How My Substack Bridged a Communication Gap With My Mother

May 14, 2023 § 10 Comments

By M. Tamara Cutler

“Mich, I’m working on waste this morning,” my eighty-four-year-old mother announced when I walked into her house to get our dog.

I write a weekly round-up for my Substack Zine, That Place You Love (TPYL), on Fridays. She wanted to make sure her flash essay on Waste posted in time.

I launched TPYL on January 2, 2023, to create community. We’d been living in a rural village in southern Spain for years, and I missed hanging out with old friends and sharing stories. I also felt Facebook, Twitter and other forms of social media had become too Like-driven.

TPYL invites readers to “gimme some truth” in 200 words or less by writing on weekly themes without crosstalk or feedback. We click the Heart to let other writers know they’ve been read and that a new piece has posted in the Comments.

The tagline is…The only truth you can control is the truth you tell.

My first flash nonfiction installment received 20 Hearts, 9 Contributors, and 300+ subscribers. Readers who didn’t want to create a profile on the Substack platform reached out via email or social media to respond to the story.

I became motivated to hit inboxes with the reliability of a Sunday crossword puzzle.

That Place You Love is for anyone who wants to tell a first-person, true story in a comment-free environment, and I decided early on it would not include family. I even left them off my initial mailing list announcement.

I also needed a break from writing or thinking about my mother as the protagonist in most of my pieces. I quickly felt freer writing about myself, my life, and my beliefs and would post links to my newsletters on Facebook and Instagram to attract new subscribers and voices.

A few weeks later, I received a New Subscriber alert with an email I knew well. My mother must have followed the Facebook link and joined Substack. I had already made a commitment to not edit my writing for anyone else’s comfort, and she was a legitimate subscriber. **

“Mich, I like what you wrote about Trust,” she said while we were grocery shopping

I then received a Word document via email called “Mich Project”. My mom is a mixed-media visual artist and painter. She keeps reams of notebooks and journals but has never considered herself a writer.

“Mom, you don’t have to run it by me first. There’s no right or wrong.”

I wanted her to trust her instinct using words the way she trusts her use of color on the canvas.

“But you’re the writer,” she said.

I realized we had created artistic boundaries. She was the visual artist I consulted for design, color, and execution. I was the writer she would consult for storytelling and syntax. I broke my non-interference rule and worked with her on her 200-word piece, a story she’d told many times.

“Mom, can you zero in on that one moment? How were you feeling?” I prompted.

She answered with greater depth and detail than I had ever heard before. Since then, her posts have explored personal territory that has been hidden for decades.

Because she sometimes suffers from neuropathy in her arms and hands, she can’t work in her studio or on the computer for extended periods of time. She was starting to become anxious about deadlines, even though there aren’t any.

“Mich, I want to write about grandmom’s death, but I just can’t type today,” she admitted.

She had handwritten the story while sitting on her front terrace. I suggested recording it and using transcription. She could then polish it in a few minutes on the keyboard.

She was skeptical, as I pressed record.

She posted the story of her mother’s death in the Forgiveness episode of TPYL. It was about yielding to medical authority in my grandmother’s final hours. Thirty years later, she still envisioned the peaceful death she had planned for her mother rather than the invasive one that played out in the hospital.

It was painful to hear her share this for the first time, but it closed a gap between us: the abstract expressionist artist and the creative nonfiction writer. This was a collaboration, something we could work on together without either one being the expert. Rather than feeling restricted, knowing my mother is an active contributor makes writing and reading each week’s episode a gift.

**Side note: anyone who tells you they can’t figure out how to subscribe to your free Substack should consult a determined octogenarian!


M. Tamara Cutler brings a visual arts and film background to her writing. Essays are published or forthcoming in Under the Gum Tree, Hunger Mountain Review, Longridge Review (finalist for the Barnhill prize in creative nonfiction), Please See Me, Insider Health, and the Brevity Blog. She has a diploma in Advanced Creative Writing Nonfiction from Cambridge University and an MFA in Film from NYU. She is the founder of That Place You Love’s Gimme Truth Project on Substack.

Writing With Your Breath

May 12, 2023 § 1 Comment

By Evan Youngs


In her essay collection Drawing Breath: Essays on Writing, the Body, and Loss, Gayle Brandeis experiments with the structure of prose to explore the complexities of womanhood, motherhood, and authorhood. Her writing ranges from the deaths of her parents to the use of breath as a symbol. I had the pleasure of asking Brandeis what inspired this collection and what impact she wants to leave with it.

Evan Youngs: Whether the subject is motherhood or the use of breath as a metaphor, in Drawing Breath you place yourself in conversation with other writers. Where do you see yourself in the writing world?

Gayle Brandeis: What a fun question, one I’m not sure how to answer. I think I see myself as a drop of water in a rushing river—part of something much bigger than I am (and happy to be so.) I have a lot of writing friends and students who I am in literal conversation with, so I can picture myself in those specific communities, again, as part of a thriving ecosystem, but of course I’m also in conversation with everything I’ve read, everyone I’ve been inspired by. I’m just a tiny molecule in a vast literary sphere, and am grateful to be that, grateful to have built my life around words. It always surprises me when people I don’t know have read my work—when we were about to move cross country and I was talking to someone from a big moving company I had found online to get a quote, the guy said “Are you Gayle Brandeis, the writer?” and it was shocking to me that he knew who I was (apparently his girlfriend was a fan!). So I guess I may stand out as bigger than a molecule to some people on occasion, but I’m fine with being a tiny part of a huge conversation that stretches through time.

EY: You structure many of your essays in very experimental ways, such as separating parts of a piece with dictionary definitions for “press” and “pool,” or formatting the essay into the shape of a waveform to represent breath. What inspired you to try these unique styles of structure?

GB: I love finding ways of weaving together form and content so that each one can amplify the other. Definitions of words are so rich and juicy to me, so word etymology often inspires me in one form or another (and the words “press” and “pool” are both so evocative). Sometimes it takes a while to find the right form for a piece. I tried to write “Room 205” in different ways, but it didn’t come together for me until I realized there was a formal constraint written right into the title. I decided to write the story of the four Room 205s my dad lived in during the last years of his life by writing it in 205-word chunks. Once I made that decision, the piece sparked to life. I knew early on that “Rib/Cage” was going to look a bit like ribs on the page—it just felt right. I can’t take the credit for the wave shape of “Drawing Breath.” I had divided the essay into “Inhales” and “Exhales” to mirror breath, and then the brilliant designer Jenny Kimura thought we could make it look even more like breath on the page by having the text expand and contract. I loved that idea—it takes the form to the next level!

EY: Womanhood is a guiding theme of this collection. “We Too” is essentially a manifesto for women writing in the collective first-person. What do you think we can achieve by writing as a “We”?

GB: I think that it’s good to remember that even though our individuality is precious and important and needs to be honored and protected, we are also connected to other humans and animals and plants on this planet, and there’s beauty and meaning and power in that interconnectivity. I think recognizing our connection can be especially powerful for women, whose voices have been historically silenced and denigrated. When women write as “we,” we can raise our voices together in a way that can’t be ignored. There can definitely be power in numbers, and sometimes that’s what we need to make change—a chorus of women speaking out and demanding equity and justice (and of course white women like me have been heard more than BIPOC women, so when BIPOC women speak in chorus, it can be all the more culturally transformative).

EY: In “Self Interview,” you continuously answer the same question—”How did writing your memoir change you?”—in different ways. At the risk of repeating the cliche, I’ll bite the bullet and ask, how did writing this memoir change you?

GB: I would say the biggest, most concrete way this book changed me was it made me see how much I longed to return to the Chicago area, where I had grown up. I hadn’t realized how much I had written about Lake Michigan over the years, but as I compiled the book, Lake Michigan kept showing up, and I realized how much I missed it. I’d been on the West Coast since 1986 but moved back to the Chicago area last year. I’m not sure that would have happened if I hadn’t put this book together.

I’d also say that compiling these essays into a book allowed me to understand the trajectory of my life more clearly and helped me see that even though I’ve changed over the years, my core obsessions and devotions have been remarkably steadfast; they’ve coursed through my subconscious like an underground river. So perhaps how this book has changed me is by helping me see how much I haven’t changed at the very center, and how much my writing has allowed me to give voice to that truest, most central, self. I’m excited to see what will emerge from that place next!


Gayle Brandeis is the author of most recently the essay collection Drawing Breath: Essays on Writing, the Body, and Loss. She teaches in the low residency MFA programs at University of Nevada, Reno at Lake Tahoe and Antioch University.

Evan Youngs is an undergraduate at SUNY Oswego, where they are studying journalism and creative writing. Their work has appeared in Rain Taxi and the Great Lake Review.

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.

On Witty Asides and Sly Insinuations

May 10, 2023 § 1 Comment

In our May issue of Brevity, launched this past week, Jack Lancaster looks at works from Jia Tolentino Joan Didion, and Zadie Smith to explore the power of a carefully constructed parenthetical aside, the perfect sly insinuation:

Understanding what the writer says between the parenthesis, and why they do, lets you feel like you’re on the inside of an inside joke. In nonfiction, these asides follow the shot of action with the chaser of the writer’s voice, an embodied clarity that the writer wants to tell you something directly. To me, they illustrate what Alexander Chee beautifully illustrates in How to Write an Autobiographical Novel when he states, ‘“’When the writing works best, I feel like I could poke one of these words out of place and find the writer’s eye there, looking through to me.’”’

But too much is too much, he warns:

By nature of their form, most asides tend to share something subtle, a secret message in the midst of a narrative. Perhaps that’s why I, as a collector of secrets, enjoy them. But I still take caution to not overuse asides, just like I have learned from my youth to not share secrets. 

You can read the full essay here: On the Aside Looking In

The Secret Class

May 9, 2023 § 6 Comments

How to make regular writing a given.

By Julie Marie Wade

Whether you’re a writer just beginning to submit work for publication, a writer who has fallen out of the submission habit and is looking to build it back, or a writer who submits regularly and has been widely published, the ideal—and the struggle—we all share is to keep generating new work. No matter how busy you are with the demands of authorship, not to mention the demands of the rest of your life. 

One strategy I’ve used since college is the phenomenon of the “extra class.” At 19, I told my friends I was registered for a fifth class, a secret class that met on the silent floor of the library. I didn’t mention that the syllabus consisted entirely of focused time to write, or that it had exactly one student enrolled—me.

It was common for us back then to leave a note on the whiteboards posted on our dorm room doors, letting people know where we were and/or when we would be back. If you were “in class” or “at work,” I’d noticed, people didn’t ask too many questions. They accepted that these activities were essential, not optional. But if you said you were playing Frisbee on the quad or hanging out in the Student Center, your friends were likely to come and find you. They understood these were just fun things people did to “kill time,” by their nature both joinable and interruptible. 

Not so with a class.

I meticulously scheduled my secret class on my calendar, some semesters for two longer blocks each week and some semesters for three shorter blocks each week, depending on my actual class and work schedule. But the practice was the same, and it sustained me. I had built in a time to write when I knew no one would interrupt me, or even come looking for me. This was time set aside beyond homework, beyond the other responsibilities and requirements of my life, and by calling it a class, I didn’t have to defend its value to anyone. 

I came to look forward to my secret class, sometimes nearly giddy as the time approached, and I found the ideas for what I would write next percolated more readily during the intervals between those sessions. With anticipation came increased productivity, both during the time set aside for the secret class and also during the time outside it, and I was able to generate far more work than even what my creative writing professors required. I can still remember walking to the library, nearly breaking into a sprint, the words beginning to flow before I could even write them down.

For the nine years following my college graduation, I carried on the tradition of the secret class, through three successive graduate programs. As before, my peers took a class obligation seriously; there was no need to justify the time I was unavailable. Even now, as a professor of creative writing, my secret class has become the “extra class” I teach rather than the extra class I take—and it still functions precisely the same way. 

For folks whose lives aren’t already organized around academic classes, this concept is equally applicable. Maybe you go to a yoga class or play in a recreational sports league or wait for your children at their weekly swim practice, for instance. There are things in your life, in all our lives, shared on the family calendar; activities taken seriously enough that no one would expect you to miss them, barring an actual emergency. 

You paid in advance.

You’re doing it for your kids.

Your teammates are counting on you.

It’s important for self-care. 

These are all excellent reasons to explain serious time commitments, and what we have to remember is that writing isn’t any less important than any of them. Our creative output has intrinsic worth, not contingent on payment or publication—though without a consistent investment of time, it’s harder to pursue payment or publication for the intrinsically worthwhile writing we do.

When we schedule writing as an un-missable commitment in our lives and head to a discrete location to honor it—or when we carve out time to be home alone and schedule specific writing intervals that allow us to turn off our electronic summoners and devote ourselves entirely to the practice at hand (I find that setting a timer keeps me from looking at the clock and allows me to focus even more fully on my words), we retrain our minds to expect the consistency that a sustained writing practice requires. These intervals don’t have to be long, but they do have to be regular. Once we can count on their regularity, we’re able to maintain this core writing practice no matter how much work, authoring and otherwise, supports everything else in our lives. Instead of “maybe getting around to it” or “hopefully I’ll have time soon,” writing becomes a given of every week, month, quarter, semester, and season—or however you measure time.


Learning to make time for writing? Join Julie for the CRAFT TALKS webinar, Making Time, Making Art: Navigating the Writer/Author Divide. More info/register here. $25 ($15 early bird).

JULIE MARIE WADE is a member of the creative writing faculty at Florida International University in Miami. A winner of the Marie Alexander Poetry Series and the Lambda Literary Award for Lesbian Memoir, she is the author of many collections of poetry and prose, including two collaborative essay collections written with Denise Duhamel and Brenda Miller. Wade’s newest projects are Fugue: An Aural History (Diagram New Michigan Press, 2023) and Otherwise: Essays (Autumn House Press, 2023), selected by Lia Purpura for the 2022 Autumn House Press Nonfiction Book Prize.

Negotiating the Writer Editor Relationship Successfully

May 8, 2023 § 2 Comments

In our May issue of Brevity, launched this past week, Amanda Le Rougetel reminds us that the writer/editor relationship, when approached with skill and respect, can be fully rewarding for both author and editor.

Le Rougetel writes:

At its best and most productive, the writer/editor relationship is based in respect and unfolds as a creative process that aims to realize the full potential of a piece of writing. Every writer stands to benefit from the input of a qualified editor; however, many writers fear the process, because they believe that comments equal criticism equal failure. 

Citing specific feedback from a recent essay edit, she adds:

This was revelatory for me, because it meant that the editor—a stranger to me—was taking my work seriously, that my writing stood on its own merit, and that it would be published but still needed some work. I was ready to do that work, but when I read the editor’s fabulous comment in relation to one sentence and love this paragraph in relation to another section, I was ready to work my fingers to the bone for this editor-stranger. This is what creative collaboration looks like: The writer being open to feedback, the editor providing clear direction on what needs work while also offering forthright praise for what is already working.

You can read the full essay and learn how good editors approach suggestions and corrections here: Writer and Editor as Creative Collaborators

Flash Essays as Fireworks

May 5, 2023 § 2 Comments

In our May issue of Brevity, fresh this week, Leslie Jill Patterson uses examples from Brenda Miller, Jenny Boully, Erin Murphy and other flash writers to explore how micro-essays are like “a single bloom that bursts then swells into meaning, unfolding while we read.”

Extending on her fireworks metaphor, Patterson writes:

Lately… I’m attracted to flash essays that act like ghosts—firework shells that contain multiple peonies that burst in layers, each subsequent flare seeming to appear from nowhere. How, I ask myself, do writers generate ghost narratives—a turn we didn’t see coming, an unexpected destination?

You can read more of Patterson’s analysis of essay endings that burst and swell and see examples of the effect here: Ghost: The Flash Ending That Appears from Nowhere

Research and Memoir: Toggling Between Yourself and World, Part 2

May 4, 2023 § Leave a comment

By Jody Keisner


Sofia Ali-Khan

Here is the second half of my interview with Minna, Sofia and Erica where we dig deeper into how to use research in writing memoir. If you missed Part 1, the first half of our discussion, you can find it here.

JK: Can you provide another example of how research transformed a story, either about yourself or your broader subject?

MD: My interviews helped guide the book. One mom shared a revealing breakdown, how she and her husband went from an equal division of domestic labor pre-children to an unequal one. The mountain of labor that befalls mothers as they “inevitably” step into the role of primary parent became a big theme in the book. Another mom described taking care of two older family members in addition to her kids, so I added a section about the double unpaid labor shouldered by these “sandwich generation” moms. The moms’ stories showed me what perspectives needed highlighting. 

SAK: Before I interviewed anyone, I looked at primary and secondary sources. One striking example of a primary source that humanized history was a letter provided by the Manassas Museum. It was written by Malinda Robinson, a formerly enslaved woman who had been sold away from the farm on which she’d been enslaved as a child. She wrote it in 1866, just after emancipation, trying to locate her siblings. That letter conveys the realities of family separation during slavery and the persistent devastation of racism in a way that I could never have done.Broadly, I had not anticipated that the color lines I was researching had resulted from regional or national movements. I started with twelve towns but ended up with a book that told hard truths about all of America. 

EB: I was always upset by how wolves were humanized (“Wolves: Government-Funded Terrorists” read a Montana bumper-sticker) but research showed me the extent to which people get made into wolves, too (the Central Park Five as a “wolf pack”). These conflations are harmful to both human and non-human animals, and I realized I couldn’t write about the dominant western lineage of wolf stories without unspooling narratives around racism, sexism, and colonialism too. After a few scary experiences with strange men, I especially wanted to interrogate “Little Red Riding Hood,” because the evil of the wolf depends on the innocence of the girl. I felt I could not deconstruct the symbolic wolf without considering who he was supposed to be chasing. Scenes from my own life became moments to examine the intersectional constructions of girlhood. 

JK: How do you balance research with personal storytelling?

MD: At first, I was focusing on one mom’s story per chapter, and I also had my own narrative in each chapter, but ultimately this structure felt forced. I ended up looking at each chapter and asking, “What do I want to say here?” Then I picked the pieces of the moms’ stories and my own that helped propel the chapter forward. I was being precious about all the stories (including my own) at the beginning. I needed my editors’ help to see that I had to use the personal stories to help the book, not use the book to help the stories.

SAK: Initially, the memoir framing was a bit of a device for me, a way to control the scope of my research and tie it together in a novel way. My editor pushed me to be more vulnerable and he was right. In the end, the memoir and histories illuminate each other.

Erica Berry

EB: I didn’t set out to write a memoir, but at a certain point my agent suggested that my own intimate embodied experiences with fear were a useful lever of authority. To dismantle dominant narratives around predator and prey, I had to include moments when I felt like prey, and where I felt—or was read—as predator, as well as places where my perspective around fear or danger with my own body evolved.

JK: Smoothly transitioning from research and reportage into one’s narrative voice can be challenging. How do you negotiate this? 

MD: The research piece was useful for zooming out from one mom’s narrative. I would tell the story of how one mom decided to leave her job to be with her kids more, then I’d use statistics to show just how many mothers (especially those married to men) are making this same “choice.” The research helped me prove that what feels like a personal decision is actually the designed result of a system that coerces mothers into providing the most unpaid labor possible for the society. 

My memoir writing is naturally pretty “voicey.” My challenge with Mom Rage was to integrate the research while staying true to my voice. When the writing got weak and the transitions didn’t feel smooth, it was almost always because I wasn’t trusting my own authoritative voice and was relying too much on statistics, facts, and experts’ quotes. 

SAK: It was a challenge for me to arrive at a smooth narrative voice. After I turned in the first full draft to my editor, I read the manuscript and realized I’d been using polemic to link the two narratives. I had to strip out all of that and leave room for the reader to make their own meaning. I also had to stop trying to make the narrative neat, to make the histories link directly to the memoir and vice-versa. Instead, I had to believe in the magic of how the two narratives meet, diverge, and play with one another. 

EB: Wolfish also unspools the life of famous Oregon wolf OR-7, and I wanted to reveal the biological truth of his journey while also acknowledging that I could watch his path and learn about my own. I did not want to reduce him to metaphor, but to consider the symbolic or emotional resonances between our lives and create a “connective tissue” between his story and my own. I look to history, science, and literature to interrogate the space between our bodies, and to let the reader consider their own relationship with fear and wildness in the pages. 


Jody Keisner is the author of Under My Bed and Other Essays. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Brevity, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her essay “Runaway Mother” was a notable Best American Essay 2022. She teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Reach her @JodyKeisner. 

Minna Dubin is the author of MOM RAGE: The Everyday Crisis of Modern Motherhood, forthcoming from Seal Press (September 2023). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and Parents. Follow her @minnadubin.

Sofia Ali-Khan is the author of A Good Country: My Life in Twelve Towns and the Devastating Battle for a White America  (RH 2022). Her work has appeared in the LA Times, TIME Magazine, and elsewhere. Find her at and on Facebook.

Erica Berry is the author of Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear (Flatiron, 2023). Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Yale Review, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. Find her @ericajberry or at

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.

Research and Memoir: Toggling Between Yourself and World, Part 1

May 2, 2023 § 3 Comments

By Jody Keisner

Jody Keisner


It sometimes surprises readers when they finish my memoir, Under My Bed and Other Essays, and find a selected bibliography at the back: six pages of sources I used to further my exploration of fear as a woman, mother, and person living with a chronic illness. Writers of creative nonfiction often investigate familiar topics such as body, home, nature, identity, and family within the frameworks of science, culture and society, gender studies, religion, anthropology, history, psychology, and more. This research gives us the freedom to investigate our questions beyond the borders of our own lived experiences, which if we stay within, might never provide the answers we seek or expand toward the universal. Finding the balance between research and memoir, however, can prove challenging.

In this Q&A, I talk with three authors about how they balance personal storytelling with research-based writing in their memoirs. Sofia Ali-Khan is the author of A Good Country, a braided Muslim-American memoir, which explores the history of America’s color lines and racialization of American Muslims. Minna Dubin’s researched memoir MOM RAGE: The Everyday Crisis of Modern Motherhood is about the phenomenon of maternal anger sweeping the globe due to the combined stress of modern motherhood, lack of family support, and systemic neglect. And, Erica Berry is the author of Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear, which blends cultural criticism, memoir, history and science to explore how we live beside wolves both real and symbolic.

Jody Keisner:  Why was research crucial to the story you were telling?

Minna Dubin: With my book, I’m claiming that mom rage is an international emotional crisis. Society likes to put women’s problems–especially mothers’ problems–in the “personal failure” category and rid itself of any culpability. I needed other mothers’ stories to back mine up to “prove” the legitimacy of mom rage; including research felt necessary. 

Sofia Ali-Khan: As the 2016 elections passed, I went from someone who had always believed that the moral arc bends toward justice to someone who felt that I loved a country that could not love me back. I wanted to understand the recent racialization of American Muslims. In examining the origins of the color lines in my twelve homes across America and the forced migrations that created them, I found that my education and fifteen-year career practicing civil rights and public interest law had elided much of American history. What I learned so deeply reshaped my thoughts and priorities, that I needed to share it.

Erica Berry: Nearly a decade ago, I started what would become Wolfish with a research question—why is wolf repopulation so controversial in the American West, and what does the wolf conjure beyond itself? So often, in dominant wolf stories of the western canon, the wolf is made into a vessel for fear and danger, but it took a few years for me to accept that—research aside—I was really struggling with those emotions in my own life. I had had a few encounters with strange men that made me think of “Little Red Riding Hood,” and I was uncomfortable with the conflation. My personal grappling with fear spurred me to research what I call the “cultural taxidermy” of the wolf, just as my research around real and symbolic wolves nudged me to interrogate those narratives around fear I had metabolized in my own life. 

Minna Dubin

JK: Of the many research methods at our disposal—interviewing, public records, the reference library, the internet, and immersion, some of which you’ve already mentioned——which did you use?

MD: I most heavily used interviewing, both of moms and experts. My next biggest source was published books, bought or borrowed from the library. For articles I used the almighty internet. Because I’m not affiliated with any university and was doing most of my research in 2021, when academic libraries were closed or had minimal hours of operation, I had trouble getting my hands on academic journals. I found it frustrating that when I’d find an article online that was published in an academic or scientific journal, I often couldn’t read it unless I paid like $45. It’s a real barrier to the democratic sharing of information and felt like gatekeeping capitalism at its worst. 

SAK: I subscribed to JSTOR, an online portal that provides reasonably good access for academic articles. I also visited academic libraries, did literature reviews through Google Scholar, and had academic friends pull materials. My research process was rigorous, but also a real playground because I got to follow my curiosity. I cold called, networked, and messaged. I interviewed academics, scientists, journalists, filmmakers, and activists. Museum curators with subject area expertise were also very helpful.  

EB: My research was stymied by COVID-19 shutdowns, but my public library gave members free access to JSTOR and other academic databases, which was a lifesaver. I relied on library databases of old newspaper archives to search for code words like “wolf” or “lone wolf,” and it was amazing how many new rabbit-holes I’d find. On-the-ground research felt critical for narrative scene-building and expanding my own POV, whether it was walking around rangeland with ranchers who lived in places wolves had returned to or following a biologist around on a mountainside trying to trap and collar a wolf to monitor. Because Wolfish threads research and ideas very associatively, one research path would often bloom into another without my planning it.

Look for the second half of my interview with Minna, Sofia and Erica about research and memoir writing, which will be posted on the Blog in a few days. –JK


Jody Keisner is the author of Under My Bed and Other Essays. Her work has appeared in Fourth Genre, Brevity, The Los Angeles Review of Books, and elsewhere. Her essay “Runaway Mother” was a notable Best American Essay 2022. She teaches creative nonfiction at the University of Nebraska Omaha. Reach her @JodyKeisner. 

Minna Dubin is the author of MOM RAGE: The Everyday Crisis of Modern Motherhood, forthcoming from Seal Press (September 2023). Her work has appeared in the New York Times, Salon, and Parents. Follow her @minnadubin.

Sofia Ali-Khan is the author of A Good Country: My Life in Twelve Towns and the Devastating Battle for a White America  (RH 2022). Her work has appeared in the LA Times, TIME Magazine, and elsewhere. Find her at and on Facebook.

Erica Berry is the author of Wolfish: Wolf, Self, and the Stories We Tell About Fear (Flatiron, 2023). Her work has appeared in The Guardian, The Yale Review, The New York Times Magazine, and elsewhere. Find her @ericajberry or at

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