Write What You Know? The Art is Always in the Heart

As you know, to be an artist is to transform life–all life–into art.

This concept has been on my mind a lot lately, especially while designing this year’s writing retreats: How are people feeling? What do we all need, collectively, to facilitate our best art? And during that inquiry I discovered something I’d never noticed before: Nesting inside the word Heart is the word Art.


Yes! The art is always inside the heart…if it’s any good. When we lean into our strong emotions of love, joy, anger, hope, despair, passion and rage, we tap into that which is universal. It’s counterintuitive, but the more intimate we become with our own emotional experience of the world, the more it resonates “out there”. We cannot write for them–it doesn’t work.

Recently I was able to see the Interactive Van Gogh exhibit that’s been touring the U.S. I’ve been a big fan for a long time, but seeing Van Gogh’s work again in a new format, I was reminded of an artistic paradox: how often beauty blooms in the midst of pain. These works of art that continue to move us 150 years later were painted by a man in anguish—lonely, full of doubts, and suffering from mental illness (and possibly wormwood poisoning).

After the last two years, most of us are also dealing with a lot of emotion: pain, yes, but also grief, shock, wonder, panic, joy, despair. As artists, we know we get to feel all that juicy stuff. But sometimes we find the words are caught in our throats, hands stuck halfway to the page. 

Our best art always emerges when we lean into, not away from, that fire.

I’m not talking about purely therapeutic writing—which is also important. I’m talking about the art that happens beyond trauma—beyond shock, grief, pain, wonder, panic and joy. I’m talking about using the fire from our emotions—all our emotions—to create artifacts that vibrate for centuries.

Write what you know” is a platitude largely overused and misunderstood. But this is what it means to me: Begin in truth. Start with your own heart. Let the art bloom from within our own emotional experience of the world, our nuanced experiences of love and sadness, rage and passion, hope and despair. You can invent plot, character, setting, entire worlds. But you must write from your heart to create art that matters. 

Using our strong emotions to fuel our art can be extremely inspiring. Van Gogh created his last 70 paintings during the last 70 days of his too-short life. Frida Kahlo transformed physical pain into artifacts of incredible beauty. Beethoven wrote his masterpiece, Ode to Joy, when he was deaf.

We are lucky to be artists who know what to do with strong feelings: We feel them. All of them. We allow them to permeate our stories, paintings, songs, and performances. Real, necessary art begins in that soft and squishy place. When we open our heart we allow the world to move through us like a prism, landing on the page and painting rainbows on all the walls.  

Wishing you beauty, always.

Art With Heart


Going Short Audiobook: Teaser Clips!

While it’s too soon to make any official announcements…this is in the works! For now–a few teaser clips. Have a listen!

“Embracing Constraints” from Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction by Nancy Stohlman

Read by the author

“Grown Adult Living in the Basement” from Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction by Nancy Stohlman

Read by the author

Find out more about Going Short

Going Short turns 1 year old!

It’s been one year already! I’ll be celebrating and looking back all week and sharing some of my favorite “SHORT” memories along the way. Thank you to Ad Hoc Fiction and everyone who has been on the journey with me! Remember this book trailer??? (Below)

“A fun and eminently useful literary treasure map.”

~Kirkus Reviews  starred review

Winner of the 2021 Reader Views Award!

readers view award sticker

Finalist for the Next Generation Indie Book Awards

Finalist for the International Book Awards

Order from Ad Hoc Fiction

Order Amazon/Kindle on Amazon UK  or Amazon USA 

U.K. folks: You can now order from Waterstones!

Or buy a signed copy from me here

“In Going Short, Nancy Stohlman captures the true spirit of flash fiction, those brief narratives imbued with all the urgency of life itself. An extremely practiced flash fiction writer, Stohlman is also a veteran teacher. She knows the territory and takes us on a trip from getting started to the finishing line, and everything in between. It’s hard to think of a more thoughtful, adept, and enthusiastic guide.” ~David Galef, author of Brevity: A Flash Fiction Handbook

“Nancy Stohlman has written the definitive, and appropriately concise, book on the flash fiction form. You’ll learn what flash fiction is and isn’t, tips on writing it, tips on honing, sculpting, and polishing it, along with thoughtful discussions on the flash novel and tips for pulling together a flash collection. As a widely-published master of the form herself, Stohlman brings years of teaching experience and her own engaging voice and wit to this useful, encouraging, and entertaining guide. A must-have for flash writers of all levels.” ~Kathy Fish, author of Wild Life: Collected Works 2003-2018

“Going Short embraces the urgency and compression of flash in presenting specific, fresh suggestions for creating, drafting, revising, editing, and publishing both individual pieces and full collections. It’s a book that knows and teaches by doing. It is inspiring and insightful, a masterful craft book written by a master of the craft.” ~Randall Brown, author of This Is How He Learned to Love

“This book is an invitation to flash dance with Nancy Stohlman, an accomplished partner who will show you the steps you can take, the fluid moves you can make on the flash fiction studio floor.  It is all about practice. She will spin you around and show you things you didn’t know you could do, and lead you to a kind of prose performance you didn’t think possible.” ~James Thomas, co-editor of the Norton Flash Fiction books

Order Going Short Now!

Writing By Hand: Too Much Work? Let me convince you…


Thanks for joining me on virtual retreat last month as I scouted Spain (more on that soon!) and gathered with a small group of writers in southern France for an inspiring week of rest, rejuvenation, and radical creativity. And if you were following along, some very interesting discussions happened along the way, including foreign languages, beauty in decay, topless beaches (!) and one that I want to talk more about here: writing by hand. 

I’m not talking about writing by hand only to capture your inner chatter or to clear your mind or to know yourself. All things I highly recommend and consider a necessary part of a creative life. I’m talking about actual creative drafting. The actual idea. The first draft. By hand. 

I would not be exaggerating if I said 99% of my first drafts happen on paper. For me, the computer is for sculpting and editing, but the genesis of the idea is a delicate spark that happens in the quiet of the page, the intimacy of pen tip to paper. Like a first kiss that happens over and over and over each time the notebook opens.

(some of my notebook’s recent adventures)

In Going Short I talk about re-writing drafts from scratch when I’m searching for the right words or rhythm and I just can’t seem to “edit” myself there. But what I failed to mention is that I also do this by hand. Switching to the notebook, especially when stuck, can jar you back into the creative flow for many reasons including: 

Location independence. You can write anywhere—at the restaurant, under the backyard tree. On the park bench. At the DMV.  On the train. Even in bed—honestly many of my ideas come first thing in the morning while I’m in bed. Before my eyes have fully sharpened out of sleep, as coffee is just waking up my system, I find it easier to harness the dream world on a raft of paper and pen.

By hand. Handmade. We slow down when we write by hand. In the stillness we feel the pen and ink, the crinkle of pages, the loops of our own words unspooling across the white. It is a tactile experience that shifts the way our brain connects to syntax and activates a more intuitive part of the brain. I find that different sorts of ideas arrive in the notebook than to the screen, or at least a different version of those ideas, often already in conversation with each other. (I worked with a wonderful writer recently who “found” her character’s distinct voice when she moved to the written page.)

Evading the critic. When I write by hand my critic is less….critical. Since the work is not typed up and in TIMES NEW ROMAN, it feels more like play. And that’s the trick: if you can fool yourself into believing what you are writing (by hand) doesn’t count, then you relax. You start to have fun. You follow tangents. You get silly/messy/weird/beautiful….brilliant. You take creative risks that feel too intimidating on the official screen, in the official font. And in taking those risks…you often find your truth. You go deeper.

(As an interesting aside, when I’m journaling my handwriting is neat and lovely and legible. But when The Muse descends and I’m actually drafting the idea on the page my handwriting becomes wild, a gallop, a sprint—looping and furious, barely legible even to me. It’s almost as if two different hands, two different minds are at work.)

An organic second draft. Another wonderful thing happens when you write by hand: you eventually have to type the (good) stuff up. Therefore, what came out unhindered and unrestricted gets an organic first edit just in the typing-up process. (This is different than editing WHILE writing–which I never recommend. You are now sculpting. Second draft. Different process. Different hat.)


If you or your writing is feeling stuck, or you’re needing an inspiration boost, or the blue light of the screen or the ergonomic familiarity of your office chair feels lackluster—try walking away. Grab a notebook and go to bed. Or to the living room. Or to the porch swing. And yes, to the café or in the park. 

Take the question, or problem, or idea to the page like a devotion. Lay it on the altar of paper and pen and allow the answers to come through your hand.



P.S. And if that wasn’t enough,SUMMER 2022 FLASH FICTION RETREATS will be opening soon with TWO exciting destinations (any guesses where?)
Sign up here for Notifications and First Access: