What’s a Sensitivity Reader…and Do I Need One?

The fairly new term “sensitivity reader” might make warning bells go off for authors, who need to have artistic freedom and be free from fear of censorship. No fiction writer or memoirist wants to have their portrayal of characters from a different race, class, gender, or culture than their own stamped with a big “WRONG.”

Sensitivity readers, however, don’t function as censors or thought police; their job isn’t to make a writer toe a party line. Simply put, a sensitivity reader is a professional who reviews a manuscript with an eye to its representations of marginalized people. This is especially helpful if the author is writing about an identity or culture they don’t share with their characters.

Here’s an analogy. You write a murder mystery with a police detective as the main character. You do a lot of research, but unless you’ve worked as a detective yourself or have a close relationship with someone on the police force, you’ll probably consult a professional about the details you want to get right. In the “Acknowledgments” pages of novels, authors gush their thanks to police officers, doctors, pharmacists, firearms specialists, and other professionals who caught glaring mistakes and helped make their books more authentic.

A sensitivity read functions much the same way. It gives you a chance to address inaccuracies in your book before you send it out to agents and editors. In this day of #OwnVoices and #WeNeedDiverseBooks, more and more publishers look for stories about marginalized communities. But say you’re a cisgender author, and your detective is transgender. Or you’re a neurotypical author, and your detective is neurodivergent. Or you’re a Christian who has created a Muslim detective. You might nail the detective part, and you may have done extensive research about the cultural identity of your detective. But getting a sensitivity read could catch assumptions and biases you didn’t even know you had. Although you never intended them to, your mistakes could hurt readers—and ultimately damage your credibility as an author.

Some agencies and individual editors offer sensitivity reading as a paid service. The issues they read for vary—everything from race, religion, class, gender identity, and sexual orientation, to physical and mental ability. A sensitivity reader is not your unsuspecting South Asian neighbor or your autistic co-worker whom you casually ask to read your manuscript without telling them why.

Our job as authors is to create fleshed-out characters who pop off the page—people readers can recognize and relate to on some level. That includes characters who are aren’t like us but reflect the larger world.

(For more on the importance of sensitivity reading to the publishing industry in general, see this article in the Chicago Tribune.)

In Paula’s upcoming workshop at Charlotte Lit, “Beyond Stereotypes: Creating Diverse Characters with Dimension,” you’ll look at steps you can take while you’re planning, drafting, or revising your manuscript to avoid inducing stereotypes into your work inadvertently. In effect, you can learn to be your own first sensitivity reader.

Writing for the Love of Discovery: On Research and Ekphrasis

Editor’s Note: In this entry, Helen Fowler reflects on attending Charlotte Lit’s Poetry Workshopping feedback group with Danny Romine Powell last fall.

Helen Fowler

Helen Fowler

Knowing I have to write to meet a deadline can send me on a frantic search for a good prompt, that holy grail that leads to something worth writing about. Before I signed up for Dannye Romine Powell’s poetry workshop, which requires at least five poems to bring for review, I sized up the risk that I might come up short. I trusted that setting out on this journey would give me what I needed as I went along, and that my fellow writers would energize me in meeting this challenge. And that is just what happened.

One week I got a windfall. I found a picture that turned out to be a gold mine for inspiring a poem. It began with a notification of a post about a photo: Helen Keller, Alexander Graham Bell, and a wind gauge.” In her post to the Teaching with the Library of Congress” blog, Cheryl Lederle wrote an exploration of one of the photographs in a set of three that Dr. Bell had pasted into his journal on Sept. 2, 1901. The images document the scene of their kite flying event five days earlier at his residence in Nova Scotia, with his handwritten notation under photograph—Helen Keller examining the operation of the wind gauge”—and his superimposed dotted lines to identify each figure, his own,AGB,” mostly hidden as he stood behind Helen at the wind gauge.

I started out composing an ekphrastic poem to be present to the sensations of wind and the calculations the two friends were making as they launched their kites.  But that’s not where it ended up.  As I kept exploring primary sources, the imaginary landscape of the poem expanded with the opportunity to explore the relationship between the inventor and the deaf-blind woman who did not allow herself to be held back by her disabilities.

At first glance, they may have seemed to have little in common, but as I kept researching, I was struck by how deep their friendship ran. By the age of 29, Dr. Bell had already invented the telephone and was ready to invent more. The digital collections of the Library of Congress included Dr. Bell’s meticulously kept journals as well as correspondence Helen Keller had with Dr. Bell. I found Keller’s full autobiography in the public domain, along with a web page detailing Dr. Bell’s aspirations for designing an airship prior to the Wright Brothers’ successful flight in 1903.

I learned much I never knew: that Keller was a protege of Dr. Bell. That his father ran a school for the deaf in Washington DC. That Dr. Bell trained to take his father’s place. That both Bell’s mother and his wife were deaf. That when Helen was six years old, Dr. Bell introduced her to Anne Sullivan. That several days prior to the kite flying event, Keller gave an inspirational speech to a women’s club on the premises of Dr. Bell’s Nova Scotia residence. That they had gone on several kite flying expeditions and exchanged letters through 1907 as Dr. Bell pursued his designs for the airship.

As I delved into source materials that reflected their ongoing discussions about kites and his ideas for designing an airship, it became apparent that Bell valued Keller’s ideas. This produced two images that shape the last stanza:  Keller’s envisioning of a skyey port” long before airports became a household name, and Dr. Bell’s fascination with the motions of a bird’s tail in flight.

Letters spelled in

the hand, letters written

and sent. A deaf-blind seer envisions

a “skyey port.”  Dr. Bell sketches

the motion of a bird’s tail in flight.

As two of history’s giants came to life for me in composing my own piece of writing, their histories fused with my own love of discovery. The act of writing is full of uncertainties. To find a prompt that can lever a search for understanding, something we hadn’t even realized we wanted to understand, means we had to be hungry enough to search in the first place. The takeaway for me in writing this piece was how they managed to nurture the sparks in each other’s journey. Their shared love of aviation made them inventive communicators with each other.  I was amazed by how they found ways to envision possibilities together.

Helen Fowler is a retired school librarian and English instructor, immersed in the study of the literary arts for the value they bring to our lives, and in exploring digital and print library collections to curate good finds for idiosyncratic projects.  

Flash Fiction

Bryn Chancellor

Bryn Chancellor

If a novel is a vast, tumultuous summer sky, and a short story a fast, feverish storm, then flash fiction is a cloud-splitting fork of lightning that electrifies the air.

Flash stories (aka short-shorts, smoke-longs, or sudden, quick, nano, micro, or hint fiction—Yasunari Kawabata called them “palm-of-the-hand” stories) are tiny, contortionist shapeshifters that slip between the realms of short fiction, poetry, and the lyric essay. Like a poem, a flash amps up language and imagery but retains the hallmarks of narrative: characters, voice, plot, setting, emotional turn and resolution. Flash’s distinctive trait is its restrictive word count—generally from 500 to 1,000 words; micros whittle further, from 25 to 500. But as with a formal poem or a prompt, constraint can be liberating. By restricting our space, counterintuitively we can open up something wild and unexpected. We don’t lop off a longer story to get there; from a story’s blurry birth, we harness compression and reduction, hard-wire our words, supercharge our endings. Writing in miniature is difficult and takes discipline. Flash demands you pay attention—and in our distraction-filled world, that’s a gift.

We can quibble about story definitions and length and parameters (how short can you go? when is a flash fiction a prose poem?), but the answers often are elusive—and perhaps they should be. Part of the joy of short stories and flash fiction is their unruliness, their willingness to stray and defy. To Poe, stories have a “unique or single effect”; to Grace Paley a story “can be just telling a little tale, or writing a complicated philosophical story. It can be a song, almost”; and to Edith Wharton they are “a shaft driven straight into the heart of human experience.” I’m with Steven Millhauser, who says, “The short story apologizes for nothing. It exults in its shortness. It wants to be shorter still. It wants to be a single word. If it could find that word, if it could utter that syllable, the entire universe would blaze up out of it with a roar.”

LEARN WITH BRYN: A few spaces remain for Bryn Chancellor’s workshop “Flash Fiction: Write, Edit, Polish, Submit” on Thursday, January 23 and 30, from 6 pm to 8:30 pm. Learn more and register here.

Lingering in the Language of the Soul

Jaime Pollard-Smith

Jaime Pollard-Smith

In a couple of weeks, I will begin a new semester with a fresh group of unsuspecting students. After reviewing the syllabus, I will open the course by suggesting a shift in perspective and proposing a revision to their role as writers. Writing to think becomes our motto, and I explain that we rarely know what we are trying to say until we have said it. I will encourage them to read as writers and write as readers, as well as push them to always show before they tell. We will work to cultivate an intuitive process of waking up and listening to our own voice, which is a tall order in our present media-crazed culture. Yet, much to their dismay, the first assignment in my freshman composition class is to examine and create a piece of personal poetry.

Joy Harjo, our U.S. Poet Laureate, once defined poetry as soul language or soul talk. Poetry is often considered “high-brow” or reserved for an exclusive club, yet Harjo’s perspective appeals to the universal humanizing role it plays. It appears in our songs and oral traditions; we hear it in our laughter and through our tears. Expanding our definition of poetry can liberate us to explore our inner selves. Robert Frost solidifies this noble endeavor by explaining that “poetry is when an emotion has found its thought and the thought has found words.”

When we truly read as writers and write as readers, we learn to listen in a specific way. We can tap into the feelings and hear the whisper behind the story. As Dorothy Allison explains, don’t tell me the grass is green; tell me how the green grass makes you feel. There are emotions attached to places, events, smells, sights, sounds, everything, and a poetic lens reminds us to pause and pay attention.

Learning to incorporate poetry into our prose can be one pathway to allowing our soul to speak through our written word. Poetry need not contain rhyme or rigid patterns, but it can come in a concentrated, more fluid form infusing our storytelling with the feelings we hope to convey. This process nudges us in the direction of the ultimate embodiment of show, not tell.

A new decade offers us the perfect chance to reflect upon our own creative process. Can we provide more space for playful, poetic, non-structured exploration in our writing? Is it possible to deepen our prose by tuning our ear to poetry? When we create spaces for “soul talk” we foster authentic kinships with our readers and tap into feelings lingering beneath the surface of our words.

Fiction Worth a Listen for Book Clubs

Of course, an audiobook is a “real book.” Don’t let anyone try to shame you with their belief that listening to a book isn’t “real” reading.

I’ve been reading books with my ears since the 1980s. First, I listened to them on cassettes, then CDs, before joining the Audible digital subscription service circa 2000. I always listen to a sample of the narration before downloading and have been known to give an audiobook a try if it’s read by a narrator I love—even if it’s out of my favorite genres.

Give both fiction and nonfiction a try—you might have a different preference for your ears than for your eyes. Free audiobooks are available through most public libraries.

“Cheating” with an abridged audiobook

Sometimes your book club decides on something not quite to your taste; sometimes you don’t have time to read the whole book but still want to attend your book club meeting.

When faced with either of these socially-awkward situations, look for InstaRead Summaries. Some are pure summary in less than half an hour, others are chapter-by-chapter summaries. I’ve never seen one run over an hour.

Circe by Madeline Miller, narrated by Perdita Weeks

US cover of Circe, by Madeline Miller

The audiobook “Circe” is pure perfection in story and narration.

Of the hundreds (thousands?) of books I’ve listened to, one stands alone: Circe, written by Madeline Miller and narrated by Perdita Weeks.

Since this is a post on audiobooks, I’ll start by raving about this narrator. It’s one thing to accurately read the text and pronounce the words (not all narrators accomplish this low bar), but Perdita Weeks breathes life into every syllable. Honestly, I could listen to her draw breath.

It’s the perfect book club book no matter how you read it. Here’s an online readers guide.

From the Publisher: In the house of Helios, god of the sun and mightiest of the Titans, a daughter is born. But Circe is a strange child—not powerful, like her father, nor viciously alluring like her mother. Turning to the world of mortals for companionship, she discovers that she does possess power—the power of witchcraft, which can transform rivals into monsters and menace the gods themselves.
Threatened, Zeus banishes her to a deserted island, where she hones her occult craft, tames wild beasts and crosses paths with many of the most famous figures in all of mythology, including the Minotaur, Daedalus and his doomed son Icarus, the murderous Medea, and, of course, wily Odysseus.
But there is danger, too, for a woman who stands alone, and Circe unwittingly draws the wrath of both men and gods, ultimately finding herself pitted against one of the most terrifying and vengeful of the Olympians. To protect what she loves most, Circe must summon all her strength and choose, once and for all, whether she belongs with the gods she is born from, or the mortals she has come to love.

Ayiti, written and narrated by Roxane Gay

Audiobook Ayiti

Not all authors are good narrators, but Roxane Gay is both. This audiobook can be read in about three hours; the perfect follow-up to a saga on your book club’s lineup.

You may be familiar with her work as a contributing opinion writer for the New York Times, or her essay collection, Bad Feminist.

Ayiti is her first book. It packs emotional wallop after wallop as Gay explores the Haitian diaspora experience in a unique blend of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry.

The stories alone will make your club’s facilitator’s job easy, even without a reading guide. They touch on sexism, racism, capitalism, American values, and so much more.

From the Publisher: In Ayiti, a married couple seeking boat passage to America prepares to leave their homeland. A young woman procures a voodoo love potion to ensnare a childhood classmate. A mother takes a foreign soldier into her home as a boarder, and into her bed. And a woman conceives a daughter on the bank of a river while fleeing a horrific massacre, a daughter who later moves to America for a new life but is perpetually haunted by the mysterious scent of blood.

The Paris Architect, by Charles Belfoure, narrated by Mark Bramhall

Audiobook, The Paris Architect: A NovelThis year I read a good deal of historical fiction since I’m writing a novel set in 1943 and 1967.

The Paris Architect, by Charles Belfoure, as narrated by Mark Bramhall, helped me well exceed my daily 10,000 step goal. The narrator personified each character beautifully, and with the polyglot’s command of pronunciation and inflection. This is where an audiobook outshines its printed counterpart.

Summary: A gentile in Nazi-occupied Paris, architect Lucien Bernard detests Jews. But he can’t resist the challenge of designing concealed hiding spaces—behind a painting, within a column, or inside a drainpipe—that are invisible to the average eye.

Of course, inevitably, one of his clever hiding spaces fails horribly and the immense suffering of Jews becomes incredibly personal.

Here’s an online Reading Guide for your book club.


Be sure to check out Charlotte Lit’s Tips for Building A Better Book Club.

Tips for a Better Book Club available on this page

Recommended Memoirs for Book Clubs

There are times I’m suddenly aware that I’m not as well-rounded a reader as I’d wish. The curation of this list was one of those moments. I read the way I do most things––intuitively and deeply. I’m a poet, so my memoir preferences lean toward beautiful writing as much as to dramatic storytelling. I’m a student and teacher of depth psychology, so a memoirist’s ability to reflect upon the inner journey is just as important to me as funny anecdotes about crazy relatives. I’m a feminist, which leads me more often, though not exclusively, to women’s stories.

As a writer, I also adore craft books, which is why I’ve included one by Mary Karr. I promise, it’s as much fun as her first memoir. And, if you aren’t yet a writer, by the time you finish The Art of Memoir, you’ll be ready to pick up a pen.

Composed: A Memoir by Rosanne Cash

Not your typical celebrity tell-all. Sure, there’s enough industry-insider intrigue to keep fans of Rosanne Cash and Johnny Cash turning pages. But Rosanne is a sage, often lyrical, writer. Hers is a story of the ties that bind her to her family, her music, and her soul. 

The Year of Magical Thinking by Joan Didion

Didion became famous for pioneering a form of writing that seamlessly marries journalism and personal essay. She is a keen observer of the tense relationship between the outer world and inner experience, nowhere more so than in this acclaimed account of the aftermath of her husband’s sudden death. 

Heating and Cooling: 52 Micro-Memoirs by Beth Ann Fennelly

Delightful, and delightfully short, this genre-defying collection of personal reflections marries the best things about poetry (intensity of compression) and memoir (radical, sometimes raw truth-telling). Plus, Fennelly’s observations about marriage, children, and the writing life can be uproariously funny. Fennelly currently serves as Poet Laureate of Mississippi.

There Will Be No Miracles Here by Casey Gerald

I fell in love with Casey Gerald when I heard him speak at last year’s library fundraiser, Verse & Vino. His wasn’t the only book I bought that night (no surprise there), but it’s the one that keeps me thinking. He writes in breathtaking detail and with lots of good humor about his dramatic and impoverished upbringing, the searing pain of surviving adolescence as both black and gay, and becoming a man within a duplicitous society that both promotes and limits him in his journey into adulthood.  

I Could Tell You Stories: Sojourns in the Land of Memory by Patricia Hampl

This memoir is a beautifully written exercise in the art of discovery. Though it’s not a craft book, Hampl consciously demonstrates the means through which she reflects on her inner and outer life experience, explores the misty landscapes of memory, and explains what most memoirists are only vaguely aware of—the reason for writing one at all.

Crazy Brave: A Memoir by Joy Harjo

Harjo was named U.S. Poet Laureate this past June. Yes, this memoir is written in prose—gorgeous, lyrical, mythic prose. After you’ve read it, you’ll likely want to read her poems, too. And, afterwards, you’ll want to find recordings of her music. And, after that, you’ll want to meet her, which you can do next April when Harjo visits Charlotte to headline CPCC’s Sensoria festival and (lucky us!) teach at Charlotte Lit.

Memories, Dreams, Reflections by C. G. Jung

As I admitted in the introduction, I’m a Jungian, so there’s no way I could leave this classic off my list. Yes, it’s one of the more difficult books (and perhaps the strangest) on the list. But readers will be rewarded for their efforts with fresh understanding about the roots of modern psychology and an experience of its founder’s rich imagination. MDR, as it’s known, is a classic—deservedly so.

The Liar’s Club and The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr

Yes, these are two separate books. I’m fighting against the limits of the list. Besides, my hunch is that avid readers have already come across Karr’s famous first memoir, The Liar’s Club. If not, read it before any of these others. Then sometime in the middle of your reading year, take up Karr’s equally compelling craft book, The Art of Memoir. Even if it doesn’t make you want to take up your pen, it will make you a better reader.

The Dance of the Dissident Daughter: A Woman’s Journey from Christian Tradition to the Sacred Feminine by Sue Monk Kidd

Kidd is known for her best-selling novel, The Secret Life of Bees. This is an altogether different kind of book—part memoir, part study of feminist spirituality. Kidd weaves the two threads seamlessly, not only finding her voice in the process but helping readers do the same. As she writes, “The hardest thing about writing is telling the truth. Maybe it’s the hardest thing about being a woman, too.”

Ordinary Light: A Memoir by Tracy K. Smith

This memoir is also written by a U.S. Poet Laureate. Smith served in the role from 2017-2019. By now, you might be wondering about the relationship between poetry and memoir. All I can say is that the best memoir writers have a style of consciousness, a tendency for and pattern of reflection, that is poetic in essence. And no one does this more lyrically or powerfully than Smith.

Since many book groups meet every month of the year, I’m throwing in a few more titles to choose from. These books are no kind of runners up; I just ran out of room!

  • Traveling Mercies: Some Thoughts on Faith by Anne Lamott
  • Bluets by Maggie Nelson (another slender micro-memoir volume)
  • Wild by Cheryl Strayed

Tips for a Better Book Club

Book Club Recommendations: An Eclectic Mix

When I can’t decide what I want to eat, one of my favorite meals is what, in my family, is called a “Continental Plate.” The reason for this designation is lost to me, but it conjures up a degree of sophistication and worldliness. In reality, it’s just a fancy term for bit of this and that in the face of indecision. A smattering of spiced nuts, a bit of good cheese, some grapes. Or another day, hummus and carrots along with salty sesame crackers. A effortless, varied assemblage that is nevertheless satisfying.

Lately, I’ve been craving the same in my reading queue. While I’m still sucker for a page-turning novel or a stellar collection of poetry, among that mix there are also oddball, hard to classify works that have made their way to the stack on my bedside table. They might be listed as micro-memoir, essay, flash fiction, or maybe they defy classification. Either way, I’ve appreciated their creativity and variety.  Here are a few of my recent favorites:

Can’t and Won’t by Lydia Davis Can't and Won't

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk 

Flights by Olga Tokarczuk

Heating and Cooling by Beth Ann Fennelly

Image result for heating and cooling book cover

Late Migrations by Margaret Renkl

Sing to It by Amy Hempel

Sing to It

Check out Charlotte Lit’s recommendations for Building a Better Book Club.

Tips for a Better Book Club

Genre Mystery Recommendations for Book Clubs

If your book club reads exclusively mysteries, or if your book club wants to try a year of mysteries, it can be a good idea to mix up the types of books you read. But how to categorize?

Within the larger category of crime are sub-categories: thriller, suspense, and mystery…and within mystery are more than a dozen ways to slice and dice (excuse the pun) the offerings. Here’s one way to think about it.

Classic Noir: The Big Sleep, Raymond Chandler

There are so many great choices from the golden age of hardboiled detective—Rex Stout, Dashiell Hammett, SOMEONE ELSE—that it’s hard to go wrong with any of them, but for my money it’s Chandler, and this is my favorite of his not-extensive library. Bonus: The Annotated Big Sleep.

Private Detective: Devil in a Blue Dress, Walter Mosley

There are many great PIs, including Robert B. Parker’s Spenser, Sara Paretsky’s V. I. Warshawski, and John D. MacDonald’s Travis McGee. But the ones you have to read are Mosley’s Easy Rawlins novels. Bonus: Robert Crumley’s The Last Good Kiss.

Traditional: Southern Fried, Cathy Pickens

Traditional is often conflated with cozy, but I’m here to argue that Agatha Christie is traditional; cats and cookies is cozy. (I won’t be recommending any cozies.) Pickens—who teaches at Charlotte Lit—won the prestigious St. Martin’s Press Best Traditional Mystery with her first Avery Andrews novel.

Forensic: Death du Jour or A Conspiracy of Bones, Kathy Reichs

Two choices here out of 20 Temperance Brennan novels for Charlotte’s Reichs: a classic and her latest (out in early 2020). If you like the television series Bones, you’ll love the books.

Literary: Case Histories, Kate Atkinson

There’s something compelling about the enigmatic Jackson Brodie and his mysteries, in which seemingly unconnected events all come together in the end. In less sure hands than Atkinson you might fuss about the neatness of the weave, but instead you’ll marvel. Bonus: anything by Allen Eskens.

Police Procedural: In the Woods, Tana French

It’s cheating to call French’s work police procedural, although there is police work at the center. French could qualify as literary, or character-driven, or atmospheric, or whodunnit doesn’t actually matter, or just read this. Bonus: Michael Connelly’s Harry Bosch novels.

Suspense: The Day She Died, Catriona McPherson

It’s difficult to select one McPherson, but this creepy psychological thriller is as good a place as any. Bonus: for some lighter McPherson, try her Lexy Campbell novels Scot Free and Scot Soda.

Futuristic: The Last Policeman, Ben H. Winters

With six months until the end of the world, what’s the point in solving murders if we’re all going to die soon, anyway? This Edgar winner is the first book in a fantastic trilogy, with Countdown City and World of Trouble. Note that if you’re in for one, you’ll have to read all three. Bonus: Colson Whitehead’s The Intuitionist.

Female Detective: Styx and Stone, James W. Ziskin

You’ve no doubt heard of Sue Graton’s alphabet series (from A is for Alibi to Y is for Yesterday), and Laura Lippman’s Baltimore-based Tess Monaghan novels, and you can’t go wrong with these. But if you want something different, try Ziskin’s fun Ellie Stone series.

Read the Book Instead: Fletch, by Gregory McDonald

Many people loved the movie version with Chevy Chase as reporter I. M. Fletcher, but only if they hadn’t read the novel—which was fast and funny, and also dark and deceptively deep, and with a twist you wouldn’t see coming. Bonus: read the first three in this order: Fletch, then Confess, Fletch, then Fletch’s Fortune.

Be sure to check out our Tips for Building a Better Book Club.

Tips for a Better Book Club

Six Tips for Getting Started Writing: Kathie Collins & Paul Reali on Charlotte Today

Thanks to WCNC’s Charlotte Today, with Colleen Odegaard and Eugene Robinson, for having us on the show. (If you can’t see the video, try it here.)

Writing Prompt: What do they do when…

Occasionally we’ll post the writing prompt from our free weekly Pen to Paper session. Today’s prompt comes from Megan Rich.

To describe characters more richly, consider how their actions and reactions change under different circumstances. For a character you’re writing about, think about the character’s:

  • facial expressions
  • movements/gestures
  • things they say

When they are experiencing:

  • regret
  • nostalgia
  • conflict
  • injustice
  • anger
  • contentment
  • etc.

Use what you’ve discovered to write a scene with this character.