Flash nonfiction: Good news and a field guide recommendation

Vintage postcard: Bungalow scene in Santa Ana, Calif.

Good news

I’m happy to share that my flash nonfiction piece “Handwashing Dishes” has been published online by The Southeast Review.

The Southeast Review, established in 1979 as Sundog, is a national literary magazine housed in the English Department at Florida State University, Tallahassee, and is edited and managed by its graduate students and a faculty consulting editor.

I especially appreciated working with Nonfiction Editor Liesel Hamilton, a Ph.D. candidate in nonfiction writing. She asked smart questions during the editing process, and her attentions truly made the piece better.

What is flash nonfiction?
“I am including creative nonfiction work up to 2,000 words, though the great majority of what is discussed is briefer: 500 to 1,000 words, and sometimes even fewer…. [L]ike literary fiction and poetry, the nonfiction we discuss is marked by the distinct, often peculiar, voice and sensibilities of the author and these works examine the deeply human—and often unanswerable—questions that concern all serious art…. [T]he work itself is individual, intimate, exploratory, and carefully crafted using metaphor, sensory language, and precise detail.” (xiv)
—Dinty W. Moore, The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction  

Flash nonfiction field guide

If you’re interested in writing flash nonfiction, I recommend The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction edited by Dinty W. Moore. As the subtitle says, the book offers “advice and essential exercises from respected writers, editors, and teachers.”

The chapter “Memory Triggers and Tropes” by Rigoberto Gonzalez of Rutgers University was especially helpful in drafting “Handwashing Dishes.” The prompt Gonzalez wrote starts with a useful distinction:

“Recall a memory that has emotional (not sentimental) value for you. To differentiate, an emotional response is attached to reason or thought and makes you ask (and want to answer) who, what, where, why, and how; a sentimental response is attached to feeling and simply asks those same questions without seeking to assess or investigate them.” (35)

Emotional vs. sentimental

The idea of a memory with emotional value immediately made me think about the dishes. They helped me unlock the memory of flying across the country to check on my mother’s welfare after being called by the Phoenix police. I needed to write about the state of my mother’s kitchen and family memories I’d been trying to make sense of for years.    

As I drafted and re-drafted the story, finding the right point of view held me back. A straight reportage third-person version (she/they) seemed too detached and clinical. Meanwhile, a first-person version (I) was too much about me. The second-person point of view (you) offered a balance between emotional distance and experiential immediacy that fit.

Two chapters from The Rose Metal Press Field Guide to Writing Flash Nonfiction focused on writing in second-person. When I read Dinah Lenney’s chapter, “All About You,” I saw similarities in our approaches to second-person narration.

Hey, you! (second-person narration)

We both started with research. I remembered the second-person point of view in Jay McInerney’s novel Bright Lights, Big City from grad school. Lenney of the University of Southern California offered a longer list. She included “Carlos Fuentes, Marguerite Duras, Nathaniel Hawthorne, Samuel Beckett, Jhumpa Lahiri, Rumer Godden, Edwidge Danticat, Junot Diaz, Italo Calvino, William Faulkner, etc.” (100).

But what about specifically nonfiction examples? These were more elusive. I added Mary Karr’s Cherry: A Memoir to the list because the book starts with a second-person prologue.

In Lenney’s chapter, she used her flash nonfiction “Little Black Dress” as an example while pointing out what using second-person narration allows a writer to do. She writes, “it slows down the pace of things so that the story happens to you and your reader at about the same time—both of you there, in the middle of whatever it is, however delightful or excruciating” (102).

This slowing down that Lenney refers to helped me see the bigger picture connected to a scene worthy of a squalor documentary. It wasn’t just a weekend of trying to set things to right, there were things that couldn’t be fixed simply with a clean kitchen.

Research (library databases)

The key was further research. I read about the work-related trauma that can impact medical professionals. Mom used to tell me operating room stories—mangled motorcycle riders, disfiguring cancer surgeries, and aneurysms where blood pooled on the floor. She and many career nurses work through physical hazards, such as back injuries from lifting heavy patients, as well as mental trauma. Research into the toll of the health care professions acknowledges the effects of these traumas and helped me see the connection to my mother.  

The combination of research into Mom’s work as a nurse—as well as into the craft of flash nonfiction and second-person narration—helped me make sense of lingering images from her house. To borrow language from Rigoberto Gonzalez, the flash nonfiction form allowed me to highlight a “moment of awareness or awakening that will resonate for a lifetime” (34). The writing helped me get closer to answers that had eluded me.

3 blogs that flog, deconstruct or explain the choices fiction writers and editors make

Vintage postcard: Soldiers Field & Field Museum at the Chicago lakefront.

Miss those fiction workshop critiques of other writers’ work? Maybe? I remember having a lot of time to doodle in MFA workshops, especially when the conversations turned contentious. Then, moments of constructive feedback would connect to my own writing and lead to furious notetaking.

Reminiscent of the best graduate school critique sessions, the following three blog series offer insights into the craft of fiction writing. We have the added knowledge that whatever worked (or not) in the stories has resulted in publication.

Flog a Pro: Would You Pay to Turn the Page of This Bestseller?

In monthly posts on Writer Unboxed, Ray Rhamey provides a novel’s first 17 lines and asks “Would you pay good money to read the rest of the chapter?” And, by extension, would you be willing to risk money and time to read the book, especially if you were a busy literary agent?

After the novel’s opening lines, Rhamey shares his verdict, explains his reasoning, and polls blog readers for their verdicts and comments. Reader comments, along with Rhamey’s own, offer useful perspectives into storytelling choices and their consequences. The series has examined books by Elin Hilderbrand, Kristin Hannah, Stephen King, and John Grisham, among others. The outcomes can be surprising, especially when the writing of a well-known novelist doesn’t conform to commonly held writing advice. (Note: The opening of Stephen King’s most recent novel didn’t fare as well as you might think.)

Ray Rhamey offers the opportunity for writers to receive similar feedback on their works in progress through his Flogging the Quill blog. Rhamey is the author of five nonfiction books, including Mastering the Craft of Compelling Storytelling, and four novels in genres such as political thrillers and contemporary fantasy.

Let’s Deconstruct a Story

“Let’s Deconstruct a Story: A Podcast for the Story Nerds” is a series of podcasts and blog posts that include author interviews conducted by Kelly Fordon, who teaches writing in the Detroit area and has published two short story collections and a poetry collection.

August’s post featured an interview with Susan Perabo about her story “This Is Not That Story,” which appeared in The Sun in March 2006. Perabo, whose most recent book is They Run the Way They Do, ended the interview by saying, “I love getting into the choices and the questions that only deep reading and deep thinking can get you to. I think you’re doing a great service for writers and for students of writing, and that’s all of us, right?” 

As with all critique sessions, you should read the story first, and Fordon provides links to the texts under discussion. Her posts often go beyond the basics. For example, in a deconstruction of the story “Creve Coeur” by Jacob M. Appel, Fordon created a word cloud from the adjectives Appel used. It’s telling that the words “dark” and gray” stand out, as do the words “indifferent” and “happy.”

NOTE: Beyond deconstructing someone else’s story, creating a word cloud for your own work can be a useful editing and revision tool for exploring a story’s tone and the ideas or themes being explored.

“I’m basically offering these workshops on ‘Let’s Deconstruct a Story’ for my own gratification because I feel like I learn so much from studying the stories of other writers,” says Fordon at the beginning of her work with Appel’s short story. “Really delving into them. Seeing how they work, the mechanics, so I can get some more tools for my own toolbox.”

(Thank you to Erika Dreifus and her “Practicing Writer” blog for bringing Kelly Fordon’s work to my attention.)

Why We Chose It

The Kenyon Review’s blog includes the occasional feature “Why We Chose It” written by the literary magazine’s fiction and nonfiction editors. Posts in the series link to a current selection from the Kenyon Review so that you can read the text being discussed. For veterans of lit-mag rejections, the posts offer insight into what drew an editor to a particular story.

In a recent “Why We Chose It” post, the Kenyon Review’s Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky focuses on the short story “Caduceus” by Perry Lopez, which appeared in the magazine’s July/August 2021 issue. Kenyon Review is published six times a year at Kenyon College in Gambier, Ohio.

Do your own writing first: Motivation and productivity

Vintage postcard: Golden Temple of Jehol, Chicago World’s Fair, 1933.

“Pay yourself first.” This is common advice in employer 401K sign-up meetings and other financial planning-type sessions. They say: Save money for your future, your education, your first house, your retirement. Use automatic deductions so you never see the money as income. Watch your savings grow.

Similar advice is useful for writers. In other words, “Do your own writing first.” Instead of jumping onto social media or the daily news alerts or the work your employer has assigned you, do a bit of your own writing. Your benchmark here doesn’t need to be big.

You’ll be in good company. The American Masters documentary “Flannery,” which aired recently on PBS, noted Southern Gothic writer Flannery O’Connor’s slow, meticulous writing and editing that led to the publication of two novels, 32 short stories, and more. Comparisons were made to Gustave Flaubert of Madame Bovary fame who wrote a paragraph a day, as well as to Virgil, author of the Aeneid, who wrote a line a day or three lines, depending on your source.

When writing for yourself first, your daily time investment doesn’t need to be big. To start, maybe 20 minutes a day will do. Or even 200 words. Others might set their bar at hours of writing or thousands of words, but the key here is to make the process automatic. Regular daily attention to writing projects—even 20 minutes, a sentence, a paragraph, or more—may not seem like much, but it adds up.

When you don’t attend to your writing in a sustained manner, you may be shocked by how much time passes between writing sessions:

  • How did 10 days pass? I swore I did something on this last week. Well, I guess that would be 10 days.
  • How can it be a month, six months, a year, two years, four years, since I worked on this? I’ve been thinking about it forever.

That “thinking about it” can be the problem. In our minds our projects come together smoothly. They make sense. It’s only when you put in time with the actual words that the beautiful piece of writing you had in your mind betrays you. Writing is messy work that requires deep thought. Once you write about what you thought, there are deeper, murkier levels that need your attention. They need your attention in writing.

Maybe that’s another bit of advice we can use: “Get it in writing.” Get your ideas, your thoughts, your inspirations in writing. Work with them on a concrete level—word by word, line by line.

I encourage you to start your day with a bit of writing, even if it is only a few minutes before you log on to daily life. If your mornings are hectic, maybe you can find time at lunch or dinner or just before you go to sleep.

A daily writing practice will keep projects moving forward. They’ll grow. You won’t have to refresh your memory each time you start to work on them. That “thinking about it” will move forward to more advanced elements. For me, daily practice means I can keep several projects going at a time: before starting my day job, after lunch, after dinner, and more, if needed.

Daily practice can include editing, research, and marketing—whatever you need to move toward your goals. That’s why I work with a time goal instead of a words-per-day or pages-per-day goal.

I remember when wearing seatbelts regularly was a novel idea in my family. Then, my mother started having us put on seatbelts every time we got into the car. She said that after a month, it would seem natural. Few of us can imagine not buckling on a seatbelt these days, and that same habit-forming aspect is what we’re going for with daily writing.

If you write a sentence, if you write a paragraph, if you write 10 pages a day like Stephen King (see Stephen King’s On Writing), the feeling you’re going for is this: When you haven’t written for yourself first, something feels off about your day.

Stop thinking about those projects and start writing. Start with a reasonable goal. You can always build, but write for yourself first. Make the process automatic. Put it in writing. Watch your projects develop and grow.

Note: The 20th anniversary edition of Stephen King’s On Writing: A Memoir of the Craft was published in June 2020. Even if you’ve read his book before, including King’s 10-page/2,000-word daily writing goal referenced above, the book is worth re-reading.

Literary magazines offer free access via websites and Project Muse during pandemic

Vintage postcard: United States-Mexico boundary line near Tijuana, Mexico.

At least two print-based literary magazines have opened up their recent issues for online reading during the pandemic:

  • Ecotone issues 25, 26, 27, and 28 (their most recent issue) are free to read online “throughout the pandemic.” To start reading, go to: https://ecotonemagazine.org/magazine/ 
  • The Missouri Review’s content is available online through the Project Muse database until the end of March. (See the tech note below, to help you navigate Project Muse.)

Print-based literary magazines don’t seem to share much of their content online, so these opportunities are worth checking out. 

Magazines offering full-text content through Project Muse

Here are seven lit-mags, including The Missouri Review for now, that continue to offer full-text content from their recent issues through Project Muse:


Publication

Available content

Most recent issue
The Missouri Review
(University of Missouri)
1978 to presentWinter 2020 (Vol. 21, No. 4)
Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction
(Michigan State University)
1999 to presentFall 2020 (Vol. 22, No. 2)
Prairie Schooner
(University of Nebraska Press)
2003 to presentSummer 2020 (Vol. 94, No. 2)
Minnesota Review
(Duke University Press)
2010 to present
(plus many older issues)
2020 (Issue 95)
River Teeth: A Journal of Nonfiction Narrative
(Ball State University)
2003 to presentFall 2020 (Vol. 22, No. 1)
Sewanee Review
(Johns Hopkins University Press)
2007 to presentWinter 2021 (Vol. 129, No. 1)
Manoa: A Pacific Journal of International Writing
(University of Hawai’i Press)
1999 to present2020 (Vol. 32, No. 2)

Note that database content can change quickly. In other words, due to budgets, contract negotiations, and legal and financial wrangling, publications can pop into and out of Project Muse and other databases. What you were looking at yesterday, might not be there today.

For my students, I recommend they download any database document (including bibliographic information) if they even think it might be useful in their work. Note that these downloads are for personal use only.   

About Project Muse

Project Muse is an online database available through many college and university libraries. The database offers access to articles, poems, fiction, nonfiction, and other content published by a variety of journals, including select literary magazines.

In terms of market research, database access to full-text content is valuable because once you’ve read what a magazine is publishing, you can sense whether your writing might find a home there. Also, it never hurts to mention a memorable piece you read from the editor’s magazine when writing a cover letter.

TECH NOTE: How to search the Project Muse database

Databases offer multiple points of access, but the following is the quickest way I’ve found to search for and read content from the magazines listed above using Project Muse.

1.

Select “Project Muse” from the list of databases available on your college or university library’s website.

2.

Instead of using the search box at the top of the screen, scroll down to find the “Journal” filter on the left side of your screen. Enter “Missouri Review” in the Journal filter.

NOTE: Skip the “Content Type” filter, which starts a much broader search related to journals.

3.

After typing “Missouri Review” in the Journal filter in Step 2, an overwhelming 4,373 results were returned.

To narrow your results, click on the name of the publication (the link) within your Results list.

4.

After clicking on “The Missouri Review” in Step 3, you should get an “About this Journal” screen that provides some background about The Missouri Review.

Scroll down on the “About this Journal” page and you’ll see a list of the available volumes and issues of the magazine. If you’re doing market research, you’ll want to look at the most recent issue, which is currently “Volume 43, Number 4, Winter 2020.” Click on the link to the issue you would like to search.

5.

After clicking on the link for the most current issue “Volume 43, Number 4, Winter 2020” in Step 4, you should get an “In this Issue” and “Table of Contents” screen that offers links to the articles within the Winter 2020 issue.

From this Table of Contents screen, you can click on View (to read content online), Download, (to get the pdf file), or Save.

NOTE: Content isn’t often labeled as fiction, nonfiction, or poetry, but the page numbers offer useful clues. A one- or two-page article is more likely to be poetry, and a 10- or 20-page article is likely to be fiction or nonfiction.

Submittable: Follow the money in literary magazine publishing

Vintage postcard: Night view of the 1933 World’s Fair in Chicago from the sky ride’s observation platform.

Pondering “Giving Tuesday” donation requests and everyday submission fees at lit mags

Writers don’t earn much for publishing their work in literary magazines. In fact, after you add up the online submission fees and the costs of old-school printing and postage, many writers actually pay to have their work published.

However, publishing can build a writer’s social capital. It’s a different type of earning. Publishing is a status symbol, of sorts, that can verify your topic or your writing is good or interesting or digressive or [insert another adjective]. For writing teachers, especially those on the tenure track, publications listed on a vita show a teacher’s relevance and contributions to their field, which helps them get hired or promoted or keeps them employed. 

More literary magazines are offering an honorarium beyond “paying” in contributor’s copies and bragging rights. Often honoraria run $25. A few magazines, such as those with commercial or foundation backing, pay professional rates. These mythical outlets may pay $250 to $1,000 or more, but their fiction is liberally sprinkled with agented submissions.

Science fiction, fantasy and other genres

Genre publications, including science fiction and fantasy, seem to take writer’s payments more seriously. Publications can’t be considered professional or “qualifying markets” by the Science Fiction & Fantasy Writers of America unless they pay at least 8 cents per word, among other criteria.  

This professionalism goes both ways. Many science fiction, horror, and other genre publications pay their writers, but they may require exclusivity. Their writer’s guidelines may prohibit simultaneous submissions, but in return, they often make their decisions (to publish or not to publish) in days or weeks, rather than months.

SFWA members frown on reading or submission fees. “The Egregious Practice of Charging Reading Fees” is the title of a 2018 SFWA blog by John Walters, a hybrid author who has published more than 20 books. Walters critiques the literary marketplace’s submission fees and their impact on disenfranchisement and diversity.

Poetry has value

As for poetry earnings, think back to the blog “Poetry Has Value” where poets shared monthly tallies of their submission fees and income. For example, Erika Dreifus, author of Birthright: Poems, earned $517.65 from her poetry publications in 2016. However, she did this by pursuing free markets for her poems.

“Thanks to my Poetry Has Value posts, I can tell you that I sent out 134 [packets of] poetry submissions in 2016… Had I spent $3 each time, I’d have shelled out $402 on submission fees. Which would have left me with $117.65,” Dreifus wrote in “Making Poetry Pay: Five Ways to Increase Your Poetry Income,” which was published in The Writer’s Notebook in July 2017.

NOTE: The free monthly Practicing Writer e-newsletter from Erika Dreifus includes “fee-free (and paying) calls and competitions—plus other resources—for writers of fiction, poetry, and creative nonfiction.” More information is at: ErikaDreifus.com

Where is the money in literary publishing?

So, what happens when you follow the money in literary magazine publishing? Like a big shining billboard, there is Submittable.

Submittable, a “submission management software” company based in Missoula, Montana, gives writers an online platform to submit their creative work to publications. Costs for printing, postage, and SASEs (self-addressed stamped envelopes) have morphed into online submission fees. Magazine staff members use the Submittable platform to accept or reject work online. Stacks of mail and full recycling bins have turned into burgeoning electronic queues.

“Since starting, Submittable has partnered with over 11,000 organizations to promote calls, accept, review and take action on over 50 million submissions and applications from over 4.5 million users,” wrote CEO Michael A. FitzGerald in November.

Fifty million submissions…

Some of those submissions were free. Other submissions cost $25-plus. Most of them were about $3. Some of that money went to the publications and some to Submittable. If you read Tahoma Literary Review’s “What We Pay (and how we do it),” you’ll see that in spring 2020 Submittable’s cut of each submission was 5 percent plus 99 cents. This is on top of a yearly fee, which can be $999 for Submittable’s “basic” level.

For Submittable, what does this look like in rough numbers?
• 50 million submissions @ $3 apiece = $150 million * 5 percent = $7.5 million
• 50 million submissions * 99 cents = $49.5 million
• Total: $57 million
(This estimate doesn’t include Submittable’s base fees.)

Not bad for a company, originally called Submishmash, that FitzGerald started in his basement with Bruce Tribbensee and John Brownell in 2010. 

FitzGerald stepped down as Submittable’s CEO in November 2020 to continue his treatment for colorectal cancer. Thor Culverhouse has since taken over as CEO, but the transition and the recent global recession brought to light hints about the financial side of Submittable. As reported in the Missoulian newspaper:

  • In July 2019, the company raised $10 million in venture capital.
  • In April 2020, Submittable laid off 30 of its 130 Missoula-based workers.
  • I’ll add that, during the pandemic, literary magazine submissions may be up, if the quick closing of metered or free submission windows is any sign.

Why “Giving Tuesday” made me think about this

Even before “Giving Tuesday” I started receiving donation requests from literary magazines that I submitted work to over the years. I don’t mean to put a negative spin on this, but some of these magazines last communicated with me via a boilerplate message like, “Thanks for your submission [and submission fee], but we’re not going to publish your work. We’re so busy that we have nothing more to say right now. Good luck.”

About those $3 submission fees, my math shows:
• $1.86 stays with the magazine
• $1.14 goes to Submittable
Note that it’s not unusual for a higher-tier magazine to receive 10,000 submissions a year.

Nonetheless, I saw a stark contrast. The donation solicitations were annoying, especially those from magazines that hadn’t communicated regularly through newsletters or other avenues. But these literary magazines needed donations, grants, subscriptions, and submission fees to keep publishing. We’re talking about budgets of thousands or tens of thousands of dollars.

Meanwhile, a company that “partnered” with these sometimes-struggling publications talks about fees and venture capital on the order of millions of dollars.  

And writers? Maybe they made $500 through their writing last year, if they worked hard and avoided submission fees.   


An update from Submittable

Keriann Strickland, director of product & content marketing for Submittable, contacted me to provide additional information about their business and fees. Here’s what she wrote:

  • First, you caught an error for us; thank you. Michael’s [former CEO Michael FitzGerald’s] blog post should have said nearly 20 million submissions [instead of 50 million].
  • As the blog you quote mentions, we’ve expanded from our literary roots into many other industries and use cases. That total submission number represents all of those industries/use cases (not just literary journals)—most of them without submission fees.
  • In the minority case where an organization charges fees, you’re correct that we charge $0.99 + 5% of the total sum collected—4% of that goes to our payment processor (we use a 3rd party for security and compliance standards). More on that break down here: https://www.submittable.com/features/fees-and-payments/
  • In partnership with CLMP [Community of Literary Magazines and Presses], we also offer special discounted plans for literary journals at $39/month or $290/year (well below our basic pricing https://www.submittable.com/clmp/).

Bookshelf: 4 reference books to sharpen the details in your writing

Postcard bridge on Pennsylvania Turnpike 20_0810 - Copy

Vintage postcard: Beautiful bridge on Pennsylvania’s Turnpike in the Bedford Narrows.

One of the authors I worked with described his home as “El Rancho Indebto.” That description — from author Daniel Gray’s books, such as Adobe ImageStyler In Depth — has stuck with me even though it has been years since I’ve worked in educational publishing.

Dan had a way of twisting words to make them more interesting amid chapters on how to apply the techniques of web design and develop software expertise. I have to apologize in arrears for probably thwarting some of his descriptions. For example, I remember him writing the lesser-known “stop on a nickel,” and I might have changed it to the tired, old “stopped on a dime.”

In any case, finding the right words, the less tired words, the memorable words, can bring your writing to life. It’s a constant battle I’ve fought by seeking the telling details that deepen scenes.

In my search for the right words, I’ve accumulated a few trusted books that go beyond the thesaurus and Google searches. Books I continue to turn to include:

Random House Word Menu by Stephen Glazier – Struggling to describe the lights and mirrors in a setting? This reference gives you a list, along with short definitions, to help you decide if your setting has a gaslight or a torchiere. A pier glass or a looking glass. See the “Lamps and Mirrors” section.

The Describer’s Dictionary by David Grambs – The subtitle is “A Treasury of Terms & Literary Quotations for Readers and Writers.” Want to give a character a trademark ring or pendant? Scan the “Common Emblems and Symbols” chapter. Consider the implications of whether your character would wear a peaceful ankh (a “loop-topped cross”) or a human skull, “as a symbol of mortality, death’s head, memento mori.” This book is half word lists and half literary excerpts so you can see how authors have employed these details.

DK Ultimate Visual Dictionary – This book is all about images and labels. Want to know the name for that little chute between your character’s nose and lips? A philtrum. (As an aside, some believe the width of this chute is an indicator of a person’s fertility.) Need your character to encounter a horse and touch its leg or head? You might want to know the difference between a fetlock and a forelock. A fetlock is a joint somewhat similar to a human’s ankle, and a forelock is the hair between a horse’s ears that often falls forward like bangs.

The Emotion Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Character Expression by Angela Ackerman & Becca Puglisi – This book is part of a series of emotion and setting thesauruses. Want to go beyond saying your character is upset? Look at the “Agitation” chapter and browse through the physical signs, internal sensations, mental responses, and other cues to deepen your character’s responses and lead to telling details. If your character was abandoned or neglected as a child, check another book in the series, The Emotional Wound Thesaurus: A Writer’s Guide to Psychological Trauma for examples, false beliefs, fears, potential personality traits, triggers, and more.

Why turn to books when there’s Wikipedia, Google, and other online resources? The more curated content found within these reference books (whether paper or ebook) can save you from falling into a rabbit hole (or as Dan Gray might say, a woodchuck hole) of clicks.

And speaking of clicks and tired descriptors, check your writing against the visual essay “The Physical Traits that Define Men & Women in Literature” written by Erin Davis and illustrated by Liana Sposto at The Pudding.

Davis scanned 2,000 books, including bestsellers, prize winners, and books commonly assigned in U.S. high schools and colleges. She used a language processor to see what body parts and adjectives were most commonly used to describe male and female characters. The interactive visual aspects of the Pudding essay allow you to test some of your assumptions about gender and descriptors. (Thank you to Jane Friedman’s “Electric Speed” newsletter for recommending this article.)

Good news and a poetry writing prompt: Pantoum

My poem “The Choice” has been published in the spring 2020 issue of Phi Kappa Phi Forum, an honor society magazine. Here are the poem’s first two stanzas:

                 “The Choice”
I would not wish you to pass.
I would press my hand into your palm
and hope my distress stirs you to choose.
Override the machines. Grab on or let go.

 

I would press my hand into your palm
and pray for a reflex, anything.
Override the ventilator. Grab on or let go.
Breathe or stop on your own.

 

The year after my father collapsed with respiratory failure I spent a lot of time, usually alone, in waiting rooms—surgery, ICU, radiology, and more. So many waiting rooms in three hospitals and five care facilities in two states.

PKP Forum 2020 springb

The high stakes, the uncertainties, the complications made fiction reading (my usual pastime) difficult. I turned to reading and writing poetry. One of the books I read was Edward Hirsch’s Poet’s Choice, which introduced me to Indian poet Reetika Vazirani and her work.

Vazirani’s three-line poem “Lullaby” stuck with me. And I found myself using Vazirani’s poem as a model. I wrote of my father’s situation over and over, never finding the right words until I learned a poetry form called the pantoum.

The repetition and circling back of the pantoum’s form helped me synthesize the prayer poems I had drafted during my father’s eleven ventilator-dependent months. These months included three times when doctors recommended extubation—twice while my father was unconscious and once while he was awake and clearly not ready to die.

“The Choice,” in the form of a pantoum, helped me to work through this ultimate decision.

Writing exercise

I’ve been curious as to whether the writing process I used might work again with different subject matter (for example, the social isolation of sheltering in place).

  1. Write about your own subject/topic using Reetika Vazirani’s poem as a model for phrasing, line breaks, and so on. Keep writing and writing until you have multiple versions and approaches and angles and voices. Here’s Vazirani’s poem:
                      “Lullaby”
     I would not sing you to sleep.
     I would press my lips to your ear
     and hope the terror in my heart stirs you. 
                     —by Reetika Vazirani (1962–2003)
  1. From among your drafts, highlight the line or lines that “say it best.” Consider which one might work as the first line of your pantoum. Note: This will also become the last line of your pantoum.
  1. Continue working with material from your drafts within the pantoum structure. One interesting aspect of using this structure is that as you write a stanza, you are also writing two of the lines for your next stanza.
        Here’s the pantoum structure of four-line stanzas, notice the repeats:
A
B
C
D
B (a repeat)
E
D (a repeat)
F
E (a repeat)
G
F (a repeat)
H
G (a repeat)
I
H (a repeat)
A (line 1 repeats)

Pantoums aren’t limited to four stanzas, as my outline shows. They can be any length.

Note: When I worked through this process, I titled my “Lullaby”-based drafts. Some of the drafts were “Prayer,” “Meditation,” “Hope,” “Will,” and “No Words.” Ultimately, these titles helped me organize the different approaches and points of view. I encourage you to title your “Lullaby”-based drafts.

  1. Then, edit, review/peer review, revise, and repeat.

When you need more information or inspiration, it helps to search for and read pantoums on the Academy of American Poets website poets.org or on the Poetry Foundation website poetryfoundation.org. You’ll notice how some poets make slight adjustments in the repeats, while others are to-the-letter faithful in their repetitions.

If you try this writing exercise, I’d be interested to hear about what does or doesn’t work, including your resulting work. If you feel comfortable, please post a comment.

Revision: Use text-to-speech in Word to hear what works (and what doesn’t) in your writing

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Vintage postcard: Where Stephen Collins Foster wrote “My Old Kentucky Home,” near Bardstown.

Before the daily 11 a.m. deadline, the loudest sounds in the newsroom came from reporters tapping out stories on their keyboards. There wasn’t much talking, but lips moved as the reporters tested out their words in whispers before filing their articles with the editors.

I tell my students about this. “It’s what professional writers do. Read your work aloud. You’ll hear the glitches and errors. I do it all the time.”

Some of the deepest editing I’ve done came while recording a short story for Superstition Review (both audio and text of “To Walk Chalk” appeared in Issue 21). I had trouble with the Audible sound editing application and background noises, so not only did I read the story aloud several times, but I also had to listen to it again and again. This aural scrutiny led me beyond fixing the usual sentence errors to more in-depth revisions regarding characterization and recurring elements that tightened the focus of the story. I continue to work toward this higher level of revision in my current projects.

One drawback of reading your work aloud is that part of you is performing, whether or not anyone is listening. If you’re preparing for a public appearance or recording an audio file, this practice is great. However, if revision is your goal, the performative aspects of reading aloud—whether to look up while reading, whether you’re reading too fast or too slow, and how your voice sounds—can be distracting.

This is where the “Speak” feature in Microsoft Word can help. (Thank you to my student, T.J., who mentioned this to me.) Unlike older “readers,” such as databases that provide an uninflected robot voice to read journal articles in either an American or British accent, Word’s text-to-speech feature usually seems smooth enough to let you focus on your words, not the tone of the software.

When I’m listening and not distracted by the physical act of reading, I catch more sentence-level glitches and repetitions along with larger issues that show up throughout the text. For example, do the descriptions of a particular character or setting provide a cohesive mindset or image? Are there unintended contradictions or missing bits of information?

I added the Speak feature to the Quick Access Toolbar at the top of my Word screen, and I’m able to pop into and out of hearing how my words are working. I just highlight the paragraphs I want to hear and click on the Speak icon (as I’ve done with this blog post).

To add the Speak feature to your Word screen you’ll need to follow the five steps explained at: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Use-the-Speak-text-to-speech-feature-to-read-text-aloud-459e7704-a76d-4fe2-ab48-189d6b83333c

No matter how you do it, the act of listening to your words, is a useful revision tactic. It’s time well spent, as is the time spent setting up the text-to-speech feature in Word.

Add Speak to the Quick Access Toolbar

In case the link to Microsoft’s Office Support site breaks, I’ll copy the steps here. Add the Speak command to your Quick Access Toolbar by doing the following while you’re in Word:

  1. Next to the Quick Access Toolbar, click “Customize Quick Access Toolbar.”
    Quick access toolbar in Word
  2. Click “More Commands.”
  3. In the “Choose commands from” list, select “All Commands.”
  4. Scroll down to the “Speak” command, select it, and then click “Add.”
  5. Click “OK.”

Again, here is the link: https://support.office.com/en-us/article/Use-the-Speak-text-to-speech-feature-to-read-text-aloud-459e7704-a76d-4fe2-ab48-189d6b83333c

A newer three R’s for writing: Reject, revise, and repeat

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Vintage postcard: Sky ride, Chicago World’s Fair, 1933

Some literary magazines offer a few sentences of feedback if you pay a couple of dollars more for your submissions. A few sentences or a paragraph or two is what you get—not a full critique.

While a full critique can cost hundreds of dollars, a couple of dollars seems worthwhile to get something beyond the generic rejection of “doesn’t fit our needs,” “wasn’t right for us,” “unable to accept,” “not selected for publication,” and so on.

Note: On Submittable.com, you can search using the words feedback or comment to get a list of current submission opportunities that have a feedback option.

Nonetheless, feedback isn’t always easy to take. Here’s an excerpt from comments I received recently:

I liked this story, but a good amount happens here that doesn’t move the story forward. Some of it is in extraneous description; some of it is action. Reading these bits, I can see how they are good writing, but they don’t quite contribute to the story, which bogs down the reading experience overall.

This feedback applied to a short-short story of about 700 words. My first reaction was, “If you took out the description and the action, what would be left?” But then, the feedback only referred to “extraneous” description and “some” action. Where was it?

I reread the story and let it sit for a week. For me, time is an important revision tool. You come back to a piece with many assumptions forgotten, much like a new reader. More than once, I’ve reread a rejected manuscript and thought, “Rightly so.” Problems jumped out at me, but this short-short wasn’t one of those.

Having been taught to show not tell, I looked at elements in the story that were supposed to show. What I was showing didn’t seem to be coming across, if the feedback was any indication. I brought back a few of the story elements I had cut earlier. This also involved reordering some material to smooth progressions and connections. I had waffled over much of this earlier in the drafting process and had opted for a more streamlined piece, leaving much lurking but unsaid. Now, I was putting some of these things back in.

The story is resting again, like dough. We’ll see what rises with the next rereading, as well as the next steps in the submission/feedback process. Maybe these revisions have gone too far, and I’ll need to dial them back again. We’ll see.

Play with your words: Poetry craft, reading & revision

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Vintage postcard: A charming lily pool in the heart of Florida

When I was in grad school a few of the poetry students seemed to be more, er, playful. I remember a potluck dinner at a professor’s house where one of the poetry contributions was an 8½-by-11-inch pan of Jell-O with mini bottles of booze gelled into it. The liquor was plucked out and consumed. The blue gelatin, not so much.

Outside of parties, there seemed to be little overlap between students and faculty in the poetry track and those in the fiction track. In hindsight, I wish my program had required us to take workshops and literature classes in other genres. For me, the magical realism class taught by Alberto Ríos offered the most in terms of genre blending with topics ranging from Dadaist poetry and images to novels by Isabel Allende and others.

Post-MFA I felt ill-prepared when my first teaching gig included a creative writing class meant to cover both fiction and poetry. I had much more to offer students in the fiction unit. For the poetry segments of the course, I relied heavily on the textbook.

Reading about poetry

Through the years I worked to make up for this gap in both my reading and my work in poetry. A few books I return to time and again are:

  • Poet’s Choice by Edward Hirsch. The book collects his columns from Washington Post Book World and covers an array of poets and poetry styles. The individual columns offer platforms for further reading, “from ancient times to the present,” and for drafting.
  • The Poet’s Companion: A Guide to the Pleasures of Writing Poetry by Kim Addonizio and Dorianne Laux. With sections on “Subjects for Writing,” “The Poet’s Craft,” and “Twenty-minute Writing Exercises,” this book is geared for classes or self-study. Wondering how to structure a sestina or how to address death and grief in poetry? This book can help.
  • The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser. This book is subtitled “Practical Advice for Beginning Poets,” and that’s what it was for me. This book helped me play with words and possibilities, even when I was writing about heavy topics.

Reading poetry itself

One of the usual prescriptions for writers is to read. Kooser’s book led me to subscribe to his column and others like it. Daily and weekly poems pop into my inbox from sources including:

  • American Life in Poetry—Kooser, a former U.S. poet laureate, sends out a weekly poetry column. Each column includes his introduction to the poem and some basics about the author of the week’s poem. Access the columns online at americanlifeinpoetry.org or subscribe (free) to receive the week’s poem in your inbox. The column’s supporters include The Poetry Foundation.
  • Poem-a-Day—The Academy of American Poets offers, both on their website or via free email subscription, a variety of poetry that includes pieces by contemporary writers, works in progress, and samples of centuries-old verse. Each Poem-a-Day email has a statement from the poet about the genesis of their work or a historical note, as well as a brief author bio.

Any of these inbox poems can lead to deeper dives into the poetry of individual writers. Reading a whole book from a particular poet can help you connect to their work in a way that a single poem often cannot.

NOTE: Content on the Poetry Foundation and the Academy of American Poets websites also cover the craft of poetry and are a useful accompaniment to the books mentioned earlier.

Seeing revision in progress

Another helpful area of reading has focused on revision. One book in particular made me feel like I’d observed a college poetry workshop in that it took student-level poems and offered critiques from an array of teacher/poets:

  • Poets Teaching: The Creative Process edited by Alberta T. Turner. This is an older book, published in 1980, that I rescued from a bin headed to the college Dumpsters. (Who knew that indexing books in online databases costs more than keeping the books on the library shelves? But that’s a matter for another day.) This book advanced my understanding of line, exposition, sound, and so much more.

Each student poem in the book received extensive comments (sometimes contradictory) from two or more of the thirty-plus teachers, among them David St. John, William Stafford, and Thomas Lux. Occasionally, the teachers offered line-level suggestions for the more advanced poems to show how handling lines in different ways led to different effects.

Some feedback in this book made me shudder. Individual teachers didn’t hold back from labeling writing as “boring.” One even said, “it may turn out her abilities do not lie in writing, but in some other direction entirely.” Yikes! Is this any indication of what goes on in college-level poetry workshops? Or is it just a few of these teacher/poets?

Play with your words

Beyond reading poetry, craft, and revision texts, I’ve learned you should play with your words. Let yourself do the writing equivalent of chilling mini-bar liquor bottles in a tray of blue Jell-O. You can always pluck them out, throw them out, consume them, or turn them (or the Jell-O) into something else entirely in the next draft.