Unexpected Worldwide Sabbatical: A writing gift to you in these strange times

To my dearest writerly and artistic community–

I am sending you lots of love in such a difficult and uncertain time. I’ve been thinking a lot about the painter, Mark Rothko, who said that abstract expressionism really came as a result of artists needing to say something that had never been said before. Basically, when the world changes, art changes.

So in all this uncertainly, there is something you can do: make art. The world needs artists more than ever in times of crisis. We are the visionaries. I’ve always said that I have no idea how the non-artists in the world handle their emotions! If I couldn’t journal, write, sing…I don’t know what I would do. We are lucky. We have our art.

So to that effect, Kathy Fish and I are going to do a morale-boosting, free 30-day FlashNano-like event starting tomorrow, Monday, March 16, for everyone sitting home in front of their computers and ready to write. We’ll be posting daily prompts (many recycled from FlashNanos of years past or from our retreat “prompt envelope”) on our website (no need to sign up for anything, we are just going to keep it simple), so we hope that this strange time can also be productive and inspiring.

We can’t control the crisis but we CAN control what we do. So let’s make some art. Please be safe and stay healthy and look after each other.
xoxoxo

Get daily prompts here starting Monday, March 16

 

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Not Writing: Why You Might Be Avoiding Your Work

I was inspired to address this issue after I read multiple social media posts, all from writers I admire, all lamenting that they “weren’t writing.”

Not writing is painful. Unfinished work sitting there is painful. You might beat yourself up with a bunch of “shoulds” and berate your lack of discipline. It can make you feel hopeless, drained of energy and questioning if it’s even worth it. No wonder you keep avoiding it!

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But there are usually some very good reasons why you’re avoiding your work. To start with, you’re a better writer now. Just do the math: if you started even one year ago, then you’re a better writer now. And that’s a good thing! That’s the beauty of practice paying off. But it can also feel frustrating when you realize that first story or first draft, the one you labored over, might have made you a better writer but isn’t at your level anymore.

Or you’re in a different emotional place. Often the impetus that drove us to the page resolves or fades; whatever we were grappling with has been settled. Perhaps we’re on the other side of a life change, and the early writing was part of our process, but now we aren’t “feeling it.”

Or you’re overly loyal to your original vision. After all, you’ve probably put in countless hours of work. But sometimes we become too attached to our original vision; sometimes we’ve read and reread our sentences so many times we can’t imagine them any other way. And when we can’t imagine new possibilities for our work, when everything is known and nothing unknown…well, then it’s no wonder we’re not writing.

And, finally, you might be shifting gears. This almost always happens to me after finishing a big project. After a book for instance, I like to consider myself creatively postpartum, recovering from the birth and taking care of the new baby for at least 6-12 months. Anything I try to write in that time will end up sounding exactly like what I was writing before because I haven’t shifted gears, yet.

But it’s discouraging, regardless of the reason, to find yourself fallow, quiet.

So what to do?

1.Give yourself a break. The creative process ebbs and flows, and what goes up must go down…and back up again. Trust the process.

2. Read. I especially like to reread favorite books in these periods. Sink into the familiar and remember why you love words.

3: Remember: creation is ultimately play. Get silly and messy and re-discover what is joyful. Be curious. Be ridiculous. Be shameless. Take a bold risk into new territory and allow yourself to fail. Remember: no one has to know.

Love, Nancy xoxo

*excerpted from Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction coming this summer

So You Wrote a Book? Karen Stefano

In What A Body Remembers, Karen Stefano creates a horrifying page turner, all the more horrifying because it is true, honest, and vulnerable. What resonates in the reader’s mind is the lasting effects of gender and other power dynamics in their myriad configurations. Karen takes us into that thin, raw place that no woman (or man) wants to be forced to go—the night she went from Karen to “victim”—and the aftermath of a life transformed. While some might consider her lucky, this story is both timely and able to address so much more than just assault of the body. Together, old and new Karen converge in a growing understanding of her assailant, and herself, and the ways in which their lives intersected and were changed forever.

Nancy Stohlman: So I have to admit that I waited until I felt like I was emotionally ready before I read this book. But what I discovered was not the graphic horror I had anticipated but a different kind of frightening vulnerability, something I could relate to even though I (thankfully) haven’t experienced an event like this. Was the writing of this book difficult or liberating? Did it come out in one gush or small steps?

Karen Stefano:  “A different kind of frightening vulnerability” is a great way to put it. In its early pages, the book shares a horrifying assault, followed by its aftermath, and a whole lot more. But at the heart of the story is a young woman who had never given much thought to her own vulnerability—and then post-assault she can think of nothing else. Talk about a game-changer for a life’s trajectory.

But ultimately there is growth, redemption, a strength that blooms unexpectedly from that awful night—and I hope it’s that strength readers walk away with when they turn the final page.

Telling this story was incredibly difficult and, as you can imagine, quite triggering at times. It wasn’t until the book was finished that I felt any sense of liberation. And sadly, absolutely nothing I’ve ever written has come out in a gush. This book is the product of many false starts, followed by baby steps, a lot of self-discipline, and blind faith. Writing for me is always an act of blind faith.

NS: The assault itself happens early on but the book continues to address the many fallouts of assault that follow, including fear, ridicule, judgment and shame from self, co-workers, boyfriends, parents, and even police. Do you think this is true of many people’s experience of assault?

KS: Focusing on the shame piece of this question, my response is: Sadly, I think it is. I’ve spoken to many sexual assault survivors and have read extensively on the topic. Shame, self-loathing, and self-doubt always seem to be a component of the post-assault experience, regardless of the type of assault. We burden ourselves further by blaming ourselves. “I shouldn’t have been drinking.” “I should have stopped him.” “I should have fought harder.” These are examples of post-assault self talk I have heard and read about. In my case, I blamed myself for walking home alone at night near midnight—even when I literally had no other option. Of course instead of the shame and self-blame victims experience, the real reaction should be HE SHOULDN’T HAVE FUCKING DONE THAT.

Something I’m interested in (and in fact am working on an essay on this topic as we speak) is rape culture. We’re so focused on teaching women how to avoid sexual assault—and that’s fine. But the real conversation we need to be having surrounds teaching men to not commit the sexual assault.

NS: I’m struck by the way you talk frankly about feeling “neediness” in the aftermath, and also feeling badly for that. Women are supposed to ridicule themselves for being needy—it’s part of the gender power dynamic/misogynistic game even though it’s a very real emotion that everyone feels. Your thoughts on this?

KS: Yes, I became extremely needy, and extremely ashamed for feeling that way. I wanted to be a strong, powerful woman, a woman un-phased by the trifle of the experience of having a stranger run up out of the darkness and hold a knife to my throat. Isn’t that absurd?!

I don’t know if the gender power dynamic tells women not to be needy. I haven’t really thought about that aspect. But I do know, and I talk about this in the book, that our culture tells women they are supposed to be a lot of different things, many of which conflict. We’re supposed to be beautiful (it’s a trillion dollar industry!), we’re supposed to be sexy (but not too sexy! We can’t be “sluts!”). We’re supposed to be smart, get into the best schools, take on high power jobs, all the while accepting that we will earn less than our male peers. And we’re supposed to do all of this while raising children, while being loving and compassionate and nurturing.

NS: What you are really addressing in the early years is PTSD, though at the time it didn’t have a vocabulary. I think naming and claiming language is political (in much the same way “naming” flash fiction established its legitimacy). What are your thoughts on PTSD then and now?

K:  I don’t hold myself out as an authority on PTSD, but in my personal experience: it’s your body refusing to forget what your mind has worked so desperately to push down.

The American Psychiatric Association defines PTSD as a reaction to an extreme traumatic event. Psychiatrists say that when people live through trauma, memories get connected in their minds with what they saw, heard, smelled or felt at the time. Fear becomes linked to the sensations that occurred during the event. These sensations become triggers – in my case, the sound of footsteps.

As far as the role it has played in my life, it was acute in the months following my attack. Then it fell dormant for decades. Suddenly, seemingly out of the blue, it reappeared again. PTSD brings terror into everyday events: walking down the street, going for a run. It makes you feel completely out of control. It makes you feel like a crazy person. Logically you can argue why the panicked reaction makes no sense – but your body isn’t going to listen. It’s going to judge what reaction is appropriate – and that reaction is to experience terror and to demonstrate vigilance, even hyper-vigilance.

As shown in the book, my PTSD primarily manifested in two ways: a fear of the dark (a bit of a problem when you work in law enforcement and have to put on a police uniform and patrol a sprawling campus and surrounding crime ridden streets in darkness!); and a severe trigger by the sound of footsteps behind me.

NS: You have such a unique perspective, having been on three different “sides” of this incident in some capacity. How does your experience as a “victim,” a lawyer, and police aide inform your understanding of sexual assault?

KS: Primarily this three-tiered experience has made me aware of the many flaws in our criminal justice system. There have been changes in the law to enhance victim’s rights and many District Attorney’s offices have a victim liaison office. But based on my experience as both lawyer and victim, there is still room for improvement.

How do we achieve that improvement? Start with simple communication. Most victims don’t have the first clue what to expect from the system and that alone is extremely anxiety-inducing. DAs have to view themselves as advocates for victims in the system, just as criminal defense lawyers act as advocates for their clients. Simply telling a person what to expect procedurally from the system goes a long way toward helping those individuals navigate that system—whether they are victims or persons accused of crimes.

NS: I find it fascinating the way that you portray the courtroom as a place where there is “re-victimization.” For the reader, too, it feels equally as violating as the original event (not being allowed to do anything but “answer the questions,” for instance). You say: “It’s me who is on trial. I hadn’t known I would be subjected to such painful scrutiny, that I would feel so degraded, so at fault. I feel violated, helpless. Again.” I’m thinking now of public cases like Cosby and Weinstein—has there been any progress?

KS: Following up on what I said previously, there has definitely been progress but the system needs to do better—both for victims and for persons accused of crimes. The statistics on mass-incarceration and wrongly convicted defendants are staggering. In spite of my own experience as “victim,” I want to be clear that I believe cross-examination is a necessary tool. I believe in due process. I believe in holding prosecutors accountable, in making law enforcement play by the rules. But what’s so disheartening to me is the ability of wealthy, privileged, “untouchable” men like Weinstein to manipulate the criminal justice system to their advantage. The whole issue morphs into “How much justice can you afford?” My own assailant came from a wealthy family, by the way, allowing him the opportunity to hire a skilled, seasoned trial lawyer. Not everyone has those resources and the fact is that people of privilege get a better deal in our justice system. And that’s just wrong.

NS: I really love and appreciate that you have compassion, even fascination with your assailant. You become curious about him, his humanity and the way that, like it or not, we are forever linked to the people who share traumatic events with us. Do you think you have this level of empathy and compassion because of your time as a defense lawyer? Was it the chicken or the egg?

KS: There’s a flicker of compassion I suppose but in the context of appreciating all of our humanity, all of our complexities and contradictions. It’s a recognition that as humans we are inherently flawed. And to answer your question, this point of view is definitely a function of my time as a defense lawyer, of getting to know so many clients from so many backgrounds.

NS: You published this book with Rare Bird Books, and you host a podcast on Rare Bird Radio. Tell us a bit about the podcast.

KS: It’s one of my favorite things! I’ve been doing it since 2015 and I basically talk to writers about their books. Indie authors, Big 5 authors, and everything in between, covering virtually every form and genre. There are a lot of great literary podcasts out there but often I feel they go off topic. This podcast is about writing, publishing, and how we choose to tell our stories. Guests and I laugh, sometimes we cry. I’ve enjoyed every single one of them—all for different reasons. If you’ve missed them, they’re all on my web site: http://stefanokaren.com

NS: This isn’t your first book. You also published The Secret Game of Words, a very different kind of book, several years ago. What advice do you have for writers who want to write a book?

KS: My advice varies depending upon what kind of book that might be. Writing is hard. It requires vast amounts of both faith and self-discipline. You have to push yourself, force yourself to stay in the chair and finish a scene. But this becomes more delicate if you’re writing about trauma, about the ugliest parts of your own life. You have to consider: am I being self-disciplined, or am I pushing myself to the brink of emotional disaster? If you’re writing about trauma, you will likely get triggered and you need to have a plan in place to deal with this triggering. You have to have a plan in place for the emotional self care that will inevitably be required.

NS: You are the best! Thank you for being here and for doing the brave work.

Links to buy the book:

Barnes and Noble 

Amazon

Indie Bound

Karen Stefano is the author of the memoir, What A Body Remembers: A Memoir of Sexual Assault and Its Aftermath (Rare Bird Books 2019). She is the author of the short story collection The Secret Games of Words (1GlimpsePress 2015) and the how-to business writing guide, Before Hitting Send (Dearborn 2011). Her work has appeared in Ms. Magazine, The Rumpus, Psychology Today, Writer’s Digest, Tampa Review, Epiphany, and elsewhere. She is also a JD/MBA with more than twenty years of complex litigation experience. To learn more about Karen and her writing, please visit http://stefanokaren.com.

New Book: “Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction” to be published by Ad Hoc Fiction in June, 2020!

Drum roll….!

Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction is a craft book that has been seven years in the making and is the product of my 12+ years in the flash fiction movement. I draw from workshops, lectures, interviews, and my experiences as a flash publisher, editor, curator, and teacher, but most importantly as a fellow writer, in the beautiful trenches of a new genre.

I’m THRILLED to be joining the ranks of Ad Hoc Fiction writers! Ad Hoc Fiction has been a leader in flash fiction publishing both in the UK and abroad, winning the 2019 Best Publisher Award at the Creative Bath Awards. Going Short: An Invitation to Flash Fiction will officially release at the 2020 Flash Fiction Festival UK, in time for the Fall Semester writing classes.

(Educators and reviewers, please contact me if you would like early previews.)

Advanced praise:

“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 (I especially like her idea of “swapping” sentences and paragraphs in revision and “strategic cutting”), 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

“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. It’s all about paying close attention and getting it down with the necessary urgency. It’s not easy at first, it’s a tricky art form, but Nancy shares her sharp insight and offers short cuts to get you more quickly to your own satisfaction and your reader’s delight. And at the studio door when it’s time to leave, she hands you a scroll of a hundred good ideas and wishes you happy travel. Just follow the map.”

~James Thomas, Co-editor of the Norton Flash Fiction books

 

Sat, Feb 1: “My Funny Valentine”: FREE Musical Performance at Bemis Library

LITTLETON, COLORADO

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My Funny Valentine: Love Songs

Vocalist Nancy Stohlman and pianist Nick Busheff bring their popular lounge act to Bemis, performing classic love songs from the crooners and femme fatales of the past.  From Ella to Elvis, from Sinatra to Peggy Lee to Marilyn Monroe, this show is sure to make you blush!
Vocalist Nancy Stohlman and pianist Nick Busheff have performed in nightclubs and theaters throughout the U.S. and abroad. They are best known for their swanky lounge-style approach to classic torch songs, 80’s and original music.  
FREE! All ages welcome.
Saturday, Feb 1, 2020
2-3 pm

So You Wrote a Book? Michelle Elvy

Sitting at the crossroads between flash fiction, poetry, and the novel, Michelle’s Elvy’s debut book in short form, the everrumble, is an allegory, a fable, a love affair with the world, and, considering what is happening to our planet right now: it’s a warning. In Elvy’s hands the everrumble is alive, the beating heart of the world. Only one small child can hear it. But sometimes one is enough. 

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Nancy Stohlman: This is your first book, congratulations! Talk about your path to publication with Ad Hoc fiction.

Michelle Elvy: For me, things usually happen serendipitously. I had two collections that were completed and ready for publication, mid-2018, and after thinking over the ideas behind both I decided I’d like to see the everrumble as my first book, because it holds something meaningful for me personally, and because the timing felt right. Jude Higgins at Ad Hoc agreed, and we worked towards publication for the UK Flash Fiction Festival, where the book’s launch seemed fitting, as it’s a small novel in small forms.

NS: I see this story almost as an allegory, similar to a book like, say, The Alchemist. Did you set out to write that kind of book or did it happen organically? Talk about the evolution of this project.

ME: It was an organic process – I had not planned to write the book it turned out to be. The idea of this young girl who would not talk came to me back in 2017, and I started writing down some of her stories. I did not have a biographical time line in mind; I just found moments from her life that seemed intriguing and followed them. Some came from her childhood, when she first starts to speak, then I wandered into her teen and adult years. It was an exploration from the beginning, moving step by step, tuning into Zettie in each situation – much like she listens to the world. First, there was Zettie’s immediate world. Then, I looked a bit further out – down the street, across town, in a different county. And soon I realised that Zettie (and I) did not need to be confined to the immediate physical surroundings – she could tune in beyond what felt like her ‘real’ physical space. As Zettie encountered new sounds, I’d have to tune in as well; I found myself thinking about how she’d respond, how she’d navigate through the different worlds she encountered, where she’d go next.  It was an adventure.

NS: You have personally traveled the world many times over (for much of that on your boat), so your view, like Zettie’s, must have a sense of the world as a larger community. How are you like Zettie? How are you different?

ME: It’s true that my travels influence my world view, and therefore certainly the way I write. But as to how I’m like Zettie? Very hard for me to say. I find it liberating to think of this as fiction.

A bit taken from life: the books from Zettie’s Book Notes are all from our family travels and experiences – these are books that hold personal meaning. So in that way, there is a piece of me in Zettie’s story.

NS: Have you ever met a Zettie in your travels?

ME: No.

NS: One of the important moments in this story is Shamu’s capture. Without giving anything away, can you speak to the importance of this story within a story?

ME: I grew up with the idea of zoos and live aquarium shows. Seeing wild animals up close is exhilarating for a young child. Then we moved onto our sailboat and set out across the sea – we left North America, with no idea of where we’d end up. That was nearly twenty years ago. We have spent these years moving slowly, meandering across oceans and observing life at the edges of continents. We are often alone with no one around – no people other than our little community on board Momo (me, my husband and our two daughters) for weeks at a time. My appreciation for quiet and solitude has grown over these years – not something I planned, but something I now need, this space for reflection and energetic examination of my own relationship to the world.

An accumulation of experiences over the last twenty years has deepened my awe of the natural world – and also my sense of loss. Shamu’s capture is a dark moment in our human story. And it’s symbolic of so much more; our entire relationship to the wild animal kingdom is out of balance. From overfishing to contaminating our waterways with plastic to hunting rhinos to near-extinction to the massively corrupt and inhumane ivory trade.  You know where I stand on elephants. That’s in Zettie’s story, too.

Am I an activist? Not really. But I feel the pull to saying something – and fiction is perhaps the best place to examine hard truths. I’m not someone who aims to write with a message. I really just wanted to see how Zettie might engage creatures whose voices may be lost.

My husband and I set out to live a small, quiet existence. But as it turns out, our personal encounters have changed the way we move through the world. We’ve seen diminishing  fish populations firsthand, and we’ve seen far too many dying coral reefs. But we see the sea thriving, too – and that is inspiring. We’ve seen orca, humpbacks, dolphins, manta rays and so much more – vibrant and wild. Sharks and penguins, seahorses and octopuses, turtles and humpbacks. Also an inexplicable and powerful encounter with bioluminescence.

Our personal desire to simply disengage from the noisy world – Let’s go sailing! we said, back in 2000 – has given us experiences that I can’t quite measure. I guess it’s inevitable that they find their way into my writing. And so: Shamu and Zettie. Zettie and the African elephant. Connecting across thousands of miles.

NS: Zettie stops speaking at age 7 so she can start really listening. Do you think too much talking/not enough listening is the main crisis of modern humanity?

ME: I do not know if that is the main crisis – but it’s certainly a characteristic of the world we live in. I think we are in a moment in our human trajectory where the noise is very loud indeed: social media, television programming, news that may or may not be news. We seem to be putting out more than we are taking in – or than we ever could take in. I’m not alone in feeling the world is a bit out of balance.

So yes, sure – and I am not the first one to say this: we ought to try to listen more. To each other, to other creatures, to the sounds of the earth.

NS: If Zettie could speak and she could say only one thing what would it be?

ME: SSSShhhhhhhhhhh……

NS: The Everrumble is what I would call a flash novel—coming right at the intersection between flash fiction and a novel.  Yet this story could surely be a novel with all the nuances of a novel. What do you think are the advantages and/or limitations of using the short form to tell a big story?

ME: Oh I love the way a small story can convey so much – all that is between the lines, all that is left unsaid. Perhaps this goes hand in hand with listening: we can quiet down, read thoughtfully, and see what emerges with all that space.

In the case of these connected stories, yes: Zettie’s life unfolds over these pages in a way that feels like a novel to me. It’s more – I hope – than the words on the page. It’s what is there, and not there.

NS: What is your best advice to someone who is writing/wants to write a book?

ME: Sit down and start writing. And keep reading all the things – and listening to all the voices – that inspire you.

NS: Anything else you want to add?

ME: Thank you, Nancy, for talking with me. It’s exciting to see the book out in the world, and I appreciate you taking an interest!

(Links to buy the book/other promo links)

everrumble-cover

BUY: the everrumble at Ad Hoc Fiction

Goodreads

Kindle

NZ distribution: Nationwide

Review at SmokeLong Quarterly

Review at New Zealand’s Scoop

Review at Sabotage Reviews

Michelle Elvy is a writer and editor originally from the Chesapeake Bay, now based in Dunedin, New Zealand. Her book, the everrumble (Ad Hoc Fiction 2019) – a small novel in small forms – was published in 2019. She is Assistant Editor for the international Best Small Fictions series and founder of Flash Frontier: An Adventure in Short Fiction and National Flash Fiction Day NZ.  Her poetry, fiction, travel writing, creative nonfiction and reviews have been widely published and anthologised.

As an editor, Michelle works with novelists, short story writers, memoirists, essayists and poets to help them find their voice and hone their words. This year, in addition to her regular manuscript assessments and editing work, she is teaching an online writing course, 52|250 A Year of Writing, and co-editing the anthology Ko Aotearoa Tātou | We Are New Zealand, with Paula Morris and James Norcliffe (August 2020).

More about Michelle’s editing, teaching and writing at michelleelvy.com.

Wheatridge Reads Madam Velvet: Free Events Jan 15-16

Join me at several free readings and talkbacks to celebrate Wheatridge Reads! Madam Velvet’s Cabaret of Oddities is the most “progressive” book they have chosen for their program, so come support art, taking risks, and flash fiction! Free copies of Madam Velvet’s also available (link below)!

WHEATRIDGE READS!

Wheatridge

Wednesday, January 15
Swiss Flower and Gift Cottage
9890 W. 44th Ave.
7:00 p.m.
Thursday, January 16
Ye Olde Firehouse
3232 Depew St.
9:00-11:00
The events are free and open to the public. She will also be presenting to students at Wheat Ridge High School as part of the WR Reads program.