload of money you or your parents or someone else paid.

* Find your themes and unique qualities: Ask yourself what makes your book “valuable and different.” What are the sub-themes running through it? In my case it was languages and translation. Capitalize on any and all connections.

* Order swag: stickers for signings, custom bookmarks, posters for book festivals and book signings. My bookmarks have the image of my book on the front, and on the back an excerpt of the Kirkus Starred Review and my website link. You can hand them out wherever you are; not everyone wants to buy your book on the spot.

* Sign up for a portable payment device (Square, Venmo, PayPal) so you are ready to sell your book at festivals, bookstores, or book groups.

* Research contests and submit your book; decide how much you are willing to invest because they can be costly, then choose wisely.

* Talk to book clubs in real life and on zoom. Add book discussion questions to your website to make it easier for groups to find traction.

* Write reviews: if someone says they loved your book, pounce, ask them to please write a review. You need the reviews or your book will disappear.

* Think outside the box: in my memoir I compare my father’s relationship to model trains to Candice Bergen’s father’s relationship to his ventriloquism dummy, so I contacted her on her official website. A former U.S. Senator, Claire McCaskill, is from my home state, Missouri, and currently lives in the suburb where my memoir takes place, so I contacted her on her website. Have I heard from either of them? No. But I’m no longer afraid to reach out to make those connections.

* Be bold. If you’re an introvert, step outside your comfort zone and talk/share/push/plug/ submit/insert your book into every conversation.

As they say in basketball, you only make the shots you take…Good luck!


Linda Murphy Marshall has a Ph.D. in Hispanic Languages and Literature and an MFA in Creative Writing. Her memoir, Ivy Lodge: A Memoir of Translation and Discovery, received a starred review from Kirkus. Her essays and stories have appeared in The Los Angeles Review, The Catamaran Literary Reader, The Ocotillo Review, Mom Egg Review, Under the Gum Tree, and elsewhere. Two of her paintings were featured in literary magazines.

She is also a Trustee for the National Museum of Language and a docent at the Library of Congress in Washington, D.C. Her second memoir comes out in 2024.

Speaking Truth to Power: An Interview with Elissa Bassist

January 13, 2023 § 4 Comments

By Summer Koester

Elissa Bassist

I first discovered Elissa Bassist—teacher, humor writer, and editor of the “Funny Women” column on The Rumpus—as a student of her “funny personal essays” class. Her wit, hilarity, and generosity won me over instantly. Here she talks about her debut memoir Hysterical and the importance of using our voice.

Summer Koester: You write about how people hate women’s voices. I found the only way I can say things without annoying people is to say them in a pirate voice. How is humor a way to be heard? 

Elissa Bassist: Author Vivian Gornick, in her writing guide The Situation and the Story, writes about her own voice: “the one I lived with wouldn’t do at all; it whined, it grated, it accused; above all, it accused.” People listen to a joke when they may ignore a sob story or criticism, or an accusation. Laughter is an emotional reaction and jokes trick people into feeling something for you, into hearing you, even into understanding you. Jokes about DJing can get across your point about rape culture in a more palatable, entertaining way.

SK: You joke that “it took eleven years only to write Hysterical.” Meanwhile, people compose entire novels within the month of November. Do you think that your book would be the tour de force it is without that ten-year gestation period? 

EB: I needed one decade just to learn how to sit in a chair and look at a blank screen without crying. MFA programs, which are 2-3 years, aren’t long enough. Writing school should be as long as medical school + residencies–it takes that long to develop a “writing practice” and to “find your voice” and to experiment with syntax to see which sentence structures are right for you and to read everything and to learn how to give/receive feedback and to unlearn the bullshit about publishing and to revise (and revise and revise) and to meet the right therapist who will listen to you complain about how hard writing is and how long it takes. 

SK: How did you figure out what your story was? 

EB: I’d wanted to have a book idea before I wrote, but I had to write to figure out my book idea. And the book idea changed with every draft and every rejection. Sometimes I got closer and sometimes farther away. An agent once told me to “make a mess.” Mess and rejection are ways forward. And then, after nine years, you close your eyes and point to a story on a list, and that’s your story now. 

Summer Koester

SK: After writing a political satire inspired by one of your classes, I emailed you and asked if I should use a pseudonym before publishing or expect death threats to my family for mocking heavily armed populations. You said, “No one I know has received death threats for their satire; and yet, I have received death threats just because I am a woman writing about my experiences.” Can you speak to that?

EB: Not without a stranger asking me to kill myself. 

SK: Fair enough. Since that email, I have been called a “child killer” and equated to Nazis and Al-Qaeda for my satire and reported articles. My friend, who runs a popular humor and satire blog, lost her job as attorney general for the state of Alaska from posting disparaging jokes about the governor. (ACLU sued on her behalf and won, but she still suffers the fallout.) What responsibility do writers have in speaking truth to power, even at the risk of being canceled/losing jobs/social shaming, etc.?

EB: “It’s the writer’s job to tell society what it pretends it doesn’t know,” said Mona Elthawy, author of The Seven Necessary Sins for Women and Girls. It’s the writer’s job! We know things others don’t (or won’t say), and it’s our responsibility to tell everyone. I’m glamorizing it, but: if we can make art from our experiences, expertise, feelings, thoughts, opinions, outrages, insights, problems, point of view, voice, privilege, and tragedies (especially tragedies)–then shouldn’t we? We should. And we should utilize and develop this art rather than doubt and squander it.

There’s so much fucked-up shit happening, and people are counting on our silence. Speaking out—about anything, about bias and abuse especially—is just not cute, we’ve been told, and people don’t want us to get away with it.

Big picture, your friend losing her job is part of a current backlash and timeless movement that includes overturning Roe. Women who speak freely are just asking for consequences. Most recently, Johnny Depp made suing a woman over her public disclosure (that disclosed nothing specific) look righteous. Yet again, what was being adjudicated wasn’t Should a man be penalized for abusing a woman; it’s Can we penalize her for telling us about it.

Writing is risk-taking–and a woman who writes faces more legal problems than a woman who doesn’t–but I’ve lost more from risking nothing. Not “speaking truth to power” is the same impulse we have not to report our own heart attacks because no one believes us anyway. 

I think that if you have a voice, and you know what to do with it, then use it. Use it to make bad actors uncomfortable and to mock the status quo and to tell society what it pretends it doesn’t know. That’s how change happens. 

SK: When Amber Heard spoke up about spousal abuse (but didn’t name Johnny Depp), she got sued for speaking up, and then the public eviscerated her on social media. By then, your book was in production. After the Depp-Heard verdict, was there anything you would have added to Hysterical

EB: I would have added the Heard-Depp trial as an example of how women are sued for defamation (and lose) even for things they don’t say. And I would have written about the Dobbs verdict as the legalization of silencing–of silencing people who can get pregnant and silencing people who help them and advocate for them and educate them and write about them. Dobbs also confirmed that we’ve always been right to “be hysterical” and have always been convinced otherwise. We should be hysterical. Not being hysterical is insane. We live in a world of example after example of stripping women’s speech rights and of using “hysterical” against us, of using our emotions and our fears against us, to contain us, and if you’re not losing your shit in public right now, then what are you doing?

SK: For a long time, I thought that “write like a motherfucker” meant making paper bleed until your words punched a human in the soul. It was only later that I realized Cheryl Strayed meant “write a lot.” What does “write like a motherfucker” mean to you?

EB: “Work hard.” When I wrote to Sugar/Cheryl, I wasn’t working hard. I was complaining/panicking/spiraling like a motherfucker. And she called me out as the spiraling, panicked complainer I was. Fact-check: It didn’t take me 11 years to write my book. For ~6 years I was complaining about writing (and publishing) my book. But I wasn’t writing. Because I didn’t have a writing practice. It took ~4 years to develop a writing practice. 

SK: So how long did it actually take you to write Hysterical

EB: 11 days.

SK: !!!!?! Many of us are working on our own memoirs, and it’s a bleak market for memoirists. Parting advice for us peasants?

EB: Is it a bleak market? Does anyone really know anything about the market? Above I should have factored in the years I tried to write the book that agents wanted me to write, a marketable book. Which changed every season. It was a bleak market for personal essays, then it wasn’t. Next it was a bleak market for memoir, then it wasn’t. The market was flooded, or there was no market. Depending on the market, I was too early or too late, so I started over, writing and deleting hundreds of thousands of words and weathering the same number of rejections. What I wish I knew: no one actually knows what the market wants. But everyone has an opinion. The job is to write the best book you want to write and to find an agent who shares your vision and can help you develop it. My advice to “make it” is to “keep going.”

SK: You are one of the most generous, wonderful, and inspiring teachers. When and where can I take another class from you?

EB: Thank you! I’m teaching two classes this spring, a one-day seminar on how to write a tragicomic memoir like Hysterical and another on how to write funny person essays that’s four weeks in April and May via 92nd Street Y. Both are online and life-changing.


Elissa Bassist is the editor of the “Funny Women” column on The Rumpus and the author of the award-deserving memoir Hysterical (Hachette). She teaches humor writing at The New School, Catapult, 92NY, Lighthouse Writers Workshop, and elsewhere, and she is probably her therapist’s favorite. Visit www.elissabassist.com for classes and gossip. 

Summer Koester (rhymes with “luster”) is an award-winning writer and performing artist in Juneau, Alaska. Her work has appeared in the New York Times, McSweeney’s, Ploughshares Blog, and elsewhere. She is writing a memoir about her fifteen years living in Latin American and Caribbean cultures. Connect with her at www.summerkoester.com.

Flash Lyric Essay About a Faculty Meeting on Artificial Intelligence in Student Writing at Which Professors Become Dejected and Lament the State of the World

January 12, 2023 § 6 Comments

By Yelizaveta P. Renfro

The history professor yells “Shit!” when he sees an AI-generated sentence, and “Show us the devil!” when the presenters offer to share a whole AI-written essay, and finally, “I’m going to retire!” The medievalist retorts, “I can’t retire for twenty-three years,” and then talks about the terrifying prospect of grading essays written by machines. Then someone else quips that with machine scoring of essays, one machine might be writing and another machine might be grading—lonely robot talking to lonely robot. “Writing is supposed to be one mind communicating to another mind,” laments the communications professor, who is also close to retirement. But what is a mind, anyway? And what is writing, except capturing and rearranging words? Isn’t all of expression mimicry?

The presenters tell us to test a writing assignment in one of the free AI playgrounds, so I type flash lyric essay about a faculty meeting on artificial intelligence in student writing at which professors become dejected and lament the state of the world, and within seconds, AI has written a five-paragraph essay titled Faculty Meeting on Artificial Intelligence: A Flash Lyric Essay, except it isn’t a lyric essay at all. From the time of Aristotle, philosophers have been worried about how humans compare to machines, AI tells me. The government is investing billions into AI research to benefit national security.

At another AI playground, I get a more disquieting result. What have we become? Has technology created its own monster? Where is the humanity? These are a few questions that I think are asked every day. They are asked by our students. They are asked by our leaders. They are asked by ourselves. The students are the most innocent ones of all. I am not afraid to admit that I am among them. To be quite frank I have even been one of them. But I don’t think the problem lies with students. I think it lies with us.

Who is this first-person narrator? In the next paragraph, he tells me:

 I am a faculty member of a liberal arts college. Recently I was asked to write a poem about the subject of artificial intelligence and this is what I wrote.

Artificial Intelligence: The Machine in the Sky

By Joseph M. Martin, Professor of English

In every way, it’s bigger than me

It’s far superior to me

I am just a man

It’s greater than me

It’s superior to me

I am just a

The text cuts off, but clicking the “more” button produces additional lines:

I am just a man

It’s bigger than me

It’s far superior to me

It has much more going for it

It has a great deal more going for it

Much more, much more than me

It’s bigger than

Clicking “more” generates more poem—the same inane lines, with slight variations. AI is savvy enough to create a professor persona, to capture something of the tenor of lyric nonfiction, and yet—poor Professor Martin has hit a wall, reaching the outermost edges of what he knows to say. Still, I keep clicking “more,” until finally, he can only repeat the same line over and over, hundreds of times, like a monomaniac. I scroll for what seems like miles.

It’s far superior to me

It’s far superior to me

It’s far superior to me

It’s far superior to me

The presenters have follow-up questions. How effective is the writing that was generated? Would I be able to tell it was written by AI? How would I grade it? I suddenly imagine Professor Martin enrolling in my introductory creative writing class, a tweed-coated mannequin with a pull-string on his back. I am just a man, he says, when I pull the string. It’s far superior to me. It’s far superior to me. And then I try to coax new, original thoughts out of poor Professor Martin, but he is a Chatty Kathy with only half a dozen pre-recorded phrases. 

The medievalist is somewhat relieved to discover the assignment she fed her robot did not produce a particularly coherent essay. The conversation moves on to writing as process—prewriting, brainstorming, mindmapping, outlining, workshopping, conferencing, revising—all the weapons we have against robots that can generate an essay in six seconds. But I am distracted now, because Professor Martin has taken up residence in a corner of my mind, where he sits, dejected, still trying to write his poem, hitting his head against the wall.

Yelizaveta P. Renfro is the author of a collection of essays, Xylotheque, and a collection of short stories, A Catalogue of Everything in the World. Her work has appeared in North American Review, Creative Nonfiction, Orion, Colorado Review, Alaska Quarterly Review, Reader’s Digest, and elsewhere.

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 .

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