The Magic of Listening to Stories

by Meghan Modafferi

If you tune into NPR, sooner or later you’ll hear the phrase “driveway moment.” It’s when you’ve reached your destination, but you just can’t bring yourself to turn off the radio, to get out of the car. You have to hear the ending of the story that’s airing on, say, This American Life.

Ever wonder how the writer did that? When attention spans are shorter than ever, how do you keep someone hooked when you have access to only one of their senses—hearing?

Like anything in writing, or life, there are millions of answers to every question. But for me, I keep coming back to the essay. Or, rather, the essai; in French, the meaning is “to attempt.” It describes an intimate perspective, with a narrator who’s searching rather than concluding. While traditional nonfiction delivers the results of a study or investigation, literary essays focus on the journey—as interior as it is exterior, full of wrong turns and dead ends, where doubts and emotions are not detours to avoid but the very meat of the story. Where how the sausage gets made and the sausage itself start to blur. Where the narrator shows themself in the attempt to understand rather than already understanding.

If you’ve listened to The New Yorker Radio Hour or watched a video essay on YouTube, you’ve likely heard this approach. It’s powerful to the ear because of its intimacy. Think about it: we all live in a state of searching. We don’t live in neat, cohesive stories; we live in a muddle that we make sense of until something breaks that sense, and then we have to find a new angle to make sense of it again.

And when someone speaks directly into your ear and tells you about that journey in their own mind, it’s electric, like a magician sharing their secrets. Because what’s more magical than taking the mess of life and making it into a story? It’s what we spend all our time doing—as writers, yes, but also as humans. Joan Didion wrote, “We tell ourselves stories in order to live.”

So when, inevitably, the narrator in your ear doesn’t find what they were looking for but something else that’s even richer and more meaningful, it gives us hope. Hope that we, too, are on a journey of discovery that only gets sweeter with each wrong turn. And with that kind of magic, you simply can’t help it: you put the car in park and keep listening.

Learn to Write and Record a 3-Minute Essay with Meghan

THREE THURSDAYS, FEBRUARY 8, 15, & 22: “The Sound of Writing: Writing and Recording the 3-Minute Essay,” 6:00-8:00 p.m., Charlotte Art League, 4237 Raleigh Street, Charlotte 28213. Info and registration

In this three-session course, you’ll learn what makes a great spoken essay; draft, get feedback, and edit an essay; learn the basics of being recorded; and record your three-minute essay in a professional sound studio.

Meghan Modafferi is the editorial director of Crash Course, an award-winning YouTube channel reaching more than 70 million people per year. She has taught writing and podcasting at Georgetown University, and her written and multimedia work has been published by National GeographicSlate, and NPR.

What IS an Essay?

Randon Billings NobleBy Randon Billings Noble

What is an essay? A basic five-paragraph argument? A long and rambling meditation? A deep dive into academic research? A funny or embarrassing personal anecdote?

Yes … but also no. An essay can be so much more than we might first think.

Montaigne is known as the father of the essay. Reading him now can feel like heavy sledding. His 16th-century prose is ornate and demands a level of attention our 21st-century minds aren’t used to, but what he was writing was revolutionary. After retiring from politics, he decided to write about himself, his thoughts, his experiences, his realizations. Before this, most first-person writing was confessional in the religious sense. But Montaigne wrote about more earthly concerns, like friendship, sadness, idleness, letter-writing, sleep, death, clothes. He used his own experiences to discover intellectual insights. He created – or at least radically shaped – a new form of writing.

When pressed for a brass-tacks definition of an essay, I use one I learned in graduate school: an essay is a piece of writing with a beginning, middle, and end that develops an idea in an interesting way. Note that an essay doesn’t require an introduction, body, and conclusion; it doesn’t have to end so neatly. Nor does it a require a thesis; essays can do more than argue or prove. An essay can question, wonder, warn, dismantle, challenge, gesture to, forecast, probe, propose, or explore.

Annie Dillard writes that the “essay is, and has been, all over the map. There’s nothing you cannot do with it; no subject matter is forbidden, no structure is proscribed. You get to make up your own structure every time, a structure that arises from the materials and best contains them.”

Look at Adam Gopnik’s somewhat traditional essay “Bumping into Mr. Ravioli,” which starts with a story about his daughter’s imaginary friend but then expands to do some serious thinking about the ways our tech-filled urban lives keep us too busy for real connection. Or look at Sarah Einstein’s segmented essay “A Young Man Tells Me,” which uses a list to comment on contemporary masculinity without ever making an overt (or thesis-y) claim about it. Or look at Christine Byl’s flash essay “Bear Fragments,” which is exactly what it sounds like: seven short fragments about bears. What do they add up to? That’s up to the reader to decide.

The core of an essay is an idea, something that the writer thinks, something they want to say. But the way to say it is nearly boundless. Each essay’s structure is unique to the ideas within. Funny, thoughtful, subtle, sharp, meditative, pointed, meandering – there’s much more to the essay than five paragraphs.

Randon Billings Noble is an essayist. Her collection Be with Me Always was published by the University of Nebraska Press in 2019 and her anthology of lyric essays, A Harp in the Stars, was published by Nebraska in 2021. Other work has appeared in the Modern Love column of The New York Times, The Rumpus, Brevity, and Creative Nonfiction. Currently she is the founding editor of the online literary magazine After the Art and teaches in West Virginia Wesleyan’s Low-Residency MFA Program and Goucher’s MFA in Nonfiction Program. You can read more at her website,

Learn to Write Segmented Essays with Randon. Randon Billings Noble leads “Segmented Essays: When the Whole is Greater than the Sum of Its Parts” for Charlotte Lit via Zoom, Tuesday, December 5, 2023, 6:00-8:00 p.m. Info and registration

Writing as Triathlon

Kathy IzardWhen I first began writing, I believed the most difficult part would be finishing a full-length manuscript, so I only thought it was important to take classes relating to story craft. It was a rude awakening to realize there was so much more I needed to know if anyone was ever going to be able to buy my book and read it.

In a 2002 NY Times article, Think You Have a Book in You? Think Again, author Joseph Epstein cited a study that revealed “81% of Americans feel they have a book in them.” He goes on to use the rest of his essay to dissuade people from writing and suggests instead, “Keep it inside you where it belongs.”

Apparently, a lot of people do as Epstein suggests and “save the typing, save the trees.” On, a blog states .01% ever make it to their goal of finishing that book. No doubt that is because a crafting great story is only about 30% of the book problem. Once authors type “The End,” it’s only the beginning of a long process to write query letters, secure an agent, sign a book contract and market the book. Add on to that the frustrating demand from publishers that writers must also build a “platform” on social media to sell their work, and really, it does seem like Epstein might have been right.

At the same time, it has never been easier for authors to bypass the agents who are gatekeepers of the Big Five publishing world and create their own books. The idea of “self-publishing” is not new, dating back to 1439 when the first printing press was invented by a German goldsmith named Johannes Gutenberg. Fast forward to 1979, when computers made desktop publishing accessible and the current print-on-demand technology possible.

In the last forty years, Amazon (KDP Direct) and Ingram (IngramSpark) have dominated and consolidated the POD world, creating a level of sophistication that can make a self-published book indistinguishable from traditionally published titles. But to navigate this part of the publishing universe, aspiring writers must learn how to turn their manuscripts into properly formatted files—a process which can seem daunting.

In truth, it simply takes more of the same persistence required to finish your 65,000-word manuscript. You can learn how to master plot lines and dialogue, as well as how to publish your own great book. Take, for example, the determination of Lisa Genova.

In 2007, she was simply a grad student who had received multiple rejections from traditional publishers. But Genova believed in her manuscript based on the story of her grandmother’s early onset Alzheimer’s, so the aspiring author self-published. After gaining popularity with readers, Simon & Shuster picked up the title and republished it two years later under the title Still Alice. Genova’s book, which had been initially rejected, was on The New York Times Best Seller List for more than 40 weeks, sold in 30 countries, translated into 20 languages, and became an Oscar-winning film. None of that would have happened if Genova had not taken the initiative to publish her own book.

In reality, writing a book is like completing a triathlon—and each of the three stages takes training: writing, publishing and marketing. Don’t wait until your last page to think about how to get your book in the world. Start now, learning to navigate the publishing and book-marketing world.

Maybe even more important than crafting your great characters is learning how your readers will ultimately discover them.

Learn About Self-publishing with Kathy

TUESDAY, OCTOBER 17, 2023: “Paths to Self-Publishing,” 6:00-8:00 p.m., in-person at Charlotte Lit

So, you’ve finished a manuscript and have made the decision to self-publish. Where do you start? Or, maybe you worry that self-publishing means “settling” for an unprofessional product. No matter on which side of that fence you sit, the volume of information and opinions is overwhelming. It can be difficult to know which services to trust and whether self-publishing is right for you. Kathy Izard has published four books three ways, including self-published and “Big Five.” Kathy will walk you through 10 steps to putting your words in the world. From purchasing your own ISBN number to ordering author copies, Kathy can answer all your questions about becoming a published author of adult or children’s books. Info

About Kathy

Kathy Izard is an award-winning author and speaker who writes inspirational nonfiction, including The Hundred Story Home, The Last Ordinary Hour and her upcoming release Trust the Whisper (Summer 2024). Kathy also publishes children’s books including A Good Night for Mr. Coleman and Grace Heard a Whisper (Fall 2023). Kathy has written essays for Katie Couric Media and her work as been featured on the Today Show, inspiring people to be changemakers in their community. Online:


All Details are Not Created Equally

by Craig Buchner

I have a vivd memory from graduate school at Western Carolina, almost 20 years ago. My thesis director commented on my final project, a collection of a few short stories. He said that the details I chose in those stories were particularly precise and thoughtful. At that time in my writing development, I was including details that quickly came to mind, and I would settle on one or maybe two details within a scene to highlight—choosing efficiency of language over any greater world building. At the time, it was easier to write in a more clipped, Hemingway-style, and it saved time so I could focus more energy on developing the narrative and plot.

Two decades on—after publishing two books—I still write like this, but it isn’t for the same reasons. Instead, I realize that a focused detail or two can add a deeper layer or dimension to a story.

For example, in my collection of short stories Brutal Beasts I include a story called “Held in Place by Teeth that Face Inward,” in which the protagonist goes to a dive bar with his brother after said brother is arrested. While the brother orders “two Mich Lights and two shots of Fireball,” the protagonist settles on a Sprite “with a slice of lime if you got it.” This drink choice allows me, the author, to establish that the protagonist is sober and moreover that he carries a backstory far more nuanced than the present story at hand. The protagonist makes choices in the scene based on a history he carries, yet that history never has to be explicitly told.

For me, this example illustrates that a well chosen, intentional detail can carry a significant amount of weight within a story that, if positioned well, can establish tension within a scene and between characters, and it supersedes unnecessary backstory or a lengthly explanation, which might slow down the story too much. Too many specific details, in this view, can dilute a scene, leaving a reader to wonder where they should focus their attention, and ultimately lose sight of a key detail that might come back later in the story to reinforce a climactic moment.

I’ve always been attracted to brevity in stories, but it’s taken me a couple decades to understand the true power of it within storytelling. So, I leave you with this thought: Details matter, but not all of them. Choose wisely!

Learn Short Story Writing with Craig

BEGINNING NEXT TUESDAY: “Writing the Short Story,” three Tuesdays, September 26, October 3 & 10, 6:00-8:00 p.m., virtual via Zoom. 

“Cut the piano in half with a chainsaw.” How can this advice influence us to write the best short stories? In this three-week course, we’ll learn how to write a captivating scene for a short story, and explore what a successful scene should accomplish. We will also break down the essential elements of a short story, including character, setting, and dialogue. In lieu of workshopping, writing exercises will give students opportunities to apply these lessons to their own work. And what about that “piano”? We’ll hear that story in the first class!. Info

About Craig

Craig Buchner holds an M.F.A. from the University of Idaho and a M.A. in English from Western Carolina University. He’s taught writing at Brevard College, Washington State University, and Portland Community College. His debut collection of short stories, Brutal Beasts (NFB Publishing), was chosen as an “Indie Book of the Year” in 2022 by Kirkus Reviews. He is also the author of the novel Fish Cough (Buckman Press), which was named an “Indie Books We Love” by LoveReading in 2023. Craig lives with his family in Charlotte.

Piece by Piece

by Jaime Pollard-Smith

“Because in real life, unlike in history books, stories come to us not in their entirety but in bits and pieces, broken segments and partial echoes, a full sentence here, a fragment there, a clue hidden in between. In life, unlike in books, we have to weave our stories out of threads as fine as the gossamer veins that run through a butterfly wing.” ~Elif Shafak, The Island of Missing Trees

Kintsugi is the centuries-old Japanese art of fixing broken pottery. The word beautifully translates to “golden joinery.” This process involves piecing together fragments of broken pottery and filling in the cracks with gold. The shimmering seams not only add value, but they create a one of a kind piece that cannot be replicated. Brokenness builds beauty. I like to apply this same process when writing creative nonfiction.

My writing students often struggle with knowing where to begin. How far back do they need to travel to enter the story? They feel a burden to provide all of the context up front. We are conditioned to produce “Once upon a time…” and “Happily ever after…” stories; yet that is never how our minds actually construct meaning. Readers might crave chronology, but it does not represent our internal life. Our life itself is an act of “golden joinery,” which is why I propose my students dive right into the messy middle. They can pick any moment from their life that they remember vividly. William Zinsser encourages writers to think small. If they have held onto a memory, it is there for a reason. Writers such as Anne Lamott teach that we don’t have to know what we are doing in order to just start the process of writing. Writers might not even know a beginning until they figure out where they are going.

Once the writer feels the freedom to write in fragmented pieces, the possibilities are endless. It becomes a process of discovery rather than production. I tell my students to write in vivid detail, capture the feeling and paint the picture. Show us the sweater, the sunset, the creaky staircase, the broken crayons, the hole in the sock, or the tear stained cheek. Zoom in again and again like exploring different pinned spots on a map. Reel us in, then step out and re-enter a new time and place. These snapshots can be joined in a beautiful new arrangement somewhere down the road. Don’t worry yourself with those details at the start. Enjoy the unfolding as you pick up the pieces.

Explore writing piece by piece with Jaime Pollard-Smith and Zeba Mehdi: “Framing Our Experience: A Life in Pieces” at Charlotte Lit, Tuesday, September 12, 6:00-8:00 p.m. Info

Jaime Pollard-Smith is a full-time writing instructor at Central Piedmont Community College with a Master of Arts from New York University. When she is not corralling two teenagers and a doodle named Dexter, she can be found practicing yoga, weightlifting, hiking, journaling and enjoying the arts. Her fiction has been published in Literary Mama, and she is a contributor for Scary Mommy and Project We Forget. Online:

Essay Shakedown: Personal Versus Reported

by Amy Paturel

In almost every personal essay class, I get the question: “What is a reported essay?” And it’s a great question, particularly since publications like The New York Times, The Washington Post, and The Atlantic are increasingly shying away from personal essays in favor of reported essays. So what’s the difference between the two? Read on!

The Personal
Personal essays delve into a deeply personal experience that may only be relevant to you (i.e., you may be the only person who experienced this particular “thing”). But you tell the story in such a way that anyone can relate to the over-arching message or theme. The key here: You have to have that universal theme or take-home message.

The personal focuses exclusively on your experience with a sort of three-legged stool approach:

  • Scene (sensory details, dialogue, showing)
  • Story (narrative and plot movement, i.e., what’s happening)
  • Reflection (your musings about the experience)

Some examples:

The Reported
With a reported essay, your reader may enthusiastically say, “yes, me, too!” It gives you the opportunity to reflect on your personal experience while recognizing that other people have probably experienced it, too. The way to achieve that end: Statistics. If you can show that INSERT NUMBER OF people also suffer from “you name the experience,” you have the basic scaffolding for a reported essay.

Then, you get to research the who, what, why, when and how, behind the experience and (hopefully) help other people in the process. Here are a few examples:

So what steps do you need to take to craft a pitch for a reported essay?

  • Do some research: Get statistics that prove you’re not alone in the experience.
  • Identify the experts: Search for diverse expert sources who can speak to your experience. Maybe you consult the authors of the studies you uncovered in step 1. Or maybe you search for the top physicians, researchers, and “on-the-ground” experts who can speak to the issue you experienced. The key is to identify the best people to speak to your issue.
  • Craft a pitch for a reported essay. A hint: You should be able to explain what the story is about in two sentences or less.

Now it’s your turn: Craft a pitch for a reported essay. Research the topic or issue you want to explore in a personal essay. Struggling with sibling rivalry in your home? Review the latest psychology research about what sibling rivalry is, why it happens, and how to build a more harmonious home. Want to quit smoking, but can’t seem to commit? Try acupuncture, meditation, or guided imagery, then write a reported essay pitch about what you learned.

Your pitch should include the following:

  • A compelling opening anecdote, similar to what you might craft for a narrative essay.
  • Data, statistics, and/or recent research findings.
  • Three or four experts you would like to interview for the story.

Copyright © 2021 by Amy Paturel. First published in slightly different form at

Learn reported essays from Amy! “Writing and Pitching the Reported Essay” is online via Zoom, two Sundays, July 30 and August 6, 1:00-4:00 p.m. Info

Then and Now

Surrealist Games

Characters as Friends