An Interview with Will Boast

27 Aug
Will Boast's memoir Epilogue was called "hands down the most moving book I’ve read this year" by Anthony Marra.

Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue was called “hands down the most moving book I’ve read this year” by Anthony Marra.

Will Boast was born in England and grew up in Ireland and Wisconsin. His story collection, Power Ballads, won the 2011 Iowa Short Fiction Award. His fiction and essays have appeared in Best New American Voices, Virginia Quarterly Review, Glimmer Train, The American Scholar, and The New York Times. He’s been a Stegner Fellow in fiction at Stanford and a Charles Pick Fellow at the University of East Anglia. His most recent book is the New York Times bestselling memoir, Epilogue. He currently divides his time between Chicago and Brooklyn, NY, and is currently a Literature Fellow at the American Academy in Rome.

To read the prologue to Boast’s memoir Epilogue and an exercise on framing chronology, click here.

In this interview, Boast discusses structural challenges of memoirs, writing dialogue from memory, and using concision to handle emotion.

Michael Noll

One of the challenges for memoir writers, at least in some memoirs I’ve read, is that they get trapped by chronology. They have something they want to talk about or some particular story to tell, but that thing or that story isn’t enough to fill an entire book. And so, at a certain point, the book moves into “and then this happened and this.” That isn’t the case for this book, and it seems, in part, to be due to the structure you chose, which is centered more on thematic units than chronological ones. Did you always have such a structure in mind? How did you discover it?

Will Boast

I agree. A strictly chronological telling is very tempting for writers starting on any story, whether nonfiction or fiction. And sometimes it does work. But, in memoir anyway, it can be deadening. Too much of life is mundane to just make it “and then and then,” and very few, if any people, have real experiences that naturally take the shape of a good story. So you splice and rearrange and follow patterns rather than doggedly follow a timeline. Sven Birkerts’ The Art of Time in Memoir is very good on this subject.

Every book finds its own shape, but memoirs seem to present special structural challenges. I often say that, If fiction is the art of invention, memoir is the art of arrangement. Honestly, only an enormous amount of effort and trial and error helped me move forward. But I did have in mind, through many drafts, an emotional progression. That, more than anything, was my guide. It’s difficult for me to talk about themes, because I think those only become truly clear in nearly the final drafts. Certainly, I thought about ideas I wanted to express in the book. But more often than not, I found that they dropped away in the long process of revision, and that the ones that stayed became so tightly wound into the story itself that I almost hesitate to call them themes now.

Michael Noll

The book contains so much loss, but you write mostly about living in the aftershocks of the loss and only a little about the loss itself. For example, you cover your mother’s death in a single paragraph. Was such concision always part of your sense of the book? Or did you write a great deal that you ended up cutting?

Will Boast

I wrote an incredible amount that I ended up cutting: several very long drafts and many, many alternate versions of each chapter. A certain concision, even reticence, ended up becoming part of the way the book handles emotion. At times I found that passages that had once sprawled over pages could be condensed into single sentences, and gain in power because of it. That’s actually quite a realization, that editing out whole episodes of your own experience can help the whole cohere. At first, it all seems important. But then you start to see the most relevant through lines, and they begin to guide you.

Michael Noll

Will Boast's memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

One of the questions that memoir writers face is how to handle dialogue, how to write spoken lines that are only half-remembered. So, I’m curious how you handled these conversations. For instance, you talked on the phone with your dad on the day that he died. During the call, you were, as you write,”hungover and pissy about being woken early,” which would seem to not lay fertile ground for remembering. How did you approach recreating this conversation for the book?

Will Boast

That phone call I do remember pretty vividly. Even though my brain was a little addled at the time, it’s simply one of those conversations you can’t forget, even if you wish you could. There are several instances of that in the book. There were also moments where, later in the timeline of the book, I actually thought to take notes, so that helped in places.

But you’re also right to wonder how much of actual speech can be remembered. I don’t think that many people who’ve written memoir would claim to recall verbatim who said what and when. And, really, that isn’t the point of memoir. No one has tape recordings of family dinners from twenty years ago. It’s important to understand that memoir is not simply a transcript of what happened. It’s not even simply remembering things. (If it was, it would be rather easier to write.) There’s a necessary process of distillation. Every single person, after all, says the same things over and over again. Our little refrains are a huge part of who we are. And those I find very easy to recall with great accuracy. So some of the dialogue you see in the book is made up of those things that were said habitually, day after day, dinner after dinner, fight after fight, bad joke after bad joke.

Michael Noll

At times, you mix present action (for instance, preparing for your father’s funeral) with memories from childhood (giving your father a knife that you prized so that he could sell it). Is this mixing simply the result of your imagination and unconscious churning out material? Or the result of something more logical and planned?

Will Boast

Memory is not linear. Though we always live in the present, our minds are constantly casting into both the future and the past. In a way, I think of the stuff of memoir as being that which is so constantly on our minds that it keeps intruding on and interrupting the present. (This is the definition of trauma, I think.) The process of drafting, then, should be in part associative. This moment recalls another moment. Some of this just happens in the notebook. But, by the final drafts, yes, everything is intentional and very carefully planned.

August 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Frame Chronology

25 Aug
Will Boast's memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

Will Boast’s memoir Epilogue describes a family tragedy and revelation the force Boast to reconsider his definition of family.

When we sit down to write about our real lives, it’s easy to fall into the chronology trap. We write, “This happened and then this and then this.” The essay or memoir becomes, simply, one thing after another. This structure might sound logical; after all, isn’t that how our lives happen, one thing after another? Not really. At any moment, the complicated machines that are our worlds contain many moving pieces, some we see and some we don’t. But we only think about a few of them at a time, and it’s not always the pieces right in front of our faces. We tell stories to ourselves about our lives and histories, and those stories help structure our sense of what is happening to us and around us. When writing these stories down, chronology can actually be the enemy of good writing. What we need is a way to frame it, just as we do in real life.

An example of a memoir that frame chronology really well is Will Boast’s Epilogue. An excerpt was published at VQR Online, and you can read it now.

How the Memoir Works

The begins with the death of Boast’s father. His mother and only brother have recently died as well. These deaths create a natural occasion for thinking about the past—what else is a eulogy but a summing up of the chronology of a life? So, Boast begins with summary: “On the morning of the day he died…” and tells us how his father died. What makes the passage interesting from a craft point-of-view is that it’s not simply a list of his father’s actions and whereabouts. Instead, those actions are filtered through a lens: “My father was never one to complain.” Then, in the passage that follows, the moments of his father’s last day are connected to that statement about his personality and character:

On the morning of the day he died, an ulcer he’d suffered from for years, and left untreated, ruptured and began to bleed. Two days later I met with the town coroner. He told me the end had been painless, that, as his life leached away, my father would only have felt increasingly weak and light-​headed. The coroner, trying to make me feel better, was lying. By any other account, when an ulcer perforates and blood, bile, bacteria, and partially digested food begin to spill into the abdominal cavity, you feel as if a knife has just been buried in your guts. You might faint. You might vomit blood or something that looks like coffee grounds—​blood oxidized black by stomach acid. Or your body shuts down completely, total collapse its only remaining response to the shock and agony.

But my father, on the day he died, carried his burning, pleading stomach with him on his morning commute and worked his usual day at the plant, seven in the morning till seven at night.

As a result, a coroner’s report tells us about not just the cause of death but also something about the man who died. The chronology is given a purpose: tell what happened and pose a question. What kind of man doesn’t complain, even when in physical agony? Questions like that are the basis for story.

Boast fills the memoir with paragraphs that begin with thesis-like sentences. Here’s another: “Growing up, I thought he was unbreakable.” What follows is a paragraph containing details that convey unbreakability:

“On the coldest Wisconsin winter days, he went out gloveless and hatless, his face and fingers gone angry red in the frigid, prickling wind. Never bothered him. Freeze him, burn him, cut him, kiss him—​he wouldn’t even flinch.”

But the statement also sets the stage for a fairly straightforward chronology of his father’s childhood through his teen year—a necessity for any kind of accounting of a life. Most accountings, however, lead only to one thing: adulthood and, finally, death. But in Boast’s telling, the account of his father’s life leads to a point:

“The point of the story, I understood, was not that winners could suffer through and losers could not. The point was that showing your pain was a choice, and the choice not to show it required only an exercise of will. How joyous to laugh and play on in the face of pain!

By making a point, rather than just telling what happened, the prose is freed from the chronology trap. It gains the freedom to slow down, to stay in a moment and show it in great detail—creating pockets of chronology within the larger story. It can also skip over details that might seem important to a basic timeline but that don’t meaningfully contribute to the point. The writing can move back and forth in time because each paragraph or passage suggests the story (the point) of what we’re reading. The result is a memoir that is so much richer than the chronology behind it—even when those events are, as with Epilogue, stunning.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s give meaning to chronology using Epilogue by Will Boast as a model:

  1. Decide what thing you want to tell. Regardless of whether the writing is fiction or nonfiction, we often approach scenes or passages with one detail in mind, a fact or anecdote or description that shines brightly in our imaginations. Of course, to get it onto the page, we need some reason. It can’t sit there all alone. So we create a home for it, which usually involves chronology of some sort. For now, though, set that chronology or story aside. What’s the detail?
  2. Consider why the detail stands out? Some details are so weird or wild that they justify their own presence, though this is rarer than you might think. (Jim Varney, he of Ernest P. Worrell fame, made a movie about a man with a hand that stuck off the top his head. You’d think that’d be weird enough to sustain an audience’s interest. But you’d be wrong, as Dr. Otto and the Riddle of the Gloom Beam makes amply clear.) Instead of relying on shock, think about meaning. Why does the detail remain with you? What does it say about the people involved? Did they react to or treat the detail the same as everyone would? Did they think about it in a way that was particular to their community or group or individual personalities? This is where meaning is found.
  3. Write a sentence that suggests or directly states this meaning. It doesn’t need to be grand or philosophical. It can be simple and straightforward: “My father was never one to complain.” That sentence tell us how to think about the details that follow. For your sentence, pick one that tells the reader how to think about the details or chronology that you’re about to write.
  4. Write the chronology toward a point. What happened? What is the sequence of events around this detail? As you write it, think about where you’re headed. Not every passage will end with a sentence that begins “The point of this story is…” but every passage generally ought to end with such clarity. If the point is confusion (I didn’t know what to think), then that confusion should be clear. It’s this sense of direction that makes chronology a story and not just a list of events.

Good luck.

An Interview with Andrew Malan Milward

20 Aug
Andrew Malan Milward's collection I Was a Revolutionary zeroes in on the complex radicalism of Kansas.

Andrew Malan Milward’s collection I Was a Revolutionary zeroes in on the complex radicalism of Kansas with stories that range from the burning of Lawrence to the assassination of George Tiller.

Andrew Malan Milward, a Lawrence, Kansas native and graduate of the Iowa Writers’ Workshop, is the author of the story collection The Agriculture Hall of Fame, which was awarded the Juniper Prize in Fiction by the University of Massachusetts. He has served as the McCreight Fiction Fellow at the University of Wisconsin, a Steinbeck Fellow at San Jose State University, and has received fellowships and awards from the Lannan Foundation, Jentel, and Yaddo. He lives in Hattiesburg, Mississippi, where he teaches at the University of Southern Mississippi’s Center for Writers and is editor-in-chief of Mississippi Review. His most recent book is the story collection I Was a Revolutionary.

To read Milward’s story “I Was a Revolutionary” and an exercise on building plot, click here.

In this interview, Milward discusses using specific cultural references, trusting the reader, and mixing history with present action.

Michael Noll

One of the things I love about the story “I Was a Revolutionary” is that it contains references to things I grew up with. For example, the narrator goes to a bar and drinks a “schooner of Boulevard Wheat,” a beer that I know well. I’m curious, though, whether you ever questioned such specific references. Did you ever consider just having him go out for a beer, rather than a Boulevard Wheat? 

Andrew Malan Milward

Yeah, I know what you mean, and it did give me momentary pause. However, I realized with a story like this that is so interested in examining a specific place, in this case Lawrence, Kansas, it was important to render that place as specifically as possible. So it was important to me to have the protagonist not only drinking Boulevard but to have him doing so in Louise’s and later in the 8th St. Taproom—real bars in downtown Lawrence where I’ve passed many boozy nights—even if most readers won’t have done so themselves. Obviously the story doesn’t depend on the reader knowing these specific references, but it’s a nice little winking fist-bump to those who do.

Michael Noll

The history that you tackle in the book as a whole is fascinating. Of course, I’m a native Kansan, so I love this stuff, but my wife, who’s from Delaware, also became interested in the history when she read the book. So, there seems to be an inherent appeal to the Bleeding Kansas days. But, the stories must still, at some point, give the reader a reason for the history’s presence. How did you approach that problem? Did you start with the history and find a plot to contain it? Or, did you start with a story (adjunct college instructor whose wife leaves him) and build the history into it?

Andrew Malan Milward

Yes, this was a real challenge. I knew that my fictional characters and their predicaments couldn’t just be excuses to introduce the reader to a whole bunch of Kansas history I happen to find fascinating. In certain failed early drafts I did just that. For example, in the early versions of “A Defense of History,” the Assistant’s storyline was slight and underdeveloped because I was basically just using him to try to tell the story of the Populists. This made the story lopsided and I had to find a way to make his story matter as much as the Populists’. This was a macro-level challenge for the whole book. I had to find a way to give my characters the dignity of human complexity. They couldn’t be afterthoughts. I had to make their situations as interesting, dramatic, and relevant as the history I was attempting to limn.

Now as for how I did that, I tried different strategies. Sometimes, as in “O Death,” it was an attempt to mimetically recreate the history, placing my fictional characters right into the drama of the time. And sometimes, as in “The Americanist” or “A Defense of History,” the history is mediated by a character in more contemporary times. A story like “The Burning of Lawrence” does both at once.

Michael Noll

Andrew Malan Milward's collection, I Was a Revolutionary, takes a fresh look at the complex history of Bleeding Kansas and its role leading up to the Civil War and the aftershocks that are still present today.

Andrew Malan Milward’s collection, I Was a Revolutionary, takes a fresh look at the complex history of Bleeding Kansas and its role leading up to the Civil War and the aftershocks that are still present today.

The title story, “I Was a Revolutionary,” contains several unexplained references—to history, to books (What’s the Matter with Kansas), and to the Obama presidential campaign. For example, the story mentions “the Ayers stuff” but doesn’t explain what it is, relying on the reader to know. How did you know to trust the reader to figure it out? 

Andrew Malan Milward

As a writer I always try to respect the reader as much as possible and that involves a lot of trust, because as readers we’ve all had the unpleasant experience of a writer not trusting us and we resent it. Oftentimes this is an unintended consequence of writers with good intentions—they’re trying to invite us into the story and don’t want us to feel confused. But we don’t like to have our hand held because it feels condescending. As readers we like to feel smart and when a writer doesn’t trust us enough to know something or “get” something, when they’re trying too hard to guide us through their work, we react against it. We think, I knew that. You didn’t have to tell me.

And you’re right, the title story has more references than the others because as the final story in the collection it’s working on two levels: it’s no only the story of Paul and his radical past, it’s also the story of all the stories in the collection. It the one that talks about everything that has come before it. A lot of the references in it are to events and people that have been explored in previous stories in the collection (which I why I strongly suggest/hope readers read the stories in the order they have been arranged). However, there are a lot of references to people and events not covered previously in the book. I suppose I’m trusting the reader to either know or maybe be curious enough to look them up. I like to think, however, that the story still holds together even if they don’t.

Michael Noll

Kansas is at an interesting political moment. Its governor, Sam Brownback, has enacted tax cuts that are the dream of every Tea Party member, and, as a result, the state has experienced a revenue shortfall and is struggling to fund basic things like schools and highway construction. Not surprisingly, Brownback has become massively unpopular. And yet I’m not sure what will happen in the next election. In the recent past, when Republican governors and candidates have veered too far to the right, Kansans have elected Democrats (Joan Finney and Kathleen Sebelius). But, as you point out in I Was a Revolutionary, this is a state that also has a long history of political extremism. I’m curious how you’d read the state’s political tea leaves. Do you think it will move back toward centrist politics? Or are there enough voters with an extremist conservative ideology to keep pushing the state further to the right?

Andrew Malan Milward

It’s incredibly hard to square Kansas’s warring instincts for progressivism and conservatism. Much of the book was guided by that question: How did such a forward-thinking state that was founded very bloodily to enter the Union as a free state instead of a slave state—inciting what would become the Civil War—arrive at its reactionary present of the Westboro Baptist Church, a militant anti-abortion movement, and the top-down class warfare of the Koch Brothers and Governor Sam Brownback? As the protagonist of the title story tells his students in class one day, “Kansas is and always was a radical state.” I certainly found that to be true. And, you’re right, the present isn’t very pretty—all the risible insanity that makes Kansas look like the meth-lab Winnebago of American democracy. I’m not sure what will happen, but if there’s one thing that Kansas’s history has proved it’s that the state and its inhabitants are capable of dramatic change, which is certainly what’s required right now. Personally, I’m hoping we become as smart and civilized as farmers in Kansas were 125 years ago. Those Populists organized a true grassroots party, the People’s Party, as an alternative to the Republicans and Democrats that at its core was a movement against corporate hegemony. Think about that for a moment: a movement against corporate domination of society in 1890. Incredible. They certainly saw the direction we were heading and they had the courage to try to do something about it.

August 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Give a Story’s Plot Enough Fuel to Finish

18 Aug
Andrew Malan Milward's collection, I Was a Revolutionary, takes a fresh look at the complex history of Bleeding Kansas and its role leading up to the Civil War and the aftershocks that are still present today.

Andrew Malan Milward’s collection, I Was a Revolutionary, takes a fresh look at the complex history of Bleeding Kansas, from the burning of Lawrence to the aftershocks still present today.

As writers, we all eventually experience this moment: we’re sitting at the computer, and the story just quits. It won’t move forward, no matter how many guns we hang on the wall or strangers we have knock on the door. So what do we do? Very likely, go back to the beginning, searching for that wrong piece that has fouled everything up. It’s often the case, though, that the problem isn’t a wrong piece but not enough pieces. A story needs multiple plot threads, multiple questions for the reader to wonder about. The solution to writer’s block, then, is often to find ways to introduce more plot threads at the beginning of the story.

A terrific example for how this can be done is Andrew Malan Milward’s story, “I Was a Revolutionary.” It’s the final story in his new collection, I Was a Revolutionary, and was first published in Virginia Quarterly Review, where you can read it now.

How the Story Works

The story has three primary plot lines, and each one is introduced right away. Here’s the first:

On the first day I tell them: “When searching for the Seven Cities of Cibola, Coronado was so disappointed by what he found in the land that would one day become Kansas that he strangled the guide who’d brought him here and turned around.”

No one laughs. Their blank stares communicate only this: It’s the first day of class. Don’t get cute.

The narrator is an adjunct instructor of Kansas history at the University of Kansas. He’s developed a passion for the subject, but his students are less than enthusiastic. Will he be able to get their attention, and, if so, what will happen? The first plot line is established.

Here’s the second line:

I check e-mail and find my wife has written. We used to speak openly and directly. Now we e-mail, and hers arrive with all the formality of a communiqué. Paul, I would like to get some more of my things this evening. Please leave the house from 7-8. —Linda. Strange to think of her across campus, over in Sociology, composing this terse missive. Stranger still to think that when the divorce papers arrive, we could, if so inclined, settle the whole matter via intracampus mail.

The narrator’s wife is divorcing him, and, as with all good divorce stories, being separated just mean they’re physical parted. They still work in the same place, which leads to the final plot line:

I’m debating whether to reply when Brad, the chair of the history department, pops in to say hello.

“Welcome back, partner. How was break?”

“Cold,” I say.

He laughs and asks if my eleven thirty went okay.

Brad toes a fine line between administrator and concerned colleague, a fact that seems to color any conversation I have with him. I shouldn’t complain; he’s always been pretty good to me. When the university hired Linda almost twenty-five years ago, he took me on as an instructor.

Not only does the narrator work in the same place as his soon-to-be ex-wife, but he is also, to some extent, dependent on her for his job, which his boss makes clear through awkward concern.

The story introduces these plots lines succinctly but clearly. This is important to remember because it would easy to read this story and several of the others in the collection and focus on the innovative way that Milward combines history with present action. This story in particular includes long lists of historical facts and events, and it might be tempting to view it as idiosyncratic or experimental—which it is, in a way. But it’s also quite deliberate about the way it introduces plot, which helps get the reader to buy in to its more unconventional qualities.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s introduce multiple plot lines, using “I Was a Revolutionary” by Andrew Malan Milward as a model:

  1. Identify a primary plot line. In “I Was a Revolutionary,” this is probably the narrator’s divorce and deteriorating relationship with his wife. Because he’s getting divorced, his job is in jeopardy and he gets involved with two students in a way that he might previously have avoided. This also happens to be the most usual of the plot lines; marriage/divorce stories are a standard of pretty much every genre. So, consider which of your potential plot lines most resembles a standard plot line, one that would drive a popular film. Sum it up in a line.
  2. Build a plot line from the world of the plot. What is happening around this primary plot. In “I Was a Revolutionary,” the characters work at a university. This may have been deliberately chosen by Milward, or it might have just been a job he stumbled upon when writing the story—it doesn’t matter. Whatever exists around the plot, make it matter. Find a way to make its very existence hinge on the outcome of the primary plot. For example, if the divorce goes badly, we know the narrator’s job could be at risk. So, find a way to put the foundation of your characters’ lives at stake: jobs, home, children, whatever makes them happy or secure. Connect it to the primary plot.
  3. Build a plot line from the characters’ interests. This may be the most idiosyncratic plot line. As with the Spanish Inquisition, no one expects an obsession with Kansas history. Yet there it is, figuring dramatically in the story. Milward accomplishes this by making it relevant to the narrator: he was once part of the Weather Underground, and so when he discovers the revolutionary past of Kansas, he’s naturally drawn to it and feels compelled to share it with other revolutionary-minded individuals—in this case, his students. Of course, revolutionary is a hazardous career path, as is working with people whose fervor dwarfs your own. The important thing is that the narrator’s interest in Kansas history ties in with his job and, thus, his divorce. This may seem inevitable, but it’s not. Lots of people who are not college instructors visit war sites and re-enact battles. But Milward found a way to channel this interest into the world he’d created for the story. So, identify an interest or obsession in your character and a way to connect it to the world of your story.
  4. Play with the connections. If you build these plot lines from the same basic materials (the world of the story), then they will eventually collide, which is what you want.

Good luck.

An Interview with Sarah Smarsh

13 Aug
Sarah Smarsh is a Kansas native whose essay,

Sarah Smarsh is a Kansas native whose essay, “Pride, Poverty, and Prejudice in Kansas” examines the relationship of political power and poverty.

Sarah Smarsh is a Kansas-born journalist, public speaker and educator. Her writing has appeared in Harper’s, The Believer, Creative Nonfiction, The Guardian, Guernica, and The New Yorker. Her forthcoming book, In the Red, combines memoir, literary reportage, and social analysis to examine the life of poor and working-class Americans as seen through the lens of Smarsh’s own turbulent upbringing in rural Kansas.

To read Smarsh’s New Yorker essay “Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas” and an exercise on raising the level of analysis in an essay, click here.

In this interview, Smarsh discusses strategies for beginning essays, the challenge of explaining complex and technical material, and the delicate balance of writing truthfully and respectfully about family.

Michael Noll

I love the way this essay begins, with the story of a vandalized ATM that you encountered in Italy. It’s vivid stuff, but it’s also from 2001 and set in Europe; the essay that follows explains a 2015 Kansas law. This makes me curious how you approached the problem of introducing this essay. It’s about a law, which means you’re tasked with explaining something dry and convoluted. Did you sense that, without some striking imagery at the beginning, readers might not follow you through the details of the law?

Sarah Smarsh

Thank you for the good words.

The essay’s opening isn’t quite what journalists call an “anecdotal lede,” starting with a quick story to humanize an issue and grab the reader’s attention. But while nothing happens in the opening, the image has the tangible components of a real person interacting with an environment in a way that is metaphorically rather than directly tied to the story’s news component. As poets and photographers know, a poignant, true image cuts as deep into the psyche as story. When I was a nonfiction professor I’d do close-reads of essays with students and then have them close their eyes. I’d ask them to picture the contents of the essay, write down the first image that came to mind, and then go around the room reading their answers. Almost every time, most answers were the same; some visual had been most searing for everyone.

The bloody ATM jumped into my mind after I started working on the essay. I’d thought of it a few times in the past fourteen years, but it was deep in my memory files. At first I wasn’t sure why or how it was relevant, but I trusted that if my brain had made the connection, readers’ would too. I researched the political protest that was cause for the ATM’s vandalization, and it turned out to involve the Bank of Rome funding the arms trade. A long leap from welfare allocation in Kansas! In an early draft I referenced that bit of global economic history to demonstrate the power of banks—they control not just poor people’s pocketbooks but international warfare. But what was more relevant to the essay was why the image had stayed with me: my relationship to the ATM as a cold, inhuman middle-man between me and scarce money, as Kansas legislators now stand between poor citizens and their funds.

I could have opened with a modern-day image of a Kansas welfare recipient at an ATM, but I was more interested in digging into the symbol of what these machines represent to us as a culture. (My editor wisely struck from the piece an overwrought description, “robotic foot soldiers for plutocrats,” which I’m happy to exhume here.) One of my favorite things about nonfiction is that one needn’t contrive or strategize real-life metaphors. They materialize on their own, from the actual, if you’re paying attention.

Michael Noll

The details of the law pretty complex: understanding them requires understanding not just the wording of the law but several types of financial transactions: ATM fees and food stamps. Explaining this stuff would seem to require a skill set that is completely different from those used to describe animal guts smeared on an ATM. How did you convey the basic info about the law and the transactions to readers who likely have only casual knowledge of such things?

Sarah Smarsh

Writing what I like to think of as literary nonfiction about wonkish topics takes a lot of work because I myself only have casual knowledge of them before I dig into the research. This essay had about thirty footnotes linking to public documents for the New Yorker’s fact-checkers, and I consider this light work since I didn’t conduct interviews (though I did make a few calls to verify this or that). In that process, one can get hung up in red tape very easily. Having reported on municipalities, laws, cops, public schools and other bureaucracies from hell for many years, I’m confident that some of that confusion is by design; in this piece, for example, I had to consult several state sources to figure out what private financial company holds a contract to administer welfare funds, since its umbrella corporation has factions and subsidiaries legally referred to by different names. Once I have the info, though, I have a pretty easy time describing it. What would I need to know in order to understand the gist? Whatever the answer is for me, it’s the same for the reader. A harder task is knowing where to stop. An earlier version of the ATM piece had a sizable tangent on the rise of electronic debit cards in public assistance programs, along with numbers from other states demonstrating the enormous amount of public money that now ends up as private-bank fees.

You’re right, though, that two different writerly sensibilities are in play with this and many of my essays. I remember attending an Investigative Reporters & Editors conference in New York in 2000 when I had an internship in the news unit of the NBC affiliate there, and being struck by how razor-like the reporters’ minds were in cutting straight to one particular narrative within a story. My brain is more of an artsy-fartsy thing that relishes how everything is connected to everything. I like to juxtapose and suggest expansive ideas rather than directly explain hard facts. Maybe my upbringing is why I can put on a reporter hat all the same. It was not an environment that indulged in daydreaming and philosophizing. “Cut the bullshit and get to the point,” my grandma might say.

Michael Noll

I’m a huge fan of James Baldwin, and so I was happy to see the reference to him later in the essay. I was also surprised. You make a jump from the specifics of the law to a broader discussion of the particular costs of poverty. Did you always know that such a widening of the essay’s frame would happen, or did you stumble upon it during the writing process?

Sarah Smarsh

When an editor asked me to weigh in on the new law, it had already been covered elsewhere. I knew right away that what I could offer that other stories hadn’t was a big-picture understanding of why this abstract discourse about laws and ethics might matter to a woman living in poverty—how a policy plays out at the ground, and even how it feels to be affected. I’m careful to not speak for anyone but myself, but yes, I immediately saw the law as springboard to a broader experience rarely represented first-hand in the media.

Michael Noll

At the end of the essay, you describe your childhood experience of using a free-lunch card in school and how embarrassed you were. You also mention at the beginning of the essay that your family was eligible for welfare but, out of pride, didn’t apply for it. This gets at a tricky part of writing about family and, more broadly, experiences that you share with others. How you do you accurately write about stories that may still evoke strong emotion, even embarrassment, in others while respecting their feelings?

Sarah Smarsh

Sarah Smarsh wrote about the prevalence of poor dental care in impoverished families and the shame it brings in middle-class society.

In her essay, “Poor Teeth,” Sarah Smarsh wrote about the prevalence of poor dental care in impoverished families and the shame it brings in middle-class society.

However simple and factual a statement, so much context often is missing by necessity of length or keeping momentum. My family didn’t apply for benefits out of pride, yes, but probably for a lot of other reasons—lack of information or access and so on. We also managed to be employed in manual and service labor; what if we hadn’t had those skills or the health to perform them? Regardless, we might have made a comparable income—when factoring in income tax—on public assistance, but to us that was unthinkable. When I was writing the story, my grandma confided in me that she had in fact received public benefits in the 1960s. That was long before I was born and Reagan started yapping about “welfare queens,” but it’s still a small piece of my family’s survival story. I then wrote the following, that didn’t make the cut in the final piece:

To suggest that recipients would be able to splurge under such constraints even if they wanted to is to cast every impoverished Kansan as the dastardly welfare queen of lore. This sneer from the capital is not lost on the poor, who in my considerable research would rather have a job with a living wage than a “handout.” Only as I was discussing this story with her did my grandmother—who, like myself and our whole family spent much of her life doing manual labor, juggling at least two jobs and turning clever frugality into a satisfying art form—admit that she briefly went on the dole as a teenage mother with a newborn to feed in the early 1960s, when her abusive husband went AWOL from the Army and their military payments stopped. “I’m ashamed to say it,” she told me. She only took assistance for a few weeks after giving birth; then she fled her husband for another state and went—by grit and by choice—off welfare and onto a factory floor. There, she made enough to pay for rent, baby formula, gas to get to work and a babysitter who lived in her apartment building with padlocks on the doors. With what remained, she calculated, the most filling meal available was a frozen chicken pot pie, and she ate exactly one per day for months—a story I share not to tug heartstrings but to demonstrate the resilience and ingenuity of people so often categorized as “lazy.” Where I’m from, there is no more hurtful word, and to demoralize our poorest citizens, as the new welfare-restrictions does, is not just bad form but bad economic strategy.

Since I was writing about my family as I was growing up, it’s accurate to say my family “didn’t apply,” but there’s a bit more to the story. I accept these limitations of writing as we all must—you will never write the whole story, I used to tell students—but I try to include brushstrokes that suggest whatever nuance I don’t have room to describe at length.

Nuance is often at the heart of a subject’s experience in reading a piece. I’ve been written about only a handful of times, and I know it’s not an easy thing. I always try to put myself in my subjects’ shoes and consider their experience as important as my own—especially when it comes to matters as sensitive as class. But I think there’s a way to go right at the truth, however painful and ugly, and still respect all involved. I try to do that by writing from a place of “we” rather than “me” and “them”—not just in matters of family but politics and all else.

Clear communication with people about the contents and intentions behind a piece of writing goes a long way in softening the experience of being turned into subjects or characters. I messed up on that once as a young writer doing a cover story for an alt-weekly, and though the story was factual, it was unnecessarily traumatic for the subjects (and, thereby, since these things matter to me very much, for me). Sometimes investigative reporting requires sly maneuvering for the sake of revealing corruption or being a “watch dog” for democracy. Even with more personal stories I’d never share a draft for someone to review. But my writing often intersects with vulnerable populations—say, a teacher who could get fired for sharing her opinion or a guy whose small-town banker could turn him down for a loan because he talked to me about his poverty. So I try to be as upfront as possible about what’s going down with a story.

At the most personal level, I tell my family about writing projects that mention them and give them an opportunity to say, “no.” I’m grateful that they never have. They aren’t a crew that’s sitting around offices reading online think pieces, and perhaps I could let publications slip by without their knowledge, but I offer to share them. They don’t always read them, which is perfectly fine, but I want them to know there’s this thing in the world that has appropriated, channeled and hopefully honored their energy. I would never not write something that felt essential to me because someone told me to keep my trap shut. But something that leaves a loved one vulnerable without her blessing will never be essential to me.

Occasionally something I write stings them, and that’s probably inevitable. Last winter I told my grandma that an essay I wrote about dental health as class signifier was on some fancy best-of-the-year lists. She said, “Well, I guess now the whole world knows I have false teeth.”

In this ATM piece, I describe myself as “the first member of my household to finish ninth grade.” My mom told me she was “taken aback” reading this, as she left school after eleventh grade and got her G.E.D. I explained that I was describing my grandparents, with whom I lived permanently from age 11 to 17, though I often spent weekends and summers with my mom. In a family and class where “household” can be complicated, to me that grandparents’ farm unequivocally was my “household,” with a grandpa who quit school after sixth grade to work the family farm and a grandma who left in ninth grade to wait tables. “I know, but people won’t know that,” Mom said. And she’s right; most readers would assume I was talking about my parents.

Furthermore, the sentence, while accurate and succinctly effective in conveying my life experience to readers, does a disservice to my grandparents; in the seventies my grandma got a government grant to attend “business college” and admirably worked her way into the Wichita court system, where she served as a probation officer for many years. Most readers probably picture a very different person when they picture a “high school dropout.” Meanwhile, my mom had her IQ tested when I was a kid, and it’s statistically probable that she’s considerably smarter than the vast majority of New Yorker readers.

Mom, it turns out, didn’t care about the majority of readers. She cared about her close friends, all former co-workers in the real-estate industry, who might click the story from my Facebook page and think she left high school at an earlier grade than she did, or that she’d been a poor student, or that she’d not actually gotten her G.E.D. She’d just been through the most harrowing, near-death cancer battle of her life, so knowing I’d written something she found misleading and painful was brutal. I asked the New Yorker if we could tweak the sentence, but it would’ve required some hullabaloo, potentially including an asterisked explanation of why the change was made. Mom had said not to make a fuss, so I offered to instead provide public clarification somewhere in the future. Thanks for the opportunity to do that here. This is the only time in the course of many thousands of words written about my family that a small quibble has arisen, so I’d like to think we’re doing pretty good.

There’s a famous book by Janet Malcolm about these things, and I got to ask her some questions once in New York. She’s a goddess on earth who rightfully tired of having this line referenced twenty years ago, but I disagree with her provocative opening statement about a journalist’s work being morally indefensible. A blanket statement that journalism is inherently jacked-up strikes me as a dangerous carte blanche for those tempted to use their subjects in callous ways. Welp, regardless of how I conduct myself, journalism is shady, so might as well trot this starving child out for a Pulitzer and then hit the road back to New York! For me the ethical quality of a piece of writing falls along a continuum like any other human action. In my experience, the care you put into it is never lost.

Michael Noll

Here’s a political question: The essay is about a controversial law in Kansas, a state where the governor has introduced all sorts of controversial legislation. He’s now massively unpopular, and yet I’m not sure what will happen in the next election. In the recent past, when Republican governors and candidates have veered too far to the right, Kansans have elected Democrats (Joan Finney and Kathleen Sebelius). But, this is a state that has a long history of political extremism and a Democratic party without any infrastructure. I’m curious how you’d read the state’s political tea leaves. Do you think it will move back toward centrist politics? Or are there enough voters with an extremist conservative ideology to keep pushing the state further to the right?

Sarah Smarsh

Brownback enacted his far-right policies in his first term and managed to get re-elected in a close race. He is uber-conservative for ideological reasons that appeal to some voters, and his very wealthy supporters in Kansas are uber-conservative for fiscal reasons that by most economic estimations hurt voters. That has been a perfect storm for pushing state policies destructively far to the right.

Out on the streets in Kansas, though, as in all places, you’ll find a diverse spectrum of political views not represented by the stories out of our infamous legislature. Historically that sort of divide between people and government leads to an extremely pissed-off populism. Pissed-off populism is what Kansas was founded on, in fact; the state’s early years were all about abolition, women’s rights, workers’ rights.

I’m a good enough student of Kansas and life to know there’s no predicting where state politics will go. But there are many new bipartisan movements and organizations afoot within the state that share a goal of repairing and preserving Kansas’s historically good outcomes in health, education and other public systems. Kansans are switching parties, getting involved in ways they’ve never been. Our former insurance commissioner, elected as a Republican, boldly fought on behalf of the Affordable Care Act in an extremely inhospitable administration. For all their Midwestern reserve, and whether they got themselves into this mess or not, Kansans are pissed off. I’m a fifth-generation Kansas farm kid and can tell you this: My grandpa didn’t blow up very often, but when he did, you’d better run like hell.

August 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

How to Raise the Level of Analysis in an Essay

11 Aug
Sarah Smarsh's essay, "Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas," about legislation that would limit the amount that welfare recipients can withdraw from ATM machines appeared in The New Yorker.

Sarah Smarsh’s essay, “Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas,” about legislation that would limit the amount that food stamp recipients can withdraw from ATM machines appeared in The New Yorker.

We live in the heyday of the online magazine, which is good for readers (more niche writing and unexpected angles) and good for writers (more opportunities for publication). However, the abundance of cultural, political, and social analysis has raised the bar for the genre. It’s not enough to report the facts or make an insightful point. The best essays make a kind of Malcolm-Gladwell leap that moves from close-frame analysis (what is happening right here, in this specific instance) to the big picture. Many writers attempt this leap but with mixed results. There is an entire genre of essay, for example, that critiques the peculiar, occasionally insightful, occasionally offensive leaps made by New York Times columnist David Brooks.

An example of a truly insightful, carefully considered leap can be found in Sarah Smarsh’s essay “Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas.” It was published in The New Yorker where you can read it now.

How the Essay Works

The essay explains a complicated piece of legislation recently signed by Kansas state legislators. The bill would cap ATM withdrawals by welfare recipients to twenty-five dollars a day. Smarsh does a nice job of providing financial and political context for the bill: why it was passed, other restrictions attached to it, and a primer on the complicated relationship between ATM transaction fees and government contracts.  This is the “report the facts” aspect of the essay, and after it’s accomplished, Smarsh makes a leap:

As James Baldwin wrote (and as much research being published during this moment of historic wealth inequality demonstrates), it is expensive to be poor.

The leap is a logical one, from the specifics of ATM use by the poor to other expenses they encounter. But it’s also a political and sociological leap, as Smarsh makes clear in the rest of the passage:

There are the overdraft fees, the maintenance costs of ramshackle houses and cars, the credit-card debt accrued for necessities that low wages don’t cover, the interest paid on loans for college educations. Poverty’s highest costs are often psychological ones, though, borne by the neurochemistry of stress and by sociopolitical values that equate financial failures with moral ones. Laws creating barriers between impoverished families and public assistance intended for food and shelter represent a particular form of contempt for the poor—we’ll help you, these measures suggest, but we won’t trust you with that help. And they are imposed in the pall of hypocrisy and self-interest.

She moves from practical difficulties to psychological ones, putting the bill into a larger context, arguing that it’s only one manifestation of the overwhelming contempt that many Americans have for the poor.

Smarsh supports this shift in argument in two ways. First, she offers a quote from the Washington Post that makes a very similar point. Then, she tells two personal anecdotes, one from her experience working for a Kansas social-service agency and another from her childhood, when her family qualified for free and reduced school lunch. It’s this support (from other writers and from direct experience) that make the leap in analysis work. The biggest complaint about David Brooks’ essays in the Times is that they seem to exist in a vacuum, disconnected from fact or observation. But Smarsh has made a leap that she can tether to reality, and it makes her argument that much more powerful.

The Writing Exercise

Let’s make a leap of analysis in an essay using “Poverty, Pride, and Prejudice in Kansas” by Sarah Smarsh as a model:

  1. Report the facts. No matter the kind of nonfiction, whether it’s a personal essay or reportage, the foundation for the entire piece is hard information. This happened. The facts may not appear in the essay’s first paragraph, as shown by Smarsh’s essay. But they hold the entire structure together. To keep from getting lost in them (which isn’t easy, in personal stories and in complex explanations of financial transactions), summarize the facts in a line or two. The New Yorker actually does this in its photo caption: “In Kansas, a pending cap on A.T.M withdrawals for welfare recipients is the state legislature’s latest exhibition of scorn for low-income residents.” Notice the structure: fact + context. In this case, the context is a kind of philosophy or attitude. But it could be any sort of context. We do this in personal stories all the time: Oh, that’s just how he is. So, quickly summarize your facts and the context that seems most important to understand them.
  2. Make the leap. Context can guide you. We just established that Smarsh’s context is that the legislation is the latest episode in a long history of scorn for the poor in Kansas. So, it makes sense to leap from there: so what if the Kansas legislature doesn’t care about poor people? Smarsh answers that question by telling us something we might not know: the paradoxical truth that it’s expensive to be poor and that these expenses exact a psychological toll. As a result, the legislation actually adds to the stress that poor families bear. You can think about the leap as a kind of direct address to the reader: You might be tempted to think about these initial facts like this, but if you know this, then you’ll see things differently. So, to make the leap, consider the readers’ perspectives, what they’ll likely think. Then, ask yourself what piece of information might disrupt that belief or perspective. Because you’re offering a new way of thinking about the facts, the leap may involve a kind of philosophical shift.
  3. Back up your leap. Don’t be David Brooks, making grand pronouncements without evidence. Once you’ve disrupted the readers’ view of the essay’s facts, prove that the new perspective you’re offering is supported by reality. Use expert quotes, stats, or facts. Use personal experience and anecdotes. Ground the reader’s new way of thinking. Tether it to something hard and heavy so that it doesn’t float away after the readers walk away from the essay.

Good luck.

An Interview with Justin Taylor

6 Aug
Justin Taylor is the author of three books, most recently the story collection Flings.

Justin Taylor is the author of three books, most recently the story collection Flings.

Justin Taylor is the author of the story collection Everything Here Is the Best Thing Ever and the novel The Gospel of Anarchy. He lives in New York City and co-edits the arts journal Agriculture Reader. His most recent book is the story collection, Flings.

To read Taylor’s story “So You’re Just What, Gone?” and an exercise on digging into a scene, click here.

In this interview, Taylor discusses the moral universes of stories, creating bombs and aftershocks in fiction, and his testing process for writing characters’ text messages.

Michael Noll

One of the writer-sayings from workshop is that a story should walk characters through danger doors–situations that put them at risk. This story does a terrific job of that. First, Charity is seated next to a pervy older man on a plane. Then, he gives her his number. Then he invites her to meet him. As empathetic humans, we don’t want Charity to go along with any of this, but as readers, of course, we want her to choose poorly since it makes a better story. Given all of this, I’m curious about how you approached the ending. She has the opportunity to meet Mark but talks herself out of it—with some help from his aggressive behavior. I love this ending, but I’m also curious if, in early drafts, Charity ever met Mark as he asks? How did you know when to put an end to the chain of bad events?

Justin Taylor

I’ve never heard that expression before—“danger doors.” It reminds me of old-school video games, specifically those colored bulbs in the original Metroid or the ante-chamber to the boss room that you’d find in any given Mega Man. Anyway, to answer your question, there are no drafts in which Charity meets up with Mark. To me, the story is about Charity’s inner life, her self-perception, particularly with regard to questions of age and maturity. To me, the major conflict of the story is between the part of her that still feels young—like a daughter, like a child—and the part of her that craves independence, wants to grow up faster. Mark’s intentions are predatory, but he’s not a very effective predator. Charity’s autonomy and safety are never truly put at risk. The public space of the airplane, and later the distance of the phone, conspire to place a concrete limit on the damage that Mark can do, and that’s because the story is far less interested in what he wants from her, than in what she thinks about it. In the moral universe of this story, questionable choices (and/or the mere fact of being an adolescent girl) are not understood as debts to be repaid through suffering. Mark’s impatience and his demands are somewhere between the ravings of a tyrant and the tantrum of a child. To hook up with someone like that would be to cede the very independence she’s been fighting for, and as soon as she sees that, she’s repulsed. That in mind, I wanted to end the story with Charity on her own, to reinforce that this is not a “him and her” story, but just hers—he was just this weird interlude in her life, like a bottle episode on a TV show, where it doesn’t quite connect back to the main arc of the season. That’s how I came back to the aquarium: she’s on her own, and doing exactly what she wants to do. It may be that the most dangerous thing you can do with a teenager is pay her the same respect that you would someone your own age. That, to me, is the main “danger door” the story walks through.

Michael Noll

Justin Taylor's story, "So You're Just What, Gone?" appeared in The New Yorker.

Justin Taylor’s story, “So You’re Just What, Gone?” appeared in The New Yorker.

I’m interested in the pacing of the story. It begins with a long scene aboard the plane that occupies about 1/3 of the story, and in that long scene, we’re introduced to the character and the plot (will Charity call the guy?), but I can also imagine a workshop teacher suggesting that it all get condensed to a paragraph, which sounds right in theory but, of course, would have been terrible advice. How did you keep that scene going without losing tension?

Justin Taylor

You cannot condense those pages into a paragraph. They are, as you have said, 1/3 of the whole story, and therefore are doing 1/3 of the work. That scene establishes Charity’s psychology through her perceptions of the world around her, her relationship with her mother and various other establishing and background details. Maybe most important of all, it builds up mood. When Mark assaults her, that mood is (hopefully) shattered. I wanted his change in tone and behavior to feel like a bomb going off in the story, and then for the rest of the story to sort of reverberate with the aftershocks of that blast.

Michael Noll

The story contains some extended text conversations. Do you approach those any differently than you would spoken dialogue?

Justin Taylor

I tried to write my texts the way most people actually text—the language clipped, the punctuation light or absent—but mostly I wanted to be true to the characters themselves. They should sound less like “a person texting” than like the people who they each actually are. Charity, for example, is a more deliberate texter than Mark is. There are a couple places where he runs two sentences together in a hash of unpunctuated shorthand (“Cmon sumthing to look fwd to ur teasing me bad here”) whereas she bothers herself to put a comma in the middle of “Pajamas I guess, like a shirt”. She also prefers “you” to Mark’s “u,” though at the end of the conversation she adopts his style, possibly because she wants something from him—“Will u send one back?” Originally, I wanted Mark to be borderline incoherent, because I liked the idea that he was this rabid bro falling all over himself, but then I did some test-runs with my own phone’s autocorrect and saw that it tended to save him from the worst of himself. Overall the punctuation is pretty true to an iPhone 5, though I took a few liberties, such as the un-capitalized “I”, which reads like hasty texting but in real life could only be the result of extra effort, because the phone would always fix it for you unless you stopped it from doing so. Also, “Now were talking.” The phone has enough grammar to know that you meant “we’re” in that sentence. Or anyway mine does. But it’s also true that autocorrect learns from usage, so it’s at least plausible that Mark’s phone wouldn’t make that fix. Also—and I know I’m giving away the depth of my own insanity here—I originally had Mark using “2” for “to” but I eventually realized that while 2 is faster on a computer keyboard, on a phone screen it takes several extra touches to get over to the number screen and then to get back. So he wouldn’t do that.

Michael Noll

The story is about a 15-year-old girl’s sexual encounter with a 30-ish man. It’s a story in a similar vein as Lolita, and when that novel was published, a lot of early reviews claimed that the young girl had somehow entrapped or seduced Humbert Humbert. The reviewers were, it seems, reading Lolita as older than she was because of the way she was viewed by the narrator. In your story, did you worry that the reader would somehow forget that Charity, because she’s interacting semi-sexually with an older man, is only 15? Did you build in reminders of her age?

Justin Taylor

I don’t see how you could forget Charity’s age—the story is entirely defined by it. She’s only on this trip in the first place because her mother thought she was too young to stay home alone. Plus there’s her homework, her friends back home, the presence of her mother and grandmother, and Mark’s own word choice with regard to her. Lolita is 12 years old when the novel begins, and is literally kidnapped by a murderer. If she can be said to eventually “seduce” Humbert, it’s only in the sense that a captive figures out how to “seduce” her captor. I think Nabokov himself is very clear about this, even if the critics haven’t always been—most of the book doesn’t make any sense without this element, and the ending certainly doesn’t. Charity’s problems aren’t nearly as grave—she has a lot more power than Lolita, and she’s older. Not “older than her years” (which is what all abusers of children tell themselves—it’s a fantasy of permission) but old enough to understand the world, and the body, she inhabits. To the extent that, as I said before, the story places superlative value on Charity’s capacity for self-determination, it would have to respect her decision to hook up with him just as much as it does her decision not to. She doesn’t cut him off because she suddenly realizes he’s too old for her—that was the main thing that made him attractive in the first place. She cuts him off because he’s a creepy scumbag, which to me is a better reason. Adolescence comes and goes, but a well-tuned creep-detector is something you carry with you through life.

August 2015

Michael Noll Michael Noll is the Editor of Read to Write Stories.

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