Body Politics: Writing Reproductive Rights and Justice During the War on Women

November 28, 2016 § 1 Comment

Gila Lyons reports from BinderCon:


The Body Politics Panelists

The third annual BinderCon took place October 28 – 30 when it seemed like Hilary Clinton’s win for the presidency would be imminent. The conference energy was high and celebratory as over 550 women and gender non-conforming writers gathered at NYU’s campus for a conference whose mission is to “empower women and gender non-conforming writers with the tools, connections, and strategies they need to advance their careers.” The conference is an offshoot of Out of the Binders, a women’s writing collective of tens of thousands of women formed in response to Mitt Romney’s gaffe during the 2012 presidential debates that he had “whole binders full of women,” referring to job applicants he’d received as Massachusetts governor. Now that Trump is our president elect, one of the panels, BODY POLITICS: WRITING REPRODUCTIVE RIGHTS AND JUSTICE DURING THE WAR ON WOMEN, is more crucial than ever.

Panelists Irin Carmon, Britni de la Cretaz, Steph Herold, and Gloria Malone moderated by, Dr. Cynthia Greenlee, discussed how to write about abortion, teen pregnancy, sexually transmitted infections, queer and gender non-conforming identity, and other stigmatized and divisive sexual and reproductive issues, in a political and social landscape that is often hostile to women and marginalized people. They covered the ins and outs of working with editors, protecting oneself when writing personally about such hot-button topics for both online and print publications, and how to convince mainstream editors that they need to cover reproductive and sexual-health issues, and how.

For those who couldn’t attend the conference, or for those who were there but want a refresher, here’s a recap:

Britni de la Cretaz, is a social worker-turned-freelance writer who writes to shatter stigma and amplify marginalized voices. “I decided I’d tackle issues no one wanted to hear about and get them on mainstream platforms,” de la Cretaz said. She writes about having herpes and being STI positive, about addiction, pregnancy, and parenting. She strives to be gender-inclusive not just in the stories she covers but in the language she uses. “We’ve done a good job including the queer community in mainstream media but not so much trans or non-binary people,” she said. “It’s not just women who are getting pregnant or accessing abortion or nursing. Words have a big power and we have to change the way people think by the way we use them.” She suggests that instead of writing “nursing women,” we write “nursing parents,” and instead of “pregnant women,” we use “pregnant people” to include trans and non-binary people. “There is a war on marginalized bodies,” she said, and posited that writers can be allies to marginalized people by using inclusive language and covering their stories. In that vein, she’s written about trans people who nurse in What It’s Like to Chestfeed for The Atlantic, What to Expect When You’re Expecting—with Herpes, for Marie Claire, What’s life like with a transgender grandmother?  The Washington Post, and Inside the Misunderstood World of Adult Breastfeeding for Rolling Stone. She shared that she’s had good luck getting stories like these picked up by pegging them to new studies, books, politics, or celebrities. She also stresses the importance of asking subjects and interviewees their pronouns and fighting to get accurate pronouns used in published pieces and not to use “he” or “she” just because it’s default. “That’s sloppy and inaccurate journalism,” she said. “Work with editors to find gender non-conforming pronouns if your interviewees or subjects describe themselves that way.”

Also stressing the importance of thoughtful and accurate semantics was Gloria Malone, writer, speaker, and activist, who shared her story of becoming pregnant at fifteen years old and parenting as a teenager. Instead of “teen mom,” she uses the phrase “pregnant and parenting young person,” to speak with justice and dignity about young people’s right to make their own reproductive choices.  She is the co-founder of the #NoTeenShame, a site dedicated to “shame-free LGBTQ-inclusive comprehensive sexuality education and equitable access to resources and support for young families.” She says that pregnant and parenting young people encounter slut shaming, depression, anxiety, and social isolation at a time when they should be especially supported by family and peers. She wants people, no matter their age, to have choices over their own reproductive autonomy. As a consultant she works with nonprofits and local governments to ensure reproductive justice, dignity and respect for non-traditional families. Malone defines reproductive justice as “deciding if, when, and how one choses to raise a child.” She continued, “Harmful narratives have been constructed about pregnant and parenting as a young person; and when you’re black or Latina, as I am, even more so.” Malone feels that every aspect of her existence has been made into a public health issue, which inspires her craft. “I’m not a public health issue,” she said, “this is my life. I write to have my people represented, especially about abortion because it’s criminalized. It’s a fundamental right for people to make decisions about their bodies.” Her writing about the intersections of race, public policy, and lived experiences of black women and girls has appeared in The New York Times, Al Jazeera America, The Huffington Post, and more. Malone cited two organizations she works with that are particularly important for people to know about and support – The Women of Color Sexual Health Network and The National Network of Abortion Funds. She is also a member of Echoing Ida, a writing collective for black women and non-binary individuals.

The panel was moderated by a fellow Echoing Ida member, Dr. Cynthia Greenlee. Greenlee is an historian of the African-American experience and the law, and a senior editor at Rewire News, a site devoted to reproductive and sexual health rights and justice. She has written for American Prospect, Dissent, and Rolling Stone, among other publications. Greenlee laments how ahistorical journalism can be, and encourages writers to include a historical context for the stories they’re covering. “Even when covering something extremely timely,” she suggested, “look for scholarly articles on the subject and then seek out those authors to interview.”

Steph Herold, is a social scientist and activist with a background in abortion care and abortion funds. Herold is the Co-Founder and Co-Director of The Sea Change Program, whose mission is to “transform the culture of stigma around abortion and other stigmatized reproductive experiences.” She has served on the boards of the New York Abortion Access Fund and the ACCESS Women’s Health Justice board, and founded a site of stories of individuals who have dedicated their lives to making abortion safe, legal, healthy, and accessible to women and girls. Herold and her team partnered with the Berkeley Media Studies Group to look at 3000 articles in top 10 media outlets in 2014 – 2015 to investigate 1) How does abortion stigma manifest in news media, and 2) Why do journalists report on abortion and what difficulties do they encounter?

Some of their findings:

  • 36% of news articles contained quotes that frame abortion as murder and immoral
  • 21% of news articles contained quotes that portrayed abortion as harmful to women, either physically or emotionally
  • 15% of articles contained quotes that portrayed abortion providers as greedy, profiteering, and unscrupulous


  • 6% reported on the safety of abortion
  • 3% cited statistics about public support of abortion
  • 3% statistics related to the prevalence of abortion
  • 8% included a personal experience of abortion from a named or unnamed person
  • 4% mentioned the fact that most women who have abortions are mothers
  • 4% mentioned the historical presence of abortion in society

This study will be released in more detail in January 2017 at

Herold urged, “Anti-abortion talking points are a problem…but our lack of affirming abortion and connecting it to American values in our own talking points is a bigger problem.” She argues that we need to “embrace opportunities to talk about abortion as public health experience, and to bring voices of people who’ve had abortions to the forefront.” Some barriers she acknowledged to placing these types of pieces are institutional (getting editors to assign and champion the stories), related to journalist harassment (writers covering the issue have been trolled and threatened by anti-abortion advocates), and monotony of the issue (how to talk about abortion and related issues in a new way). But she reminded the audience of how important it is to keep trying. “News shapes public policy,” she wrote in her power point, “who is quoted in the news and what they say has an impact on how abortion is viewed and regulated.”

Irin Carmon is the co-author of Notorious RBG: The Life and Times of Ruth Bader Ginsburg, and MSNBC digital and TV reporter on gender, politics, and the law, with a special emphasis on reproductive rights and the Supreme Court. Carmon described the importance of transparency, integrity and fairness as a journalist and sticking assiduously to reporting the facts and peoples’ first hand accounts. She showcased a recent project with MSNBC, Shuttered: The End of Abortion Access in Red America, which is a feat of interactive long-form journalism with written narrative, photography, sound recordings, video, and charts and graphs.


Gila Lyons‘ work has appeared in Salon, Cosmopolitan, Vox, GOOD Magazine, BUST Magazine, The Rumpus, The Millions, The Morning News, Ploughshares, Brevity, Tablet, Fusion, and other publications. She holds an MFA in literary nonfiction from Columbia University, teaches college writing and literature, and is at work on a memoir about seeking a natural cure for anxiety and panic disorder but falling prey to the underbelly of the alternative health movement. Links to published work can be found at Follow her on Twitter at @gilalyons


Every Ordinary Moment

November 25, 2016 § 7 Comments

zz price.jpgBy Calihan Price:

“What are you studying?”

“English!  With a concentration in Creative Nonfiction.”

“Oh.  So you want to teach English then?”

“No.  I want to write.”


After this exchange, I spend the next five minutes trying to justify my major to someone who probably doesn’t care in the first place.  But why?  Why do I, as a writer, feel so compelled to prove my passion to be something worthwhile?

Do nursing majors have to explain why they chose to go to nursing school?  No.  Do education majors have to defend reasons for wanting to teach?  Nope.  Do Veterinary Science majors have to validate their decision to save animals?  Absolutely not.

I shouldn’t have to, either. Instead, I want to tell people what a privilege it is to turn my own personal experiences into a universal piece of literature that other people can connect with on an intimate level.

I want to tell them about the four-cheese penne pasta I had for dinner and how it was dripping with fresh tomato sauce and that the basil speckled my plate with bursts of forest green that reminded me of the changing leaves that line the streets in Autumn. I want to tell them about the time my best friend broke my heart and how I had to spend an entire year piecing it back together. I want to show them my childhood, narrated by my grandmother’s sweet voice and strung together with pictures of thunderstorms and aging dogs and matching Easter dresses.

Every ordinary moment can be made colorful with words. They have the power to change a rainy day into a gray storm of frustrated clouds and rainbow dusted pavement. They can turn a dying flower into a wilting poppy whose color has since returned to paint the sunset. They transform a hand into an aged piece of art, lined with years of wisdom and scarred from memories long forgotten.

I sometimes find myself thinking in beautiful words. Before I ever realize what I’m doing, sentences of imagery float about my consciousness, stringing themselves together in abstract forms until they find their proper place, aligning with one another to “show and not tell.”

Choosing a possible career path is something to be proud of; it takes some people years to decide what they want to do. It’s important to never feel ashamed or belittled by your ambitions, but instead embrace them and feel confident and respectable when relaying them to someone else.

As someone who is still learning and growing in my abilities as a writer, I hope to carry that confidence with me wherever I go.  No matter the judgments of practicality I may or may not endure, I can always rest assured in knowing that my ordinary moments will be made extraordinary when replayed years later on paper.


Calihan Price is a full-time student, part-time nanny, and all-of-the-time dreamer. She grew up in a small town outside of Omaha, NE, and is currently studying creative nonfiction at the University of Nebraska-Omaha.


November 24, 2016 § 4 Comments

Let me tell you about my mother...

Don’t forget the giblets

Dear Brevity Readers:

In many ways, memoir is like a turkey. The plumage more beautiful than we thought, the majestic strut that says I am here, the delicious meat beneath the feathers, the usefulness and goodness down to the very bones.

And that, to get to that goodness, there has to be an axe. Or a cleaver. That there is a brutal execution, a dismemberment, and a great deal of dressing involved in presenting the important parts for consumption. The right garnishes. Attractive china. All so your friends can gasp with admiration and admire your ambition, and your mother can suggest you should have used more salt. Or less salt. Or at least left out Uncle Harry.

Writing is so often seen as solitary, and yet one must, even tangentially, become part of and benefit from a community. Emerge from the word-kitchen and present the fruits of our labors, or invite a select few in to taste and make suggestions in the process.

We’re glad you’re our community.

Thank you for sticking with us, for passing links to your favorite posts to your friends, for re-blogging, for putting your thoughts in our comments and on Facebook and Twitter.

Thank you for sharing your thoughts on writing, and agreeing with (and contradicting!) ours.

Thank you for submitting your work to our magazine, and sending in guest posts for this blog.

Thank you for publishing essays we can link to.

Thank you for contributing to our funds and our mission with your money, your talent and your time.

And always, thank you for writing, for reading, and being part of the creative nonfiction and memoir world. You are our dearest literary citizens, and the authors of our fondest memories.



All Books Are Mysteries

November 22, 2016 § 6 Comments

It was Uncle Claudius in the garden with the ear-poison!

It was Uncle Claudius in the garden with the ear-poison!

Every so often, I’m asked to edit a memoir that’s more of a case file. That is, it’s a series of incidents showing an antagonist in the worst possible light, a justification of actions taken by the protagonist, and a summing-up that involves bravely coming into the light.

They don’t work.

Not because they’re badly written on a line-by-line level, but because structurally, there’s no mystery. We already know whodunit, because they’re the person being textually crucified.

We can learn a lot from Agatha Christie. Or Dorothy Sayers. Ruth Rendell. P.D. James. Any of the stellar writers of relatively formulaic mystery novels. There’s a crime. There’s an investigation. The culprit is identified and caught, and the book usually stops right before the punishment—it’s the “Law” half of “Law & Order.” Chung-chung.

In a classic mystery (and Hamlet), the question is, “Whodunit? And will they be caught?”

In narrative nonfiction, the mystery is “Where did this thing/idea/practice come from? Where is it going?” or “What really happened here?”

For memoir, it’s “Why’d I do that?” or “What really happened to me?”

Laying out the facts in a row and (often unconsciously) slanting them toward the protagonist’s hurt feelings is boring. It’s boring because there’s nothing to discover—it’s all right there. Telling instead of showing, on a whole-book level. No-one wants to be lectured about how everything adds up to a solution they just got told. Instead, make the reader your detective.

The fun of reading—whether it’s playful excitement or intense engagement—comes from spotting the clues and making deductions. The reader needs the a-ha moments of “Oh shit! He’s a bad guy!” or “Wow—no wonder they turned out like that.” The reader needs the investigative moments of “What’s going to happen? Who will it happen to?” The more the reader autopsies with you, the more they engage in the book. We don’t know what’s about to happen, but we want to. This tension makes us read to the next paragraph and flip to the next page. The more the reader almost-but-not-quite pieces together the solution, the more satisfying the final revelation that fits it all together and confirms a hunch. The reader experiences the situation with the narrator and makes their own emotional realizations (which are often but not always the same as the narrator’s).

On a narrative level, that means don’t give away the solution first and then present all the evidence that adds up, which is the format of a scholarly paper. We need a burning question—What happened to me?—and then to investigate with the narrator, and make discoveries not just along the way, but that must be made to get to the answer.

Investigating mystery leads readers to enlightenment, to empathy, and to catharsis. George Saunders says,

The idea I love is that is a story is kind of a black box. And you’re gonna put the reader in there, she’s gonna spend some time with this thing that you have made, and when she comes out, what’s gonna have happened to her in there is something kind of astonishing–it feels like the curtain has been pulled back and like she’s gotten a glimpse into a deeper truth.

As a story writer, that’s not as easy as it sounds.

It’s a bad start to write a memoir already knowing what the story is, and going there with fixed intention. “Let the story surprise you,” Saunders urges–what you think you know may not be the story, even if it happened to you. Be ready to look underneath.

With memoir, looking underneath is sometimes interrogating our imagination and sometimes out-there-with-a-recorder research. It can be challenging to change our own minds, especially about an experience or situation so powerful that we must write it, but better memoir emerges when we move beyond how we felt, how we reacted, and instead look at people’s actions (including our own) and ask why. When we lay out the clues on the page, and allow ourselves to investigate, too.

Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll be teaching a webinar on story structure in fiction and memoir for Editors Canada, December 3&4 (recorded for on-demand viewing after).



Call for Submissions: Post-Election

November 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

zz rs.jpgAs we move toward the reality of Donald Trump’s pending presidency, many artists are responding, and Rock & Sling wants to produce a cross-section of that work, to be released at AWP in D.C., two weeks after the Inauguration.

We are looking for any kind of artistic reaction to the election and the weeks that have followed. Photo-documentary, essay, allegory, graphic shorts, fiction, satire, poems, visual art: we want it. What are your fears or frustrations? Your hopes or hesitations? We want to hear from the whole spectrum, all of the kinds of reactions we see. We want to hear from undocumented artists and from Christians, from Muslims and artists of color, and from conscientious conservatives.

Rock & Sling is a journal of witness. We believe that the power of witness, of truth-telling, is a good human act and a good human outcome, enabling the reader to enter the life of another self and thus to grow in empathy, compassion, and understanding.

Submissions information can be found here:

Call for Submission: Woven Tale Press

November 21, 2016 § Leave a comment

zz_wtpFrom The Woven Tale Press Editor-in-Chief Sandra Tyler:

The Woven Tale Press is an interactive online literary and fine arts magazine, and our mission is to grow traffic to noteworthy writers, photographers, and artists across the World Wide Web. By growing this Web traffic, we aspire to garner the interest of galleries and literary agents who may turn to our pages seeking new talents. Today, WTP has a combined following of 9,000 and over 2,700 site hits per month.

Since its inception in 2013, The Woven Tale Press has been through quite an evolution. While I knew it would be Web-based, my initial focus was to feature noteworthy bloggers; I had been blogging for a couple of years, and was frustrated with how quickly posts were relegated to my archives, how my Web presence was largely obscured by the vastness of cybersphere.

This obscurity on the Web can seem analogous to that of the lone writer or the artist in his studio, and for me, to my own mother; growing up, I witnessed how she persevered through self-doubts and disappointments to hone her own unique statement as a visual artist, and quite literally, in the obscurity of our cellar—The only truly bright light was a reflective one, off of a canvas, fresh paint glistening in the dull glow of a single overhead lamp. That is how I remember my mother’s paintings, quite literally luminous in an otherwise dark space.

My mother’s years of painting in that cellar can serve as an apt metaphor for what we strive for at WTP: To bring to light works by writers and artists who otherwise may be toiling away in their own “cellars.” For every artist’s or writer’s website, there is that creative soul persevering in isolation, to hone his or her own unique statement, be it on a canvas, the page, or in any other medium. And it is a perseverance often plagued with doubts: Am I any good? Am I just wasting my time?

These are age-old questions with every new rejection, and for many, these questions may go unanswered. But validation in creative endeavors is much about being seen or heard; artists and writers long for an audience, and in this digital age, recognition in cybersphere is rivaling that in the brick and mortar world. As editor-in-chief of The Woven Tale Press, I am always seeking out others toiling away, to illuminate those talents hidden in the shadows across the World Wide Web.

Besides our magazine, we have much to offer on our site: features ranging from interviews and cutting-edge videos, to book, art reviews, and even website reviews. We also offer guidelines to how to get your own website up and running within an hour — this is a prerequisite for publication in our magazine; our way of nudging serious artists and writers to develop a Web presence if they haven’t already. A must in this digital era!

Your literary nonfiction is welcome, whether it be an excerpt from a memoir or a piece of short or flash nonfiction. Like the Brevity Blog, we would also love to publish your reviews or works about your own artistic process.

Take a look at our latest issues at and consider submitting at Any questions can be directly to me at editor(at)thewoventalepress(dot)net.

Consider the Lobster Mushroom: being a brief theory of the craft of creative nonfiction

November 21, 2016 § 9 Comments

hauthorpic.jpgBy Heidi Czerwiec

The lobster mushroom, contrary to its common name, is not a mushroom but the result of a parasitic fungus having infested a host mushroom in a peculiar symbiosis. The fungus, Hypomyces lactifluorum, typically attacks milk-caps and brittlegills, absorbing them completely and imparting the bright reddish-orange color and seafood-like flavor of a cooked lobster.

Creative nonfiction, too, is a symbiosis of fact infecting art. Or art infecting fact. You become infected by an idea, a topic – open adoptions, fracking, the history of perfume – that absorbs you, imparting its own qualities, until the you’re transformed, not the same person as before.

Or, you may play the part of parasite – cloak your work, make it take the appearance of another form: an essay disguised as a list, a letter, an index, a diary. A hermit-crab essay. A lobster mushroom.

Or, you may think you’re writing one essay, but another essay takes it over, makes it its own. Think you’re writing about hiking? Nope, it’s about your ex-. A piece about the band Morphine and The Matrix’ Morpheus and the Sandman comics? Nope, your ex-. This is not necessarily a bad thing. Lobster mushrooms are much more valuable than the mushrooms they infect – about $25 a pound fresh, or $50 dried, at last check.


You should remember that both creative nonfiction and lobster mushrooms, like all fungus, feed off of dead matter, are in turn fed off of. You don’t always get there first. Sometimes appalling creatures have nested inside it – sometimes stuff you knew was there, sometimes stuff you forgot was there, sometimes unexpected stuff you uncover. You might be cutting through a mushroom when a centipede or earwig or worm crawls out of the hole it’s burrowed into the flesh. “Fuck!” you might yell, dropping the mushroom. Now you have to decide what to do next:

a. Sweep the mushroom into the trash. Burn trash. Burn house. No mushroom, no matter how valuable it might have seemed, is worth this toxic invasion.

b.Pick up the mushroom and examine the damage – how deep does it go? Has the nastiness laid eggs? Are there others? You may feel hesitant to give up on the mushroom, but sometimes you have to negotiate the value of the mushroom against how compromised it’s become. If there’s too much damage, go back to a); otherwise, continue to c). Remind yourself of two things:

1.If you can’t deal with the mushroom now, it will come back. It will always come back, popping up whether you want it to or no, because it’s part of a larger system, mycelia feeding on what’s rotten, what lurks, always, beneath the surface. If you decide in the future you’re ready to pluck it and make something of it, it will be there, mushrooming.

2. You don’t have to reveal the source of your mushrooms. Few enthusiasts do, going to great lengths to conceal their sites by lying, covering their tracks. But most are happy to share the fruits of their labors, the fruited mushroom, the finished product, however fraught. You can share, without sharing everything.

c. Decide you have worked too hard for this mushroom. It is too valuable to let go. THIS IS YOUR FUCKING MUSHROOM. Find a way to deal with the damage:

1. Cut it out completely;

2. Work around it. Convince yourself it will be altered in the shaping/cooking of it anyways. Keep what isn’t too bad, what you can still use, what’s of value. If you can deal with it, so can everyone else.

3. Take a deep breath and swallow it whole, bugs and all.


But here’s the thing. The lobster mushroom, the parasitic fungus, has a super power: it infests mushrooms, matter that is otherwise inedible, possibly toxic, and makes it safe for consumption. Palatable. Even delicious.


Is this a craft essay infected by a lyric essay, or a lyric essay infected by a craft essay?


Heidi Czerwiec is a poet and essayist and serves as Poetry Editor at North Dakota Quarterly. She is the author of two recent chapbooks — A Is For A-ké, The Chinese Monster, and Sweet/Crude: A Bakken Boom Cycle — and of the forthcoming collection Maternal Imagination with ELJ Publications, and the editor of North Dakota Is Everywhere: An Anthology of Contemporary North Dakota Poets. She lives in Minneapolis.

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