Your Writing or Your Life

May 15, 2018 § 46 Comments

Business card drawing of skyscrapers by Hugh MacLeod, saying "Before I die I will leave a body of work behind. It will cost me everything."

Business-card drawing by Hugh MacLeod of Gaping Void

I spent two years writing an anonymous sex blog five days a week. I told people daily blogging was great for a writer, that if I missed a day, readers emailed ‘are you OK?’. It was the most consistently I have ever written in my life. It was 100% truth all the time, scorched-earth truth, and by the end of two years I wasn’t sure if I was doing risky, stupid things to have something to write about, or if I was writing this material as an excuse to do risky, stupid things. Either way I was compelled.

I survived. My marriage did not. My long-term affair didn’t, either. I quit blogging and started a memoir. I thought the moments of risk and danger and sheer, unadulterated crazy would make a great memoir, and the friend-writers I entrusted with my secrets believed that, too.

An agent shopped the book for a year. Editors liked the voice but hated the story or vice versa. I wondered if the agent wasn’t powerful enough to sell the book. At a conference, a noted writer was intrigued by my subject matter and asked to see the manuscript, so I thought I’d pick a couple pages for reading night.

I flipped through.

Boring.

Porn.

Boring.

Horrible.

The book had been written in a haze of untreated depression and grey sadness soaked every page. No wonder it never sold. It sucked. Even I didn’t want to read it ever again. I definitely didn’t want to waste my “I’ll read your manuscript” favor on it.

In 2013, I was performing a one-woman show in Winnipeg, Manitoba. The show had been a hit ten years before—now I was giving away tickets to homeless people to get butts in seats. I drove home after shows thinking, Why not just twitch the wheel and go right off that bridge? and That tree looks solid enough.

I told my then-boyfriend I was pretty sure I was depressed, I hadn’t been to therapy in a few years, and I thought I should see a doctor.

He said, “I guess I’ll have to read online about it. When people say they’re ‘depressed’ I always think, Come on, pull your socks up!”

I said, “I am the world’s champion sock puller-upper and this is more than I can handle.”

It had taken fifteen years to (grudgingly, desperately) decide my creativity wasn’t worth my life, because I was more afraid of pills than I was of depression. More afraid I’d “flatten out” my feelings, be unable to access them on the page, than I was of my own death.

I’ve heard other people say that, too. What if I lose my highs? What if I can’t feel anything anymore? What if I medicate the art right out of myself? In a Facebook group, someone asks for a friend—anti-depressants have sapped her ability to write. Before I can formulate an answer that’s direct but kind, a qualified nurse responds: if so, it’s the wrong medication. Another writer chimes in: there’s probably a barrier that isn’t the pills, and that’s worth examining with a writing coach or in therapy.

I got lucky. Wellbutrin was the right pill and it worked within a couple of weeks. I still cried at cute online videos. I still pulsed with joy at a student’s achievement, still wanted to have sex. I still wrote, still found scorched-earth truth. What changed was the edge of sorrow; the greasy black water of dread receded. Sadness was sadness instead of no-one will ever love you you are not worth loving. Anger was mental frustration and pain instead of my screaming, out-of-control body pulsing with fury.

I will probably take medication the rest of my life. After moving to a permanently sunny climate and marrying a man I adore, my career on track and writing going well, I tried tapering off. But fewer pills meant bursts of irrational rage, the dread licking at my feet again. My doctor asked, “Would you tell a diabetic they have a good life so it’s time to quit insulin?”

She’s right.

Depression and bipolar disorders poison us, make us think we can’t do anything and we have to do it all alone. That overdramatic nights and grey, dull days are survivable, other people have real problems. That medication is for the weak—mental illness should be overcome by force of will.

I owe it to my work to take my pills. I can’t speak for anyone else. The type of medication make a difference, and many people try several to find one that works. A supportive doctor makes a difference. Insurance and the accompanying peace of mind make a difference.

My mental health supports both my writing and the ability to share and sell my work. After being self-revelatory for years as a blogger and performer, I can tell my experience without embarrassment. This is not true for everyone. I’ve seen the shame barrier stop people from seeking out a doctor, or shopping around if the first doctor is unsupportive.

But if you’re on the edge of the dock with the dread licking your toes, take an inventory. How is this feeling helping your work? How is it hurting? If it’s been with you more than a year, positive thinking hasn’t fixed it. It might be time to try something else. Maybe it’s not a wall to break through but a burden to put down.

Maybe you can have your creativity and your life.

 

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Allison K Williams is Brevity’s Social Media Editor. She’ll teach turning your personal life into a memoir people actually want to read at the Cedar Ridge Writers Series in New Jersey (NYC-area) June 10th.

 

Reading Like a Writer: Payoff in the Personal Essay

April 26, 2018 § 8 Comments

Detail of The Arnolfini Portrait by Jan van Eyck: a couple, viewed from behind, are reflected in a round mirrorA guest post from Jennifer Berney, first in our new series Reading Like a Writer.

One of the biggest rewards of a well-told story is a satisfying climax, one both surprising and earned—a revelation that registers with the satisfying click of all of its parts connecting. Recently, I read an essay that achieves this so well it literally took my breath away: The Man in the Mirror by Alison Kinney.

[Spoilers ahead, so click through to the full essay, which deals with rape, then come back for discussion.]

This segmented essay begins not with the author’s personal story, but by discussing the use of mirrors in painting: “The mirror’s revelations surprise everyone except the artist.” It’s a dense three paragraphs, an opening that risks losing any reader turned off by abstraction—but its payoff will be enormous.

In the second segment, Kinney launches full force into her own story. The story itself is so engrossing, I nearly forgot about the mirrors. Yet she works to make sure the image stays alive in the reader’s mind:

J.’s bathroom mirror reflected us: him in boxers, leaning against the sink. Me, draped over his back, arm slung around his waist. The only sound was that of our toothbrushes going for one, two, three minutes. We’d had only four hours of sleep but we couldn’t stop smiling at one another in the mirror.

This purposeful image shows the couple as intimate, joyful, and trusting—a reality the second half of the essay will systematically undo.

The revelation arrives in section eight:

I forced myself to look at a bowl of seafood soup. On the border of the photo, almost outside the frame, there lay an overturned soup spoon. On its back appeared two tiny reflections. They resolved into the face of the one man I loved and trusted, on a night he’d insisted he was alone and filing school papers, beside the photographer, the woman he’d been entertaining.

J. fuit hic.

I gasped after reading this passage. “Oh my god,” I announced to no one but myself, and had to stare at the wall for several moments before I could read on. Over the days that followed, I thought a lot about how she achieved that effect.

If Kinney hadn’t done the hard work of establishing the concept of “the mirror’s revelations,” I think the moment still would have moved me. I would have been shocked and disappointed on behalf of the narrator, sympathetic with her betrayal. But because the author has trained me to see that mirrors can reveal a double truth, I’m prepared to experience this part as not just a personal revelation, but a thematic one. It’s not just her lover reflected in the spoon, it’s the idea of duplicity, of two conflicting truths coexisting. This thematic depth is that thing that really rocks me.

This revelation, this moment, is specific to non-fiction. The foreshadowing of the story’s revelation was established not through action or description, but through researched exposition. Through some kind of alchemy, Kinney uses factual writing to add emotional depth. When she sees her lover’s reflection in the spoon, it’s not happening to her alone; it’s situating her story inside a larger aesthetic phenomenon.

I tracked Alison Kinney down to ask how she’d developed this part of the essay, how she’d settled on the art history opening. She told me she first got the idea after telling a friend about the reflection in the spoon, and the friend replied “That spoon is just like the Arnolfini Portrait!” Kinney explained:

Within a couple minutes, I could see how that offhand joke could be the structuring principle of an essay. The Portrait was an image of people inside and outside the picture, with glimpses of what someone does or doesn’t want you to see. There was an analogy to be made not just to the spoon, but also to this whole situation, where I could only deduce, guess, and speculate on the truth, because the truth was being concealed from me, because I was being lied to, manipulated, and told that what I saw was all in my head.

I knew that I wanted to foreground the mirror art in Section One, to put this theme in clear, obvious view. Then I’d tell the rest of the story, letting the opening fade away, until the moment of revelation, when the two narratives converged. That collision of stories, of shock and revelation, of knowing in advance that truth and boyfriends are more complex than we can know and yet being so surprised, so devastated—that was how it happened to me.

Not all essays will have or need climaxes this striking. But look closely at Kinney’s work—the strategic use of research (a tool that on the surface appears cool and analytical) can help us achieve emotional and thematic depth in our writing.

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Jennifer Berney’s essays have appeared in Cosmonauts Avenue, The Offing, Tin House and previously on the Brevity blog. She is currently working on a memoir chronicling her years-long quest to conceive a child with the help of her community. She blogs at Goodnight Already.

Brevity Podcast Episode #9: Rhiannon Navin and Ander Monson

April 5, 2018 § 1 Comment

This episode, Brevity takes a detour into fiction, speaking with debut author Rhiannon Navin about making fiction from fact and how she turned her real-life emotional experience into a novel. Then it’s back to our regularly scheduled creative nonfiction, with Ander Monson, editor-in-chief of Diagram.

Stream the show right from this post, or click over to iTunes, Soundcloud or Stitcher. If you’re subscribed, we’ll show up in your podcast app queue. And wherever you listen or download us, please take a moment to leave a brief review–it helps us show up in searches and recommendations.

Show notes and links to people, places and things we’ve discussed are below.

Next episode, it’s time for our listeners’ very own One-Minute Memoirs! Audio Editor Kathryn Rose and I will discuss what made the winning submissions stand out, and how to make your own story pack maximum punch in minimum space. And you’ll hear 15 fantastic, very short memoirs.

 

Show Notes: Episode #9 People and Books

Find out more about:

Only Child by Rhiannon Navin

Ander Monson

Letter to a Future Lover

Paul Monette

The Mezzanine

Turtle Island

Casa de los Ninos

Charley Douglas and the “laff box”

Useful Adjectives and Adjectival Phrases to Describe Ander Monson:

  1. phenomenal
  2. maverick
  3. self-involved
  4. trickeration-loving
  5. asinine
  6. straight-shooting
  7. family-betraying
  8. law-breaking
  9. ne’er-do-well
  10. bad boy
  11. future addict
  12. serious and accomplished
  13. brainy but beautiful
  14. chubby
  15. crazy
  16. more than likely delusional
  17. poetryish
  18. encyclopedic
  19. whale-kicking
  20. profane
  21. piratical
  22. regretful
  23. sympathetic
  24. criminal
  25. pensive
  26. bright but misguided
  27. hurt, badly, baldly
  28. good
  29. trying real hard to be good

Additional music by John Stebbe, Ars Sonor, and Kai Engel via freemusicarchive.org.

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Allison K Williams is the host of the Brevity Podcast.

The New Normal: How I Accidentally Developed My Morning Writing Routine

April 3, 2018 § 24 Comments

By Kristin Boldon

If the road to hell is paved good intentions, there are a lot of bricks down there with my name on them. A few of the things I’ve vowed over the years: Do more yoga. Meditate. Write every day. Read better books. The list goes on. I’m sure you have one, too. Instead, my life looked more like Whack-a-Mole, with me desperately swatting at tasks, sometimes connecting, sometimes not. Most days, the alarm went off at 6AM and my husband and I snoozed till 6:30AM. I went downstairs, made coffee, checked Facebook and Twitter, and wrote in my journal if I had time before getting our boys up at 7AM.

Things changed around the new year, after my husband read Discipline Equals Freedom by a former Navy Seal, Jocko Willenk. George set our alarm an hour earlier so he could go to the gym. It was his change of routine. I could have kept sleeping. Instead, I got up too. Rather than rushing to coffee and my phone, I did a few yoga poses, then journaled in my office, instead of downstairs at the cluttered dining room table.

After a few days, something weird happened.

I didn’t quit.

I went to sleep earlier so I could get up earlier, and I started to do a little more each morning. I remembered a chant I’d learned at a yoga retreat a few years before. In my office I had a few items I rarely used: at my desk, a light therapy lamp to combat the dark Minnesota winters. On the wall, a wooden labyrinth that used to be downstairs until one of my sons used it as a maze, tracing the meditative path with a red Sharpie. On my bookshelf, memoirs and books on writing, many unread. I threw these into the mix. After yoga, I chanted. In my office, I turned on the sun lamp, took the labyrinth off the wall and traced it with my fingers. I wrote in my journal, ending the entry with a short to-do list for the day. Then I read ten pages from one of the writing books and took notes.

After a few days of this expanded routine, something weird happened.

I didn’t quit.

Instead, I looked forward to getting out of bed and into my office. It went from being something I should do to something I wanted to do. In a short time, one seemingly simple change—getting up an hour earlier—resulted in a morning routine I’ve done every day for almost three months now. I didn’t have to buy new gear or equipment, or even learn new things. I started with yoga and my journal, then glommed on things already at hand.

The whole thing fits into about an hour. I’ve done it in as little as 20 minutes on days I need to get to work early, and for over an hour on weekends. Since I started, I have only missed one morning, when my husband was sick. One of my favorite parts is the short daily list. Each morning, I look back to check off what I did the day before. Since I begin every list with the steps of my routine:

  • Make bed
  • Do Yoga
  • Chant
  • Labyrinth
  • Journal
  • Read 10 pages

I can always quickly cross off six items from the previous day’s list. Plus, I’m more consistent about the rest of the list. Sitting in my writing chair first thing warms it up; I’m eager to get back in it as soon as I can, even if it’s hours later. My writing productivity has increased significantly since the beginning of the year. After months of wandering in the middle of my memoir, I was finally able to finish the second draft.

After years of wishful thinking, I now have a morning routine that includes meditation, reading, writing, and yoga. I don’t do anything in depth, but I do a little of several things that matter to me. I leave my office energized, and not just from the sun lamp. It’s uplifting to know I’ve done all these things before my day has even officially begun. Like the Queen boasted to Alice, I’ve accomplished six impossible things before breakfast.

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Kristin Boldon writes memoir, essays, and fiction. She was born in central Ohio, moved as far away as Guam, then settled in Minnesota sight unseen, where she lives with her husband and sons. Her work has been featured on the Taste Blog of Minnesota Monthly, and at Simple Good and Tasty. She blogs sporadically at girldetective.net, and is a member of too many book groups.

Things I Did After Each of 32 Rejections

March 20, 2018 § 31 Comments

By Lea Page

  1. Marked the rejection on my list and reassured myself that it was only one
  2. Thought: two isn’t bad. Imagined the soaring joy of acceptance that would come with the next notification.
  3. Reread essay and decided I still liked it.
  4. Repeated to self: “Rejection is just another step on the way to success.”
  5. Read too much into the “In Progress” notification on Submittable.
  6. Ate chocolate.
  7. Reread the essay. Found words, phrases and whole sentences that could be cut. Clawed in anguish at the proverbial bosom. Cut the damn words.
  8. Sent the essay to another batch of journals. Checked Submittable in a non-obsessive way.
  9. Was able to quote from memory all of the variations: “We’re sorry, read with interest but, not for us, not the right fit, pass this time, good luck.”
  10. Ate more chocolate.
  11. Made another list of journals and sent the essay to a dozen of them. Nothing grim about it. Nothing at all.
  12. Castigated myself for ever imagining the soaring joy of acceptance.
  13. Watched Netflix during designated writing time.
  14. Reread the essay and decided it was awful. Got a friend to read it. Didn’t know if they were just being nice by saying they loved it.
  15. Sent out another batch.
  16. Considered whether “Received” or “In Progress” held more possibility. Decided both were inscrutable and, possibly, sinister.
  17. Went to Costco to stock up on chocolate.
  18. Marked off the rejection on my list and wondered if it would have been better if I had chosen another color besides red for my color-coding system.
  19. Determined that two Costco-sized bags of chocolate-covered blueberries were, in fact, inadequate for my needs.
  20. Resorted to sports analogies: “You miss 100% of the shots you don’t take.”
  21. Made a pact with myself that I wouldn’t check Submittable any more.
  22. Checked Submittable.
  23. Reread the essay, decided it really wasn’t so bad.
  24. Got a pair of trusted eyes on the essay. Sank into the depths of frustration and despair when told, “It needs something.”
  25. Repeated to myself my first writing teacher’s encouraging words: “We’ll throw a party for the first person to get 50 rejections!” Half-way there!
  26. Realized that my only success might be in failure.
  27. Sent the essay out again because I was like those zombies I watched but shouldn’t have. Nothing could stop me but a blow to the head.
  28. Read articles claiming that sugar is the cause of all ills. Read articles stating that chocolate has 4 grams of protein per half cup.
  29. Decided that I couldn’t please everyone else and maybe couldn’t please anyone else but myself. Pretended that this made me powerful instead of lonely.
  30. Gave myself a stern lecture about doing the work for the work’s sake. Very nearly believed it.
  31. Decided that the essay did need something. It needed me to not give up on it.
  32. Checked Submittable.
  33. What?

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A knitter, gardener and avid dog-snuggler, Lea Page lives in Montana with her husband. Her work has appeared in The Washington Post, The Rumpus, The Pinch and Hippocampus, and she is the author of Parenting in the Here and Now: Realizing the Strengths You Already Have (Floris Books, 2015). Find her at www.LeaPageAuthor.com.

 

A Day as an Emerging Writer

March 6, 2018 § 39 Comments

A guest post from Rachel Greenley:

I didn’t realize how difficult it would be. To simply sit down. Every day. And write. To learn the novice mistakes. To correct them. To learn more novice mistakes. To correct them. It’s an endless cycle.

I don’t like calling myself an “emerging” writer. Think about what emerging means…to rise up, to come into existence, to develop. Would I call myself a “developing writer?” Apply that to another career choice—a developing plumber. A developing doctor. Who wants to take a chance on a developing anything? I’d say, “Call me back when you’re developed.”

I visually see “emerging” as a butterfly bursting from a chrysalis. When is the transformation complete? When the writer is published? When I stop making rookie mistakes? Never?

A rookie writer submits her pieces too soon. My father, a self-published author who would never call himself “emerging,” but simply a writer, reminds me that work needs to sit and season like a stew. This comment brings out the teenager in me: “I know that, dad! Everyone knows that!” But I still finish a piece at 10:01 and shoot it out across Submittable at 10:02.

The emerging writer entertains many rejections. What’s more painful—The pubs that don’t reply or the ones who reply within an hour? We knew THAT quickly you weren’t good enough.

Lynda Barry’s quote is posted at my desk: “Is it good? Does this suck?” I never know the answer for sure.

I attend literary events. I meet authors. I start to better understand the writing community. But then someone says “are you going to hear Colson Whitehead’s reading next week?” and I say, “who’s Colson Whitehead?”

I tweet about a local author’s book hoping they’ll retweet it, because I feel pressure to build a platform. The author re-tweets everyone else on Twitter except me. I read a roundtable interview with agents on how to successfully publish a memoir. “A robust platform is given equal footing with voice and story.” I need ten thousand followers. I spend a week being more active on Twitter. At the end of the week I am nine thousand, nine hundred and eighty-two followers short.

Then there’s the question of whether I’ve suffered enough. I sit in class, writing on a Lenovo Yoga while drinking Tazo ginger tea and wearing burgundy fingerless gloves woven in Peru. Do I even have a right to be here? I’m just another progressive white woman nearing fifty, writing a sad memoir. Love stories with a spouse killed by cancer are as ubiquitous as Starbucks. My teacher, a talented poet, shares her beginnings—how she wrote into the wee hours each night while raising children alone and working two jobs. Is it my imagination, or is she looking at me?

But I’m here. I’m here because the ghost of my dead husband follows me around. I’m here because outside of raising his children and a demanding corporate job, I’ve made time for writing classes at night in the damp rooms of Seattle’s Hugo House, and the subject I always write about—for fifteen years now—has been my grief. I’m here because two years ago the pounding of a voice telling me “it’s time, it’s time, if not now, when, it’s time to write his story, it’s time to write your story” sat on my shoulder, madly distracting me from staying the corporate path. I’m here because I saved and saved and saved to keep our household running for a few years so I could focus on this project. I’m here because my current husband and extended family withheld their worries, instead saying, “go, we believe in you.” I’m here because I loved a man deeply, and his life was cut short, and we didn’t say the things we should have said because we were young and naïve, and there have been days when I’ve been stuck on the cold tile floor in fetal position heaving wet grief at the regret and guilt I carry for his death. I’m here. I’m here. I’m here.

And maybe you can’t hear me. Maybe I toss in an adverb too many. Or my story doesn’t have a universal point. Or the tension isn’t building. Or a sentence that should end with a clang ends with a whoosh. Or I don’t have a platform. Or my memoir is too non-traditional. Or not traditional enough.

But here’s the thing, dear reader, dear agent, dear publisher, dear author, the story is eating me alive. The. Story. Is. Eating. Me. Alive. So, lacking skill, lacking platform, lacking a through path, I keep going. I show up. I sit down. I keep writing. And by the grace of my pen, I will get out on paper the suffocating grief within me to remember a man, a good man, a simple man, a handsome man, a dead man.

Perhaps the transformation from emerging writer to writer has already happened. More likely it never ends. It’s enough that the story rises from me, and I catch it be penned. That is my metamorphosis.

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Rachel Greenley is a Seattle-based writer who would like you to follow her on Twitter.

Aiming For Rejection(s)

February 27, 2018 § 15 Comments

A guest post from Amy Braziller:

Who aims for rejections? It’s a crazy notion. Not for the fainthearted. And definitely not for those prone to negativity. But since the beginning of 2017, I’ve been aiming for rejections. This intention spurred writing, encouraged finishing, and helped me put more pieces out into the world than previous years. An original idea? Nope. In late 2016, I read a piece on LitHub, Why You Should Aim for 100 Rejections A Year.  Sold.

Years ago, such a risk would have stopped my writing. I’d spent dollars on therapy to deal with my writing demons. I wrote pieces about quitting writing. I swore that I didn’t stand a chance in the world wide of publication. Fear. Yes.

But after years of writing workshops, sending out random pieces here and there, and on rare occasions getting an acceptance, I felt ready to commit. Ready to say I have work worthy of reading. Ready to risk rejection.

I created a writing intentions calendar, noting pieces that needed revision, listing pieces I wanted to create, placing deadlines for submissions of particular pieces complete with lists of potential homes. Each month, I crossed through what was done, and when things weren’t touched, I re-evaluated, deciding whether to move them to another month or simply remove that intention.

I began submitting. Aiming for rejections. And I received them.

Eighty-two times in one year.

In the past, I’d received rejections without much grace. Often, I’d utter nastiness at the publication, holding a fuck-you finger to the computer screen. Other times, I’d run to my faithful partner and ask her if I was wasting my time (I still occasionally do this after too many rejections in a row). But starting last year, I handled it like a business. I persevered, refusing to let external readers determine my writing life. I’d note the rejection in a list, add the number to a tally for that month, and evaluate whether the piece should be sent to other journals or put back into the revision pile.

When my rejections passed 50, I got a bit excited.

I hadn’t crumbled.

I hadn’t stopped writing.

I hadn’t submitted to fear.

There were moments I wondered if I could truly withstand 100 rejections. For years, I had worked and reworked an essay about the onset of my father’s Parkinson’s disease. Writing pals declared it ready—it would find a home. I sent it off to my dream publication, checking the box that said I wasn’t simultaneously submitting. I waited. It took only six weeks to receive a friendly, impersonal rejection wishing me “the best in placing [my] writing elsewhere.”

I submitted the essay to what I thought would be a sure shot. I’d read their issues. Read their mission. This fit. Again, it took only six weeks for the rejecter to wish me “the best finding a home for it.”

Fortunately, encouragement occasionally showed up in my rejection pile. Several pieces garnered “…we hope you will consider sending us more in the future.” Then there was the rejection that I celebrated as much as an acceptance. A hybrid piece of polyvocality, part Twitter/part narrative, had made it up to the editor’s table at another dream publication. The rejection came directly from the editor. She told me how interested they were, that it was a close call, even though my essay didn’t make the final cut. She gave me hope for a piece that was having difficulty finding a home.

My new mission of aiming for 100 rejections helped me finish pieces. After years of generating lots of starts and little finishes, I knew that in order to have enough material to aim for 100 rejections, I had to actually produce and finish work. A specific number gave me accountability.

At the end of last year’s experiment, I had four pieces published and one forthcoming. I had enough polished work that when someone solicited me for a potential submission, I actually had several pieces I cared about to send in (and one was selected for publication). It’s too early to predict this year’s outcome, but I’m into 2018’s writing intentions with a busy calendar filled with promise—and rejection.

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Amy Braziller is a former punk rocker, sometimes banjo twanging foodie, and current Professor of English at Red Rocks Community College. Publications include Front Porch, Entropy, Split Rock Review, and Hippocampus. Amy is working on a hybrid memoir related to her punk rock days in NYC. She writes about food, film, music, GLBT issues, and social media distractions at amybraziller.com.

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