Zen and the Art of Querying

April 21, 2023 § 7 Comments

By Deborah Lindsay Williams

I am not by nature a patient person. I think microwave popcorn takes too long.

You will thus perhaps understand my pain when I tell you that I’m querying agents for a new book project, a process that by definition necessitates waiting. A voice in my brain urges me to keep refreshing my email: you sent the query two days ago, shouldn’t they have answered already?

When my son was a toddler, he would chant “mommommomMOM” on infinite repeat until I broke down and paid attention to the latest Lego creation or supplied a snack so that he wouldn’t die of starvation that exact second. Generous child that he was, he taught his younger brother the same chant. Halycon days.

With every query I send out, I hear the ghost of that chant and I wonder if the agents hear it too: agentagentagentAGENT!

Isn’t that what we all hope for? That somehow our letter will cut through the clamor of all those other voices and swivel the agent’s attention towards our latest project?

My kids had the option of throwing a temper tantrum if I didn’t respond and while I suppose I could throw myself on the floor in front of my laptop, I’m not entirely sure that’s going to get me very far. (Full disclosure: it didn’t work that well for my kids, either.)

Besides, at my age, hurling myself to the ground in a fury would probably only result in a wrenched back or a sprained knee.

But the other day, after yet another fruitless refresh, I decided it was time to tame my querying monkey mind. I’m going to reframe the whole process: querying will become my Zen teacher; I’m going to remain calm and think only about the process, not the product.

If you think about it, querying—and the waiting that goes with it—is a microcosm of the entire writing process. Writing almost always takes more time than we’d like. Who hasn’t thought, “okay, I’m going to revise three chapters this weekend,” only to realize even getting through one chapter by Sunday is going to be a tall order? Sure, a lucky few will have their queries snapped up immediately but for most of the rest of us? It’s going to be a long slog. Get comfortable—and by “comfortable,” I mean let go.

That’s the most Zen lesson of all, that letting go thing. Send out your first tranche of queries and breathe. Resist the impulse to consult QueryTracker as if it’s some kind of oracle, as if all those numbers can be shaped into a comforting narrative: “this many people after me in an agent’s queue means this; if all those other people have responses and I don’t, it means that …” QueryTracker is neither an oracle nor a Magic-8 ball, as much as we might wish otherwise. It’s just a list, a tool that’s useful but not essential (and no, you don’t have to subscribe to QueryTracker in order to use its basic functions).

Remember that as a writer, you’re practicing the art of letting go. All writers—but particularly writers of creative nonfiction—work deep into the seams, excavating just the right words, the precise image. We wrestle with family stories, with difficult and powerful memories, all with the rather strange desire to share those stories with absolute strangers. It’s a curious business, isn’t it? We do this work in order to give the work away—and we have no control over how those strangers will read our pages, just as we have no control over how the people in our pages will respond.

So use your queries to practice the art of letting go. Launch your elegant letter, your polished proposal and fascinating first pages into the ether, and then make like Elsa: let it go.

Buddhists suggest that we live with intention but without interest in the result. That advice sounds great, but I think it’s actually hard as hell. I mean, the result I want is a review in The New Yorker before I die, even if the review is terrible, but setting my sights on that result seems like a writerly version of my kids’ temper tantrums.

Here’s the reframe: what if querying became a mark of fulfilled intention? If we hadn’t committed to the intention of writing a book, we wouldn’t be querying. Bravo, us, for making it this far on the journey. See? We can all become querying Buddhas.

Think I’ll make some of that slow-cooking microwave popcorn, jot some notes about my next project. I am all about the journey at this point.

OMG. I just got a request for a full manuscript. If I send it tonight, do you think they’ll have a response in the morning?


Deborah Lindsay Williams is a writer and professor now based in New York, after eleven years in Abu Dhabi (she’s an ex-expat). Her essays have appeared in The Markaz Review, The Rumpus, The Common and Brevity, among others; her academic book The Necessity of Young Adult Fiction came out in March. She is currently working on a novel about academics behaving very badly. You can find her on twitter @mannahattamamma; find her author website here.

Writing Group Feedback: How to Maintain Moral Integrity

April 13, 2023 § 17 Comments

By Barbie Beaton

In memoir, the narrator’s journey often starts in a forest of confusion as she navigates moral conflicts toward her truest, most whole self. My story is no exception.

My memoir is about surviving the wrongs of my ’80s upbringing—poverty, neglect, violence, erasure—but the younger me of the story exhibits questionable behavior at times, providing a dubious container for my narrator’s moral conflict. I risked readers who sided against me.

Recently, I learned just how far my writing group’s loyalty had strayed. During a Wednesday night Zoom conference, two members questioned a content warning of sexual assault. In the scene, I was sixteen and a threat by a high school senior resulted in non-consensual sexual conduct.

From the small-framed faces on the screen, the readers’ stance became clear to me. They doubted my reality. (This came as both a shock and a familiar experience given my birth family’s expertise with gaslighting.) You were sixteen, one of them said. One reader shared her terrifying experience, unknown to me until that disclosure. My situation was not likehers. Still, my hands trembled, and my heart raced, a cue that PTSD was triggered. I launched into defense mode, clarifying my perspective of what they’d already read: My older sister watched it happen. My mother was home. Who was going to take care of me?

The experience sabotaged my faith in their loyalty and trust. For years, they’d read with a discerning eye, until it reached an impasse. Holding my professional head above water, I finished the meeting. Later, I sent an email expressing how the discussion erased my reality, triggering my PTSD. I left the writing group, thanking them for their years of commitment and wished them many successes on their writing journeys.

Such ruptures are avoidable. Safe collaboration among writers requires strategic safeguards. Pathologies are deep-seated motives that drive a person’s behavior or mindset, and once exposed, can wedge distrust in even the most collegial relationships. In hindsight, failing to employ writing group protocols and disregarding a trigger warning stripped us all from dignity. Most importantly, I failed myself by not adhering to my own principles of strict professional collaborations.

Sharing hard stories is a valiant effort at connection, however, sticky areas can surround memories one might rather forget. There is no guarantee where blind spots exist in readers. Without safeguards, the sensitivity and vulnerability of truth-telling can blend into a tasty cocktail for destruction. Below is a list of strategies any newbie memoirist can employ to protect their mental health and to ensure a safe and dignified writing journey:

  • Focus Feedback on the Art. Meaningful critiques discuss the writing. Lidia Yuknavitch teaches an effective method in which readers are asked to identify patterns, opposites, strong sentences, and details with emotional resonance. I felt empowered in this class because I learned to see my writing strengths.
  • Expose Thyself. Self-investigation is a crucial process of exposing unhealed wounds. Many writing teachers recommend procuring a therapist before digging into the past. Often, our largest wounds reveal blind spots we must outgrow, providing the juicy substance of memoir. Susanna Sonnenberg, my first writing instructor and a two-time New York Times Bestseller author, is the voice I hear when memoirists avoid the truth. Boring! She isn’t wrong. I trusted her advice because she wasn’t deceived by false personas. Write that!!! She shakes loose the interesting story.  
  • Believe in Evolution. A writer will improve with time. Align group work to your advancing skill level. Call yourself a writer—nobody but your exasperated family will fight you over it. Live the dream like a teenager. It’s a cue to move on when a group or individual no longer meets your needs or fails to support your writing aspirations.
  • Meet Your People. Memoirists crave authenticity. Discern the company you keep: attend classes and conferences and readings. My purpose locked into place at the National Association of Memoir Writers’ Conference after seeing a man cry at the microphone while reading to a large crowd. It evidenced the existential need for deep emotional connection and the space I needed for my own difficult story.
  • Prioritize Your Vision: A reliable group considers the author’s goals and provides suitable knowledge for that objective. Self-published or Indie authors may not be a good fit for an author seeking traditional publishing. Align to your vision. I once joined a writing group with zero interest in memoir. A worthy group bolsters the author toward her version of success.  
  • Connect with writers/editors with similar themes. Social media is a useful tool for finding writers in your subject area to exchange writing. Find editors in the Acknowledgment section of comparable memoirs. Perform a Google search of every author you read in your theme, including essays. Your subject area provides a personalized database of professionals who offer services to help writers like you.
  • When necessary, exit with grace.

Readers are humans, too, with impossible-to-predict opinions and perspectives. You deserve a structure that protects your mental health and your integrity. A well-cultivated community will ensure a dignified environment for your unique, and very important, story.


Barbie Beaton is a creative nonfiction writer working on her debut book-length project: Madness: A Memoir of PTSD. An early excerpt awarded her the 2018 Honorary Montana Fellowship at Virginia Creative Center for the Arts. She is a voluntary board member of the Missoula Writing Collaborative, a nonprofit that brings celebrated authors and poets into classrooms across Montana. She lives with her husband in Missoula, Montana and Newport Beach, California.

A Full Circle Moment Ten Years in the Making

April 7, 2023 § 19 Comments

By Melanie Brooks

Exactly a decade ago, only two months into my MFA, I attended my first Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) Conference. I knew little to nothing about this yearly literary gathering and what it was all about, but I’d been urged by people in my program to attend, and, since it was in Boston, only forty-five minutes from my house, I went. I wasn’t prepared for what it would be like to join for three days the swarm of 13,000 writers filling the Hynes Convention Center. What it would be like to sit in the audience as writers I’d long admired delivered keynote addresses. To attend a myriad of panel presentations on topics ranging from craft elements to genre-specific themes to advice on landing an agent. To walk up and down the aisles of the massive book fair and cautiously approach the exhibitors’ tables that showcased commodities from publishers, literary journals, and writing programs. I didn’t know that being in that space would drape over me a daunting (and heavy) awareness that I was only at the start of this writing life. That I had so far to go with the painful story I’d just begun to find words for. That, more than once, I’d have to resist collapsing to the floor in an incoherent heap of uncertainty, doubt, and exhaustion. That perhaps I didn’t belong there at all.

But then, on the afternoon of the second day, I slipped into a panel presentation about writing paralyzing stories of loss, and I listened to poet and author Kim Stafford read an essay called, “How a Book Can Set You Free” that told what it was like to get in the mail the galley of his memoir, 100 Tricks Every Boy Can Do: A Memoir, about his brother’s death by suicide. He read about reaching that place on the long road to bringing what had felt like an “impossible story” to the finished page. “I had set down a difficult and awkward burden and could step forth along a new path. There was an opening ahead.” As I listened, my eyes burned and tears gathered at my lash line. I want to be able to write an essay, like that, I thought. I want to arrive at that opening and step on that new path. I reached for Stafford’s words, gathered them in my hands, and clutched them to my chest like a promise. A tiny spark ignited. Maybe, just maybe, there was hope for my own impossible story yet.

Fast-forward ten years.

I’m nestled against the arm of a leather couch near the entrance of the Seattle Convention Center at AWP 2023. It’s late in the afternoon, and most of the day’s panels have just finished. Voices hum from conversations around me, and people stream by as they head toward the escalators or out to the street. I smile up at some familiar faces in the crowd.

It’s been a busy few days. I’ve connected with friends from my MFA days and other writers I encountered in the process of writing and publishing my first book. I’ve chatted face-to-face with acquaintances who, until now, I’ve only known on social media. An hour earlier, I had a drink with a lovely poet I’d met when we shared an Uber from the airport. This morning, I spoke on a panel called “Building an Author Platform Based on Tragedy Without Sounding Perpetually Tragic” with four other writers who are putting stunning writing out into the world. Afterwards, a young woman came up to thank me for voicing some of the fears she’s been having as she tackles her own hard story on the page. As she shared her uncertainty and doubt, I heard echoes of my own.    

Beside me on this couch sits Kim Stafford. He’s showing me some photos of his 100-year-old mother-in-law on his phone and describing the tender family gathering that took place around her deathbed two weeks earlier. He tells me about some of his recent work—notably a commissioned poem for the Pediatric Intensive Care Waiting Room, at Doernbecher Children’s Hospital, in Portland, Oregon, where he lives. I describe the narrative medicine program I began in the fall and the ways it’s informing my work, particularly as I prepare to launch my memoir in September.

“Do you know,” I say softly, touching his arm, “that it has been exactly ten years since that first time I met you in Boston?”

He considers this. Stafford has some sense of the impact his part in that panel had on me that day. I wrote about it at length in the introduction to my first book in which I interviewed him and seventeen other memoirists about their journeys to write and publish their stories. We’ve stayed in touch, and I make a point to try to see him when AWP brings us to the same place at the same time. I hadn’t made it to the conference since before the Covid pandemic, though, so it had been a while. As it was an “anniversary” of sorts, this reunion felt particularly meaningful.

There’s a tremble in Stafford’s voice and his eyes are wet when he finally says, “When you write or read something, you never can know exactly the way your words might affect someone else. But here you are. And look at everything that’s happened for you since then!”

Stafford is not assuming responsibility for the writing career that has taken shape for me in the last decade. His genuine humility would never land on that claim. But I am not shy about giving him a share of the credit and my deepest gratitude because even if he couldn’t know the effect of his words that day in 2013, I know them. The little spark of hope that I carried with me away from that panel presentation, away from that conference, and back to my writing desk was the encouragement I needed to keep going when the going got especially tough. Grabbing hold of Stafford’s insights inspired me to gather more insights from others who were doing this difficult work so I could hear similarly sustaining stories of writing past the difficult ending and finding something new on the path ahead.

The path ahead feels closer than ever, especially when I arrive home from Seattle to an email waiting in my inbox from my publisher. Attached is the electronic galley of my memoir, a book containing a story that began almost forty years ago and took me close to ten years to write. A book that has the potential to connect me to readers who could be waiting for my words to spark their own. I open the file to the title page and feel something like a weight lifting. Maybe there’s an essay here, I think.


Melanie Brooks is the author of Writing Hard Stories: Celebrated Memoirists Who Shaped Art from Trauma (Beacon Press, 2017). She teaches professional writing at Northeastern University and creative writing in the MFA program at Bay Path University in Massachusetts and creative writing at Nashua Community College in New Hampshire. She earned an MFA in Creative Nonfiction from the University of Southern Maine’s Stonecoast writing program. Her interviews and essays have been published in Psychology Today, the HuffPostYankee Magazine, the Washington PostMs. MagazineCreative Nonfiction, and other notable publications. Her memoir, A Hard Silence: One Daughter Remaps Family, Grief, and Faith When HIV/AIDS Changes It All, will be published in September by Vine Leaves Press. Though her Canadian roots run deep, she lives in New Hampshire with her husband, two children (when they are home from college), and two Labs. 

The Josie Rubio Scholarship: Who Was Josie?

March 31, 2023 § 2 Comments

Josie and her cat Lux

By Joselin Linder

I have a recording of Josie and I talking. It’s about a month before she died. There are parts where we talk about what we think happens after we die, but I’ll admit, in those parts it’s mostly me talking. The parts I like best are where we are reading through a Seamless menu laughing about the garbage some people will put on a hotdog, especially in Brooklyn—like baked beans and Doritos—because a hot dog is what Josie felt like eating for lunch. “I already feel like crap,” she mused, “so I figure the hotdog isn’t going to hurt me.”

Josie was the kind of person who thought that dry January was dumb and that diets that deny you of pleasure were also dumb. Don’t hurt yourself, but also, don’t deny yourself, was a conversation we had often.

At one point she started showing me all the weird things she wanted to order from Amazon for her birthday/Halloween party. Dry ice for the punch. Black lights. At one point we were laughing about these blood bags she planned to fill with vodka-cranberry. I suggested Bloody Mary. Then we just started going back and forth about whether or not it was too gross or morbid to put Bloody Mary into blood bags at the party of a woman planning to enter hospice right after the party.

At least, at the time that’s what I thought we’d been talking about. But as I listened, I realized Josie hadn’t been worried about grossing anyone out or making anyone feel sad or weird. She’d been worried that the blood bag would get stopped up. They wouldn’t be able get the drink out of the blood bag. It was an issue of alcohol-conveyance.  

She didn’t correct me. I never realized my mistake until four years later, four years and four months after Josie died at the age of 42.

Josie and I knew each other for a long time before we became good friends. I was closer with her former boyfriend, the guy who left her right when she got her terminal diagnosis, the one featured in her brilliant, hilarious New York Times article. But after he left her, Josie and I scheduled a daily “check in” phone call. We probably spoke more often than that. I invited her every time I went out and she did the same.

Josie was a professional writer. At the end of her life, she was the editor for the Guggenheim’s website. She and I wrote a blog together for the company that produces Fiji Water for many years. I got the job through her. In fact Josie got me a lot of my first writing jobs. But it was Josie who took my first ever writing class at Gotham Writers Workshop. She wanted to write about dying from cancer, but mostly she wanted to shame her boyfriend publicly.

Josie’s class grew close in large part due to Josie’s energy and spirit. Now, I am not one of those people who deify the dead. Maybe it’s because I’m a memoir teacher. I spend a lot of time trying to convince writers that there are no villains in memoir and there are, likewise, no angels either.

But it’s hard not to think of Josie as practically perfect. She was generous as a writer and a person. She was funny and she was smart. But mostly, she was kind. She was the type of friend who didn’t correct you for misunderstanding that a conversation about the best way to drink booze at a Halloween party wasn’t a conversation about her impending death. Josie loved being alive. She wanted her life to matter.

I love that Josie’s class makes the Josie Rubio Scholarship available every year. It’s a wonderful tribute to Josie, but also a reminder that when you are alive, you should feel alive. Write because it’s important to tell stories, it reminds us that we are alive, it helps us delineate why and how our lives matter.

Even at the end of her life, Josie didn’t like to talk about dying. She liked to talk about living. She loved planning that Birthday/Halloween party. She had two costume changes that night because she couldn’t decide if she wanted to be Little Bo Peep or an insomniac. So she was both. She didn’t buy the blood bags to drink out of in the end. But she did put dry ice in the punch.

No one felt weird. No one felt sad. We all just felt more alive around her. 


To enter the Josie Rubio Scholarship Contest, please submit a one-paragraph story, in the style of the New York Times’ Tiny Love Storiesno more than 100 words long.

Deadline is midnight, EST, on Friday April 14th, 2023.

Winners will be announced in late May, and will receive a tuition-free class of their choice at Gotham Writers Workshop (subject to class availability).

Send submissions to the Josie Rubio Scholarship Committee at josierubioscholarship@gmail.com.

You can read examples of entries by previous winners here.

Joselin Linder’s work has appeared in The New York Times, The New York Post, Elle, and NPR’s Morning Edition. Her memoir, The Family Gene, published by HarperCollins explores the history of medical genetics and the unnamed genetic disease only found in fourteen members of her family. Born and raised in Columbus, Ohio, she currently lives in Brooklyn, NY with her husband and teaches writing online and in person for the Gotham Writers Workshop.

Writer to Writer: “You Just Made My Day”   

March 30, 2023 § 33 Comments

By Charlotte Wilkins

When I sent a note of gratitude to author Laura Davis about her memoir The Burning Light of Two Stars, I said her writing was “close-to-the-bone.” Her heartfelt book examines the harsh reality of aging alongside her ailing and challenging mother, and I told Davis how on so many pages I’d read my own thoughts and emotions about my difficult mother, her illness, and death. Laura’s response to my note? You just made my day. I’m so grateful you took the time to write to me and so gratified by what you shared.

Wait a minute, I thought, I’m the one who’s grateful because your multi-dimensional depiction of your complicated mother—the way you made sure we also saw her beauty and felt the sweet moments—made me see how in my own writing my one-dimensional portrayal of my mother was unfair, blaming, and boring.

I get stuck in a box of my own making, bouncing off the cardboard walls, poking peek holes with my pen, alone, lonely, thinking Failure. Again. My poor-me-nobody-cares forgets that it’s impossible to be alone in this 7+ billion-person world. I forget we’re all connected whether I like it or not, and we all want to be happy, not lonely and disillusioned. I’m finding that gratitude helps me build community, one person at a time. This way we’re not overwhelmed by crowds, a doable step perhaps even for an introverted writer. We may think we’re building community lurking around an online group, hitting the “like” button often, but that never really fills the hole in our hearts.

Austin Kleon in Show Your Work! 10 Ways to Share Your Creativity and Get Discovered suggests that “If you look back closely at history, many of the people who we think of as lone geniuses were actually part of a whole scene of people who were supporting each other, looking at each other’s work, copying from each other, stealing ideas, and contributing ideas.” 

Daniella Mestyanek Young’s Uncultured: A Memoir brought an unexpected realization. The correlation she drew between her years in the Children of God cult and the army made me wonder about my participation as an adult in a cultic organization. Daniella’s book raised questions for me: Why didn’t I see that organization for what it was? What in my childhood blinded me from not only not recognizing a cultic atmosphere, but predisposed me to be drawn to it? Did the family I grew up fit the criteria of a cult? Daniella’s courage to ask the hard questions of herself and bleed the answers onto the page led me to explore a period of my life I’d written off as just another stupid thing I’d fallen for. Instead, a profound realization about my primitive need for connection was revealed, another layer of “family” was exposed, and I wrote my appreciation to Daniella and we exchanged ideas. She responded: All that to say, yours is probably the most gratifying review/response that I have received to date, because you specifically pointed out the ways that it made you think. 

A good book makes us think not just about the characters on the page, but about our lives, and the universality of suffering and joy, illness, old age and death.

The takeaway for me from these expressions of gratitude and ensuing exchanges with six women authors, five of whom generously responded, is it’s a win-win.

Here’s a couple of things I think about as I stumble into this communal practice of receiving and giving:

Feel it: Any writer knows that some days it’s a struggle to get one sentence on the page, let alone polish an essay or finish a book. Authors like to hear how their book specifically touched your life much more than “Loved your book!” Jeannine Ouellette’s last sentence in her response to my note of appreciation for The Part that Burns was, It means more than you know.

Find it: A passage or sentence or two that resonated and helped clarify something in your life or writing. I came across single sentences in memoirs that changed how I view a relationship, approached a difficult scene, or showed me why I need to reveal the equally lousy in me.

Connect it: Share how that author’s writing resonated in your life and perhaps stimulated you to write deeper into an aspect of your life, made you realize what was missing in your story, or open a new door of exploration. Most of us write to connect, to call to action, or to help others.

Later in Kleon’s book he writes: “A lot of writers I know see the act of reading and the act of writing as existing on opposite ends of the same spectrum. The reading feeds the writing, which feeds the reading.”

Like a mobius, we readers gain realizations, questions about our own writing, and skills by reading other’s work. When we pass on words of recognition and gratitude, and the author reads and take in that sincere energy, they feel heard, fulfilled, and perhaps fueled to write again. The circuit is a seamless connection and continuity we all benefit from.  


Charlotte Wilkins is a retired psychotherapist, a longtime meditator, and emerging memoirist. Her essays have been published in Memoir Magazine, the Brevity Blog, and Social Work Today. She lives in Connecticut with her spouse and two ridiculously precious cats who do nothing to earn their keep.

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.

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.

Information Overwhelm

December 15, 2022 § 47 Comments

By Jennifer Lang


Dear Comrades,

Every day, from the second I open my eyes (and turn on my phone) to the second I crawl into bed (and turn off my phone), I scroll through dozens of writing-related emails:

  • weekly newsletters from Hope Clark’s FundsforWriters + Writer’s Relief, both of which I signed up for years ago;
  • occasional newsletters from Kathy Fish’s The Art of Flash Fiction (with whom I took a few flash intensives online) + Jackie Bluu’s The Writer’s Den (where I submitted a story for an anthology);
  • less frequent but still present ones from The Loft Literary Center (where I taught memoir classes online) + The HerStories Project (which published “Sleep Like a Midlife Woman” in The Pandemic Midlife Crisis Gen X Women on the Brink anthology).

But that’s not all. There are also breaking news and blog posts from:

  • Association of Writers and Writing Programs or AWP (which I joined after my MFA and am finally attending in Seattle this March);
  • Poets & Writers (which I also joined post-MFA);
  • Author’s Guild (which I joined while shopping around my memoir manuscript);
  • Jane Friedman’s blog (where I took one online workshop) + The Writers Grotto (where I took a class during a visit to the San Francisco Bay Area) + Brevity blog (duh);
  • Literary Hub (which shares writing tips and historical tidbits);
  • Community of Literary Magazines and Presses (which provides indie lit updates);
  • Winning Writers (where I entered a contest once) + Women on Writing (ditto);
  • Creative Nonfiction (where I dream of seeing my name) + Narratively (where my dreams will never come true);
  • Tammy Delatorre (who began offering regular write-ins on zoom long before Covid) + George Saunders from Story Club (who is very verbose);
  • Forge NYC (where I applied to a fellowship a few years ago) and Lilith the New 40 (ditto) and Tablet Magazine (you get the gist).

Then there’s Poetry Foundation’s Poem of the Day + dictionary.com’s Word of the Day, both brief and befitting to get my writing muscles moving before sitting in my chair.

Add to those the literary journals on my radar:

  • Hippocampus (which published “Gas Masks and Wedding Vows” in 2016 and has subsequently declined everything from flash to book manuscript submission);
  • San Fedele Press (which published “Of Zero Chroma” in their Art in the Time of Covid 19 anthology);
  • The Masters Review;
  • The Kenyon Review;
  • New England Review;
  • CRAFT;
  • The Commuter;
  • Ephemera;
  • Mslexia;
  • Room;
  • Solstice Literary Magazine;
  • So and So from Oldster Magazine;
  • Split-Lip;
  • [PANK].

There are the ones to which I subscribed while hunting for a publisher:

  • Coffee House Press;
  • WTAW Press;
  • ugly duckling press;
  • Hachette Book Group;
  • Open Books Press;
  • Catapult, Counterpoint, Soft Skull;
  • Black Lawrence Press;
  • Koehler Books;
  • Cune Press;
  • Claret Press;
  • Jewish Book Council;
  • Jewish Book Week.

And, of course, the Covid connected sit-ins and write-togethers with:

  • Marcia Meier’s Writing through the Apocalypse (which I attended once at the start of the first lockdown);
  • Writers Near & Far (which I co-created during that same trying timeframe);
  • Allison K. Williams and Ashleigh Renard’s Writers’ Bridge (which I attended once when the world was quiet but never again because I teach yoga on zoom at the same hour on the same day);
  • Suleika Jaouad’s The Isolation Journals (which I read to make sure she is okay, which she’s not).

Recently, I joined Revel, a hybrid community for women 40+, where I offer bimonthly Sunday Deep Dive sessions and receive a surplus of reminders (your class is full) and alerts (do you want to increase the number of participants?).

Plus retreats in exotic faraway lands that lure me like:

  • Julie Maloney in Greece;
  • Nancy Stohlman and Kathy Fish in Costa Rica;
  • Dinty W. Moore and Allison K. Williams in Italy, Portugal, and Costa Rica;
  • Diana Friedman in the Pyrenees;
  • Authors At Large in different locations every year.

And there’s no way to ignore my alma mater—Vermont College of Fine Arts—which caused a big brouhaha about relocating their summer residencies to Colorado and replacing their in-person winter ones with zoom.

Keep in mind that none of this has anything to do with social media.

Everyone, everywhere has so much to say about the people and the books they wrote/read, the craft and the business they run/recommend. All. The. Time.

Unable to keep up, I’ve been deleting them before opening them as if they were ticking time bombs.

But here’s what I want to know: is it just me? Or do you also feel overwhelmed by the onslaught of information in your inbox?


Paralyzed Writer


Jennifer Lang, born in the San Francisco Bay Area, now lives in Tel Aviv, where she runs Israel Writers Studio. Her essays have appeared in the Baltimore Review, Crab Orchard Review, Under the Sun, Ascent, Consequence, and elsewhere. Places We Left Behind: a memoir-in-shorts and Landed: a yogi’s memoir in pieces & poses will both be published by Vine Leaves Press (September 2023 and October 2024). A Pushcart Prize and Best American Essays nominee, she holds an MFA from Vermont College of Fine Arts and serve as Assistant Editor for Brevity.  

Thanks, From Brevity

November 24, 2022 § 4 Comments

We give thanks today for the thousands of readers who visit our pages, for the dedicated teachers who feature us in the classroom, and for all of the talented writers who send their essays to Brevity and to the Brevity Blog, trusting us with the work they have labored over for many weeks or months.

We are thankful as well to our volunteer staff, who are the heart and soul of our literary enterprise. We don’t thank you enough, volunteers, but we truly value what you do and the generosity with which you do it.

And for those who contribute large and small sums to keep the lights on, a special thank you. We are proud to be able to pay the writers we feature in Brevity, and could not do it without you.

Finally, we are thankful for the readers, writers, and volunteer staff at countless other magazines that form our literary galaxy.

Art saves lives!

~ Dinty W. Moore, Brevity editor-in-chief

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.

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