Betting on Words

January 27, 2020 § 6 Comments

Marcie Fry Copyright (Full)By Jill Quandt

I was raised on Texas Hold’em, and knew the odds of faceless, suited hole cards winning

the hand were too low to raise pre-flop before I knew how to do long division. I could hold my own in poker games with my dad’s friends, all engineers, before I knew the formal word for what my brain was doing: statistics. As I’ve gotten older, I’m still a proficient poker player, but betting on cards is only a hobby. These days, my real vice is betting on words.

You see, I’m obsessed. My family, even my dad, is starting to wonder if I have a problem. “It seems like all you do is stare at that laptop,” they chide. They are not writers, except my little sister who is working on her doctoral project and has been writing a lot lately. She will be a nurse anesthetist come August. She will make more than thirteen times the thirteen thousand I make at my current job. Her bet is a safe one, so no one worries she is wasting her time.

But as for me, I’m a gambler. That’s why after five years of teaching seventh graders, I quit that low paying, difficult job to go back to school and take an even lower paying, difficult job. I’m an almost-thirty-one-year-old graduate teaching assistant in the English department at my local university. What can I say, I like a little risk. I already threw all my chips down on the table, and now I have to play.

The problem is even when I think I have a good hand, sometimes the river card comes out of nowhere to mess everything up. The other day, I was getting ready to submit this very piece of writing. The submissions guidelines for Brevity Blog require a short bio, so I was skimming through the blog looking at other writer’s bios and trying to decide if I should add a little humor to mine. I happened to come across Kathy Stevenson’s “On Playing Cards and Literary Rejection: Betting on the Come.” With the exact feeling I get when think I might just win a hand, and my opponent turns up her cards to reveal the nuts, I start wondering what the odds are two posts that compare being a writing to gambling would be published on this blog within one year’s time. They can’t be high.

Unfortunately, the only things that seem to be high are my stakes. Oh Baby! The stakes are high in this dangerous game of learning to be a writer. Lots of people, many of them with much bigger stacks than mine, are chasing the same pots: articles, books, awards, and the biggie — jobs. I’m the little stack at the table, and boy I know it. I hear there will be more than eighty people applying for the job in my department I desperately want, the one that pays ten grand less than the job I could take teaching English at a high school. I definitely wouldn’t bet on those odds in a poker game, but I’m not a problem card player. I guess I’ll admit that I understand why my husband, a lawyer who won’t prosecute a case he can’t win, thinks I have a problem. Heck, maybe I do.

Luckily, I have a masterful poker face. When people ask me what I’m going to do with my degree, I say I’m going to be a writer. The really nosy ones will probe deeper: “Can you make a living doing that?” At moments like this, a convincing bluff is key. “Yeah,” I respond casually, “I’m working on a couple pieces that have some potential, and my university is hiring composition instructors for the fall.” Then, I get out of there and cry over a glass of wine with the other TA’s in my office, the ones who know the odds. Later, I lay in bed at night staring at the ceiling and ruminating on the first rule of gambling which is, of course, never risk anything you can’t afford to lose. I’ve lost countless evenings and weekends, hours I could have spent being present with my husband, snuggling my baby, or getting some much needed sleep. I’ve forfeited job security, a living wage, and a decent retirement. The kicker is I spend most of my time typing words destined to be deleted.

So why do I do it?

It’s simple, I suppose: I’m hooked — couldn’t stop if I tried. Even when I’m losing (harsh feedback from a professor, rejection letters, writer’s block), I am thinking about the next hand because what if it’s a winner? It’s not that I’m an optimist; I’m realistic enough to know that I might never hit the jackpot. Then again, when my Grandpa Dale was sixty-one years old, he spent a nickel and won a $117,000 prize on a slot machine, so you never know. All I know for sure is that I’m a gambler. For better or worse, richer or poorer (almost definitely poorer), I’m going to keep betting on my words.

A former middle school teacher, Jill Quandt is working on an M.A. in English at the University of Nebraska at Omaha where she is currently teaching Composition II and helping facilitate the Oxbow Writing Project. Her work is forthcoming in the Kenneth Burke Journal. When she’s not writing or playing cards, she enjoys other precarious activities such as wakeboarding, skydiving, and trying to get her kid to eat veggies.

On Writing With Substance and Compassion

January 23, 2020 § Leave a comment

IMG-2476In her new craft essay, Mary Ann McSweeny illustrates why compassion should be one of the underlying components of all stories, and she explains how it is only when the writer remains a “detached witness” that compassion can flourish. McSweeny provides a list of questions and a brainstorming exercise for writers to immerse their characters and narrators in substance and compassion:

When I read my own work and that of others, I ask myself: Does the writer have compassion for the character on the page? Does the writer know the character’s life history, background, biography? Does the writer understand how the character has arrived at the point where the story begins? Has the writer somehow entered into the character’s struggle? With the personal “I” narrator: Does the writer portray the narrator’s struggle with an understanding of the narrator’s weaknesses, fears, or defects without trying to control the outcome of what’s happening?

Substance is not writing about compassion; it is writing with compassion so that the reader feels the writer’s authenticity.

Read the rest of this exceptional craft essay in our latest issue.

160 Frightening Things: A Collaborative Essay

January 22, 2020 § Leave a comment

IMG-4712After you read this piece, write down a list of things that scare you. Toss the paper into a fire, maybe cut it into tiny pieces and bury it, or leave it as a note in a book at your library. Like Professor Jill Kolongowski’s Spring 2019 creative writing class did with this compelling collaborative essay, set the things that scare you free. Here is an excerpt:

Being yelled at. Being yelled at. Being yelled at. People who can’t won’t be reasoned with. Initiating confrontation. People who are overly aggressive. Conflict. Conflict. Confrontation. Confrontation. Getting into a fight unwillingly. My anger. Guns. School shootings. Not being able to fight back. Seeing a crime happen in front of my eyes. War.

Global warming killing me before my time. Natural disasters.

Driving. Drunk drivers. Car accident. Car accident. Car accident. Car accident.

Read the full essay in Brevity’s new issue.

From Poetry to Prose: A Tiny Bowl of Twigs Long Abandoned

January 15, 2020 § 12 Comments

Sheila and Pups-1By Sheila McEntee

Though I am an essayist, not a poet, I recently discovered that esteemed poet Billy Collins and I have much in common. For one, we both love words. For another, we are fellow alums of Holy Cross, a small, Jesuit, liberal arts college in Worcester, Massachusetts. Third (and coolest of all), we both write haikus while walking our dogs. For Billy, it is a practical way to practice his art. For me, it is an avenue to awareness and to deepening my prose.

I’ve never met Billy Collins, but I know about his poetic promenades because he mentions them in his introduction to Haiku in English: The First Hundred Years. Billy says he first discovered haiku in high school, when he was just beginning to explore Beat literature and Zen sensibilities. He dabbled a bit but then gave it up, considering his works “unwitting travesties to the ancient and honorable tradition.”

Decades later, he rediscovered the form after he rescued a dog from the local animal shelter. A mixed-breed female, he named her Jeannine, after a Cannonball Adderley tune. Billy and Jeannine take long, daily walks around a reservoir, she sniffing and he counting syllables on his fingers. He tries to return home each day with a new haiku.

“I like to think of the haiku as a moment-smashing device out of which arise powerful moments of dazzling awareness,” Billy writes. “But I also like to think of it as something to do while walking the dog.”

I was both affirmed and delighted when I read about Billy’s haiku dog walking, for I had begun the same practice some months before. My loyal companions, Murphy and Missy, and I log many miles together, walking in our densely residential neighborhood. The dogs never fail to find fascinating scents, while I muse on countless haiku-worthy subjects, some of which find their way into my prose. Like Billy, I stick to the 5-7-5 syllable structure, counting them out on my fingers.

Most mornings, it is all too clear that the pups and I have different agendas:

Brisk walk or sniffing
expedition? Ever a

Here’s one from a walk in deep summer, when I thrilled to the light, lilting flute song of my favorite bird. The wood thrush and its captivating voice have appeared in my nature writing time and again:

July morning, baked
air too thick to breathe, and yet,
a wood thrush singing

Here is a lonely image I discovered on a recent winter walk:

At the tips of bare
branches, a tiny bowl of
twigs long abandoned

When I attempt a haiku while walking with Murphy and Missy, I begin my day with a small stab at creativity. I like the idea of preserving an image, a moment, that would otherwise have gone unnoticed. I also like being fully present to something.  As Billy says, a haiku declares “that someone was present—actually there, living and breathing—at that particular intersection of sight and sound.”

The gentle gathering of ordinary moments is important to me as a writer. It keeps my mind stoked and attuned to the world around me. It also gives me a feeling of accomplishment. I sometimes think, “If I write nothing else today, I have recorded this.” My haiku collection has since become a sort of poetic diary.

When I get home, I quickly scribble down my haikus before I forget them. Often I marvel at their brilliance. Days later, I come back to them and see that they are clunky and utilitarian—indeed, “unwitting travesties.” Sometimes I refine them. Most times I let them be. I won’t enter them in a contest. It’s unlikely I’d publish them in a book, though I once used some of my better ones to introduce the sections of a segmented essay. In any case, they remain evidence of sweet moments I’d have otherwise missed or forgotten.

Of course, composing haikus can happen anywhere: on the subway, in the car, at the DMV.  No need to be an esteemed poet, and no one will notice your gentle finger counting. You just have to remember to write them down, for

they vanish quickly,
like dreams, or dew, or wisps of
fog in morning light.

You may find, like me, that writing them heightens your awareness and primes you for deeper, richer prose writing.

Sheila McEntee is a writer, editor, nature lover, and musician living in West Virginia. Her articles and essays have appeared in Wonderful West Virginia magazine, Goldenseal, and the Charleston Gazette-Mail, and aired on West Virginia Public Radio.


Author (with Murphy and Missy) photo by Al Peery

In Need of Release: Finding The End of an Essay

January 7, 2020 § 20 Comments

sandra_millerby Sandra A. Miller

Half dozing on the train from New York to Boston with a snowstorm raging outside the window, I grabbed the Amtrak magazine from my seat pocket and mindlessly flipped to an interview with Patti Smith. I read along, engaged but not fully moved, until I came to this line in which Smith talks about performance:

You have to stay with the night, because some nights are a bit rocky. And some nights are explosive. But whatever the night is, you have to stay with it until you feel that people have a release.

I gasped and sat up so fast that my seatmate actually pulled her coat tighter, as if to shield herself from my sudden effusion. Yes! I thought. Yes!

Over the years, dozens of writing students have asked me, how do you know when an essay is finished, but I never quite had the language for it. I once tried to describe it as a click you feel inside, but it’s more than that. Yes, the writer, after years of practice, likely has an intuitive sense of an ending and knows when the piece locks into place, but I never accept that an essay is done until I’ve seen a reader get what I now know to call—thank you Patti Smith—“release.”

This is what release in an essay means to me: Did the reader not only connect with my words, but was he or she also a little loosened by them?

I grabbed my journal and started scribbling as the Acela zoomed me toward home, now going far too fast for all that I wanted to write. I began by brainstorming a list of essays that made me sit back and say “holy shit” because over the course of reading them, something changed in me. The kind of work that my friend Gary and I say we want to “throw across the room,” as in we are so moved/jealous/awestruck that we can’t bear to hold onto it for another second.

I thought about “Chimera,” an essay in which Gerald Callahan examines the workings of memories and immune systems to explain why his children’s mother, who committed suicide ten years earlier, still regularly appears in his physical world. Every time I read it the piece weakens me a little. Is that release? I think so.

Ditto for some of Joan Didion’s more personal essays—“In Bed” comes to mind—where her complex syntax and content hold me in thrall. Sometimes, after being so profoundly tugged along by Didion’s intellect, so yoked by her language, I find myself almost adrift when the piece ends. Release? Yes, a version of it.

I keep scribbling: Alice Walker’s “Beauty: When the Other Dancer is the Self.” Andre Aciman’s “Lavender.” Essays that when you look up from the page, you are in a different place than when you began. And with so much to read and so little time, I don’t want to settle for anything that doesn’t, if only in some small way, move me.

My husband, Mark, a clinical psychologist who helps people with their feelings, is always my first reader. I will hand him an essay and watch—his face infuriatingly placid—as he pores over each line, making faint gray marks with his pencil. Pretending not to be looking, I’ll glimpse over as he nears the end, and I’ll watch, hoping, for that catch in his eyes. A tightening. Not necessarily a tear, but sometimes. Or maybe just a pause, an outbreath. When he hands me back my pages, I know, even before he says anything, if it worked or not.

When I arrived back home in Boston, I couldn’t stop thinking about release and wanted to hole up in my office and start reading essays. But my husband had done several rounds of shoveling while I was galivanting around New York, so I went out for one final scrape.

Just then, my friend Amara walked by with her hyper miniature poodle, Oscar, and stopped to say hello. Amara’s husband died suddenly two years ago, leaving her to raise their two young children alone. She adopted the dog to help with the healing, but he had turned out to be far too much. “We need to re-home him” she said. I can’t do it anymore.”

I nodded as Oscar, fluffy and strong-willed, tried to yank Amara away from our conversation.

“Maybe you needed him when he appeared,” I suggested. “Maybe he brought something into your life in that moment of crisis and transition that you could not have gotten in another way.”

“That’s it,” she said. “He was my release.”


“He released me from the idea that I could do this parenting thing perfectly. I thought I could power through anything, but I had to let that go.” Her eyes glistened with tears, and I wanted to hug her, but a high snowbank loomed between us. So I held her gaze and nodded, briefly, feeling that click of connection. When Oscar started dragging her down the street, we wiped our cold tears and shouted out good-byes.

I kept shoveling, thinking about the way we share our stories. Some are passed, friend to friend, in the hush of a December night. Others are crafted carefully, with the hope that they might affect people we will never meet.

Once I had finally removed the light, top layer, I struck ice, intractable with the freezing temperature. But I knew in the morning the sun, warm and persistent, would reach the pavement, eventually releasing what, in that moment, wouldn’t move.

Sandra A. Miller‘s memoir, Trove: A Woman’s Search for Truth and Buried Treasure, is available through Indiebound, Amazon, and Brown Paper Press. She teaches at the University of Massachusetts, Lowell and is a regular correspondent for the Boston Globe Sunday Magazine. 

Author Photo by Holloway McCandless

Of Fact, Fiction, and Resisting Literary Classification

December 20, 2019 § 6 Comments

By Sheila O’Connor

SheilaPhotoThis is true: I didn’t know how to “classify” my hybrid book, Evidence of V.  I knew I’d written a deeply researched book that made ample use of fact, of archival documents, and narrative nonfiction. I knew it was inspired by the factual truth of my maternal grandmother, a fifteen-year-old dancer who in 1935 was incarcerated for being pregnant with my mother. I knew the intention of the book was to illuminate this little-known U.S. history of imprisoning thousands of girls for immorality and incorrigibility in the first half of the last century.

But, I also knew it was a book that welcomed fiction.  In brief, lyric flash pieces collaged between the research and the facts, I attempted to recreate the missing character of V, the talented young singer unjustly sent to the Minnesota Home School for Girls, in Sauk Centre, Minnesota.  My artistic impulse to imagine V to life through the act of fiction, grew out of my long-time writerly belief that imagination often yields a second kind of truth. An emotional, lived truth.

Evidence of V_Front Cover_HiResDuring the years I focused on writing Evidence of V, I didn’t consider what I’d call it, beyond “a hybrid text.” Instead I attempted to create a literary work that mirrored the negative space of absence—absent people, absent language, absent truth—and my own inability to piece together a cohesive narrative of my fractured history or family. As I’ve done with every project, published and unpublished, I allowed form to follow function regardless of the genre. Collage? Assemblage? Hybrid text? A Book-in-Pieces?  A Lyric Puzzle? At different points in time, in conversations with editors and agents and fellow writing friends, I called it all those things.

Early readers called it a poetry collection, creative nonfiction, a lyric sequence, a book of flash. Later, in his generous description of the finished manuscript, the poet Ed Bok Lee calls it among other things a “police report, ethnographic study, noir screenplay, historical account, existential spreadsheet” and “several other forms that are uncategorizable.” For so long, its inability to be labeled energized me. The book’s nerve came in part from its refusal to conform, its mirroring of a family legacy of noncompliance.

And yet, when Rose Metal Press—a publisher committed to literary works that move beyond the traditional genres—prepared to launch it, a subtitle was requested and required. What to call this text so that readers, booksellers, reviewers, grants and contests have the ability to name it, to place it in a category? In my mind, the book was as much a work of nonfiction as fiction. As much poetry as prose. Settling on any of those designations risked narrowing the scope of what it truly was. And yet, how to be sure the book would be read from start to finish, not as a collection of disconnected, separate pieces, say a collection of poetry, or lyric essays, or flash (all of which it also was), but as a work with a forward moving-narrative trajectory that opened on page one? In addition, there was the question of invented texts which was completely clear to me: the intimate details of V’s young life had been imagined.

The need to classify Evidence of V felt fraught with narrowing, with a kind of genre compliance I’d resisted from the start, but eventually we settled on a subtitle: Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts, and Fictions. While it wasn’t without compromise, and perhaps not entirely accurate, in the end I’d advocated for calling it a novel, in transparent admission of all I had imagined, and in support of the way I wanted readers to enter and exit the book.

And perhaps more importantly, I considered it a statement on the truth and formal innovation I felt the novel form could hold. And yet the need to “genre” V immediately distanced it from discussions of poetry and nonfiction, despite the fact that pieces of the book have been published and recognized as both. And stranger still, most readers continue to refer to it as a work of nonfiction even with the designation of novel on the cover.  As one reader recently told me: “I thought the facts were fiction. They were that impossible to believe.”

Evidence of V is only a single text, but it’s one in a line of published hybrid texts that resist classification. And what to do with these incorrigible texts? Is there a future where agents and publishers, bookstores and journals, grants and contests and residencies, and MFA programs across the country, recognize the validity of the hybrid? Is there a possibility that literary gatekeepers and genre zealots will invite these hybrid books into their company without saying all they’re not?  All the ways hybrid texts have failed to conform.  Is there a way we can resist the need for tidy genre classifications in our desire to keep things clean?  Or at least work toward genre inclusivity as the hybrid text continues to claim its voice within the literary landscape?

In the case of Evidence of V, I made a choice to write a book that’s nonconforming, incorrigible, exactly like the girl for whom the book is named.  Fortunately, the price I’ll pay for that decision is significantly less than the six-year punishment my grandmother endured for her refusal to conform.  A book is just a book, but if Evidence of V has done its work, I have to hope it will find its willing readers, and maybe a literary gatekeeper or two, will open up the door.

Sheila O’Connor is the author of six books, including her most recent hybrid novel, Evidence of V: A Novel in Fragments, Facts and Fictions (Rose Metal Press). Inspired by her maternal grandmother’s incarceration as a pregnant fifteen-year-old in 1935, Evidence of V combines imagination and archival documents to shed light on the history of committing “immoral” girls.  Sheila is a professor in the Creative Writing Programs at Hamline University where she serves as fiction editor for Water~Stone Review.


Preamble Ramble to the Attached Collage: “How to be Your Own Lyrical Essay”

December 16, 2019 § 17 Comments

Nina Gaby_Brevity photoBy Nina Gaby

When I’m rejected from a lit mag or when I get a hasty “no” from a contest entry I might try to figure out what went wrong.

Or I might just slam the laptop shut and toss my phone on the dashboard and mutter about being too “painterly” which is art school code for no clear narrative arc and maybe just a messy mashup of ideas. In other words, missed the lyrical mark.


But this is the way my mind works, I argue. Like a pinball machine of thoughts bouncing off images with some jokes interspersed. How color sits next to its neighbor (see #5.) Or quotes from workshops… “the antidote to writer’s block is play”….who said that, damn, why don’t I write everything down. Isn’t flow what we are after? The intoxicant of pure immersion and the suspension of form (see #6)? But then again, form provides cohesion and yeah I cut my teeth on Kerouac, but I am not him. People want to be able to follow some pilot thread.


I had to figure out how to get there. If my mind seems chaotic you should see my studio. But there I went—to my collection of ephemera and the flow that comes from a tiny pair of manicure scissors, a vintage typewriter, a sewing machine, a disjointed set of rubber stamps.

I credit Randon Billings Noble for her precise attempts at an explaining the lyrical essay in her recent Hippocamp workshop. In clear diagram she outlined just how it works, which I have paraphrased (see #14, 15, 16.) But what else does it take to immerse? A good playlist (#2, 8)? A little yoga (see #7), some mindfulness, a good laugh (see #12, 19)? Adderall?

So for my fellow strugglers, just follow the attached steps and (#20) be beautiful.





Nina Gaby is a writer, visual artist, and advanced practice nurse who specializes in addiction and psychiatry. Gaby has been working with words, clay, and people for five decades. Her essays, fiction, prose poetry, and articles have been published in numerous anthologies, journals and magazines, and her artwork is held in various collections, including the Smithsonian, Arizona State University and Rochester Institute of Technology. Her anthology, Dumped: Stories of Women Unfriending Women, was published in 2015 and she has essays in several upcoming anthologies. More information at

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