The Situation and The Story by Vivian Gornick Review

Situation and Story

Back in May I submitted an essay to the Modern Love column (I still have not heard anything so I am taking that as a good sign). I read ALL of the advice about how to submit and what to submit, including the editor’s wisdom on books to read. I followed him on Twitter to soak up whatever he had to say. Daniel Jones recommended Vivian Gornick highly as a guide to writing resonant personal essays, ones like he chooses to publish. Here is a link to the Google Doc Holy Grail. I ordered the book immediately and skimmed before sending my submission.

Now a couple months later, I have had the chance to spend some time with Ms. Gornick, and I have to agree with Mr. Jones- she is wise. The slim volume offers some wonderful examples of essays and memoirs the author admires, as well as some sage advice about how those works became great. I really appreciated how she defined the task of identifying the situation you are writing about and the story you are conveying. The situation is, “…the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot; the story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” In thinking about my own writing with this lens, it is much easier to see what is important to the emotional experience, what is the why of telling the story.

This is a worthy read for anybody embarking on the often painful task of writing personal essays or memoir. At the end there is a discussion guide that would be useful if you were using the book to teach a class. Below are some of my favorite quotes from Gornick.

“Nonfiction builds only when the narrator is involved not in confession but in this kind of self-investigation, the kind that means to provide motion, purpose, and dramatic tension.” (35)

“The narrator in a memoir must always be reliable, always working hard to get to the bottom of the experiences in hand…” (117)

“For drama to deepen, we must see the loneliness of the monster and the cunning of the innocent. Above all, it is the narrator who must complicate in order that the subject be given life.” (35)


The Art of Memoir by Mary Karr Review

Mary Karr

I LOVED this book. I am currently in the throes of writing a memoir/collection of personal essays. I know the best way to improve your writing is to read. As you travel the worlds of other authors, you begin to see the styles and lines you admire accumulate. They add to your cadre of mentors. I read a great deal of fiction, nonfiction, poetry etc., but I have been remiss in reading craft books. Enter Mary Karr. Her name kept popping up in discussions so I picked up her book, The Art of Memoir.

Karr affirmed for me the issue I have been suspecting in my own writing, presenting a false self. We all want to see ourselves a certain way, and when we write about ourselves, that ideal can take over. But as Karr asserts, “You’ll need both sides of yourself – the beautiful and the beastly – to hold a reader’s attention. Sadly, without a writer’s dark side on view – the pettiness and vanity and schemes – pages give off a whiff of bullshit.” I needed that shot of truth to start evaluating my own nostalgic vision of myself.

This slim volume is packed with advice for those seeking to write memoir or personal essay. There are beautiful passages from memoirists the author admires, such as Maya Angelou’s and Maxine Hong Kingston, with critique about what worked in the passage, and why it is important to your own forays into writing. Karr’s voice throughout is a comfort. She is self-deprecating, generous with her writing heroes, and pragmatic about things like “keeping your ass in the chair.” She also provides some lists for those that decide personal writing is their mission. I particularly liked her “Incomplete Checklist to Stave off Dread,” which includes “the self-discipline to work in scary blankness for some period of time…,” something I personally am still growing accustomed to.

As the pandemic widens, I know writers are seeking classes, webinars, and books to hone their WIPs. The Art of Memoir is a must-read, and annotate, pseudo-guide to personal writing. Plus, it is entertaining and judicious with the swear words 🙂

Writing Challenge Roundup

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I didn’t realize how effective a writing challenge can be for keeping you accountable to writing every day until I embarked on #1000wordsofsummer. I wrote…a lot. Reading the newsletters Jami Attenberg sent out inspired me daily to sit down and do the work of writing. The challenge started a habit of writing every day and I was hungry for more accountability when it finished.

As some others did, I tried just posting my daily word counts and a little about what I wrote, but the lack of a community engaged in the same challenge as me made it less fruitful. I looked for another writing challenge that would prod me to keep up my routine and found Camp Nanowrimo running for the month of July. I tried Nanowrimo in November a few years ago, but was not so successful. The goal is 50,000 words in a month. I was not quite up to the challenge. The July Nano Camp is a little looser. You set your goal, and it can be a daily word count or overall word count. They do another one in April set up the same way. I like the community aspect. I joined a group of fellow memoirists and we post our word counts, give each other moral support, and talk about writing.

Nano is not the only challenge out there. Here are a few others I checked out:

Shut Up and Write– Every month they host a prompt-based writing challenge. You have the option of working on your own, or posting your work in their community forums. They also host writing sprints on Twitter every day at designated times. They have lots of writing resources on their site, and an optional newsletter.

Scribendi– So for those who might be intimidated by the scope of a Nano challenge, Scribendi offers a month-long writing challenge that follows a set of writing prompts/exercise. You write however much you want without the guilt of not meeting the Nano goal. I particularly liked Day 11: You are now a dragon. Describe your hoard. I like the prompts from this site. It definitely helps with developing character and world-building.

10 Minute Novelists– I LOVE THIS GROUP! I stumbled across this one as I was looking for online writing communities. It is Facebook-based and you do have to request and invite. They have a website, and it has a blog which has some great tips, but the FB group is where it is at. I actually just registered for a free literary seminar that another member posted this morning. They also have the 365 day challenge which is a very organized group of writers committed to writing every day. You do have to pay to become a member of this challenge group, but their testimonials are fantastic. I was drawn to this group because sometimes I can’t devote two hours of uninterrupted time to write. Sometimes, writing happens in snippets around life. That is the core of their philosophy- write when you can every day.

Writer’s Workout– This site has a number of challenges. There is a bi-annual short story challenge, a monthly micro-challenge, and a prompt-based series. Their site promotes the idea that to get better at what you do, you must practice. They provide lots of avenues of writing practice.

Yeah Write– This site offers three types of challenges. There is a weekly free challenge grid that is open to fiction, nonfiction, and poetry. Each grid has specific submission guidelines and are judged by popular vote. There is also a monthly microprose challenge: 48 in 48. Yes, you read that correctly, 48 words only. There is a prompt  and submission guidelines posted on the first Saturday of each month. This one is a lot of fun, especially if you are trying to train yourself to write small. They also have a quarterly super challenge that requires an entry fee and is eligible for cash prizes.

NaPoWriMo– This was a new one for me. I am familiar with Nano, but did not realize there was one devoted to poetry held during National Poetry Month. It is not affiliated with the official Nano site. This challenge asks you to write a poem a day for 30 days. You can either do this just for your own personal viewing, or you can submit your site to NaPoWriMo and they will list you with their participating poet sites roundup.

NaNoWriMo– From their site…

National Novel Writing Month began in 1999 as a daunting but straightforward challenge: to write 50,000 words of a novel in thirty days. Now, each year on November 1, hundreds of thousands of people around the world begin to write, determined to end the month with 50,000 words of a brand new novel. They enter the month as elementary school teachers, mechanics, or stay-at-home parents. They leave novelists.

I am certain there are more out there, but as I started poking around, these were the challenges I decided to give a try. Write on!

Query Shark and Other Thoughts

I’ve blathered a little about queries for the last couple of weeks, but the subject demands mention of the Query Shark, and then I’ll have self-actualized on the subject and can move on. Query Shark is the superhero identity of the mild-mannered metropolitan literary agent, Janet Reid. She’s well-known and respected in the publishing world, […]

via Query Shark and Other Thoughts — In A Tale-Spin


I have heard tell of the mythical Query Shark, Janet Reid, and was delighted to find links to her infamous blog and website in this post. Again JJ is passing on some pretty important information for authors out there getting ready to query.

I spent a great deal of time reading through the Query Shark’s blog posts- especially the critiqued query letters…so informative. I also signed up for her newsletter which I have come to view as invaluable. You can sign up here.

Once you dip your feet in there, you should head straight to her FAQs page. She has an espoused love of Taylor Branch works. Unfortunately, that is not my WIP. It did lead me to the blog where you can elect to send a query letter that gets posted on the site and critiqued, but you can also pay for a private critique of a query letter and pages. The link to see how this works is here. It helps tremendously if you read the things she directs you to read because I found out “Is your query for non-fiction, or memoir? If so, don’t send. I’ll just email you saying I don’t post those kinds of queries on QS,” and will not waste my time with the public query option.

Ultimately, this site, and all the guidance provided for FREE from Janet Reid is worth your time. If you are an author getting ready to query, don’t waste your time blindly sending out letters. Even if you go buy the Writer’s Market (I did), research all the comp books in your genre (I did), and research your chosen agent’s likes and dislikes to include (I did), it won’t help without a rockstar query letter. You have probably spent a good portion of your time and tears (I did) crafting this manuscript…give yourself the best shot to land an agent who will love your work and help it find a publishing home.

Query Letter Examples & Advice

I wrote last week about the need and purpose of query letters — to get an agent for your masterpiece. This time I have a good article by Robert Lee Brewer at Writer’s Digest, which explains a little more about the query concept and also gives good examples of query letters that were successful in […]

via Query Letter Examples — In A Tale-Spin

More sage advice on querying from In A Tale Spin…check out the previous post here.

Query letters are such a daunting task. You must do the research. You must find who is publishing your type of book, who the agent is within that agency, and then decipher what they are looking for. I wrote one query letter about 12 years ago and was just sure I was getting an agent. I had a contact from another author. I had good feedback from beta readers. I felt confident my book was coming to fruition. I spent a long time crafting that query letter. I worked on a platform because I read that was important. I sent my query with high hopes.

Obviously, it did not work out the way I thought. I received a really nice, personal email from the agent explaining she wasn’t taking on any new manuscripts in my genre. She also offered I may need to revisit my sample chapters, and consider some revision to add tension. I was crushed.

Looking back, I see she was generous. My WIP was not ready. It was a good idea, but my writing was not there yet, and like she said, I needed some tension. It was too nostalgic, too giddy. I put it away and did not look at it for over a decade. Now I am in the thick of rewrites and restructure. I feel good about the direction, but I will not start querying until I feel it is ready. I also will send out more than one letter. Most authors I interface with say they sent anywhere from 30-100 queries. I also got some great advice about platform. Yes, they look at it, but it is not a deal breaker. It is better to have a following you grow organically, interact with regularly, and can count on wanting to read your work when it becomes public.

For now, I will keep writing.

Beginner’s Guide To The Query Letter — In A Tale-Spin

Writers write. A pretty basic philosophy, but, sadly, there’s more to it than that. Writing is really all most of us want to do, and then have that writing appear out in the world and bring a nice dose of appreciation and fulfillment…and yes, even a little fame and fortune would be quite acceptable. The […]

via Beginner’s Guide To The Query Letter — In A Tale-Spin

I am not at this point yet, but query letters and the submission process in general, is daunting. I like what this gentleman has been writing about the arduous undertaking of researching and locating the right agent with the right query letter for your manuscript.

Father’s Day During a Pandemic

anonymous crop father helping kid to ride bicycle

Photo by Tatiana Syrikova on

My dad passed away before his 40th birthday. Father’s day is one of those holidays that is always bittersweet for me. I miss him, and wish he could see the amazing grandchildren he has. I wish he knew Dylan did not turn out to be a guitar picker, but he loves music. He is happy playing tennis, and working in a career he loves. He is kind, and generous…just like my dad. I wish he knew Olivia. She is smart, and ambitious. As a freshman in college, she is a NIH INBRE Scholar doing research in a lab alongside grad students and phds. She is passionate about conservation, just like him.

Father's Day

Family Dive Trip in Grenada

Now there is another dad in my life, my husband. He is boisterous, intelligent, kind, and an engineer just like my dad. This year father’s day is different. Our kids are in another state, and everybody is being careful not to contract or spread Covid-19. We have a house in Virginia waiting for renovations so we can sell it. The pandemic happened, and it has been sitting, waiting for us to come show it some love and find its new owners. My husband decided to make the drive this weekend and see if he could go through the meager possessions left there, and enlist some contractors who can start the process of giving it a light makeover.

Our kids will both be in town this weekend, but it is a hard choice about seeing them. They have been careful of exposure, but they are also of the generation without fear of getting Covid-19. They have seen friends, significant others, been out paddleboarding, grocery shopping- wearing masks, but still around others who do not.  But, it is Father’s Day, and we are a close family. I am sure he will take the risk, but use caution.

I don’t think any of us realized how difficult this would be when we undertook sheltering in place. There is an allure to ignoring the numbers, thinking even if we get it, we will survive, the risk is acceptable to see our family, and enjoy some of the comforts foregone for so many weeks. But, that also would mean ignoring reality, ignoring the spikes in infection and hospitalizations across states that have blindly reopened. It would also mean putting those we love at risk. So, my husband won’t go see his mother while in town. He won’t see our close friends while in town. He will hunker down and stay isolated in our house, and see our kids from six feet away as they have a socially-distanced, takeout Father’s Day.

I will be at home in Florida thinking healthy thoughts for him and the kids.

I want to do something special for him when he gets back, and show him how much I admire and appreciate the parent he is to our kids.

He has fond memories of strawberry cake on his birthday. The strawberries are beautiful right now. I am in the midst of testing recipes. It is a good time for some Strawberry Lemonade cupcakes. Recipe and pics coming next week!


#1000WordsofSummer Reflections

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Photo by Negative Space on

The challenge officially ends today, and I have mixed feelings. It has been a boon to have the accountability of pushing out at least 1000 words every day for fourteen days. I did that. I wrote close to 20,000 words just these last two weeks. That is pretty frickin’ awesome!

I also established a routine- I write every day. Sometimes it feels like a chore. Sometimes I can’t wait to get going, but every day I do it. This challenge forced me to establish a routine, and I am going to stick to it. If you don’t write, you aren’t a writer. Pretty simple.

I am sad I will not have a community of people engaged in the same task as me to check in with daily. We shared book recs, writing advice, pictures of our pets, and personal struggles. A strong writing community makes the solitary task of writing easier. Once this pandemic ebbs, I will find a writing group. I know I need that conduit for feedback and support.

I downloaded all of Jami Attenberg’s inspirational newsletters in case I find my dedication to #stayinit waning. It will not be the same, and I am eternally thankful to have been a part of her group, but it is a touchstone now for taking a serious step towards finishing my book.


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Photo by Timothy Paule II on

I started a thing today…a challenge…1000 words every day for the next two weeks. I made my goal! I wrote 1800 words on my memoir. It was not easy, and it is not pretty. I have been thinking about a very private topic I never talk about, but it keeps cropping up. I decided to dive in, open the wound, and see where it went. I am not comfortable with it- yet. But, am going to keep going and see where it leads.

I like this challenge; it makes me accountable to myself to set aside time every day to write. I struggle with thinking I have nothing worth saying. I need to make peace with this and the only way to do it, is to keep writing. Anne Lamott wrote an essay I read when I was younger, “Shitty First Drafts” that was included in her seminal work, Bird by Bird. This excerpt keeps me going when I have doubts.

Almost all good writing begins with terrible first efforts. You need to start
somewhere. Start by getting something — anything — down on paper. A friend of
mine says that the first draft is the down draft — you just get it down. The second
draft is the up draft — you fix it up. You try to say what you have to say more
accurately. And the third draft is the dental draft, where you check every tooth, to
see if it’s loose or cramped or decayed, or even, God help us, healthy.

Chronicle of #1000wordsofsummer via Insta





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Day 12 Day 13
















Links to Jami Attenberg’s newsletters 2020

Day One

Day Two

Day Three

Day Four- #BlackoutTuesday, no newsletter, just writing

Day Five 

Day Six 

Day Seven

Day Eight

Day Nine

Day Ten

Day Eleven

Day Twelve

Day Thirteen

Day Fourteen

Recipe Testing: The Good, The Bad & The Tasty

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Photo by Karolina Grabowska on

I challenged myself to write along with the community participating in #1000wordsofsummer to help kickstart a working draft of my food memoir and establish a regular writing routine. It is day eight and I have hit my goal every day.

The hard part of this has been facing the realization that most of the first draft of my book was trash. Jenny Bent was kind to me when she sent my rejection letter a decade ago…too kind. Most of my writing time these past eight days has been salvaging a sentence or two to bounce off and completely rewriting the rest. I had 90 pages plus another 42 of recipes to start. I am now at 22,739 words which is roughly 88 pages. I think I probably saved about 12 pages of original content and the rest is new. I feel good about where the narrative is going. It is much more raw and honest, but that is what it needed to be from the start. It is hard writing some of these moments though- it is a lot of me coming to terms with things I have pushed down for years.

Now that I have a good chunk of story, I need to get to work on recipes. I am terrible at writing down what I do in the kitchen. I sort of just throw things in, taste, adjust, serve. I need to make the recipes something a novice could follow successfully. My husband has gladly volunteered to be the tester 🙂 He will taste the product I make, give me feedback. then make it following my directions and compare the end products. He is a usability engineer so I am a lucky girl.

The list is lengthy. Follow along as we navigate recipe testing while #shelteringinplace with no escape from each other. First up: pickled vegetables and pimento cheese spread.