Talking Back

April 18, 2019 § 10 Comments

Many of us have sat in the classic writing workshop: the class reads a piece, a discussion happens, the writer keeps their head down and doesn’t talk. At the end of the conversation, the author might get to ask a couple of questions for clarification, or perhaps say something about their intention in writing the piece.

This can be useful—it’s good for writers to learn to listen to critique without defending against it, or pushing back with “what I meant to say was…” because if it’s not on the page, we didn’t say it. It can also be traumatic, especially if the class misinterprets a point in the story and spends the whole time arguing about a meaning that doesn’t matter.

In playwriting, authors often have help. The “dramaturg” is a writing coach/researcher/helper/challenger who assists the playwright. In post-performance discussions, or after rewrites in rehearsal, the dramaturg often leads the discussion, making sure the author’s concerns are addressed. The dramaturg asks follow-up questions, gets audience members and actors to clarify points, redirects the discussion if “how you should write this” starts bubbling up, and afterward, helps the writer process and apply the feedback that’s most helpful to their work.

Writing teachers do some of the same work leading workshop, but often, their job is focused on keeping the workshop moving as a whole, rather than being an individual writer’s advocate. Sometimes, workshops go off the rails or turn into a pile-on, leaving the writer bruised and defensive, or questioning their writing ability rather than the impact of a specific essay. Without an active mediator, it’s hard to truly receive feedback and weed out what’s helpful from what was a tangent in the discussion.

At Lithub, Beth Nguyen argues for a sea change:

Perhaps it’s time—way past time—to rethink how we workshop. To make it less a test of endurance and more a space of open discussion. Perhaps it’s time to undo the silence of workshop, to let students be part of conversations about their work rather than mere witnesses.

When she began teaching nonfiction, she discovered a key issue. The space of discussing memoir and essay is even harder, because in critiquing the work, there is always some element of talking about the author. Nguyen points out that with cultural and racial context missing between writers and readers, this can be a terrible experience for the author, particularly for underrepresented students.

I was also tired of workshop spending so much time talking about a plot point or logistical matter that could easily be cleared up by simply asking the writer what was intended. So one day I did just that: started asking the writer what they meant. And the entire workshop shifted. The mood lifted. The writer and the rest of the workshop could talk about intention—what carried through and what didn’t. The writer could engage in process during workshop.

When we unsilence workshop, when we invite students to participate in the discussion of their own work, everything changes: the writer is no longer passively accepting comments. Rather, they become who they should be: the creators and navigators of their own work.

The workshoppers, in turn, are asked to do less prescribing (I want to see more of this; I want this or that to happen; I didn’t want that character to be here) and more questioning. Why did you use first-person? How important is the sister character supposed to be? Instead of a typical old-school workshop comment such as “I want to see more about the mother,” there’s a question: “We don’t see much about the mother—how important of a character is she?” The former is a demand; the latter is an opening.

When the writer gets to talk about what they’re trying to do, they discover something more about what they actually are doing. Almost always, they reveal information that they’d been holding back. In other words, their talking within workshop, rather than at the end of it, helped them process their own process.

In her classes, Nguyen further incorporated the writers’ agency (and the role of the dramaturg) by encouraging students to set the tone of the discussion they wanted to have. Her writers submitted their work for discussion with an added statement of what they hoped to cover, including areas in their work of particular concern in this draft. And,

On workshop day, the writer who was “up” began discussion by talking about how they wrote the story. Where ideas came from, why they wrote it, what they were trying to do. They got to set the stage for their own workshop.

Nguyen writes about how this method sometimes blends with classic “author-doesn’t-talk” workshop style, and what benefits she’s seen in her students work, and her own, from opening up the discussion to include the author. Many of us seeing frustration in our students—and ourselves—can benefit from talking more in workshop.

Read Beth Nguyen’s whole essay at LitHub.


Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

I Didn’t Want to Go: A Post-AWP Reverie

April 16, 2019 § 6 Comments

Lorri in the Library (3)By Lorri McDole

When Talking Writing’s editor Martha Nichols asked if I’d be at AWP Portland to sign the Into Sanity anthology I’d contributed to, my first thoughts:

Too Damn Big. Too Much Anxious.

But second thoughts:

It’s only a 3-hour drive, and I’ll get the new experience of signing books at AWP. Plus, it’s only October! Surely, I’ll be in a better emotional space by March?

As soon as I registered, Dread moved in for real and unpacked his bags, which were legion: thousands (and thousands) of people…alone this time (I’d gone to AWP Seattle with a friend)…alone-Lyfting (was it safe?)…no MFA friends (because no MFA) to cower with. Etcetera.


On March 12th (verified by my journal), I started scheming about bowing out, because I hadn’t heard whether the anthology would, in fact, be published in time. On March 13th, Austin Kleon tweeted a page from Anne Boyer’s A Handbook of Disappointed Fate that, very loosely translated, read, “You can say no.” Permission! Relief.

Later that same day (really), Martha emailed, also loosely translated: The book is done, it’s beautiful!

Dammit all to hell.

If I had to go, I needed more than a how-to-kick-AWP’s-ass plan. I needed a finely-honed mission.

Beth Ann Fennelly

I discovered Beth Ann’s book, Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs, through The Writer, which ran a micro-memoir contest that Beth Ann judged. My story was published as a finalist, so I packed Heating and Cooling and my copy of The Writer (thinking I could just point in case I couldn’t squeak the words out). I got up super early for her Thursday morning panel, snagged a second-row seat, and watched her walk in: long red hair, skirt printed with rows of books, teal velvet crop top (!), multi-colored shoes. I don’t remember what she talked about (I have notes somewhere), but after all her University of Mississippi students, who also love her, made it through the line, I got to meet her. She wrote something lovely in my book and said, “I remember your story! It was so good!” Swoon.

Yi Shun Lai

Yi Shun, an editor at The Tahoma Review, is a passionate, no-nonsense speed talker. I knew she had another panel to run to, and I surprised myself by matching her fast talk when it was my turn, leaving out my notorious comma-speak: “I know you’re in a hurry but awhile back you gave me great feedback on a short piece that I then submitted for Beth Ann Fennelly’s contest at The Writer and they published it!”

“I love stories like that!” Yi Shun said, and she was off. Short, sweet, no time for awkwardness.

Ira Sukrungruang

On Saturday, heading to lunch with fellow Talking Writing contributors, I saw Ira, the editor of Sweet, going up the escalator while I was going down. Time was diminishing (as I once misheard my husband say on the phone), so I threw my arm up and waved. “Hi Ira! You don’t really know me, but you published me a couple of years ago.”

“Hi!” he waved back. “Come by the booth later!”

I almost didn’t—I’d already said hi, what next?—but I also wanted to buy one of his books. He’d sold out, but I did snag a beautifully-designed chapbook Sweet had published. When I confessed that AWP made me nervous, Ira gave me some personal picks and tips for choosing a smaller nonfiction conference to attend. He was as generous as I imagined he would be.


There were things I didn’t accomplish. I didn’t see Liz Prato, with whom I originally workshopped the story that would make it into Talking Writing’s anthology and whose book, Baby’s on Fire, I carried the entire weekend, hoping to have her sign it. I didn’t visit the mentor booth (I’m probably too old to be mentored anyway, right?). And when Allison K. Williams called out before her panel started, “Hey, this is So-and-So (I’m sorry So-and-So, I didn’t catch your name), and he’s in the book Flash Nonfiction Funny,” why didn’t I stand up and call back, “Hey, I’m in that book, too!” I didn’t even get to meet Allison—who had rejected my story (positively!) for Brevity’s podcast—because I had to leave the panel early.

But there were other things I experienced on the fly. An engaging conversation with Jennifer Jean, poet and Managing Editor of Talking Writing, about hybrid texts, how you can use dreams and suppositions and maybes in nonfiction stories if you clearly signal what you’re doing. The serendipity of sitting next to a guy in a panel who heard me fangirling over Beth Ann (again) and said, “Hey, I hired her at Mississippi.” Finding out that the company I was keeping in the new anthology (you never know, right?) was stellar.

I could have gotten a lot more out of AWP, but I also could have gotten a lot less. It’s been two weeks since I made the 5-hour trip down to AWP (an anxious girl has to stop more than most to use the bathroom), and this is what it still feels like: I brought the behemoth that is AWP down to my size, and I killed it.

Lorri McDole’s writing has been published in The WriterCleaver, Prime Number Magazine, Sweet, The Offing, and Brain, Child, as well as in several anthologies that include Into Sanity and Flash Nonfiction Funny. Her essay “Storms of the Circus World,” which was a finalist for the Talking Writing Prize for Personal Essay, was nominated for a 2017 Best of the Net award.

Three Days of AWP (Wipes Brow)

April 4, 2019 § 20 Comments

awBy Alexa Weinstein


James Richardson said the short form is like math homework where you don’t have to show your work, you just have to give the answer. He was quoting someone else. Nona Caspers said Lydia Davis surrendered to the way her brain works, which is a kind of rebellion. Kimiko Hahn talked about how, somewhere in a haiku, the language has to wildly explode. Elena Passarello named a few ways to let the audience/reader know the piece is over: you can create a narrative ending or a rhythmic ending, or you can go cosmic (Thelma & Louise, Between the World and Me). James Richardson said most endings are too ending-y, and you should try every line you already have instead of trying to come up with one.

Michael Steinberg said student nonfiction writers deny themselves reflection, speculation, self-interrogation, projection, digression, and confession, even though that’s where the action is. Ana Maria Spagna said we tell readers which things we care about most by describing those things in depth, using accurate visual details. Phillip Lopate said what he meant by an intelligent narrator was an intelligent presenter of the self who proves trustworthy—not as a human being, but as a truth-teller. This requires maturity, which can be developed through extensive reading, which we shouldn’t be afraid to write about (the books we read, not the maturity). In the meantime, while we’re still growing up, bluffing is acceptable. Yi Shun Lai said our reflection on the page should avoid being static, and our speculation should aim to be transparent; it’s okay for both of them to be I-driven, and to stay unsettled.

Sara Jaffe invited us to deliver the gift of wildness. Jonathan Lethem said Robert Musil referred to his book The Man Without Qualities as “a half-finished bridge into free space.” Righteous! Leni Zumas described our strange, wild, private interaction with texts, and our devotion to them, as incredibly difficult to translate and share. In response, people around the room made that noise.



(*when people were talking, not reading their work aloud)

who you’re telling • what you stumble on • when we break them • where you came to • why the edges

how it made me feel • how many pages

a whole human estate • a few lines is fine • a list of limbs • a toss in the air

in dialogue with the story • in a small town • in which I was complicit

not containable • not as concrete • not resolve the questions • not made of craft

the larger pattern • the slow fuse • the embarrassing • the line between • the only sensitive one • the one other thing • the unsayable • the falling away

no long speeches

as the plane crashes • as I learned to write

so weird and unique • so enchanting

for the picture • for the end • for taking it

like a sentence • like lying down

to stand in front of • to bank your understanding • to break open the narrative • to blur the line • to be on fire • to be in the world • to be ashamed • to hand this over

more silence • more attention

wants to arise



At PNCA (Pacific Northwest College of Art), I dipped multi-colored carrots in fancy hummus and peeled a tangerine while enjoying a confusing tribute. Sometimes people were performing the poems of Keith & Rosmarie Waldrop, and other times they were reading from their own books published by the Waldrops at Burning Deck Press. It wasn’t always clear which was which and nobody ever said their own name. In front of me, a kid who was maybe four licked her hands and did her best imitation of a cat. It might have been a dog, though. I’m not great at telling animals.

At Powell’s, I sat between two beloved friend-geniuses, Wheels Darling and Moe Bowstern, for a queer reading called Femme Force: Wendy C. Ortiz, Amber Dawn, Barrie Jean Borich, Larissa Lai, Ariel Gore, and SJ Sindu. I loved this event so much that I can’t really talk about it yet. My devotion is wild and untranslatable.

On the giant tour bus used as the AWP shuttle, I completed two 90-minute loops, running into 11 hotels on each loop to check if somebody was getting on. Usually nobody was. The driver and I talked traffic. The sun was out; I was moving. For this volunteer work, I got the whole conference for free.

At Mother Foucault’s Bookshop, I sat where I like to sit, on the stairs. Books in Arabic were stacked by my feet. I thought about looking at English and seeing only lines and shapes. I thought about myself as a stack of books, sitting on a staircase. The poets from Nightboat Books came on. Allison Cobb described the trees of Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn as a net of breathing. Eleni Sikelianos talked about poems as unsearchable engines, a secret hiding place where we can still put things and keep them private. jayy dodd asked us to say HERE and then say NOW, in between each poem, and it turned out I really liked doing this. She wore an amazing purple cape and read a poem that did tremendous things with its hands.

At the Doubletree hotel, I met up with my poet friend Judy Halebsky for the last time. We dipped into the reception for our MFA program and caught up with the only person there I still knew. It was nice to be remembered. Then we went upstairs and sat outside her room, where we could listen for the crying baby while we talked. You can see Mt. Hood & Mt. St. Helens from up there. We could see all the way to 1996. Walking home, I had giant orange sky until the end. I couldn’t tell the difference between the poem/story part and the part that was just human life.

Alexa Weinstein writes, edits, and teaches in Portland, Oregon and can be found online at Her writing appeared in Essay Daily’s “What Happened on June 21, 2018” project. She has performed her work at Dominican University, Portland Poetry Slam, Northwest Magic Conference, and the Independent Publishing Resource Center (zine release party for XTRA TUF 6.5) and is currently working on a book of essays for live performance.

So I Went to AWP: Now What?

April 2, 2019 § 3 Comments

Martin Career Fair 2018 HeadshotBy Bonnie Martin

“Okay, I will have the chicken option please,” I say to the woman at Marukin Ramen, a ten minute walk from the Oregon Convention Center. I add, “And can I—or I mean, may I—”

The woman laughs, and looks at the AWP conference badge hanging by a blue lanyard around my neck. One that thousands of others are sporting in Portland this weekend.

“You must be from that writer’s conference,” she conjectures. “You’re the sixth person today who has corrected themselves in this line for saying ‘can’ instead of ‘may.’”

Now we both laugh. However, in my head, the other conference goers are saying something far more sophisticated, like “Can I—or I mean, may I—add fried leeks to my ramen order?” versus what I ended up saying… “And can I—or I mean, may I—please have a fork?” I peered around the small shop on Ankeny Street with my eyes widening at the chopsticks in view, imagining the scene of noodles flopping from bowl to table, me unable to use the sticks.

And that’s a pretty accurate summary of how I felt at my first AWP conference. I was a fork in the midst of a bunch of chopsticks, taking a stab at what it means to be a writer, a reader, and a good literary citizen.

It took me a few hours of being asked by vendors in the book fair what I do before admitting “I guess I am a creative nonfiction writer.” (I realized a three minute description of my path to AWP was too laborious and stale for anyone–including myself–to endure anymore.) It took sitting in on three author panels before I realizing these writers’ advice might truly apply to me, that it was more than hypothetical, nebulous learning in which I was partaking.

This conference was truly a dizzying experience for me, and I have been processing it since, trying to figure it all out.

But that’s the point of it all, isn’t it? A recurring theme in many of the panels I attended hinged on meaning. We write to create meaning and order in our lives. For ourselves. For others. And that’s why I started down the path in English literature years ago in my undergraduate career. A floundering student at a Big 10 university, I was desperate to create meaning in my college career. And through a series of choices which might be called planned happenstance, I landed in the English department, where meaning is made, is written, is explained.

It’s through this same planned happenstance I made it to the AWP conference. A professor suggested I join a graduate certificate. She mentioned in passing there was a travel grant for a writing conference at our university. I followed down this path out of curiosity and ended up in Portland.

And I ask myself “now what?” I went to AWP and what will I do next? Well, my tools may be different than others, using my metaphorical fork instead chopsticks, my nontraditional career trajectory instead of the traditional creative writing MFA, but I will do what I know how to do best: attempt to create meaning. And acknowledging such, and writing this down thus far, is just the beginning.

Bonnie Martin is a graduate student and writer in the Midwest. Her work has been published in Orion’s The Place Where You Live column. Outside the classroom, Bonnie enjoys refinishing furniture and a good cup of coffee.


An Introvert Writer in Cyberspace

March 25, 2019 § 20 Comments

By Lynette Benton

zz lynette benton

Lynette Benton

As a writer, I’m required to rise above the hubbub, metaphorically position myself high on a stage, and blare out news of my existence on social media. Agents and publishers have abandoned the role of market maker, so I’m forced to develop my own markets, audiences, and followers.

My social media platform of choice is Twitter, mostly because it’s easy to use and limits you to messages of no more than 280 characters. So I must say what I want to say succinctly, a good exercise for anyone, especially a writer. Twitter has often been good to me, sending warm writerly contacts and enthusiastic editing clients my way. Through others I’ve met on Twitter I’ve been invited to submit essays and articles for publication, which helps, theoretically at least, develop an audience for my book-length projects, should I try to publish them.

However, as a medium, Twitter can feel as full of cliques as a junior high school—populated with impenetrable inner circles that make it hard to even identify the individual in-groups with any certainty. It’s like trying to penetrate some snippy gang’s turf. For some time, I circled around the periphery of what might be bad online neighborhoods the same way I’d avoid a reunion of beer swilling bikers. And I wondered if in any case I should try to fit in, whatever “fit in” means in that parallel universe known as Cyberspace. Shouldn’t writers occupy the role of outsiders, observers—at least to some extent?

When I began using social media in around 2008, it seemed as if the way writers did business in Cyberspace had a whiff of seediness about it, like making clandestine contact with strangers in a fog-laced alley after dark. The fact that those strangers were largely compatriots in my line of work only made the contacts seem more suspect somehow. Why did it feel so foreign, so dicey, even demeaning? Maybe because as a group, writers often prefer to hang out with those we cherish and who appear to cherish us in return.

Sometimes I was bored by the whole notion of Twitter and the interactions I saw taking place on it; other times I was downright afraid of it. Since in Cyberspace, everything’s recorded, one way and another, I had a sense of eternally being watched by silent onlookers who were judging and perhaps mocking my stumbling early efforts. Was I trespassing? Overstepping murky boundaries? Flouting rules? There was no way to gauge the appropriateness of my overtures or anticipate others’ reactions. I’d seen what I considered innocent efforts by some on Twitter rebuffed. My own wrist was slapped by a group manager on a professional networking site; he thought I was shilling when I posted an announcement of an upcoming class offered by a large writing organization. I emailed him privately and explained that I had no connection of any kind with that organization. Then I turned around and slapped a different group manager’s wrist for his acerbic tweet (worthy of Simon Cowell, formerly of the TV show, American Idol) about why others weren’t succeeding, as he had, in their attempts to get their writing seen by New York publishing houses. But I hope I did my slapping gently. I suggested (privately) that people would find his message more palatable if he proffered suggestions, rather than accusations.

As a writer, I want to communicate, and the Internet is supposed to be a mechanism for that, but many times I don’t know exactly how or even quite why I’m speaking to strangers in Cyberspace. It might be to buy editing or proofreading services from one another, but back in 2008, when had I ever bought services from people I didn’t know and nobody I knew knew?

Some who write about writing ask you to, “follow” them on Twitter. When you go to their Twitter page you find they have say, 6,000 followers, while they themselves follow less than a tenth that many. (This is particularly true of literary agents.) So I can read their tweets, but they don’t want to read mine. I decline those invitations. I’m interested in two-way discussions, not lectures. Weren’t these new media supposed to be interactive? Weren’t they meant to foster conversation? My efforts in Cyberspace sometimes felt as old school as magazine or newspaper writing. With those media, writers didn’t expect a response or reverberation. We just shot our words out into the paper fray and went back to our work. Now, in this interactive era, words again often seem to fly past people, seldom landing for any length of time on their laptops or the devices in their pockets.

Even with well over seven thousand followers on Twitter and the seven thousand I follow, it can be lonely out there. It feels as if I should bundle myself up in something soft and soothing for these forays into the icy alternate universe. I’m tempted to do what a friend of mine, disgusted with the Internet back when it was regularly called the information highway, threatened: pull over into the breakdown lane with a quiet cup of coffee. Though I’ve made some friends on Twitter, even met a couple of them in person, not one of my close friends, writers or not, is active on that site. I sorely miss their presence there.

Despite the time I’ve spent applying the guidelines laid down by Internet sages, whose Twitter and blog followers number in the hundreds of thousands, the outcomes I aim at—being in touch with people interested in memoir and personal essays or in the writing advice on my blog—appear to hang in dubious suspension, just out of reach. Do those who succeed possess a formula they’re not sharing with the rest of us, like people who copy out a recipe you requested but “accidentally” leave out a crucial step or ingredient in the cooking process?

Whenever writers friend me in an online community, I usually accept—unless they write fantasy, horror, romance or some combination of those wildly popular genres I’ve never been moved by, even in my youth. After I accept an invitation to connect, I’m tentative, uncertain how to proceed. Whose turn is it to send a message? If it’s mine, what should I say? What is expected of me? And remind me, why are we connecting in the first place?

But I know the answer to that last question. I’m exposing myself in this alien dimension to locate and nurture a potentially paying public, as required by agents and publishers. But wouldn’t it be a happier circumstance for all of us if we were connecting for the same reason we sally forth in our real lives: to find ourselves welcomed by a small band of sympathetic souls?

Lynette Benton is a published writer and writing instructor. She guides others in writing about their lives or families. Her essay, “No More Secrets and Silence,” about how she wrote her memoir, My Mother’s Money, won first prize in the contest sponsored by National Association of Memoir Writers and She Writes Press. It was also anthologized in the collection, The Magic of Memoir: Inspiration for the Writing Journey. Her essay, “Chasing Dragons,” is included in the 2018 anthology, Stories That Need to Be Told. Her work has appeared in numerous online and paper publications, such as the Brevity blog; Women Writers, Women’s Books; and local newspapers. An excerpt from her memoir was a finalist in a 2014 memoir-writing contest. Visit her web site, Tools and Tactics for Writers or connect with her on Twitter @LynetteBenton

What I Say vs. What I’d Like to Say About My Writing

March 7, 2019 § 57 Comments

Sandy Pic (1)by Sandra Ebejer

Ever since publicly declaring myself a Writer, I’ve had well-meaning friends and family express interest in my work. This is a far cry from the days of yore, when no one in my orbit understood what I, then a nonprofit grant writer, did for a living.

But once I began publishing my creative work online, suddenly it clicked: Oh, she’s a Writer. Cool. To the uninitiated, the title “Writer” conjures images of successful novelists — the Stephen Kings and James Pattersons of the world — who publish at breakneck pace, giving the impression that all it takes to pen a bestseller is a few free hours and a laptop. So, naturally, people are intrigued.

The nice thing about the Writer title is that, for the first time in my life, people want to talk to me about my work. The unfortunate thing about the Writer title is that, well, people want to talk to me about my work. Like most writers, I’m introverted and not particularly fond of talking about myself, so questions about my writing make me uncomfortable. I smile and offer up some terse response, though my internal monologue offers a glimpse into how I’d really like to reply.

The question: “How’s the writing going?”

What I say: “It’s fine.”

What I’d like to say: “Well, today I spent 45 minutes watching cat videos on YouTube because the personal essay I’m trying to write isn’t coming together and it’s easier to ignore the work than accept the fact that I might just be a hack. I took a break to get a snack and while eating, I read a story in a Pushcart Prize collection that was so moving it made my chest ache and I sobbed from the realization that I will never, ever write a piece so well-crafted. After that, I went back to my desk and stared at my essay for a while, wondering if maybe giving up my grant writing job wasn’t the smartest decision I’ve made, and then just before my son arrived home from school, I churned out a listicle of silly writing memes for my blog. I feel pretty overwhelmed and terrified most of the time but otherwise, you know, it’s fine.”

The question: “What are you writing right now?”

What I say: “Oh, I have a few things I’m juggling. Nothing I want to discuss in detail just yet.”

What I’d like to say: “Everything and nothing. I have drafts of numerous essays, blogs, and short stories saved on my hard drive. I have an excel document with hundreds of ideas and a long list of places where I’d like to submit my work, but I suffer from an overwhelming case of impostor syndrome so very little is shared with the world. I’m nearly done with one piece that might be okay once it goes through a couple dozen revisions, so I’m guessing it’ll be ready to submit to literary journals in six months or so, and then who knows if it’ll ever actually be accepted.”

The question: “Have you been published?”

What I say: “I post my work on and my own website, and I have a piece coming out in Boston Globe Magazine in the spring.”

What I’d like to say: “I have a piece coming out in The Boston Globe, which is really exciting because it’s a publication my friends and family have actually heard of, though I don’t anticipate having additional work published anytime soon because that one Globe piece was clearly a total fluke. I’ve since tried writing for similar columns in The New York Times and other outlets, but my pieces are all terrible. I mean, who am I kidding? I’ll be lucky if I get a story in an unknown, soon-to-be-shuttered literary journal. That is, if I ever finish writing something, amirite? Have I mentioned I have impostor syndrome?”

The question: “How would you describe your writing? Any authors you can compare it to?”

What I say: “Well, a friend described my fiction as ‘slice of life with a dark edge,’ which I think sums it up nicely.”

What I’d like to say: “Oh, I don’t know. Unfinished? Look, I’m doing all I can to write decent stories in various formats. Please don’t ask me to compare my work to that of critically-acclaimed authors you’ve read in some book club. That’s just embarrassing, especially for the critically-acclaimed authors.”

The question: “Where do you get your ideas?”

What I say: “Just from day-to-day life.”

What I’d like to say: “Most ideas come to me when I’m unable to jot them down. It’s usually right as I’m drifting off to sleep that the most incredible narrative forms in my head and by the time I wake the next day, it’s long gone. When I try to consciously think of ideas, nothing happens. At all. Literally. You know how Homer Simpson gets dancing monkeys in his head when Marge is talking to him about something important? That’s me, trying to come up with plausible story lines.”

The question: “Are you able to make a decent living as a writer?”

What I say: “You know, that kind of thing takes time, so right now I’m just focusing my efforts on building an audience and working on my craft.”

What I’d like to say: “No. No, I’m not. Thanks for pointing that out. Can you pass the vodka?”

I’m hoping that as time passes, I’ll learn to accept that these well-meaning (albeit uncomfortable) questions are just another aspect of my fledgling writing career. But for now, my inner voice continues to rant as force a smile, a few polite replies, and subtly change the topic.

Sandra Ebejer is a writer living in upstate New York with her husband, son, and two cats who haven’t figured out how to get along. Her work has appeared in numerous publications on Medium and will be published in The Boston Globe in March 2019. Read more of her work at

CFP: Assay, Special Issue on Nonfictional Forms of Engagement

March 5, 2019 § Leave a comment

time-keepers-1A note and opportunity from Assay Editor-in-Chief Karen Babine:

Call for Proposals – Assay 6.2 Special Issue (Spring 2020)

  • 250-word proposals due March 15, 2019
  • Essays of 2,000-3,000 words due July 1, 2019
  • Publication: Spring 2020

Assay is thrilled to announce that our Spring 2020 issue (6.2) will be guest edited and themed around nonfictional forms, as they relate to mediated concepts of truth and reality, and with a particular hope that the texts and writers will come from outside the United States. Our guest editors are Anastasia Ulanowicz (University of Florida), Manisha Basu (University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign), and Brenda Glascott (Portland State University) and speaking as Assay’s editor, I’m so excited about how they’re going to bring their conversations to our audience, with formal scholarship, informal analysis, and pedagogy. If you’re not familiar with their work, please check them out!

The theme of the issue will be significantly informed by critics such as Rob Nixon, Henry Twidle, Walter Benn Michaels, and Ian Jack, who have each accounted for a late 20th and early 21st century “boom” on the global stage of non-fictional forms of engagement. However, unlike these scholars, this special issue seeks to understand not why a particular narrative form emerges at a particular time, but what its effects are in its particular context. What, they ask, do the kinds of textual transactions that constitute the nonfictional turn have to do with what Rob Nixon has called “the cultural industrialization of the real”: who do they speak for, why do they matter, and to whom? In the face of authoritarian appropriations of reality, nonfictional textualities foreground the crucial idea that reality does not exist outside the regimes for its own production and circulation—and they demonstrate how those regimes may in fact be transformed to constitute a new politics of reality.

Global nonfiction. Forms of nonfiction. Authors of nonfiction outside the United States. India. Australia. Eastern Europe. Ireland. Graphic nonfiction. Memoir. Literary journalism. Essays.

These subjects—and their writers— have long been of interest to us at Assay and we’re so excited to spend an entire issue on them. While this issue will consider the ideas of mediated reality, we are not interested in the American arguments over truth-vs-fact. That said, we’d love to see work that challenges these ideas in other contexts.

We hope the issue investigates what we might call “a commerce of textualities” by reading literary/creative/narrative non-fictional works constituted in mixed modes of writing at the intersection of journalism, life-writing, history, urban-studies, and archival reconstruction, and technology.

As always, Assay is interested in the wide variety of how analysis of these writers and texts can happen, from formal articles, to more informal analysis suitable for our Conversations section, and nonfiction pedagogy. If you have questions or queries, please send us a note at Please share our CFP among your colleagues and students who might be writing seminar papers or conference papers as we speak.

You might consider a proposal on (but of course your idea should not be limited to what’s here)—

  • the long-standing tradition of colonial/anti-colonial travel writing (and who is doing the travel writing outside of the American tradition? Perhaps you might consider writing on Dervla Murphy or Jan Morris?)
  • the impact of Tom Wolfe and the new journalism (1970s), but you might also consider how Nellie Bly might fit into this conversation.
  • the significance for investigative journalism of the ‘history from below’ series at the University of Witwatersrand (1980s)
  • the influence of Slavenka Drakulic’s Café Europa (1996) in altering Soviet-era assumptions of the essay as a self-interested form
  • the increasing demand for a dynamics of testimony, globally, in the shadow of the HIV/AIDS crisis
  • Svetlana Alexievich’s “polyphonic writings” with the Nobel prize for literature in 2015 (she’s the first woman to win for nonfiction and we haven’t seen any submissions on her since her win—we’d like to change that).
  • the emergence of graphic memoirs and graphic reportage (e.g., Joe Sacco, Igort, and don’t miss Reshmi Mukherjee’s piece on Kate Evans from the Spring 2019 issue.)
  • the significance of epistolary forms and diaries as nonfiction forms
  • critical methodologies in archival research
  • the emergence of new approaches to Indigenous literary and cultural forms (e.g., the peoplehood matrix)
  • the pedagogy of these writers, texts, and considerations in literature classrooms, composition and rhetoric classrooms, as well as creative writing classrooms. (As always, the pedagogy needs to be analytical and based in theory, not simply lore.)

Please send proposals, including keywords and a brief bio, to Anastasia Ulanowicz ( and Manisha Basu ( Any questions should be sent to Karen Babine at


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