Writer to Writer: “You Just Made My Day”   

March 30, 2023 § 22 Comments

By Charlotte Wilkins

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Is This the Real Life? Is This Just Fantasy?

March 29, 2023 § 22 Comments

By Abby Alten Schwartz

Imagine you own a property. You sketch plans for a house, consult experts, allow yourself six months to build a solid foundation and ensure you’re up for the challenge. You reach that milestone and keep going, learning new tools and discovering which tasks you have a knack for and which are more cost-effective to outsource. Then one day, you look around and realize you’re living in this home you made and it’s lovely, comfortable, and secure.

That’s how it felt to build my own business from a thought I had in mid-2000 (what if I quit this job and worked for myself?) to a major part of my identity. Originally a graphic design company, I expanded to include copywriting and marketing consultation, and sharpened my focus to hospitals and healthcare organizations. The work was gratifying and provided the steady income and flexible hours I needed raising a daughter with a demanding chronic illness.

But here’s what happens when you’ve lived in the same house for 20 years. You start watching too much HGTV, envisioning what you’d choose if you ever decided to move. You still love your current house—this is just fantasy.

For years leading up to the pandemic, I’d felt a restless creative urge, a sense there was something more I was meant to do. My gut told me there was a collaborative element to it but the rest remained elusive.

Then, in the summer of 2019, Cheryl Strayed posted on Instagram that she was teaching a memoir writing course the following spring at Kripalu Center, a five-hour drive from my home. Terrified, yet powerless to resist, I registered.

Of course we all know what happened in the spring of 2020. And while there would be no weekend workshop with Cheryl Strayed, fate stepped in to usher me onto my new writing path, quarantine-be-damned.

On the day I would have arrived at Kripalu, I discovered The Isolation Journals (TIJ), a pandemic-borne online journaling project founded by Suleika Jaoaud. I began writing daily in response to Jaoaud’s prompts and sharing my mini essays with the private Facebook group. I found my voice and realized it was time to build an addition onto my creative house.

These last three years have been transformative—Dorothy stepping into a Technicolor world. A friend from TIJ introduced me to an expansive and generous community of writers. I took online courses where I met more writers, learned to pitch editors, got my first byline and my second and my twentieth. I found a coach and started my memoir, wrote essays, satire, reported stories, prose, formed critique groups, ventured to HippoCamp.

Every day I gazed in wonder at the new structure rising from the earth around me. This was no mere addition. This was my aspirational dream home, right out of a Nancy Meyers film.

Every day I’d trudge back to my other home, knowing my fantasy house wasn’t sturdy enough to live in or sustain a family.

Then one day I thought, if I can’t live in my new house, maybe I can borrow some of the furniture and accessories and spruce up my old place. And I started integrating bits of my personal writing life with my professional one.

I added journalism to my LinkedIn profile and posted links to my bylines, explaining them as writing I did to keep my creativity sharp. I’d previously separated these halves of my identity, wary of crossing professional boundaries and revealing too much of my personal life. I also worried my clients would mistakenly think I had one foot out the door. My clients not only liked my pieces, they asked about them in meetings.

The truth is my corporate writing makes my personal writing more enjoyable. Sure, I’d love more time to devote to the latter, but because it’s not my primary source of income, I can take a more playful, curiosity-driven approach. When the stakes are lower, there’s greater freedom to aim high. The worst that can happen is I get a rejection.

Still, writing essays and memoir has unleashed in me a greater desire for authenticity and genuine connection. So, brick by brick, I’m lowering the walls dividing my two halves.

I’ve been thinking about the word integrity—a core value of mine and an ideal I try to live by. The word means more than honesty and morality. Integrity is the state of being whole and undivided.

I’m now taking further steps to bring my creative identities into better alignment and give each the attention and respect they deserve.

I’m writing a proposal for my memoir-in-progress, with the goal of landing an agent and publishing deal in 2023. I’ll continue to pitch stories that interest and excite me, including pieces about chronic illness, wellness, and mental health, informed by my expertise in healthcare communications. I’ll continue to work with hospital systems but will also develop content for major healthcare brands. And I’m preparing to launch a design service for writers, offering book cover consultation and art direction as well as creation of promotional materials.

An old client I reconnected with a few weeks ago asked me, “What kind of work do you really have fun doing?”

It’s a question I hope I never stop pondering.


Abby Alten Schwartz is a Philadelphia-based writer whose work has been featured in The New York Times, The Washington Post, WIRED, Salon, The Belladonna Comedy and elsewhere. She also works as a healthcare copywriter, designer and marketing consultant and is writing a memoir titled Hypervigilant. Follow her on Twitter @abbys480, visit abbyaltenschwartz.com and subscribe to her free newsletter, Name Three Things.

Why I Love Shame

March 28, 2023 § 10 Comments

Connect connect connect connect.

By Nerissa Nields

How to fall into a shame spiral:

1.  Rent your AirBnB studio for 30% off. Forgive the guest for nicking your van. Give him a 5-star review anyway. Watch as the ingrate gives you your first ever 4-star review. The kicker? His comment: Not worth the value.

2. Come across a high-school paper for a course you excelled in. Think, I’m going to show my 16-year-old so she can see how smart her old mama was. Turn to the last page to admire the A. Be appalled to see, instead, a B+. Teacher’s comment: Does not quite rise to the next level.

3. Observe the vortex forming at the center of your chest, pulling all of you into it, like one of those puppets that disappears into a hand-held cone. Like a black hole, it feels as weighty as…well, as a literary rejection. Your writing is beautiful, the agent says. It’s a really hard call for me, but I’m going to have to pass. I just don’t feel the passion I’ll need in order to represent you.

In other words—B+.

My husband doesn’t like the novels I’ve been writing for umpteen years. He wishes I would stop polishing sentences, deepening the characters, creating new plotlines, and just self-publish the damn things already. Generally, he loves my writing. Just not these novels.

“Be done with them,” he says. “Move on to other things!” Most days, I tolerate this betrayal. After all, they’re based on my life as part of a folk-rock band, which I co-founded with my sister and my first husband. Would I want to read about his former marriage?

Then, I see a dedication in someone else’s novel: I want to thank my wife who believed in my book when I could not.

So I rip the scab off, trying once again to figure out why my husband doesn’t like my books. Too much about the music business? Was he threatened by my past? Could it be he’s an asshole with a terrible personality and bad taste?

This only wrecks the day for both of us.

I Google, Spouses who hate their partners’ art but instead of discovering happily married folk who blithely disregard their spouses’ genius, what comes up are images of storied literary marriages: Frida Kahlo and Diego Rivera, Georgia O’Keeffe and Alfred Stieglitz. Even Catherine Blake, illiterate when she married poet-artist William, believed in his genius unconditionally. I conclude I am either the only great writer who has chosen a witless partner, or else…my partner must be married to a witless writer.

I begin to wonder if my anger at Tom is really just my own self-doubt. Reading over a draft, I saw how many ways I’ve failed. At the moment, it’s a definite B+.

What if I knew that it might never get above a B+ no matter how many years I work on it?

Would that be liberating? What if my best work really is ahead of me and I can’t write it because I’m obsessively tinkering with these books?

On the other hand, would I self-sabotage by pulling the trigger too soon? The idea of self-publishing depresses me. I think highly of self-publishing—but I would miss working on the books. This fictional world is my playhouse. If I publish these books, I can’t change them. Then what am I going to do for fun?

It used to be fun to send my work “out there,” throwing CDs of my band’s demos to the wind. We got lots of rejections but enough valuable connections to build a 30-year career. I used to post silly videos, half-edited blog posts, incessant questions to my social media followers. What’s stopping me doing the same in my literary life? And why, come to think of it, have my various profiles all gone silent?

Trusting a suggestion to visualize “my life’s purpose,” I saw a view of Earth from space. There I was, a dot on the east coast, em-dashes of gold shooting steadily in multiple directions––like a graphic Internet companies use to demonstrate that the modem is connecting to the router. Steady on, these little golden flashes of mine, all over the world. Blink, blink, blink. Connect connect connect.

What’s keeping me from this simple job of sending out my words, music, novels, essays, videos? Nothing but my old acquaintances Fear and Dishonesty.

I don’t want to tell you about my husband’s dislike of my fiction. I’m afraid you’re going to think I’m merely a B+ student, 4-star AirBnB host, and an average writer. The lie I try to get you to believe is that I’m brilliant, extraordinary, essentially the cat’s pajamas. But why? Don’t I know by now that the safest place is also the most vulnerable place?

Tom’s inability to see that my novels are the cat’s pajamas means that every single day I get to practice toughening my skin, an essential attribute for any writer. It’s no one’s job but mine to love them. Moreover, that stuff inside my black hole of shame is the primordial ooze of me, the very material stories are made of. There is a crack in everything/that’s how the light gets in, writes Leonard Cohen. Each little dash of light emanating from my spot on the planet is my own unique morse code that sings the world’s song, endlessly noble, endlessly humble: connect connect connect connect connect.


Nerissa Nields is a musician and writer living in Western MA. Her work has appeared in J Journal and Maine Review. She’s the author of the YA novel Plastic Angel (Scholastic); All Together Singing in the Kitchen: Creative Ways to Make and Listen to Music as a Family (Roost Books/Random House) and How to Be an Adult (Leveller’s Press). She is the director of Writing It Up in the Garden Workshops and Retreats and holds an MFA in Creative Writing at Vermont College of Fine Arts.

Who Gets Final Say in Our Family Stories?

March 23, 2023 § 11 Comments

By Esther Aarons

My mother killed my memoir. My father helped.

I’m not angry with my father because he didn’t lead the charge. If this had happened ten years ago, we would’ve fought for days, then made peace. He’s not up to leading a charge now. He gets lost driving to the grocery store. I don’t know that I’ll ever be livid with him again. I miss it.

My family has a lore: My grandparents were Jews who fled Nazi Germany with my father and his siblings. They smuggled just enough money out to buy a small store in the American south; by the 1990s they had vastly expanded the business through hard work, business savvy, and fierce determination. It’s an inspiring story with resonance and heart, of immigrants who arrived with almost nothing and achieved the American dream.

But of course it’s complicated–isn’t everything? In my memoir I questioned how Jews who fled Nazi Germany could implement, in their store, the very Jim Crow-era mandates that Hitler and the Nazis had looked to when concocting their hateful Nuremberg laws. Our store had separate bathrooms for whites and Blacks, separate water fountains. How could we escape from oppression only to turn around and engage in oppression? What is it about human nature that permits that kind of shift? Isn’t it important to try to understand it, to fight to overcome it?

I find these questions vital. My mother thinks they needlessly and irrevocably taint the family’s upstanding and civic-minded reputation, which they worked long and hard to build.

My father insisted that if we had flouted Jim Crow laws, we couldn’t have stayed in business. I don’t doubt it. “What else could we have done?” he asked, after reading my memoir. Then he said, “I guess we could’ve settled somewhere else.”

I spent years working on the memoir and only showed it to my parents when my agent was ready to go on submission. This timing coincided with the wave of protests after the murder of George Floyd by a Minneapolis police officer while other officers watched. The protests were largely peaceful, but some demonstrators set fire to cars, some smashed windows. My mother believed my memoir depicted the family as racist and worried that rocks would be thrown through the windows of my parents’ house. Was I putting my family in harm’s way? I think I painted a nuanced picture; I don’t think we come across as villains. Still, we don’t exactly live in a time that prioritizes nuance.

When my parents read the memoir, they learned what I really think of the family legacy they spent their lives building and protecting. In response my mother told me all that was wrong with the book I’d spent years writing. She disapproved of how I portrayed myself, and her, and my father’s mother. She thought I aired family tensions that should stay hidden.

In response I said, “You want to know why you come across in my writing as not caring about your children? This is an example of why.” Finally we agreed not to say another word about it.

The story of my life is that I can’t figure out how much say my family should have in the story of my life.

It’s no surprise that they disapprove of my version. I’ve always seen a different story. Even as a girl, when each of my siblings seemed eager to go into the family business, I told my parents I’d never end up working there. I was drawn to the energy and excitement of the clan, but I always felt on the outskirts. I always had a different take. Now, after decades of living far from my parents and taking no role in the family business, here I am still, on the outskirts, with my own take.

What on earth made me think my parents would sanction it?

There are benefits, though, of lifelong patterns. My parents and I fight. We act cruelly. Time passes. We pretend nothing happened. We almost forget something did. Then we fight again.

I’ve set aside the memoir and started a novel based on my family’s story. But fictionalizing the story hasn’t untethered me from my parents. When I told my mother about the novel, emphasizing that she would get no advance look because it’s a novel, she sent me this text: “When writing your work of fiction, please be sure to honor your grandparents and parents. We love you very much.” She doesn’t care if it’s made up; she worries readers will believe it. In my mind she’s reading over my shoulder as I type, whispering in my ear when she believes something reflects badly on the family.  It’s impossible to write this way. So I’ve created an alter ego: Esther Aarons. She’s the author of my novel, just as she’s the author of this essay. I love having her. I can’t write about the issues that consume me without getting tangled up in whether I’m upsetting someone. But Esther can. Nobody’s ever heard of Esther; nobody sends her undermining texts. Esther is entirely free.


Esther Aarons is a pseudonym.

On Interpretation, Translation, and the Poetry of Deaf Signers

March 16, 2023 § 9 Comments

By Paul Hostovsky

“Are you the deaf interpreter?” the nurse asks me. I get that a lot. I’m actually the hearing interpreter. I’m a sign language interpreter and I make my living interpreting for Deaf people and for hearing people who want to communicate with Deaf people. “No,” I tell her, “I’m the hearing interpreter. The Deaf interpreter is on her way. She should be here soon.” That’s the truth but for some reason the truth is hard for hearing people to hear. She knits her brows together as if this were a conundrum, a difficult case for the doctor to untangle, the doctor who is in the examining room right now with the Deaf patient writing back and forth in his famous illegible handwriting.

Most hearing people don’t know they’re hearing. That is, they don’t know that hearing is the word for what they are. The blind call people who see sighted. The Deaf call people who hear hearing. And a person who makes his living interpreting for Deaf and hearing people is called an ASL interpreter. But hearing people often call us the deaf interpreter. I guess it makes sense to them: the interpreter for the Deaf is the deaf interpreter. But I’m not the deaf interpreter. I’m the hearing interpreter. The Deaf interpreter is on her way. And thank God for that, because the patient in the examining room, as I soon find out, is a Deaf gentleman from Russia, where they use Russian Sign Language (RSL), and his ASL is only a little better than my non-existent RSL. So I need backup. I need help.

Deaf interpreters are Deaf. They’re Deaf sign language interpreters. They often work in tandem with hearing sign language interpreters, not unlike the way a surgeon will work in tandem with another surgeon, or an architect with a civil engineer, or a pilot with a copilot. You’ve probably seen Deaf interpreters on TV, interpreting for the mayor or the governor or the FEMA director, and you didn’t realize they were Deaf. As for me, I can almost always tell the difference between a Deaf interpreter and a hearing interpreter on TV because the Deaf interpreter’s signing is always so–well–Deaf. Which is to say, virtuosic. If it’s a Deaf interpreter, there’s a hearing interpreter off-camera, across from the Deaf interpreter, “feeding” them the spoken message, which the Deaf interpreter then re-interprets in a way that is more luminous, more limpid, more elegant, more accurate, and more Deaf. The Deaf interpreters are the rock stars of the sign language interpreting profession. They do it better than we hearing interpreters because ASL belongs to them. Because they grew up with it, live it, love it, eat it, breathe it, and they own it collectively with other Deaf people.

All men are poets at heart, said Emerson, though Goethe may have said it first, in German. And Novalis may have said it before Goethe. I say all Deaf people are ASL poets in their ASL hearts, at least all the Deaf people I have ever known. And I’ve known quite a few in my lifetime. The way they’re able to play with the language, the way it lives in their faces, their bodies, the way they make it come alive before your very eyes, all Deaf signers are poets at heart. And the Deaf interpreters, who are bilingual, fluent in English and ASL, and who make a living dancing between the two, make the best interpreters when it comes to translating English into ASL. It makes perfect sense: a native speaker of the target language is almost always better versed in the nuances of that language than someone who learned it later in life. In other words, as the joke goes: “Do you not be happy with me as the translator of the books of you?” Funny, yes, but seriously, that’s the kind of mangled syntax and odd phrase structure that Deaf people are often subjected to at the hands of less-than-fluent hearing sign language interpreters. If only there were enough Deaf interpreters to go around, to save the day for all involved by steering their ASL ambulances into the linguistic and cultural head-on collisions and hot messes that we hearing interpreters sometimes make of things when left to our own devices.

When the Deaf interpreter–my team for this assignment–arrives at the doctor’s office, she gives me a smile and a howdy, apologizes for being a little late, and introduces herself to the doctor and the patient. And though she doesn’t know Russian Sign Language herself, she is far more able to communicate with the Deaf consumer than I am. That’s partly because of certain language universals that all signed languages share, and because she is Deaf and he is Deaf (that they share that is just as crucial), and because she has an imaginary (and a literal) toolbox that I don’t have, which includes the ability to act things out in intuitive, gestural ways that are amazingly clear, as well as an illustrated anatomy book that she has brought with her, and paper and pens and figurines and whatever it takes to make sure she understands and is being understood by the Deaf consumer. The appointment goes off without a hitch, everyone says what they needed to say, and is understood by all, and the patient gets a diagnosis, some medication, and a follow-up appointment in a month. And the doctor is blown away by how smoothly it all went, compared to when he was trying to write back and forth with the patient, after asking him if he could lipread, which was the only sentence the Deaf patient could lipread, which was why he shook his head, No.

On our way out, the doctor asks me, “How long did it take you to learn that?” Of course, what he means is how long did it take to learn sign language. But what he’s really asking is: How long does it take to learn how to effectively interpret a medical appointment for a Deaf patient (from another country) and his doctor, while working in tandem with a Deaf interpreter? And because the Deaf interpreter is standing right beside me, I sim-com (talk and sign at the same time) in order  to include her in the conversation. And I say to the doctor, “It takes about as long as it took you to learn that. What, four years for medical school, three for residency, and more if you want to specialize? Actually, it takes longer than that. It takes a lifetime,” I tell him. “I’m still learning. I never stop learning,”

“Hear, hear!” says the Deaf interpreter, and gives me a fist-bump. Then she turns to the doctor, who looks a little lost, so she gives him a fist-bump, too.

Paul Hostovsky has won a Pushcart Prize and two Best of the Net Awards. He makes his living in Boston as a sign language interpreter and can be found at paulhostovsky.com

What to Do When an Agent Ghosts You

March 8, 2023 § 15 Comments

When they vanish on a requested full

By Sara Orozco

When I started looking for literary agents to represent my memoir, I anticipated rejections and braced myself for them. But I wasn’t prepared for agents to vanish after they’d requested my full manuscript. So, wearing my clinician hat, I pondered the psychological impact of being “ghosted” and why the practice left me obsessing for an answer.

In a 2020 study exploring online daters’ experiences with ghosting, most respondents reported feeling sad and hurt, while others felt disappointed, disillusioned, or ashamed. For some, being ghosted had long-term effects on their mental health, leading to depression, low self-esteem, and panic attacks. If ghosting is the new agent rejection letter, what can authors do to prepare themselves?

To be clear, I’m not talking about ghosting on queries. In most cases, agents’ submission guidelines make it clear that if they don’t respond within four to six weeks, consider it a hard No. I get it. Some agents receive hundreds of queries a week, and it’s impossible for them to respond to all submissions. But what about those hope-infusing occasions when an agent expresses interest, requests your manuscript, and then responds with total silence? Memoirs, by design, are personal and can leave their authors feeling raw, vulnerable, and anxious for validation. What happens to us if ghosting after submitting a requested manuscript becomes the norm?

In fifth grade, Ms. García, my teacher, said, “Sorry to hear about your father,” I had no idea what she meant. “Always remember, Sarita, your father is a hero. Un patriota!” After school, I furiously pedaled home and threw my bike down on the front lawn. I found my mother chopping onions in the kitchen.

“What happened to Papi?” I panted.

Mami turned to look at me, surprised, then calmly put down her knife and pulled the apron over her head. The pungent smell of freshly cut onions stung my eyes.

“Do you want some water?” she asked, filling her cup.

“No! Just tell me!” Any other day my tone would land me a grounding.

My mother sank into a kitchen chair. “He’s in jail.”

“For what?”

Her raised eyebrow warned me to get back in line. “He was out on his boat. He didn’t do anything wrong. I’ll let you know more when I find out. He’ll be okay.” She got up from the table and began vigorously chopping green peppers, her back to me. End of discussion.

I grew up thinking my father was a hero for his role in the 1961 Bay of Pigs invasion, and he was, at least, to Miami’s Cuban exile community. I never knew the reason for his arrest until I was an adult and learned he had been sneaking guns and ammunition into Cuba, hoping to overthrow Castro’s communist government. But by then, my father’s continuous unexplained disappearances throughout my childhood had left me confused, angry, rejected, ashamed, and wanting answers.

As a writer, I have as little control over how or whether an agent communicates with me about my manuscript than I did in how Mami communicated to me about Papi’s disappearance when I was in the fifth grade. But we can learn to manage our expectations and protect our battered psyches.

If agents’ silence happens often, a writer may develop feelings of mistrust in the querying process—did anyone read what I sent? BIPOC writers who have grown up with systemic racism and tokenism may question whether these forces are at play when their work is seemingly ignored. Some writers move through ghosting without much fuss, but if that’s not you, that’s fine too. Don’t avoid your feelings—you’ll be teaching your brain that it’s not okay to feel angry or sad, and then when you do feel those emotions, you’ll add shame to your list.  

Humans need closure. If Mami had told me the truth about Papi’s whereabouts early in my childhood, I might not have devoted half a lifetime looking for an answer. In my psychotherapy practice, I see clients who have recently experienced a breakup, and those who know why their partners left them feel less depression and anxiety than those who were ghosted.

As writers we need to create our own closure. Here’s one way that works for me: upon a manuscript request, I add the agent’s name to my to-do list with a note to follow up in six months (or the agent’s specified timeframe). At six months, I email the agent. After one more month of silence, I check them off my list and add the agent to my Do Not Query list. This lets my brain think I’ve completed my task. Incomplete items on my to-do list take up much more space in my mind than those I’ve met.

Mostly, ghosting comes from overwhelm and over-optimism about how much an agent can accomplish in the time they’ve allotted themselves and likely it’s not about you though it may feel personal. Allow yourself to feel the disappointment after all we too bought into the agent’s optimism about our book. Feel the loss but don’t tie those negative feelings to your self-worth. Keep going. Your story is important, and you are enough—not too old, too dark, too unknown.


Sara Orozco is a first-generation Cuban American queer writer and a licensed psychologist who has written for NYT Tiny Love Stories, River Styx, Cognoscenti, and The Delmarva Review, among others. She’s a three-time Boston Moth StorySLAM winner. Sara recently completed her book, The Language of Bullets: A Father-Daughter Memoir, about the intergenerational trauma that happens in families when secrets are kept and its impact on mental illness. 

Writing for No Readers

March 2, 2023 § 8 Comments

By Carroll Sandel

After watching the chaos at the Kabul airport in August 2021, my husband and I decided to host evacuees. In November, a young Afghan family moved into our home. The following morning, I felt pulled to the computer as though a huge magnet yanked me there. I needed to write about this life-changing experience my husband and I were sharing.

“I noticed her first,” I wrote. “She emerged from the airline passageway wearing a black hijab, a long dark skirt and a maroon hoodie. On her hip she carried a small boy. A slender man walked in front of her. ‘Abdullah?’ I asked. ‘I speak little English,’ he said.” 

Later in the afternoon, through a combination of Google Translator and a CVS test, we learned his wife, Hadida, was pregnant.

At first, I emailed my stories about what had happened the previous day to my sisters, several friends, and my writing group. I then expanded my addressee list to more friends, cousins, and neighbors. What started out as fourteen readers mushroomed to forty-eight. Replies came: “I feel I’m right there with you,” “I can’t wait to read your email every morning,” “You are an amazing writer,” “I’m forwarding your daily installments to my cousin in Wisconsin.” I had become a modern-day Charles Dickens, for crying out loud.

Day eight, in the kitchen at Thanksgiving, my daughter-in-law, Siobhan, asked Hadida how she was feeling. Seeing Hadida’s blank look, I answered by shaking my head and imitated her vomiting. I then pointed to Siobhan and, holding up three fingers, said, “Her, three babies. Never…” and pantomimed vomiting. Siobhan threw her arms in the air and grinned. We all laughed, and I suddenly imagined Hadida in her kitchen compound, sharing fun moments with her female relatives. Writing the next day, I realized she must miss them so.

Each day I felt on the edge of being overwhelmed as our houseguests took over our lives. I lost track of when I last shampooed my hair. But my writing provided energy and solace. Writer-me focused on specificity, sentence length and structure, narrative arc, pumped-up verbs, transitions. By using my art to share what I was learning, I fed others as I was being fed. My writing never felt so important. In my emails, I said that though the couple only picked at my blueberry pancakes, Hadida had put blueberries in her naan batter one morning, making huge crepes for my husband and me. I shared that when he and I brushed our teeth at night, we wondered what mistakes we’d made that day.

Day eighteen after their arrival, a friend and I went for a much-needed walk. She quickly raised her concern about the wide network receiving my daily thoughts. Though I believed I was writing sensitively about our guests, she pointed out that I did not have their permission to share what was happening in their lives. Tears pooled in my eyes.

“Telling stories about our days together is time I have to myself, but also time to tell what is going on with them.” I said. “I’m helping people learn what it’s like for refugees. I can’t give that up.”

As I heard myself defend my emails to my bedazzled readers, I looked at my friend sideways. She was right. Our Afghan guests deserved my respect, their privacy.

I stopped sharing my stories.

For a few days, I grieved the loss of sending emails. Yet I never wavered. How devastated I would feel if one day I were to learn that our family had felt betrayed by me in similar circumstances.

But I made a promise to myself. I would still write every day. About Hadida, who, using my electric sewing machine for the first time, made a dress in one day. And about me, who took three months to discover the family liked goat cheese. As I noticed more about them, I became more in touch with me.

The family moved to an apartment in early April.

And I have 145 stories. 

Why did I write for no readers, still paying attention to all the craft tools I learned over the years?

Hosting the Afghans was incredibly challenging and fulfilling. Writing transported me through the experience. It transformed me. Others’ praise may be intoxicating, but putting words on the page focused me, forced me to go deeper. It enticed me to explore what I believe, who I am. Our Afghan family gave me this opportunity. I didn’t need an audience after all.

*Names have been changed.


After a career in social work, Carroll Sandel began writing about growing up on a farm. Those stories morphed into a series of linked essays about her untrustworthy memories. Her work has appeared in Hippocampus, Pangyrus, Cleaver and other literary journals. She was a 2014 and 2017 finalist for the nonfiction prize in New Letters.  

Why Write When There are Thousands of People Out There Not Reading Your Work?

March 1, 2023 § 20 Comments

By Ben Berman

We were at the home of some friends when I found myself in a conversation with their six-year-old son.

My dad told me that you’re a writer, he said.

I am, I said.

Then let me ask you something, he said. How come I’ve never read anything you wrote?

That’s a good question, I said.

Think about it, he said. Right now there are thousands of people out there who aren’t reading any of your books.

He shook his head and walked away, leaving me all alone in the kitchen.

I grabbed a slice of lukewarm pizza and started laughing to myself. I’d recently published a small book of short prose and was well aware of all those people out there not reading it. It got me thinking about one of the two recurring dreams that I’d been having of late, which involved me walking into a bookstore to give a reading and seeing that there was only one person in the audience.

This, in fact, actually happened to me once, and although I laughed it off at the time—cracked some joke about the sound of one hand clapping—it was one of those moments that remind you of the fine the line between humility and humiliating.

We left our friends’ house shortly afterward, and although it was getting late we decided to give our five-year-old a bath.

Giving our five-year-old a bath is always a bit of a production: she likes to bring trays of Tupperware into the tub with her and pretend that she’s the star of some warped Disney film.

Look, I overheard her say at one point as I was walking by. I know you think that you killed my parents. But I have news for you. It is I who poisoned your parents!

Then she started laughing this evil, maniacal laugh.

I have no idea what the premise of her story was, but I wasn’t about to ask because if she knew that I was eavesdropping, she would have immediately stopped the show.

And as I stood in the hallway listening in, I started thinking about the other recurring dream that I’d been having as of late. In this one, I am taking a shower and when I step out, I realize that there is a full crowd of people waiting for me to read. I walk up to the podium and not only do I not have my book with me, I’m not wearing any pants.

I had always assumed that this was simply the converse of the first dream—rather than showing up with something to say and finding no one there, I show up with nothing to say and find everyone there.

But as I listened to my daughter play so freely in the bath—her imagination wandering in the most surprising and delightful of ways—I wondered if this dream was actually about the tension between the pleasures of writing and the pressures of being a writer.

On my better days, I’m able to compartmentalize the two. But whenever I’ve sat down to write, lately, I’ve found myself worrying about book sales and Goodreads ratings, about the reviews that people were writing and the reviews that people weren’t writing.

My five-year-old was starting to sing some song that could only be described as a ballad to her bum. I couldn’t make out all the lyrics, though, because she was laughing so hard as she belted it out.

And I realized that if I wanted to reclaim the pleasures of writing, I couldn’t worry about all those thousands of people not reading my books. Because that’s not why we write. We write for that single fleeting moment, as Merce Cunningham says, when [we] feel alive.

From Writing While Parenting © Ben Berman, 2023. Used by permission of Able Muse Press.


Ben Berman is the author of three books of poems and the forthcoming book of flash essays, Writing While Parenting. He has won the Peace Corps Award for Best Book of Poetry, has twice been shortlisted for the Massachusetts Book Awards, and has received awards from the Massachusetts Cultural Council, New England Poetry Club and Somerville Arts Council. He teaches creative writing classes at Brookline High School. You can reach Ben at his website.

How to Stop Feeling Anxious When Telling a Deeply Personal Story: You Can’t

February 23, 2023 § 11 Comments

By Andrea Askowitz

The morning of a teaching gig at the University of Pennsylvania, my alma mater, I woke up panicked, so I went for a run. The day was brisk, the way this Miami girl remembered the Philadelphia fall weather more than 30 years ago.

The Trustees Council of Penn Women invited me to teach storytelling at their annual conference alongside Meredith Stiehm, my college best friend and tennis partner. Meredith created the TV show Cold Case and wrote for ER and Homeland. The other presenters: one of the developers of the COVID-19 vaccine, a candidate for mayor of Philadelphia, and a former Congresswoman, who’s also Chelsea Clinton’s mother-in-law. I wondered: Why was I invited?

I ran up Locust Walk (Penn’s Main Street), past the counseling center, where my tennis coach sent me when my grade point average fell below 2.5. I remembered sitting on Dr. Hall’s couch feeling so dumb compared to my ivy league classmates.

I was an athletic admit and spent my college years feeling out-classed. I like to lead with my insecurities, so my classmates knew my SAT score was 1090. Once, in a drinking game that required nicknames, a woman from Connecticut was Pearl Necklace; a man—6’4”—was Nose Bleed; I was 1090.

I ran past the metal tables where Meredith helped me re-write a paper. I’d gotten a D. After her help, I got a C-. Now, running on campus, I felt like 1090 again.

In the shower after my run, I incorporated the Wim Hof method, which is two minutes of cold water. Cold water improves focus. I do two cold minutes whenever I teach or perform. This time, holy shit. Philadelphia cold is not the same as Miami cold. I counted to 60 twice and turned off the water.

Black spots formed in front of my eyes. I swung my arms wildly and snatched a towel, then made it to the bed, half blind. This brain freeze was way beyond any frozen lemonade I’d sucked down too fast at the Farmer’s Market.

My head pounded. I needed to relieve tension, but was running out of time so I grabbed my phone, opened Google and tapped Porn Hub. Then, I had an out-of-body experience. I could see myself from above. I thought: This is how they’ll find me. Alone in a hotel bed, naked, phone in hand. My wife will know what happened. She’ll declare: death by anxiety.

I got dressed, hit the bathroom one more time, then went to teach 80 distinguished Penn alumnae.

Since I like to lead with my insecurities, I told the group “I’m not sure why I was invited, but now that I’m here, Meredith asked me to tell you how I got into writing.” Meredith laughed, but I knew she worried what I was about to say might be too revealing for this buttoned-up crowd.

I told them how 20 years ago, I was a single lesbian who got pregnant on my own. At the time, I thought I’d be waiting until my kid got to college before anyone would touch me again. Then a man I vaguely knew from work offered to give me a massage. I thought “massage” meant sex. Lesbian or not, I went for it.

I acted out the part where he rubbed my pregnant belly and boobs, full on. I explained how he worked his way up my legs and how my clothes landed on the floor. I demonstrated my frog position by lifting one leg, wide. His thumbs kept rubbing against me, I told them, and that’s when I begged the man to get in bed with me. Instead, the massage man stopped, stepped back, and said, “Your kitty is pretty.” Then he left.

I swore back then I’d never tell a soul. Then, I told the Penn women, I went to my writing class. My teacher gave a prompt, which could have been a time you were desperate and pathetic. Or maybe she threw out a single word like, cat. Whatever it was, I wrote about the massage. When it was my turn to read, I wanted to pass, but no one had ever passed. So, with my heart pounding in my ears, I read my story.

My classmates howled. They leaned over, slapping the table. They laughed so hard, some had tears. I’m sure none of my classmates were pregnant lesbians who’d thrown themselves at a man, but by the way they reacted, I felt understood, even loved. That’s when I knew I wanted to become a writer and teacher.

Following my story of the story, The Penn women applauded. One woman stood up and said, “I want to be a pregnant lesbian,” and I knew I’d nailed it. Then, I gave the group their writing prompt: Your most humiliating moment.

After the designated time to write, a few women shared their stories with the group, we workshopped, and it was over. As I gathered to leave, a line formed in front of me, like always when I share something vulnerable. Woman after woman told me a humiliating story and I realized I wouldn’t want to stop feeling anxious because that vulnerability is what people connect to. Bad SAT scores or not, I know how to get people to open up. That’s why I was invited.


Andrea Askowitz is the author of the memoir My Miserable, Lonely, Lesbian Pregnancy. She’s written for The New York Times, Salon, Washington Post, Huffington Post, The Writer, and Glamour. She’s the co-host and producer of the podcast Writing Class Radio. Find her on social media @andreaaskowitz.

Why I Play Pickleball: On Calming the Writing Monster

February 22, 2023 § 4 Comments

By Tamara MC

I’ve ridden my bike 12.2 miles daily for the past three years. The night before, I make sure my Airpods are charged, and I head out in the afternoon during the warmest temps of the day. I live in Arizona, where we had 85-degree weather this past winter. Regardless, my muscles curse the wind when it snarls and snaps. I do one of several things on my bike ride. If I’m in a Zoom meeting where I can use audio and don’t need my camera, I Zoom. If I’m not Zooming and zooming, I listen to writing podcasts such as “Let’s Talk Memoir,” “Longform,” or “Qwerty.” Or I listen to one of the many classes I signed up for but couldn’t attend in person, such as “The Writers Bridge,” classes from the Author’s Guild, or Jane Friedman. And I even take business meetings from my bike, praying the swishing sound isn’t a giveaway.

And if my head is spinning from being in too many writing classes, I listen to nothing. I pedal, my mind floating to all of my writing projects. I began writing essays in the past two years, so during my bike rides, I’m trying to figure out something about the many pieces I am embroiled in, such as Chinese Chorizo, the bra I’ve worn for 27 years, or My Unorthodox Life on Netflix. My mind also wanders to my 400k-word memoir (yes, you heard me right!) that I revise in my head. How can I cut the sucker down to 90k? 

Besides riding a bicycle, I also run, walk the dog, lift weights, and do yoga. While all of these activities are wonderful, they are not relaxing. My mind doesn’t stop for a minute. Every exercise session is a writing session because I come up with a solution to a prickly problem I couldn’t have weaseled out of if I hadn’t hopped on a bike, grabbed a leash, or stuffed my feet into jogging shoes. Every waking hour of my life is consumed with writing. 

I’m a single empty nester with two boys in their mid-20s who are doing wonderfully, and at this stage of my life, rather than worrying about them, I focus on writing 24 hours/day 7 days/week. I fall asleep thinking about writing. I wake up in the middle of the night pondering a dilemma. I hop out of bed at 3 am, ready to hit my computer, the coffee pot already humming. No matter how hard I try to calm my mind with exercise or meditation, I can’t. I have no boundaries. 

The writing monster is always present, hatching new plans, assailing square footage in my brain. 

I call my mom the OG of Pickleball, a racquet sport similar to Tennis, Ping-Pong, Racquetball, or Squash. She’s been playing for nine years and is one of the first to begin playing. Since she started, she’s been trying to get me to play, but I’ve always had an excuse—I run, mom. I prefer tennis. I don’t have time. Finally, last year I took her up on her offer. I took my first lesson. Since then, I’ve signed up for a ladder league on Tuesday nights when it’s chilly out, and the court lights give off a green monstrous glow. I also play Sunday evenings with my mom and my son, who I’ve recruited. At first, I couldn’t stand Pickleball. My mind couldn’t wander. 

But now, I play Pickleball because my mind can’t wander. Pickleball is the only time I think about something other than writing. For 3-6 hours/week, a thought about an essay, my book, or an email I need to send doesn’t creep into my fidgety mind. My mind can only focus on one thing—the ball—getting the ball over the net, lobbing the ball, and striking my opponents’ feet with the ball. I’m thinking about my swift serve and keeping my feet out of the kitchen (not a real kitchen where you simmer soup but the name of the non-volley zone). 

I’ve always giggled that my mom is such a competitive person. She plays to win. She was a women’s Racquetball player in the 80s when few women played and a female track runner in high school in the late 60s. But now, as I get older, I see my mom in myself. When I get on a Pickleball court, I also play to win. All of my angst and anger towards my writing life is released when I slam a ball, jump in the air to lunge for a ball, or run the net so fast to get a shot.

My mom plays three hours daily, at least six days a week. She just got back from a weeklong trip to Cancun, where all she did was play Pickleball. I’m nowhere close to her, but I can see myself edging up, making Pickleball a significant part of my daily life.

Writing has consumed my life and will continue to do so because it is my life. But my mind gets fatigued when I can’t shut it down, and we need a real break to produce our best work.

I will continue to cycle, run, walk, and weight lift because I love these activities, but recognizing that these aren’t natural breaks from writing, is essential.

So, what are you doing to shut down your mind? If you haven’t already, try a ball sport, like tennis, basketball, or volleyball, something that focuses you on anything other than writing. 

And if anyone’s interested, I can begin a Pickleball for Writers support group. Just hit me up. 


Dr. Tamara MC is a cult, child marriage, and human trafficking survivor/activist and cheerleads worldwide for girls and women to live free from gender-based violence. Her Ph.D. is in Applied Linguistics, and she researches how language is used to manipulate vulnerable populations. Tamara attended Columbia University for an MFA and has been honored with residencies/fellowships in places such as Bread Loaf, Iowa Writers’ Workshop, Sewanee, Ragdale, Cave Canem, VONA, and VCCA. She’s published in prestigious outlets such as New York Magazine, Salon, The Independent, Food 52, Parents, and Thrillist. She is an empty-nesting mama to two sons in their mid-20s and a grandmamma to two feisty but adorable pups, a Boston Terrier and Australian Shepherd.

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