The Ugly Misogyny at the Heart of Sally Rooney’s “Beautiful World”


TRIGGER WARNING: abuse, sexual assault, misogyny, men’s violence against women, violent porn

I fell in love with Sally Rooney’s fiction back in April 2019 when her second novel, Normal People, hit the shelves. I admired her astute psychological observations, rendered in prose that scraped away all pretense. Some readers felt it was an expert depiction of depression. I read the novel as a study in familial abuse and the resulting dysfunction. Marianne, a young woman whose brother abuses her emotionally, verbally, psychologically, and physically, grows into a self-loathing adult who craves violence and humiliation from sexual partners. The young man who loves her, Connell, can never bring himself to participate in Marianne’s self-flagellation, so their sexual relationship stalls out. Yet Normal People ends on a note of hope that these two might still connect and that Marianne might one day accept love.

What I didn’t think about at the time was the necessity of Connell. His presence in Normal People is what delivers both hope and connection as well as the possibility of love. Without his refusal to engage in toxic masculinity, without his horror of both the abuse Marianne has survived and her desire to re-enact that abuse, it would have been a radically different novel. Without Connell, it would’ve been a despairing, nihilistic depiction of millennial women’s isolation and internalized misogyny.

Which is exactly what Rooney delivers in her third novel Beautiful World, Where Are You.

Rooney offers no Connell in Beautiful World. There is no Nick to her Gatsby of Alice-and-Eileen. No character grounds us in a world of healthy, loving relationships or even a balanced perspective. Instead two extraordinarily privileged white women with college degrees debate the ecological destruction of the planet, their own consumption of resources, identity politics, and the foolishness of religion—as intellectual exercises for themselves and sometimes as passive-aggressive jabs at each other. They have nothing at stake, or feel that they don’t, and have resigned themselves to the “collapse of civilization” and their role in speeding it along. They assure each other that they “really felt ill” (19) about their complicity, but oh well. And they then happily turn to the subject of their sex lives.

White millennial woman smiling coyly over her shoulder in a coffee shop
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The L.A. Times Review of Books, The Washington Post, and The Irish Times have all flirted with calling Rooney “the voice of her generation.” And the emails between Eileen and Alice certainly capture a specific demographic of Millennials: middle-class white women. It is exactly this intellectual and moral laziness of the more privileged Millennials—who eagerly shame others while buying up everything they claim to hate (brands that use sweatshop labor, gasoline-fueled cars, etc.)—that drives Gen Z and BIPOC people of all ages up the wall. They are willing to wring their hands, take selfies at marches, read books, and “educate” (read: shame) anyone less knowledgeable (read: privileged) than themselves, so long as they don’t have to compromise their own privilege.

But the real problem is that there’s no one in Rooney’s pages to point out the women’s insincerity. Their counterparts—Simon and Felix—are far worse. Rather than shrug at their own complicity, these two men actively prey on and mistreat women. And there’s no character to question that, either, not even the women once they become their targets.

Internalized misogyny, in Normal People, was a tragedy that kept Marianne from love and intimacy. In Beautiful World, it’s simply the way things are.

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During one of their first moments of real privacy together, Felix hands Alice his phone and asks her to look something up on the internet. When she clicks the browser icon, it opens onto “a popular porn website.” All fine and dandy—as a Millennial myself, I just expect porn to figure in most people’s lives. But Alice notices he’d been doing a search for “rough anal.” The first two video thumbnails show 1) a woman being choked and 2) “a woman crying, with smeared lipstick, and mascara running” (126). Alice promptly hands back his phone and walks out of the room, presumably done with the misogynistic twat.

Indeed, when Felix eventually confronts her about whether she’s “mad” at him, Alice admits she “found it disturbing.”

Felix immediately objects (which is a pretty big red flag as well; talking someone out of their own feelings is edging awfully close to gaslighting). He then proceeds to challenge her, so she comes back with “You like to watch videos of horrible things happening to vulnerable women, and you want me to say what? That’s fine?”

So far, I’m onboard. This is interesting. Alice is a wildly successful novelist who has no reason to put up with men attacking her intelligence and announcing that their personal take is the only legitimate one. Their battle of wills gets more interesting when Felix doubles down on his dickish behavior. He laughs at her, then promptly shifts attention to what he suggests is “an embarrassing search history” of her own while she dares act “very superior.”

When she disengages from the conversation, he pulls out a classic misogynist maneuver: he accuses her of being “jealous of them” (the women performing Felix’s rape fantasies in the videos).

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This is a double-bind that misogynists love. Either you have to prove you’re not jealous of the dehumanized women they find sexually desirable, often by adopting a persona of sexual aggression and confidence (which turns them on because it provides them with a challenge: the more powerful a woman thinks she is, the more powerful they feel once they rape, abuse, and humiliate her). OR option B is (if you still want to have sex with this jerk) resigning yourself to the man reading everything you do as evidence that you are in fact jealous of the women in his torture porn. Accidentally nick yourself while chopping onions? It’s subconscious proof that you enjoy pain. Admit you like any sort of domination in the bedroom? It’s because really, you want a man to control everything.

This is a game designed to ensure women cannot win. It always leads to victory for the misogynist because it ends in either sex or no sex (because you were too scared to admit how you really like to be “taken” by a “real man”), but in either case, it results in what he wants: a boost to his ego delivered by diminishing someone else.

At this point, a savvy woman is done with Felix. He’s clearly into games, loves humiliating women, and is eager to see Alice humiliated, or better yet humiliate herself for his satisfaction. Definite abuser material. But poor Alice is not savvy.

Not only does she not send him packing to the nearest hotel for the night, but she starts flattering him.

If Rooney’s goal is to have us watch a slow train wreck, okay then. I can still be onboard for that. Lots of women, especially us straight women, have to go through a lot of hurt before we recognize these men for what they are. And yes, that’s a story that needs telling.

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Felix then pulls out the line: “If you think that’s bad…I’ve honestly done a lot worse.” A dud of a pick-up line if ever there was one. Unless you’re a moody 16-year-old.

But Alice takes the bait and asks, “Like what?”

And this is where we have the first hint that Beautiful World is not the feminist work I’d expected it to be.

Felix proceeds to tell Alice (who still wants to have sex with him after all this) that he talked a girl into having sex when they were both 14. Let’s pause for a second. Felix actually says, “I talked her into it.” The 14-year-old girl was afraid of getting pregnant, he told her it wouldn’t happen (knowing this was a lie), proceeded to have unprotected sex (despite her explicitly stated concerns), she got pregnant, and he ghosted.

Is Felix a rapist? By most definitions, he in fact is (here’s a page from the United States Office of Women’s Health explaining that lying to trick someone into sex is rape; an article from Healthline makes the point that coercive sex is still rape).

In case we still have any doubts (hey, he was just 14; boys will be boys, right?), Felix then tells another story. Apparently, once you uncork a rapist, they just keep on pouring. This story starts out as a tale of statutory rape (“I brought some girl home after a night out, and then I found out later she was…sixteen or seventeen”), then escalates to rape-no-matter-the-age: “We were both drunk, she seemed like she was having fun.”

Okay, quick review for anyone who hasn’t read up much on consent and drugs. As the University of Tulsa reminds its students, alcohol is the top “date rape drug” in the United States, and “an intoxicated person cannot give consent.” CBS News looks into the relationship between alcohol and rape, and offers a list of questions to use to check in with a partner to determine whether they’re too drunk to give consent. But Felix’s “seemed like” means he never bothered to ask if she was, in fact, okay.

Felix got a teenager drunk, took her home, raped her while she was under the influence, and later learned she was underage. And that’s the only thing he feels bad about: she was too young for what otherwise (he thinks) is acceptable behavior. So we can pretty safely assume he’s done this before: getting women drunk, then raping them. As long as they’re over 18.

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This is all horrifying stuff. Alice, however, asks our late-twenties rapist some questions to set her conscience at ease. Why she trusts him to be honest, I do not know.

She first asks him to report on how the pregnant teen’s life turned out (it would seem that Alice—and Rooney, by this point I’m starting to realize—assumes if a sex abuse or rape survivor has their life together, the sex abuse or rape “wasn’t that bad”).

Well hello, I’m a sex abuse and assault survivor with a master’s degree, a teaching certificate, and nearly two decades of experience as an educator. Also three decades of consistent abuse during which I accomplished very little and that resulted in PTSD as well as a disabling chronic illness. So hi, Ms. Rooney. Hello there. Both things can be true.

Alice also asks if he ever said sorry. I suspect this is mostly to make her feel better about her goal of sleeping with him because I’m still not clear what the point of an apology is when Felix (and men like him) could have just, you know, not assaulted anyone in the first place.

So here’s an aside on apologies from men to the women they assault: It’s too late. Period. Years ago, I received an apology from one of my assailants the day after he strangled me, and for me, this actually made things worse.

The apology is almost always for the perpetrator, not the victim. Because the subtext of Sorry that I raped or assaulted you or whatever, that’s not who I am, bye is this ugly assertion: I’m still a good person, and you’re not allowed to say otherwise because now I apologized to you.

An apology may make the perpetrator feel better, but it does not change anything for the victim. The violence still happened. The trail of wreckage they left behind still has to be dealt with. But now, not only has the perpetrator acknowledged it happened, but they’ve washed their hands of it and now demanded that their victim make them feel better (by accepting the apology).

Meanwhile, the victim has hundreds of hours, and likely years ahead of them, of grueling work in therapists’ offices, in doctors’ offices, on friends’ couches, with family, or even bosses if it interferes sometimes with their ability to do their job. They also have staggering bills for therapy and medications. So no, unless the perpetrator is signing a blank check to pay all those bills and cover paychecks when someone has to take unpaid leave or quit a job, an apology for assault and abuse is worthless.

So instead of apologizing, maybe just don’t assault people in the first place. It isn’t hard. Just don’t get people drunk, then take them home. Don’t coerce people into sex that they’re not super excited about. Don’t get drunk in public if you tend to get violent once you’re intoxicated. Ask people throughout your time together what they want and how they’re doing. That’s it. If a man can point his dick in the general direction of a toilet, he can easily avoid assault. In fact, as a restaurant worker in a past life, I’ve cleaned urinals. So I’d say for the average man? It’s even easier to avoid rape than to hit the toilet.

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And what about Alice? After Felix gives her these far-from-reassuring answers (remember, this is a character who’s happy to feel bad about being part of the problem, as long as she doesn’t have to do anything), she confesses that she once bullied a girl in school mainly because everyone else picked on her. She concludes this with “Maybe we’re both bad people.” And here the novel delivers a spectacular example of the false equivalence fallacy: one behavior is a crime (statutory rape/rape of an intoxicated target), the other is not (schoolyard bullying).

But Alice’s ridiculous statement has its desired effect. Felix admits that she has made him feel better about the assaults he has perpetrated.

And here’s where Rooney really lost me. Not only does Alice reassure a rapist that rape wasn’t any worse than some girlhood bullying. She then apologizes to him, saying she “was horrible” for making him feel guilty about misogynistic porn.

Twenty-four hours later, they have sex. Because, you know, “it doesn’t matter.” As Alice says.

Yes, Rooney, I see quite clearly. You believe that women like me don’t matter.

Men like Felix, however, do. So long as you want to sleep with them.

Got it.

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The novel’s misogyny does not get better. Eileen and Simon also have a disturbing dynamic. Simon is in his mid-thirties, he prefers women just out of college (even younger than Eileen), and their first meeting actually occurred when Eileen was 15 and Simon was 20. A five-year age difference shouldn’t be pedophile-adjacent, but Rooney manages to make it just that. Sometimes Eileen calls Simon “daddy,” and sometimes Simon calls her “daddy’s little princess.” When she confesses that she likes being bossed around, not just in bed but generally, and wants him to tell her what to do with her life, he responds with “That is sexy.” This is followed by a sex scene played more like a re-enactment of father-daughter incest than a love affair.

Meanwhile, Alice becomes increasingly habituated to Felix’s abuse and misogyny. As the abuse ratchets upward, these couples end up together, and we get the sense that Rooney expects us to be—if not exactly happy—at least resigned. Maybe even satisfied.

In the end, it turns out that men’s sexual violence and abuse—like every other issue Eileen and Alice discuss—are just abstract topics that aren’t important enough to take action on. So, as misogynists can only hope, it’s the women who resign themselves to abusive relationships, not men who must resign themselves to the demand that they be better.

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Many reviewers have reacted to this novel with sexist condescension. Some claim it proves Rooney’s intellect because characters discuss something other than their own lives. Since her first two novels were about relationships, apparently a number of critics decided her mind was slight and apolitical. This is absurd on its face and patently sexist. First, that a successful writer must “prove” her intelligence to reviewers is inherently a gendered thing, a task never demanded of straight cis male novelists.

Second, it’s based on the (flagrantly illogical) assumption that well observed, psychological portraits of human beings in relationships don’t reflect intelligence, that women’s writing isn’t “important” so long as we’re depicting our own lives, and that it takes more intelligence to depict political squabbles than personal ones. Some of the earliest novels in the English language (Pamela by Samuel Richardson, Moll Flanders by Daniel Defoe) centered on women. Yet no one has argued that Richardson’s and Defoe’s intellects are trifling and limited. That was reserved for early women novelists like Aphra Behn and Jane Austen. And here we still are. Having the same, tired debate the literary community has had for decades: But is this woman writer smart enough to be worth listening to?

Let’s just assume that yes, Sally Rooney is highly intelligent, and there was never any need to prove it. Funny, too, that the establishment critics all decide now, after she publishes a deeply misogynistic novel, that she’s actually smart.

She has written three wildly successful books that resonate with Millennials across the globe. So yes, she can achieve things that most people of most generations can’t. She is plenty capable and intelligent.

The discussion worth having is: Do we think she is right?


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Realistic fiction (and from a certain perspective, any story at all) presents a certain view of the world we live in. Beginning as realistic fiction and sliding into horror, Shirley Jackson’s “The Lottery” depicts a grim world, asserting that human beings need a scapegoat, a sacrifice to pay the price for society’s sins. Only through this sacrifice can society continue smoothly. It’s horrifying, but there’s a logic to it that we can discuss because, yes, now that we think about, most societies have an oppressed group on which its ideas of criminality and depravity are projected—so that this group can “pay” for the collective sins, and everyone else can sleep soundly in our beds, trusting that the devil is not inside ourselves.

So what is Rooney’s assertion in Beautiful World?

A disturbing one, I’m afraid.

One I absolutely refuse to agree with.

The novel seems to be saying a few things:

  1. Misogynist men are everywhere, so if you’re inclined to have sex with them, you just have to not think too hard about what they’ve done.
  2. It’s more important to make these men feel good about themselves, so they want to have sex with you, than to encourage them to stop abusing women.
  3. What is sexual abuse and assault anyway? It’s just misbehavior. Everybody misbehaves. It’s fine. Whatever. Move on.
  4. Power plays are just what relationships consist of. Men are socialized to enjoy humiliating women. Women are socialized to play dumb and coy and accept humiliation in exchange for sex. So what? Who cares? We’re all bad people. No one deserves anything better than abuse. We’re just lucky if we’re not alone.

I can imagine a lot of men objecting to this, and that makes me very happy.

However, let’s return to Rooney’s undeniable intelligence. She’s not wrong. I’ve known a lot of men like Felix and Simon. I think most millennials have. Scratch that. Most people have. Misogyny is a pair of old house slippers men are encouraged to inhabit. It’s the path of least resistance. It’s easy to find men who are comfortable humiliating and dehumanizing women. After my divorce, I remember discovering the abundance of such men, the open-season they feel they have on single women, and their self-satisfaction with their own misogyny. Before I was 32, I’d decided it was time to admit that I’d be happier living the rest of my life single.

But that wasn’t the end. I’ve also known a lot of men who would find Felix and Simon grotesque, who actively advocate for equality—not just for their partners and daughters and mothers but for all women—transwomen, lesbian, BIPOC, disabled, low-income. They don’t get off on hurting women and actually find it un-sexy. Their egos swell at giving and receiving consent, not from overpowering a victim. They take pleasure in mutual pleasure.

These men enjoy exchanging ideas and hearing about experiences that are different from their own. It doesn’t mean they’re going to agree with everything someone says, but they are going to seriously consider it and—maybe most importantly—respect and trust that women are the authorities on their own lives.

They know that many more women are raped and never report it than men are falsely accused. They believe in equality, and they know that a world where women are inundated with men’s harassment and sexual violence, is not a world where equality is possible. They want to help us change that. They point out comments and behaviors from friends and relatives that dehumanize women and make abusers feel justified. They challenge misogynistic ideas.

They understand that oppressed groups don’t have to prove their moral purity to be worthy of equality and social justice. Like every other group, women, too, can be abusers and criminals and just plain rotten people. But badly behaved individuals are not a system of oppression, rooted in law, religion, history, education, and (as discussed above) literature. Misogyny is.

They also don’t pit women against other oppressed groups, or pit different groups of women against each other. They recognize that Kimberlé Crenshaw’s concept of “intersectionality” means that sociocultural markers of femininity and womanhood can co-exist alongside any other identity, even singling out men who don’t fit the accepted notion of masculinity. So they also understand that their own self-interest is aligned with women’s rights. A world that is more welcoming of all women is more welcoming for everyone. And a world where coercive sex and internalized misogyny have gone extinct is also a world where they can be sure their partner’s consent is genuine. And they want that, too.

I’m just sad that it seems Rooney doesn’t know many of these men.

Which is a sad intimation of the misogyny rife in the literary world.

If this is what Rooney sees looking out from her tower, at the top of the literary stratosphere, it is a disheartening sight indeed.


Want a Creative Hot Streak?

Last week was an exciting one for artists interested in scientific studies of creativity. Researchers (Lu Liu, Nima Dehmamy, Jillian Chown, C. Lee Giles & Dashun Wang) published an article in Nature demonstrating that most artistic hot streaks are preceded by exploration as artists try out numerous forms and media. The researchers define exploration as a period of intense “experimentation [as artists] search beyond their existing or prior areas of competency.”

Gradually, the artist transitions from exploration to exploitation, which “allows individuals to build knowledge in a particular area and to refine their capabilities in that area over time.” As they focus on that one style or medium, artists often enter a period of incredible productivity and originality.

However, findings suggest that without the initial exploration, artists are much less likely to enter a hot streak. So, too, without eventually following that period of experimentation with intense focus on one style, the chance of a hot streak also diminishes. Some other great takeaways:

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  • Before a hot streak, creatives “deviate” from their typical behavior. Thus, if you’re someone who ordinarily buckles down and writes one sonnet after another, a hot streak becomes more likely if you start trying your hand at villanelles and duplexes and haiku, churning out forms you’ve never tried before. Same for the typical explorer. If you dabble in this and that—here I tried a novel, there some flash fiction, here a poem—your hot streak becomes more likely if you commit to one and try to master it (and no, being smart or talented or any other quality is not the same as mastery; mastery = falling-on-your-face-boy-this-is-hard practice).
  • The exploration period isn’t just about experimentation. It’s intentional. “More than simply chasing after discovery through exploration, individuals appear to seek out new opportunities by deliberating over different possibilities, and then harvesting promising directions through exploitation.”
  • Hot streaks are relatively brief periods in an artist’s career, lasting around five years on average. After this period, the artist returns to their normal patterns. This strikes me as a pretty good explanation for why we often say someone’s “later work” just wasn’t as good.

Reflecting on all this, during a week when Joyce Carol Oates is asking students to try “miniature narrative” (Week 6 if you’re following along here in the Accessible MFA), I feel encouraged.

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At 35, I was diagnosed with chronic migraines. For almost two years, I was unable to read or write as migraines impair both my vision and hearing as well as cause brain fog, which inhibits my short-term memory (you try reading when you can’t remember the word that came before this one). It was excruciating—the longing to write paired with the inability to act on that longing. So I decided it was best to give up writing altogether.

When—thanks to a variety of treatments—I eventually regained enough functionality to read, my relationship to literature was fundamentally changed. I can read novels again, but slowly and ponderously. My tastes, too, have changed. There are so many holes now in my hearing and vision, as well as my cognition, that I’ve discovered a love for experimental fiction that embraces the cracks in our reality and interrogates self-perception, like Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd, or that folds up time in Einsteinian ways where unexpected things touch, like Olga Tokarczuk’s Flights.

As for writing, my hope of ever finishing a novel is quite dead. A traditional one, at any rate. As an “exploiter” by nature, preferring to master rather than play, I was disheartened. I disliked flash fiction—or thought so. I couldn’t write short stories—or thought so. But my chronic illness forced me into a period of exploration. If I wanted to write, it would have to be forms other than the one I spent my twenties and thirties trying to master.

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Joyce Carol Oates, of course, is brilliant enough that she already seems to know what these researchers found. She designed her MasterClass to explore another topic or form each week. This week it was flash fiction (stories between 500 to 1000 words). I’ve now written three pieces at that length. Don’t get me wrong. They all need revision, badly. But now that the bug’s bitten me, I can’t stop.

I cut, cut, cut stories down to their bones and find it satisfying. It reminds me of the canvas I prepared in my studio oil painting class back in college. It was just mahogany streaks that sketched out the painting. And when I stepped back, those bones felt so much more perfect than anything I could imagine painting on top of it. Between migraines, when my mind is functional, I can write a 1500 word draft. When there’s another break in the waves, I can re-read it and begin to shape it. Then, I wait for another chance to revise. I’m learning so much.

And it’s only the beginning of my exploration period. Next week? Short monologues.

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So here’s my challenge to you. Wherever your comfort zone is, whatever you’re used to writing, drop it for a few weeks or months. Find another genre or style or form—better yet, find several—and try them out. Really study them. Read as many examples as you can (I’m reading Lydia Davis for the first time). Learn from them. Try it out. Accept that your attempts won’t be great at first. It’s okay.

And if you’re an explorer by nature? Pick the style or form that really excites you, and try to master that. A lifetime isn’t long enough to master anything, but if you try, you might get better. And of course, as always, read, read, read.

Happy writing!


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10 Stages of the Job Loss Roller Coaster, or First Thoughts on the Chinese Government Banning Me from K-12 Education Because I’m A Foreigner

1. Denial

This won’t affect me. I’m fine.

2. Numbness

I guess this is happening. Sure. But it doesn’t matter. Nothing matters anymore. Who cares?

3. Minimization

Okay, so I’m losing job. I’ll be fine. I have a master’s degree, a teaching certificate, and years of experience. I’ll find a job in no time. It’s not a big deal. Everybody loses a job someday. I guess my number’s up. It’s fine. I’m fine. I’ll be fine.

Woman covering her ears and looking away while pretending everything's fine
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4. Panic

Wait, I’m actually losing my job. In a fucking pandemic. I’ve applied several places already, and they told me it might be months before they even look at my application. Hundreds of thousands are out of work. Tens of thousands are in the same boat as me, our contracts effectively terminated by China’s Communist Party. So the competition’s stiff. And as a contractor, I can’t get unemployment. And as someone who can work at all, I can’t get disability. And we only have a couple months of savings left. Then I’ll have to sell my scooter. Then I’ll have to raid our retirement accounts. And then, OMFG, we’ll be living in our car.

5. Delusion

No, no, no. See? Lots of rich, successful people have said that losing a job was the best thing that ever happened to them. It’s a good thing! This will be my big break! It’ll be great! You’ll see. My whole life will be better after this!

6. Grief

But I loved my students. After chronic migraines forced me out of jobs I’d held for years, I found this job. Those children gave me a reason to keep going when I became so sick I could barely walk to the bathroom. For five years, they filled my life with meaning and joy, and I tried to do the same for them, and now I’ll never see them again. My life is so quiet without them, so empty, so lonesome. Post-chronic illness, I’ve never had to feel this loneliness. Who am I if I’m not supporting students’ progress? What connects me to the world anymore? It’s like I don’t exist.

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7. Reframing

Hey, it sucks now. But I’ll get through it. I’ve been through worse.

8. Rage Against a Broken System

Really? Like, when? When exactly have you weathered all at once a pandemic, a chronic illness, a job loss, a partner’s life-threatening health condition, ongoing medical expenses that are depleting our savings, a sinking economy, catastrophic climate change, and grief over a pet who died a few months ago? Because I sure can’t recall a time. Can you?

You have tried to do everything right in this fucked-up capitalist chaos machine. Five years ago, you got so sick your medical care providers told you to stop working. But you had bills to pay, so you got a job. Everyone patted you on the back for that. Capitalists like that. You earned your keep. But because you have chronic migraines, and that had already cost you two jobs with set hours, it had to be contract work where you could set your own hours. But because you do contract work, you can’t get unemployment. And because you can still work at all (even though less than full-time), you can’t get disability. You live in a country where if you get sick, you’re screwed. And if you’re an independent contractor who loses all your contract work, you’re also screwed. And you drew both lucky numbers, so.

And because my husband’s knee injury was misdiagnosed and mistreated for three months, we’ve had to pour thousands into fixing a problem caused by bad (for-profit) medical care. And because of our depleted finances and the ongoing pandemic (big thanks to all the people insisting that their choice to not get a vaccine trumps other people’s right to live or access pretty much anything if they’re immunocompromised), I’m the only one who can care for my immobilized husband and our home—while working—which has made my migraines worse, which further limits the jobs I can do.

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9. Catastrophizing

Are the happiest days of my professional life behind me? What if they are? What if I never work again? What if I can’t ever work again? What if it’s all downhill from here? I’ll never find that kind of meaning and purpose again. My life will just get bleaker and emptier, and then I will die. Soon. I think I’m dying already. Did you feel that? It didn’t feel like a migraine. My brain is bleeding! I’m dying!

10. Reality Check

Jesus Christ, that’s grim. I mean, sure, yeah, it could go that way. You can’t control everything. But it’s unlikely that one job loss leads directly to imminent death.

I mean, even your relatives who took poor care of themselves lived well into their 60s. So, you know, that’s a good 25 years you have left. And you eat your fruits and veggies, guzzle water, sleep well, exercise 150 minutes a week. So probably more. Possibly 40 more years. That’s a long time to mope around. Too long.

And absolutely, I don’t know what’s next. I don’t know how this turns out. But I’m kind of curious. Aren’t you?

I mean, you knew that teaching job wasn’t sustainable. Even before all the ridiculousness (your student’s words) from Beijing, you knew you couldn’t go on like this for five more years. You weren’t even sure one more year was doable. And it’s always kind of nice when life forces your hand before burnout does. You still love your students. You still love language learning and teaching, so call that a win. You get to walk away with that intact.

Also, you get to walk away. Your students and their parents don’t. They are going to be navigating the fallout from those policy changes for years. They are stuck in that system. Extracurricular academic support has just been pushed out of reach for all your students in the lower-middle class. This will impact some of their scores on the gao kao, which will impact not where but if they go to college. Which will impact their earnings, quality of life, access to all kinds of things, even for their own children.

But you? Maybe this job loss impacts you for months, maybe a year or three, worst case. That’s another example of privilege.

Plus, you have options because of your degrees and experience. Some of your colleagues are going to have it tougher than you because they don’t have those things. Even with a chronic illness, you have more options than some. Spare a thought for them, man. This shit is tough on everybody.

And the snail’s pace you’re having to tackle this at, because of the migraines, it’s going to suck financially. No question. So maybe you have to draw down your retirement. Not great. Not ideal. But you’re a long way from homeless, and that’s privilege, too.

But seriously. You’re not lazy for being slow at this transition. You’re slow because you’re having migraines every day and you’re grieving. That slowness? It gives you a little time to think, on the days you can, about what’s next. What’s sustainable with chronic migraines? Because now you know that daily teaching just isn’t. Period. So figure out what else you can do. Then figure out what you might need in order to start doing that. Then do that.

But right now? Truly?

Go take a fucking nap.

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A Few More Lit Mags for Your Consideration

We’re entering the high season for literary journal submissions. As students and professors return to their universities (hopefully masked and distanced), they unlock their publishing offices, flip the light switch, and boot up the computers. They’re just about ready for the coming deluge of our work, from pandemic fiction to alien abductions. Whatever your thing is, polish it pronto because submissions are opening for some incredible magazines this fall. Every month or two this semester I’ll highlight a couple prestigious journals along with one journal better suited for break-in talent. So let’s dive in!

Screenshot of AGNI's home page


Founded in 1972, AGNI began as an obscure magazine run by two ambitious undergrads and eventually became Boston University’s literary journal in 1987. In 2003, its offerings expanded to include online publications as well as its twice-a-year print journal. Over four decades, AGNI’s editorial staff has prided themselves on publishing writers early in their careers who will eventually go on to win prestigious prizes. In this sense, it is deeply conservative and invests in establishment literature. They do, however, publish a great deal of global work in translation.

The journal is currently co-edited by Sven Birkerts and William Pierce, both white men. More diversity is apparent, though, in the rest of the masthead. For the authors and translators they publish, they generously offer to update bios as needed, and they pay all their contributors a small fee. Their reading period runs from September to May, and they have no word limit for poetry, fiction, and nonfiction.

As an example of AGNI’s work, Erika Eckart’s tight, breathless story “Cut” makes incredible use of second person to listen in on a single mother talking herself into doing what she has to, to keep her kids fed. This is a good place to submit if you’re feeling ambitious and have a particularly strong story.

Screenshot of The North American Review's home page

2. The North American Review – OPEN SOON

Founded in 1815, The North American Review is the oldest literary magazine in the United States. Its all-star lineup has included work by Frederick Douglass, Edith Wharton, Charlotte Perkins Gilman, Flannery O’Connor, and John Steinbeck. To many writers, its pages are hallowed ground. I’m not kidding. The magazine is so historically significant that an entire web page specifies where and how you can track down old copies for scholarly research.

In 1968, the North American Review became affiliated with the University of Northern Iowa. The current masthead is drawn entirely from UNI faculty and alumni, so the editorial staff are accomplished, middle-aged, and overwhelmingly white. Grant Tracey is fiction editor, Brooke Wonders is nonfiction editor, and Rachel Morgan is the poetry editor. Readers (who at many magazines are unpaid and determine which stories get passed up to the editors) are university students.

Issues are printed quarterly, one of which appears exclusively online. The number of fiction pieces varies—over the last few years, fiction pieces per issues have ranged from one to seven. The North American Review also accepts reviews, art, nonfiction, and poems. All contributors are not paid. The website states that they only accept submissions during the school year but do not provide dates. Specific submission guidelines also aren’t provided until they open for submissions, though they recommend “no more than 30 pages.”

Contributors do seem more diverse than the masthead, and the one fiction piece you can read for free online is Jeff Chon’s story “P.A.L.A.D.I.N.” set during the Satanic Panic of the 1980s when conspiracy theories united Christians against youth culture. It addresses anti-Asian racism, American imperialism, classism, slut-shaming, and the hypocrisy of American Christianity—all through the eyes of a first-person Asian American teenage narrator. It’s also about a suicide attempt in a small town, and the way that religious communities co-opt tragedy to further their own agendas, while condemning those who do not share their beliefs. It’s a good story with a pitch-perfect ending and meaty without feeling like it’s trying too hard. It’s a high bar. Also, Jeff Chon’s first novel just debuted this spring, so maybe check that out.

Screenshot of Taco Bell Quarterly home page

3. Taco Bell Quarterly – OPEN LATE FALL

No, this journal is not operated by the fast food chain. Yes, it is a loving homage to all our Taco Bell-adjacent memories. Edited by nonbinary writer M.M. Carrigan, Taco Bell Quarterly accepts short fiction, essays, poems, multimedia, and works “that explore any and all elements of Taco Bell.” They are also very welcoming of anyone who wants to try their hand at reading for a lit mag. So, if you’re wondering how it all works and whether you’d even want to work as an editor, this looks like a great place to find out while supporting your fellow up-and-coming artists.

The word count recommendation for submissions is 500 to 1500 words, and contributors are unpaid. If it makes you feel any better, this appears to be the case for the editor as well. And if you’re on the hunt for more representative contributor lists, it’s often the smaller magazines—like Taco Bell Quarterly—where you find the most diversity. In their latest issue, you can read an essay about race and gender, an essay about disability and labor, comic strips, multimedia, and “mostly true stories.” Submissions will open later this fall, and unlike many lit mags, Taco Bell Quarterly asks you to submit via email. Plus, you don’t have to pay to submit, which is nice.

The current issue is packed with gems, one of which is Nicole Zhu’s “Crazy, Stupid Tacos.” It follows a first-person narrator whose boyfriend of four years has just dumped her at a Taco Bell. She drags herself to her best friend’s Taco Bell-themed wedding and and is not in the mood. It’s a fun, light-hearted, and surprisingly moving story about friendship, sex, love, and food. And it hits Taco Bell Quarterly in its sweet spot: Gen X and Millennials “as generations very connected to brands and commercials” (read more of Carrigan’s interview here).

Oh, and Zhu? She’s published in Catapult, Electric Literature, and Jellyfish Review. But she’s not listing MFA degrees and tenured teaching positions and NBA-shortlisted books she’s published, so if you’re not part of the academy or publishing industry but have solid writing, hey. You might have a shot at Taco Bell Quarterly. Personally, I’m polishing a story just for them. I’ll see you in the slush pile!

Story Structure Reflects Your Worldview

So last week I tried this wacky writing exercise I came up with. Wacky, because it’s time consuming. (If you’re feeling wacky, too, you can check it out on the Fiction Workshop syllabus under Week 4). Basically, I took a short story that wasn’t working. Well, okay, fine. It sucked. It really, really sucked. But something interesting was there under all the crud.

So I thought hey, maybe if I cut and paste its paragraphs in a different order, it might make it easier to glimpse the diamond buried in there somewhere.

I started off with the story structures defined by Joan Silber in her book The Art of Time in Fiction ( Just for reference, here’s how she lays it out (with little parentheticals from yours truly):

  • Classic Time (aka Linear Time)
  • Long Time (aka Your Story Follows Your Character’s Whole Life)
  • Switchback Time (past and present, present and future, back and forth we go)
  • Slowed Time (aka Marcel Proust and his madeleines, aka sensory details slow things way down)
  • Fabulous Time (magic!)
  • Time As Subject (metafiction, experimental fiction, you get the picture)

All us clever readers can think of stories in each of these categories. And plenty of stories fall into at least two. Still, it’s helpful when I’m revising to think how is this story laid out right now? And how else might it be laid out?

It turned out that my terrible, horrible, no good, very bad story was written in linear fashion. Boring. Hey, if you like everything in chronological order, go for it! We all have different tastes. But that just isn’t (usually) for me. I need a little give in my timelines, a little bounce. More trampoline than yardstick.

So I broke my story into brief sections that felt natural. No rules here. I used my gut. Then, I copied and pasted each section onto a PowerPoint slide (hey, I’m super comfortable doing creative work in PowerPoint thanks to years working with curriculum teams in Beijing—they taught me well).

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Once it was all laid out like that, it was even easier to see I’d written it chronologically. Maybe I have to. Maybe that’s just how my brain works when it’s coming up with ideas. I don’t know. But there it was.

And it didn’t work.

So next, I tried a frame structure. It seemed like an easy way to introduce a little suspense: Will these two women still be friends at the end of this wedding reception? But it was forced and felt fake. Like I was trying too hard. Which, hey, I was.

So then I tried Silber’s long time. What if I went back all the way to the main character’s childhood and shared the real inciting incident, the even that gave her this monstrous insecurity that drives her to both see her friend as perfect and try to control her? And what if I end it with her as an old woman who—Nope. Can you feel it, too? It’s even worse than before.

So switchback time then. I decided to try that next because I wanted to. Why did I want to? I had no idea. I just did. The way as a kid on the playground you’d watch other kids scream gleefully all the way down the slide, and you felt this tug in your belly: you wanted to do that. Why? Because it looked fun.

Switchback time, zigzag time, fluid time, whatever you want to call it always looks fun to me. It’s one of the many, many reasons I love Toni Morrison and Olga Tokarczuk and Brit Bennett. They are some of the best at switchback time. Team Switchback’s finest. They make it look fun.

So I tried that, and surprise, surprise, the story was better. Not good. After all, it’s still only a couple drafts later. But better.

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So back to the MFA assignment. After trying out a few story structures, I was supposed to write 250 words about what I’d learned about my writing preferences, my story, and structure in general. Not only had I learned that I can’t say no to a good switchback structure, but I’d learned that all my preferences as both reader and writer lean in this direction. Why?

For a start, I believe in causation—not only in the effects of our own actions but in how profoundly other people’s choices impact us. As a 14-year-old with a sadistic father, I started writing in my journals about this big web of life that connected us altogether, that was inescapable, and that offered us the opportunity to ensure that love and light and truth might never be lost—it just traveled somewhere else for a little while.

This conception of human existence and our interdependence has never left me. With age, it has in fact grown closer to a conviction, something close to certainty. Our actions always impact others, and theirs unavoidably impact us. This worldview seems closer to George Saunders’s description of a story as a “transfer of energy,” and he describes this transfer as possible through variation, escalation, and specification. Even the more experimental pieces I read last week by Jamaica Kincaid (“Girl”) and Joyce Carol Oates (“Heat”) still contain these elements. Patterns, events, and people vary and escalate until, by the end, we are left with characters who are irrevocably changed and who, perhaps, have left us a little changed, too.

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Switchback time reflects my belief that everything is connected, across time and space. Events that happened decades ago may seem to lay dormant inside us until one day that connection happens, and its effect comes into full bloom, for better or for worse. I think this is one possible reason why many stories about trauma and memory use this structure. It feels true to our lived experience and as Joyce Carol Oates said in her Masterclass, true to how memory works.

As William Faulkner wrote, “The past is never dead. It’s not even past.” And no story structure better illustrates this experience of time than switchback structure, allowing us to set the present beside the past so they may enter into a dialogue with each other. Or perhaps, more truthfully, so that we may better hear the conversation between them.

So next time a story isn’t working, it might be worth a try. Think about your perception of time. What story structures do you like best? And how does your character experience time? Then revise until the structure feels closer to that character’s truth. It’s unlikely to make a bad story great. But it just might make it better.


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Forget Finding Your Voice, Find Your Subject

All this hand-wringing over writers finding their voice. Find your voice, writing instructors told me. Here’s how to find your voice, craft talks assured me. Once you find your voice, it will unlock everything, writing books promised.

I’m starting to question, though, that voice is the big deal everyone seems to think it is. I’m starting to think that voice springs not from some intentional quest for it but from an artist being truthful, to themselves and to their subject. If you care about something deeply—not because you should, and not because you look good online posting about it but because it vibrates in your bones—I don’t think you can help it: voice finds you. Because your voice is you. Your passion, your banality, your secret fears, all the worst and best parts of you.

So voice alone isn’t enough to make your writing interesting. What makes you interesting is the electric charge buzzing on the page when you’re writing about something you can’t help shouting about. The more you talk about it, the louder you get. That’s a good sign. Anger, excitement—it doesn’t matter. What matters is that you care. It’s your purpose. Not in some hocus-pocus, self-help way. It’s just the thing you think about when you wake up in the morning. The thing without which your life is not complete. The thing you would do for free because you love it that much.

So what is that thing? Sometimes the weirder, the better. Maybe it’s how to craft the best goddamn bar soap. Maybe it’s the teaspoons nestled inside blue velvet boxes and tacked up on the wall, a collection gathered by your great-aunt every time she traveled. I could retrace her whole life from that wall of teaspoons. Or maybe it’s Taco Bell. Who knows?

Sometimes the more ubiquitous, the better. You can make us see our everyday world anew. Instead of being surprised by your topic, we’ll be shocked by how we’ve seen it our whole lives but never actually noticed it. Not the way you do. And that’s good, too.

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It can be instructive to look at other artists. Is it their voice or their subject matter we know them for?

Anna Sewell, the author of Black Beauty, was a 19th-century disabled woman whose mobility depended on animal labor, so she wrote about animal cruelty, something intimately tied to her own experience of Otherness. Toni Morrison wrote for and about Black women, to demonstrate to them that their experiences and history are every bit as epic, heroic, beautiful, and horrific as any life depicted by Homer or Faulkner or any other white author. Virginia Woolf concerned herself with women’s consciousness—how it works in the mind, what it feels like, and the traumas, grievances, joys, and relationships that compose it.

Looked at like this, it isn’t either-or. It’s both. We love (or despise) artists for how they depict the world and our experiences in it. Yes, their voice is distinctive, but could they have found that way of writing without having found their purpose, their subject, as artists? I doubt it.

No amount of great technique can get a reader to care about something the author is lukewarm on. So what do you care about? What gets your blood boiling, or your toes tingling? What makes you feel alive? We can only answer this question honestly if we know ourselves well. Which requires being brave enough to admit to the parts of ourselves we’re ashamed of. That we feel like social media would probably tear us a new one for admitting to. Got it? Good. Are you terrified of how people may react? Even better. That’s probably your subject.

I started this semester in search of my subject. I think I may have found it. Now? It’s about finding the courage to admit to it.

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Advanced Fiction Workshop Syllabus

It took me longer than planned after heat waves and migraines, but hey! It’s done! Here at last is the course syllabus for this semester in the Accessible MFA. Currently, I’m hovering around Week 4, but remember in this MFA (not accredited but open to all), each “week” can take as long as you want. As can each semester.

Amy Tan and Joyce Carol Oates are our creative writing instructors through MasterClass. There are different sign-up options, from a subscription fee at $180 per year (which works out to $15 a month) to purchasing a single class for lifetime access. If that’s a bit steep for you, not to worry. There’s plenty to be gleaned from the syllabus alone, which I’ve packed with exercises and links to craft readings and short fiction as well as textbook recommendations. And of course, don’t forget to check out your local library and request an interlibrary loan or a purchase if they don’t have the book you’re looking for.

I’m trying to pair the first half of the semester, which Oates has focused on short fiction, with short story collections. I’m currently reading Joy Williams for the first time, specifically her collection The Visiting Privilege.

One word of warning: Some of the readings, such as Hemingway’s “Indian Camp,” may be objectionable or even triggering to some. So just a reminder that this is your program. You can replace readings that you may find triggering with other pieces. So why did I include some of these things in the first place, including one essay that really pissed me off? Well, part of my reason for this whole project is to know what gets passed around as must-reads in MFA programs and accredited creative writing classes.

I also selected stories by diverse authors, but at the same time I want to wrestle with the more problematic ways that writing and literature are taught. Toni Morrison wrote a whole book (Playing in the Dark) from her extensive reading of problematic, white authors. Growing up in an abusive family, I’m honestly more afraid of not knowing how bad things are than in finding out they’re pretty freaking bad.

And as someone with some substantial privilege still, I also need to know what’s out there, so I better understand the intense pressure that BIPOC, LBTQIA+, women, and disabled authors face to conform to white male aesthetics, ethics, and norms. That said, however, as someone with PTSD, I also appreciate that certain readings are just no good for certain individuals’ mental health. There’s a big difference between avoiding the discomfort of our troubled society and being exposed to something that feels like a re-enactment of violence you’ve already experienced. You know what you need. Don’t let anyone throw you off that. So if you have any reading recommendations or feedback, let me know in the comments. And with that, have a look at the first advanced fiction workshop syllabus, and happy writing!

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ENGL 584: Advanced Workshop in Fiction

Fall 2021


In this intensive graduate-level writing course, instructors Joyce Carol Oates and Amy Tan will guide students through the process of story conception, development, drafting, revision, workshopping, and submitting. The overarching goal for this semester will be to support the developing writer in the discovery of their subject matter, style, form, and tone as they explore how memory and identity position them to write fiction that they alone can produce. Toward this end, the first half of the semester will be spent developing two drafts of a short story under Oates in her MasterClass on the short story. The second half will require an additional 25 to 50 pages of a novel under Tan’s guidance in her MasterClass on fiction.

Each week students will explore a different aspect of fiction technique, form, or method. Along with each lecture, students will complete the week’s craft reading, short fiction readings (if any), and a writing exercise. After the weekly lecture, students are expected to post a short response (to readings or the lecture), a question, or a review. Students are also required to inform themselves of the larger literary community, and, to this end, will present an overview of a journal each month (style, genre, masthead, background).

At the end of the semester, students will also present a five to ten-minute craft talk exploring how their approach to fiction writing has shifted over the course. Finally, students must submit to two literary journals they admire, paying the minimal fee, to receive editorial feedback on an in-progress short story. In the final portfolio, students will submit the original draft, along with the editorial critique and the resulting revisions.

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  • The student will demonstrate an enhanced understanding of craft and the ability to convey this understanding to an audience.
  • The student will produce and submit writing of publishable quality.
  • The student will demonstrate in-depth knowledge of six literary journals.
  • The student will be able to analyze and critique fiction, applying craft knowledge to support their analyses.
  • The student will demonstrate the ability to discuss the forms and techniques of fiction.
  • The student will be able to articulate their goals for this course and assess their achievement of these stated goals at the end of the semester.
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Week 1Introduction, Principles of Writing Short Fiction (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 1-27), Douglas Unger “On Inspiration”
Exercise from LaPlante: “Carefully choose a dozen details and use them to render a place you know well.”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, 250-word statement of your goals for the semester
Week 2Journals: Observing the World (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 28-62), “Guests of the Nation,” Frank O’Connor
Exercise from Rosemary Graham: “Pay particular attention to the various spaces the characters move through in its 12 pages. Make a list of the different spaces. Then identify what we know about each and note how we know what we know. Write: No more than three paragraphs in which at least three characters move among exactly three rooms.”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, Lit Journal #1
Week 3Ideas: Exploring Taboo and Darkness (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 63-84); “Cat Person,” Kristen Roupenian
Exercise from LaPlante: “Write about a moment when you chose not to do something—end a relationship, quit a job, apply for a job, go somewhere. Record with as much detail as possible where you were, what you were wearing, what you said and did.”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 4Structure and Form (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 85-118); “Girl,” Jamaica Kincaid; “Anti-Story” introduction by Philip Stevick
Exercise from M.C. Easton: Using the story structures provided by Joan Silber last semester (The Art of Time in Fiction), take a story you are in the midst of revising and break it into sections that make sense to you (placing each section on a different PowerPoint slide or a different page in a document). Then, move, remove, or extend the sections to create structures that reflect: linear structure, frame structure, switchback structure, long time, slowed time, and fabulous time. Screenshot or save each version, then write a reflection of 250 words or less about what you learned about your story and yourself as a writer through this exercise. Do you have a preferred structure? What happens when you break it? Were you able to discover an additional structure not on this list? What improved your story? What worsened it?
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 5Ideas: Writing the Familiar (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 119-142); “The Lesson,” Toni Cade Bambara
Exercise from Janet Burroway: “Write a scene in a setting that is likely to be quite familiar to your readers (supermarket, dormitory, classroom, movie theater, suburban house, etc.) but that is unfamiliar, strange, outlandish, or outrageous to the central character. Let us feel the strangeness through the character’s eyes.”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, Lit journal #2
Week 6Form Study: Miniature Narrative (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 143-164); “The Use of Force,” William Carlos Williams; read 3 more stories from The New Yorker’s flash fiction archive
Exercise from Eva Deverell: Choose from Deverell’s generous list of 100 flash fiction prompts at
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, first draft of the short story
Week 7Form Study: Short Monologue (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 165-216); Bright Lights, Big City excerpts, Jay McInerney
Exercise from M.C. Easton: In 800 words or fewer, write a monologue for a character who is completely different from you, even someone whose ideas repulse you. Try to tell a story with the monologue, using escalation and reversal to eventually bring the character to a different (albeit not necessarily better) place.
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, proof of submission to lit journal for critique
Week 8Story Study: “Where Are You Going, Where Have You Been?” (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 217-248); re-read Oates’s story
Exercise from Joyce Carol Oates/MasterClass: “Take a story you’ve already finished and examine its ending. Where does the ending start? How long is your ending? Is it possible that your ending could—and should—come earlier? Try cutting your ending by a full page and revise your new ending for style and momentum. Now reread the new draft. How does the revision alter the story?”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, Lit journal #3
Week 9Reading and Studying Writing (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 249-276); “A Jury of Her Peers,” Susan Glaspell
Exercise from Rosemary Graham: “Select a page of fiction where, for you as a reader, ‘The moment the place in which the novel happens is accepted as true.’ Annotate the text, underlining or highlighting the words, phrases, images, etc. that make you ‘accept the place as true.’ Write: a brief paragraph or two about the passage as preparation for presenting it in class.”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 10The Writer’s Workshop: “Indian Camp” (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 277-310); read Hemingway’s “Indian Camp”
Exercise from Joyce Carol Oates/MasterClass: “Reread one of your favorite short stories. In the margins of the page or in your class notebook, make notes on its formal qualities. Make sure to ask yourself, among other things: How does the title function in the work? How long are the story’s paragraphs? Are there subsections or chapters? Are events chronological? How is the dialogue treated? Note any formal choices the author makes. You’ll be able to come back to this set of notes as a resource for your own writing.”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 11Revision Workshop: “Labor Day” (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 311-348); student piece
Exercise from George Saunders: In his book, Saunders offers a sample text to practice on first, but this can also work on your own writing or any text you can find. He suggests: “Set a timer for five minutes. In that time, cut 20 words from that text. When finished, ask yourself these questions: What did I cut?Why did I cut it? (This will tell you something about your editing sensibility.)Is the resulting piece better or worse? “Now do another round of the above. In fact, do round after round of the above, until you’ve cut the piece from its [original] length to half that….It’s not the case that every piece of writing needs this level of cutting, but it’s good to develop a feeling for how much cutting a piece of prose can tolerate before it gets worse.” (pp. 395-399)
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 12Revision Workshop: “Near Death”; Closing (Oates)
Readings: George Saunders (pp. 349-391); student piece
Exercise from Janet Burroway: Revisit one of the short pieces you wrote in Week 6 and 7. Then, “rewrite your story, making it at least three times as long, so that the development enriches the action and the characters.”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, revised short story incorporating editorial notes from lit journal feedback
Week 13Introduction; Finding Your Voice (Tan)
Readings: “On Voice and Revision” (Mark Cox; p. 400); “Collaborating with Chaos: Not Knowing and the Creative Process” (Jack Myers, p. 217)
Exercise from M.C. Easton: Think of three profoundly different writers whose distinct voices you admire. For example, Virginia Woolf with her long winding sentences and interiority, Zora Neale Hurston with her narration grounded in the colloquial language and wit of her characters, and Joy Williams with her spare, almost stoic prose. Choose a scene from your novel or short story, and rewrite it using each of these different voices. Which one best serves the scene? Which one feels most authentic to you?
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, Lit journal #4
Week 14Memory, Truth, and Imagination (Tan)
Readings: “The Girl I Was, the Woman I Have Become: Fiction’s Reminiscent Narrators” (Ellen Lesser, p. 18); “The Management of Grief,” Bharati Mukherjee
Exercise from M.C. Easton: Write at least a paragraph about a caregiver you had when you were very small. Describe them with as much sensory detail as possible. Then, write a paragraph about a moment when your perception of this caregiver shifted—when you witnessed them sick or grieving or enraged or humiliated. Explore the details that demonstrated their separateness from you, the difference between how you saw them and their actual life. Finally, write a paragraph about the most recent encounter with this person or a recent memory of them. As an adult, how do you see them now? How has your relationship to this memory shifted? What feelings do you have for them now, and how do these shape your feelings for yourself? See if you can make a story from it.   
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 15Research and Observation (Tan)
Readings: “The Storyteller” (Walter Benjamin)
Exercise from Alice LaPlante: “Find out ten facts about the place in which your story is set that you didn’t know before.” Rewrite a scene where the setting has particular importance, while not including these facts. Does this new knowledge come to bear on the scene or the characters?
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 16Beginning Your Story (Tan)
Readings: “On Beginnings” (Mary Ruefle, p. 233)
Exercise from M.C. Easton: Rewrite the opening paragraph to a chapter or story in three different ways. Assess what works and doesn’t work about each paragraph.
– Present a dynamic description of the setting (John Steinbeck’s The Grapes of Wrath)
– Give the character’s reaction to news (James Baldwin’s “Sonny’s Blues” or Tillie Olsen’s “I Stand Here Ironing”)
– Show what the main character does in the midst of a significant disruption to their already unhappy life (Nick Hornby’s How to Be Good)
– Open with a key event from the story, creating a frame or zigzag structure (Brit Bennett’s The Vanishing Half or Fredrik Backman’s Anxious People)
– Begin with another character’s assessment of a central character (Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie’s Half of a Yellow Sun)
– Open with dialogue between two main characters that reflects the central dilemma or theme (Valeria Luiselli’s Faces in the Crowd)
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, Lit journal #5
Week 17Narrative Point of View (Tan)
Readings: “From Long Shots to X-Rays: Distance and Point of View in Fiction” (David Jauss, p. 36)
Exercise from Janet Burroway: “Write a short scene about the birth or death of anything [using omniscient POV]…Give us the thoughts of more than one character, tell us something about at least one character that [they don’t] realize, include something from past or future, and deliver a universal truth.” Then, rewrite this scene in third-person limited POV. Write a short reflection on what worked and didn’t in each version.
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 18Character Development (Tan)
Readings: “How Do We Mean What We Do Not Say: The Uses of Omission in Fiction” (Victoria Redel, p. 115); “Character Motivation” (Aimee Bender
Exercise from Alice LaPlante: Read Michael Ondaatje’s “7 or 8 Things I Know about Her.”
1. “Fix a character in your mind.
2. Write seven or eight brief ‘facts’ about that character, their family, their surroundings—but try to avoid the sorts of things that you would include in a traditional biography.”  
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, 25 to 50 pages of a novel DUE
Week 19Choosing the Right Words (Tan)
Readings: “Before We Get Started” (Bret Lott, p. 4)
Writing Exercise from Michelle Boisseau, Robert Wallace, and Randall Mann: List about twenty concrete but common nouns in one column and about twenty active, present-tense verbs in another…Now, almost arbitrarily, draw lines to connect them, so that ‘the towels flag on the clothesline’ or… ‘the gravy curdled.’ See what metaphors you can make. Try exploring the most evocative through a [paragraph of setting description in your story].”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, proof of submission to lit journal for critique
Week 20The Revision Process (Tan)
Readings: “Breaking the ‘Rules’ of Story Structure” (Diane Lefer, p. 62); “Showing and Telling” (Laurie Alberts, p. 146)
Exercise from Alice LaPlante: Choose one of the exercises from earlier this semester. Then, use one or more revision strategies from the following to open up new possibilities in your story: “Write about an event in your character’s past without which the current situation couldn’t exist.Write about the current situation from the point of view of a character looking back from ten years in the future…Describe a number of unrelated events occurring nearby as this scene unfolds.”
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, Lit journal #6
Week 21Writing Companions (Tan)
Readings: Read up on your own heritage. Research your family tree. Interview your oldest living relative. Read up on the central events that impacted where and how your family lives today (examples: the Atlantic slave trade, the Russian Revolution, the Indian Appropriations Act in the United States, colonization, the Irish Potato Famine, the Cultural Revolution in China, the Khmer Rouge in Cambodia, the Independence Movement in India). Try to uncover at least three facts you didn’t already know. Consider how these macro experiences impacted your family norms.
Exercise from M.C. Easton: What are the voices you always carry in your head? Who is speaking to you? What ancestral memories have been passed on, generation to generation, in your family through stories? What dreams have you had of your ancestors or dead loved ones? For at least 20 minutes, freewrite in one of these voices in your notebook.  
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, outline of 5–10-minute craft talk DUE
Week 22Writer’s Block (Tan)
Readings: “7 Ways to Overcome Writer’s Block,” Chuck Sambuchino; “Writing Anxiety”
Exercise from Janet Burroway, modified by M.C. Easton for fiction: “Prove to yourself the abundance of your invention by opening [a] book and pointing at random. Take the noun nearest where your finger falls, cluster it for two or three minutes, and” freewrite about a character obsessed with the subject.
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 23Behind the Scenes: The Joy Luck Club Movie (Tan)
Readings: “Adapting Literary Texts for the Movies”; “Adaptation: From Novel to Film,” Judy Sandra
Exercise from M.C. Easton: Choose a film or TV adaptation that you haven’t seen for a novel or short story you’ve already read. Write a paragraph reflecting on some of the questions presented in this week’s reading. Then, select a text you’d like to adapt into film. Write another paragraph detailing some challenges you anticipate and how you might handle them.
DUE: writing exercise, reflection
Week 24Amy’s Rejection Letters (Tan)
Readings: Read the first tab “Rejection,” then click on the second tab “Overcoming Rejection.” Freewrite in your journal about your experiences with rejection throughout your life, how these impact your feelings around artistic or professional rejection, and which of the strategies presented in the second tab might benefit you during the next round of submission rejections.
Exercise from M.C. Easton: Earlier this semester, Joyce Carol Oates reframed rejection as an opportunity to make a piece better, one that can be a stroke of luck. Test this out for yourself. Choose a piece of yours that has been repeatedly rejected and that you had set aside or given up on. Reread it with “colder and crueler eyes.” What are its weakest sections? Which parts slow the story’s momentum? Is too much happening? Too little? If you already have ideas, spend at least an hour revising. If not, choose a previous exercise such as Saunders’s “cutting” exercise (Week 11) or the structure exercise (Week 4). What happens when you apply what you’ve learned this semester to an old story of yours?
DUE: writing exercise, reflection, revised novel excerpt
Week 25How to End Your Story (Tan)
Readings: “Notes on Novel Structure” (Douglas Glover, p. 70); “Returning Characters to Life: Chekhov’s Subversive Endings,” David Jauss
Exercise from M.C. Easton: For a story that you’re struggling to end, choose three of the 12 possible endings listed in Jauss’s essay. Write one version of each, then assess: Which of the three works best? Which doesn’t work at all? Why? Write a paragraph about this and post online.
DUE: Portfolio (6 literary journal responses; 1 completed short story; 25 to 50 revised pages of a novel; 25 writing exercises; 25 responses to weekly readings, films, or books; receipts of at least 12 submissions and two critiques from lit journals; a 5–10-minute craft presentation; 250-word final reflection)


A comprehensive list of the assignments required from students this semester:

  • A 250-word reflection on how this semester has shaped your writing: Address shifts in your views of literature, the short story form, novels, or the writing process.
  • A 5–10-minute craft presentation with a writing exercise: Focus on an aspect of craft that you came to approach differently over the course. Frame this as a short mini-lesson for beginning fiction writers.
  • One short story (revised/edited)
  • 25 to 50 pages of a novel (newly written this semester and revised/edited)
  • Proof of at least 12 submissions
  • 25 writing exercises (one from each week)
  • 25 responses to the weekly readings, lectures, or assignments (responses to cultural events are also acceptable, including: films, author readings, outside-class reading)
  • A one-page response to a peer writer
  • Two pieces of professional feedback from literary magazines (Tahoma Literary Review, Split Lip Magazine, Typehouse Magazine, Coffin Bell)
  • Six literary journals—their preferred styles and genres, their masthead, and their background. (AGNI, The Mad Hatter’s Review, North American Review, The Chicago Review, Boulevard, Blackbird, Guernica, Gulf Coast, The Bellingham Review, The Missouri Review, The Seattle Review, Black Warrior Review, The Virginia Quarterly, Glimmer Train, A Public Space, Cincinnati Review, Bodega, TriQuarterly, Five Points, The Sun, Tinhouse, The Southwest Review, Crazy Horse, Gettysburg Review, Cimarron Review, Clackamas Literary Review, Shenandoah, Kalliope, 14 Hills, Jane Magazine, Aurora Review, Backwards City Review)


Photo of woman writing in bed with a laptop by Ivan Samkov from Pexels

Syllabus writing exercises drawn from the following resources:

  • Rosemary Graham’s Fiction Craft syllabus offers loads more writing exercises and recommended reading.
  • Alice LaPlante’s The Making of a Story: A Norton Guide to Creative Writing ( is an MFA program in itself, packed with craft essays, short fiction, and exercises. It’s also the size of a dictionary, so consider yourself warned.
  • Janet Burroway’s Writing Fiction: A Guide to Narrative Craft ( has been updated for its tenth edition and now offers additional material from Elizabeth and Ned Stuckey-French. It’s a classic fiction craft textbook and a good choice if you want something a little easier to carry.

Featured photo of a blank notebook on a wood table by Jessica Lewis from Pexels

10 Steps Closer to Living Legally in a Tiny House

As many of you know, my husband had a health crisis earlier this year, and the ongoing medical costs of his recovery have tanked our finances. Since full recovery from a pulmonary embolism and DVT can take up to one or two years, we had hoped that relocating might preserve what security we have left. So we spent the last several months researching ways to significantly reduce our cost of living. In King County where we live, that means housing costs. The median home sells for over $800,000, according to recent stories in The Seattle Times. Bidding wars and cash-only purchases are commonplace, even at these prices, and the high demand paired with low supply (in part because Seattle homeowners refuse to approve taller buildings downtown, which would provide more housing and relieve some of the pressure) ensure these exorbitant prices will keep climbing.

Wages just haven’t kept up. Teachers, nurses, paramedics, lab techs, library staff, and employees at nonprofits find ourselves spending more and more of our income on housing. From New York to New Jersey, Vermont to Washington state, more of us are finding that landlords set their rents at aspirational rates, driven more by what the highest paid tech developers earn than what the market can actually bear. Nationwide, workers would have to earn $20.40 an hour to afford a 1-bedroom rental. And that’s not even accounting for the student loan burdens most working adults under 40 are struggling under. The old adage that only 30% of our income should go to housing is a pipe dream for most of us.

Because my husband’s doctors have advised him to change as little as possible in order to facilitate his recovery, we looked at everything we could find that would allow him to keep his job. Within a two-hour commute (one way), we found micro apartments, RVs, rooms for rent, and tiny houses. None of these are great options. But just for today, let’s focus on tiny houses.

Often touted as a solution to the affordable housing crisis, tiny houses are cozy, customizable, and cute. Portland and Seattle homeowners who don’t want a high-rise in their neighborhood (which they think is about aesthetics but in reality is about shutting out people who can afford a $250,000 condo but not an $800,000 house) are willing to consider tiny houses. We’ve had our heart set on a tiny house for years, and we wondered if we could make it happen sooner.

It turns out we couldn’t. Not yet. But in the research process, we learned a ton. We even went so far as to approach a tiny house builder, talk over design options with them (right down to where we’d want our washer/dryer), and get a formal quote. I also reached out to nearly two dozen RV and mobile home parks in my region, talked with banks, and corresponded with local government offices.

So in the interest of saving all you other dreamers some time and legwork, here are my top 10 takeaways if you want to live legally in a tiny house (it’s not an exhaustive list by a long shot, as you’ll see).

Photo of key in a front door by PhotoMIX Company from Pexels

1. Decide on RVIA-Certification or a Permanent Foundation

In a lot of jurisdictions, this is pretty much it. Those are your options. Yes, it’s changing. Cities like Los Angeles, Portland, and San Jose (to name only a few) have legalized tiny houses on wheels in backyards. But even those city governments require certain specs for your house, including dimension limitations, hookups, and other parking spot details. So it’s crucial to know what those requirements are before you buy (or build) so that your house meets the local codes. It’s easy to find stories of tiny home owners who ended up evicted from their own house and, years later, still haven’t been able to move back in.

So outside tiny house-friendly locales, you’ve usually got two options: get your house built by an RVIA-certified builder or place it on a foundation. Both create problems of their own. If it’s RVIA-certified, then it’s legally an RV and you can only park it (and live in it) where it’s legal to park and live in an RV. This means realistically, you’re likely to end up living in long-term RV or mobile home parks, not all of which accept tiny homes.

This may also make some of your friends and relatives squirm because of the social stigma. From all the research I did, it seems RV and mobile home parks are pretty much like any other communal living setup. Some are nightmares. Others are fantastic. Do your research.

I won’t go into the foundation option much. Presumably, if you’re looking into tiny houses on wheels, you want to make a one-time purchase on a home that you can pack up and take with you whenever you have to relocate. A foundation also significantly bumps up the total costs with a land purchase, site prep, permits, foundation, etc., which removes the affordability from this housing option. So, for many of us, affixing it to a permanent foundation isn’t realistic.

Which means we’re back to RV living. It’s not exactly what all those fun TV shows and YouTube channels depict on tiny living, is it? But it’s the reality in many locations if we want to be legal. So why not just get an RV?

One major advantage of a tiny home over most RVs is that it’s built for full-time living, which means it’s built to last. With the kind of upkeep most people are familiar with (siding, windows, roof), it can last just as long as a stick-built home. Most RVs can’t. Many RV manufacturers and RV loans even state in their paperwork: “not for full-time living.” If you’re a great DIYer, this may not matter. Some people can modify the shit out of anything. And that’s awesome. But for my husband and me, with our physical limitations and lack of technical knowledge, it matters a ton. So a tiny house it is. Which involves additional costs.

Photo of older man in his RV home by neil kelly from Pexels

2. Restrictions vary by state, county, and city

This is the problem we have with everything in the U.S. From our idiotic teacher certification process (you can get certified in California, then move to Washington where you must invest the time and money to get certified all over again) to our vaccine distribution and unemployment programs, the American mania for “states’ rights” essentially means that there is no builder who knows everything about every state (and county and city). So it falls to you. You will have to research your state’s policy on tiny houses (basically, have they approved Appendix Q? Google it). You will have to talk with your zoning and permitting departments in your county and city. You will have to figure out if your tiny house, even with an RVIA certification, will be legal wherever you want to place it.

In Washington state, the legislature passed Appendix Q with amendments. Amendments. Yay. More complexity. It went into effect in February 2021, but local jurisdictions can do whatever they want with that. Even Labor and Industries decided to jump on it, and they now require costly inspections of all tiny houses (even if the builder is RVIA-certified and already passed inspections from the bank that’s financing your build).

Even RV parks can have their own regulations. I spoke with one RV park that had never even heard of tiny houses and had no idea whether they could host one in their jurisdiction. Several others refuse to rent to tiny houses because they feel it isn’t an RV, regardless of certifications and codes and permits. Following up with people who don’t answer your emails, wading through state and county codes, and trying to ensure that your house will tick off all the boxes on all the different lists is exhausting and time-consuming. Be ready for it.

Photo of man on the phone filling out paperwork by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels

3. Speaking of Financing…

Most tiny house financing you can cobble together are personal loans. These aren’t reasonable for many of us because they tend to have short repayment periods (five to seven years) and much higher interest rates than a mortgage. Although I’ve heard rumors that RV loan servicers do approve tiny homes, not one that I contacted said they did. So far, to my knowledge, only one bank offers financing that is essentially a tiny house mortgage: Liberty Bank of Utah. With good credit and a 20% down payment, you may be able to get a 15 or even 23-year term. Which is fantastic. They do only work with builders who have gone through a two-month inspection and approval process with them. This can give you peace of mind that you are getting a quality product backed by a bank that expects your house to last at least to the end of your term. But if you have your heart set on a builder that hasn’t yet been approved, you might need to tack on a few months to your build timeline estimate.

All in all, financing is out there. But you do need that 20% down payment. And on top of that, you’re likely to be charged origination fees. Again, when we’re talking the relatively low cost of a tiny house, these additional fees can feel exorbitant. For example, in one case, our down payment was going to be $17,000. The origination fee: $3,000. That’s roughly 20% of our down payment. We were okay with that. But these additional fees do start to add up.

4. Taxes

So let’s say you decide to get your tiny house RVIA-certified. You understand this means you’ll never be able to legally park it on your own property and use it as a full-time home, but you’re willing to live in RV parks to make it happen. Cool. But now your home is legally a vehicle and will be taxed as such. Which seems totally fine, right? I mean, I’m all for supporting my local schools, public transit, and firefighters.

Well, but hold on a minute. Your tiny house builder may not charge you taxes, which means it won’t be rolled into the loan. Which means sometimes you will be paying those taxes out of pocket. Once your home arrives, your state will come knocking. Better yet, you should beat them to it and stop by your Department of Licensing to avoid getting slapped with any additional fees for paying late. Depending on the state and the cost of your tiny home, taxes can vary anywhere from $7,000 to $17,000 for vehicle registration, licensing, and other fees. Since tiny homes typically cost between $60,000 and $150,000, your state’s vehicle taxes and fees might end up being half your down payment. For us, this was going to be another $8,000.

Photo of person counting bills by Alexander Mils from Pexels

5. About Those Inspections I Mentioned

Let’s circle back for a second. In Washington state, L&I requires those who purchase out-of-state tiny houses to submit to and pay for inspections. I honestly have no idea what these cost. We didn’t get that far because our costs already had gone too high, and we had to take a step back. One way around this? If you purchase an RVIA-certified tiny house from an RV dealer in Washington state, they’ve already submitted to and covered the L&I inspections and should be able provide the approval label. For example, Clear Creek RV Center in my region has partnered with Mint Tiny House Company (a builder in Canada) to sell their tiny houses straight off the RV lot, which streamlines this process (if not the price). I see other tiny house builders experimenting with this, so who knows? Over the next 5 to 10 years, it may become the norm.

6. Shipping Costs

The tiny house builder we were looking at was in Ohio. We live in Washington state. So shipping was going to be roughly $7,000. Unlike taxes, this figure would have been added to the total amount of our loan. But depending on how far you live from your builder and how expensive your house is to transport (larger, heavier homes just eat through gas faster), this can bump up the 20% down payment requirement. If you opt to pay out of pocket, that’s great. Just be sure to budget for several thousand.

Photo of semi trucks on the highway by Quintin Gellar from Pexels

7. The Cost of a Parking Spot

At first, I figured this would just be a monthly figure that would replace our rent (along with our house mortgage payment). Oh, the innocence. Most long-term RV parks and resorts operate just like apartment complexes. They have clubhouses, on-site management, trails, community events, and sometimes even pools. Lot rent can vary wildly, from $500 a month to $1,000 a month depending on the park’s location and amenities.

They also require background checks and applications, with the usual fees ($30 to $60) as well as deposits and sometimes even first and last months’ lot rent. I don’t begrudge them that. They are still landlords, and like all landlords, they’re responsible for screening tenants. However, this does mean the legal tiny house lifestyle is not as freewheeling as all those TV shows depict. Some of the long-term RV parks I spoke with required a year-long lease. Which if you’re hoping to move around a lot, again an RV is probably going to just be better all around.

Unfortunately, this also means the personal preferences and prejudices of landlords come into play. Just like any other rental application. So if you’re low income, if you’re BIPOC, if you’re a single woman, if you’re LGBTQ+, or if you have a visible disability or one that impacts your earnings, you can end up facing the same discrimination you’d face in any other area of the housing market and find yourself locked out of safer, friendlier RV communities. It doesn’t mean you shouldn’t try. I found an awesome RV resort owned by a local tribe. Other RV parks were enthusiastic about welcoming tiny house dwellers. All I’m saying is that going tiny isn’t a silver bullet for the many other problems that plague the housing industry.

Photo of woman reading a travel guide outside her camper van by RODNAE Productions from Pexels

8. Tiny House Insurance

This has to be considered, even though it’s not a big chunk of change. Some places state the average annual cost for home insurance is around $850 on a tiny house. I didn’t get a quote for our build because it never got off the ground, but if you’re looking, here are a few places to start.

9. Utilities, Including Mail Services

All the RV parks I looked at included water, sewer, and trash in their lot rent. Electricity was metered, however, and you’d end up with a bill each month for that. Tiny houses, with their standard appliances and outlets, are built wired for use as a standard full-time home. Which means you’ll likely have one of the higher electric bills in the park. Still it’s likely to be less than your 700 square-foot apartment.

One thing I didn’t even think about at first was getting mail in a tiny house. Hello. Some parks charge a small deposit for the mail key or cubby. Other parks provide your very own mailbox included in your lot rent. Yay! But sometimes there isn’t a good option, and you have to rely on a mail service.

Costs vary, but it seems one thing most full-time RVers can agree on is that Escapees Mail Service is a good option (many also love Good Sam’s Mail Service). For an additional fee, they can even provide you with an official permanent address for your driver’s license, voting, and other legal needs (yes, your RV lot doesn’t usually “count” as a legal permanent residence). For our needs, we were looking at about $355 for the first year (which would lower after that).

Photo of mailboxes with a hand dropping off an envelope by Element5 Digital from Pexels

10. Relocation Costs

Once you have a tiny house on wheels, cheap moves will no longer be possible. Unless you are a pro with an enormous truck (or a very, very small tiny house), most tiny house builders recommend you call up a professional transport service. Fortunately, there are many RV transport companies nationally and locally who will haul your tiny house wherever you’d like them to. Unfortunately, they can cost what you paid to originally get your house shipped. It just depends on how far you’re going. But if it’s another part of the country, it’s probably best to budget out $5,000 to $7,000 at least. More if it’s coast-to-coast.

And because tiny houses are built for full-time living (not full-time travel), you’ll also have to unpack a lot of your house and transport furnishings and belongings that aren’t built-in. So it’s honestly in addition to whatever that move would cost without the tiny house. This is one of the big drawbacks of a tiny house, one that pushes some people to opt for an RV. An RV may not last as long, but it will be possible to move frequently without the same hassle or expense.

Photo of woman carrying a moving box by Andrea Piacquadio from Pexels


At the end of the day, our $17,000 down payment had ballooned into something we couldn’t afford. We had to tack on:

  • $3,000 origination fee
  • $8,000 taxes
  • $90 applications and background checks for two adults
  • $355 initial payment to start our mail service
  • $500 deposit for a parking spot
  • $7,000 shipping
  • $850 insurance
  • $??? for inspections

All told, the whole project would cost at least $20,000 more than we had anticipated. Which was a little more than our initial 20% down payment for the house itself. We simply can’t afford that right now.

Do we still plan to live tiny someday? We think so, but we’re less sure now. It’s still attractive. And locking in a housing rate as well, in a region where real estate is producing a new Gold Rush, would have given us greater housing and financial security. Those are all wonderful things.

But when purchasing a condo or a stick-built home, it’s rare that you have to save up 40% of the sticker price in order to afford the whole deal. It’s asking a lot. Especially for an option that is supposedly a solution to the housing shortage.

I had hoped a tiny house might be a compromise, somewhere in between an $800,000 mortgage we can’t afford and rent that’s perpetually on the rise in our area. For now, it just isn’t.


Featured photo of a tiny house by James Frid from Pexels

Fiction Seminar Textbooks: Part 2

Well, it took me long enough! But I did finally get around to finishing and reviewing my final three textbooks from last semester’s fiction seminar in the Accessible MFA. If you’re looking for books on writing craft and philosophy, check out the titles below to see if any of these sound good. (And by the way, all embedded links for these three books take you to where your purchase supports independent booksellers. If you’re broke like me, most public libraries in major cities carry these titles, and smaller library systems can often get you an interlibrary loan if you ask nicely.)

Book cover for Negotiating with the Dead

Negotiating with the Dead: A Writer on Writing by Margaret Atwood

So yes, the title gives you a pretty clear idea this isn’t your standard writing craft handbook. And it’s not. Atwood isn’t interested in laying out the mechanics of plot, character, and sentences. Instead, this is like watching a very brilliant, very experienced child at play in the sandbox of literature.

A collection of musings on literary history and the writer’s function in society, Negotiating with the Dead focuses each chapter on a central question, such as how writers approach writing, whether fiction is inherently duplicitous, and whether art should serve moral purposes, beauty, economics, or something else. She is very much chipping in her two cents on a centuries-old conversation, so it helps to know a little of that conversation already.

A fair warning: It offers absolutely no help on the nuts and bolts of craft. But if as a writer (or devoted reader) you feel deeply concerned about the role of literature, if you are familiar with the New Criticism or even just William Empson’s “Seven Types of Ambiguity,” and if you know all about the ongoing debate between beauty and utility in the arts, then this may be just what you’re looking for. Atwood is a pro, and she knows what she’s doing and why—and she invites the reader to determine that for oneself as well. A book that offers readers a generous space to reflect on what literature is and why it exists.

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel
Book cover for Save the Cat! Writes a Novel

Save the Cat! Writes a Novel: The Last Book on Novel Writing You’ll Ever Need by Jessica Brody

This is the antithesis of Atwood’s book. It’s all mechanics with no examination of why. In fact, that’s my main gripe with it.

So if you want a breakdown of the standard three-act structure, packed with examples and variations by genre—heavily influenced by film more than literature—Save the Cat! Writes a Novel delivers. If you want to explore the spectrum of structure that is possible in the novel, this isn’t the book. Most examples are taken from bestselling novels between 2010 and 2016, which tend to be forgotten after they’re adapted into films, so this guide is not only narrow but also aging quickly.

I was a little disappointed by the deep attachment to cinematic structure in a book purportedly about novels. Years ago, I got a lot out of the original Save the Cat! written by Blake Snyder, and I still think it’s the best of the franchise. Nowadays, I’m much more interested in the variability of novel structures, from Dos Passos’s U.S.A. trilogy and Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse Five to Olga Tokarczuk’s “constellation novels” like Flights to pretty much anything by Helen Oyeyemi (and this is only the tip of the iceberg). What writers can do with novel structure is virtually limitless, and to argue that the three-act structure is foundational is to fundamentally misrepresent the history of the form, which began with episodic adventures like The Tale of Genji, satires like Gulliver’s Travels, epistolary novels like Pamela, and loose collections of adventures like Canterbury Tales and Morte d’Arthur.

But hey. I get it. A lot of people have convinced writers that novels must compete with movies (you only have to consult your own habits to recognize this for the bullshit it is: when people want a movie, we watch a movie; when we want to curl up with a novel, we do that). But this half-baked notion of Books V. Movies tumbles further down the rabbit hole of shoddy logic when they argue that to make your book competitive, it has to hew as close to blockbuster movie structure as possible. I’m just warning you: This guide will help you do that, but yikes. Have you ever actually looked at business models? Nobody out-apples Apple by doing the exact same thing. That’s just now how competition works.

Anyway. Of course beginning and even intermediate writers need a way to learn structure, and a preplanned outline they can slot their characters into can be a good starting point. As long as we all realize it’s just a starting point. And Brody’s breezy, encouraging tone can make novel-writing approachable for even the most overwhelmed novice. User-friendly and well organized, it’s perfect for NaNoWriMo, beginners, those panicked by the word “plot,” and anyone else who likes a straight-shooting linear story.

Book cover for How to Write a Sentence

How to Write a Sentence and How to Read One by Stanley Fish

Written by a literary theorist but focused on the function and form of the sentence, this book lands somewhere between Atwood and Brody.

First, though, a caveat: If you don’t like reading Adorno, Bakhtin, or Foucault, you probably will hate this book. Stanley Fish’s How to Write a Sentence is far more accessible than those guys, but he is still a literary theorist and so he comes at sentences like one. In fact, he made a big splash in 1980 with his essay “How to Recognize a Poem When You See One“ (also a chapter in a book he wrote on literary interpretation), so he’s been writing this way for a very long time, and it has worked out very well for him. So again, if you dislike scholarly work in the humanities, this book is not for you. It’s okay. You’re allowed. Life is short. Read what you love.

But if you’re not scared off by all that, cool. Here’s what I think: I enjoyed it. The first half I absolutely loved as he examined, in typical Fishian style, what a sentence is and the different structures he’d sort them into (better categories than the simple, compound, complex, and compound-complex sentence structures from your English 101 class). He packed in the examples and analyzed the hell out of every twist and turn in the rhythms, structure, and word choice. He also suggests a number of useful exercises.

The last half of the book, however, seemed less analytical and practical, more a campaign for his favorite sentences in the English language to be inducted into a Sentence Hall of Fame (should we ever get such a hallowed institution). It was fine. Shrug. Watching Stanley Fish admire sentences can be fun in its own way, but it just couldn’t compare to the enthusiasm and practicality of the first half.

All in all, if you’re a humanities nerd and like literary theory, this will feel light and fun, and you’ll gain some terrific insights from the first half. If you’re looking for a primer on how to write sentences, you’re better off with the MLA handbook.


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8 Ways to Help Someone Who’s Sick

Most of my life I’ve been pretty clueless. When someone has revealed that they’re sick or broke or a loved one has just died or their life is otherwise falling apart, I kind of panic. I don’t know what to do. I want to help, but I don’t want to imply that I think they can’t handle it. I want to be a good friend, but I don’t want to insert myself into their business. And I want to make offers, but I also don’t want to make promises I can’t keep. Or worse, that they’ll resent or feel humiliated by. So I do what a lot of people do when we don’t know what to do: I lend a listening ear, then either put my foot in it or do nothing at all.

What I’m learning is when the ground crumbles out from under someone, they’re not going to be great at even thinking of what they need, let alone asking for it. We are now in an era, with COVID and climate change, when many more people are broke or sick or wrestling with mental health. Here are a few things I’ve learned, from being the household that needed help over the last seven months.

1. Simply ask what they need.

There’s always a chance they might know. If they’re really overwhelmed, you might have to read between the lines. “I’m exhausted” could mean they need some help around the house. “I don’t know where we’ll go” could mean they need a place to crash for a while. This doesn’t mean you need to jump in and offer that (truly, do not offer anything until you’ve had time to consider whether it’s right for you), but helping them clarify their needs can get them brainstorming ways to get those needs met.

2. If health is making daily tasks hard for them, ask if they’ve considered a home health aide.

Different states and insurance plans have different policies about this, but it’s always worth asking a doctor or insurance agent about the available options. Even having someone come in once a week to give a family caregiver a break or to catch up on light housework can make the difference between living in a pigsty or having a home that feels like a place where they can heal. If you are in a position of financial abundance, giving gift cards to home cleaning or meal services can be a real boon.

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3. Send them meals, after confirming any dietary restrictions.

This could mean gift cards. It could mean dropping off a homecooked meal or ordering a delivery. If you’re choosing the food or venue, always check with them first because dietary needs may have changed or the grief and stress may have killed their appetite. But in times of upheaval, a lot of us forget to eat, or at least to eat well. And truthfully, if someone is experiencing skyrocketing medical bills or housing insecurity, they may not be able to afford to eat well.

I know comfort food can feel like the best gift. I mean, when I’m having a bad migraine season, I want donuts and banana splits and maple bars all the way home. But indulging their cravings may make you feel like a great friend in the short run, not so much in the long run as your loved one finds it even harder to keep functioning. You want to keep their engine running, and if they’re struggling to do that themselves, nourishing food is what they need.

4. Don’t give money as a gift on holidays or birthdays, unless you want it spent on treats.

If it’s presented for a festivity, it will be spent for the festivity. Poor people have wish lists, too, and if money is presented as being for a birthday or other special event, the recipient may even feel obligated to spend it on treats rather than necessities. It may not even matter what you say. Again, the stress level that accompanies grief, newly acquired disability, or life-threatening illness means words aren’t really going to stick anyway. Their brain is on survival mode. So a birthday gift is a birthday gift. By keeping your gifts separate from donations, you can help preserve relationships, ensure you aren’t frustrated by how your money is spent, and prevent your “help” from creating additional stress (if someone did hear your request that the money be spent on necessities, but they have no other way to afford a birthday or holiday gift). It will save everyone hurt and confusion.

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5. Gas cards, bus passes, rides, and other transit-related gifts can be a huge help.

All those trips to doctor’s offices and hospitals add up. Between the copays and the parking fees and the gas, your friend may very well find themselves being nickled and dimed to death. Literally. Being sick in America is extraordinarily expensive, even if you have excellent health insurance. You can end up paying far over your deductible because copays don’t count toward it. Neither do prescriptions, parking fees, gas costs, and all the other expenses of regular commutes to high-end medical treatment. So this is a great category to offer to pitch in on, from gift cards and cash to free rides or even a parking spot at your place if you live near their medical offices or hospital. Whatever works for you.

6. Arrange some self-care for the primary caregiver.

If they have kids, offering (or hiring) baby-sitting services for a few hours or even a day can make a big difference for a parent struggling through a health crisis. Especially if another loved one has taken on the role of full-time caregiver for a spouse, child, or parent, sign this person up for a massage or take them out for a nice lunch or sit down with them to brainstorm ways they can ensure they get a day off without sacrificing their loved one’s quality of care. Again, you don’t have to give anything at all. Sometimes just helping people think through their options is the best gift. It’s all too easy when we’re distraught to forget about what we need or to even remember there are options at all.

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7. If you’re a really close friend or relative and what they’re going through is a long process, invite them on a vacation.

If something is going to take years, such as grieving the loss of a loved one or navigating a debilitating chronic illness or lengthy recovery, a short, relaxed getaway somewhere can change everything. Not only does it give your loved one a much-needed escape hatch, but it can remind them that the world is bigger than it seems most days. When most days consist of physical therapy exercises, pill timers, and doctor’s offices, it can get hard to remember that life is still worth living.

However, only do this if you aren’t going to feel resentful when your loved one needs to stay closer to home than you’d like or if they need to spend a lot of the trip resting and recuperating, rather than hiking to that waterfall you were hoping to see or trying that hot new restaurant. Again, if you aren’t sure or if you’re telling yourself I’m sure Betsy wants to try that new beach spot as much as I doshe’s strong, she can push through, just don’t offer. Please. “Helping” when you’re likely to be stressed and resentful or when you are secretly hoping to get your friend “back” pre-health problems can actually do more harm than good.

Mainly because as someone who’s grieving or injured or sick, your friend has grown accustomed to disappointing people and hates it. They indeed will push through for you because they want to disappoint you least of all, and as you return home patting yourself on the back for proving to them that they can do more than they thought, they will be left paying the price for that. Going back home for them will be drearier and harder and more angering because they will feel worse after a trip that has placed more expectations on them, not fewer. It’s cruel. Don’t do that to someone already suffering. Know your limits, and offer only what you can give freely. Which may mean a weekend at the beach where your loved one simply takes lots of naps.

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8. Figure out what you’re comfortable giving, and stick to that.

Your own boundaries matter here, too. The last thing a suffering friend needs is for an overeager helper to end up jeopardizing a relationship they’re leaning on. If you’re worried that having them crash on your couch is going to make things rough on you, don’t offer. If you’re not sure that you’re up for that commute to their place, don’t offer to drive out. This is not the time to play the martyr.

Playing the martyr is a fundamentally selfish act because it’s about easing the conscience of the person overextending themselves (their engine running off “should” rather than “can” or “want to”) and because it never, for a moment, focuses on the actual needs of the people they claim they’re sacrificing themselves for. I have known too many people who say they’re okay doing something to accommodate me only to show up and find out they’ve made it all about themselves (“I was so inconvenienced that I had to drive for hours to pick this up, I was so overwhelmed at work but I did this for you anyway, I put in all the effort to plan and prepare this meal that I don’t care how you’re feeling, you have to eat it”). Not only does it not help me (hello, stress!), but it makes me think twice about continuing a relationship with that person.

People in crisis need a long-haul friend they can depend on. Not a one-time act of heroic generosity that doesn’t actually solve anything. If someone asks you to do something you don’t want to do or can’t or shouldn’t, you can always act like a grown-up and say no. That, or say you need to think about it, or simply don’t offer. The last thing we all need when we are facing death, illness, and loss is a “friend” who’s sulking and icy because things didn’t go the way they wanted.


So here’s the thing. At the end of the day, our loved one isn’t keeping score. We don’t get brownie points for how many hospital visits we made or how many flowers we sent or how many meals we prepared or how many hours we dusted and vacuumed so their injured lungs could cope better. We just don’t. When our loved one looks back, this whole period is going to be a blur of hospitalizations and icy examination tables and terror. It’s also going to be remembered as a time of cascading financial crises (in 2018, pre-COVID, over 33% of a group of sick Americans said they’d spent all or most of their savings to cover healthcare costs). With that level of distress, they are not going to remember a whole lot about what we did for them. It’s important to go in knowing that. We will not get any practical benefit, even in the calculus of the relationship, from our effort and support.

What they will remember—and I promise you this—is how they felt around us.

“People will forget what you said, people will forget what you did, but people will never forget how you made them feel.”

Maya Angelou

This is the moment when we set the tone for our relationship. It isn’t what we do right now that matters. It’s the heart with which we do it. If we are ticking off boxes, if we are following etiquette rules, and if we’re proudly telling other people “I just visited Betsy in the hospital today,” we’re going to be forgotten. Every time. Because we’re coming at this like a lot of people who congratulate themselves for being “great with” the sick, the dying, and the disabled. If we’re coming at it to feel like a good person, we’re a dime a dozen. Our loved one is surrounded by such people.

But if we’re the one who simply sits next to them and holds their hand and says, with tears in our eyes, “I don’t know what’s going to help, and I’m scared, too. But I care about you so much, and I really want you to make it through this, even if your life never looks the same again. I don’t know what’s going to happen, but I know I’m here for you.” If we can sit with our loved one in their not-knowing and their fear and their grief, they will never forget that.



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