Instagram for Writers

June 6, 2019 § 36 Comments

Flatlay of laptop, teacup, teapot, sugar, milk and paper on wooden tableSocial media is a distraction from our writing. Social media can be a support system for our writing—creating community, building readership, and allowing us to practice our craft. Writer Twitter is definitely a Thing, with terrific advice in #askagent, and editors tweeting calls for submissions and pitches. Writer Facebook includes genre- and demographic-based groups that foster literary citizenship and build real-life connections as online acquaintances meet at conferences and readings.

But Instagram? The one that’s all about the pictures? Sure, there’s #bookstagram, where book bloggers share their reading piles and recommendations and authors reveal new covers. But what’s the benefit for writers on a primarily visual platform, and why should they bother?

Instagram is (so far) the calmest, sanest, and most relaxing social platform, with three big benefits for writers:

1) Make genuine connections with people who want to read your work.

Writers don’t need 20,000 followers on Instagram. Writers need engaged followers. “Engaged” means people who like or comment on your posts, and a good engagement rate is about 1%. That’s right: If you have 100 followers, and one person comments, you’re doing well.

This is not how most people think about Instagram. We see “influencers” with 200K followers and ask why we should even bother. But look closer:

Influencer AllThatIsShe – 529K followers, engagement about 0.7%

Memoirist Dani Shapiro – 19.3K followers, engagement about 1%

Memoirist Esmé Weijun Wang – 9.4K followers, engagement about 0.8%

All three of these people are proportionally influential. The influencer makes fun and funny visual jokes. The writers share writing news, book tours, personal stories behind their work, and moments of joy and poetic wonder from their lives. AllThatIsShe’s comments include lots of casual interaction like sharing summer plans and laughter at her clever photographs. Dani and Esmé’s readers give their own responses to prompts, wish the writers well, share corresponding moments from their own lives. They actively engage in meaningful dialogue with the writer and her work. That 1% are people who will show up to a reading and pre-order your book.

Instagram is economical. You don’t have to fly across the country to a conference that might take 50 waking hours. Spend that same time in 15-minute Instagram sessions interacting with writers you’d like to know, and that’s 200 days of cost-free relationship building. You don’t even have to wear pants.

2) Write better.

The Instagram caption is perfect for encapsulating a moment. In 50-100 words, writers can practice craft at the sentence level. We get to write in short, manageable chunks on busy days.

When writing captions, tell a moment that is a whole moment. Stay in the scene, or in a single thought. The medium is the message: there is no “and then I realized…” because the venue says that for you. Being a caption establishes, “I thought this was important to crystallize and share with my readers.”

Writing in this constrained form is the ultimate flash. How fast can you bring a reader into your mood? How much emotional impact can you create in under a minute? Can you draft a killer first sentence that makes readers click to read the whole thing? That’s a skill all writers need for work in every medium.

3) Get Inspiration and encouragement.

When I’m posting regularly, I see more stories in the world. I’m more likely to ask questions of the people around me, and truly listen. This spills over into my longform writing, making me more curious about my characters and more conscious of the circumstances that make people who they are.

Posting a micro-essay is like a low-stakes “submission” to the world. There’s no “dislike” button, so I get the encouragement without the rejection. The level of engagement tells me what people enjoy reading, and comments suggest future blogging topics for Brevity and writing questions to address in my next book. Every little heart makes me feel like someone is interested in what I have to say and reminds me to write again tomorrow.

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If you’re just getting started on Instagram, or you want a more enjoyable experience that benefits your writing, a couple of quick tips:

  • Line breaks. One of the great mysteries of Instagram! To get an empty line between paragraphs, make sure there is NO SPACE at the end of the paragraph. Hit return. Type a period or emoji, NO SPACE, hit return and start your next paragraph. There are apps that allow you to type a caption and copy-paste with empty lines, but it’s an extra step. Keep your Insta commitment small.
  • Don’t worry about the follow/unfollow thing. Many “large” accounts are using follow-bots to artificially build their numbers. When you click through to see a profile with thousands of followers and very low followings, they are going to unfollow you. Only follow back if you’re truly interested in their content.
  • To build your own followers, find people you like from other social media or real life. When you follow, comment on their most recent post with what you like about it and say where else you know them from. Make sure your profile says what you do and your name is identifiable. Show your face in your profile picture. Participate in following threads on Facebook and Twitter.
  • An engaged Instagram presence doesn’t have to be time away from your writing. Unlike influencers who need current daily content, writers can do just fine with 1-5 posts/week. Don’t bother to post on the weekends unless you love it.
  • Don’t get sucked in. Stay limited and specific: take 20 minutes and post one picture, write one solid caption. In your down time (subway, waiting room, on the potty) take 15 minutes and comment on 10 people’s most recent post. Like 10 more posts you actually like. Follow 3 new people and comment on 1 post each. Then close the app and look around for a story to tell.

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Wanna know more about writing on Instagram? Brevity‘s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams will be teaching Instagram: Improve Your Craft, Grow Your Readership as a live webinar for Hidden Timber Press on June 15th. Sign up here!

The Death of a Writer

June 4, 2019 § 27 Comments

I’ve been reading my dearest friend’s journals. Spiral-bound notebooks, cloth-covered hardbacks, loose-leaf paper in three-ring binders. Sorting out teenage angst and adult story notes, false starts and full pages. Some of the words are casual, some inspiring, some sad.

I’m also digging through her computer. Looking at old story outlines and half-drafts of essays. Working on breaking into her phone.

I’m not snooping.

I’m her executor.

My friend wasn’t especially organized, but two other close friends and I found what we could after her death, tried to piece together what was worth keeping, what would be a beautiful memory and what was garbage. It was good for the three of us to read her old journals. We threw away the teenage angst and kept some of her adult musings. We pulled some of her unfinished writing from her old laptop and put it in a Dropbox so we could all look at it and feel a little less bereft.

Poking and prying and talking about her. My friend might not have wanted this. She might have been very angry that we’re reading her private thoughts, looking at rough drafts not ready for prime time. But she didn’t tell us, so we get to make that choice for her.

Stieg Larsson, writer of The Girl With the Dragon Tattoo series, died without a will. His partner of 24 years, Eva Gabrielsson, was left in the cold. Larsson’s estranged father and his brother got everything. The estate is still in court 15 years later. It’s not only the millions of dollars: Gabrielsson contends Larsson’s work isn’t being presented to the world the way the late author wanted. But he didn’t write those wishes down.

Many “big deal” authors have literary trusts, where chosen trustees work with the author during their lifetime to establish how their work should be treated, and set up procedures to continue selling rights and allowing research after their death.

Most of us don’t need an elaborate trust to guard our posthumous literary interests. But as someone left behind, sorting through grief and papers while guessing what your dead person wanted sucks.

Who is going to deal with your literary legacy, and what do you want done?

  • Journals. Do you want them read? Burned? Photocopied and passed around the family? Placed in an archive?
  • Family photos and genealogical research for your memoir. Are they labeled, or at least in a labeled folder or envelope? Will anyone else know who these people are? Does anyone want to store physical papers?
  • Story notes. Manuscripts. Half-finished drafts. Should anyone try to finish them? Should anyone even read them?
  • Published work. Who do you want to have the copyrights? What do you want them to do with them? Do you want any royalty income to go to charity? Should the same person get the rights and the money?
  • Not technically literary, but treasured mementos from previous generations have the same problem as writing notes and unpublished work. Those left behind don’t know how to value them. If you have knickknacks, jewelry, scrapbooks, have you explained their meaning to your heirs? (If you haven’t, are they really worth keeping? Because someone has to agonize over your grandparents’ 50th anniversary album while standing over a garbage can. Just sayin’.)
  • Do you want your social media wiped or memorialized? Have you listed a legacy contact on Facebook? Any online-only friends who should be notified of your death?
  • What passwords and account numbers will someone need to wrap up your affairs?
  • Speaking of affairs, what should be deleted before your child or significant other finds it? The essay you didn’t publish to avoid hurting feelings? That chapter you decided was too personal to share? Who should go through your devices and do that?

You have the right to privacy after death. But unless you’re specific about what’s private, someone else will make those choices for you. Even if you don’t formally appoint a literary executor, write your wishes down. Use this simple writer’s will form from Neil Gaiman as a guide. Here’s more information about literary estate planning.

Share your feelings with whoever will likely clean out your stuff (and one other person in case you’re both hit by the same bus). If you want your devices wiped, say so. If you want your electronics explored, share the passwords with a trusted friend who doesn’t have physical access to your computer. If you don’t have a friend you trust that much, split it up: one friend gets the first half of each password and another friend gets the second half.

I’m still digging through my friend’s stuff. At the funeral, a woman I’d never met gave me a key to my friend’s safety-deposit box I hadn’t known existed. I’m waiting for paperwork from AOL to take over her email so I can get into her phone. Maybe there’s a letter or important bank information on her new laptop, maybe I’m supposed to figure it out like a puzzle. Maybe it would have been better to reformat and donate the electronics to needy children.

I don’t know. She didn’t tell me. So curiosity wins.

I hope I’m doing what’s right. But it is comforting to read her words. As it happens, I like one of her story outlines a lot, and maybe I’ll turn it into a book.

That, I know for sure she’d like. Because we talked about it.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching Instagram: Improve Your Craft, Grow Your Readership as a live webinar for Hidden Timber Press on June 15th. Sign up here!

Just Like the Cool Kids

April 11, 2019 § 6 Comments

After our attempt to create viral cat videos ended in editorial lacerations…after trying to make “fetch” happen…after our unfortunate experience with twerking (Dinty’s back will heal soon!), Brevity has finally become cool.

We got on Instagram!

Brevity posts writing moments and thought-provoking images. We’ll also be seeking writers for short term Insta-takeovers of image series with accompanying text. (If you’re interested, slide into our DMs!)

Why Instagram? As Twitter becomes politically challenging and Facebook brings out the family racists, Instagram has remained relatively sane and relaxing. Creators are sharing meaningful images and carefully crafted words in a supportive community. Captions are becoming flash nonfiction. Writers are connecting with a lively community of readers and fellow wordsmiths. Celebrity book clubs share novels and memoirs with vast audiences who want to be part of a literary community. Instagram readers are becoming daily more sophisticated, more visually-attuned, and more willing to spend a moment with beautiful words.

We want to reach our readers where they are. Thank you for visiting the magazine and blog online, welcoming us into your inboxes, engaging with our tweets and participating in the Facebook group. Thank you for saying hi at writing conferences and reviewing Brevity authors’ books on Amazon and Goodreads.

Instagram is one more place to share a small part of your literary journey.

Won’t you join us?

PS – for Insta-takeover requests, please contact us on Instagram, that way we don’t lose your message!

Building Your Twitter Following

February 12, 2019 § 11 Comments

Does Twitter help sell books? Nobody knows. Barnes & Noble customers rarely announce “I came in because of this tweet!” But being visible in the online writing community can be a source of support and inspiration, and enough agents and publishers look at follower numbers to make it worth growing your presence on Twitter.

Twitter basics are just like showing up at an enormous pool party already in progress: Watch conversations before interacting, interact kindly and pleasantly and avoid “fighting words” unless you’re doing it on purpose. Just like that party, you get to swim when you like and stay dry when you want: Twitter rewards occasional involvement throughout the day or week rather than constant checking.

We talked last week about “what the heck to post on Twitter.” But the early days often feel like speaking timidly into the void (647 following! 12 followers! Augh!). How can you organically grow an online community who share your interests and want to hear what you have to say?

The best way to get followers is to follow people, but not randomly. Who will you enjoy reading and who will follow you back?

  • Use Twitter follow-frenzies. Search your Facebook writing group for a post asking members to comment with their Twitter handles. Follow them all, and post yours as a clickable link. If you can’t find a follow-thread within the last six months, post one: “Hey, let’s follow each other on Twitter” plus your link will do just fine. It is polite to follow back everyone who follows you unless you actively dislike their bio/feed.
  • Go to users’ actual profiles. Hit “follow” and wait for a moment—Twitter will suggest more people you might like. Follow them, too.
  • Visit your favorite literary magazine or author’s profile. Add their followers. Use the “followers” list, because the “following” list is likely more famous and less motivated to follow back.
  • Follow other writers with low follower counts. Someone with 367 followers is more likely to follow back than someone who already has 70K.
  • Follow people who liked a tweet you also liked, or whose response you liked.
  • Search hashtags like #amwriting #writingcommunity #writerscommunity #amediting and #cnf (those are clickable links to those searches). Follow people who use those hashtags in tweets and/or their bios.
  • Use Lists. To keep track of the people you want to read in that blur of new tweets, assign people you follow to lists. For example, I made a list of “Agents” so I can read only tweets from literary agents I follow. You can also look at someone else’s list: Click on a profile, click Lists, and click on a list. For example, here’s all the AWP presenters for this year’s conference. If you’re attending—or want the conference buzz—subscribe to see those tweets. Then click List Members and follow everyone who seems interesting.
  • Unfollow people who don’t follow back after a few weeks unless you are specifically interested in what they have to say. (Michelle Obama is probably not going to follow me back.) Most of my non-mutual followers are news, politics, public figures, literary agents and publishing houses. You can use a tool like Tweepi (start with the free plan to see if it’s for you) to sort your list and easily unfollow non-followers, or just scroll down your Following list on Twitter—it’s in chronological order.
  • Don’t bother to follow back travel bloggers and business coaches with huge follower and low following numbers unless you’re really interested. They are using bots that will unfollow you after you follow them (this also happens on Instagram). Dudes with two first names (like ‘Robert Walter,’ ‘James Joseph’), very all-American profiles, and jobs that are military or military-connected in Africa or the Middle East are bots or scammers.

“But Allison,” you ask, “How can I engage meaningfully with the thousands of followers I’d like to have?”

You don’t have to. You’re not on Twitter to talk to anyone, you’re on Twitter to talk to everyone. It’s not like letting your best friend sit next to you at lunch—be part of a great conversation this minute, then move on. Support the people you know well or in person. Retweet writers and cool things to read. Post things you find funny, interesting or cool. Step back and engage meaningfully with the community as a whole, rather than focusing on individuals. Let Twitter wash over you like a wave—and get out of the pool when you need a break.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor. See you at AWP!

Will You Social Media Today?

February 5, 2019 § 8 Comments

Antique engraving of a white male writer thinking, an inkwell in front of him and pen in handYes, yes, we know. Build a platform big enough and the agents will beat a path to our door. What we really want to do—what we should actually do more than anything else—is write. Yet as memoirists, agents and publishers want to know: How many people can you reach with the news your book is out? How many of them are in the demographic likely to buy your book? How many will leave a glowing review, either because your book is great or because they love you and you write about what’s important to them?

Platform-building is a long haul, and it’s hard to know how to spend our time and focus day to day. What the heck are we supposed to put on social media anyway?

Try:

  • A new book you think is great.
  • Something you overheard that makes interesting dialogue.
  • An article you wrote or were involved in publishing: link the article and quote a couple of sentences that seem mildly inflammatory or counter-intuitive.
  • An article you liked about writing: link plus a quote and/or your opinion or contribution to the advice.
  • A writing meme
  • Encouragement to someone else
  • A fun poll
  • A serious poll
  • A retweet of someone else’s opinion with a comment agreeing or disagreeing or adding to the conversation.
  • A cartoon or quote that inspires you.

Most of us won’t ever get big enough that platform alone gets us published, but plenty of us have stories compelling enough that a nudge from platform might tip us over the edge from unpublished to published. Take a few moments, and build a little of yours today.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Putting your Best Face Forward

January 29, 2019 § 8 Comments

Blue sky, green wheat field, and a redheaded woman in a blue jacket and a wheelchair, sitting chest-deep in the wheat.My friend Erin Clark is Instagram-savvy, writes great blogs, and illustrates them with amazing photographs, most often of herself. I’m always astonished at just how terrific she looks—the photos are interestingly composed, she’s usually wearing something sexy or adventurous or high fashion, and her face and body look great. I figured it was due to great shopping/scavenging skills and nature’s gift of fabulous cheekbones.

When Erin visited me in Dubai, my husband and I took her to dinner at a restaurant in the Marina, a waterfront area with wide sidewalks and beautiful city lights. Erin wanted a photo, so we walked and wheeled along until we found a good background. My husband offered to take the shot. “Thanks but I’m good,” Erin said. I thought she’d get a couple of selfies, maybe a couple more of the two of us. Instead, she took more than fifty shots, posing like a model, tossing her hair, angling her face. A woman walked by and asked about Erin’s Instagram—clearly, there was Instagram involved—and they swapped names and posed together.

Back at my house, Erin sorted through nearly a hundred pictures, edited and filtered the best few, and posted one photo to her feed. And I realized, that’s why she looks great in every photo. She could pick the one with the best combination of light, background, facial expression, hair and body, because she had a lot to pick from. Smile not great in that one? Toss it. Hair’s good but eyes are closed? Delete.

I see a lot of author photos, in conference programs and on book jackets and here on the Brevity blog. Many of them aren’t doing justice to the writer’s personality, looks, or writing. Am I judging what you look like? In life, I try not to. But the author photo is part of the whole package. A good headshot helps writers sell their work the same way 1-inch margins and 12-point Times New Roman do. It’s one more way to look professional.

Headshots used to be a hassle. You had to book a photographer (not the JCPenney photo studio), do the shoot, wait for contact sheets, wait for prints, duplicate the photos expensively and mail them in an envelope.

Now, anyone can have a good headshot for basically free. Some tips:

  • Use the best phone camera in your vicinity. Borrow the latest model if you can. (But your phone is probably good enough.)
  • Pick a background with texture but not distraction. Brick walls, abstract wallpaper, tree trunks. There’s a reason a bookshelf is an author-background cliché.
  • Wear solid-colored clothes that contrast with your skin. The old adage about don’t wear white on camera applies mostly to white people. If you have darker skin, pick a color that contrasts rather than blending in. Black tops are usually not great for anyone, so if you love dark clothes go for a jewel tone or another deep, rich color.
  • Natural light. Stand near a window. If you’re outside, go for soft morning or evening light. Try a few where your head blocks the sun and you get a beautiful hair-halo.
  • Make sure the phone camera is in focus. Seriously, touch the screen and let it do that thing where it sharpens on you.
  • Take. 100. Photos. Smile and frown. Laugh and look serious. Take your glasses on and off. Move your hands. Do that fun thing where you turn away from the camera and then turn back fast so your hair flies around. Get silly. Having fun between shots makes a more natural photo, even with a serious expression. You’re not paying for film, and the more shots you take the more you’re likely to feel good about one of them. Generally, you should have 1-2 great photos for every 40-50 frames. (That ratio holds true for professional models and photographers, too!)
  • When choosing the photos you like, ask friends for input. Often, others see the photo as a whole when we’re focused on an imperfection no-one else is looking for.
  • If something’s weird in your background, or there’s one hair across your face in an otherwise perfect shot, use an app like Touch Retouch. (It’ll also remove telephone wires and no-swimming signs from your vacation photos.) Backgrounds can be fixed with a faux-depth-mode app like Portrait.
  • When you save your photos, do so in high, medium and low resolution. You’ll need that 72kb file for Twitter, but a blog or journal needs one around 1.5mb, and a printed program or poster will turn out better with a TIFF or JPG of 5mb or more.
  • Don’t put photos you don’t like into the world. I’ve heard authors complain, “Why’d they pick that awful photo of me?” (1, it was on your website so they assumed you liked it, and/or 2, you didn’t provide a photo so they googled and picked the first decent shot they found.) Even “this one or that one?” posts on FB should be about fine distinctions between a few great shots.

It’s OK to hate being in photos. But sharing your work with the world means sharing part of yourself—so make your author photo something you’re happy to share, too.

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Allison K Williams is Brevity‘s Social Media Editor.

Can’t Means Won’t

January 22, 2019 § 8 Comments

The first day of a new circus workshop, there’s always one. Leading warmup, my fellow coach announces to a room full of high school students, already groaning in a leg stretch, “We’re gonna go for gold! Slide that front leg toward the splits!”

Near the side of the room, a kid bails out onto his butt, muttering, “No way, I can’t do that.”

Our coaching ears perk up. I call across the mats, “There’s one word we don’t want to hear in rehearsals. That’s ‘can’t.’ Because can’t means won’t—”

The students who’ve worked with us before chorus along. “—And won’t means push-ups!”

I explain. “When you say ‘I can’t,’ you’re telling your own body, ‘I quit.’ We can’t help with ‘I quit.’ Instead, try to identify the problem—I’m losing my balance! My knee hurts! My partner keeps dropping me!—and we can help you figure that out.”

My coaching partner adds, “If we hear you say ‘can’t,’ you owe us five push-ups. And then you’ll be stronger!”

Splits are hard, and for every high school dancer who wants me to lift her front leg to increase the stretch, there’s another ten students grimacing with their legs at a 90-degree angle. Not every circus move needs the splits, but lengthening their hamstrings helps these students achieve more in rehearsal, and the long-term benefits of enduring unpleasantness to achieve greatness will serve them far beyond next weekend’s show.

The ‘can’t’ whine I most often hear from writers is about platform. I hear it as misery:

I don’t understand Twitter. I’m too old.

I hear it as snobbery:

For one thing, I don’t do social media, and don’t intend to…until I retire: Whatever rewards may come from being an author, it’s not worth my privacy or putting my current (quite nice) paycheck at risk.

I hear it as despair.

Nobody pays attention to me online anyway.

Can’t means won’t. Won’t means working much harder to sell not only your book, but your query, concept, and voice to agents, publishers, and readers.

This ‘can’t’ includes two fundamental misunderstandings:

  1. Platform=Twitter, Facebook and blogging
  2. Engaging in building platform means revealing everything about your personal life online.

Platform is the number of people you can reach who might buy your book. Twitter and Facebook aren’t actually that effective, but they’re good for constant low-level engagement with your readers and other writers who will champion your work.

The best platforms are public speaking, mass media, and newsletters. Can you speak about the topic of your memoir to people with the same problem or challenge? Can you publish an essay about it, or send press releases to line up interviews? Can you build a list, one email at a time, of people who’d like to be updated once or twice a month on your work, and share something cool, funny or useful?

Privacy is relative. Creative nonfiction writers are often very self-revelatory about one particular story. But spilling your alcoholism or distance hike on the page doesn’t mean having to reveal your current marriage issues. Social media works for you: you do not work for social media. You are under no obligation to be more or less private about any particular issue. You can engage in politics publicly or not. You can post pictures of your face or not. What matters to your readers is whether you have something interesting to say, and that they’d like to pay (eventually) to hear more.

Sure, you can sell a book without any platform at all. If what you have to say is incredible enough, you can sell it written in crayon on a burlap bag.

Most of us are not that good.

Most of us depend on a mix of excellent-but-not-earthshaking writing, intriguing story, reasonable platform, and literary citizenship. More of one compensates for less of another: someone with millions of Instagram followers and a fascinating story don’t have to write as well as a writer’s-conference veteran telling their unique spin on the recovery memoir. Incredible writers can have a smaller platform. Literary citizens known for sharing others’ work will find promotion opportunities for themselves come more easily.

Don’t say you ‘can’t’ do social media, because that’s not helping you. Instead, identify the problem:

I’m shy. Promote your subject expertise rather than your own life.

My family is super nosy and easily offended/I work for the government. Establish your online/promotional presence under a pen name. By the time you publish, that persona will fully exist.

I despise social media. Build that public-speaking career—local clubs like Lions and Kiwanis are a great low-stakes audience. Get everyone’s email and start your newsletter.

Embrace platform-building as a challenge. What you have to say is meaningful, so why not start sharing it now? Why not reach toward the people who need your words even before your book is out?

Later in the circus workshop, I heard ‘can’t’ again, from the bar of the triple trapeze. I called out, “McKay, you owe me two!”

McKay smiled. “Only two? I thought it was five.”

“It’s been a long day and you’re working hard,” I said.

McKay popped out two tight, sharp push-ups, hands under his shoulders, his body perfectly aligned, then got back in line for his next turn on the trapeze—a tiny bit stronger than before.

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When she’s not blogging here, Brevity‘s Social Media Editor Allison K Williams teaches Starfish Circus, a school residency & camp program in which 50-150 students grades K-12 put up a full circus show in two weeks. It’s pretty cool.

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