The Quick Start Guide to Your Writing Life

November 8, 2019 § 6 Comments

andrew-gudgelby Andrew Gudgel

Thank you for purchasing our product, which we hope will give you many years of use and satisfaction.

  1. Power up your Writing Life by pressing the button marked “Birth” and holding it for nine months.
  2. The “Childhood” screen should now appear. Adjust the sliders for “Precocious Scribbling,” “Teenage Angst,” “Voracious Reading,” and “Feeling Different From Everyone Else” to your desired levels. Remove the orange plastic cover from the vulnerability port and discard. Press continue when done.
  3. The “Genre” screen should appear next. Select one or more of the “Poetry,” “Translation,” “Fiction,” “Nonfiction,” “Hybrid,” or “What the hell is this thing?” check boxes. Press refresh to begin download of the appropriate skill libraries. This may take some time, especially over a slow connection. The optional modules “MFA,” “Workshop,” and “Writing Book” are available for purchase separately. See our website for details. Press continue when done.
  4. The “Obstacles” screen should appear next. Adjust the sliders for “Blind Ambition,” “Petty Jealousy,” “Crippling Self-doubt” and “Selfishness.” The levels should be set as low as possible, as these functions may cause your Writing Life to overheat and result in serious injury. Press continue when done.
  5. The “Essentials” screen should appear next. Be careful not to accidentally deselect the “Professionalism,” “Gratitude,” “Engaged Member of the Writing Community,” and “Pay it Forward” check boxes. Press continue when done.
  6. The “Success” screen should appear last. Feel free to play with the slider, because you can’t actually control the level of this function. Press continue when done.

Congratulations! Your Writing Life should now be up and running. Keep it away from acids, abrasives, harsh chemicals, direct sunlight, too much alcohol or drugs. Occasional tears are a normal part of Writing Life operation and may be wiped away with a soft, dry cloth.
Andrew Gudgel is a freelance writer and translator living in Maryland. His fiction, nonfiction, translations and poetry have appeared in Under the SunLily Poetry Review, Southeast Missouri State University’s Proud to Be anthology, Western Michigan University’s journal Transference, and other publications. He’s a graduate of both Johns Hopkins University’s Science Writing program and the Kenyon Review Writers Workshop. Find him at


8 Things (NOT) To Do When You Finish Your Master’s Degree

November 1, 2019 § 3 Comments

Martin Career Fair 2018 HeadshotBy Bonnie Martin

  1. Practice your new elevator speech to use on strangers and at family events.

They say, “Congratulations on your master’s degree! What are you going to do now?”

You say, “Uh, the same thing as before except now as a Master…”

  1. Put all of your newfound publishing world knowledge to use. Subscribe to literary journals and share your old, read copies with your little sister’s college roommate, whose undergraduate degree is in English Literature. Bonus points if you give them to her in a “Read More Poems” tote you got free at AWP last spring. Feel smug in your literariness.

  2. Intend to keep writing. Move to a new city with your job and rent a downtown studio with brick walls. Place your antique writing desk in front of window.

“Yes,” you think, touching the rough brick walls and looking wistfully out the window at the alleyway garbage can, “This is where I will write my novel.”

  1. Forget you have a Master’s degree. Run into an old high school classmate during your hometown’s Alumni Weekend celebration—

They say, “What’s new with you?!”

You say, “Oh, you know, same job and everything… you?”

  1. Forget about essays, the slush pile, Submittable, cover letters, reading, journals, magazines, books.

Think, “What’s writing anyway?”

  1. Receive an email from your old creative nonfiction writing professor asking if you will be a guest speaker in her class this coming November.

Respond, glowingly, “Of course.”

Then think, “Oh crap! I better start writing again so I have something to talk about.”

  1. Plan to start writing again.

Think, “Do you know what would be better than writing? Telling people what not to do after graduating with their master’s degree.”

I will write tomorrow, I guess.


Bonnie Martin is a Midwest writer with a Master of Arts in Critical and Creative Thinking and Graduate Certificate in Advanced Writing from The University of Nebraska at Omaha. Her work has been previously published in Orion’s The Place Where You Live column and the Brevity blog.

11 Reasons Why Doing Stand-up Comedy Has Made Me A Better Writer

September 27, 2019 § 2 Comments

carmella comedy clubBy Carmella de los Angeles Guiol

  1. It gets me writing. Ever since I started doing stand-up, I find that I’m constantly jotting down ideas in my notebook—way more than before! Perhaps I feel less pressure when it comes to stand-up and therefore, I’m more energized and motivated when it comes to creating material.
  2. Stand-up comedy is just another avenue for self-expression. I have many thoughts and ideas that I don’t want to write an entire essay about, but I’d still like to express them. Comedy gives me the chance to explore themes that I wouldn’t necessary explore on the page.
  3. Truth makes the best comedy, and the audience will sniff out any hint of inauthenticity—a good lesson to learn both on and off the page, no matter what kind of writing you do. Good stand-up is based on personal experience; as a memoir writer, stand-up comedy has allowed me to hone my voice and find out what matters most to me.
  4. Having to speak my words aloud is good practice for the page. In comedy, like with prose, syntax matters. The way you structure your punchline can be the difference between a room full of laughs or dead silence. Writing for comedy has made me pay closer attention to syntax in a way that translates positively to my longform writing.
  5. In comedy, there’s a clear goal: make people laugh. I’ve begun to think about what goal I have for my prose writing. This can help me streamline what projects I work on and how I go about them. It’s another reminder to infuse any writing I do with intention, from drafting a joke to working on the 10th draft of a mammoth essay.
  6. Trim the fat. In comedy, it’s all about getting to the essence of your joke with the least number of words. As a long-winded writer, this is a great lesson for me.
  7. Kill your darlings. The crowd will give you instant feedback—either your joke is funny, or it’s not. If it’s not working, it’s important to ask—why not? Is this helping me pursue my goal of making people laugh or is it getting in the way of what I’m trying to say? As writers, we fall in love with the sentences we spend hours working on, but sometime we just have to learn to let them go.
  8. It’s all part of the process. Like with each essay or story draft, each set is a chance to tweak, learn and improve. During a set, I may add something new, take away something, or do something totally spontaneous. I always record my performance so that I can review it later, the same way athletes do. I study my performance to see how it lands with the crowd. While we don’t usually get instant feedback when writing, it’s important to have beta readers who can share the way a piece landed on them emotionally.
  9. Take the long view. No set is going to make or break your career, same as no rejection is going to be the end of you as a writer.
  10. Get out from behind the computer and get out into the world! My writing mentor Heather Sellers always said that being in the chair is just as important as being out of it—it’s what you do when you’re not in the chair that makes all the difference. Stand-up comedy is a hobby that brings me joy while also sharpening my craft as a writer.
  11. Comedians just wanna have fun. Even though it’s a lot of work writing jokes, attending open mic nights and waiting late into the night for my turn on the mic, the essential truth is that I love making people laugh. That’s why I do go through the trouble to do stand-up. Although it would be fantastic to get famous and have an hour-long Netflix special, that’s not the goal. The goal is to make people laugh. Same with writing. Writing, revision, editing, and submitting is a lot of work, and it would be fantastic to be rewarded with a spot on The New York Times bestseller’s list, but I write because I love to write. I love to work with words, share ideas, and express myself on the page. Whether I make it big or not—on stage or on bookshelves—I’ll still be happy because I’ve spent my life doing something I love.__

Carmella de los Angeles Guiol is a Pushcart-nominated writer, educator, and polyglot. She is the recipient of a Fulbright fellowship in Colombia as well as Crab Orchard Review’s Charles Johnson Award for fiction. Her haiku about starfruits can be found at a Miami bus stop and stamped on a sidewalk. Check out her newsletter, Dispatches from a Digital Life.

Exclusive: An Interview With Me

September 24, 2019 § 22 Comments

By Kristen Paulson-Nguyen

Before reading my essay “The Wave” on July 22, 2019 at Porter Square Books, I bought mints (my fans deserve fresh breath); large Band-Aids for my left leg (don’t ask); and facial blotting papers (shiny prose, good; shiny t-zone, bad). I asked a classmate for help pronouncing Ocean Vuong’s last name (it’s what any decent person would do). I had dinner with two members of my writing group (nothing heavy), and I made sure I was wearing my special shoes (gold ankle boots are an eternal fashion “do”).

Then I interviewed myself, to share some pointers that might help you read your work out loud. To an audience. Of people. Some of who may even like you (for now).

Kristen: Why didn’t you get a haircut? 

Kristen: I don’t know—I knew this reading was coming up months in advance. My favorite stylist, Chloe, left my salon, Shag, and I was afraid to ask them which salon she defected to because she was in exile.

Kristen: Did you check how many times you used the word “scholar?”

Kristen: I hope so! My high school English teacher, Ms. Stewart, drilled the importance of word variety into my head. Some writers find it helpful to create a word cloud to check which words they’ve used most.

Kristen: Will your husband record you from an unflattering angle, to be displayed for all of digital eternity?

Kristen: Yes. And I will have robot voice. But the writing is more important than how I look—at least that’s what they tell me—and the bonus of being alive to read my work can’t be beat.

Kristen: You seem to have had nothing to wear.

Kristen: I have a closet full of clothes. But I have chosen to wear the same stretchy black pants I wear every day. I’m hoping the accessories I’ve worn, which include the tooth or tusk or shell of some creature, will distract from my pants, and draw the eye gracefully upward.

Kristen: Omg Steve Almond and Ocean Vuong are reading tonight too, over at Harvard Book Store, so nobody may come to your reading.

Kristen: My friend Amy brought up this point (actually, a few people did), and I told them that I’m an emerging writer, so at my reading they will have no idea what to expect. Almond and Vuong have already emerged, so the audience would just get more of Steve’s New York Times-bestselling short stories and the heartrendingly beautiful poems that won Ocean the Whiting Award. Why not enjoy new work?

Kristen: Omg what if Steve Almond and Ocean Vuong came to your reading? You’d die.

Kristen: Correct. I’d die. And then faint. And then die. And then resurrect myself. And then ask them to come for a drink at Colette. And then fall off my barstool. And then ask them for an autograph.

Kristen: Is your essay too long?

Kristen: I’m a windbag of epic proportions, but I timed this sucker at home. Can we wrap it up? I think the audience was hoping to get to the wine soon.

Kristen: Do you think you should have chosen a different piece to read?

Kristen: For once I’ll try to be like the Edith Piaf song and have no regrets.

Kristen: I wonder if you still have time to revise. 

Kristin: Wait. I think I have a pen in my purse.


Kristen Paulson-Nguyen lives in Boston, where she invites you to join her in her self-imposed challenge to write an essay each week. Her micro-essay was published in Issue #71 of Creative Nonfiction. Kristen’s work has also appeared in Hippocampus Magazine. Her poem “Spring Birds” was exhibited in Poem Village, a project of the Adirondack Center for Writing. Follow her on Twitter @kpnwriter.

Photo credit: Lauren Rheaume

Write Funny, Win Money

August 22, 2019 § 8 Comments

Ever wondered how to get into McSweeney’s, the New Yorker’s Shouts and Murmurs, the Belladonna, Slackjaw, or another prestigious humor site? It’s not easy, but it’s not hard—write something very funny, make sure it fits the venue’s tone, send it in.

Step one tends to trip us up. How can you write funny, on demand?

Writing comedy is a learned skill. Yes, some writers start with more talent than others, but it’s not talent that makes an essay hilarious. Humor comes from a great premise (that you thought up after discarding 50 similar-but-not-as-good ideas), a specific point of view (that took a couple of drafts to get to) and tight, focused writing with careful word choices (that took another few drafts to whittle out of the initial bloated, semi-funny word glob).

Here’s a chance to learn the skill, and maybe win some money and/or publish your own comedy writing.

Slackjaw, Medium’s most-read humor publication (90,000+ followers), wants to support humor writers—and aspiring humor writers—everywhere, with their first Humor Writing Challenge.

Most writing contests are set-it-and-forget-it. Send in your work and hope for the best. This one’s different. Participants in the contest will be pitching ideas (so they can choose the best/funniest one to write), getting peer feedback, and re-writing. An online community will provide support and direction to contestants. Even if you don’t have a burning desire to write comedy, this process can introduce you to collaborative idea development, and how to solicit and implement editorial ideas in your own work. Plus, you’ll have deadlines to generate some specific assignments, and motivation to rewrite and sharpen your work.

The judges panel includes comedy writers for The Onion, Comedy Central, The New Yorker, McSweeney’s, etc, and there’s $2000 in cash prizes. Finalists will have their work considered for (paid) publication on Medium, too.

If you want to publish humor writing, or you need a kickstart on your autumn writing plan with a fun, supportive environment, consider signing up for Slackjaw’s Humor Writing Challenge.

Find out more and sign up here.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. Find her at Hippocamp Creative Nonfiction Conference this weekend, or follow her on Twitter and Instagram for choice bits of conference writing advice.

Catbird Brain for the Writer

August 8, 2019 § 5 Comments

chris_mcgloneBy Chris McGlone

I was writing on the back porch a couple of weeks ago, or, more accurately, trying to write, when a catbird perched on our roof and began running through every song and noise he knew. There may have been female catbirds in the area he was trying to impress—the size of the male’s repertoire apparently does matter to female catbirds. Or, he may have had no motivation other than pure idiotic exuberance. He imitated the songs of other birds, then switched to imitating humans with a few telephone ringtones and a doorbell. He punctuated his routine with random buzzes and beeps, the ever-popular clicking ratchet sound, and the almost-meow that gives catbirds their name. It was entertaining listening, but not all that helpful for writing.

The catbird’s performance did lead me to a useful insight, though; I realized that there’s a catbird lobe in my brain, up there in its catbird seat, watching as the rest of my brain tries feebly to string together words and doing its best to “help.”

If my catbird brain sees that I’m trying to write something original (which should always be the case, of course), it will help by imitating everything I’ve ever read—Didion, DFW, Montaigne, Danielle Steele, cereal boxes, etc. If I’m trying to think of the perfect word, it will suggest dozens of less-than-perfect words. If I’m trying to be lyrical, then it’s time for the ratchet and doorbells and ringtones. Why do you want to work so hard, the catbird asks? Why not do something fun instead, like Sudoku, or Twitter, or YouTube, or just make noises?

If I do manage to write something despite its help, the catbird ridicules it, echoing my own insecurity about the piece by repeating my internal critiques in a sarcastic tone—metaphorically crapping on it.

How does one deal with a catbird brain? One strategy is to just ignore it, but while real catbirds eventually fly away metaphorical catbirds never seem to leave. Throw a real or metaphorical rock at it? Real rocks can be dangerous and break windows; I’m not sure how to throw a metaphorical rock.

Maybe the best strategy is this: if you can’t ignore the catbird, be one. Write for the pure exuberant idiocy of it. Listen to the entire world and everything in it, mix it all up, then get up on the roof and sing it all back at the top of your lungs. Let the words pour out, then sieve out the buzzes and beeps and look at what’s left. It works for catbirds.

Chris McGlone is currently an MFA student in creative nonfiction at George Mason University. In his previous life as a photogrammetrist he published a number of technical papers and book chapters and co-authored a textbook. Other interests include playing Irish guitar and bluegrass banjo. He is on Twitter as chrismcglone75


How To Fulfill Your Word Count

August 1, 2019 § 5 Comments

By Jenny Klion

If you counted backward from three hundred and ninety one, which is the exact number of words you need to complete your daily requisite word count of one thousand (#1000wordsofsummer)—less now, since with every word, every letter you type, you’re getting closer to that three hundred and ninety one more words to go goal—you might be able to call it a wrap for the day. At this point you only need, from here: three hundred and seven more words, less now, even less now, and isn’t it crazy how when you count down from three hundred and ninety one you’ll eventually hit zero? Or that you can write all these words and not say much of anything?

What this online group writing quest slash your mind’s a blank slash SOS shows is that it takes lots of words to be a productive writer. Or a writer in general. Also, which words count for the win, the tie, or at least the job getting done, and which ones don’t? Who gets to decide? Oh, good one—you!

For example, from right here, here, no here: you have one hundred and ninety six more words to go, which includes spreading out the word one hundred and ninety six into four words, five if you count the word “and,” when in reality, or at least via Chicago Manual of Style, one does not spell out words over ten. Or 10. Unless it’s the first word of a sentence.

You can’t remember exactly and you’re not stopping to check it out, because you can fix that later and look at you go! You’ve written a total of eight hundred and ninety three words, though you haven’t hyphenated where you should have, especially regarding number usage you are completely off the chart wrong, so you are cheating grammar wise but never mind. The countdown is on, and in short, or in long, three hundred and ninety one words turned out to be a lot more than you bargained for.

So much more, you realize you’ve got to sign your name now to fulfill the word count, and you include the middle initial, with the period, because the letter on its own counts the same as the word. Total word count: one thousand, including the title.


Jenny Klion’s work has appeared in Ploughshares, Longreads, The Rumpus, Tonic, The Hairpin, and the anthology Flash Nonfiction Funny (Woodhall Press 2018), among others.

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