Trust More, Worry Less: The Aftermath of a Writing Conference

August 31, 2018 § 5 Comments

IMG_1099By Armen Bacon

Maybe you know the symptoms. Long forgotten memories bombard every inch of your being, clog veins, arteries, and leave you breathless. Light bulb moments left and right – the kind that cause sleep deprivation, anxiety, existential crisis. An exceptional few wait till you’re in deep REM sleep, then strike with a vengeance. You stumble from bed hunting down pen and paper. Stub toe(s), walk into walls, jot what seems brilliant (in the moment) onto a wrinkled napkin, grocery receipt, white space from yesterday’s newsprint. Head returns to pillow while prayers beg that you can decipher scribbles in the morning. None of this, by the way, amuses your sleep partner (human or feline).

Recently in recovery from a two-week creative nonfiction workshop, yes, I’m inspired, but now suffer the aches and pains of said affliction: severe withdrawals – missing new friends, guest artists, early morning writer talk, even the anxiety and angst of assignments, final project deadlines, a showcase reading.

And so unfurls the life-altering experience of being sequestered in a room 8-10 hours a day, asked to respond to thought-provoking and sometimes terrifying prompts beginning: “My sharpest memory is of a single instant surrounded by dark.” Volunteering to read aloud what you hope is a solid sentence or story line, you welcome criticism, revise essays, remind yourself good writing takes more than passion, desire, and love of the craft. It demands equal parts time, discipline, risk-taking. Madness and grit.

In my case, shadows of ancient ghosts returned to accompany me along this journey. They arrived from every wrong turn I’d taken in life and included old boyfriends, estranged relatives, my own wannabe personas. Trapped in crevices of time and memory, some hid in margins of old journal entries, then negotiated their way onto the page. At one point, internal censurers nearly convinced me I was in way over my head. Drowning in what has been called the “invisible magnetic river.” Following a current leading nowhere. My feet couldn’t touch bottom. Thankfully, a voice inside reminded me that if I kept writing, I’d survive. Trust more. Worry less.

I kept writing. Using words as oxygen.

Gifting myself time and permission to make writing a priority for two non-stop weeks required an announcement to the universe that I’d be occupying sacred space with a “Do Not Disturb” sign hanging around my neck. Reluctantly, they obliged. Aside from Mother Nature’s wrath: blazing California fires and a sweltering San Joaquin Valley heat wave, the world did not cease to exist.

The aftermath is, of course, to keep this practice in forward motion now that class is over.  The fact I’m sitting at my computer crafting this blog submission is a reminder that, “Yes, I can.”

I learned a few other things during class also worth sharing:

1) Make a pact to be in it with yourself for the long haul. This is your life. If you want to be a writer, write.

2) Regular doses of literary penicillin help – go to readings, find quiet time in a library, stash paper everywhere, have books on your nightstand. Read.  I know. It sounds so simple.

3) Find your people. We all need back up singers.

4) Gasp. Write about things that stretch (and scare) you.

5) Practice literary citizenship. Let other writers know they are brilliant. Applaud their efforts. Cheer them on.  Embrace the spines of their new books, take a selfie, and post it on social media with a positive comment. There’s room for all of us on the literary stage of life.

6) Learn the rules – then dare to break them.

7) The laundry and dishes can wait.

Armen Bacon is the author of Griefland: An Intimate Portrait of Love, Loss and Unlikely Friendship. Her second book, My Name is Armen – A Life in Column Inches, contains a decade’s worth of Fresno Bee columns and other essays on family, friends, love and loss. Her third book, My Name is Armen (Volume II) – Outside the Lines, “takes readers beyond the margins of everyday life – always circling back, returning home – celebrating the resilience of the human spirit.”


All Good Things Must Come to an End or Beginning Musings the Morning of My MFA Convocation

May 25, 2016 § 17 Comments

zz MFA Convocation

Cindy Bradley, MFA

By Cindy Bradley

In choosing my MFA program, I didn’t have to look far. Living in California’s Central Valley, completing my BA in English Literature at Fresno State University, not wanting to leave my kids and new granddaughter, left applying to Fresno State’s MFA in Creative Writing–Creative Nonfiction as an easy choice.

I had hoped for a sense of community in my MFA program, and at Fresno State, that’s what I found.  I’ve had the opportunity to work with and be mentored by some of the top nonfiction professors in the country, to learn alongside my fellow student editorial assistants on The Normal School, and to work on the annual Levine Prize for Poetry, where the late Phil Levine’s presence remains tangible. Teaching a nonfiction workshop for a group of high school students at the yearly Young Writers Conference proved an unexpected delight.

Who else but those who travel with you truly understands the journey you’re on? Kindred spirits, my peers and I come from different backgrounds, yet we’re all here for the same reason: to become better writers. Decades separate me chronologically with most of my classmates, but that doesn’t seem to matter. We learn and grow from each other. Our destinations may be different – some will continue writing and do quite well, others will never write again and be quite okay with that, some will teach, others will publish, all will answer their inner calling which refuses to be ignored – but for the three years we navigate the program, our paths crossing for a year, or two, or the special bond birthed from sharing all three, we’re all in the proverbial same boat. Through workshop we discover each other’s strengths and flaws, respect each other’s needs to both confess and safeguard our private lives in what we dare to tell, we answer the risky “what’s at stake” question first with trepidation, and then with courage as we become more confident in our voices semester after semester.

The personal is impossible to disentangle from the academic. These MFA years have seen the loss of my brother-in-law and brother two weeks apart late during my first semester and the suicide of a close friend’s son (and best friend to my sons) a month later. When I received my brother’s frantic call the night before Thanksgiving, I couldn’t help but think had the school not had their policy of cancelling classes the day before Thanksgiving and had I been in workshop my phone would have been silenced, as would any chance of having our last conversation. My father’s passing a year and a half later, in early May. News of my first essay accepted for publication arrived a few days later, poignant in its dealing in large part with his declining health. Many rejections would follow, along with a handful of acceptances for essays I hold particularly meaningful. Celebratory moments with the births of my second grandchild the July heading into my second year, and third and fourth grandchildren in October and February of my third and final year.

What this means is that in the shifting landscape of my life, the MFA program has been a constant, something I’ve leaned on as much as I’ve learned from. What this means is that it’s impossible to think of these eventful moments in my life without also thinking of the presence of the program, always there, always something to count on. Always reminding me of why I’m here. Reminding me that no matter what, no matter what is going on around or through me, I not only can but I have to write. I entered the program an emotional writer, one who waited for the right mood or inspiration to strike before I sat down to write and I leave the program a disciplined writer, one who doesn’t wait on anyone or anything, instead mustering my own inspiration and motivation. These years have been charged with emotion, fueled by a desire to write and become that better writer and learn as much about the craft as possible. This hasn’t just been an education. It’s been an experience. An unforgettable, life-changing experience. I want to linger here awhile. I want to absorb the emotions, capture this feeling and hold it hostage, soak in the memories and moments and process them all slowly. I’m in no hurry to leave.


Cindy Bradley recently received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Fresno State University. Her essays have appeared or are forthcoming in 45th Parallel, Minerva Rising, San Joaquin Review and Under the Sun. She is currently at work on her memoir titled Death, Driveways and California Dreams.

Best AWP Party in the History of Mankind

February 20, 2014 § 5 Comments


AWP attendees, please plan to join Brevity, The Normal School, The Pinch, Sonora Review, and Burlesque Press for an evening of literature and free beer at The Pine Box, 1600 Melrose Ave, Seattle.

The reading runs Friday, Feb 28, from 6-8 pm, and starting at 8 pm, after the reading, we’ll have an open bar until our limited lit mag budgets run out.

A cash bar will follow the open bar (and also be available during the reading).

Readers include:

Elena Passarello
Kwame Dawes
Sonja Livingston
Ira Sukrungruang
Jennifer S. Cheng
Harrison Candelaria Fletcher
Portia Elan
Kathleen Blackburn
Jennifer F. Steil
Daniel Wallace

Be there, or you’ll be sad later when everyone is talking about the party you missed.

The Misprinted Card: Pat Madden’s eBay Essay Redux

July 5, 2011 § 1 Comment

If you enjoyed Patrick Madden’s playful, intriguing “Writer Michael Martone’s Leftover Water” eBay essay in The Normal School, or even if you somehow missed it, be sure to follow (and join in on) the action in Pat’s new eBay adventure, “Rare Misprinted Scott Russell Sanders Postcard,” bound to be its own odd experiment in assaying.  Here’s part of Pat’s perfect postcard pitch:

Justifiably you may want to know how rare the present item is. The seller has attempted to make contact with all the initial recipients of the “Scott Russell Sanders: A Conservationist” postcard to ascertain the current specimen’s rarity. Most of those contacted responded with a “What are you talking about?” Almost no one had any memory of the card. Some offered to rifle through their piles of papers to look for it, but the seller explained that no such efforts would be necessary.

… even if another misprinted postcard remains buried under a mound of papers on a professor’s desk or molding in a landfill, this example has been signed by the Conservationist himself. On the front side, where the word Manifesto should be, Sanders has written “an apologetic autograph for a misprinted card – Scott R. Sanders 10/15/09.” As any American knows, Sanders is a beloved essayist, novelist, and children’s writer whose twenty-something books have touched the hearts and minds of readers for several decades. His legacy is sure to continue long into the future. Thus, you are bidding not only on a mechanical error, you are attempting to own a small bit of literary history.

So what might this Scott Russell Sanders postcard be worth? Let’s find out!

Normal May Refer to Normality (Behavior) …

February 24, 2011 § Leave a comment

… or it may refer to the Second Annual Normal School Prize in Poetry, Fiction and Nonfiction

Deadline: March 4, 2011

Fiction Prize: $1000 & Publication
Nonfiction Prize: $1000 & Publication
Poetry Prize: $1000 & Publication

Nonfiction Judge : EULA BISS
Poetry Judge: NICK FLYNN



AWP Nonfiction Cheat Sheet: Thursday Afternoon

January 28, 2011 § 1 Comment

Thursday afternoon at the AWP is just as busy as the morning for us nonfictionistas, and that’s not even counting the cross-genre readings and panels, talks by agents and publishers, and other events that make writers smart and happy.  Below, though, some specific nonfiction events, many with recent and past Brevity contributors …. and then, at the every end of the day, FREE BEER!

NOON to 1:15 pm

Virginia B Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level

R156. Imagining Ourselves: The Narrative Stance in Memoir. (Judith Barrington, Dustin Beall Smith, Nancy Lord, Allison Hedge Coke, Valerie Miner, Sherry Simpson) A diverse group of memoirists, who also write and teach in other genres, will discuss how they create personas for themselves and how these identities are freshly created and shaped to the work in hand. Exploring what Vivian Gornick calls “the glory of an achieved persona,” they will share examples of versions of themselves they have used in memoir, consider how persona functions in other genres, and assess how each identity is central to the authenticity and depth of the writing.


1:30 to 2:45 pm

Palladian Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

R187. Recovery as Discovery: Rethinking Nature Writing. (Tom Montgomery-Fate, David Gessner, Alison Hawthorne Deming, Gretchen Legler, John Price, Kathleen Dean Moore) Since Thoreau’s invention of the nature memoir 160 years ago, much of the natural environment itself has been damaged or destroyed. Thus, today’s nature writer must attend to both the natural world and her/his own role in its slow destruction. Their task now is less to discover and record the rare, than to recover and nurture the ravaged. This panel of nature writers will explore how they’ve addressed this paradox in their work.

Virginia C Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level

R178. Playing for Keeps: Intensity and Creativity in the Lyric Essay. (Steven Harvey, Kathryn Winograd, Robert Root, Rebecca McClanahan) The lyric essay gives writers the license to experiment—to play with language in fresh and surprising ways—but if this playfulness lacks intensity the lyric essay can become a game, or worse, an idle exercise. What do writers do to animate the form so that it not only enjoys the freedom to explore but achieves the level of passion and intelligence we expect from all great writing? A panel of writers will consider the question and offer concrete suggestions.

3 to 4:15 pm

Maryland Suite Room
Marriott Wardman Park, Lobby Level

R193. What’s Normal in Nonfiction? (Steven Church, Debra Marquart, Ander Monson, Bonnie J. Rough, Bob Shacochis) Moderated by editors of the Normal School, the panel will feature a discussion of the polarizing questions concerning the ethics and aesthetics of nonfiction writing today. Is the nonfiction writer’s obligation to the art or to the subject? The audience? Can you conflate time, use composite or fictionalized characters, or borrow material from other sources without citing it? Panelists will consider what the role of the nonfiction writer is today and how that role is defined by ethical concerns for subject and audience, and/or aesthetic concerns for art, genre, form, and technique.

Palladian Ballroom
Omni Shoreham Hotel, West Lobby

R208. What Women DON’T Write About When We Write About Sex. (Xu Xi, Mary Anne Mohanraj, Honor Moore, Victoria Redel, Ellen Bass, Sue William Silverman) In a post-feminist age, the memoir has blown the lid off sexual secrets, and in all genres, women have written increasingly frankly about sexuality over the last fifty years. It almost seems that nothing is off limits. But what’s the art and craft of this sexual “anything goes”? Six women discuss the treatment of sex in their writing and ask: do we write Passion? Do we write Lust? Do we write Love? And what don’t we write about when we write about sex?

4:30 to 5:45 pm

Thurgood Marshall East Room Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level

R217. Status Update: The Personal Essay in the Age of Facebook. (Jen McClanaghan, Phillip Lopate, Bob Shacochis, Debra Monroe, Jocelyn Bartkevicius, Susan McCallum-Smith) Between the ever-popular tell-all memoir and ubiquitous status updates on websites such as Facebook and Twitter, the confession has never been so popular or so utterly mundane. We know more about each other than ever before and yet little that’s truly intimate or insightful. This panel will discuss the tradition of the personal essay and what it might offer the contemporary reader and writer, namely the opportunity for real insight and reflection.

10:00 p.m.-Midnight

Thurgood Marshall
Marriott Wardman Park, Mezzanine Level
R233. AWP Public Reception & Dance Party. A Dance Party with music by DJ Neza. Free beer and wine from 10:00 to midnight.

Of Spit and Genius

October 22, 2010 § 1 Comment

We love The Normal School, and we  are occasionally fond of master essayist Patrick Madden (except he is too damn tall, and that ticks us off some times), and we think Michael Martone is clever as all get out (though we are very jealous of that gorgeous head of hair), and thus, we are just absolutely giddy (but envious) about this:

Michael Martone’s Backwash

Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, or Encounters With Steve Almond’s Annual Meat Hoard

May 7, 2010 § 2 Comments

Steven Church, editor of that waffle-rocking litmag The Normal School and contributor in the most recent issue of Brevity, discusses meat, smoke, the essayistic urge, and Steve Almond’s newest book:

A few years ago, while living for a time in Providence, Rhode Island, I met and became friends with the writer, Steve Almond. I still have a mix CD Steve gave me labeled “Providence Shuffle,” emblazoned with a quote from my son, “I made a bad choice,” written in blue Sharpie.

At the time he gave it to me, Steve had no children besides his books and the one at the moment was a collection of stories dubbed  The Evil B.B. Chow.  I’m pretty sure he and his girlfriend, Erin thought of my son mostly as a charming oddity, sort of like a snow globe from Iraq or a talking monkey. EVERYTHING he said was funny. Steve was working hard to be known as a fiction writer (he is, by the way, one hell of a short story writer) and not as much as a nonfiction writer, which is what I hoped to become, and what I now try to teach people how to become, and what I’m convinced everyone wants to become.

I happened to meet Steve during the time in his life that makes up much of the present action in his new nonfiction book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, a laugh-out-loud-on-the-airplane, smart, and sweet-sounding tribute song to the music Steve has been foisting on others for years. Though I can’t be sure, I’m fairly confident Steve made the Providence Shuffle CD for me, which includes several bands and artists mentioned in the book, after I’d just witnessed to something I will call the annual “Steve Almond Meat Hoard.”

This festival of sorts occurs just before the first really hard freeze of the year, after which grilling meat on your rusting Weber Smoky Joe becomes, in Boston, not just inconvenient but a potentially life threatening choice. At this point, his girlfriend Erin had already moved to California to complete an MFA in writing, leaving him to his own bad choices, some of which included large quantities of meat.

I’d occasionally just drive from Providence up to Boston under the some pretense or another but really just because I was desperately lonely and wanted to hang around in Steve’s apartment full of chocolate and music. It was dumb luck that I showed up for the annual Meat Hoard. Each year, just as the winter was practicing its first howling approach, Steve would load the Weber with charcoal and cook pounds and pounds of meat—chicken, sausage, steaks, and shrimp. When things got rough in the dark days of January, he’d thaw his bags of grilled meat and enjoy the taste of summer amidst the long press of winter that seemed to me to end sometime around July.

The night I was there, Steve froze everything except for a few select cuts, one celebration of his downfall—his so-called “verboten pie,” a homemade pizza no “good” Jew would eat, a pizza covered with sausage and shrimp, truly a “bad choice,” but one that tasted delicious and sacrilegious . . . but I digress into memory and story, pictures of that day, laughs and other tangents, perhaps because on some level I’m thinking like Steve.

This is what the best essayists do. They let you think like they do and allow you to watch their mind at work on the page. They create a conversational style that invites you into their thoughts. I’m not sure Steve gets enough credit as one of the best essayists working today. For years I’ve been raving publicly and privately about the genius of his Kurt Vonnegut essay in his last book, Not That You Asked—a truly stunning piece of . . . what? Criticism? Memoir? Essay. Just essay. A meandering, poignant dallying of thought, a critical celebration of Vonnegut that will make anyone want to go out and read everything the man has written.

With his new book, Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life, I’m calling Almond out as a lyrical critic, a daring poetic gadfly of the best kind who reveals both the heights and depths of human endeavors by turning a mirror upon our selves through the sort of self-reflection that essay aficionados crave. He’s like the mutant love-child of Montaigne and Mark Twain, a writer of the sort of books that (believe it or not) nonfiction patriots like David Shields should embrace. The book cannot be easily categorized or pigeonholed; it’s a meditation that moves at the speed of Almond’s consciousness–a mad, bouncing, digressive journey through his love of music.

This book is not a collection of rock star profiles or, I would argue, even a collection of essays, but is instead a book-length essay, one long talk on Rock-and-Roll. It’s neither sycophantic nor ironically distant, rarely flippant or silly but frequently hilarious. Rock and Roll Will Save Your Life is not an “insider” book or tell-all memoir but still somehow deeply personal. It’s not journalism but it is journalism. It’s not a novel, not even terribly plot driven or scene-heavy, but still moves like a great blues jam with freight-train intensity. It’s a book about music, of course, but also about love, friendship, and the power of fatherhood to change forever the kind of choices you make. It is simply a damn fine book. You should read it before midnight.

In case that doesn’t convince you and you need a more personal reason to read this book, how about this: I recently shared Steve’s book with a poet friend, who consumed it in a day and, somewhat overwhelmed by the experience (evidenced by his frantic downloading of music) asked me, “What’s it like hanging out with Steve,” and I thought about all the stories, the choices I could make in what to tell him, but instead I just pointed at the book and said, “It’s pretty much like that.” And it is. Reading this book is like listening to the electrified surge and flow of Steve’s stories, hanging with a good friend as he’s turning shrimp on a grill with a salad fork, hickory smoke billowing up into his face from the wood chips he sprinkled over the fire.

Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge: A Google Map Essay

January 12, 2010 § 13 Comments

Brevity editor and founder Dinty W. Moore must be smoking the funny stuff again, at least based on his newest essay in the wonderful new journal The Normal School.

The essay, entitled “Mr. Plimpton’s Revenge: A Google Maps Essay, in Which George Plimpton Delivers My Belated and Well-Deserved Comeuppance,”  can be found In The Normal School Vol. Two Issue Two, or here:

A Very Normal Prize in Fiction and Nonfiction

November 20, 2009 § Leave a comment

Fiction Prize: $1,000 & Publication
Nonfiction Prize: $1,000 & Publication

Deadline Feb 12, 2010

Final Judges

Margot Livesey: Fiction
David Shields: Nonfiction


  1. All submissions must be no more than 10,087 words double-spaced, 12 pt. font, with numbered pages and NO IDENTIFYING INFORMATION ON MANUSCRIPT.
  2. Entry fee: $20 per submission. Please make checks out to “The Normal School.”
  3. All submissions must include 2 Cover Sheets:
    1. 1st Cover Sheet must include: a) Title b) Genre c) Name of Author d) 50 word biographical statement e) mailing address f) email address
    2. 2nd Cover Sheet must include: a) Title of Work b) Genre *NO OTHER IDENTIFYING INFORMATION CAN APPEAR ON THIS COVER SHEET.
  4. All submissions must be previously unpublished in any form (print or electronic media).
  5. Simultaneous submissions ARE allowed as long you notify editors of The Normal School should your piece be accepted elsewhere. Multiple submissions ARE allowed, but each submission must be accompanied by the entry fee.
  6. Manuscripts will not be returned. Please do not send your only copy. If you want verification that we have received your manuscript, send a self-addressed, stamped postcard.
  7. Please address all submissions to:

The Normal School

Normal Prize Contest – “Genre”
5245 N. Backer Ave.
M/S PB 98
California State University, Fresno
Fresno, CA 93740

All submissions must be postmarked between 12/1/2009 and 2/12/2010.
Please be sure to SPECIFY GENRE on envelope and cover sheet.
All entrants will receive a complimentary issue of The Normal School.

Winners will be announced before the Fall 2010 issue via email.
All entries will be considered for publication.

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