Word Clouds and Why We Tell Stories

January 8, 2020 § 9 Comments

cloudBy Alison Alstrom

Once in a writing class I was asked to explore the words I use, especially those that are my “signature words.” I still have no idea how to know what those words are. If I had to guess, I’d probably say they are words like death, grief, and sad, because those are the kinds of things I write about.

One student in that class said she wasn’t comfortable writing about herself and was working in memoir in part to accustom herself to doing so, to break through the discomfort, or grow numb to it. Funny, because I’m not comfortable writing about death, even though that seems to be the topic of everything I write. I’m not comfortable writing about my grief, about how the deaths in my life have affected me. Twenty years ago, I gave up painting because death kept creeping in. I didn’t want to be that dark girl that paints about death all the time. More than “didn’t want to be”—it was a desperate visceral kind of avoidance.

So I poured a bunch of my writing from the several months prior into the website Wordle.com *, a site that shifts through your prose and coughs your words back in cloud form, ordered by font size from most-often-used to less-often-but-still-often-used. I was happy to see that my biggest words were not death words, but life words, like love, family, and brother and sister. Also among the largest were words about time, like later, still, and moment and hours, and remember. I realize that this exercise is probably meaningless, that words that would strike us as signature to someone’s writing would not necessarily be the ones that appear most often in a piece of their prose, but would rather be words that are specific to the choices they make when writing, like saying “gaping maw” and “terrifying hollow” instead of just “hole” or “space,” both examples from my recent writing that didn’t make it into the word cloud.

Yet the word cloud speaks clearly to why I tell stories and make paintings to begin with, and made me think of an earlier writing class, when I was asked to consider the “what” of my writing—what it is, and what motivates us to make it. I wrote then that I wanted to stop time, to hold on to the magnificence of moments before they slip away, and to write portraits of the heroes and saints that populate my world.

Giving up painting 20 years ago was a mistake. It turns out that sometimes, not telling your stories is more painful than the stories themselves. I guess I took this writing class in part to accustom myself to that, to break through the discomfort of telling my sad stories, because I have learned that not telling them is worse.

Then just for fun, I put a single piece I’m working on into the Wordle site. It’s a story about a friend, Jack, who died suddenly just as our relationship was beginning to shift toward romantic intimacy. It was after Jack’s death that I stopped painting. The words from the word cloud that jumped out at me the hardest fell easily into a little summary of the piece:

One time work,
later friends,
loved, shared, held
now family.

(Then) long night happened
Deep conversation, desire
Something took –
Love found.

Early morning,
Man left –
Walked away, died.

Make painting always, tiny self.
Jack’s big body

Make painting always, tiny self.  I wrote those words out by hand, and taped them to the wall above my bathroom mirror.


* Wordle.net no longer functions (nor does the iteration of Alison’s essay that produced the word cloud she writes about above) but readers can find a similar resource and make their own word clouds at wordclouds.com


Alison Alstrom lives in Portland, Oregon, where she recently completed the Atheneum Fellowship year at the Attic Institute. Previously, she attended the San Francisco Art Institute with a focus on oil painting. She is fortunate to be companion to the best dog ever (a provable fact), and is committed to maintaining a creative life both in spite of, and in service to the demands of work and family.

That Writer

June 7, 2017 § 26 Comments

Dorothy Parker showed a lot of wtf smilies to fellow members of the Algonquin Round Table.

That Writer. Every writing group or class has one. The person who talks more than everyone else combined. Who comes in stoned, or just high on life. Who interrupts the teacher we’ve all paid big bucks/gone through a tedious application process to hear. Who comments as if they themselves are the teacher. Who says things like “Well, you know what Flannery O’Connor said” as if we all know exactly what Flannery O’Conner said, and it wasn’t “Nobody cares, shut up.”

Look around the table. Do you see That Writer? No no, don’t point—Instead, draw a smiley face expressing pain and show it to the writer next to you by turning your notebook on the table.

If you can clearly identify That Writer, I’m sorry, there’s nothing you can do. Practice your expressive smileys, and how to say “could you unpack that a little more?” with respectful seriousness for the days you haven’t done the assignment and are trying to run out the clock (That Writer has their usefulness!).

Wait—what? You don’t see That Writer? Oh dear. Ask yourself these questions:

Do you carry a bag of pens? Do you rummage in this bag more than once per class?

Have you ever cut your nails in class, you know, just that once when you had a bad hangnail and it was under the table and really quiet, not at all like it might be additional punctuation in the story of whoever was reading out loud at the time?

Does your jewelry make a delightful collection of wooden and metallic sounds?

Have you ever entered the room prior to class to find a previously arrived fellow-writer typing vigorously, earbuds in, and signaled that you need their attention? When they remove one earbud and say “yes?” in a sharpish tone, have you then courteously let them know you just need to use the printer and will that be OK? Did you then sing quietly to yourself while printing?

Have you written a chapbook of poetry, not self-published by any means but issued by the small independent press you own that has published several of your chapbooks and those of two other writers? Would you like to give a copy of that chapbook to every member of the class, and a few days later discuss it over coffee?

Do you often have a different interpretation of the work being discussed, possibly rooted in Freudian theory or any psychology named after a dead Slav?

Do you make sounds that people think indicate you are about to speak, but you are in fact just signaling agreement or a blocked sinus?

Have you ever started a comment with, “Well, this may be a little far afield, but this just puts me in mind of Wittgenstein, when he says…” and ended that comment four hundred words later with “does anyone else get that?” Were you discussing a humorous parenting memoir?

Have you come to a class where the guideline is five pages and indicated that your twelve pages of 1.5-spaced, 10-point sans-serif is “really a pretty quick read”? Is there an explicit sex scene on page 9? Does it have anal? Do you need to discuss how anal sex symbolically represents your relationship with the patriarchy/your creative muse/your mother?

Look at the body language of the person on your right: is that writer scooted to the extreme other edge of their chair, tilting toward the teacher as far as possible without falling off? Are you sure the chair-legs are uneven?

Have you ever said, “I know we’re not really workshopping today but perhaps we could just talk through my pages sentence-by-sentence?”

Are you disturbed by the number of questions you’re answering yes to? Are you just trying to help? Have you noticed other writers angling their notebooks towards each other, scribbling what can only be pictographs of the deep emotional reaction they can barely contain in response to your work? All is not lost!

First, take your pages for today’s reading. When you get to page six, rip it off and any following pages and throw them in the recycle bin. Trust that your lengthy story summary prior to reading will cover it. If there are any chapbooks in your bag, remove them. Have you smoked pot yet today? Skip it. If that horse is already out of the barn, maybe consider taking a sick day and coming to class next week instead. Or smoking later today, especially if it’s a 10AM class. Now remove your jewelry. Select a single pen and one additional backup pen, leaving your pen-bag aside. Check your manicure. Once in class, open your writing notebook. Every time you think of something to say, write it down. Make a tick mark by anything you thought that anyone else says. Now you don’t have to say it. Of every five remaining un-ticked comments, speak one of them. Then bask in your Buddha-like silence and smile wisely.

And don’t ever quote Wittgenstein again.



Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’s been That Writer at least once. Find her on Twitter @guerillamemoir.

5 Tips To Get The Most Out Of Your Writing Conference

May 4, 2016 § 6 Comments

Mare Swallow

Mare Swallow

By Mare Swallow

With the season of summer writing conferences just around the corner, I’d like to share some tips for getting the most out of your conference experience. Refer to these tips any time you attend a conference. And remember, no matter which writers’ conference you attend, it’s your conference – make it work for you.

  1. Attend with broad goals.

It’s good to have specific goals, but very few writers actually land an agent or get a book deal at a conference. Give yourself broader goals like “I want to be inspired,” or “I want to meet other writers who are writing memoir.” Go with an open mind and open attitude. The best things I’ve gotten from conferences were inspiration, fun, friends, delicious cocktails, and a writing group.

  1. Go towards your “nah.”

Try something you normally would not. Attend a panel that you think isn’t for you. When we listen to something that we think doesn’t apply to us, we can learn something surprising and useful. I once attended a talk by Eric Charles May on ‘Causality in Fiction.’ I thought, “I write non-fiction; this doesn’t apply to me,” but I had some time to kill, so I went. Eric’s lessons blew me away – and were applicable to my nonfiction.

  1. Talk to your fellow writers.

Open your mouth and talk to each other. Yes, many writers are introverted, but your next writing buddy or feedback partner may be sitting right next to you. And you never know who might be a resource for you! Attend the social events, even if it’s just for 30 minutes, and chat.

Need some prompts? Try:

“What did you think of that last speaker?”

“Have you attended this conference before?”

“Are you going to the cocktail party afterwards?”

  1. Buy books, subscribe to newsletters, and connect online.

Stay in touch with your fellow writers (assuming you like them and want to stay in touch). Follow each other on Facebook or Twitter, or Snapchat or whatever your preferred method of social media. Buy books on writing or books by the authors who inspire you at the conference. Follow their blogs and social media, and subscribe to their newsletters so you’re in the loop and in touch with your writing community beyond the conference.

  1. Take notes, and commit to action post-conference.

Note what you get from each session, and commit to using it once you leave.

Whenever you hear something you want to remember, write it down. Also give yourself concrete action steps you’ll take after the conference, and use verbs: “Email query to Literary Agent I met today.”

“Subscribe to Suzy Writer’s Blog.”

“Draft the first 100 words of my novel.”

Education is great, but education without action is useless.


Some upcoming Conferences of note:

Creative Nonfiction Writers Conference

River Teeth Nonfiction Conference

Kenyon Review Writers  Workshop

Antioch Summer Workshop

Vermont College of Fine Arts Postgraduate Writers’ Conference

HippoCamp 2016

Iota Short Prose Conference

And more here: Poets & Writers Listings


Mare Swallow is the founder and Executive Director of the Chicago Writers Conference. She speaks at conferences throughout the nation year-round. An essayist, she can be found sharing her stories on Chicago’s Live Lit Scene. Visit chicagowritersconference.org for more information.

A Writing Workshop, By Any Other Name

May 30, 2008 § 4 Comments

And speaking of The Kenyon Review, the KR Blog makes note of yet another “withering attack” on the concept of writing workshops. The attacks just seem to come without end, from people who very often have little idea what they are talking about. Hanif Kureishi is certainly one of them.

wkshopBut this latest stupid attack did force to me to reflect some on my pedagogy, and it finally hit me, like a soft mallet to the head, that I don’t teach a writing workshop – I’m not sure many of us in the academic creative writing field actually do – I teach an editing workshop.

Here’s what I mean:

A good workshop assists a young writer in seeing how a reader might encounter and experience their manuscript (with the help of some artificial readers – the workshop members.) Then, with the help of a prodding and encouraging teacher, the student is helped to see how to take what she has learned and re-vision what she has already written.

She learns how to take a muddy scene and make it clear. How to take a soggy bit of language and make it crisp. How to take a limp narrative arc and find some spine. How to take an undifferentiated character and create, well, character.

She learns, too, how voice can be altered, and how small changes can make a difference in point-of-view. This is editing that is being taught, and more specifically, self-editing. A student who learns the rigors and wonders of self-editing, before launching her work into the world, has learned quite a bit, and has greatly increased her chances of finding a publisher/audience.

We should call it an editing workshop, then, or a revision workshop, since that’s what we are teaching and modeling. If it were truly a writing workshop, those of us who teach would be standing over our students’ shoulders as they attempted their first drafts, and goodness knows I don’t do that.

So let’s call them poetry editing workshops, or creative nonfiction editing workshops, and do away with the perennial and pointless question: “Can writing be taught?”

– Dinty

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