5 Things I’ve Learned from Writing (and Editing) Mental Health Stories

May 24, 2023 § 4 Comments

By Katie Bannon

Mental health is often branded “taboo” and, for writers of memoir and personal essay, these stories can be our most vulnerable and challenging material. But there’s a reason these types of narratives are so sought after. At their best, they speak to our darkest truths and teach us what it means to be human.

I’ve been writing about mental health for over a decade now. And as a developmental editor, I’ve worked with dozens of memoirists and essayists writing their own mental health stories.

Here are the five most important lessons I’ve learned about crafting mental health narratives:

There’s a difference between getting messy and being mushy. Mental health stories lend themselves to plenty of emotion and vulnerability. Yet we must ensure we have enough distance to shape the material for the reader, without veering into cliché or sentimentality. Journaling about mental health is important, but fundamentally different from the work of creative nonfiction. With creative nonfiction, we are deploying craft techniques that make the story resonant to an outside reader, beyond our own catharsis. We can (and should!) go to messy places in our writing, but the reader should always feel the narrator has control over the story.  

Your situation may be “unique,” but the story should feel universal. For instance, I write about living with a compulsive hair pulling condition called trichotillomania. While most people don’t experience the urge to pluck hair, absolutely everyone has felt alone, alienated, and ashamed—the themes at the heart of my manuscript. Challenge yourself to dig deeper in your personal narrative, connecting your story to something larger about the human experience. 

Mental health doesn’t exist inside a vacuum. Mental illness is influenced by outside forces in our lives, including family dynamics, social and gender norms, poverty, xenophobia, racism, and more. In our writing, we can also examine the larger forces and systems surrounding our mental health. This gives us the opportunity to turn the microscope both on ourselves and on the systems, institutions, and cultural forces around us. Tyrese Coleman’s personal essay “What It’s Like Having PPD as a Black Woman” is an excellent example of investigating the intersection between mental health and race.

There’s no one way to tell a mental health story. Esmé Weijun Wang looks at schizophrenia through the lens of a scholar and cultural critic. Jenny Lawson’s essays about depression and anxiety will make you laugh out loud. Just because mental health can be a serious, personal topic does not mean it must be soberly told. There’s no “right” way to write a mental health story – how you craft the narrative all depends on your purpose and audience.

Writing about mental health can be a psychosomatic experience, making self-care crucial. Creative nonfiction about mental health can be emotionally destabilizing, even triggering. We need a toolbox of self-care techniques to accompany our craft strategies. Some techniques I have found helpful when writing intense, vulnerable material:

  • Write in short, timed bursts. When writing difficult scenes, set a timer for ten minutes. Try to keep your pen moving or fingers typing the whole time, without rereading what you’ve written. Then take a break. This practice can help set limits on how long we spend inside challenging memories. 
  • Lean on your support system, particularly when writing traumatic and/or potentially triggering scenes. For instance, you might have a friend or partner “on call” during these writing sessions so you can get reliable support if you need it.
  • Embrace side projects (writing-related or otherwise) to reset your mind and body. It’s easier to write vulnerable content when there are opportunities to recharge and/or shift gears to something low-stakes. A lighter writing project or even a hobby activity will refill your tank when the personal writing gets tough.  
  • Record yourself speaking. Speaking and writing are different experiences. For some of us, writing certain scenes may be triggering, while speaking them aloud might feel safer. Your phone’s audio recording app likely also has transcription capabilities; most newer phones take dictation from the keyboard, too.
  • Know when to stop. Some memories may be too raw and/or triggering for you to revisit right now, and that’s okay. Ask, Am I resisting this scene because it’s difficult, or is my body resisting this because writing it would be psychologically damaging? Here is an excellent article on evaluating when and how to write about traumatic memories. 


Need more guidance on how to write compelling mental health stories? Join Katie Bannon and CRAFT TALKS for Dark Truths: Five Tools for Crafting Compelling Mental Health Narratives, 2PM ET May 31 ($25).

Katie Bannon is a writer, editor, and educator whose work has appeared in The Rumpus, ELLE Magazine, NPR, Narratively, and more. Her memoir manuscript was a finalist for the Permafrost Nonfiction Book Prize. A graduate of GrubStreet’s Memoir Incubator, she holds an MFA in creative nonfiction from Emerson College. She is a developmental editor who loves working with nonfiction writers to find the “story” behind the “situation” of their memoirs and essays. She teaches at GrubStreet and lives in the Boston area.

The Hover

May 22, 2023 § 21 Comments

By Carolyn Roy-Bornstein

When I retired at 65 and closed my medical practice, I looked forward to long stretches of time to write, something I rarely had when I worked.

My days then were filled with sick visits and well-baby checks, hospital rounding and conference calls. For all my adult life, writing had been catch-as-catch-can. I carved out time in the morning, before the rest of the household woke up, to add a few precious paragraphs to that half-written essay, to polish and submit a short story. I’d pull out my young adult novel every couple of Novembers and add a few chapters during National Novel Writing Month. I kept notebooks in my car and purse, a voice recorder at my bedside, jotting or recording ideas for future pieces.

And I accomplished a lot. I wrote two memoirs. I saw my pieces published in the New York Times and the Washington Post. I edited an essay collection, all while doctoring hundreds of patients and raising my own brood. Time management was my super-power. Imagine what I could get done now that I had hours (days!) of nothing but time stretching before me. How I looked forward to filling that void with my words.

Except I didn’t.

I gardened. I pulled weeds and laid down mulch. I planted peonies and phlox, dug compost around hydrangea roots. I kayaked and swam and stand-up paddle boarded. I picked blueberries with my granddaughter. I took yoga classes and boot camps at the gym. I did everything but write.

I still thought about writing. I still worked with words. I developed a curriculum for a creative writing class, which I taught at my local library. I continued my work as an assistant editor for a literary journal focused on healing and the arts, reading other people’s essays with a keen eye. I led narrative medicine seminars for physicians-in-training which involved close readings of short literary works followed by reflective writing exercises based on prompts I created from the poem or story we’d just discussed. I reviewed books, doing my part to elevate my fellow authors’ work.

I was still a good literary citizen. I just wasn’t producing original creative work of my own. With the “gift” of time, I found myself blocked.

But maybe this period, this very early stage of my retirement, is meant to be a fallow phase. A pause in my word life. A season of rest and recovery before another cycle of great productivity begins. Writers can’t be all output all the time, after all. We must also read, visit art museums, and take in a ballet. Fill the generative well so we can create our own art once more.

When my yoga teacher leads us in a final meditation of the class, she tells us, “Take a moment. Hover between the inhale and the exhale.” Maybe this part of my retirement is that liminal space, too. The hover. Between the inhale and the exhale. Between taking in and putting out. Between a practice of writing in snatched moments and one where I fill my days with my own words.

I know the writing will come. Maybe as I’m paddling through the mist at sunrise, an idea will form. Maybe it will take shape while I’m thinning the pole beans and staking tomatoes. Maybe my epiphany will emerge while I’m perfecting my crow pose, not thinking about writing at all, just trying not to topple over.

The words will all come.

And I don’t mind waiting. I have time.


Carolyn Roy-Bornstein is a retired pediatrician and the writer-in-residence at the Lawrence Family Medicine Residency Program. She lives and writes in Massachusetts and Maine.

My Daughter Has an Intellectual Disability. Should I Be Allowed to Write Her Story?

May 11, 2023 § 29 Comments

By Catherine Shields

“I’m gonna write a story about you.”

My thirty-year old daughter, Jessica, says this in her sing-song voice. It almost sounds like a taunt. I look up from the sink to see her flash a smile. It’s seven a.m. on a Sunday morning. Yesterday I picked her up at the group home for our weekend visit and tonight, she’ll go back. I am unwilling to admit it, but I have already started the countdown to the end of this day. For a moment, my impatience subsides.

Jessica gives a snort of laughter. She thinks she’s being funny and wants me to laugh, but I’m irritated and not amused. I’m still annoyed with her because she got up in the middle of the night and refused to go back to sleep. As I look at her face, I can tell by the way her mouth sags that she is overtired, but I can also tell she’s awaiting my response.

“Oh yeah?” I ask. Tiny soap bubbles drip off my hand as I playfully wag a finger in her direction. “How are you going to do that?”

Alia, my oldest daughter, sits beside Jessica at the kitchen table, sipping coffee. “You want to write a story because Mom is writing one about you? Jessica, you should totally do it. I’ll help you.”

Although I appreciate Alia’s support, sometimes I wonder whether she purposely eggs her sister on. Jessica nods her head up and down like a wind-up toy. She likes this idea.

“Mom, you hear that?” Alia opens her laptop. “I’m going to help Jessica write a book about you. Jessica, what should we say?”

The side door cracks open and Sarah, Jessica’s twin sister, enters and throws her backpack on the counter. Alia tells her about the book idea. Sarah sits down beside Jessica and asks her what she’d like to say.

Jessica’s blue eyes crinkle and she twists her fingers together. “Alia, do it.”

“But what would you like to say about Mom?”

Jessica tips her head. “I don’t know.”

“Mom?” Sarah is looking over Alia’s shoulder, studying the screen and reading the words Alia has already typed. “You asked both of us, but did you ask Jessica if you had her permission to write your book?”

I don’t blame the girls for asking.

“Of course, I did. She said yes.” Are my other two kids suggesting I’ve done something wrong? I begin over-explaining how every time I’ve asked Jessica if it’s okay, she said “yes,” but I leave out the part about how her “yes” is always quick and emphatic. A small part of me wonders if she truly understands the question. A birth injury caused severe developmental delays. She has the intellectual capacity of a very young child.

When I asked my girls if they were okay with me writing about them, about my experience raising them, Alia, the oldest, joked it would be her only path to fame. I offered to change their names and she insisted on keeping hers. She quipped, “I want to be able to Google myself.”

Sarah mulled the question over with more care but came back with a yes. She wanted me to tell our story, to let the rest of the world see what it’s like to live in a world with diversity.

Their questions about Jessica remind me of an editor I once butted heads with. She identified as a person with a disability, and she insisted it was unethical for me to write a book about my daughter. She admonished me for assuming I could share my daughter’s story. She argued that she wouldn’t want her mother writing about her and that her experience was hers alone.

It’s a question every memoirist must ask—Do I own this story? Is it solely mine? Or do my stories also belong to my family, to the other people, even strangers, who weave in and out of my life, or to a rude, old lady shooting me dirty looks when Jessica threw the tantrum in Burger King? My life has been so shaped by being Jessica’s mother. How can I tell my story without that?

I understood the editor’s concerns. She wanted me to give my daughter control over her own life. And I’ve done that. I fought for Jessica to be heard by doctors, by teachers, and by the group home staff. I screamed at the emergency room nurse who asked if Jessica could even answer questions, but that nurse had refused to listen when my daughter responded. I have spent Jessica’s whole life learning her signs and signals. I can see when she’s tired, scared, or overwhelmed. I know I am not Jessica’s voice, but I can be her amplifier.

I wonder about the story Jessica would write, the experiences she’d share.

I’ve reasoned that if all three kids are okay with my decision to pen my story, I have no cause for concern. I would never try to write from Jessica’s point of view because I can’t know that. But I can write about being her mom.

When we’re on our way back to the group home, Jessica returns to the idea of writing her story about me. Again, I ask her what she wants to write. I think I’m fine with whatever she has to say.

Without missing a beat, she blurts, “I love you.”

I drop Jessica off at her group home. It’s a quick exchange, because like ripping the band aid off a healed cut, there’s still always the tiniest moment of pain. And then I’m in the car, alone with my thoughts. I can’t stop wondering if I have done enough, until I tamp down the self-doubt and remind myself to listen to Jessica’s story.

The sum of all the parts.

I love you.

The End.


Catherine (Cathy) Shields writes about parenting, disabilities, and self-discovery. In her debut memoir, The Shape of Normal, Cathy explores the truths and lies parents tell themselves. Her writing has appeared in NBC Today. Newsweek, Bacopa Literary Review, Grown and Flown, Brevity Blog, Mother Magazine, U Revolution, Kaleidoscope, Write City Magazine, and The Manifest-Station. Cathy resides in Miami, Florida, with her husband, to whom she’s been married forever. They enjoy taking long bike rides and kayaking in Biscayne Bay. Follow her on Instagram.

Finding Heart Through American Idol

May 3, 2023 § 6 Comments

By Rebecca Francesca Reuter Puerto

I am watching American Idol intently this season. My heart has been captured by one of the contestants, Iam Tongi, a Hawaiian teenager living in Seattle because his family was “priced out of paradise.” His showstopper rendition of “The Sound of Silence” moved me to tears and silenced the audience.

How does he do it?

“To connect with the audience, sing from the heart,” the American Idol judges offer as advice to contestants. 

The first version of my memoir about a ten-day trip to Cuba I took with my Cuban-born mother, read more like a travelogue than a heartfelt coming-of-age mother/daughter story. I captured details of the Cuban flag flying over the land it represented. Of the soldiers standing on the tarmac with semi-automatic rifles. Of what my mother and I said to each other and why our relationship was complicated.

This early draft of my memoir read like I was the Margaret Mead of my life. A scientific observer jotting down the facts of what I saw without emotion but some interpretation. 

With two degrees in science, I was taught to avoid humanity in my research findings—with the result that during my first MFA program residency, my instructor told me my work lacked vulnerability. She implored us as memoirists to be vulnerable on the page. I had no idea what she meant. She once asked us to free-write about an experience that made us angry. I listed things that triggered anger. 1. Ignoring me, 2. Cigarette butts on the beach, 3. Anything my mother says… I then wrote what sounded like a scientific analysis of why those things made me angry.

“If you cry while you write, your readers will cry too,” she said. 

Maybe that is why I cry when I hear Iam Tongi sing on American Idol. His heart broke when his father died recently, and each time he sings, he is reminded of his loss. His emotions are translated into his singing. He sings with vulnerability. 

Meanwhile, feedback on my subsequent chapters during my MFA would say, “How did the daughter feel?” Another would say, “Linger here, build the characters’ relationship.” The best one read, “Description feels removed, impersonal.”

I wasn’t used to sharing my feelings as they were happening. I am more the type that analyzes my feelings first, then shares my findings. In high school, I would sit with my best friend over cappuccinos and we’d discuss our feelings stoically, not through tears. Was my German heritage to blame? Did I inherit my father’s stoicism? 

“Write from the heart,” my instructor said.

The summer after my MFA, I participated in a manuscript boot camp. “Your story sounds like you are at the front of a ballroom giving a presentation,” the instructor said. “Write like you are having an intimate conversation with a friend in a dark corner of a café.” My analytical brain struggled to connect with the concept of writing from the heart. 

After two more revisions, I pitched my memoir to several agents. When the rejections came in, I thought it was because I hadn’t written with vulnerability. I placed my memoir on the proverbial shelf.

I couldn’t write like Iam Tongi sang. 

Now, a year later, after attending the AWP Writing Conference and watching a few American Idol episodes, I am inspired to revisit my manuscript. To get into the mood, I queued up an album of Cuban music. When the piano intro of the title song “Cuba Linda” began to play, I was entranced. The singer, with his raspy voice sang lyrics that yearned for the country he hasn’t seen in a long time. Tears welled in my eyes. I was at a funeral singing, Beautiful Cuba, I will always remember you.

Where did this emotion come from? The singer was singing from his heart to mine. He tapped into a deep part of my psyche—where emotions flow freely, unconstrained by the rules of scientific writing and German stoicism. Where I relive my Cuban family’s loss at being forced to leave their island home. Where I replay the complications of my mother-daughter trip to Cuba.

Emotions I hadn’t translated to the page of my memoir.

That day, I opened up my memoir manuscript for the first time in a year. My new tool in my writing toolbox is to begin revisions by listening to music that opens my heart. I hope future feedback says, “I can really feel your heart on the page.”


Rebecca Francesca Reuter Puerto is working on a revision of her memoir, Finding the Girl from Guantanamo. She received an MFA in creative writing from the low-residency MFA program of the Institute for American Indian Arts in Santa Fe NM. She has a BA in Biology and an MS in Marine Science. She is a November 2019 alum of the Vermont Studio Center. Her nonfiction writing has been published in Raven Chronicles, Teatime magazine, Scotland magazine and Insider. She resides in Seattle WA with her husband and their cat, Esperanza. Find her at her website.

It’s Going to Have All the Right Stuff

April 27, 2023 § 23 Comments

By Victoria Lynn Smith

I’ll write the best damn piece of shit that I can write today.

I’ll bare my soul, not keep anything back, not be afraid to reveal my inner being to the world, you know, I’ll get real. Truth will explode from the prose.

I’ll hybrid, genre bend and mix, braid and twist, and be lyrical in all the right places, in just the right measure.

It will have a hero’s-journey, three-act-play, save-the-cat plot all rolled up into one.

The tragic will be seasoned with a dash of humor—the ironic, wry kind that only the best of readers will get.

Backstory will be pertinent, inciteful, limiting, expanding, and perfectly placed.

You’ll know what all my characters want, and who doesn’t want them to have it. And perhaps, in a warped turn of events, they will sabotage their own desires.

You’ll immediately recognize the validity of my characters and the veracity of their words. Even the unreliable narrators will speak a form of truth.

The characters will be so dimensional that they’ll stand up on the page, illuminated holograms of themselves. You’ll declare, This character is just like my arthritic uncle Joe, my first love in third grade, my obnoxious roommate in college, the butcher who smelled of booze at the meat market.

My badass characters will be loveable in a dark, mysterious way. You’ll want to sleep with them, and you might, but if you do, it’ll be a one-night stand. Because they’re just a little too badass. But you’ll remember them, wishing you could’ve reformed them just enough.

My goody two-shoes characters will be flawed in a light, bubbling, tickle-your-nose-with-champagne way. You’ll want to sleep with them, and you probably will, but if you do, it’ll be a short-term fling. Because you’ll both move on to other stories. In your golden years, you’ll recall them as the ones that got away.

My villainous characters will harbor all your darkest fears, will be unredeemable and keep you up at night. Unreformed, they will haunt your quiet corners.

Dialogue will be snappy, understated, overstated, implicit, explicit, and like two ships passing in the night, talking about different icebergs they’re trying not to hit.

Taste and smell and sound and sight and touch will pulsate in every passage. You’ll taste the sunsets; smell the tunes little chickadees sing; hear the moonbeams bounce off the earth; touch the air, feeling its atoms; and see the odors of wet dogs lying on the floor.

Twists and turns of plot will give you a thrilling ride. Sitting in your roller coaster car, you’ll see those twists and turns yet not see them, and when you ride over the sentences and paragraphs and pages, you’ll zip along, screaming, “I didn’t see this coming, but I bloody well should’ve.”

I’ll start in the middle of the action, so you’ll be in the middle of the proverbial car chase/love affair/homicide/dysfunctional family that will lead to a bad accident/broken heart/dead body/estrangement, denting up more cars/hearts/bodies/egos than you can find in a junkyard/pickup bar/morgue/family reunion. And dismembered limbs/vases/bullets/insults will be flying everywhere. And you’ll turn the page and keep reading because you’ll want to know how it all comes out. You’ll want to know: Who started this? Who made it worse? And who in the hell is going to stop it? And in the end, squad cars and ambulances will come. Fire trucks will douse flames. Traffic will be redirected. Counselors and therapists will arrive. Characters will be hauled away. Messes will be cleaned up. And everyone will be changed, damn it.

Just as I started the story late, I’ll leave early, before you know all the answers. Overt is passé, implied is chic. You’ll need to figure out what it all means in the grand scheme of the universe. Form a book club to discuss its deepness, its symbolism, its thematic reverberations. I’ll include discussion questions at the end.

Maybe my best damn piece of shit won’t turn out to be the finest. But I’ll write anyway because I love to.

It’s much better than doing dishes.


Victoria Lynn Smith writes short fiction and essays, with varying results. She was inspired to write “It’s Going to Have All the Right Stuff” after reading Charles Baxter’s essay “All the Dark Nights—a Letter” from his book Wonderlands: Essays on the Life of Literature. In his essay Baxter recounts his early days as a writer and his ups and downs. Because it was late at night, and because she was overly tired, and because Baxter’s words struck a cord with her, Smith was laughing out loud by the time she finished his essay. Instead of going to bed she grabbed her laptop and started to write. Read more at Writing Near the Lake.

Finding Inspiration in the I & the Eye

April 25, 2023 § 4 Comments

Connecting with readers through heart and head.

By Suzanne Cope

More than a decade ago, in the haze of finishing my dissertation, I came across a listing for an interdisciplinary food studies conference in my city of New York. Prior to my intensive graduate program I had written about my community garden and food memories, and was excited to get back to more personal writing. But I was also excited to try out the new research skills I had honed over the previous few years.

On a hot June afternoon a week later, I was walking through Harlem on a food tour led by a conference member, learning about the complicated history of soul food and gently paging through old menus at the Schomburg Library archives. I marveled at the stories all around me. Those few conference days helped me realize that there were people making a career researching the history and cultural significance of food, more often than not inspired by their own stories and heritage. The personal connection inspired the research. The research illuminated the individual experience. I had found my people.

Fast forward a few years and I had published my first book, Small Batch: Pickles, Cheese, Chocolate, Spirits, and the Return of Artisanal Food, that brought modern researched narratives together with social history, and launched my journalism efforts to help promote that book and stay connected to my audience. I still wrote and published personal essays, but I was finding more opportunities with researched-based work. My sweet spot—my favorite pieces to write—used the “I” as a jumping-off point for that research. These were the articles that also got the most responses from readers, and led to my next book Power Hungry: Women of the Black Panther Party and Freedom Summer and Their Fight to Feed a Movement. 

While the genre is broad, this integration of the personal “I” and research—what I call the “eye”—falls under the umbrella of narrative journalism. But one doesn’t have to be a trained journalist—or even an academic—to bring research to personal narrative. The balance of hard fact and lyrical reflection depends on the writer. Often, I’ve found that my exploration of one “eye” is deepened by the other.

Our personal stories are powerful and important, and while not everyone writes to be published, the impetus to write is most often to connect. I often tell my students that a goal of effective writing is to find that balance between unique < –-> universal—a continuum I am sure I didn’t invent, but the genesis of which is long lost. This double-sided arrow is a multi-directional that has guided me for well over a decade. Research—which can take many forms: academic studies, deep dives in the archives, internet searching, family photos, travel, interviews—might provide the unique OR the universal in this construct. Either way, the personal stories provide the inverse.

I was just starting to play with integrating research into my personal writing when I came across a submission brief that said something like, “please no more essays about dead grandmas.” I was, in fact, writing about my own dead Nani. The magazine wasn’t saying that my, or anyone’s grandparents were not worth writing about—but rather that a story that might feel so unique to the writer was starting to become too universal to the reader. Research is one way to help push the writer to tell that story toward something that feels more unique. That might feel counterintuitive, but I know it worked for me.

My current book project is inspired by my fierce, feminist grandmother who moved from Italy to the United States as a child to escape fascism. I am not detailing her life at all; rather, I am researching and writing the story of four women who became instrumental in the fight against the Nazis and fascism during World War II. I imagine if my Nani had not left, she might have been among them. And while there is almost no “I” in this book beyond the prologue, it still comes from a very personal place. I identify with this culture and heritage, and of course imagine what my Nani—or I—might have done if we were in Rome or Florence during this time. This personal connection helps me recreate historical moments on the page—of the women carrying secret documents past Nazi checkpoints or planting hidden explosives amongst the German tanks parked in an ancient piazza.

Once we open ourselves to the idea that almost any story can be enriched by adding both elements of the personal and the researched—the I and the eye—we also open ourselves to a broader audience. We connect with our readers through the heart and the head.


Want to explore your story with research? Join Suzanne for Weaving Research into Personal Narrative Writing, a CRAFT TALKS webinar May 10th at 2PM Eastern. $25 ($15 Early Bird). More info/register here.

Suzanne Cope is a narrative journalist and scholar, author of POWER HUNGRY: Women of the Black Panther Party and Freedom Summer and Their Fight to Feed a Movement and Small Batch. She has also written for The New York Times, Washington Post, The Atlantic, BBC, CNN, Aeon, LitHub, LARB, among others. Dr. Cope teaches at New York University.

Raising the Dead

April 19, 2023 § 10 Comments

By Rona Maynard

After my friend Val died at 57, I kept trying to write her back to life. Thirty years of memories flared on my screen. The young journalist, a recycler ahead of her time, who turned in a story on scraps of paper stitched together with yarn. The mentor who helped me land a better editing job and promised me I’d “knock their socks off.” I tasted the hot and sour soup we always ordered at the Chinese dive where the waiters spoke in grunts.

Writing my friend pulled me into a meditative state. I’d focus on the sharpest corner of a memory, then wait as the whole picture came into focus. Many minutes went by between perceptions, but more time with Val was the whole idea. Detail by detail, I conjured the moment until she seemed more real than anyone breathing.  She returned in a blog post, a magazine piece, and assorted vignettes for a memoir-in-progress. It seemed I could raise her from the dead, if only for a few minutes.

Years passed. I wrote the last time I saw her well, a chance meeting on a busy corner one unseasonably mild fall evening. Bound for a birthday party, she carried a high-heeled slingback in each hand. The slingbacks—cream, I think—unlocked other details. Office clodhoppers protruding from the scuffed leather tote bag she lugged everywhere, crammed with books and notes to self. Bare feet, no nail polish. Her smile radiant as we laugh about booking a dinner date to celebrate two upcoming birthdays: our own, three days apart.

It never happened. A seizure in the newsroom happened, followed by a diagnosis: brain cancer. And yet for as long as I polished the vignette, the birthday dinner was about to happen. Maybe that’s why I never finished. I had to stay a little longer on that corner with my friend, willing every precious detail into second life. Her toenails began to obsess me. Perhaps I’d misremembered. No polish or a neutral shade, complementing her peach linen dress? I could have asked her husband (perhaps he was one of the rare ones who notice his wife’s toenails). But that would be cheating. Memory was supposed to see me through.

If you write more than fleetingly about your life, you’ll get around to your dead a time or two. I had made the trip before, always with a surge of pride in the power of my words and memory. I heard my mother tear a strip off teenage me. Saw the sweat stains on my mentor’s purple silk shirt as she leaned back in her chair, arms crossed behind her head and Western-booted feet on her desk. With Val that fall evening, memory failed me. And I’d run out of stories to tell about her. My friend and I were stuck on the corner of Yonge and Roxborough, with nowhere else to go.

I couldn’t get stuckness off my mind. After five years of work on a dog memoir, I had scores of vignettes (in multiple versions), three drafts and no idea where this problem child of mine was going. I would contemplate my outtakes file, searching for clues. I meant to tell a simple story of a life cracked open by the rescue mutt my husband talked me into bringing home. Most dog books end with the death of the dog; our Casey was still giving rodents hell and stealing balls from other dogs. Good for me (I had come to adore him), but not for the book. If Val were alive, she’d give me hope. Once as I teetered on the edge of depression, she sent a white orchid to my door. The memory unleashed a torrent of grief, as if she’d died minutes ago

Val never met Casey. She died seven years before he joined the family. In nearly three decades of friendship, I doubt we ever spoke of dogs. Then one morning in a daydream, I saw Val and Casey together. I slipped from wherever I was in real life (my couch, perusing the New York Times? Casey’s morning ramble in the park?) to a hiking trail I once explored with Val, back when it seemed we had all the time in the world. I used to think we’d repeat that hike someday, but we never got around to it. And now here she was, leading the way along a stream bed. I saw her muscled legs, brown from a summer of walking. Heard her joke of Casey, who had thrust his nose into something rank, “There lives the dearest foulness deep down things.” Gerard Manley Hopkins, who celebrated “the dearest freshness” of the natural world, was her favorite poet. I hadn’t tried to conjure Val, but she had spoken with her customary sense of fun.

Writing the scene into the memoir seemed ridiculous at first. I had to silence the inner voice that nattered, “Readers want a true story, not a daydream.” Things looked up when I listened to my friend instead. Like the white orchid, her quip surprised me out of my funk. I still wasn’t sure where this memoir was going, but I could trust myself to bring it home.

Val is forever middle-aged. At 73, I am old and glad to be. Every story I tell, including my tribute to a dog, is informed by a sense of time—what it carries off and what I make of the dearest freshness that surrounds me still. Memories keep me writing, but memories fade. What I can still see matters less than what I know to be true. Val may have been the only woman in my circle to shun toenail polish in sandal season, but so what? Without a doubt, she was the only person I’ve met in my three score and ten (and counting) whose conversational style would yoke Gerard Manley Hopkins to a dog’s investigation of a carcass. This I know. Even better, now so do you.


Rona Maynard is the author of the newly-released Starter Dog: My Path to Joy, Belonging and Loving This World, published by ECW Press, and My Mother’s Daughter. Formerly Editor of Chatelaine, she lives and walks her dog in downtown Toronto. You can follow her discoveries on Facebook, or meet her at www.ronamaynard.com.

A Full Circle Moment Ten Years in the Making

April 7, 2023 § 19 Comments

By Melanie Brooks

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

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

Fast-forward ten years.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

Writing Lessons from a Glorious Glutes Class

April 4, 2023 § 26 Comments

By Phyllis Brotherton

It sounded like a great challenge. I email the instructor to see if the class is too advanced for me, a just turned seventy-four-year-old woman with arthritis, but eight years of a solid exercise regimen. Maybe “regimen” is too strong a word, but a decent regular practice, three to five times a week, barring illness, injuries, recuperation from surgeries, a move from California to Nevada, and the occasional expresso martini lunch with friends.

The instructor assures me that all the exercises can be modified, as long as I could get up and down off the floor. I said I can do that, no problem, it just isn’t pretty. All systems go.

Fast forward to the first class, where I take iPhone pictures of the stunning snow-covered Sierras from the third-floor classroom, also thinking, It’s unusually warm in here. Forty-five minutes later, I’m lying on my yoga mat in a zombie state about to throw up.

“It’s OK if you need to take a bit of a break,” the instructor says to the five class attendees, four of whom have clearly done this before, so I know she’s talking to me. The only thought racing through my head: Don’t throw up. Don’t throw up.  

Picture an earlier scene: Standing, with hands on a chair for balance (thank God), we’re to place a ball, slightly smaller than a basketball but more flexible, in the crook between the back of our knee and calf, squeezing it tight, then lifting the leg up into a donkey kick. Right.

My ball keeps flying out and rolling across the room. After four or five tries, running each time to fetch the ball, I give up and do plain old donkey kicks. The instructor sing-songs to the group, “It’s OK if you want to put the ball aside and just do the donkey kicks. No shit, Sherlock.   

I manage to make it home without upchucking, guzzle cold water, stuff a brownie in my mouth and immediately take a nap.    

The next morning, my athletic, buns-of-steel wife asks if I’ll go back to the class. I’m on the fence. Can I hack it? Should I hack it?     

After coffee and toast with almond butter, sufficiently fueled, I return to my writing desk, and continue working on a flash CNF chapbook project, I plan to submit to a contest with a deadline less than two months away. Some days it’s a slow slog, poring through a plethora of notes: on memo pads, in notebooks, on Post-it notes and my phone. I write and delete, revise and restructure, cut and paste. I ignore it, I stare at it. Other days, the words flow like ice cold water, crystal clear.  

When stuck, I create diversion tactics, like counting the black tops in my closet (35), in varying sizes and life stages, and post this illuminating fact on social media. Or reply to another post about AWP, with a link to my 2016 Brevity Blog article, “First Timer AWP16 Debrief, or Notes from a Literary Lilliputian.” Like a dork, I reread it and wonder, who wrote this? What happened to her razor-sharp mind and quick wit? I sigh, acknowledging that Literary Lilliputian still applies.

There exist fleeting moments of slightly more than mild despair. Should I end striving to write and publish the next brilliant, or even not so brilliant, but reasonably engaging book? I conjure up another Brevity Blog essay titled “The End of Striving,” certain in those moments that I’m done; instead, planning to pivot, diverting my energies to volunteer work, learning to snowshoe, and tackling new recipes for, say, Asparagus Tart or Chocolate Chip Hamantaschen.

In her excellent book, The Forest for the Trees, Betsy Lerner writes, “The inner monologue [of the ambivalent writer] drums: I am great. I am shit. I am great. I am shit. But the writer with publication credits, good reviews, and literary prizes is not immune to this mantra either; in fact, the only real difference between those who ultimately make their way as writers and those who quit is that the former were able to contain their ambivalence long enough to commit to a single idea and see it through.”

Properly chastised for my periodic ambivalence, I rule out “The End of Striving” essay or any thoughts of giving up writing, and decide to ditch Glorious Glutes class; great ideas, but a waste of precious cerebral bandwidth and time.

I shall forever be unable to do a donkey kick while squeezing a ball or perform a one-legged bridge. My glutes will remain inglorious, but able to execute the basic exercises I religiously undertake to keep physically functioning. Just as I daily commit this creaky body to my desk, glutes in chair, and focus on the latest writing project at hand. No matter the ultimate outcome, it will be glorious.    


Phyllis Brotherton received her MFA in Creative Writing from Fresno State University at the age of sixty-six. Her experimental/hybrid genre work is published in numerous literary journals, including Under the Gum Tree, Entropy, Anomaly, Pithead Chapel, Under the Sun, Essay Daily and Brevity Blog; has received two Best of the Net nominations, and won 3rd place in Streetlight Magazine’s Essay/Memoir Contest. Phyllis is seeking publication for her essay collection, Creating Artifacts, and has two manuscripts sleeping in her lateral file, just waiting to be re-awakened with a kiss. She lives in Reno, Nevada.

Why Finding the Right Image Can Be So Challenging

March 20, 2023 § 13 Comments

By Ben Berman

I place the six-pack of beer on the counter.

The clerk looks up at me, then down at the beer, then back up at me, then leans in and says, I thought I was gonna have to ID when you first walked in, but now that you’re up close I can see all the gray hairs on your head.

I’m not sure whether to be flattered that he thinks I look twenty years younger than I actually am or upset that he’s noticed that I am starting to go gray.

Although, after I get home and examine my head in the mirror, I realize that there is something about the word, gray, that feels off—as though it is too generic a word to capture the intricate blending of complementing colors sprouting from my head.

Later, at dinner, I ask my wife and daughters if they will help me find a more evocative, surprising, and accurate description of my hair.

My wife suggests that my head looks like the lovechild of a panda and koala bear, but my seven-year-old seems downright offended that my wife would compare me to animals that are so adorably cute.

What about storm clouds? I offer. Or campfire smoke?

Both of these images seem somewhat accurate in terms of color, and I like that they speak to the impending dangers of a midlife crisis. But there is something too billowy about their presence. The grays on my head aren’t about to be blown away, and I need an image that is more accurately textured.

Salt and pepper, my wife suggests.

That one’s familiar, of course, and I kind of like it. But it feels imprecise. My hair is mostly the color of pepper with a little dash of salt mixed in. Pepper and salt would be more accurate, but even then, the secondary meaning of the word pepper seems to suggest that it is the black peppered about.

Part of the challenge is that I want to find an image that speaks to the rapid changes of aging. For forty years, I have enjoyed thickly settled jet-black hair, and now all of a sudden, it is as though the top of my head is being gentrified—all these little white clusters popping up all over the place.

I think your hair is beautiful, says my five-year-old. Like the color of a princess’ poop.

This comparison is certainly surprising, evocative and tonally complex, but unless that princess has been taking iron supplements it is also totally inaccurate. And yet, I appreciate the absurdity of my five-year-old’s suggestion and how it frees my mind to traverse the surreal.

It’s never easy coming up with an image that works on both a literal and figurative level, and I am looking for something that is both visually accurate but also reflective of my resistance to the fact that my youthfulness is beginning to fade.

My hair’s not gray, I suddenly say. It’s Dorian Gray.

My daughters look at me like I am an idiot, and even though there isn’t anything visual about that line, there is something about the mixture of playfulness and seriousness that I like.

I’ve always considered myself young at heart, but now my body is starting to tell a different story.

And later, when I sneak into the bathroom and use tweezers to pluck a white hair or three, I can’t help but recognize what feels like an ancient literary pull, a deep and existential tug.

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.

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