Read Better, Write Better

Katie Kitamura observed recently that “…it’s useful to be reminded that reading is part of my job as a writer, and that it should be taken as seriously as the act of writing itself. There are very few good writers who are not also good readers.”

I have learned to read several times: first, as a child connecting letters with sounds, pictures with words; then as a student, analyzing simile and metaphor and ferreting out the deeper meanings in Shakespeare, Hemingway and Steinbeck. In college I majored in French and started the whole process again, this time with a language not my own, in an effort to decipher Balzac, Camus and Proust. I did fairly well with the first two; the third was a tougher go. Finally, after decades of reading purely for pleasure, I picked up the pen myself and began an MFA program. Soon enough I realized I would have to learn to read again. This time, as a writer.

My first workshop instructor urged me to work on my reading. He told me that writing begins with close reading, which, when successful, is more than inspirational: it often leads to borrowing. Writing, it struck me, might be a kind of thief trade. I imagined myself studying the greats like an aspiring Dodger at the knee of the Academy’s Fagin, trolling the boulevards and side streets of literature, sizing up each mark, always on the lookout for a telltale pocket bulge or low hanging bag ripe for the taking – an idea, a structure, an image, some key that would unlock my own particular voice and style.

I found myself in good company. For Ulysses, Joyce borrowed structure and theme from Homer. Julian Barnes, in Flaubert’s Parrot, references Madame Bovary which itself pulled from Don Quixote. Jane Smiley’s A Thousand Acres re-imagines King Lear. The opening scene of Stuart Dybek’s short story “Tosca” evokes Ambrose Bierce’s “An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge” as well as many other works of literature, visual art and the titular opera. Can we even begin to count the number of stories taken from the Bible?

By reading for craft, I learned not only how to write, but also how not to. I’ve spotted writing tics in other people’s work that I later notice in my own. When a time shift or word choice takes me out of a story, I try and think about why this is and make a mental note to check my own writing. Other times, I’ve read fifty pages of a story before I remember to focus on the nuts and bolts, and so I start over because these are the writers who have mastered the craft to such an extent that I don’t notice the gears turning at all.

I’ve also found that reading can be the best way to blow through writer’s block. When the words won’t come, or the story won’t gel, I close the laptop and open a book. Sometimes I reach for something new: an author I’ve never read or a different form—essay, poetry, or a play. Other times, nothing beats the old favorites: Wodehouse for humor, Welty for authenticity, Flaubert for sentence structure, and Joyce for…well, I still don’t really know. But if I ever figure out what that man was doing and how he did it, I may finally be the “good reader” Ms. Kitamura mentions.

Source of Kitamura quote: (

W. S. Winslow is a writer, essayist and editor whose work has appeared in Bird's Thumb, Yemassee and Punchnel’s. Her MFA is from NYU. She recently completed a short story collection and has begun work on a novel. You can reach her at

Read Winslow’s short story
“Trinity” here.


Occasion, Dejection: Writing in the Digital Era

The jackals are howling and it’s almost half past seven in the evening and I’m somewhere in the cool high mountains of South Lebanon. The jackals are howling and it is September and daylight is disappearing early. I never see them, these golden jackals of the Mediterranean. But I hear their howl, a reminder of how far I am from the city, a reminder that villages are less congested, less polluted, less noisy, less populated. More connected to nature. Son of howl, Ibn Awee, they are called in Arabic. Wei-wei, their common name. Their cry never becomes familiar, I never get used to it. It jolts me back to the present moment, every single time, into a kind of loneliness, an isolation triggered by the chorus of their echoing voices.

The jackals are howling and I am working on the tenth edition of Sukoon.  I am working on my poems. I am checking and responding to my emails. I am connecting with past and present students. I am setting up writing workshops. I am considering my relationships, my responsibilities, my choices. I am drinking strained yansoon boiled with half a stick of cinnamon. I am feeling calm, productive, at ease. That is, until I begin scrolling through my twitter account, my Instagram homepage, my Facebook profile. The howling of the jackals outside my window comes to a halt and I am suddenly feeling overwhelmed. Bombarded. Drained by the uninterrupted announcements of writing successes; journal publications, debut novels, third chapbooks, fourth collections, conferences attended, awards won, nominated, produced.

Writing in the digital age has, for me, been both exceptionally liberating and absurdly demoralizing. I am in gratitude of the rising opportunities available for, and created by, writers, for writers, the openness and affordability that only an online and social media space can provide, and in awe of the accomplishments of fellow writers and poets.

Despite this well-deserved, and long overdue, reclaim of power, especially by writers of color and other marginalized voices, rejection in the literary world has become all the more difficult. But rejection is the most natural part of the writing process, right? This is what we are taught, this is what we teach. We tell our students, it’s all part of the practice. Don’t give in. Keep writing. Keep revising. Revisiting. Writing is hard work. Keep sending out your hard work. Sure.

But what we don’t teach, or acquire, enough is how to deal with rejection, or at least our natural, if somewhat slower, pace of production, in a world saturated with the howls of success, not occasionally, but on a daily basis, an hourly basis, and sometimes a minute-by-minute basis. How do we keep it together? How do we muffle the ego, strangle it, mute it forever, and get on with our work? We either leave the scene entirely, in other words deactivate all social media accounts, and ways of receiving regular updates, or we exist in a constant state of quiet seething.

Or, we develop a new level of consciousness for the experience.

We make an effort to understand and, in turn, appreciate all the howling. We begin to see it as it is, not as it appears to be. I read somewhere that animals howl into the wind to communicate to other fellow species that this is their territory, a warning to stay away. But they also do it to call on each other, to find each other when they are apart, to maintain relationships within members of a pack or group.

I’d like to think this is why we do it. Not to dishearten, but to connect, protect, remind and regroup.

I also read that during denning season, the howling drops to almost zero. The jackals want to avoid giving the den’s location away to other animals and putting the pups at risk. I’d like to think of this period as our time to nurture, give birth to, and in a way, protect our own: our hard work.

I have come to feel that there’s consolation in viewing ourselves as both howling and hushed jackals. Like them, our cries and quietude are instinctive, natural. Depending on the season. So when the chorus gets too high-pitched, feels relentless, and the ego throws a tantrum, check the season and your place in it. Write another draft. Send out more work. But more importantly, instead of shying away from it all, celebrate the howling, not as isolation, not as failure on your part, but as a victory for the entire pack.

Read Rewa’s poemthings our mothers have taught us and things they did not teach.”

Rewa Zeinati is the founder and editor of Sukoon, a literary journal publishing Arab-themed art and literature in English and author of Bullets & Orchids and Nietzsche's Camel Must Die. Her poems, essays, translations and interviews are published in literary magazines and anthologies in the UK, US and Arab region. 

Rewa photo BPS 2018.jpg

How Do You Emerge from a Writing Slump?

Writing slumps are a fact of life. How one chooses to respond to them, however, can make a huge difference in how and when a writer gets back to the written page. As writers, our work comes from deep within, so anything that tips us off balance can impact our work. These slumps can occur because of something we are working on that is difficult or not going the way we envisioned or for reasons completely unrelated to writing such as job stress (if like most writers, there is a real job, or part-time job helping to support the writing) or problems with one’s family or health. Following are some strategies that have assisted me through these evitable rough spots.

Sometimes the Body/Mind Needs to Heal
A friend of mine who recently had minor surgery told me, “I’m really fine. Back at Yoga class but haven’t written a thing.” It seemed to me that although the external factors related to my friend’s surgery had restored her to her old self, perhaps there were still some lingering internal issues. The body gets fatigued following a physical trauma–the flu or surgery or just plain stress.  The mind rebels and says NO. When this happens, I give myself a week or two off. I watch television, read junk, take long walks, sleep, cook long detailed recipes. All the time my mind is working, perhaps not consciously, on my writing.

Sometimes You Need to Grieve
After my mother died, I couldn’t write. As soon as I sat in front of my computer, all I could think of were her final days. I would become overwhelmed and unable to do anything. I found, however, if I kept a small book, jotted down images and phrases and sort of put them away without thinking about them, it both helped with my grief and captured important moments, which, in time, would have faded. I have those jottings now, and although I’m not prepared to read them yet, I’m very glad they’ll be there when I’m ready.

Sometimes You Need A Change of Scenery
A friend of mine has a saying, “Change your setting, change yourself,” and it worked for her.  After many years in the same job, she switched workplaces and a few months later met the man she would marry. She attributes this all to her changing her workplace. On a much smaller scale, I often find when I print out a story, take it with me and read it at a new coffee shop, new nook in the library, or on an airplane or hotel room, I see my work entirely differently. So, change the scenery around you. You might be able to see your story in a fresh way, perhaps an unexpected character will walk into your story/poem/memoir.

Sometimes You Need an Inspiration or Distraction
If I’m working on a long piece and I’m stuck, I just let it go for a while and try other things. I often go to poetry. For a prose writer, there is something so freeing about reading a poem and asking myself, If I were to write this in prose, what would it be? Some of my favorite poets for inspiration are Philip Levine, Bob Hicok, Rebecca Gayle Howell, Robert Wrigley and Marie Howe.

Sometimes You Need to Create A New Way of Telling
If I’m stuck with a piece and feel like it is not going where I want it to go, I may change the narration from, say, first person to third, or I may decide to give the story over to another character in the story. This way I have the best of both worlds—I feel like I’m writing something entirely brand new and away from the “problem piece,” but I can still keep the bones of the narrative.

Sometimes You Need to Work Up to It
If I’m working on a piece that has some very difficult material—a narrative that will require me to dig deep and feel some painful emotions—I can become overwhelmed and stalled. A kind of heaviness sets in, and an inertia. This is my signal to do something else. Anything else. It’s something I picked up from being a parent. When my young son wasn’t ready to do something, no amount of persuasion could change his mind. As soon as I told him, “When you are ready,” he’d relax and most often, eventually, find his way onto the slide, into the classroom, taste the new food. I use this same strategy with myself and give myself permission to not be ready to tackle something. Usually, I eventually get there. So, I wait it out, I think about the section, encourage it to swim up to the surface in the early morning or on long quiet walks. Eventually, the block dissipates. If not, I just trust myself that I’m not ready to do this and move on to something else.

Sometimes You Need Cheerleaders
I often lose perspective on my work, seeing only small incremental changes. I think my piece or section is terrible. When I bring a piece that I’m stuck on to my writing group of trusted readers, I’m able to see it through fresh eyes. Usually their enthusiasm and thoughtful critiques will help me see my way through.

Read Andrea's short story "A Situation in Beauty." 

Andrea Marcusa's literary fiction and essays have appeared in The Baltimore Review, River Styx, Epiphany, New South, and others. She's received recognition for her writing in a range of competitions, including Glimmer Train, The Ontario Review, Ruminate Magazine (fiction) and New Letters (essay) and she's a five-time Pushcart Prize nominee. For more about her work visit 

Andrea Marcusa.jpg

|\ |\ |\ |\ |\ |\: The Right of a Poem

The odds of publishing my debut depends on my coming up with a theme large enough to encompass the score of poems I write during that particular phase in life, which is to say, my writing poems that would lend themselves to the theme and tolerate one another the way lines do for a title. But while a title oversees a more cognate work, a theme works much like the sun to our days when we say the sun is a life-giving force.

If we could strike the earth away like we would a carom board striker, the sun will not follow it to the far beginnings of the galaxy; rather, its light will fall on the object next in line; it is but a joke to call such a gathering a solar system; there is nothing systemic about the set-up, nothing except for a condition of occurrence, like how the third bounce of a ball depends on the first one.

To say that the ball is governed by a scientific theorem does not mean that the ball stays true to the postulate, but that the theorem can adequately represent the randomness of the ball from its first bounce till it comes to rest. This illusion of governance gives us the ignis fatuus of a system. But my poetry collection is not a solar system; my poems, not objects of a centripetal force. Remove a poem from the collection and the others will fill in the gap so seamlessly that replacing the poem will be an impossible task. A poem exists by its own right. It is neither a cause nor an effect, neither the Acknowledgement section nor the Contents page.

My collection will have a Contents page before every poem, |\ |\ |\ |\ |\ |\; if there are six poems, there will be six pages of Contents; the tables of contents will not index the pages preceding them; the first piece in any table will always begin at page 2, meaning, the first and the last page will not exist. The book will come to represent a Fibonacci series if considered from the end, each table encompassing the one before it, though my collection remains nothing more than a recollection at this moment. It is the beginning and there is no book, just a bunch of pages. A page is a coin; you write on its head, the tail wags. But what wags the tail? A page is a coin that cannot be flipped. But it is a door, too; it can move either way; the other side contains a latch to get in here. If a word caves in there, you behold its meaning from the rubble on the other side of the other side.

Read Shriram's poem: "To Monica Seles."

Shriram Sivaramakrishnan completed his MA in Poetry from Seamus Heaney Centre for Poetry. His poems have appeared in Pidgeonholes, Bird’s Thumb, among others. His first essay appeared in Write Here, Write Now series in 2017. His debut chapbook will be out this June, to be published by Ghost City Press.


Quest for the Writer’s Holy Grail: Time

          I come home from work. My dog, tail wagging ecstatically, greets me. He bows, mock-pounces at the cat, then gallops down the hallway. There ensues fifteen minutes of chasing the dog, a walk, a half-hearted attempt at exercise, an hour finishing up work/dozing off in a power nap, and cooking dinner or heating up leftovers. It is already approaching eight o’clock with an early alarm the next day. The time for writing is nearly here…and yet, the creative brain has been left with only dregs of energy. Nothing written that day. Or the next.
          The oft-repeated adage for aspiring writers is that you must write every day. Religiously. Zealously. Guard that writing time like a bulldog with its last mangy bone. Having heard this over and over and over, I have felt no small amount of guilt for those days—or week(s)—gone by without having produced anything. At twenty-six, I question whether or not I am frittering away potentially productive years. My list of publications is a grass seedling likely facing another drought.
          Yet something inside me resists the notion of writing daily, or at least, resists the notion that one must do it or forfeit hope of success. In part, I say this from a practical viewpoint as I am in the middle of my first year as a middle-school teacher. Personal time is a battleground with warring factions of my job and my students, personal care of myself and my family, and my writing.
          In spite of this constant struggle to find time—the elusive yet essential element—I am hopeful. Hopeful that this job will be an approximation of the writer’s “dream” job. The dream, in short, resembles the improbable fantasy of writing full-time (without starving); a reality for few. However, in this first year as a teacher, I can no longer say that the fantasy of staying home all day to write is the “dream.” Here’s why.
          Another time-worn piece of writerly wisdom is to write what you know. Writers such as steamboat pilot Mark Twain or Sandra Cisneros writing from her experience as a Latin American woman growing up in Chicago, prove the model. Write what you know works if you have meaningful and diverse experiences. As painful as it sometimes may be to “lose” writing time to work, my recent hope that this latest job might be the “dream” stems from three sources: a generous schedule of vacation time, constant source of experience, and the model of fellow teacher colleagues.
          Several teacher-writers I met in graduate school, each older and more established than myself, shared similar struggles about finding that balance of writing time. Some confessed that they didn’t write anything new during the teaching semesters, but planned out how they would use their breaks—both the shorter ones falling over the winter holidays, and longer summer vacations. Their emphasis isn’t trying to force each day into maximum productivity; rather, to maximize those days when writing can be a priority. Teaching students also provides a wealth of interactions and anecdotes—like the student whose mother sneaks into their home bathroom on the eve of St. Patrick’s Day to dye the toilet green. I find myself reaching for my journal more and more.
          To fellow new writers or the writers feeling guilty about their “lost” time prioritizing work or personal life over craft, I offer these ideas about what it means to pursue the writer’s holy grail. Perhaps the teacher-writer model can provide the practical livelihood, the experiences, and the time, even if it requires abandoning my fantasy of writing from the comfort of a well-worn couch in my pajamas.

Read Teri's short story "Little Rat-Feet."

Teri Dederer received her MFA in fiction from Bowling Green State University and currently teaches at a private school in the Bay Area. When not working or writing, she can be found hiking and relaxing on the beach with her dog, Ori.

Teri Dederer.jpg

Move to Write

“ . . . our highest moments come when we’re not stationary and . . .epiphany can follow movement as much as it precipitates it.”  Pico Iyer in “Why We Travel”

          In a way, all my stories are travel stories. Even the most recent one published in Bird’s Thumb’s February issue—a memoir-ish slice of life in a long-ago time—was really about wanderlust, the seduction of the road, the way that movement changes perspective.
          I’d like to think that I’ve grown in the past forty-six years, that I now understand travel’s complexities—its siren call as well as its positive life-changing force. A thousand things can go wrong and a thousand things can go right, but any journey is a potential birthplace of self-awareness and stories.
          Not long ago I attended a travel-writing seminar at our local writers center, The Muse, in Norfolk, VA. The instructor began the session with the simple question, “Why travel writing?” My spontaneous answer seemed obvious. “To re-live the adventure.” But as I mused, I realized I write from a travel lens because when I travel I am most alive. When I am pushing myself into new experiences, my senses are heightened, my curiosity piqued, my compassion deepened. I cling less to what I know. I am in touch with my better self.
          Over the years I have combed my travel experiences for that specific moment—the story within the tale, the moment of thrill or insight. I’ve been blessed with a number of those nuggets, both frightening (being robbed, facing vigilantes, losing our way) and heart-warming (encounters with strangers, coincidences, foolish mistakes that turned out right).
          But, for me, it’s the backdrop that really makes the piece. I take notes on every place—the built and the natural landscape—what it feels like, smells like, what birds are singing, what is remarkable about the people. Then the specific situation I’m writing about sits in a solid setting and the reader has an easier time imagining herself along for the ride.
          My greatest aha in writing, though, is that travel doesn’t have to mean a 4,000-mile road trip or a Kenyan safari. Travel is anything that propels my behind from the chair out into the world to see, feel, hear, touch and taste. The skills I learned from travel and observing nature are easily transferable to my morning walk on the beach, a visit to meet an old friend, or a quick stop at a mall, and will apply, I imagine, to any writing genre. I will notice how the slant of the late February sun corrugates the sand behind the fences, or how someone who grew up elsewhere will cling to subtle differences in pronouncing the landscape we’ve shared all our adult lives, or how I feel a small bump in heart rate when I head off to a new part of the city. And those observations will someday spark a story or make some page of writing richer.
          Travel—turning from the familiar to the unfamiliar—inspires me to create work that is alive in detail and grounded in place.

Read Cindy's essay "Falling: Flying."

Cindy grew up in the snowbelt of western New York, and, when not traveling and birding with her husband, has spent most of her adult life along the Chesapeake Bay in Virginia. After a long career in youth development and publishing in numerous professional journals, she is enjoying retirement as a writer. A winner of the Hampton Roads Writers contest for creative nonfiction, her work has appeared several travel journals, The Quotable, The Wayfarer and Bird’s Thumb, and is forthcoming in Chautauqua, Tiferet and Barely South Review.

Cindy Carlson.jpg

Make the Move: Fear and the Writing Process

          A blank page can be terrifying. To me, the idea of writing is exciting, but actually sitting down and opening a new document with its infinitude of white space fills me with dread. Rock climbing is much the same. Thinking of being on a wall brings exhilaration, and an almost Zen-like contentment—just me and the silent rock—but in practice, rock climbing often makes me feel like barfing and crying. 

          Writers often say writing is the most difficult, terrifying, painful thing they can imagine. Yet books get written. I wonder, how many pages have been written with trembling hands?

          I wondered this last week as I clung to a rock wall fifty-feet off the ground. My legs shook, my palms were slick with cold sweat despite the chalk I applied and reapplied. I stood on a little rock oasis, a generous ledge on an otherwise smooth, vertical rock face. To move up the wall, I had to leave the ledge and reach for a tiny knob of granite of which I’d been afraid since I left the ground, but I’d been managing it until now. It feels impossible to leave this ledge. There was NOTHING above me. It was then that I realized the wall was a blank page.

          Well, sure, I was on a rope. Yeah, okay, I wasn’t in real danger. But neither are you, sitting at your writing desk, trying to stare down a white blank page and losing.

          My MFA advisors say it all the time: writing is a courageous act. We’re supposed to be fearless on the page. I don’t buy it.

          My belayer, the person anchoring the rope I’m attached to, yelled from below, “You’ve got to make the move!”

          I had been on the ledge a while, I guess, tentatively stretching for the hold, missing, retreating. Often my writing practice is the same: writing a few words, not trusting, deleting.

          “I know that! Don’t tell me what to do—you don’t understand—I can’t do it!” How many times have you wanted to yell this at the writing mentors in your life?

          But here’s what I want to say about fear: I’ve learned that fear is essential to my climbing practice. The presence of fear means I’m challenging myself. Likewise, there’s immense value in writing that idea that makes my palms start to sweat. I know whatever scares me this much is absolutely worth writing. A great story or essay is terrifying because its challenging, but also because we just might succeed.

          The only way I’ve discovered for working through fear, both on a wall and on a page, is to accept it. Welcome it into your practice. Use that adrenaline as a springboard because it’s not going away. Let it be that quaking voice that tells you you’re onto something really good. Take a deep breath, accept the joy of challenging yourself, and make the move.

Read Rebecca's essay "The Rider" in our current issue.

Rebecca Young's work has appeared or is forthcoming in Animal Literary Magazine, Literally Stories, Two Hawks Quarterly, and others. She is currently pursuing her MFA in fiction and nonfiction with Vermont College of Fine Arts. She lives in the tiny mountain town of Leadville, Colorado.


Between Gift and Grit

          Many writing teachers light up workshop discussions with big, beautiful personas. Yet the persistence of a discussion-based model means that an inspiring persona may supplant pedagogy, the practice of teaching and learning, in workshop. In a 2012 graduate student assistant meeting at the University of Arizona, the essayist Daisy Pitkin told colleagues, “I run my classroom like a revolution.” To make practical meaning of her quip, creative writing teachers have to create and implement differentiated activities alongside, or within, workshops so that teaching comes from a multi-modal approach. Workshop, being discussion-based, preferences extroverts and well-trained introverts—students who come to class ready to speak, interact, and engage. Not all do, so the following three exercises intend to upend workshop dynamics and shuffle classroom roles. Each acknowledges that powerful cognition will always redefine the room’s center.

          "Imp" is my adaptation of a racially suspect John Gardner prompt [1]. In the version my fiction workshop played, each person in the classroom wrote one sentence from a yarn (or a tale, for younger groups). Their sentences shared an agreed-upon speaker and point of view, and I assigned parts of a story (beginning, middle, end) to groups of students for coherence. After writing, each student read their sentence out loud. Two students recorded all the sentences as a single unit of prose, like a long paragraph, and a third refereed the sentences for errors that interfered with readability–transitions and personal pronouns, for example. In a second session, each student individually revised the collaborative prose by changing words and moving

Figure       SEQ Figure \*
    ARABIC    1       Flute Guy Imp story by Intermediate Fiction students at the University of Arizona, 2018

Figure 1 Flute Guy Imp story by Intermediate Fiction students at the University of Arizona, 2018

sentences–30 words and 2 sentences worked well, though the amounts will vary depending on group size.

          The second exercise risks producing derivative writing, so I call it "The Derivative" [2]. More revision-oriented than generative, it draws formal attention to the sentence. Its steps are as follows: Select a passage from a story you are reading, or a novel, in which you admire the style and syntax. After reading, have students rewrite the passage by changing all nouns, verbs, adjectives and adverbs, as well as pronouns or prepositions when appropriate. Leave as written word order, conjunctions and articles. The exercise can be tailored to draw attention to any part or parts of speech you choose. The derivative may also be played with students’ work.

Figure       SEQ Figure \* ARABIC
   2       Sample from Eric Aldrich

Figure 2 Sample from Eric Aldrich

          "Knock" [3] pleases every age and writer I have introduced it to, although beginners may get hung up on the logistics. For knock, divide the class into groups of four. Have each person mark off ten lines of notebook paper, and make ten slash marks (/) at random intervals, at least a word’s length apart. Start writing. As each person arrives at a slash mark, they knock the table and a group member supplies a word—one they’re writing, or any word. The writer who knocked writes that word immediately after the slash, or knock mark. It’s fine to alter the word by, for example,

Figure       SEQ Figure \*
    ARABIC    3       Knock with the author and Jamison Crabtree at Seven Cups, Tucson, Arizona, 2017

Figure 3 Knock with the author and Jamison Crabtree at Seven Cups, Tucson, Arizona, 2017

adding a suffix or an article to fit the word into an existing line. If two people say words at the same time, writer’s choice. The game continues until all ten lines are complete.

          All of these activities can be modified. Knock can open up to larger groups; Imp revisions can change any number of words, and so on. Tailoring exercises to a particular class is expected. Creative writing teachers reliant on a workshop-centered structure might use any of these as an anticipatory set or closure exercise, or to rupture an unproductive silence. Using them will force students and teachers to reorganize their assumptions about how the workshop space constructs itself, and about what it is meant to produce. Because the teaching of creative writing carries inherent flaws, among them the real boundary of talent—possible to nurture, but not teach by explicit means—tiptoeing along the border between gift and grit with differentiated activities may be a key to unlocking ability.

Work Cited
Gardner, John. The Art of Fiction. Vintage Books: 1983.

[1] His reads: “Write, by oral cooperation, the first paragraph (a description of the yarn-spinner told in the voice of the poor, dumb credulous narrator) of a comic yarn. Consider using not the traditional yarn-spinner (a backwater Southerner or New Englander) but some interesting variant: a canny old woman, a black, or a first-generation Chinese-American” (Gardner 197).

[2] Eric Aldrich, Lead Faculty at Pima Community College Downtown, does not—he shared the exercise with me, and uses it to teach parts of speech to developmental writing students.

[3] Jamison Crabtree, who taught me Knock, answered my origin question by texting, “I’m pretty sure Matt [R]otando invented it—we played it a little in our writing group (Megan Coe, Cybele Knowles, Matt and I) but he was always trying new games/ideas and that one caught.

Read Lisa's 2014 Pushcart-nominated short story, "Shelter." 

Lisa Levine’s realistic fiction has appeared or is forthcoming in Manifest West, Furious Gazelle and Bird’s Thumb. Lisa earned a 2015 Pushcart nomination, and holds an MFA from the University of Arizona. Alongside her dog and friends, she’s a rock climber, Arizona teacher, and working writer. Read more at

      Photo by Byron Hempel

      Photo by Byron Hempel

Writing in the Gaps: Finding Time to Write and Unplug

          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.


Joy & My Writing Tribe

     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."


Keep on Writing

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.


Rejections: Bugs on the Windshield

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


Emerging from a Writing Slump

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..."


A Door on Wheels: How I Became a Playwright

     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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