Fluffy Writing for Those Times I Need a Break (But Still Want to Write) by Victoria Lynn Smith

Writing is fun and frustrating. The lists for what make it either fun or frustrating are almost as varied and numerous as the people who write. (I read a lot of essays written by writers about the ups and downs of writing.)

Sometimes I wrestle with a short story or an essay for days or weeks (or months). I wrangle with voice, tense, point of view, structure, characters, dialogue, and a bunch of other writing concepts. Finally, when I feel I’ve pinned the piece to the mat, I set it aside for a while. At this point, I’m not ready for another match with a new story or essay idea that’s been patiently waiting on the sidelines.

I want to keep writing, but if I’ve struggled with a piece, I need a break. I need to watch a good movie, laugh with friends, binge watch British TV shows. And, I need to write fluffy! (Sometimes I even need to write fluffy during an epic clash with a story or an essay.)

For me fluffy writing is like a good walk, a session of yoga, and a good night’s sleep.

I’ve developed some fluff strategies:

  • I write about humorous events. I’ve written about losing a belt and the odd way I found it, learning to use my new pressure cooker, my fear of reading at open mics, a takeout order gone awry, and a chaotic art project with my four grandkids. There’s often humor lurking beneath the mundane. I don’t worry if my writing is funny or not; I just enjoy writing about something that amused me.
  • I write outside my typical style. My writing tends to be unadorned. But sometimes I yearn to write something flowery, jacked up on purple prose (but hopefully, I draw the line at a pale shade of lilac). I splash on too many metaphors, adverbs, and adjectives, like cheap perfume. These pieces often sound old fashioned. In this vein, I wrote a flash essay about visiting Split Rock Lighthouse in the 1970s with my father and again in 2017 with my grandchildren. Editors keep declining it, but one of my readers said it’s one of his favorites. (His friend told me to ditch some of the adverbs and adjectives, so I cut one adjective.) I wrote an essay about my tulip buds being eaten by rabbits during the pandemic spring of 2020. And, I wrote an essay about trying to write and take care of four grandchildren thirty hours a week. Both essays are a lilac shade. But I like them because they capture how I felt.
  • I write about writing. I always have something to say about writing. I’ve covered writing titles, avoiding household chores so I can write, wondering if I’m a real writer, writer’s block during the pandemic, and a rebellious character in a story who refused to follow my plot. Right now, I’m writing this essay (and I have more rough drafts about writing saved in a file).
  • I ask myself what if questions. One of my relatives said of my dog, “Ziva is such a cat.” Her accurate assessment of my dog’s personality made me wonder, Could I write a story about a dog that behaves like a cat? It’s not a fine literary story or even a literary story or maybe even a story, but when I read it, it reminds me of my relative and my dog, both of whom I love. I wrote my only historical fiction story based on my great-grandfather’s parents by asking, What if a certain event hadn’t happened?
  • I wrote a spoof on romance stories. At least I think it’s more spoof than satire or parody. I don’t consider myself a writer of spoof, satire, or parody, but it’s fun to try. I smile more when I try to write humor. Smiling relieves tension, and that’s the point of my fluffy writing interludes.
  • I write for or about my grandchildren. I enjoy this for the same reason I like taking pictures of them, reading to them, or walking down the street with them. Or doing anything with them.
  • I write for my blog, which prefers light, fluffy pieces and always accepts my work. It’s nice to know I won’t be getting a rejection letter.

For me fluffy writing is like a good walk, a session of yoga, and a good night’s sleep. It gets my blood flowing, centers my being, and energizes me. It’s like watching episodes of a Keeping Up Appearances, a British sitcom, after watching the lives of characters unravel on Upstairs, Downstairs, a British drama. It’s like topping a healthy sweet potato casserole with large sugary marshmallows.

And now, fluff break is over. Time to wrestle with the next story idea that’s been waiting for its match.

Victoria Lynn Smith enjoys writing fiction and creative nonfiction as she listens to classical music while her two poodles relax on the nearby couch. When she’s not writing, she loves to read and quilt or watch British comedies and mysteries. Her number-one travel wish is to visit the Shetland Islands. Her essays and stories have been published in Talking Stick, Spring Thaw, and Red Cedar Review. Her work has also appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog, Brevity Blog, Perfect Duluth Day, Better Than Starbucks and Wisconsin Public Radio. Read more at https://writingnearthelake.org/

On Defining Success, One Coffee-fueled Morning at a Time by Sara Sha

Eventually the cogs start gripping and the smoke starts billowing and words lay out in lines…

I don’t know yet if I fancy myself as a writer, but I do know I am a lover of words, and like others with this affliction, I look for strategies to feed my passion.

Arthur Miller, author of Tropic of Cancer, had what he called a “Daily Program” that went something like this:

  • Mornings: Write if you can, otherwise do some organizing and research.
  • Afternoons: Focus on a section of work, no distractions, no interruptions.
  • Evenings: Live. Bike, go to cafes, go to museums, sketch in streets, write small things if in the mood.

This makes me think I simply don’t have time to be a writer. My “Daily Program” looks something like this:

In the morning, get up ridiculously early, feed the cat, do a little yoga, then settle in with my pen or my laptop and my mug of coffee and start calling the muse. Eventually the cogs start gripping and the smoke starts billowing and words lay out in lines and strikeouts and dot dot dots. And then I feel the anxiety and disappointment as I look at the clock and realize it’s time to get presentable for work, so I wade through the words pooled on the floor, choke on phrases clouding the air, and head upstairs.

I continue to jot down notes on a pad I keep in the bathroom, I talk to my windshield on my drive to work, I tell Siri to jot down a few more ideas or revisions in the parking lot before I head in and transform into a hopefully functioning, useful human being.

My evenings are the mundane, the chopping, the roasting, the dishes, catching up on emails and other correspondence, then reading something delicious until the page blurs, something that often happens in a matter of minutes.

I am sometimes frustrated with the choices I’ve made in life that have cramped a writing lifestyle — changing college majors when life made me tired, settling down with a fun, supportive soul mate rather than a sugar daddy, deciding that health insurance and a 401k were worth the trade-off of having less time to run through the tall grasses of literary fields, chasing and capturing words with a net, examining each one in the palm of my hand.

Still, I write yet hesitate to label myself as a writer. I feel that in order to wear that label, I need some kind of success. But then that depends on how I define success. Have I lost myself in a powerful wave of description and alliteration? Have I entertained myself by reading my poem out loud, then decided that was so fun I’d read it again? Have I had trouble sleeping because I’ve done a terrible thing to a character? Has the thought of a beautifully turned sentence helped me through a dull day at work?

I have to tell myself this is enough for now, the satisfaction of lovingly, slowly, sloppily bringing a story to life one frantic coffee-fueled morning at a time, anticipating it will eventually find a home somewhere, sometime.

Meanwhile, I wear my writing like discreet fancy underpants or a snarky hidden tattoo, my secret alter ego that only I enjoy for now.

Sara Sha is a lifelong Minnesota resident and a recent Duluth transplant. Besides writing, she enjoys historical research and wandering through the woods and rocky areas of Northeastern Minnesota with her husband. She also spends a lot of time staring over the waters of Lake Superior, and she’s not sure why.

Youthful Inspiration by Molly Brewer Hoeg

I’ve been on this writing journey for almost nine years now. And I just found a new source of tutelage.

The words that flow across the screen reveal an endless source of imagination. Mya’s fingers fly around the keyboard as she composes, intent on her work. She stops only to ask questions: “How do you spell shriek?” “What should I call the planet? How about Nimo? Wait, I think Nimeo is better.” Her eight-year-old brain is on overdrive. Her enthusiasm infectious.

Soon her ten-year-old brother follows suit. Opening his own Google Doc, Ben begins typing.


Long ago there was a myth that there was a temple that was told to behold many treasures. And only one person can wield its power.

I am there to help them with their distance learning, and in their spare time I expect them to run off and play, or look for a snack. Instead, they are fixated on writing stories. Grandchildren after my own heart. I find Mya nestled on the couch before breakfast, cradling her chromebook, her face intent with concentration.

As their tales grow they are eager to share them with me. “Grammy, listen to this.” Ben reads his story out loud, always starting from the beginning, title and all. “Grammy, I’m on chapter two,” Mya chimes in. “Here’s what’s happening now.”

I am all ears. That’s what Grammys do. But it is more than that. I’ve been on this writing journey for almost nine years now. I’ve taken classes. Attended conferences. Read books. Done workshops. And worked with a writing coach. I’m still honing my craft, continually learning. And I just found a new source of tutelage.

As Mya reads aloud, and reaches the end of chapter one, she leaves me hanging. It ends with a twist. I am eager to know more, to turn the page. It is a technique that took me a long time to master.

“Oh, I learned that from reading Harry Potter,” Mya explains.

Isn’t that what we are told to do? If you want to be a good writer, then you must read, read, read. Find good authors, grow your vocabulary, notice and absorb their techniques.

Ben likes to fill his story with dialog. His characters trade quips back and forth. On the page I find rapid fire quotes with narry a “he said” then “she said” between them. Even so, I know just who said what.

Not only did I shy away from dialog in my early work, but once I began to dabble in it, I insisted on attributing each line to its owner. An editor broke me of that habit, but I’m still working on it. Somehow, Ben got it from the get-go.

Mya’s story abounds in mystical creatures with fantastic names. She talks out loud as she types, speaking her creativity, trying out the sounds on her tongue.

… a girl named Rayla Minnesota lives on the edge of the city. She has a pet called Moono. Moono is a Bisha. A Bisha looks like a lion, except Bishas are blue with white diamonds. Moono was so big that Rayla is able to ride him! … Monshias are wolves but they have wings and come in many different colors. People say they roam the sky at night. Monshias are rare.

I am in awe. My genre is memoir and creative non-fiction. I have yet to dabble in fiction. I shy away from the imagination it requires. But Mya dives in with abandon in “The Wings of Galaxy.”

Once upon a time, there was a world named Nimeo. Nimeo is a bit bigger than a faraway planet called Earth. Nimeo has two blue suns and two moons. Even though Nimeo has two suns, it usually is dark. The planet’s oceans are purple, and like Earth, the land is green. The suns are far from Nimeo, but since the blue suns give off so much heat, Nimeo has enough warmth that the people can live.

She decides that in the world she is creating that characters take state names for their surnames, and cities are named for our planets. Where does she come up with this stuff? I have a hard enough time finding substitute names for my real-life characters whose identity I want to protect.

Ben’s story features James and Louis, two miscreant school boys. How do I know that?

When James and Louis got back into the classroom they picked their chairs in the back as they always do.

After school, the boys meet at an abandoned outpost. James proposes returning home to get something, leaving Louis there on his own. Louis delivers his response: “Leaving me at a spooky outpost for an hour, uh he he sure.” Louis said, quivering. Ben doesn’t say Louis is scared. He doesn’t call the boys mischievous. He shows me. Did someone teach him that? I certainly had to be taught.

Louis sat looking at the beautiful sleek white furred creature. It had a long glimmering tail, and two turquoise eyes. “Wait a minute, I know what kind you are, you’re an ancient wolf!” “Oh, I forgot, you glow in the dark, just realized that because you’re glowing right now.”

I recently attended a webinar about developing characters. I was told that because I know my mother so well, I unwittingly assume my readers can picture her, understand her background and recognize her habits. It made me realize I need to bring her – and all my characters – to life for them. Ben didn’t need any encouragement to breathe life into his ancient wolf. I can see it vividly!

I can’t begin to approach the depth of their imagination, their thirst for fantasy. I have to admire their desire to invoke it in their writing. I’m thrilled to see their passion funneled into words and stories at such a young age. And with apparent effortlessness.

As the week progresses, the kids make rapid progress on their stories. My own writing languishes as I lavish attention on them instead. As a Grammy should. But my enthusiasm for the craft is renewed and I return home eager to follow Ben and Mya’s examples. I attack my book once more, intent on my memoir, working with youthful inspiration.

Molly Brewer Hoeg is a writer from Duluth whose memoirs and essays often focus on being active in the outdoors. She is a regular contributor to regional and national magazines including Adventure Cyclist Magazine. She is currently is working on a book exploring the ups and downs of her life while bicycle touring with her husband. You can read about her adventures on her blog, Superior Footprints.

Open Mic Time by Victoria Lynn Smith

Open mics give writers a place to share their writing, to gauge an audience’s response to their work, and to collect inspiration.

Open mics are one place I always get more than I give. I listen to writers read their poems, stories, and essays. Some read quietly; some perform. I laugh, sigh, hold back tears, and sometimes shift in my seat with the rest of the audience. Open mics give writers a place to share their writing, to gauge an audience’s response to their work, and to collect inspiration.

Memorable events happen at open mics. A father attended his first open mic to listen to his adult daughters read. He composed a poem about lichens during the intermission and read it after the break, receiving a raucous round of applause. A woman read her poem, a humorously honest tirade about the struggles of single parenthood, and the audience cheered with laughter. An elderly man read his story about funeral homes providing hospice care to make the progression from dying to burial more efficient, and it was disturbingly funny.

I started writing at age sixty. I started going to open mics at age sixty. It’s a correlation based on causation. Take my word for it.

I went to open mics, but I wasn’t ever going to get up and read.

Then I won a writing contest. I wasn’t able to read my story with the other winners at the reception. But that felt like winning too because I don’t like public speaking. My voice wobbles. My knees shimmy. My hands vibrate. At the same time, I’m inside of myself, feeling my body prepare to flee the tigers prowling in the audience and having an out of body experience.

Someone told me, “You should enter your story in Writers Read.”

“What’s that?” I asked.

My brain twitched as it was explained. Writers submit short stories, essays and poems. Judges select pieces to be read by the writers in front of an audience while being recorded to be played on Wisconsin Public Radio. What I heard: Enter a story, if the judges select it, YOU HAVE TO STAND IN FRONT OF PEOPLE AND READ—OUT LOUD.

I remembered my eighth-grade acting debut as the Wizard of Oz. I was the man behind the curtain. My part was small, but I was going to be mighty. On the night of the performance, my bellowing Wizard voice, perfected in rehearsals, sounded like a whimpering munchkin. I’d come down with a bad case of stage fright. I gave up acting.

A couple of years before I started writing, I recalled listening to Shonda Rhimes, a television producer, talk about her book, Year of Yes: How to Dance It Out, Stand in the Sun and Be Your Own Person. Rhimes, an introvert, avoided media interviews because she had panic attacks. Then she decided for one year to say yes to things that scared her and write a book about it. So, I said yes and submitted my story to Writers Read.

My story was selected. Elation and apprehension. I’ve domesticated my stage fright over the years, but it’s an uneasy coexistence.

The program organizer advised participants to practice, READ AT OPEN MICS, and attend rehearsal the night before the performance. I envisioned tigers drinking beer and flexing their claws while I read my story at an open mic, but I was saying yes to all of it.

I practiced, reading to my iPhone recorder and listening to myself. I read at two open mics, working to make my story come alive. The spectators were friendly and supportive because many of them were also reading. Some readers were smooth and entertaining. Some were nervous and small voiced. But all of the readers gave me confidence that stage fright wouldn’t leap up and swallow me.

A week later when I read in front of the Writers Read audience, I didn’t sound like the mighty Wizard of Oz, but I didn’t sound like a whimpering munchkin either.

I decided to read again at another open mic, but two months later the pandemic shuttered community gatherings. Live open mics have been replaced with virtual ones. Recently, I read an essay at Superior Shares, a virtual gathering. For an hour I heard writers read their work to an audience. Some people came just to listen. When it was my turn, I was nervous, but I could tell other readers were nervous too. People shared joy, laughter, and heartache through the gift of their writing. The audience was supportive.

Even though virtual mics are live, the audience isn’t gathered in one place and the computer screen diminishes a sense of intimacy. But it’s not as intimidating to read to a group of small faces on a screen. Clapping and cheering are replaced by mime-like clapping and comments in the chat section. But the comments are a bonus, immediate feedback about something an audience member likes about a writer’s piece.

I’m hoping we can return to live open mics soon, but in the meantime, I’ll attend the virtual ones, sometimes to listen and sometimes to read. If you’ve never read at a live open mic because you see your own tigers in the audience, try reading at a virtual one. It’s a good way to ease into the world of public performance. And fortunately, the open mic host doesn’t send Zoom invites to the tigers.

Join us January 13 from 6-7 p.m. for our next Superior Shares, a monthly virtual open mic for local writers to share their work in progress, and for anyone else who appreciates the creative writing process. This event is free to participants and audience, and membership is not required. To register, email writers@lakesuperiorwriters.org.  Please indicate if you would like to read.

Victoria Lynn Smith writes short stories and essays. She is working on a collection of short stories. Her short story “Silent Negotiations” won second place in the 2020 Hal Prize for Fiction. Her story, “Domestic Duplicity,” won first place in the Lake Superior Writers’ 2020 Contest and will published by Better than Starbucks in February 2021.  Her essays and stories have been published in regional journals. Her essays have also appeared on Lake Superior Writers’ Blog, Brevity Blog, and Perfect Duluth Day. Read more at https://writingnearthelake.org/

Rules of Engagement by Felicia Schneiderhan

Last spring I was walking Skyline Parkway (closed to traffic, pedestrians only), six feet from my close friend, Mary Mathews. Mary is a quilt artist. The lines and colors of her work remind me of Miles Davis’s “On the Corner,” or sailboats on a Lake Superior July morning. We walk together often, our topics ranging from family to food to pandemic to working as artists. We often talk about creativity, technique, and perseverance (when we’re not talking about the pandemic or food, that is). That morning, Mary shared with me that her quilting teacher (an internationally-renowned artist who sounds like she would scare the hell out of me) will find a design, and then make 40 quilts with that design, exploring all its nuances.

The idea caught my attention. I wondered what would happen if I tried this with a short story – using a set pattern – instead of having to invent the wheel every time I start something new. 

I had a novel in progress, short stories and essays in progress, and for two months I hadn’t been able to move a single creative muscle . . .

I went home that afternoon and decided to try a new game, “The Rules of Engagement,” to jar me from my pandemic-induced paralysis. I had a novel in progress, short stories and essays in progress, and for two months I hadn’t been able to move a single creative muscle. I came up with the short story equivalent of a quilt pattern. I chose a point of view, time period, motivation, object, word count. The task: write a short story to fit the design in one week. (The rough draft, anyway.) The next week, I’d use the same design to write a completely different story. And so on.

I ended up with three quality stories – one will be published by The Bookends Review this summer, and the other two are making the rounds with editors at literary journals. 

The experiment proved so fulfilling and fun that I wanted to share it with other writers. Lake Superior Writers was willing to give this a try. So this winter, as the dark and cold start to get to us (just a little), we’re going to meet for a month of Thursdays via Zoom to try this game. Every writer will come up with their own design and hone their own stories. Along the way, participants will learn about fiction techniques including point of view, time, structure, and characterization. We’ll also look at revision techniques and publication. By the end of the workshop, everyone will have a quality short story design, two story drafts, some rewritten work, and a network of writers to connect with. 

It’ll be work – but fun work!

Are you game? Come join us!

Felicia’s workshop, “The Rules of Engagement: Writing a short story from beginning to end,” will be held on four consecutive Thursdays: January 14, 21, 28, and February 4 from 6:30-8 p.m. via Zoom.
The cost is $100 for LSW members and $135 for non-members (fee includes a 1-year membership). Participants can add an optional private 30 minute 10-page critique with Felicia for $35. (Critique session will be held via Zoom or telephone.) Register here.

Instructor Felicia Schneiderhan is a Duluth-based award-winning writer and instructor. Her work appears in many literary journals and national magazines, and she hosts “Drawn to Write,” a new show on WDSE about writers and artists.

Cluttered and Trapped in a Strange World: On (Not) Writing During a Pandemic by Zomi Bloom

“I have even forgotten how to long or to want, and I think you must have these in order to write poetry.”

Some people have posted memes on social media that suggest writers could take this pandemic time and turn it into a gold mine opportunity – to hunker down and create great works of art. That has not been my experience, and I bet others feel the same way. Around a socially distanced, outdoor fire pit, my partner asked my novelist friend how writing was going. She responded that she was too distracted.

I have been hopelessly distracted too – by the death toll, the election, the separated kids at the border (still), unemployment (not me, but millions just here in the US), food and rent insecurity (again, not me this time… but millions and millions). There are other whirlwinds in my headspace. I have three children, and over time I learned to write with – not just despite – but with them around. You would think their ages – 12 soon to be 13, 14 going on 26, and 16 soon to be 17 – wouldn’t be a barrier but rather an opening. They no longer need snacks administered by me on an every-other-hour-on-the-hour basis (they can do this themselves). They dress themselves, shower themselves, prepare their own food, find their own entertainment, set themselves up for their own art projects, and in general, spend more time avoiding me than seeking my attention. 

But even so, I’m distracted. Adolescence is no picnic – well, unless that picnic involves intermittent thunderstorms punctuated by alternating sunlight with tornadoes in the forecast. Anyway, they’re not leaving the house for school or sports or dance or band. Although for several months this past fall, C was attending a local choral group’s practices (socially distanced and masked, in one room for 30 minutes max, followed by switching to another room for 30 minutes to air the other out), that activity has ceased again pursuant to the spike in cases and concerned parents. 

I also can’t run. This has nothing to do with the pandemic, but when I can’t get to a gym, it’s a lifeline. This is due to a knee overuse injury which has taken over a year to resolve, with seemingly endless PT sessions, a surgery, a cortisone injection, and so many hip strengthening exercises. I have tried the gym during the times it has been open, but one gym was masked, eerie, too quiet. The other was akin to a frat party, not a smart choice during a pandemic.

I’m ordering all my groceries via app and online delivery.

At the day job, the situation is more stressful than ever. There’s the mask wearing and Zoom meetings and the pressure to carry on as if we weren’t all reeling from a global pandemic.

So even with the reduced kid driving, grocery going, and friends and family visiting, the extra time hasn’t lent itself to improved productivity, insight, or even peace. I find that the best I can do most days is collapse on the couch and zone out watching episode after episode of baking championship shows and old Star Trek TNG. Oh, and re-reading a certain young adult series about a famous wizard and a school called Hogwarts that has comforted me since college.

I forgot about eating swiss roll snack cakes. 

That’s my life.

The poetry seems stuck. I can barely read poetry. I can’t remember any more if I’m a poet or even a fully- fledged human being. Perhaps I have never been a poet and never will be again. If a magnum opus is written during this time period, it will not be by me. I have even forgotten how to long or to want, and I think you must have these in order to write poetry. My nerves are damaged from the onslaught, and I am cluttered and trapped in a strange world now. 

When writing about darkness, I try for a conclusion that provides some sort of balm. If there is no hope to be felt now, let it be that I am not alone, and neither are you, and you don’t have to write your best work right now, and you don’t even have to write at all to still call yourself a writer.

Zomi Bloom is a poet, mother of 3, and weekday number cruncher. She moved to Duluth from the east coast and has been inspired by the landscape and natural treasures of the North Shore. She is the author of the poetry collection Coming to Duluth.

Tales of Title Writing by Victoria Lynn Smith

Writing is tough, but titles aren’t an easy chew either.

Submission guideline: No one- or two-word titles.

First time I’ve seen that one. But I’m a rookie.

The editors desire longer titles to capture the attention of readers. The two stories I want to submit have one- and two-word titles.

I stare at the computer screen trying to think of longer titles. Zip. I close my eyes trying to conjure up longer titles. Zero. I reread my stories, hoping for inspiration. Zilch.

I don’t feel rebellious enough to ignore the guideline. I like my one-word title, but I agree my two-word title has to go. One of my writing friends who read the two-word title (along with its story) advised, “Titles are important. You might want to think about a new one.” Maybe my title composing needs fine-tuning.

Instead, I rationalize my lazy title-writing behavior. Does it really matter? Who remembers titles? We aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, so why judge a story or an essay by its title?

Then I remember my first encounter with Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine shortly after its release. Someone pointed to it in a bookstore and said, “That’s a good book.”

“Oh,” I said. The title didn’t capture my imagination.

A couple of years later, my daughter-in-law said, “I think you’d like this book,” while handing me Eleanor Oliphant Is Completely Fine. We’ve similar tastes in books, so I read it and loved it. I’d judged a book by its title. It was time to work on my titles.

Research is a good way to avoid writing, revising, cleaning, so I start with research.

Does it really matter? Who remembers titles? We aren’t supposed to judge a book by its cover, so why judge a story or an essay by its title?

I learn titles can’t be copyrighted. Nice to know. Still, I decide against recycling titles by literary giants or literary middleweights or any other writer. But what about a quote from Shakespeare? His works are in the public domain. I search Shakespeare+quotes+youth+death. I find a five-word quote and pare it down to four words, change one word and use a synonym for another word to best fit my story. Inspired by The Bard, I’ve doubled the length of my two-word title, and my writing friend says, “The new title ties in better with your story.”

I’m not stoked about changing my one-word title, but I’m game for more research.

I pull an American short story anthology and a recent literary journal off my bookshelf. The two books contain a total of sixty-three short stories and creative nonfiction narratives. Twenty-one of them have one- and two-word titles. Thirty-three percent. Captivating or not, short titles exist. I keep my one-word title. 

I don’t submit either title to the no-one-or-two-word-titles publication. Self-reflection about this behavior is another essay.


“About the title,” a friend starts, “wait—let me finish.”

He’s been teaching writing so long he recognizes the look flashing across my face. At the same time, I know that look is on my face. I’m already taking a deep breath and reminding myself about feedback rules: Listen. Don’t defend. Don’t argue.

We’ve met for coffee, but first he’s giving me feedback on a flash essay. The essay is 493 words. The title is twelve words.

“Normally,” my friend says, “lengthy titles are discouraged.”

I didn’t come across a too-long rule in my research, but I know a twelve-word title isn’t the norm. I’d written two titles and torn between them, I weaved them together. 

“But,” he says, “this title works. It mirrors the tone of the essay and sets up the irony revealed at the end.”

Bingo. He understands. Even if he hadn’t, I’d have kept the title. Sometimes a writer has to know when to disregard feedback. But I entertain the idea both of us might be wrong.

The twelve-word title is accepted for publication in a yearly collection of short stories and creative nonfiction.


During my research, I find some practical advice for title writing: Engage in a mindless task, think about titles, make a list, then ask your readers which title they like.

Having a story in need of a title, I begin cleaning—my mindless task of choice. (Cleaning and writing have a symbiotic relationship in my world. I take turns doing one to avoid the other.)

After an hour, I’ve five possible titles. I send the story and titles to five different readers, asking them to vote. The first four readers each select a different title. The fifth reader votes for a previously selected title. Without a definitive outcome, I pick the title I like and enter the story in a contest.

Months later I learn my title placed second in the fiction category.


I finish my third revision of a flash essay, which has been declined twice. Something in the essay speaks to me, but something’s been missing. Now, I feel the essay says what I want it to say. Out it goes to readers. One reader writes, “powerful ending.” Perhaps I’ve nailed the meaning I wish to convey.

But she began with, “The title is too philosophical.” Yep, she’s right because the essay is about my father, who was a difficult man, and philosophical is where I’m at.

Another reader writes, “This title is perfect.”

I’m not changing the title, so I embrace the second opinion.

I spend the afternoon submitting the title to publications featuring flash essays. Maybe this time.



Writing is tough, but titles aren’t an easy chew either. I write short titles and long titles. I write titles I love and titles I tolerate. Feedback is contradictory.

This essay is on its third title.

And the job I’d least like to have? Writing titles or captions.

Victoria Lynn Smith writes short stories, essays, and articles. She is working on a collection of short stories. Her short story “Silent Negotiations” won second place in the 2020 Hal Prize for Fiction Her story, “Domestic Duplicity,” won first place in the Lake Superior Writers’ 2020 Contest for short-short fiction. She recently had an essay and several stories published in three regional journals. Her essays have also appeared on the following blogs: Lake Superior Writers, Brevity, and Perfect Duluth Day. When she writes, her two standard poodles keep her company. They enjoy the soft clicks of the keyboard keeping rhythm with the classical music. Blog: https://writingnearthelake.org/ 

Here I Go Again by Molly Hoeg

My forever project.  That’s what I’m now calling the work that has consumed the last four years of my life.  What was I thinking when I started out to write a book, expecting that it was “The Year of my Book?”  Naive as I was, I poured my heart and soul into the stories I wrote for the next year.  And the year after that.  Tales derived from the thousands of miles that my husband and I covered on our bicycle tours, along with the joys and the conflicts that accompanied them.

I supplemented my work with taking writing classes, reading books about craft, joining Lake Superior Writers, and networking with other writers.  I grew as a writer, but knew it wasn’t enough.  I decided to engage a writing coach, to get first-hand personal input on my efforts to write a book.  Even as I packaged up my work to send to her, I knew what I had was just “a pile of content.”  I relied on her to steer me through shaping it into a book.  I spent the next six months working with her, and she delivered.

It has taken me another two years to put those learnings into practice.  To whittle down my stories and turn them into a cohesive tale.  One that goes well beyond pushing the pedals of my bike and explores the inner me that journeys through life.  I’ve learned that the bicycle is the vehicle, not the real focus.

Less than half of what I first wrote remains in this new version.  But so much more is woven in between those pages.  I’ve delved into my past, dug into my innermost desires, scrutinized my motives and exposed my biggest failure.  There were times when writing felt like therapy sessions.  But I could see how it all began to weave together.  I could feel it working.  Maybe.

I feel as though I’ve taken it as far as I can on my own.  I could spend months tweaking and fine tuning, but it would all be for naught if I’m not on the right track.  I’m yearning for that professional guidance and tutoring specific to my writing, to my project. I’m ready for another check-in with my coach.

As I prepared for the October start to our next engagement, I looked back on the notes I sent her the first time around.  Specifically, I read through an exercise focused on Why am I Writing this Book?  I was amazed to find that my original reasons no longer hold true.  My purpose has changed.  The themes have shifted.  The points I want to make are vastly different.  I think it’s progress.  I hope she thinks so too.

Yesterday I took my document to the printer and came home with 320 double-spaced pages.  Nearly the same size as last time, but not at all the same inside.  This time I’m willing to call it a manuscript.

I’m both eager and nervous to get my coach’s reaction to the transformation.  I already know she will be encouraging.  But I have no illusions that I’m close to done.  I trust her to guide me from here and teach me the techniques and nuances that will take this to the next level.

My coach is still the only person besides me who has read this volume.  I’ll keep it that way until I’m good and ready, until it’s good and ready.  I know I still have plenty of work to do.  So here I go again.  Coaching round 2.

Molly Brewer Hoeg is a writer from Duluth, Minnesota whose memoirs and essays often focus on being active in the outdoors.  She is a regular contributor to regional and national magazines including Lake Superior Magazine and Adventure Cyclist Magazine. She is currently is working on a book exploring the ups and downs of her life while bicycle touring with her husband. You can read about her adventures on her blog, Superior Footprints, https://superiorfootprints.org/.

Inspired by an Axe Murder, A Skeleton in the Closet Brought Out the Writer in Me by Christine Marcotte

When I learned about the 1897 unsolved ax murder of my third great-grandfather Thomas Boxell and his second wife, Lydia, I was hooked. I hadn’t written anything creatively since junior high, but it was clear to me that a book needed to be written about the accused family members.  That was the beginning of my writing. 

Shortly after my retirement ten years ago, I attended a birthday celebration of a great-aunt.  I was spellbound when an elderly second cousin regaled me with the story that a common ancestor, a great-grandfather of varying degrees, had been murdered. He invited me to read what his mother had written about the event, and I made plans to visit a few weeks later.  As with any undertaking, I love research and planning.  The Boxell Murders were the focus of my extra time for two years and led me to the conclusion that I needed to tell this story.  Nine years after the birthday party, the manuscript What Amelia Knows was completed. My emergence as a writer occurred during that time.

When I decided a book needed to be written, I had hundreds of newspaper articles and court documents.  I had a 150-page chronology that covered the time from the murders in May 1897 through the end of the trial in July 1899, and a photograph of the entire Boxell family, numbering nearly 50, standing in front of their home in Howard Lake, Minnesota, a year and a half before the murder.  I had plenty of facts, but I knew very little about the family.

I learned the Boxell’s had 47 third-generation descendants who were still living and in their eighties and nineties.  Of course, none had been born at the time of the murders, but most of their parents were. I decided I needed to visit some of them and learn what I could about the Boxell family, and maybe a little more about the murders. With a grant from the Arrowhead Regional Arts Council, I interviewed over a dozen living in Minnesota.  I embarked on several road-trips and had delightful visits. Some were great-aunt and great-uncles, but most were second or third cousins, who became instant friends.  Collectively they knew about as much about the murders as would fit in a teacup, but I did understand the Boxell family a bit better.  

There were some factions that believed the murder had been committed by family and others that were vehement that they were not responsible.  More than half of the original Boxell family moved from the county in which they were raised.  A handful settled near Randall, in Morrison County, and another group moved to Polk County, Wisconsin. Some division continued through the generations, though many cousins had no idea they stemmed from a murder.

One of the many surprises during my visits with the Boxell cousins was this photograph taken in front of the Boxell home on Christmas Day 1895. The names are written on the back, and all of the ‘characters’ except the new wife of the patriarch are pictured.

Fear of something nefarious happening lasted generations with varying degrees of caution.  Most everyone kept their doors locked at night and several made sure there was always a weapon of some sort near the bed.  When Catherine (Boxell) and George Taylor built a new brick house, Catherine insisted there was no door installed on the side facing the road! 

Armed with a better understanding of my ancestors, I was ready to write. I took an online class through the Loft, Your Book Starts Here, facilitated by author Mary Carroll Moore.  I was thrilled by everyone’s feedback but realized I had a long way to go before writing this book.  One looming question was whether it should be fiction or nonfiction. Another was that I honestly doubted my ability to write. I needed a way to test the waters, so I asked the local paper if I could write a weekly column.  The editor said yes but cautioned she could only pay me $20 an article. So, in September 2014, “Reminisce” debuted, and the book project was temporarily filed away.  Eventually, I developed my voice, had a following, and feedback once in a while.  Feeling optimistic, I joined an online writing program, Writers Village University.  Since January 2015, I have taken many courses and made friends from around the world.  

With 187 columns to my credit, I was ready to write about the murder.  It would be historical fiction and begin with the arrest of the man they had the most evidence against.  I started on an extensive outline in July 2018 and had the first draft completed by December 2018. A grant from the ARAC, allowed me to start working with a professional editor in June 2019. I finished revisions and entered The Many Voices Project sponsored by the New Rivers Press. With a prize of a publishing contract, I submitted to six additional contests. There was no rush for me to publish, so I have spent the year working on my other writing projects. I am still waiting to hear from the three with the most potential. One is for historical fiction, one is a crime novel, and one is for a book written by a woman over the age of 40.

Of course, once I found that skeleton, I had to keep looking.  One of my Boxell in-laws spent time as an inmate in the St. Peter and Fergus Falls State hospitals. His story is part of my Blurred Visions Short story collection, a work in progress. The linked stories (connected by a common thread) are based on the lives of actual patients in the Fergus Falls hospital at the turn of the 20th century.

After Christine Marcotte retired, she attended a birthday party for a great-aunt and learned about an ancestor who was murdered in 1897. Intrigued, she researched and wrote a historical fiction novel based on the murder. She also writes short stories and a newspaper column about historical events in Itasca County.

The Accidental Memoirist by Felicia Schneiderhan

“Writing memoir gives us a new understanding of events that have happened, and helps us to make sense of our lives in completely new ways – ways we can’t see just thinking or talking about it.”

A while back, my editor at a Chicago newspaper assigned me a story about the Chicago White Sox. I knew jack about baseball, even less about how to conduct an interview with Major League players. But I took the assignment because I liked the challenge. (This same editor assigned me a story about flying an airplane for the first time – my photographer barely survived the stress.) The newspaper article I wrote was pretty weak; the story of how I got the story was a lot more interesting (like cornering Paul Konerko on a couch). I wrote that personal essay (a.k.a. memoir) and it landed in the literary journal Sport Literature.

I was hooked. My career as an accidental memoirist has led to articles in national magazines, essays in literary journals, and my full-length book, Newlyweds Afloat.

Maybe you, too, are an Accidental Memoirist. Or maybe you’ve had the push to write memoir, but you are doing your best to ignore it (let’s call you the Reluctant Memoirist).

Let me just tell you why you may want to write memoir. Memoir is powerful for us as writers; we often don’t know our story until we write it. Writing memoir gives us a new understanding of events that have happened, and helps us to make sense of our lives in completely new ways – ways we can’t see just thinking or talking about it.

What I’m saying is, memoir writing is super cool.

This summer I developed a workshop, Gymnastics for Memoir Writers, for the Midwest Writing Center  (a phenomenal organization with amazing support and opportunities for writers). The online workshop went so well that I wanted to offer it again. Lake Superior Writers is the host and sponsor for this fall’s workshop.

A lot of us are struggling with isolation. Our regular writing routines are in shambles. We’re trying to get our footing as writers, as creative people, in this new world. Here’s one way to do that. 


If you’ve always wanted to write memoir…

If you’ve written half a memoir…

If you’ve written a lot of memoir…

Or if you’ve never considered writing memoir until right now…

Gymnastics for Memoir Writers could be just what you need to get going. Or at least do something fun on Thursday nights when it’s dark and cold outside.

Instructor Felicia Schneiderhan is a Duluth-based award-winning writer and instructor. Her work appears in many literary journals and national magazines, and she hosts “Drawn to Write,” a new show on WDSE about writers and artists.