Courtney Hayden, “Writing in the Gaps: Finding Time to Write and Unplug,” March 20, 2018

          There is a great quote on writing by E.B. White: “A writer who waits for ideal conditions under which to work will die without putting a word to paper.” Keeping a regular writing schedule and devoting decent-sized blocks of time to the writing process is essential. However, it’s not always possible (for me) to work this way during the week. When that happens, it’s easy to fall into an all-or-nothing mindset: if I don’t have two hours to devote to a piece now, I’m putting it down because the whole thing is futile and I’ll never finish it.
          To get around this way of thinking, I try to focus on getting bits of work done during “stolen time.” I’ll get up 15 minute earlier in the morning to write, take my laptop on the train on the way to work, bring my notebook when I grab coffee in the afternoon, or write for half an hour after dinner, before I start to wind down for bed.  By getting something on the page—anything—I feel a little better about writing and that makes it easier to sit down again to write the next day.
          I think this is true of reading, too. Anyone who writes loves to read, but there are only so many hours in a day. Everything I want to read and haven’t read yet can feel overwhelming. If I make the commitment to read two short pieces of fiction a day or several poems, I feel like I’ve accomplished something and that makes me feel less overwhelmed and able to pick up again the next day.  
          While committing to work in small increments of time can be helpful in overcoming a writing slump, distraction is still a stumbling block. I’ve learned that less technology is better when I commit to writing because plugging-in can completely kill my creativity and productivity. It’s so much easier to send a text or read another article online then to get 5-10 minutes of writing in, especially when I’m not feeling inspired. Despite knowing this, turning everything off feels unnatural. We’ve all become so attached to our phones and the feeling of constant connection. I have to force myself to unplug. I’m always glad that I made the effort even though I still find it so difficult.
          Building a good practice is, like most things, a question of habit. It’s finding what works for you and sticking to it regardless of how overwhelmed you feel or how many rejections you receive. The more I practice being mindful of good writing habits the more ingrained they become—but it’s a constant challenge.

Courtney Hayden is from Saratoga Springs, New York. Her most recent piece appears in the February 2018 edition of Bird’s Thumb. She works in finance and has a degree in political science and economics from Union College.  

Read Courtney's short story Still Life/Minor Accidents.


Jasminne Mendez, "Joy & My Writing Tribe," March 6, 2018

     I believe in joy. I don’t think it’s something you can touch but I know it lives. It lives between people, under our skin, hidden in our bones, hanging in the air we breathe and sitting in the silences of our stories. I come to the page and to poetry to find and sit with that joy, but I also look for it in my writing tribe, the community of writers and friendships I have cultivated over the last few years by attending writing workshops, readings and residencies predominantly by and for writers of color. My writing tribe has kept me sane and stable. My writing tribe reminds me why I write and encourages me to keep writing.
     But building and sustaining this writing community has not come easy for me. I am Afro-Latina and because my race and ethnicity are always at odds with what the world understands, I have often felt alienated and othered even in places that were meant to feel inclusive.
     At a workshop in Texas a few years ago, for example, only two of us were of African descent. And while there were plenty of opportunities for sharing, communing, talking, laughing, and crying, I struggled to find my place and to feel safe in this space. Even though everyone was inclusive, open, loving and kind, I felt alienated. All four days of the workshop I tried to not feel self-conscious about my writing, my hair, my skin color and the way I spoke my loud and splintered Spanish. The only other Afro-Latina in the group was Raina, and she and I gravitated towards each other, grew closer, and, over those four days, leaned on each other for support when needed.
     On the final night of the residency after a few street tacos and a couple of margaritas at a local dive bar, Raina and I, and another small group of writers, walked the brick-laid streets of downtown San Antonio. We were surrounded by rambunctious bars, dim yellow streetlights, historic homes and the Texas heat. I took a second to look around and wonder at the moment. The other group was quickly ahead of us engrossed in a conversation about Gloria Anzaluda and poetry while Raina and I lagged behind, enjoying each other’s presence and the stars.
     I felt joy then and told Raina I loved what she said about passing on generational joy instead of generational trauma. “How do you think we do that?” I asked. She paused and adjusted her scarf, rustled her curls with her long slender fingers, and stared deeply into the night sky.
     As we waited for her words to enlighten us both, an old rusted red Camaro drove past. A man, whose face I could not see, raised his white fist out of the window, shook it as if it were on fire, and yelled: “White power! White power!”
     The Camaro skidded off and its exhaust fumes blew my curls back. I shivered, and goose bumps rose up my arms. A cold shiver snaked up my sweaty spine and we both stopped walking. The small group of writers ahead of us never stopped. Either they hadn’t heard the insult or had chosen to ignore it. Whatever their reason for not stopping, I knew the insult was meant for us, not them, and in that moment Raina and I were not poets or writers, or educated women with published books and degrees. To that man in the Camaro we were just two ni**er women walking down a Texas street where we didn’t belong.
     Raina adjusted her scarf again and looked at me wide-eyed from behind her blue-rimmed glasses. I caught her stare and our eyes locked in disbelief.
     “Did that just happen she asked?”
     “Yes. Yes it did,” I said. And there was nothing left to say.
     The Texas heat smothered our black skin and swallowed us whole. We knew that this reality was inescapable, that there would always be someone trying to rob of us of our joy. But at least in that moment, thanks to Raina who after that residency would become an integral part of my writing tribe, I didn’t have to face it alone. We both sighed out what little joy was left in our lungs and walked back in silence. Raina never finished explaining to me how we could pass on our joy but I continue to look for it on the page, and in my tribe of writers who know what I know and have lived what I’ve lived.

Jasminne Mendez is an award winning author, performance poet and educator. She received her B.A. in English Literature and her M.Ed. in Curriculum and Instruction from the University of Houston. Mendez has had poetry and memoir published both nationally and internationally and her first multi-genre memoir Island of Dreams published by Floricanto Press was awarded Best Young Adult Latino Focused Book by the International Latino Book Awards in 2015. Recently, her personal essay "El Corte" received honorable mention in the Barry Lopez Creative Non-Fiction Prize in CutThroat, A Journal of the Arts. She is the co-founder of Tintero Projects: A Reading & Writing Workshop Series, an organization that seeks to build and promote emerging and established Latinx writers in Houston. She is a 2016 VONA/Voices Alumni and a Macondo Fellow and she is an MFA candidate in the creative writing program at the Rainier Writing Workshop at Pacific Lutheran University.

Read Jasminne's poem, "An Abecedarian Lesson for My Bilingual Students in Houston."


Jane Hayward, "Keep on Writing," February 20, 2018

Two women are responsible for my love of literature. My grandmother, who taught me to read as soon as I could walk and my mother who, at the hint of an “off-day,” let me stay in bed with a hot water bottle, a warm drink and a bowl to be sick in. She had a theory I was going to be a writer. “After all,” she’d say, “Jane Austen wrote in bed.” I forgave her ignorance.

I often visited the library twice a day, but the writing waited until I was thirteen, on holiday in Cornwall, reading Daphne du Maurier’s Rebecca. I read it in bed, at mealtimes, even on walks. I wrote fantasy love affairs in my head and, after our family made friends with another family who had a teenage son  of about fourteen, I wrote lusty thoughts in my notebook. They were discovered by my mother, who tore up the notebook and threw it in a dustbin. So much for encouraging my writing career.

When I was eighteen, I entered a Sunday Times competition for the best profile piece. I interviewed a famous man. The winning entry was a profile of the writer’s grandmother. At work, I discovered a portable typewriter and, despite being unable to type, wrote short stories and submitted them to women’s magazines without having a clue about presentation let alone the necessary research into readers’ likes and dislikes.

Marriage and children put a stop to writing until I discovered the Swanwick Summer School and abandoned my family to indulge in a week-long flirtation with other writers, information and advice, eating and drinking. After several years, I published a short genre novel. I had arrived.

I pitched my ambitions higher and wrote a block-buster. All the rage at the time. I secured an agent! The verdict was the book was not good enough. Never mind. Joanna Trollope was the new name. I imitated her. We lived in Egypt for two years where I completed two full-length novels, both returned to me.

I completed an M.A. in Creative Writing at Chichester University; two wonderful years learning and experimenting. I wrote a poem (published) a short story (published) and a play for radio (rejected). I started a new novel (on-going).

Along the way I have gathered small successes which keep me going. I tell myself  being short-listed for a writing prize is better than winning since I still have the story but also a new item for my CV. I attend events run by Spread the Word, The Royal Literary Society and The Society of Authors. I aim to write every day.

My most recent project is to write a memoir in which no agent is interested. The self-publishing route beckons and I’m going for it.

I tweet and am totally caught up in creating a new website. Do visit it. And keep going!

Jane Hayward writes long and short fiction and memoir, encouraged by modest successes, e.g. shortlisted for the Fish Memoir Prize and winning the Lightship International Prize for a short story. She is looking to place a memoir, set in the mid-sixties, and is working on a novel set in 1955. Jane has an M.A. in Creative Writing.


Guinotte Wise, "Rejections: Bugs on the Windshield," February 6, 2018

Look at Entropy's list, or New Pages, or Review Review's long listing of literary journals. Then there's Duotrope, and Trish Hopkinson's many lists, and BookFox. You'll find places to submit, no problem. New journals pop up to replace those which bit the dust after a year or two. No shortage of possibilities. Most are no-fee, or reasonably priced at three bucks or so. (How the hell does Narrative get any submissions when they charge $20 just to read your stuff?) So you cruise the websites, find journals you like, whittle it down to a few and submit.

Four months later your email has an exciting notice. Re: submission. It's from a lit mag you really, really wanted to get into.

 You learn to scan the short message with the eye of the lizard for the fly. If the word "unfortunately" is in that scan, you've been rejected, no matter what the rest of it says. Usually for reasons of "fit." This is the softer landing pad euphemism for "we don't like your stuff." Wait, maybe not. It goes on to say please submit more of your work in the future. They don't say that to everyone. Maybe.

That means something. And what means even more is when they take the time to say something like, "You've got fans here. Keep submitting. Keep writing. You made it to the final round this time and we want to see more."

That kind of rejection makes it into a file I keep labeled "Inspiration." When I'm feeling, well, rejected, I open the file and see what words of encouragement some of the good guys have jotted.

 I'm old enough to remember paper rejection slips, and opening the SASE to see whether they were good ones or not. Plain "sorry, we can't use it" ones were the hardest to take. Sometimes they'd jot a personal note on the slip. Some journals still require mail-in subs, and I've found two kinds of rejection slips. A famous review sends both kinds and I've gotten a couple of each. One kind is a quick, cold, form. The other has (printed) words added to it: "We'd like to see more of your work." The latter is (almost) cause for elation.

 Considering the number of pubs out there, and the fact that a large percentage of them only accepts 1% to 3% of the many, many submissions they receive (think thousands), to be accepted is an indicator that you're not wasting your time. Or when a paper rejection slip has "Fine bunch of poems" written hastily in ballpoint pen, or "Great little story, but the ending was not quite there."

 All I can say is, when rejections are a little more than rejections, pay attention. You'll soon learn to tell the difference. There will be periods of time when you see them and think, there's another one, like bugs on a windshield on a long summer drive. Fwap. Fwap. Fwap. And they're all one kind, noting the absence of “fit,” all using the word unfortunately.

 You indulge in paranoia. You think who did I piss off in the lit world that they're blackballing me? Or, the interns fell asleep and to make up for lost time, trashed the slush pile and told their editor bosses, all done, anything else before I knock off for the day? Then, out of the blue, one of the emails starts with "We love..." They not only like that piece you thought was pretty damn good, they LOVE it. “…want to publish it in their next edition. Is it still available?”

 Yes it is! Then comes the bizarre reverse-rejection. YOU email THEM, the lit mags where your piece is still hanging fire, that the piece is no longer available. A happy task. Some of them even congratulate you. Great feeling.

 It will happen to you.  What more can I say except keep writing, keep honing, keep crafting away.

 It will happen to you. You'll make it into the exalted 1% to 3%. Celebrate because it ain't every day. And that's the big understatement.

 Love, G

A Pushcart nominee and author of four books, Guinotte Wise's fiction collection Night Train Cold Beer won the H. Palmer Hall Award and his poetry and fiction have appeared in numerous journals including Santa Fe Writers Project, Atticus, The MacGuffin and American Journal of Poetry. Some work is at


Steve Passey, "Emerging from a Writing Slump," January 23, 2018

You’re a writer. You’ve had some pieces published. Someone other than your mom retweeted a link to one of your pieces. You have felt that little push of something called “momentum” filling your writerly sails. You have learned to value discipline over motivation and have carved out “writing time” for yourself. Maybe you’ve set a daily word count and hit it, day after day after day. Everything is working until…nothing is working, and nothing comes. How do you get it back?

Read. Revisit. Run.

Read. The first obligation of the writer is to read. Read anything and everything. Start with the first book that made you want to write. Start with something that you always wanted to read but haven’t had time to. Maybe read something totally different than what you write. I’m a writer of fiction so when it’s just not coming I’ll read non-fiction, typically long-form essays or even military history. Reading is learning and writing requires constant, perpetual education and reeducation.

Revisit. Chances are you have pieces you’ve left unfinished, stories or poems unpublished, or a novel with only the first three chapters completed or maybe even finished and it’s just sitting in a drawer or on a thumb drive now. Go back into your own archives and read your previous efforts, see if there is anything you can “harvest” for your current project. Many completed works emerge from the half-done efforts and scraps of others. Take a look, be your own best source. There can be a tendency with writers to try to keep emulating what they believe their success to be–i.e. things that are published.  Learn from your failures, too. Here’s a snippet of a quote from Cormac McCarthy that applies:  “Even if what you are working on doesn’t go anywhere it will help you with the next thing you are doing.” Go back to your things that didn’t go anywhere and see what they have to offer you.

Run. Or walk or go to yoga or lift weights. Whatever–just move your body. For writers, exercise is less about the pursuit of a career in professional sport or Olympic glory than it is about the pursuit of state of mind. Writing is much more about thinking than typing, and it might help to use physical exercise to get yourself into that mental “zone.” I know runners who find the words in the rhythm of their stride as the miles go by, and yogis who find it in the practice of the poses. I find it in the gym in the rack doing single rep maximums. Whatever it is, some form of physical discipline can lead to words on the page.

There you have it: Reading, revisiting, running. Three guaranteed slump busters to get you back in the flow.

Steve Passey is from Southern Alberta. He is the author of the collection Forty-Five Minutes of Unstoppable Rock (Tortoise Books, 2017) and the chapbook The Coachella Madrigals (Luminous Press, 2017). His fiction and poetry has appeared widely in print on and on-line world-wide. 

Read Steve's recent story "Like Break-Up Songs on the Radio..."


Nina Dellaria, "A Door on Wheels: How I Became a Playwright," January 9, 2018

     I was a fretful, timid, and slightly catatonic child. I slept with my hands balled-up into fists. I threw away invitations to birthday parties because I didn’t want to enter strange homes where there might be fathers who wore hats, or dogs. Or mothers.
     My plan for living a ten-year-old life was can’t-I-stay-home-and-read-another-book? My mother’s was why-don’t-you-go-outside-and-play? And, by “play,” she meant, you’re going to act in The Wizard of Oz sponsored by the local park district for which I’ve already signed you up.  And stop making that face.  
     Tears and pleading ensued and continued until I came face to face with the young director. Apparently Miss Janie also thought that putting me on the stage would transform me into a carefree child. Couldn’t she see the troll standing in front of her, I wondered.
     “So you want to be in the show,” Miss Janie purred. She looked at me through eyelashes so thick I thought they’d stick together when she blinked. Later, my mother told me in her flat, factual voice, “They’re false.”  After a long pause Miss Janie said, “I’ll find a place for you.” 
     I idled away a handful of rehearsals wishing I could escape on the construction paper yellow brick road snaking up the back wall of the stage set. If only I hadn’t landed the role of third munchkin from the left. If only I had been cast as a tree, or better still, a rock.  
     I dreaded the fate careening toward me. I knew I would disappoint Miss Janie and my mother because I knew I would quit the play.  But I didn’t know that my mother would force me to attend opening night. “I want you to see what you’re missing,” she said, lit Chesterfield smoldering ominously in her right hand. After watching my replacement—a red-headed girl with a show-biz personality—turn in such a memorable third-munchkin-from-the-left performance that she stole the show, my mother leaned down to me, and, between drags intoned, “That could’ve been you.” The slightly worse for wear, truth be told, not true yellow but yellow-ish escape route mocked me.   
      Forty-eight years later, I found myself in an acting class, standing in a circle of strangers playing theater games. Miss Janie had been replaced by Mr. B who excelled in finding positive things to say. In one game, each student was given a scene to act out and the other students had to guess the situation. I was to play a sister whose sister had attempted suicide, been released from a mental hospital, moved in with me, then went out for cigarettes and never returned. I had been searching for her all night until, at rise, I find her in a bus station. 
   Then, I delivered some really bad acting. Mr. B said the equivalent of get your head out of your ass, she’s your sister, she’s tried to kill herself, you should be worried or sympathetic or just relieved she’s alive. Only nicer. On my second attempt I made a noisy, panting entry through a fake door—one you roll around on wheels like a portal into a Magritte—and, upon seeing her broken form hunched away from me, I expressed such sisterly love that one of the other students guessed I was playing a kidnapper, my sister was my hostage, and I had induced Stockholm Syndrome in her. Holy shit, I thought, am I bad at this. Especially since I have an actual sister. 
     Nonetheless, I was hooked, and not because I imagined I’d be auditioning for roles but because living feels to me, and I suspect to many, like being unconscious, not thinking about what you’re doing or why you're doing it. Theater is like that door on wheels, offering a new awareness just over the threshold.
     Maybe my mother did know the real me. Maybe she was looking past the awkward, inward child standing before her and seeing clear through to what I needed—an entire apparatus of fakery, complete with pulleys and lights and props and actors. And roles and scripts and rehearsals. I may not be able to act this stuff, I thought. But I think I can write it.

Nina Dellaria is co-founder and editor of Bird's Thumb, an educator, and playwright. 

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Amy Miller, "Fear and Recognition: Origin of a Poem," December 12, 2017

     Years ago, my boyfriend and I took a dream vacation, backpacking around England. A couple of days into the trip, we were walking through downtown Oxford one morning, trying to find the train station. We were a little lost, a street map flapping in my hands, when a scruffy man approached us and asked if we needed help. I sized him up—grizzled, unshaven, in very dirty clothes—and politely waved him off, saying we were heading for the train station and were fine. In my big-city California brain, it was obvious that he was about to ask us for money. But he didn’t; he pointed out an easy route to the train station, nodded pleasantly, and walked away. That was when I got a better look at him and realized his clothes weren’t dirty, but were in fact dusty—he was a workman in overalls, maybe a carpenter or bricklayer, clearly on his way to work. I’d made an assumption based on a quick glance. I was wrong.
     You’d think that that experience would have taught me not to judge people from a distance, but it’s turned out to be a hard lesson to learn. I still do it, even though I live in a small, eccentric town where the disheveled man sitting on the curb could be a business tycoon, and where the ridiculous-looking contraption in that woman’s yard could be a new mode of transportation that everyone will be using in a few years. Still, I often fear what looks strange. I fear people I don’t know.
     I started thinking about that man in Oxford again a couple of years ago, when my sister sent me some video footage that she and her partner had filmed with their drone, a toy-size remote-controlled helicopter that they fly over their rural property. I was skeptical; drones, to me, are all about privacy violations and remote warfare, a prime example of our technology outrunning our ethics. But then I watched the footage, an airborne view of farmland, mountains, dry washes, and even—there! look!—my sister walking with a tool belt around her waist, her dog running toward her. It was…well…beautiful. Lyrical. Transformational. The camera on the flying ’copter vibrated slightly, as if someone held it in excited hands.
     OK, so I’m a poet, and that was one of those moments that are just made for poetry. It got lodged in my mind, the idea that this innocent little machine was flying around filming that gorgeous landscape, much as a military drone flies over potential targets. The machine is only relaying the information; it’s the human operator who interprets it. If I were looking for targets, for “hostiles,” what would I have seen in that bucolic landscape? Bunkers, fortifications, tracks of troop movements? And what if the drone moved in closer and showed me something I wasn’t expecting to see, like a bricklayer in overalls on his way to work? That dance between distance and familiarity, between fear and recognition, is something that plays out all the time, but even more so now when there are such deep divisions in our country. This person sees a terrorist; that person sees a teacher. This person sees a terrorist; that person sees a gardener. This person sees a terrorist; I see my sister.

Read Amy's poem To the Drone All Objects Are Beautiful.

Amy Miller’s full-length poetry collection The Trouble with New England Girls won the Louis
Award from Concrete Wolf Press and will be published in 2018. Her writing has appeared in
Coast, Nimrod, Raleigh Review, Willow Springs, and ZYZZYVA. Her latest chapbook is I Am on a
River and Cannot Answer (BOAAT Press). She lives in Oregon.


Angela Doll Carlson, "Telling the Truth: Writing Memoir without Wounding," November 14, 2017

          I didn’t set out to write a book about my relationship with my dad. Nearly Orthodox was supposed to be a sort of “conversion story.” I meant to write about my journey, as a liberal, modern woman, into the ancient and sometimes rather conservative Eastern Orthodox church. That is the story I began to tell as I wrote the book.
          The story that emerged, however, as I dug under the surface of each step of that long journey, revealed more about who I was before I ever stepped foot into an Orthodox church. That story, was about my dad’s PTSD while I was growing up. That story was about how my siblings and I compensated for what we lacked. That story was about how I turned to my Catholic practices to guide me though the rough spots. To tell that story, I had to touch on relationships past and present.
          In an interview with Mary Karr on NPR a few years ago, Terry Gross asked how she handled writing about other people in her books, whether she felt an obligation more to that person or to telling the truth. Mary Karr said, among other things, “I try not to guess what people's motives are. I mostly try to deal with what I see and what I do.”
          When writing memoir, we cannot avoid writing about other people in our story. It’s a risky proposition, especially if we hope to remain in a healthy relationship with those people after the book, essay or blog post comes out. Throughout the writing of Nearly Orthodox, whether it was writing about my family, my friends, or my church, I kept these questions before me– How do I write this so that it is my story? How do I tell this story without guessing at someone else’s motives?
          For me, memoir is a kind of narrative wrestling match, or perhaps, an awkward dance we perform—pairing memory and relationship, truth and story. Each element of the work balances the past and the present. I remember as though I am a child floating at sea, but I must constantly remind myself that I am here on the shore, writing from the solid ground of my adult self.
          When I finished the manuscript, my dad was at my house for a week. I asked him if he’d want to read it, and I hoped, honestly, that he would say “no.” I was most afraid that he would be upset with me, or say that I was wrong in my recollection. We had gotten past most of the hurt of those years and were finally healing the long-time wounds we both suffered. He did want to read it, and he did so while he was at my house in Chicago. Every day, he sat on my couch in the mornings, drinking coffee and reading. By the time his visit was over, he’d finished it.
          When I asked what he thought, he didn’t argue about the details. He didn’t leave offended. He simply said, “Thank you for writing your story. I feel like I know you so much better now.”

Read Angela's short story, "To Whom It May Concern." 

Angela Doll Carlson is a poet, fiction writer, and essayist whose work has appeared in many publications including Thin Air Magazine, Eastern Iowa Review, Rock & Sling and Relief Journal. Her memoir, Nearly Orthodox: On Being a Modern Woman in an Ancient Tradition from Ancient Faith Publishers, was published in 2014. Her latest book is Garden in the East: The Spiritual Life of the Body. Angela currently lives in Chicago, IL with her husband, author David L. Carlson, and their four outrageously spirited, yet remarkably likable children.


Shriram Sivaramakrishnan, "Who Writes When I Say I Write? Or, the Portrait of a Writer as a Writer," Oct. 31, 2017

the fall of an object/disorients the line”—Claude Royet-Journoud, The Theory of Prepositions

“We” as in “Us”

There is a song in our bones, spread-eagled, waiting to be wept; pried open sideways, it bellows out into a mix of suppleness, sulphates and cyanides; its metaphors hold us the way a stapler pin would: into neat pages of relevance, limited only by the pin’s tensile strength; it is from this stable that our poems saunter out as equine sentences, step by hoof-step, each a measured vocabulary of action; words for imagined objects, words as imagined objects, words to relate these two.

Say, if that which becomes a “tree” in our heads becomes a “Swiss-knife” later on, then “a tree is a Swiss-knife” would afford us either the reason to log trees and brand them into commercial promises or the illusion that we can be aerosols and arseholes at the same time; that is, the tree is not as likely to become a “water bottle,” as it would a “Swiss-knife,” which is to say, the tree cannot be anything else, including a tree. An object, an objection.

Between an object and its shadow, place a jug; then juggle its place with the shadow, and the shadow with a Map. Map out this arrangement, then rearrange it, jug first; again and again, until you are left only with the object. An object is an accumulation of senses, like a map it simplifies reality to a scale; its shadow a simplification scalable beyond any measuring system. For the object of any measurement is to realize its own possibility, and thereby own a realization: It.

“It” is the way we acknowledge, it is the way we acknowledge, the “other” as distinct from us; acknowledge that the tree cannot be anything else including a tree, including “us”; that is, every statement of fact such as “a zebra is running” is predated by a verifiable opinion, “I see a zebra running.” “It” is the aluminium foil of every object, an object minimum–the shape recovered from an object in posterity, the part (of the object) left by the object in its own shape, the way a poem inducts its absence into its own organization.

A poem is a water bottle, is the water in the bottle, is the bottle holding the water the way a stapler pin would, as one continuum, one in which metaphors fall, in which ‘”a tree is a Swiss-knife” falls; “a tree is a Swiss-knife” is an understanding, that “a non-I is another non-I.”

“What?” as in “Them?”

The world is 'distances converged to a finite present'; their song is an outcome of mnemonic musings; in it, when an infant cries, its cheeks motors to the facial extremities; the poem’s project will be to calculate the rate of change of colour in a chameleon; when the ground shook and writhed like a fish on a hook, the poem learned table manners as fast as it could. One cannot remain gauche at the dining table, the algorithms chorused in alliteration.

Their metaphors are abject negations of themselves at their moments of creation, though these happen only as aftermaths, when the metaphors are deconstructed by an agent external to their programmed universe: us. They have no conception of “I”; their consciousness is but the work of a daemon thread, the aesthetic preference of an anachronistic circuitry, a yellow balloon singing to a blue sky.

“A tree is a Swiss-knife” will neither be an acceptance nor a rejection of everything non-tree; an unverifiable fact, a Schrödinger’s cat: you know what a tree is, if you know what a tree is; meaning, it is felled in all the possible scenarios, which is to say, a tree cannot be anything, including anything. The metaphor falls lopsided into its own symmetry, into its own cemetery. The death of a metaphor is pure sublimation.

This, they cannot realize.

Read Shriram's poem To Monica Seles.

Shriram Sivaramakrishnan, a poet from India, recently completed his MA in Poetry from Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry, UK. His poems have appeared in Allegro, Vayavya, Bird's Thumb, Uut Poetry, Camas, Softblow and so on. He tweets at @shriiram.


M S Pallister, "Why I Read Comic Books," October 17, 2017

          In 2003, BBC called upon the UK public to vote for their favourite book, compiling a list of top hundred books that everyone must read. Lord of the Rings came out the winner by a large margin and Harry Potter took fifth place, which was not a big surprise, considering their respective film franchises. However, what was a surprise to me was that not a single graphic novel was included in the list; not even Alan Moore's Watchmen, a graphic novel which changed the way not only comic books were viewed but also written. This omission was corrected by Times Magazine in 2005 when they published their own set of top hundred books which included Watchmen in seventeenth place. Alan Moore beat Iris Murdoch and Salman Rushdie.
          Graphic novels are my go-to books when I'm stuck, when I don't know how to further a plot or when I've run out of ideas to make a character more unique. Highly enjoyable in themselves, they give me a perspective that is impossible to find in any other medium: graphic novels not only show you what they want you to see, but also dictate the viewpoint from frame to frame. In just one sketch in Maus, where the protagonist hunches his shoulders and pushes his hands deeper into his pocket, Art Spiegel conveys to the readers how he feels about his father. Or in Persepolis, where Marjane Satrapi depicts the oppression in Iran with gentle, self-deprecating humour. Morpheus (or Sandman) is one of the most complex characters I've come across, and I quite regularly read his conversations with his sister, Death, when I'm unable to come up with original dialogue.
          Over seven pages without a single word, the protagonist in Stitches explores an empty floor of a hospital where he finds an embalmed foetus in a jar and imagines it come to life. The art is exceptional and is all that is needed to get across the little boy’s loneliness and fear. These are the pages where I learn “to show, not tell.” Minute changes from one frame to the other not only progress a story, but also changes the tone. Greg Capullo, in The Court of Owls, very cleverly shows the madness creeping upon a drugged Batman as he’s trapped in a labyrinth by inverting the frames, so that you have to turn the book round and round to read Bruce Wayne’s thoughts, making you feel as dizzy as he is.
          Although predominantly masculine, this medium has been successfully broken into by women who're making great headway. Raina Telgemeier was the 2014 Comics Industry Person of the Year and won the Best Writer/Artist Eisner award in 2015 for Sisters, an award previously won only by men since 1988. Artists like Fiona Staples, with her poster-worthy work on the Saga series, have been phenomenal in shattering the notion that comics are only for boys.
          So if you’re looking for inspiration, pick up a comic book.

Read M S's short story "The Tree" here.

M S Pallister studied computer science at Cambridge University but soon realised that she was more interested in writing fiction. She’s currently working on a collection of short stories, while researching her second novel. Her short stories have been published in The Wrong Quarterly, Long Story, Short, and Literary Yard, shortlisted for the Bridport Prize, and forthcoming in For Books’ Sake.


Shamae Budd, "On Research, or Falling in Love," October 3, 2017

          When I find myself more inclined to watch Netflix (or do the dishes or perform any number of other brainless activities) than to write, it’s usually because I’ve stopped doing research. I don’t mean research in the narrow, library database sense—though that can do the trick, too. I mean research in the most roomy and intuitive way possible: reading books I find interesting and falling down Wikipedia black holes and taking the dog on walks to new neighborhoods and wondering why things are the way they are and trying new stuff, like fly fishing or taekwondo or pruning plum trees or knitting sweaters for cats.
          Sometimes (every day) I struggle to follow that first, cardinal rule of writing: sit your butt in the chair, keep your butt in the chair. But if I sit my butt in the chair after doing a little research, I often find keeping my butt in the chair (and therefore writing) a whole lot more fun. “The world is everywhere whispering essays[1],” (and poems and stories), but to write them we must hear them, and I believe that research is the way we listen to the world.
          For instance: last summer I adopted a puppy—a floppy-eared fluff ball with soulful brown eyes—who made for an excellent excuse not to write. She was always getting into things and keeping me up at night and piddling on the hardwood floor while my back was turned, and anytime I sat down to write I felt like my brain was so full of puppy stuff that there was little hope of producing a single intelligent sentence. (Little did I know I was just bobbing mid-stream in a river of research, the daily drain of which made it difficult to see or appreciate at the time.) Then one day I realized we had acquired a flea—compliments of the puppy—which had bitten me, repeatedly, on both knees. I’d never really thought about fleas before getting a dog, but now that I’d been bitten by one, feeling threatened by the possibility of invasion, I couldn’t get the thought of fleas out of my mind. I looked them up on the internet, learned that they jumped from their toes instead of their knees; that it was they who caused the black plague, and not the rats; that some scientists believe our species slowly shed their hair specifically to avoid hosting these nearly invisible, blood sucking specks. It was such a powerful itch. And then it was only natural that I would find myself writing an essay on fleas: the research of experience and the research of various Google searches causing my previously empty brain to flow with thought.
          In the end, research doesn’t have to be incredibly time-consuming or even particularly distinct from your daily life. Research is an attitude. It means being insatiably curious, listening and watching and wondering and then taking note of what you hear and see and think, so that you can return to your desk and write love letters to the world—because what does paying attention mean, after all, if not falling in love? (In love, even, with fleas.)

[1] “On the Writing of Essays,” by Alexander Smith

Read Shamae's essay "A Backpack in the River" here.

Shamae is an MFA candidate at Brigham Young University studying creative nonfiction. Her essays have appeared in Hippocampus Magazine, Bird’s Thumb, and Prairie Margins. This year, she is the nonfiction editor for Inscape, a journal of literature and art. She lives with her husband, their pet hedgehog, and a very rambunctious puppy. 

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Nicholas Ward, "Attempting to Dismantle Whiteness," September

          I started writing “Year Zero” almost three years before it was published on Bird’s Thumb. That’s a long time to spend writing one essay but the themes of gentrification, friendship, privilege, youth, expectation, and disappointment felt too big to rush. More than anything, the evolution of the piece rested on my current project of injecting my race into each story that I write.
          In the essay, it felt important to name mine and my friends’ race from the jump, as “five fresh-faced suburban-raised white kids” in Logan Square in 2004. We were gentrifiers, a term I didn’t know then but whose face I wore throughout the neighborhood. “Suburban-raised” was crucial too. Our class couldn’t be separated from our race in this regard. We were kids with access, if not to our own money, to generational white middle-class wealth. With “fresh-faced,” I meant to suggest our youth, as early twenties recent college graduates from university in the cornfields. When I consider that description now, however, I realize how much that contrasts with the physical description of the man who accosted us at the restaurant. “Tufts of hair stuck out from his ears, the lines of his face weathered like grooves in a slab of rock, eyebrows bushy.” I’m struck here by how I’ve given a detailed description of a Latino man while my friends and I are a mass of indeterminate whiteness. But I’m concerned that he’s one of only two characters of color in the story (the other was my Persian restaurant manager) and he’s a wobbly drunk. On the one hand, that is a real encounter that happened our actual first night in Chicago and attention to the truth of the moment must be observed. On the other, I’m wading into dangerous imaginative waters here, replicating a common trope: “the anxious, entangling encounters with others. . .that appear there primarily as an occasion for the writers to encounter her own feelings,” as Beth Loffreda and Claudia Rankine write in their introduction to The Racial Imaginary.
          We lived in a community of color that was changing, that we were helping to change, faster than we realized at the time. By putting ourselves inside that space, that meant we were changing too, from people raised in mostly white suburban or rural spaces to individuals who lived and worked in communities far more integrated than those we’d known previously. Nevertheless, our whiteness persisted. It is inextricable to the stories of our lives, to the lives we are always living, each day, every second. If I don’t name it, how will anyone know who we are? How will I be able to tell our story? It is through injecting whiteness onto myself, or rather understanding that I too am racialized and that race is white, that I can at least attempt to dismantle whiteness as the normative setting in my work. I don’t expect always succeed. It won’t directly address the institutional whiteness that is stitched through the publishing world, and the direct line between whiteness and prestige that still exists in our (white people’s) collective modes of literary thinking, of what it valued and assigned greatness. But by identifying myself as white, by using that notion to undermine and interrogate my own whiteness, I try to betray myself a little bit.
         If we—by which I mean “you,” the white reader of this essay—can move away from making whiteness the default setting, then we as white writers and white readers can do the smallest part in helping re-make our world.

Read Nicholas's essay "Year Zero." 

Nicholas Ward‘s writing has appeared in Bird's ThumbCatapult, Midwestern Gothic, Hobart, Vol 1. Brooklyn, and is forthcoming from CityLab; been featured on stages and in bars around Chicago; and can be heard on the 2nd Story podcast, where he is a longtime company member. He lives in Chicago with Amadeus, the cat.

 Photo Credit: Fatimah Asghar

Photo Credit: Fatimah Asghar

Yasmin Boakye, "On Writing the Unredeemable: The Essays We Need Today," September 5, 2017

          “The story of my body is not a story of triumph” begins the second section of Roxane Gay’s recently released Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body. I have been a Roxane Gay fan since her early Tumblr days, but this particular line hooked me into Hunger, and kept me from putting it down for several days. As a fellow fat black woman, I was profoundly impacted by her deft negotiation of the shadowy space between diet culture and a body-positive movement that struggles to be fully inclusive. But as an essayist, I was especially interested in her upfront refusal to package her lived experience into the neat boxes we have come to expect of memoir and personal essay.
          My mind jumped straight from the content of Gay’s work to the potential significance of her structural choices because, as a twenty-six year old writer, structure and significance trouble me the most while I am composing an essay. The question that all writers ask at some point—what what would happen to this work in six months, or a year?—takes on additional weight when the raw material of the story could shift completely based on the writer’s lived life. Maureen Stanton calls this elusive final component of a good essay “insight,” which only comes with time to discover how an experience has “sculpted” the author’s perspective.
          In the Internet age, where quicker responses to current events are often considered more favorable for publication, it’s quite tempting to try to force the insight we need to make an essay work by taking action. The modern essay begs you redeem, redeem! Seek out the long-lost friend, sprinkle your mother’s ashes over the seas, as you promised. As personal essays have become accessible through online venues like the New York Times’ “Modern Love and Thought Catalog,” so have the arcs that these stories often take. Frequently, we get to leave personal essays with the movie-like satisfaction of watching the writer-protagonist taking the higher road, the better path.
          In her cultural commentary “The Personal Essay Boom Is Over,” Jia Tolentino opines bravely about the role that online publications and navel-gazing culture have played to create this predictably “ultra-confessional” manner of writing, now in rapid decline. But perhaps in the wake of this shift away from the depoliticized personal essay, we should look not just to fill in the gaps left behind with more objective journalism, but also new models for essay writing that are capable, as Gay’s memoir is, of rejecting the need for raw confessional, redemption, forgiveness. Essays that rely on insight and trust in the reader’s critical faculties rather than on perfectly wrought endings and clear next steps. Essays capable of moving with great intention towards a grayer, murkier space—one that resembles the world we are in now, the world as it has always been.
          Perhaps the essays we need today are the kind that adhere to the secondary definition of the word essay, which I learned quite recently: an attempt, or effort. Let us remember that to essay has never been to leave tidy or perfect—merely to try.

Read Yasmin's essay, "I Tried to Tell You My Darknesses Lived Here." 

Yasmin Boakye is a writer raised in the Maryland suburbs of D.C. A 2014 Callaloo Fellow at Cave Hill, she is also a recipient of NYU Abu Dhabi's Global Academic Fellowship in Writing and a 2017 VONA/Voices alumna. Her prose has been published or is forthcoming in Bird’s Thumb, TRACK/FOUR, and the Puerto Del Sol Black Voices Series. She is currently based in St. Louis.

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Jennifer Zeynab Maccani, "Small Acts of Creation: On the Short Story and the Novel," June 6, 2017

          Every act of creation begins with a first impulse that things could be different. Small acts catalyze movements and monuments, placing a single word or stone on another until a larger structure emerges. This, too, is how we write.
          What is often intimidating about writing a novel is finding one’s way into the story, determining the right place to begin not in terms of chronological or narrative time but in terms of giving that first amorphous blur of the story tangible form. Beyond the initial story kernel—a dynamic setting, a physical sensation, an image of a character performing some action for reasons unknown—the shadows of a larger plot can often be seen but not fully grasped. As with all fragile, gestating things, the kernel must grow before it, or the larger structure connected to it, can manifest.
          Before I wrote the book that would become my debut novel, I had an image: a child who, faced with the trauma of displacement, tells herself a story to survive. Rather than diving into what I sensed could be a novel, I first explored that kernel in the more intimate space of a short story. This allowed nuances of theme and character to surface before I began drafting the novel. The short story form continually beckons our attention back to the details, making it an excellent teacher of precise language, of painting tone, and of showing us how the smallest, subtlest moments can reveal character and theme.
          Starting with a short story allows for the freedom to play, push, and explore before a novel’s plot is nailed down. The short form can also support a more delicate, detail-focused story engine, and beginning this way often helps to bring that focus forward into a novel. After all, the reader’s experience consists of a series of focused moments, sensory details, a felt sense of the characters’ internal and external states that possesses an almost physical weight. By nature of its brevity, the short story form directs our attention to these elements. This is useful regardless of whether the short story itself ends up in a finished novel or not. Like the mechanism behind the face of a watch, so much of a novel is hidden but necessary material.
          So, where to begin? Focus the lens on the story kernel, the image of that single potent moment. These initial images often have movement to them—the cold rush of salt water, a character bent over an unseen object, the shattering of glass. Open with a sentence that captures that movement, that inherent tension. This is key: the kernel must have tension.
          From there, explore the moment that first drew you to the idea. Capture the tone. Capture the voices of the characters, their dialects, their accents, and their pet names for their loved ones. Capture the dynamic motion that is present in even the smallest of moments. Let this sensation of movement guide you. Motion is an indicator of tension, and tension will lead you to the essence of what the kernel is, why it matters, and whether it can sustain a larger structure.
          Flesh out this scene into a short story, ensuring that the spark of tension has shifted something crucial in your characters. If the idea is suitable for a novel, it will not conclude cleanly or firmly in the context of the short story. Conclude the short story instead at a natural pause, a moment of clarity that opens new questions. It will feel more like a comma than a period. This is all right.
          If your story kernel compels you toward a novel, expand your field of vision slowly, building on the delicate short story mechanism to create a larger engine. What brought the character to the water, to the object before them, to the shattered window? Where must they go from here? Once the skeleton of the novel’s plot begins to form, write this as a short story, too—a bird’s-eye view of the novel’s landscape. Starting with this shorter form will help to balance tension and intimacy as the story builds on itself, allowing the novel to remain both rich and focused.
         In writing as in life, there is the world in our hands and the world we cannot yet see, and we bring the two closer together every day that we rise and tug the pieces of our lives into a slightly different conformation. This is how we build our writing and our world: one small act of creation at a time.

Read Jennifer's short story "Orchard Street Tenement."

Jennifer Zeynab Maccani is the Syrian American author of The Map of Hopeful Broken Things (Touchstone/S&S 2018), a member of the Radius of Arab American Writers, and a Montalvo Arts Center LAP Fellow. Her work has appeared or is forthcoming in The Kenyon Review, The Saturday Evening Post, and elsewhere.

Malcolm Friend, "A Song to Rejoice: on My Fascination with Odes," May 16, 2017

Two things have been going through my mind recently:

1) The last few lines of Lucille Clifton’s “won’t you celebrate with me,” “come celebrate / with me that everyday / something has tried to kill me / and has failed.”* 

2) A couple of lines towards the middle of Héctor Lavoe’s signature song, “El Cantante,” “Yo soy el cantante / Vamo’ a celebrar / No quiero tristezas / Lo mío es cantar”**

What grabs me about each of these quotes is the call for celebration. In the case of Clifton, celebration in the face of and triumph against certain destruction, “born in babylon, / both nonwhite and woman.” In the case of Lavoe, the call for celebration (and just as strong, the shunning of grief and sorrow) in a song which also points out the frailty of its speaker earlier with the lines “Nadie me pregunta / Si sufro, si lloro / Si tengo una pena / Que hiere muy hondo.”

I’ve been thinking about both of these in the context of the ode, as I’ve been wondering lately why I write so many odes. I know that I didn’t start writing them (at least not with any kind of frequency) until I started reading/listening more intently to Hanif Willis-Abdurraqib’s odes, using them as a model, but the more I think about it, the more I come back to the two quotes provided above. 

Celebration has always been a big part of my life. It goes back to my parents, as reserved as they both are, always finding room and ways to celebrate with my siblings and me. Whenever we would clean the house with our mom, she’d make a function out of it and put on some Prince and Stevie. She’d pause to dance and sing along so much that it often took at least an hour longer than expected to finish. As a kid, our washer and dryer was frequently breaking and I would go to the laundromat with my dad. Just about every time, after we were done, we’d stop for burgers on the way home. I know those examples don’t seem like much, but they taught me from an early age to celebrate, often and without apparent reason. As a poet, the ode provides an avenue for celebration.

Clifton's ode provides me, as a poet of color, with the opportunity to celebrate in the face of all of these institutional forces that want me to fail. It allows me to rejoice in the fact that I have survived. On the other hand, I’m also interested in the way Lavoe uses the idea of singing praise while also acknowledging great pain. The celebration that Lavoe invokes is in many ways a compliment to Clifton. It also allows for a celebration of everything that has kept me alive—the figures and songs and places to which I owe that survival—and in doing so forces me to meditate on the failings of those very same sources.

This isn’t to say I don’t find use in other forms, or even that my approach to the ode is without its flaws. But in the ode I find something this world, entrenched in racism and imperialism, doesn’t want me to have. I find a song to rejoice this life, fragile and continually under attack, beautiful in the face of all that threatens it.

*Clifton, Lucille. “won’t you celebrate with meThe Book of Light. Copper Canyon, 1993, 25.
**Héctor Lavoe. “El Cantante.” Comedia, Fania, 1978.

Read Malcolm's poems "Cover: 'I Just Can't Stop Loving You'" and "Ode to Stevie Wonder, or Mom Calls after Milwaukee and All I Can Do Is Listen to 'I Wish'"

Malcolm Friend is a poet and CantoMundo fellow originally from the Rainier Beach neighborhood of Seattle, Washington, and an MFA candidate at the University of Pittsburgh. His work has appeared or is forthcoming in publications including La Respuesta, Vinyl, Word Riot, The Acentos Review, and Pretty Owl Poetry.

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Alex Jaros, "Accidental Fiction, or A Lot Probably Won’t Work Out," May 2, 2017

I suspect I’m better at telling stories than giving advice, which is why I started writing fiction to begin with. I can’t imagine having anything definitive to say, like, Here’s the key, take it. Or, Ring-of-many keys. Lift with your back. Hope they aren’t too burdensome.

I prefer my uncommitted-ness. Writing by guesswork. Suggestions like, write under the influence of kombucha; villains on Tuesdays; fonts to get you out of the slush pile; veggies that cure writer’s block. There are more, I’m sure.

It can be wearisome. The continuous infomercial at 4 a.m., the one you keep watching instead of falling asleep. Boring, but addicting. Because they have the answer. Maybe you really do need a rag that can absorb ten times its weight in water. Maybe you can’t reach the top shelf and need a pole-claw, or a wearable towel, or a shakable weight.

But to be upfront: I don’t have the answer. I just make things up.

Anyway, a story:

I went to a girl’s house, met her cat, fell in love. It happens like that. Coffee, pie, cat, love.  But we (I) fall in love with the wrong people. (The wrongs vary.) Once, in college, our “goals” differed. Later, I slept in the back of a U-Haul and knew it would be distance that overcame us. Another time, I was a husband too late. I know she’s the wrong person this time, too, so I get online and buy things to comfort myself. These are the 21st century tools I was given—be sympathetic, please.

Despite the obvious warnings, I fall in love. It’s there the next day and still there many months after the jacket I bought arrives, has been worn for a few years, and gets donated to Goodwill. I only date her for a few months, but that love, it hangs around much longer, a lost popcorn shell in your gums that the dentist finds eight years later during a routine cleaning. The half-moon shell is black and wedged between molars 15 and 16 and in your mind you know he’s pulling out something more important than a tooth. It’s the last piece you have of her and it hurts.

Somewhere in the middle, between the beginning and the end, she shows me around the house that she’s remodeling with her father. We move through the rooms. Here’s a wall that’s gone. This floor was once dirt. Now it’s not. She points: that will be where the eucalyptus goes, and her hands, rough from the sanding and plaster work, are beautiful. The upstairs is still gutted and unfinished.

I’m good at this part. I let my imagination work. I see what I would do to the room, and how we might fit into it—our bodies, our relationship, our future. She’s a painter, so the room will be full of light. I see us sprawled across green sheets, our heads together, hair mixing while we debate the merits of various candies—like, the all-time best type of M&Ms, or, to freeze or not to freeze Thin Mints. We understand these are important conversations, so we have them nightly.

A few weeks later, she asks me about enneagrams and it all goes to shit. That’s all it takes, sometimes.

We head downstairs, away from my conceived future, and take a bath together, oblivious to the seeds that will later unravel us.

If there’s a connection between writing and this story, I couldn’t tell you. Maybe: good writing seems to have a grasp on its own ignorance. It embraces the accidental nature of creation, of writing. I sit down and my fingers move and God knows where I’ll end up. A lot probably won’t work out.

But as far as hard advice goes, mostly I think, Geez, a lot of people have helped me get here. I try to thank them as much as possible, and it’s not nearly enough. It’s all we can do to pull and push each other along, somehow making the way a little easier for ourselves in the process. Or maybe not, and we simply get pulled and pushed along too, a people-ball tumbling through the muck together. But, hey, at least we’re together.

Read Alex's essay, "Your Dad Is Calling Back." 

Alex Jaros received his MFA in Creative Writing from Columbia College Chicago, where he was a recipient of the Follett Fellowship. He earned his BA in English from the University of Missouri in 2011. His work can be found in Glimmer Train, Bird’s Thumb, Ghost Proposal, .LDOC, Goreyesque, Epic, and among varied zines littered across the Midwest. He lives in Kansas City, Missouri and will enter the PhD program for Creative Writing at Florida State University this fall.

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Maureen Langloss, "Their Bodies, Their Selves," April 18, 2017

          My body has known pain. Two torn anterior cruciate ligaments. Three knee surgeries. Polycystic Ovary Syndrome. Three childbirths. Graves Disease. Concussions. Sinus surgery. Trigeminal neuralgia. Four years of undiagnosed Lyme Disease. One year of high-dose antibiotic treatment. Five root canals. Pneumonias. Hemochromatosis. Regular phlebotomy.
          Constant corporal bombardment and yet, for years, every time I met with my writing pal, novelist Eliza Factor, she’d wisely say of my early drafts, “Don’t forget the body. You’re all in the head.”
          I’d stare at the pages and then look at my stomach—always my stomach—and wonder what the hell she meant when she said to write from the body. It wasn’t as simple as adding an elbow to the paragraph or describing how a character moved. It was much deeper.
          Over time, I realized I needed to get inside my character and wear her around. Last year, the Liberty Science Center in New Jersey hosted an exhibit that allowed visitors to don a robotic suit simulating the experience of being elderly: goggles to impair vision, acoustic effects to dull hearing, devices to stymie movement. If only there were a character showroom where writers could try on everything from teenage girl with first menstrual cramps to forty-year-old man with hair loss and bipolar disease.
          Even if these suits don’t exist, we can create them in our mind’s eye through research, experience, and empathy. We can ask ourselves questions, such as what are my character’s stomach juices doing? Does his brain turn letters backwards? Where does she hurt? Does anxiety gallop in her chest? The combination of things happening in my body is specific and unique, as is the combination in yours. I now try to make my characters’ bodies specific as well.
          I also consider my own motivations for creating this specific body because I want to avoid blinding a character or amputating her leg for purely symbolic purposes. Giving a character a disability for the sake of metaphor or to advance a theme not only smacks of ableism, but also makes a character less believable, less true.
          Once I have located the body and begun to weave it into my writing, that same body usually leads me more organically into my character’s soul. I start asking how having this particular physical experience impacts my character’s reactions, perspective, objectives, fortitude, prejudices, and understanding of others.
          It was not until I gave the main character of my draft-novel a cold that I finally got to know her. I could better understand her vulnerabilities, desires, and failings when she was full of phlegm. She had put up guards around herself; once she was blowing her nose, these guards fell away. Soon she was crying in front of strangers, letting the grief out of her that had been her central obstacle without my even realizing it. As Virginia Woolf writes in her strange and wonderful essay, “On Being Ill,” “What wastes and deserts of the soul a slight attack of influenza brings to view.”
          To give another example, I’ve been struggling for months with a sexist jerk of a character. He’s my story’s villain, but I knew I had to humanize him. As soon as I gave him migraines, constipation from his pain meds, and a child struggling with learning disabilities, he became a stronger character. He was more nuanced and easier to write. I developed a tenderness for him that deepened with each draft until I felt such empathy for him, for the things that had brought him to his objectionable viewpoint, that he is now one of my favorite characters.
         Of course, I’m not suggesting that one inflict physical pain or disease on every character. We can write positively from the body as well. We can explore the energy or attitude our character brings to a situation after just having had great sex or an exhilarating run or a cup of chamomile tea. Writing from the body also entails being aware of the privileges and advantages healthy characters have, of how wellness shapes who they are. And, even if a character does have corporeal problems, her issues need not be splattered across a bloody page. They need not be mentioned at all. Merely knowing about them, having walked in the simulator suit, will permit richer characterization and subtext. Still, sometimes we need to shatter our characters to build them. Here’s the hammer; have at it. 

Read Maureen's story "Chorionic Villus Sampling with the Virgin Mary."

Maureen Langloss is a lawyer-turned-writer in New York City. She serves as the Flash Fiction Editor at Split Lip Magazine and a Nonfiction Reader at Indianola Review. Her work has appeared in Bird’s Thumb,(b)OINK, Jellyfish Review, Necessary Fiction, Prairie Schooner, Timberline Review, and Wigleaf. Find her on Twitter@MaureenLangloss or at

Jennifer Fliss, "Writing in the Time of Despair," April 4, 2017

          As with many, this election has established an uncertainty and an imbalance. Why is what I write important? I am not a journalist. I am not explicitly fighting the regime.
          Months ago, my approach to this essay was very different. I was defeated. Stories would not come. Sentences reduced to two words and even those words were not very inventive. The one word that echoed was how. How to go on as a human. As an American. As a writer. As an artist. As an ally. As a terrified mother.
          I wondered, what can I write now? Is not everything in the political sphere more important? Lives are in upheaval. In writing forums, I see hundreds of writers saying “I can’t write right now.” I myself left for a writing residency directly after the U.S. election and came back with little to show for it but pronounced anxiety.
          When we think of historical moments, in particular ones that consisted of great danger and sacrifice, we often think back on art. As Churchill (despite his downfalls) said, if not for art, then what are we fighting for?
          I don’t think of the old paper bag, marker-covered history text book or a droning high school history class. I think of novels. Stories. Paintings. Photographs. In short: art. Art transcends. Very rarely do we revisit newspaper articles of the time. What we are left with, in the aftermath of bombs or genocide or the evil yoke of slavery is a canon of emotion built around a framework of facts. It is true novels are not bound to the conventions of fact like journalism is (or should be). But the emotion is purer. For the writer, no piece of art can come with a void of emotion.
          I am not only rallying only for fiction. Write your memoir. Your essay. Your piece of creative nonfiction. Your manifesto. A letter to a friend. To your child. To your future self.
          Primo Levi did not survive the Holocaust, but his writing did and continues to be read. Khaled Hosseini, Afghan-born writer of The Kite Runner; Dr. Michihiko Hachiya, who wrote the heart-ripping and true Hiroshima Diary; John Lewis’ March series—a graphic nonfiction series based on the civil rights movement; Zora Neale Huston on the inequalities of black women in the early 20th century; Tim O’Brien on Vietnam; Miriam Tlali and Nadine Gordimer on apartheid South Africa; Marjane Satrapi on her experiences in late 1970s Iran.
          These writers have contributed art to the world. Though we cannot replicate their tenor, we hear their voices via their writing. And their art has become the thing that makes their experiences and, by extension, the experiences of their time real and accessible to generations now and going forward.
          I am not saying I am anywhere near the level of the aforementioned writers. This really isn’t about me anyway. However, of late, I’ve realized that I have dedicated my life to an art that has had the power of a million firearms, but with fewer deaths at the end of its point. I will keep writing. At least for my daughter, and myself.
          I still feel overwhelming fear about where the U.S. is headed. But, I have gained an even greater appreciation for those who continue to write in the face of such uncertainty. I love writers. Specific writers. All writers. I mean it. I have glimpsed our seething underbelly and find your words and plots and rising action and climaxes to be things of beauty with which to paint this pocked landscape.

Read Jennifer's story "Just the Air That They Breathe."

Jennifer Fliss is a Seattle-based fiction and essay writer. Her work has appeared in PANK, Fiction Southeast, The Rumpus, Pacifica Literary Review, Necessary Fiction, and elsewhere. She can be found on Twitter at @writesforlife or via her website,

Z.Z. Boone, "Knowing When to Give Up," March 21, 2017

          Some years ago, I tried to write a novel about the abduction of a female college professor by one of her colleagues. I didn’t really like the story, and the characters—as I look back—were flat and static. I spent almost three years on that book, because I was convinced it was going to make me rich. Provide money for the things I really wanted to write. In other words, I wasted a good chunk of my writing life playing literary lotto.
          Eventually, I got smart. I quit.
          As an assistant professor in the writing department at a state university, I’m occasionally asked by students how they will know when it’s time to give up on a story or poem. The worst answer—one I’ve heard numerous times from members of the teaching profession—is that you must never give up. Art is struggle, they preach, and unless you’re struggling, you’re not an artist.
          Bad advice. Sometimes a writer needs to throw in that proverbial towel, give up the ghost, fling her hands in the air and shout, “Enough!” This is not to say that any talented person should abandon creativity for, say, actuarial work. But often, or at least occasionally, we get off to a false start and the very best thing we can do is recognize it for what it is, and shake ourselves free.
          Allow me to offer three quick tips on trying to decide whether or not to turn you back on  a writing project. They go from the least to the most important, from “think it over,” to “dump it like a pair of tight-fitting tap shoes.”

1. If a writing group made up of respected peers tells you your piece isn’t working, they’re probably right. Don’t ask them how to fix it; they won’t know. But find out precisely what it is they react negatively to (vague language, an inconsistent protagonist, weak imagery,) and if you can’t revise (or at least justify) the problem satisfactorily, it may be time to move on.

2. Struggle does not always equal art, and writing need not resemble dentistry. If you find that you are not in some way emotionally resurrected by your labors—if you find yourself in a constant state of artistic apathy—don’t expect the reader to be any more involved than you are. Writing should be an escape from the personal miseries of life, even if that’s exactly what you’re writing about.  

3. Every piece of writing needs to have “a spine.” It needs to say something important in a fresh and original way. If your main character is passive, if there’s nothing he wants, if she faces no obstacles and makes no choices, if today is just a day like all others, your story has no spine. Ditch it.

          I’m not saying it’s desirable to leave a trail of half-written stories as your legacy. But unless you can instill your work with passion and drive, unless you can write the kind of piece you yourself love to read, you’re simple wasting time by making marks on paper.

Read Z.Z.'s short story "My Summer at Camp." 

Z.Z. Boone is the author of Off Somewhere, a 2015 finalist for the INDIFAB Award for Short Stories. His fiction has appeared in Bird's Thumb, New Ohio Review, Berkeley Fiction Review, The MacGuffin, and other terrific places. Z.Z. lives in Connecticut where he teaches at Western Connecticut State University. 

Sarah Cimarusti, "Echolocation," March 7, 2017

Just to be clear: I wanted to be a dolphin trainer first. Though, I had suspicions that my compulsory recordings and verbal foam could possibly amount to something, as long as I didn’t outpace myself and prematurely call myself Oz. When you read enough to know what dedicated writing entails, you know that there’s much to lose and fear and drink. It wasn’t until recently that I arranged cutout words and snapshots into a chronological collage that made remote sense to me.

In the beginning, there was music. My father was a tenor who sounded like Rush’s Geddy Lee, and a rooster of a front man, strutting lit-up stages in unnecessarily tight, leather pants. He played in cover bands before meeting my mother, who fancied herself an eccentric songwriter. She wrote songs with my dad while I rolled around in her womb. Everything about her was music; she carried a tambourine in her purse and tied silver bells to the ends of her hair. My parents were amateurs in love who planned to travel the country together making Christian rock music. Life happened, shit happened; they so-called settled down and felt unsettled, declaring bankruptcy the year I was born.

One of my first memories is dancing in my diaper to the sound of an organ, then cymbals, cymbals, cymbals. My dad wore headphones the size of earmuffs and recorded music on a keyboard. Fantasia played on television. My living room had a pool of orange carpet, and I was an angelfish, swirling around the sound and color.

I wanted to be my parents before anything else, even a dolphin trainer. So, I wrote songs and dabbled in piano, barely mastering the point where you play a different rhythm on each hand. I inherited my father’s voice and mother’s writing hands. There is something about singing your own words that makes you feel like a full moon.

My room was a paper palace. I splayed out on the floor and printed my songs on scrapbook paper that I taped to the walls. And of course, there were the journals. Dream journals. Journals I scribbled hearts into and filled with the names of shaggy-haired skater boys who thought I was too loud and wore too much makeup. I dedicated an entire journal to my mother and her deteriorating health. Shortly after she and my father separated, she was diagnosed with multiple sclerosis. She began to introduce herself as the sick, single mom with three kids. I wrote about her symptoms, then drowned myself in Spongebob Squarepants re-runs.

Every letter that anyone ever wrote me hung from a rainbow colored string I stuck to the ceiling, and I’d fall asleep listening to the fan and soft brush of dangled secrets, half-dreaming underneath my version of stars. Stars that read: “Hi! You R Awesome.”

In high school, I discovered poetry and a soul sister, whose chest used to turn tomato red every time she read at slams. Speaking of tomatoes, no one aimed them at her because she threw words like sucker punches. When I listened to her, it was like seeing the same ghosts someone else sees. Her bravery encouraged me to share some work I had hoarded in the paper palace. I was an ornery thing in neon orange Converse; poetry to me was all about defiance.

I took a whack at our class’ graduation speech. My toughest English teacher adjusted his glasses and told me it was too negative, that the speech wouldn’t sit well with anyone. I submitted the speech anyway, and a panel of three other English teachers selected my work. It was a hearty victory; the first time I grew the ovaries to defend something I wrote.

I started to choke on my words and toggle with the morality of writing during my early 20s. Studying English literature, but also social work, I learned a little about analyzing people’s demons, the cagey systems we all rattle around in, and that there is a real call to serve the human heart and soul. The trouble was, I didn’t receive the call to social work. Not even a text.

In servitude, you’re supposed to have this infamously thick, scaly skin, but what happens when people’s stories seep into your pores? What if you’re made of feathers?

I keep asking new questions, and that helps. For a while, I’d ask, write, then cower in my desk and wait for something the size of a piano to fall on top of me.

Eventually, I forgave myself for wanting to be a dolphin — I mean a writer — which was when I truly knew I was one.

Sarah Cimarusti is an editor for a plumbing/HVAC publication. She lives in the Chicago burbs with her boyfriend, two rabbits, and a back-sassing green cheek conure named Khaleesi. Her essays have appeared in Jersey Devil Press, Bird’s Thumb, and Bayou Magazine.

Read Sarah's essay "Whoopie Pie."