Collecting Family Stories

Melinda Ferguson Sherman

Melinda Ferguson Sherman

As I’ve been writing in my journal these past thirty-some years, I’ve often found myself associating events of the day with memories of my childhood, or referencing family stories I often heard growing up. Some of the stories are about me before I was old enough to remember them; others tell a story of  “the time when” my brother, mom, or dad had a funny, disastrous, or a just-goes-to-show-you learning experience. How surprising and enriching it is to discover new associations and meanings in old stories.

This experience inspired me to write short pieces of memoir with the notion of passing family stories onto my children. Otherwise, how would they ever know my family’s background, which is rooted in rural Ohio and is vastly different from their childhoods growing up in Manhattan and Long Island? In today’s world, where traditional family Sunday dinners, weekend visits, and annual reunions are not as feasible as in the past, writing down our stories is the only path open to those of us who want to preserve our memories for posterity and familiarize our children with their ancestors.

The same day I learned of my pending new status as a grandmother, I came across an ad for a book I immediately ordered: Unconditional Love: A Guide to Navigating the Joys and Challenges of Being a Grandparent Today, by Jane Isay. Having read the book, I’m persuaded that our personal stories are of priceless importance to our children, grandchildren, and future generations. All of our stories — happy, sad, tragic, comic, of famous family heroes and infamous villains — nurture our children’s belief in themselves, their place in the world, their self-worth. Children who’ve heard family stories are less anxious and more resilient in times of uncertainty.

Those of us who write these stories profit in several ways. We bring to our stories a more mature understanding of their meaning; we form bonds with the younger generation; and, in the process of researching and revisiting our past, are likely to reach out to family and friends whom we haven’t seen or heard from for years. We, too, become more connected, more comfortable in the world, and perhaps a bit less anxious.

START COLLECTING YOUR FAMILY STORIES WITH MELINDA: Melinda Ferguson Sherman leads the four-session workshop “Five Generations: Collecting Family Memories,” beginning Tuesday, October 20. More info

ABOUT MELINDA: Melinda Ferguson Sherman was born in Ohio and lived most of her life in New York City and Long Island before moving to Charlotte two years ago. She is a writer, teacher, and––for nearly 20 years––a journal and memoir writing workshop facilitator. She has written two books of family stories for her children. Melinda has a BA from Miami University, an MA from Columbia University, and an MFA in Creative Writing from Southampton. She worked as an editor at Warner, Walker, and Macmillan. Most recently, she’s served as adjunct faculty at Suffolk County (NY) Community College and Central Piedmont Community College.

A Few Thoughts on Writing Reviews

John Amen

John Amen

Discussing the dynamics, structures, and techniques inherent to the artistic process heightens one’s ability to connect with work beyond “liking” and “disliking.” If you “like” something, why? What about the artist’s craft made that possible? Reviews can offer a rating, if the publication demands that (it’s a way to hook readers with bottom-line info), but they can also facilitate discussions that go beyond the particular work in question, shedding light on universal themes and methods.


Sometimes I regard reviewing as a commentary on my own reading, listening, viewing, etc. In this sense, I’m observing my process of engaging with the work in question: what thoughts come to me, what emotions? Is the experience bumpy, fluid? Am I resistant? Immediately onboard? As a friend of mine says, “whatever trip they’re offering, that’s the one I’m taking.” As a reviewer, I find this a helpful touchstone, as I consider it my job to let go of biases and engage with the work as it unfolds according to its own nature, as well as to discuss how the artist delivers (or not) on the offered experience. What about the piece, book, album, etc. helped to bring “the trip” to fruition? What impeded it?


I try to connect first with what seem like the essentials of the piece. If text, what is a major theme? What are stylistic signatures? What is the pace of the writing? Heavy on images? How about voice? Formal? Vernacular? With music, if there are vocals, what are lyrical themes? Is the melody compelling? (Numerous books have been written on neurology as it relates to the phenomena of hooks.) Again, I try to navigate the work on its own terms, then perhaps consider possible comparisons and influences, placing it in a broader context.


I try to keep in mind that the entirety of my listening, reading, learning, and life experience can often be relevant in a review context. There are times when a straightforward, objective piece is needed, other times it may be appropriate to reference existentialism, geometry, or your trip to Europe when you were a kid…in your commentary on the latest album from, say, Waxahatchee. Review in a way that engages you, so that you’re “doing the job” but also expressing yourself authentically and in a way that is creatively fulfilling.

Here are links to a few recent reviews:
1. The new album from Jyoti (Georgia Anne Muldrow)
2. The new album from Nicolas Jaar
3. The latest poetry collection from Bruce Weigl

John Amen is the author of several collections of poetry, most recently Illusion of an Overwhelm (New York Quarterly, 2017). His poetry and reviews have appeared in various publications, including RattlePrairie SchoonerLos Angeles ReviewExclaim!PopMattersThe Brooklyn Rail, and Colorado Review. He is a staff reviewer for the music magazine and website No Depression. He founded and edits Pedestal Magazine.

Learn the Art of the Review: John teaches “Writing Reviews: Curiosity Over Verdict” — October 13, 2020, at 6 pm. Info here.

Making Conscious Choices

In my Introduction to Fiction Writing class, I tell undergraduates that if they learn nothing else in our time together, I’d like them to absorb the idea that creative writing is about making choices. That means selecting everything from plot to characters to setting to POV to theme.

It doesn’t mean picking and choosing at random, although—as writer Lillian Li pointed out in a craft article for Glimmer Train—small choices like a character’s name or eye color might be arbitrary. Bigger decisions, affecting a character’s identity or culture, must be thought out.

This is especially important when a writer doesn’t have the same cultural experiences as the characters they write about—a more and more frequent occurrence. Most of us consider “write what (or who) you know” pretty limiting advice, and we want to include a broad cast in our writing. We want to be free to express our creativity.

Examining your intent doesn’t curb your creative powers, though; it can deepen them. Try asking yourself probing questions such as: As a white writer, why did I include this Black character in my story? What purpose does this gay character serve in a plot that centers on a straight couple? As an able-bodied person, can I tell the story of someone with a disability with depth, not pity?

When writers forget to examine the “why” behind these decisions—their intentions—mistakes often follow and the writing rings false. Now, “mistake” is an unforgiving term: “an action that is wrong,” according to one definition. Like most writers, I can get hung up on being “wrong.” If I give that enough space, it hovers over my writing desk and makes me feel like a failure.

In contrast, my wife recently pointed out that “error” comes from the Latin for “to wander,” and the idea intrigued me. When I think about wandering, I see myself getting lost and fumbling, maybe finding my way for a while but probably getting lost again. Next time, I’ll consult Google Maps or stop and ask for directions. The process sounds less final, less condemning.

To bring this metaphor home: If we as writers spent more time examining our intentions upfront, that could lead us to taking better paths, making conscious choices that humanize and flesh out all our characters, not just the ones who most resemble us. Our writing will still contain errors, that’s a given; but what we learn along the way may lead to stronger, more complex work.

STUDY CHARACTER DEVELOPMENT WITH PAULA: Paula Martinac leads the four-week studio “Creating Characters That Reflect Our World” — a mostly-asynchronous, at-your-own-pace experience in writing fiction or nonfiction that includes characters different from you in race, gender, sexuality, or other ways. Begins Sunday, October 18More info

ABOUT PAULA: Paula Martinac has published five novels and a book of short stories. In 2019, she received a Literary Fellowship from the North Carolina Arts Council and a Creative Renewal Fellowship from the Arts and Science Council. She teaches fiction writing at UNC Charlotte.

The Schrödinger’s Cat of Writing: “Show, Don’t Tell”

“Show, don’t tell” is perhaps the most the famous, or infamous, instruction for writers. This reputation is deserved, as the phrase manages to be both absolutely right and dead wrong at the same time. It’s a kind of Schrödinger’s Cat, and knowing whether the rule is dead or alive, in a manner of speaking, can significantly boost your writing.

Let’s first define our terms. To show is to render the action live on the page; when you show, the reader can see it happening right now. To tell is to summarize what happened, or to describe something that can’t be seen, such as thoughts.

On a sentence level, the cat lives: “show, don’t tell” is a fundamental truth. Rather than telling your reader “she was happy,” show her walking sprightly down the street, whistling, greeting passersby who look at her strangely. Have her call out, “Isn’t the day glorious?”

On a scene level, the cat’s dead: we must use both showing (here, known as being in immediate scene) and telling (also known as exposition). Here’s why: we don’t read just to see what happens; we read to see how characters experience what happens. That experience is both external—action you can see on the page—and internal—the world of the mind.

The balance of showing and telling on the scene level varies by genre—for instance, literary fiction and memoir will have more exposition than thrillers and mysteries. This balance will also vary widely inside a single book, because this is how writers control pacing. Showing moves the story forward in real time. Exposition (telling) is time travel: it lets us skip over the dull bits (car rides, baths, staring out of windows), flash back to an earlier time, or stop time entirely so that we can sit and listen to a character think.

This is easy to see for yourself. Open a novel or memoir and read a passage. Use a pencil to underline any exposition, while leaving the immediate scene plain. See how it goes back and forth? Repeat with another scene or two. Now, read those scenes and pay attention to the pacing. Note that the better it’s done, the less you notice it.

So: remember Schrödinger when you write, and know which “show, don’t tell” cat you’re playing with. On a sentence level, the cat purrs when you show action and emotion instead of telling. On a scene level, let the cat go: mix the showing and telling and step through your story at a pace you control—elegantly, maybe even invisibly to the reader, on ghost cat feet.

STUDY SCENES WITH PAUL: Paul Reali leads the four-week “Scene Studio” — a mostly-asynchronous, at-your-own-pace deep dive into what makes scenes work in novels, short stories, and memoirs. Begins Sunday, October 18, 2020More info

ABOUT PAUL: Paul Reali, co-founder of Charlotte Lit, is the co-author of Creativity Rising: Creative Thinking and Creative Problem Solving in the 21st Century. In addition, his work has been published in the Winston-Salem Journal, InSpine, Office Solutions, Lawyers Weekly, and others. His fiction has been awarded first place in the Elizabeth Simpson Smith and Ruth Moose Flash Fiction competitions, and he received a Regional Artist Project Grant from Charlotte’s Arts & Science Council in 2018. Paul has an M.S. in Creativity from the International Center for Studies in Creativity at SUNY Buffalo State, where he is the managing editor of ICSC Press.

Excerpt from “The Skin Artist” by George Hovis

George Hovis

George Hovis

The needles burned worse than last time. But today he was sober. Bill watched the artist’s eyes. The eyes alone seemed to will the tattoo gun’s movement as it trenched the skin of Bill’s forearm, burying its seed of ink. Maybe it was better not to try to make conversation. Just get this over with. But he needed to talk, needed to hear Niall talk, to establish something human between them.

“I never knew tattooing went so far back.” Bill raised his voice over the metallic buzz of the tattoo gun, wanting to distract the artist, but afraid to distract him.

“At one point in history,” Niall said, his gaze still focused on Bill’s tender skin, “tattooing was taken very seriously, as well it should be. It’s strong magic and not simply about marketing oneself at the club.”

Bill looked away from the pain, closed his eyes, and focused on slowing his breath.  Though he hadn’t known at the time, the first tattoo had been for Maddie, a drunkard’s selfish gambit. He had hoped to conjure new life into their marriage by shocking her into acknowledging him, his body, if only to laugh.

“There are very few artists left,” Niall went on, “few human beings, who practice magic,” “as long as you don’t count crap like Wicca, which isn’t magic. It’s just mass-produced garbage designed to elevate somebody to the top of a social circle.”

Bill forced a laugh. “Wicca sounds a lot like corporate America.” His cushy corporate job had gone the way of his wife and the gated community, leaving Bill here half dressed, huffing air thick with solvent, at the mercy of this con artist and his interminable recitations, which Bill was starting to crave as much as he craved this cutting of his skin.

“Thousands of years ago in early mystical cultures,” Niall continued to drone, “they all believed the same things: there are certain marks you don’t make unless you are ready to move mountains. The skin is a protective barrier in every way. When you start opening the skin, you can do ten times the magic work.”

Bill looked again at the spreading blood. “So, what if the tattooist is just some grease ball named Pork Chop—”

“—who specializes in rebel flags and Harley Davidson emblems?” Niall smirked.

“It still has an effect?”

“Of course it does. Even if the artist isn’t actively engaging in a ritual at the time, a tattoo can still act on a metaphysical plane and alter someone’s reality for good or bad.”

“But with less predictability?”

“Usually the result is utter chaos.” Niall switched off the power supply and lay the gun on the counter. Bill noticed again the delicate hands. Their precision reminded him of Maddie’s hands, how he still craved their touch.

“I’m very careful in my work,” the artist said, “and even I have accidentally ruined lives. And sometimes not accidentally.”

LEARN WITH GEORGE HOVIS: George leads a new Charlotte Lit class, Making it Strange, Making it Real: Writing Literary Fantasy, Thursday, October 1, 6-7:30 p.m. More info

ABOUT GEORGE: George Hovis grew up in rural Gaston County, North Carolina. His debut novel, The Skin Artist — nominated for the 2019 Sir Walter Raleigh Award and a Finalist for the Eric Hoffer Award — tells the story of Charlotte’s emergence in the 90s as a “world-class city,” one with deep and often tortured connections to the surrounding hinterlands. George’s stories and essays have appeared widely in anthologies and journals, including The Carolina Quarterly, Southern Cultures, New Madrid, and The North Carolina Literary Review. He is a professor of English at SUNY Oneonta, where he was awarded the 2017 SUNY Chancellor’s Award for Excellence in Teaching.

Not Today, Noonday Demon

Jessica Jacobs

Jessica Jacobs

Editor’s Note: Jessica Jacobs leads the new Charlotte Lit 4-week studio, In the Beginning: Exploring Questions of Spirituality and Religion through Poetry, beginning September 13. More info

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With two new books between us, my wife and I spent nearly nine months of 2019 traveling, giving readings and teaching workshops at festivals and conferences from Florida to Washington state. Our meager spells at home consisted primarily of recovering from our most recent trip while simultaneously preparing for the next one, our bags permanently half-packed, our pets alternately desperate for our attention (the dogs) or showily displaying their displeasure at our absence (no surprise here: the cats).

Then, 2020: We taught at the Palm Poetry Festival in January and after that? Panic, global and local, uncertainty, every last one of our spring gigs postponed or outright cancelled. Which meant that, fortunate as we were to have our home and health and each other, all our normal markers of time were gone.

In some ways, there was great beauty in this. I can now tell you the exact stages of bloom and fruit and seed undertaken by the blackberries, then the raspberries, and now the figs; the names of our neighbors and their much-more-frequently-walked dogs. But I’ve also floundered in periods of deep restlessness, having difficulty concentrating when trying to read or write.

When this besieges the unhappy mind, it begets aversion from the place, boredom from one’s cell, and scorn and contempt for one’s brethren…Also, towards any work that may be done within the enclosure of our own lair, we become listless and inert.

Sound familiar? That’s not twenty-first century me talking, but Desert Father John Cassian, writing in the 4th Century of a frequent scourge of his fellow monks—acedia a.k.a. “the noonday demon” a.k.a. sloth, listlessness, chronic and debilitating apathy. A disease the British writer Sara Maitland called “the reverse sense of ‘givenness’. . . that no action or decision is worth taking for oneself, that no act of will can have any results, so why bother?”

Reading this text from so long ago that so accurately described my internal struggles, I felt not only a sense of transtemporal camaraderie, of being that much less alone, but also learned from Cassian a solution to what before felt like a uniquely modern malaise: make a schedule and keep to it, do work on behalf of others, give thanks for the specific moments of each day for which you are grateful while reflecting on what you might like to change for the better, and try and connect with something larger than yourself, like God or community or the natural world.

And so I’ve begun crafting a shape to my days. Between regular runs and dog-walks and meal preps, I’ve been editing and teaching, and, to feed my own writing, delving into Torah (the Old Testament) and associated scholarship and contemporary spiritual poems, grateful for the ancient wisdom, companionship, and inspiration to be found there.

Jessica Jacobs is the author of Take Me with You, Wherever You’re Going (Four Way Books), one of Library Journal’s Best Poetry Books of the Year, winner of the Goldie Award in Poetry from the Golden Crown Literary Society, and a finalist for both the Brockman-Campbell and Julie Suk Book Awards. Her debut collection, Pelvis with Distance (White Pine Press), a biography-in-poems of Georgia O’Keeffe, won the New Mexico Book Award in Poetry and was a finalist for the Lambda Literary Award and Julie Suk Award. An avid long-distance runner, Jessica has worked as a rock-climbing instructor, bartender, and professor, and now serves as the Chapbook Editor for Beloit Poetry Journal. She lives in Asheville, NC, with her wife, the poet Nickole Brown, with whom she co-authored Write It! 100 Poetry Prompts to Inspire (Spruce Books/PenguinRandomHouse), and is at work on parallel collections of essays and poems exploring spirituality, Torah, and Midrash. You can learn more about her at

Study with Jessica: Jessica Jacobs leads the new Charlotte Lit 4-week studio, In the Beginning: Exploring Questions of Spirituality and Religion through Poetry, beginning September 13. More info

Ramble Your Way Through the Pandemic

Cathy Pickens

Cathy Pickens

Recently, writer friends tell me they’re stuck, they can’t focus, can’t seem to write. One said she feels as if she’s withering.

What are we to do?

My pandemic solutions don’t vary much from my everyday solutions to living a joyfully creative life. The pandemic has just convinced me that they can work.

1. Turn off screens. No one needs a steady diet of the things we’re fed as “news.” And you’ve already binge-watched everything. If you can’t do a cold-turkey detox, at least limit your time with TV, social media, even newspapers. Be the adult over your own “child control” settings.

2. If you can’t write, now is the perfect time for what I call a ramble. “But I’m on lockdown!” you announce, indignant. All the better for stretching your creative muscles. (Not all rambles require leaving your house.) I offer suggestions but only to get you started on your own list:

Deep reading. An involved book with rich characters and an intriguing plot may seem too demanding right now. But give it a try. Research shows we’re losing our ability to concentrate, but deep reading helps—and lets us step outside ourselves for a while. My favorites: Dickens’ Bleak House (he’s surprisingly witty, not bleak) or Wilkie Collins’ The Woman in White (the first “sensation” novel and still a page-turner).

A new skill. What have you always wanted to try but just haven’t had the time…or the nerve? For me, it’s sketching. Of course it won’t be good. But it could get better. And I’ve got pencils and paper aplenty. My sister just designed and (single-handedly) built a deck behind her house. I’ll choose something inside, out of the heat. What have you wanted to try? Maybe you’ll bake. Or collage. Play with sidewalk chalk. Write poetry. [Not a poet? Find George Ella Lyon’s Where I’m From poem online and use it as a template to write your own list poem.] Stretch those creative muscles.

Reaching out. Life goes on for our friends and family and we can’t always be there. My husband’s close friend is dying. For him, it’s not a sad story. I can hear both sides of the phone conversation when he calls from Oklahoma. He’s as exuberant and fun-loving (and food-loving) as he’s always been. Something prompted me to write him a note, to tell him how his wide-open arms and big laugh always made me feel so welcome when I visited that close-knit group of old high-school friends. (They’re all pushing 80 now.) Just a little note. He says he’s showed it to everyone he knows, that it’s getting a bit tattered but he plans on putting it in his casket since they can’t fit his Sooner football memorabilia in there. Just a little note.

Even introverts like me need human interaction. So what if it looks different now? My mother-in-law (who lived through the 1918 flu pandemic and the Dust Bowl) and her siblings exchanged round-robin letters—so much more newsy and tactile than Facebook. Who needs to hear from you? In what creative ways can you reach out?

Exercising our creative muscles offers us certain delights for the effort: contentment, joy, pleasant fatigue.

And it’s just fun. So, what’s your ramble?

Cathy Pickens’ first mystery, Southern Fried, won the coveted St. Martin’s Press Malice Domestic Award for Best Traditional Mystery. She’s written five books in the series, as well as Charlotte True Crime Stories and Charleston Mysteries (both for History Press), an essay on historic crime cases in 27 Views of Charlotte, a regular column for Mystery Readers Journal, and articles on writing craft and on business. Her most recent book is CREATE! Developing Your Creative Process (2020, ICSC Press). She served as national president of Sisters in Crime and on the national board for Mystery Writers of America. As a long-time professor in the McColl School of Business at Queens, she won numerous teaching awards.

Study creativity with Cathy. Cathy Pickens leads a four-week exploration into your personal creative process, at Charlotte Lit beginning September 14. Four live-by-Zoom sessions plus a half-hour private creativity consultation. Members $150, non-members $195. More info.

Devil’s in the Details

Megan RichI find myself with a little extra time lately to notice things I don’t want to notice, like the dust on the bookshelves or that mole that I’m convinced has gotten bigger, hasn’t it? Details are what make life rich, but can also reveal so much about where a person (or character) is emotionally, mentally, and physically. The details that ring most true in writing are the ones we don’t notice at first in real life, the ones that emerge only when we have extra time and space to really look, listen, smell, and touch.

Looking back over scenes that fall flat, I notice more than not that the devil’s in the details: I haven’t successfully described a character’s facial expression (what would happen to the corners of her mouth?); I’ve revealed too much of an emotional truth but not enough of what we’d actually see there if we were standing alongside them; or I’ve attempted to set a scene with a few sweeping statements about the landscape, the weather, or the town gone dilapidated, but it’s all too abstract and grand to give a clear sense of the actual place, the concrete details that, when taken together, remind us of places we’ve been and known.

Each of these problems needs a different part of my brain to fix them: if I have underwritten, it is the right brain, that gardener that can sit so present for hours to admire the flowers; if it’s overwritten, it’s the patient, gloved hand of my left brain that will reveal the splendors again by pulling out the weeds. Both are a special kind of work; both are worthy of our admiration; and both are the work we put in as writers to revise a piece to its fruition.

It’s often these details—the ones that have fought their way through, draft-by-draft!—that bring our readers into our world. In fact, it brings the reader into their world, too. The harder we work to find the perfect concrete images for our scenes, the more the real world can shine again, too, in relation.

In times like this, when we’re cooped up in the same places, running like a record through our days, we’re primed to find the details that we might normally miss. Just the ones that make our writing feel true.

ABOUT MEGAN: Megan Rich is the author of two books, a YA novel and a travel memoir. She’s currently revising her third book, a literary-fiction novel inspired by The Great Gatsby. Meg is a graduate of University of Michigan, where she participated in a highly-selective creative writing program, and a recent graduate of the Lighthouse Writers Workshop Book Project Program in Denver, Colorado. She has taught creative writing for twelve years, working with students of all ages and in all genres. Meg pioneered Charlotte Lit’s weekly Pen to Paper writing group and serves as a coach in Charlotte Lit’s Authors Lab program.

STUDY WITH MEGAN: Meg leads the new studio, The Art of Detail for Fiction and Nonfiction Writers, a 4-week immersion that includes asynchronous lessons and course content, and two live Zoom sessions. More information is here.

Bring on the Drama, Mama!

Ashley MemoryI don’t keep up with the news as much as I should but occasionally a little sound bite from the living room, where my husband watches TV, invades my study. The snippet “Less Drama, More Mama” recently made its way into my head, and as rhymes do, lodged there.

Giving up the “drama” of politics makes sense for Kellyanne Conway, a mother of four, but the opposite is true for fiction writers. Our mantra should be “Bring on the Drama, Mama!”

When we pen short stories, drama is absolutely essential. It raises the stakes for our characters and magically captivates our readers. For example, if we’re writing a story about a young mother coping with a painful separation, we can’t make her circumstances too easy. For example, suppose she holds out hope that her husband will come back to her. The worst thing in the world would be for Sam to just walk back in the house with his suitcase and say: “Mary, I’m home!”

It’s not that we’re being cruel. It’s not that we want to watch Mary suffer. But we have to be realistic and understand that in real life these things don’t work out so perfectly. We want our reader to care about Mary and root for her. The best thing we can do for Mary is to increase the drama exponentially. We should have her discover that Sam has not only been cheating on her with his secretary, they’re now living together. And although Mary dreams of helping support her family by opening a bakery, her loan application gets turned down. To make matters worse, the bank has just repossessed her car! Poor Mary.

Not so fast. Because we’ve seen glimpses of Mary’s extraordinary talent and her compassion for making muffins for an elderly woman in the neighborhood, the reader has every reason to believe that Mary has it in her to survive these events. We like Mary and because Sam is a selfish lout, we believe she deserves a good life without him.

The fiction writer builds sympathy for Mary by watching her react to events that might have crushed the average person. For example, when Sam refuses to co-sign a new loan, we show her reacting by baking more muffins. That’s when it dawns on Mary that due to the pandemic, a business in a public building would be a very bad idea right now. So she decides to start her bakery at home, and not only does she make enough money in one weekend to get back her car, she’s far too busy to miss Sam anymore.

For the writer, the great thing about adding more tension to our story is that it makes it fun to write. We don’t have to worry about “blank-page-itis” anymore because we’re suddenly enthralled with helping Mary develop the qualities she needs to thrive. The reader gets to see a little of herself in Mary, and grow along with her. The world is suddenly a better place. So bring on the drama, Mama!

ABOUT ASHLEY: Through a little intuition but mostly blind luck, Ashley Memory has twice won the Doris Betts Fiction Prize and earned a Pushcart Prize nomination for her fiction. But it wasn’t until she delved deeply into the short stories she’d admired for years that she unlocked their winning formula. Using the techniques described in this class, Ashley wrote a story that won 1st Place in the 2019 Starving Writer’s Contest and appeared in County Lines: A Literary Journal. Through the years, her short stories and flashes have appeared in The Thomas Wolfe Review, Cairn, Women on Writing, Carolina Woman, and numerous anthologies.

STUDY WITH ASHLEY: Ashley Memory leads the new Short Story Studio, a 4-week immersion that includes asynchronous lessons and course content, and two live Zoom sessions.  More information is here.


Our lives are marked by breath. The first thing that happens when we leave the warm water of our mother’s body is the in breath. The very last thing we do, the thing that marks our passage from this world into the next, is the out breath. In between is a constant tide––inhale meeting exhale meeting inhale meeting exhale.

Last week, many of us watched video (and all of us heard reports) of a man’s desperate plea for breath. “I can’t breathe,” George Floyd cried, as a police officer held a knee to the back of his neck. “I can’t breathe.” This week, between fear of the breath-stealing Corona virus and the image of Floyd’s murder, few of us can think of anything else.

Ironically, we don’t usually think about breathing at all. Our bodies do the work for us. Until something goes awry––a stuffy room, a strenuous workout, a panic attack, asthma, a bout of Covid pneumonia, a pillow over your face, a canister of tear gas, or a knee on the back of your throat. This week, I’ve tried to be more mindful of my breath and, after many years of meditation practice, I’ve developed an entirely new appreciation for breathing.

Without the breath, we are nothing. We do nothing. We say nothing. The breath conveys our emotional state. It’s behind every word we say. And, it’s just as much the force behind every written utterance. For this week’s writing prompt, I invite you to rediscover that force.

Begin by setting a timer for five minutes. Sit quietly. Close your eyes. First notice the weight of your physical body in your chair. Then gradually bring your attention to your breath. Without trying to control it, simply pay attention to the shape of each breath—the length and depth of your inhale and exhale, its changing rhythm, the sound, the taste, and even the smell of your breath as your body carries on this most basic life function. When your timer goes off, bring your attention back to the rest of your body, and when you feel ready, open your eyes.

Now, some choices for writing:

  1. Write a scene recounting your first (or an early) memory in which you are suddenly aware of your breath. Where were you? What were you doing? Who was with you? How did you feel? In what ways did (or does) this experience inform your understanding about life and your relationship to the world and others in it?
  2. Write a scene with dialogue (fiction or memoir) in which breathing is central to one or more of the characters. Perhaps one character has had the wind knocked out of them, is having a panic attack, is giving birth, or breathing their final breaths. Or, perhaps, one of the characters displays their emotional state through the way in which they breathe their speech.