Thursday, January 18, 2018

WD Poetic Form Challenge: Roundelay Winner

Another WD Poetic Form Challenge is just around the corner. But in the meantime, here are the results of the Writer’s Digest Poetic Form Challenge for the roundelay. Once again, I’ve also selected 5 finalists.

Read all of them here.

Here is the winning roundelay:

Category 5, by Bruce Niedt

The weather radar shows its core,
a cold, dead eye amidst a brew
of wind and storms and rains that pour,
a buzzsaw set to tear and chew.
Some day it will blow in your door.
The red wheel spins, it spins for you.

The wind, the storms, the rains that pour,
the buzzsaw set to tear and chew–
this maelstrom’s one you can’t ignore;
this time you may not ride it through.
Some day it will blow in your door.
The red wheel spins, it spins for you.

This maelstrom’s one you can’t ignore,
this time you may not ride it through.
You watch the boat torn off its moor,
your roof ripped out, your house askew.
Today it has blown in your door.
The red wheel spins, it spins for you.

You watch the boat torn off its moor,
your roof ripped out, your house askew.
But then the winds are calm once more;
the rains let up, the sky turns blue.
Today it has blown in your door,
but that red wheel’s not taken you.


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Congratulations, Bruce! The churning nature of a hurricane was the perfect subject for a poem loaded with refrains.

Here’s my Top 5 list:

  1. Category 5, by Bruce Niedt
  2. Earth, by Tracy Davidson
  3. Let the River Flow, by Eileen Sateriale
  4. The Cruelest Month, by Taylor Graham
  5. A Glass of Roundelay, by Sari Grandstaff

Congratulations to everyone in the Top 5! And to everyone who wrote roundelays!


Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community, which means he maintains this blog, edits a couple Market Books (Poet’s Market and Writer’s Market), writes a poetry column for Writer’s Digest magazine, leads online education, speaks around the country on publishing and poetry, and a lot of other fun writing-related stuff.

He loves learning new (to him) poetic forms and trying out new poetic challenges. He is also the author of Solving the World’s Problems.

Follow him on Twitter @RobertLeeBrewer.


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Wednesday, January 17, 2018

Wednesday Poetry Prompts: 423

For today’s prompt, take the phrase “Little (blank);” replace the blank with a new word or phrase; make the new phrase the title of your poem; and then, write your poem. Possible titles include: “Little Ghost,” “Little Drummer Boy,” and “Little Do You Know.” Okay, those are all song titles, but you get the idea.


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In addition to the listings, there are articles on the craft, business, and promotion of poetry–so that poets can learn the ins and outs of writing poetry and seeking publication. Plus, it includes a one-year subscription to the poetry-related information on All in all, it’s the best resource for poets looking to secure publication.

Click to continue.


Here’s my attempt at a Little Blank Poem:

“Little Snow”

All it takes is a little snow
and Atlanta traffic can’t go
to work or school, even to play–
little snow makes a big snow day.


Robert Lee Brewer is Senior Content Editor of the Writer’s Digest Writing Community and author of Solving the World’s Problems (Press 53). After spending the first 30 years of his life in Ohio, he still gets tickled that Georgia shuts down for a light dusting of snow and cold weather.

Follow him on Twitter @RobertLeeBrewer.


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Tuesday, January 16, 2018

One Year, One Hundred Rejections: Brett Elizabeth Jenkins

Today’s guest post from Brett Elizabeth Jenkins aims at a different type of goal than many writers might aim for: 100 rejections in one year! She says, “I guess it boils down to one simple rule: send out your work like you believe in it. Don’t act like you’re aiming for rejections, even though you totally are.”

Brett Elizabeth Jenkins is a Minneapolis-based writer and teacher. She is the author of three chapbooks, most recently Over the Moon (Pockets Press 2017). Look for her work in The Sun, AGNI, PANK, Smartish Pace, Vinyl, THRUSH, and elsewhere.

Learn more at


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This e-book covers more than 40 poetic forms and shares examples to illustrate how each form works. Discover a new universe of poetic possibilities and apply it to your poetry today!

Click to continue.


Six years ago my friend T.J. Jarrett and I set out on a pretty special (read: crazy) mission. In 2011, we each wanted to earn one hundred rejections. As a poet, sending out work can be daunting, and six years ago I was just a year out of my MFA program, 24 years old, and a wide-eyed baby deer in the headlights of the whole literary community/submitting/publishing thing. Sending out poems was still a mysterious process to me, and I feel like the “One Year, One Hundred Rejections” project took some of the mystery out of it and gave me a bunch of tools to work with along the way. This year, I’ve decided to tackle this project again!

Brett Elizabeth Jenkins

I feel like at this point, you might be asking, “why not aim for one hundred acceptances?” I think Plath wrote that if you expect nothing from somebody, you are never disappointed. The goal here is just getting your work out there, to be honest. Submitting can feel like playing the lottery sometimes, so aiming to get one hundred rejections gives it the spin of a game. It takes the edge off when a new rejection comes rolling in. If the goal is to get rejected by your favorite magazines, then getting a few poems accepted here and there will just be a sweet little bonus!

A few caveats: I only send out work that I feel is completed or, in my eyes, “good.”

Nothing I would be embarrassed to have editors choose to publish if, for instance, they were going through their Submittable queue after a few Vodka McGoverns. It also feels like cheating to send out work that I know is unfinished or downright terrible just to rack up another “no” for my pile of rejections. I absolutely do not send my work to magazines that I don’t admire or read at least occasionally. If I wouldn’t be proud to send an issue to my mom, I don’t send there. I guess it boils down to one simple rule: send out your work like you believe in it. Don’t act like you’re aiming for rejections, even though you totally are.

The year that I spent sending out my work tirelessly (and yes, it is somewhat of a time commitment), I learned a lot. Once you’ve written nigh-200 cover letters, you learn what works and what doesn’t. Most times, I’ve found, less is more. Plus if you’re sending out ten or twenty submissions per month, writing a little less will save you some typing! Maybe have a short third-person bio typed up to copy-and- paste.

A lot of journals will ask for that. I learned that a personal note on a rejection usually means that your work will be a good fit in the future, so send again. I made connections with editors and other writers, and I even found some new journals to read that I really loved. Mostly, I thickened my poet-skin and learned to take rejection like a friggin’ champ. In 2011, I garnered 127 rejections, and I got a decent amount of acceptances along the way.

On the 1st of January, I decided I’d undertake this project again. I’m making lists of open reading periods, trying to front-end some of the submitting so that I can be sure they all come rolling in by the 31st of December. Some journals, like Tin House, have an average response time of almost a year! I also use a few tools to help me on my way. It’s useful if you have a Duotrope account, though it’s not necessary. I also occasionally throw “submitting parties” at my apartment so that my writer friends and I can get together and drink coffee (or wine) and complain about how tedious it is to send out work. I hope that you’ll join me this year as catapult myself into rejection!


If you’d like to share your voice on any poetry-related topic at Poetic Asides, please send an e-mail to with the subject line “Poetic Asides Guest Post” with a brief idea of what you’d like to cover or send along a 300-500 word post on spec. And be sure to include your preferred bio (50-100 words) and head shot. If I like what you send, I’ll include it as a future guest post on the blog.


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The Problem with Sensitivity Readers Isn’t What You Think It Is

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by Anna Hecker

Sensitivity readers are a sensitive topic. As a vocal core within the YA-lit community heralds them as a potential solution to more thoughtful and authentic representations of diversity, watchdogs wring their hands over an imagined future in which tweets have the power to ban books, controversial language is outlawed, and authors can only write about characters who look like them. The debate has reached a fever pitch—not only in social media and trade publications, but also in mainstream media including the Washington Post and the New York Times, which bluntly asks if sensitivity readers result in better books or censorship.

I wondered the same thing as I sent my debut YA novel (which features a mixed-race protagonist) to a trio of sensitivity readers. My understanding of what they would actually do was vague at best. Alexandra Alter, in the Times, describes sensitivity readers as “specializing in the fraught and subjective realm of guarding against potentially offensive portrayals of minority groups.” Francine Prose, in her anti-sensitivity polemic in the Washington Post, claims they: “comb a manuscript for problems and mistakes ranging from thoughtlessness to ignorance to blatant racism.”

These descriptions, like the name “sensitivity reader” itself, paint the role as both passive and reactive. Where an editor generally takes an active role, shaping a manuscript with questions and suggestions, one would imagine a “reader” as sitting back and letting the book happen to them, doing little more than doodling frown-y faces in the margins at the slightest whiff of offense.

[Related | Living for All It’s Worth: The Novels of Neuroscientist Lisa Genova Explore Love and Empathy]

“Sensitivity,” meanwhile, is a loaded word if there ever was one. It suggests thin skins and easily bruised emotions—a potentially dangerous combination if one perceives these readers as the gatekeepers to publication (which, it should be pointed out, they are generally not).

No wonder the censorship watchdogs are wringing their hands. The term “sensitivity reader” may be triggering to the very people who loathe the term “triggering.”

Ms. Alter from the New York Times might be surprised to learn that, rather than censoring my book, my sensitivity readers made it objectively better. By pointing out places where I’d unwittingly succumbed to stereotypes, they helped me create richer, more nuanced characters.

Without red-lining specific words, they suggested new terms and topics I could research to make the details of my characters’ lives more authentic. Perhaps best of all, they opened up my eyes to my own ingrained bias in how I perceive and describe people of all races.

While some may consider their role “fraught and subjective,” I think we can all agree that multidimensional characters, fresh perspectives, and detailed, believable world-building all make for better books. They certainly did with mine—and with many others.

“My sensitivity reader caught things I’d never even considered and that were definitely not in the realm of things I’d thought she would look at,” says Caryn Lix, whose debut YA sci-fi novel SANCTUARY is coming out in July 2018. “Every eye on your book reveals a new perspective, and sensitivity readers bring something particularly important to that mix.”

“I knew the moment I read my first feedback letter from my first sensitivity reader that I’d struck gold,” agrees Rebecca Shaeffer, whose debut teen fantasy series NOT EVEN BONES was purchased by HMH for six figures. “When you’re dealing with a contemporary fantasy it’s easy to draw parallels between fantasy creatures and real-world minorities or political issues, whether they’re intended or not. She helped with how I presented and dealt with the intersection between social issues of this fantasy world and social issues of the real world.”

As readers and writers, we all understand that words matter. Names matter. What we call things matters. And the term “sensitivity reader” is not only loaded, but also inaccurate. Like the very thing it seeks to eradicate, it’s a problem of misrepresentation. Sensitivity readers don’t just skim manuscripts waiting to get offended. They are an active part of the editing process, making books sharper, deeper, and more perceptive than they were before.

So let’s call “sensitivity readers” what they are: diversity editors. Let’s stop associating them with censorship and instead celebrate their role in the editorial process. Let’s afford them the same dignity as copy-editors, fact-checkers, and proofreaders. Let’s normalize their role in publishing.

I think we all dream of a future in which authors no longer rely on stereotypes or write with harmful biases—ever. At that point we won’t need diversity editors anymore, and can safely retire this debate. But I don’t believe anyone suffers under the delusion that this future has arrived. We’ve made great strides in the past decades, but the slog toward true equality is real, and long, and full of bumps (some of which manifest as the vocal and fevered debates about representation in YA literature).

Until we get there, diversity editors are here to help.

Anna Hecker writes young adult novels and advertising copy, and once ran the Twitter account for the M&M’S character Ms. Green. She lives with her husband, son, and fluffy bundle of glamour Cat Benetar in Brooklyn, New York. Her young adult novel, When the Beat Drops, will be published in May 2018 by Sky Pony Press.

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Sunday, January 14, 2018

Tim Knox: The Magic Formula for Great Story Ideas



By Tim Knox

Is there a magic formula you can use to consistently come up with great story ideas for your books? I’m not sure there’s much magic to it, but I’m happy to share with you the formula that I use to come up with ideas for my own books and those for my clients.

Actually, it’s more of a mathematical equation than a magic formula, but saying I have a mathematical equation just doesn’t impress my writer pals at the coffee shop like saying I have a magic formula does. I do use a plus sign (+), a multiplication sign (x), and an equals sign (=), still, would you rather be Harry Potter or Albert Einstein?

Yeah, me, too.

So, here my magic formula for coming up with great story ideas.

Character + Situation x Obstacles = Ending

I know, not really that magical, but it can create a magical story when the spell is spun correctly.

Basically, you take a character (or characters), drop them in a situation, put obstacles in their path that they must overcome, and let the story progress to the ending, be it happy, unhappy, tragic, or otherwise.

Let’s look closer at each factor before putting the formula to a test.


Every great story requires a strong main character (or characters) that readers can relate to or connect with on some emotional level. That character can be the prototypical hero or heroine, a villain, a human, an alien, a dog, a cat—even a spider named Charlotte.

Or perhaps the book features an anti-hero; a bad guy or girl with some redeeming qualities that cause the reader to root for them even though their heart may be fifty shades of grey (see what I did there?).

Think Dexter, Lucifer, Holden Caulfield, Scarlett O’Hara, Tom Ripley, the young Darth Vader, or just about any character in Game of Thrones.

For example, Jaime Lannister is a conniving murderer who pushed a little boy off a tall tower and sleeps with his sister, yet he is one of the most popular characters in the Game of Thrones books and TV show. Why? Because he connects on some emotional level with readers (and probably more so to female viewers of the series on HBO).

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The situation is the proverbial soup the character finds himself swimming in. If you’re the character, the situation can be anything from waking up with a dead body next to you in bed, to finding out your wife has disappeared and you’re the prime suspect, to realizing you only have a few weeks left to live, to finding out that you have a ten-year-old son from a one-night stand that you didn’t know existed. The situation is the vehicle that carries the story. It is the impetus that drives the character toward the obstacles and through to the end.


An obstacle can be anything that gets in the way of the character’s progress or desires, or threatens life and limb, or prevents the character from getting what he seeks. It can be as simple as a pimple on senior picture day, to missing a flight, to falling in love with a married woman, to opening the door to find an ax murderer standing there.

Obstacles are what make a story interesting. We want to see the hero triumph over adversity, even when things seem insurmountable. The greater the obstacle, the more the reader will care about the hero. Obstacles give the story purpose, they put meat on its bones, they give us something to fear and something to root for.


The ending of a story should be determined by how well the hero has worked through the given situation, overcome the obstacles, and arrived at the end of the journey. Sometimes that ending is happily ever after, sometimes it’s happy for now, sometimes it’s misery and tragedy, and sometimes you’re left hanging by your fingernails at a cliff.

No matter the ending you write, it must be logically determined by all that has come before otherwise the reader will be disappointed by the resolution or lack thereof.

If you’ve taken the reader down one long road, then suddenly veered off in another direction to end the tale in an unexpected way, you’re going to tick the reader off. Your sales, reviews, and reputation will reflect their disappointment.

Imagine the reader backlash if, after all that has happened in Lord of the Rings, Frodo wakes up to find that it was all just a bad dream. Not good, J.R.R.; not good at all.

So, again: Character + Situation x Obstacles = Ending

See if any of these bestselling plots sound familiar to you.

  • An old fisherman who has not caught a fish in 84 days (Character) goes out to sea alone and hooks a large marlin (Situation) which is eaten by hungry sharks before the old man with the fish lashed to his boat get back to shore (Obstacles). Because of the size of the marlin’s skeleton, the old fisherman is redeemed in the eyes of his village and gains the respect of his peers once more (Ending).

Or this one:

  • A young orphan boy living with nasty relatives (Character) discovers he is a wizard and is sent to wizarding school (Situation) only to face an evil sorcerer and his minions who seek to dominate the world (Obstacles). The young boy and his friends defeat the evil sorcerer and save the day (Ending).

Or perhaps this one:

  • A poor young man and a wealthy young girl (Characters) fall in love despite their socioeconomic differences (Situation) but her rich family opposes the union, and she is sworn to another, forcing her to choose between love and obligation (Obstacles). She makes her choice and lives to be an old woman in a nursing home whose husband reads to her every day (Ending).

Or finally:

  • A young boy, disfigured by a facial birth defect, (Character) goes to public school for the first time (Situation) only to face cruelty and bullying from children and adults alike (Obstacles). He overcomes adversity and becomes an inspiration to all (Ending).

Do any of those books sound familiar? Do you see how they all fit the magic formula?

In a nutshell: take a normal (or abnormal) character, drop them in an abnormal (or normal) situation, pepper their journey with obstacles, maybe throw in a little romance, a little humor, a little dark magic, a little serial killing, whatever you like, and see how they faire. That’s how you make the magic happen.

Watch the video at the top of the article for more insights on how to come up with great story ideas.

Tim Knox is an author, ghostwriter, editor, and publishing coach who has ghostwritten over 100 books in various fiction and nonfiction genres, and produced over 200 videos and podcasts on the topic of how to become a better writer. Tim’s company, Knox Publishing, works with new and established authors to help them improve their writing skills and marketability. His novels, Angel of Mercy and Sins of the Father, as well as other works, may be found on his website at

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Quotes on Writing: 19 Classic and Contemporary Lessons from Black American Writers

I grew up in Memphis, Tenn., a city steeped history in general—but specifically in Civil Rights history. In the early 20th century, Memphis was the cotton capital of the world, home to industries dominated by (white) landowners and still mired in racial divisions that had lingered since the Civil War. A crossroads settled at the center of the North and South and home to a large population of black workers, Memphis was geographically and culturally destined to play a major role in the Civil Rights Movement in the 1960s.

The city’s history rose to a sharp and tragic crescendo in April 1968, when Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr., was assassinated when he visited to support a strike by city sanitation workers.

If you’ve never had the opportunity to visit Memphis and experience the living history that still hums in the air, from Beale Street to the Lorraine Motel, I recommend it.

Perhaps in part because of my connection to the city, Martin Luther King Jr. Day is always a time of particular reflection, and even moreso given the racially focused discussions and conflicts we face today. At such times, I often turn to the words of the black American writers whose voices are recognized around the world for their wisdom and timelessness. I thought I’d share some of my favorites here today.

One note, however: One of the most relevant quotes I’ve found, from a March 30, 1981 interview with Toni Morrison in Newsweek, admittedly made me question whether I ought to be presenting these authors together at all.

Of course I’m a black writer…. I’m not just a black writer, but categories like black writer, woman writer and Latin American writer aren’t marginal anymore. We have to acknowledge that the thing we call “literature” is more pluralistic now, just as society ought to be. The melting pot never worked. We ought to be able to accept on equal terms everybody from the Hassidim to Walter Lippmann, from the Rastafarians to Ralph Bunche.

As Morrison suggested, black writers are not a monolith—nor should they be considered as such. Shelly Stratton suggested something similar in another Writer’s Digest article about the problems with considering, for instance, black women’s fiction to be its own genre.

As such, my aim in this post is not to suggest that these authors ought to be grouped together as one—but instead, to recognize the range of thought leadership and genres in which black American writers have become icons, and the depth of the lessons we can learn from them. The writing community and the larger market still have a long, long way to go in terms of truly reflecting global and national diversity through the voices of writers, but these authors and their stories have paved the way for readers and writers to forge a more inclusive future for the literary world. Their words teach universal lessons to us all.

Writing Insights and Tips by Iconic Black American Writers

Research is formalized curiosity. It is poking and prying with a purpose. It is a seeking that he who wishes may know the cosmic secrets of the world and they that dwell therein.

— Zora Neal Hurston, Dust Tracks on a Road (1942), from Ch. 10: Research.

Intelligence is ongoing, individual adaptability. Adaptations that an intelligent species may make in a single generation, other species make over many generations of selective breeding and selective dying. Yet intelligence is demanding. If it is misdirected by accident or by intent, it can foster its own orgies of breeding and dying.

— Octavia E. Butler, Parable of the Sower (1993), Chapter 4

I believe there is power in words, power in asserting our existence, our experience, our lives, through words.

― Jesmyn Ward, The Fire This Time: A New Generation Speaks about Race (2016)

The act of writing requires a constant plunging back into the shadow of the past where time hovers ghostlike.

— Ralph Ellison, a quote from Writers at Work (1963) edited by George Plimpton

I can give tips on many things, but not productivity and time management. One thing I do is make time. Everyone loves talking about how busy they are. But there are 24 hours in a day. Make a half-hour or hour in a day, or an hour in a week, for writing. Just make sure you have at least one designated time—however long it is, given your constraints—to focus on writing. I treat my writing like a job, and I don’t mean that in a bad way. I mean I give it the respect of a professional endeavor, not a hobby. Even when it was a hobby, I treated it like a job. It is important to do that because craft takes time and demands respect.

— Roxane Gay, Writer’s Digest September 2017

72 of the Best Quotes About Writing

Art has to be a kind of confession. … The effort it seems to me, is: if you can examine and face your life, you can discover the terms with which you are connected to other lives, and they can discover them, too — the terms with which they are connected to other people.

— James Baldwin, from “An interview with James Baldwin” (1961); an interview with Studs Terkel published in Conversations With James Baldwin (1989)

You read something which you thought only happened to you, and you discover that it happened 100 years ago to Dostoyevsky. This is a very great liberation for the suffering, struggling person, who always thinks that he is alone. This is why art is important. Art would not be important if life were not important, and life is important.

— James Baldwin, from “An interview with James Baldwin”

The ability of writers to imagine what is not the self, to familiarize the strange and mystify the familiar, is the test of their power.

— Toni Morrison, “Black Matters” in Playing in the Dark: Whiteness and the Literary Imagination (1992)

The instructor said,

Go home and write
a page tonight.
And let that page come out of you —
Then, it will be true.

— Langston Hughes, “Theme from English B,” Montage of a Dream Deferred (1951)

But please remember, especially in these times of group-think and the right-on chorus, that no person is your friend (or kin) who demands your silence, or denies your right to grow and be perceived as fully blossomed as you were intended.

— Alice Walker, In Search of Our Mothers’ Gardens: Womanist Prose (1983)

MAYA ANGELOU: You are about five-three, white, Midwestern—right?

[Interviewer] CAROL BENSON: Yes.

ANGELOU: I’m six foot, black, Southwestern. If we started looking at each other and our differences, our family background and personal history, we could find so many differences. But those are tangential, those are peripheral. There are really no differences. We are, first, human beings. And so when you weep, I understand it clearly. When you laugh, I understand it clearly. When you love, you don’t have to translate it to me. These are the important things. Now if you want to tell me what happens in the Midwest, what the summers were like, what you ate for picnics—we can talk, and I can tell you what happened in Arkansas and what happened in California in the ’40s and all that. But those are tangential.

— from an interview in Writer’s Digest, January 1975

Writer’s Digest Digital Archive Collection: Iconic Women Writers

Human nature is not simple and any classification that roughly divides men into good and bad, superior and inferior, slave and free, is and must be ludicrously untrue and universally dangerous as a permanent exhaustive classification.

—W.E.B. DuBois, from his writings, quoted in The Wisdom of W.E.B. Du Bois (2003) edited by Aberjhani

I think my love for books sprang from my need to escape the world I was born into, to slide into another where words were straightforward and honest, where there was clearly delineated good and evil, where I found girls who were strong and smart and creative and foolish enough to fight dragons, to run away from home to live in museums, to become child spies, to make new friends and build secret gardens.

― Jesmyn Ward, Men We Reaped (2013)

The more closely the author thinks of why he wrote, the more he comes to regard his imagination as a kind of self-generating cement which glued his facts together, and his emotions as a kind of dark and obscure designer of those facts. … But the moment he makes the attempt his words falter, for he is confronted and defied by the inexplicable array of his own emotions. Emotions are subjective and he can communicate them only when he clothes them in objective guise; and how can he ever be so arrogant as to know when he is dressing up the right emotion in the right Sunday suit?

— Richard Wright, from the introduction to Native Son (1940)

And then, while writing, a new and thrilling relationship would spring up under the drive emotion, coalescing and telescoping alien facts into a known and felt truth. That was the deep fun of the job; to feel within my body that I was pushing out to new areas of feeling, strange landmarks of emotion, tramping upon foreign soil, compounding new relationships of perceptions, making new and — until that very split second of time! — unheard-of and unfelt effects with words.

— Richard Wright, from the same introduction

Language can never “pin down” slavery, genocide, war. Nor should it yearn for the arrogance to be able to do so. Its force, its felicity is in its reach toward the ineffable. Be it grand or slender, burrowing, blasting, or refusing to sanctify; whether it laughs out loud or is a cry without an alphabet, the choice word, the chosen silence, unmolested language surges toward knowledge, not its destruction. But who does not know of literature banned because it is interrogative; discredited because it is critical; erased because alternate? And how many are outraged by the thought of a self-ravaged tongue?

— Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize Lecture (1993)

“Human beings fear difference,” Lilith had told him once. “Oankali crave difference. Humans persecute their different ones, yet they need them to give themselves definition and status. Oankali seek difference and collect it. They need it to keep themselves from stagnation and overspecialization. If you don’t understand this, you will. You’ll probably find both tendencies surfacing in your own behavior.” And she had put her hand on his hair. “When you feel a conflict, try to go the Oankali way. Embrace difference.”

— Octavia E. Butler, Adulthood Rites (1988) Part II “Phoenix” chapter 4 (p. 329).

I know when it’s the best I can do. It may not be the best there is. Another writer may do it much better. But I know when it’s the best I can do. I know that one of the great arts that the writer develops is the art of saying, No. No, I’m finished. Bye. And leaving it alone. I will not write it into the ground. I will not write the life out of it. I won’t do that.

— Maya Angelou, Paris Review Interview (1990)


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Friday, January 12, 2018

Living for All It’s Worth: The Novels of Neuroscientist Lisa Genova Explore Love and Empathy

[Enter our 87th Annual Writing Competition for your chance to win and have your work be seen by editors and agents—not to mention a chance at $5,000 in cash!]

Lisa Genova | Photo Credit: Greg Mentzer

In Lisa Genova’s novels, tragedy and hardship reveal individual worth and the power of love.

By Emily Esfahani Smith

In 2007, Lisa Genova was selling self-published copies of her first novel, Still Alice, to independent bookstores from the trunk of her car. By 2015, that novel—about a Harvard professor suffering from early onset Alzheimer’s disease—had been adapted into a film starring Julianne Moore, earning her an Academy Award.

Today, Genova is a New York Times bestselling author of five celebrated novels chronicling the fate of ordinary people who are diagnosed with extraordinary and often fatal neurological diseases. Her novel Inside the O’Briens follows a Boston police officer suffering from Huntington’s disease. Her latest work, Every Note Played, is about a concert pianist whose life is turned upside down by a diagnosis of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, commonly known as Lou Gehrig’s disease or ALS.

Genova’s characters live out our nightmares—they lose the ability to think and move, they forget the people they love, they suffer excruciating pain, and they learn that their children have inherited the same fatal disease. But Genova’s novels are essentially life-affirming. She wants readers to see that even amid horrible suffering and loss, an individual’s life continues to have value and worth.

Laying the Groundwork

Genova has spent her life collecting the material that would eventually inform her novels. She comes from a large extended Italian family from Waltham, Massachusetts, the blue-collar town where she grew up. Neither of her parents graduated from college—her mother stayed home to raise Lisa and her brother, and her father was a computer programmer. She recalls a childhood full of love and an especially close relationship with her grandmother, in whose home she often spent overnights.

Growing up, Genova didn’t want to be a writer; she loved science. In college at Bates, she decided to major in biopsychology. Her sophomore year, she took a class called physiological psychology, where she learned how the brain affects human behavior and psychology. Around the same time, she read The Man Who Mistook His Wife for a Hat, Oliver Sacks’ classic book about patients with unusual neurological disorders. Those two experiences hooked her: She decided she wanted to become a neuroscientist.

“If you think of the other organs,” Genova says, “the heart is a pump and the kidney is a filter. But the brain is so much more than a computer. It contains our personalities, our moods, our desires, our ability to remember—to walk, talk and think.”

After college, she earned a Ph.D. in neuroscience from Harvard University and planned to spend her career researching questions like what happens in the brain during addiction. But when she was 33, her life took a sharp turn after she and her husband divorced.

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Seed of an Idea

Six years earlier, Genova’s beloved grandmother had been diagnosed with Alzheimer’s disease. As the resident neuroscientist in the family, Genova plunged into research on Alzheimer’s to help her family make sense of what her grandmother was going through. Although she found dozens of research papers and books written on the disease from the point of view of the doctors, caregivers and social workers, there was nothing detailing the experience from the perspective of the person with the disorder.

“As a granddaughter, I felt stranded,” Genova says. “I wanted to know what it feels like, from my grandmother’s point of view, to have this disease, but there was nothing out there.”

That’s when Genova got the idea of writing a novel. Alzheimer’s patients often become alienated from their communities because people fear the disease. But Genova realized that reading fiction, cultivates empathy by absorbing readers in the life and experiences of others. Maybe she could humanize the disease, she reasoned, if she wrote about it from the perspective of someone who has it. At the time, she was still married and working full-time as a consultant, so her plan was to write the novel someday—perhaps when she was retired. Then her marriage started falling apart.

Break into Writing

Genova was a stay-at-home mom with a 3-year-old daughter when she got divorced, and the break forced her to re-evaluate who she was and what she wanted out of life. She asked herself what she would do if she didn’t care what anyone thought of her. The answer that immediately came to mind was write the novel. Supporting herself and her daughter with some money she’d saved, she started writing Still Alice at a Starbucks near her home outside of Boston while her daughter was at daycare.

A year and a half later she had a manuscript. She sent it to 100 literary agents who either didn’t write back or rejected it as too depressing. One of them told her, “You have a Ph.D. in neuroscience, why are you writing fiction at all?”

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Genova self-published Still Alice in 2007. She made it available online, sold it bookstore by bookstore, and offered readers free copies in exchange for posting online reviews. One day the book happened to catch the attention of a writer for the Boston Globe, who wrote a glowing review of it in the paper. That was Genova’s big break. Another author who saw the piece in the Globe introduced Genova to her literary agent, who sold the book to Simon & Schuster in 2008. When the publishing company released the book nationwide in 2009, it debuted on the New York Times bestseller list and was eventually translated into 37 foreign languages.

Lessons in What Matters

Still Alice and Genova’s other novels are fundamentally compassionate. As her characters struggle to make sense of what’s happening to them, they ask themselves questions like “If I can’t recognize my children, then what value does my life have?” and “If I can’t continue working as a professor or police officer, then who am I? Do I still matter?” and “Will my family still love me if I’m a burden to them?” Some of them contemplate suicide, concluding that life with Alzheimer’s or Huntington’s or ALS is not worth living.

“People ask me if it’s depressing writing about these hideous diseases,” says Genova. “And there is certainly tragedy and heartache, but I don’t find it depressing. I find it inspiring. I learn so much about how to live from people who are dying or coping with various diseases.”

One thing she’s learned is that these diseases may kill people, but they do not destroy their ability to lead meaningful lives. She thinks about an insight given to her by a friend who has Alzheimer’s disease. “Ten minutes later, he’ll forget, but that doesn’t mean the conversation didn’t matter,” says Genova. Or she thinks of the man who inspired her new novel Every Note Played, the codirector of the movie Still Alice, Richard Glatzer, who was diagnosed with ALS in 2011. By the time the movie was being shot in 2014, he had lost his ability to speak and move most of his body—but he never missed a day on set. He communicated with a text-to-voice application by using his finger or right toe to type notes onto his tablet. He watched Julianne Moore accept the Academy Award for best actress in Still Alice from his hospital bed and tragically passed away two weeks later.

“Your value as a human being doesn’t depend on your memories or what you can and can’t do or whatever disease you may have,” says Genova. That’s the lesson the characters in her novels learn. By the end of Still Alice, the character Alice no longer recognizes the people she loves, but she still can experience love and joy with them. In Inside the O’Briens, Joe, the police officer with Huntington’s, wants to kill himself, but his daughter reminds him that just as she and her siblings have learned so much from him over the years, now they need to learn their final lesson from him: how to live with this disease that he’s passed on to them. In Every Note Played, the main character, Richard, loses his ability to move and therefore to do the thing that makes his life worth living—play the piano. But he realizes before he dies that his real legacy isn’t his professional achievements but the forgiveness and love he gave and experienced in repairing the relationships he’d spoiled as he’d blindly pursued his career.

“All my books are about empathy,” Genova says. When she interviews people who have the diseases she writes about, she asks them what they ultimately want. They say: “I want to still love and be loved. I want to still matter. I want to be seen and heard.”

Emily Esfahani Smith is a writer and the author of The Power of Meaning: Finding Fulfillment in a World Obsessed With Happiness. She is also an editor at Stanford University’s Hoover Institution, where she advises the Ben Franklin Circles project, an initiative to build belonging and meaning in local communities. Her work has appeared in The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, The Atlantic, The New Criterion and other publicationsVisit her website at

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