What’s the Tuning Protocol? The Strategy That Might Just Changing Your Writing Life


by Katie Venit

Confession: revising is my favorite part of writing. I love chipping away detritus to uncover a story’s themes and motifs. I love giving and getting feedback. When group members share their insights on my story, I can finally see what I’m missing. 

Confession: I stink at giving feedback. Constructive feedback is easy for me; I always want to hear what parts of my story didn’t work so I can improve, and I (incorrectly) assume the same for others. In my enthusiasm for improvement, I forget to mention the 95 percent of the draft that I loved. But knowing what does work is just as helpful as knowing what doesn’t. 

At the most basic level, the Tuning Protocol is a structured path to give everyone positive feedback and constructive criticism. (Protocols are highly structured activities.) Each group member offers warm feedback (something they liked). Although subsequent members can agree with those who came before them, each member has to say something original. Repeat the process with cool feedback (constructive criticism). The key is that the warm and cool feedback are not diluted. In other words, warm feedback shouldn’t be lukewarm. 

After all the rounds of feedback, the writer can weigh in. Perhaps she explains her reasoning behind an unpopular section, and the group can work through it together; perhaps she asks follow up questions. Finally, the writer reflects on the experience and identifies her next steps. 


  • The writer can either stay silent through the feedback round or engage in conversation about the piece right away. Silence helps if your group has difficulty staying on task, but it’s not necessary. 
  • Consider setting a time limit for each person if you have a lot of pieces to get through, or if you have loquacious members.
  • Reviewers can offer additional feedback other than warm and cool. For example, they can also comment on their emotional response to the piece, where that emotional response was interrupted, parts where they were confused, what they think the overall theme, message, or feel of the piece was, etc. Speaking from experience, feel can be an interesting topic: what the writer may have intended as positive could be perceived as something else entirely.
  • The writer can ask a specific question about the piece, and each reviewer can answer that question.
  • Distance variation: This works very well in an online community; reviewers already have the floor to say what they have to say. Maintain the structure of separate warm and cool feedback. 

The Rundown: Meet This Summer’s Writers-in-Residence


by BJ Hollars

A successful writers’ retreat generally boils down to two factors: the generosity and enthusiasm of the writer-in-residence, as well as the generosity and enthusiasm of the participants themselves.  And so, when trying to find the perfect mix of people to place together in the woods for three days, we at the Guild are often left trying to use one’s words as an entry point into one’s intentions.  Does the writer-in-residence seem fully committed to the participants and their creative work?  And on the other end, do the participants seem excited to grow alongside the writer-in-residence?  We can never know for sure, though the applications go a long way in helping us determine how to best create the supportive community we so deeply value.  

Learn more about our Cirenaica Writers Retreats

My main job is to work hard to provide the best summer programs possible.  Which means I spend a lot of time getting to know our prospective writers-in-residence.  And this year, let me tell you, we’ve got quite a line-up, indeed. Read on for the stories you didn’t know about this year’s writers!

Holly Hughes: Queen of the Birds (And Mindfulness, Too!)

Let’s begin with Holly Hughes.  Holly and I first met, quite by chance, when we were thrust together for a joint reading on extinct birds at Magers & Quinn Bookstore in Minneapolis in the fall of 2017.  We’d never met one another, but at the bookstore’s prompting, we were glad to share the mic.  Holly and I had barely shaken hands before I knew she’d be a perfect fit for Cirenaica.  She exuded kindness, and as she shared her work, I sat quietly in the front row imagining just how much Cirenaica participants could benefit by her expertise both as a poet and a mindfulness expert.  Since our initial meeting, Holly and I have continued to keep in touch.  The writers-who-write-about-extinct-birds club is unsurprisingly small, and every time I think I catch a flicker of a Passenger Pigeon out of the corner of my eye, I always make sure to drop her a note.  Check out her retreat, “Words To Hold A Glittering World: Crossing Genres Mindfully” which runs from June 21-24.

Karla Huston: Wisconsin’s Bard

Next up, Wisconsin poet laureate Karla Huston.  So many kind things can be said about Karla that it’s hard to know where to begin.  But I suppose the story that touched me most involves meeting her last fall, when she took the time to hear me read as part of the Fox Cities Book Festival.  Given her many poet laureate duties, I imagine Karla’s time is a little tight.  Yet the fact that she was able to spare a bit of it to hear me was quite humbling, and further reaffirmed her kind and generous nature.  Over the past two years, Karla has toured the state promoting poetry.  And how lucky are we to share three days with her this summer.  Check out her retreat, “Speak, Write, Memory: On Writing Poetry By Searching Within” which runs from June 28-July 1.

Michael Martone: Modern Day Magellan (At Least Compared To Me)

And now, onto my mentor and friend, Michael Martone.  Michael, like me, hails from Fort Wayne, Indiana.  When I stumbled upon this fact as an undergraduate while reading one of his contributor’s notes, I immediately dropped him an email.  “There are two writers from Fort Wayne!” I said excitedly.  Of course, there are many more than just two.  Soon after familiarizing myself with Michael’s work, I begged my college to bring him to campus, and they obliged.  The one catch: I had to pick Michael up from the airport.  When the big day arrived, I picked both Michael and his son, Sam, up from the Davenport Airport and prepared to drive them back to Galesburg, Illinois.  The problem, though, was that I soon became utterly lost.  Utterly, utterly lost.  As the miles dragged on in the wrong direction, I found myself incapable of admitting defeat.  How far would I have driven, I now wonder?  Would I have driven us to California had Michael not intervened?  Thankfully, Michael intervened, and as politely as possible, suggested that I might consider turning around.  It was good advice.  And while I thoroughly enjoyed all that time together, what I enjoyed most was how charmed he seemed by the entire ordeal.  Or at least not utterly put out by my ineptitude.  Two years later, we studied together at the University of Alabama.  And a few years after that he served as my thesis advisor for my first book.  These days, when faced with a dilemma in the classroom, I often ask myself: “What would Michael Martone do?”  And then, I proceed just as he might.  Apply for his retreat, “From Start to Finish: On Beginnings, Endings, and All the Words In Between” which runs from July 12-15.

Nick Butler: Hometown Hero / International Star

Of course, international bestseller (and hometown favorite!) Nick Butler needs no introduction.  This is his third summer at Cirenaica, and each session with Nick just gets better and better.  Nick’s writing chops hardly need any endorsement from me.  (Though if you want my endorsement, here it is!).  But beyond his writing, he’s also about the kindest, most supportive guy you’ll ever meet.  In summer’s past, I’ve loved watching him meet individually with participants on the back deck, talking folks through their stories.  At the conclusion of each conference, participants always leave with a smile.  Nick always finds a way to help writers find their footing, and he plans to do so again this summer!  Click here to apply for “Building a Solid Base: Getting Your Fiction Off On The Right Foot” which runs from July 19-22.

Lindsay Starck: Writer/Teacher Extraordinaire

Last but not least, meet Lindsay Starck!  A professor at Augsburg University and the author of Noah’s Wife, Lindsay came highly recommended to us by way of Barstow & Grand editor, Eric Rasmussen, who has the pleasure of studying with her in Augsburg’s MFA program.  Last week the three of us enjoyed tacos together at a writers’ conference in Tampa.  What a joy it was!  Lindsay’s welcoming personality and writing talents make her a perfect fit for Cirenaica.  She, like the others noted above, is generous and enthusiastic.  Frankly, the summer can’t come soon enough.  Click here to apply for “Thickening the Plot: On Creating Tension and Suspense in Fiction” which will run from August 2-5.

In an effort not to bend your ear (or your eyes) too terribly, allow me to simply say that these writers are ready and waiting to work with you.  And did I mention that each session has a special guest as well (Max Garland, Jon Loomis, Peter Geye, Eric Rasmussen, and others)?  

In closing, there’s always a reason NOT to apply for a writers’ retreat.  And it’s easy to say, “Maybe I’ll try next year.” I’ll encourage you not to wait.  Your art deserves your attention, and we’re here to support your art as best we can.

So what are you waiting for?  Apply today!  Tell your friends!  We’ll save you a seat around the campfire.




Let Nothing Stand in Your Way: Fiercely Guard Your Writing Time!


by Jan Carroll

Do you put time for writing on your calendar, like you would plans for a romantic evening out (with a heart drawn around it), an appointment with your doctor (underlined twice), or regular time with your best friend (circled and then made into a sun or a flower)? Maybe for you, writing time is so established, so habitual, so ingrained in your schedule that you don’t need to write it down or enter it into your phone—you know when it will happen, like you know what hours you have to be at work, what time to start getting the kids ready for bed, and which night to drag the trash can to the curb. If so, good for you! But that’s not true for all of us.

First Give Yourself Permission

For years, I really wanted to write, but it took a long time to realize that first I had to give myself permission. That among all those other voices, all those other really important things to do—work for money, recover from work, prepare to work again, spend time with loved ones, exercise, mow the lawn, take the car in for a checkup, get my teeth cleaned, do the dishes, scrub the floor, help a friend, do my part to make the world a better place, take the dog out—writing too is important! And for writers—for me—it needs to be a priority. Writing can be seem to be held as less important than so many other things in our culture. But it is important—for what the creative process does in and through us, as well as for whatever potential “product” it yields. For me, writing is like getting enough vitamin D, mentally, emotionally, spiritually. I just feel better, more whole, more me. Writers need to write, and we need writers to write.

Then Make It a Date

Once you’ve given yourself permission and have assigned writing a prominent position in your life (and in your schedule), fiercely guard the time you make for it. Rest assured, hordes of reasons to put writing aside will sweep in to distract you. If you think of your writing time the same way you would a romantic date or a great conversation with a good friend, you’ll be less inclined to put it on the back burner if some other enticing or guilt-inducing possibility presents itself. Poet Mary Oliver, in A Poetry Handbook, explains why maintaining this focus is so crucial. 

If Romeo and Juliet had made appointments to meet, in the moonlight-swept orchard, in all the peril and sweetness of conspiracy, and then more often than not failed to meet—one or the other lagging, afraid, or busy elsewhere—there would have been no romance, no passion, none of the drama for which we remember and celebrate them. Writing … is not so different.

Sure, sometimes you might not be as excited about going to dinner with your sweetie. And true, not every talk with that friend is scintillating. But showing up and being there for that person, and that person reciprocating, over time yields a beautiful relationship. But you have to make the date and show up—on time! If you are consistently there for your writing, it will be there for you. Stephen King, in On Writing, says:

Your job is to make sure the muse knows where you're going to be every day from nine 'til noon or seven 'til three. If he does know, I assure you that sooner or later he'll start showing up.

If you find you’re not really that into your writing times, maybe you’re not really that into writing, and you should consider watercolor, piano, community theater, hiking, or chess. But before you throw the baby out with the bath water, first give your writing time some of your best attention, the benefit of the doubt, and approach it with a sense of expectation. Give the relationship a fair chance.

But Maintain Consistent Focus

Why all the fuss? Can’t you just write when you feel like it? When you have a few minutes? Yes, impromptu, spontaneous times to write can be wonderful too. But there’s something about writing at a set time, a regular time, that yields the benefit of continuity of thought. Even if you have to eventually pack up, head home, and get ready for work, if you’ve set the intention to return to the work at the same time tomorrow, or whenever you’ve planned to, it tends to keep your head in the game. Instead of the first twenty minutes of each now-and-then session being you trying to reorient yourself to writing in general and to the mindset of the particular piece you’re working on, you can more easily jump right back in. You don’t have to spend time catching up with your old friend. You can venture right into new territory.

Steven Pressfield, in The War of Art, concurs, describing how purposefully dedicating time for the writing to occur is key to the writing actually happening:

When we sit down each day [or in regularly scheduled sessions] and do our work, power concentrates around us. When we sit down and work, we become like a magnetized rod that attracts iron filings. Ideas come. Insights accrete.

How quickly that magnetic hold can be lost, though. If too often I exchange a writing session for some other fun and possibly quite worthwhile activity, the “iron filings” scatter, and it takes time and work to restore that magnetism. Of course, if the dog is throwing up, a child is bleeding, you get called into work, or fire or flood threaten, do your due diligence. Your muse will understand. 

And Declare and “Wear” This Commitment

Zadie Smith, in her “Ten Rules of Writing,” says, “Protect the time and space in which you write. Keep everybody away from it, even the people who are most important to you.”

Decide when and where you will write. Discuss this with loved ones who share your space and time. Then when other opportunities come up, be prepared to say, “Oh, I can’t. I have another commitment,” or “Can’t. That’s my writing time, and that’s sacred,” and follow through. Over time, most people will get used to this; they’ll respect the time you set aside to write, if you do—so honor it.

Where you write has a lot to do with being true to it. Planning to write at a busy café during busy hours means you’ll probably run into someone you know, and even brief chats eat up precious time and defer concentration. Write away from Internet connection. You can research later, or beforehand. Turn off the phone. Have a bag prepared with all your writing paraphernalia or a space cleared at home dedicated to authorial pursuit. The dining room table, unless you live alone, is not the best spot. Having to clear it off every time, unless absolutely necessary, is not ideal.

Yet, Be Aware of and Open to Spontaneity

While regular, scheduled writing times do the heavy lifting, at times you will experience surprise insight, sudden bright ideas, and great lines coming to you at the least convenient times—in the shower, just as you’re falling asleep, or driving in hectic traffic. That’s ok! In fact, these lightbulbs suddenly glowing above your head or metaphoric faucets turning on can be a wonderful residual result of your regularly scheduled (and kept) sessions. I have often had to slog through a tough writing time when nothing much was coming to me, not much was working, or way more pondering was occurring than composing only to pack up, head home, and then BAM—everything seems to cohere, and choice words flow freely. Good idea to have a pen and paper or recording app readily available.

So, Fiercely Guard This!

If you haven’t yet, first work through giving yourself permission to write—and do! Then, passionately make it a priority—a date, resolutely stay focused and attentive, own this commitment as a valid and vibrant part of who you are, and guard your writing time stubbornly, while anticipating unpredictable, schedule-averse but fruitful deluges. 

Oh—and Have Fun!



Cirenaica Spotlight! On “Palpable Energy”, Poetry, and Loss” An Interview with Wisconsin Poet Laureate Karla Huston

  Karla Huston

Karla Huston

by Emily Hurst

Calling all poets!  Are you looking for the chance to work closely alongside Wisconsin’s poet laureate?  Excited to share your poetry and contribute to the growth of other poets?  The Chippewa Valley Writers Guild has you covered! 

This summer, Wisconsin poet laureate Karla Huston will host a three-day writers retreat titled, “Speak, Write, Memory: On Writing Poetry By Searching Within,” from June 28-July 1. In addition to working closely with Karla, this retreat also will include a guest visit from poet and novelist Jon Loomis (The Mansion of Happiness, the Frank Coffin series, among others).

Read on for a Q&A with Karla Huston to learn more about her writing as well as what she is looking forward to this summer at Cirenaica.  

EH: What do you feel is going to be a unique experience or aspect about this retreat?

Karla Huston: There is an energy that's palpable in any writers retreat as folks get to know one another and feel comfortable sharing what they have written. It's like magic.

What part of the retreat are you most excited for?

Karla Huston:  I'm most excited to meet those who attend. It's always a pleasure meeting people who are invested in poetry and the arts. I love their stories about how they "came to poetry" or how poetry found them.

Who would most enjoy and benefit from this retreat?

Karla Huston:  Anyone who writes or is thinking about writing might benefit. Even beginners! The ideas and exercises can be used for poets and prose writers, alike. 

How would you say your latest book Grief Bone is unique to your previous work and poetry in general?

Karla Huston:  My book Grief Bone is about loss. The poems are perhaps less personal and with less (maybe) sass. But readers beware! Most poets are consummate liars. You can't believe everything they say as the "literal truth." Perhaps a metaphorical truth is more accurate. Poets are artists, and they may take an idea and create a new way to express that idea. 

What can people expect to take away from this retreat?

Karla Huston:  It is my hope that attendees will take away an abundance of energy (and inspiration?) for their own writing. They can also expect a handout that (I hope) will be useful to them after the retreat!

Don’t miss this fantastic opportunity!  Click here to apply for this unique experience!  

From the Mouths of Writers 7: Any advice for upcoming writers?


by Jeana Conder

Several months ago I set out on the task of asking local writers to answer a series of eight questions I compiled.  The responses I received are now creating our series, “From the Mouth of Writers.”  We hope that this series allows upcoming writers to gain knowledge from others with the same passion. 

This month’s question:  Any advice for upcoming writers?

Allyson Loomis

(1) LIVE (2) READ (3) WRITE (4) THINK ABOUT WRITING (5) REPEAT UNTIL DEAD—the most important one is #5.  Writing is a practice.  Keep at it, and be patient with yourself.

Sandra Lindow

Unless you have been trained in technical writing, don’t quit your day job in order to write. Best sellers are hard to come by and you need to eat and pay your bills.  Developing as a writer is a very long process that requires discipline and cognitive development..  Poets rarely make much money unless they are already celebrities.  Spend time every day writing.  Try new forms. Go to workshops. Share work with other writers and take their critiques seriously.  Read, read, read, especially work that challenges such as nonfiction.

Bruce Taylor

I taught writing for 40 years so I have nothing but advice for upcoming writers. What it’s worth, if anything, is up to each individual writer. 

Learn to use Microsoft outline. Start there.

Early in the process stay away from sentences, paragraphs, any extended rhetorical construction for as long as you can.

Write or try to write what only you can, nobody else.

Pay attention. This is everything.  Pay attention.

Jon Loomis

Don’t wait for inspiration.  Inspiration is bullshit.  If you’re serious, put aside the things that distract you and start writing.   

Molly Patterson

Form the habit of writing. Don't wait for inspiration to hit; sit down and do the work with regularity. This might mean every day or it might mean three times a week, or it might mean every Saturday morning for one solid hour. But stick to it, and make sure it's a regular thing. If you write regularly, and with tenacity, you're a writer. Don't feel like you have to write from page one to page three hundred. Write bits and pieces, write specific moments, write half-scenes if need be, but keep getting words on the page. And don't be afraid to throw things out. Once a story starts taking shape, you'll probably find that a lot of what you wrote at first no longer fits. That's good: that means you're developing a discerning eye. Keep all those scraps somewhere in another document or another notebook, and know you can always use them if you want. Write, write, write: that's the best advice I can give.

Martha Qualey

Read out of your usual topic/genre/form zone and find or build a writing community. Watch out for those exclamation marks.

Brett Beach

Read. Read widely. Read curiously. Read books across genres. Look at what you’ve read and ask about authors who aren’t represented—writers of color, women, LGBTQ authors, foreign authors in translation. Read. Read. Read.

It’s old advice, but true. Some people say that if you read while you’re writing, you might be infected by the author’s voice, and write in an imitation. Well, good, I say: their books were published because they are good writers, most likely. There are worse things than mimicking someone you admire. I copied author’s voices when I started. I still do, probably. And then I revised, as I revise now, and other authors’ voices transformed into mine.

When Kao Kalia Yang visited UW-Eau Claire, she said, “Art inspires art.” I sometimes picture us, as writers, standing in a long line. We can look behind us at all the authors we love, who influence us, who mean the world to us, and their books are a record of what came before and how we used to live. We can look ahead at the uncertain future and try to guess what we might have to say. The two aren’t unconnected. Guiding us along, all the while, are the voices of our influences and our idols, singing in a chorus, melding together, coaxing us to put pen to paper, asking, Now what? Now what? Now what?

Jay Gilbertson

Try and shut me up! First off, finish. And you know exactly what I mean. Get it done. And read. Read your ass off. Go to workshops and take classes and meet other writers and join a few things, but not too many, and keep writing. And more than anything, don’t forget to have a life. How else can you write about it if you’re not in it kicking it around and falling once in a while? It’s the falls that make your story/poem/song/painting/life full of the passion we all need to know about. Now go and make you some art!

Nickolas Butler

Read, read, read, read, read.  That's it.  Telling me you want to be a writer, but that you don't read very much, or that you only read Harry Potter (I love the Harry Potter series and JK Rowling's exquisite universe) is sort of like telling me you want to be a carpenter but all you have in your toolbox is a few nails and maybe a pliers.  Good luck.  Take your time, read widely, live a full and interesting life, work strange jobs, take your education seriously, but mostly—read.

Cathy Sultan

Write about something you are passionate about. You will be spending long, lonely hours at your computer so love what you’re writing about. Patience and perseverance are also very important. You will write and re-write any number of times to “get it perfect” and then write it again and again so never let yourself get “down” and never say “I can’t do this.” Of course, you can, but you may need an extra dose of determination to get the job done. And I pass along what an author friend once told me: your book is never finished until it goes to press, so stick to it.

Sandra McKinney

Read good writing; pay attention; love the power of language and story

Avoiding the Sucky Sequel: Tips On Making Your Book Just As Good The Second Time Around

by Walter Rhein

Perseid Press has just released my novel, The Literate Thief, which is a sequel to my 2014 release, The Reader of Acheron. Although I’ve been writing for more than ten years, this is the first time I’ve had an opportunity to do a sequel, and it has been a truly gratifying experience. Assuming you’re writing out of a sense of literary integrity and not just making a blatant cash grab (like many sequels), there are several unique challenges you face when writing a sequel. The sequel has to be an extension of the first work, but not a retread. The sequel has to reference the preceding volume, but also stand on its own merits. Your aspirations as an author are always to create a manuscript that exceeds its predecessor, but your chance of success is dependent on having an initial thematic vision larger than what can be contained in a single book.

Part of the reason that many of the sequels we’re subjected to are seen as failures is that the initial project was never conceived as anything more than a single narrative. When a book or film achieves a certain level of success, there is pressure to create a sequel even in instances where the narrative is artistically complete. Many “bad” sequels come as a result of forcing further narratives when the story doesn’t call for them. The series of “Hangover” movies fits into this category. They’re all entertaining, but, let’s face it, you’d be better off watching the first one three times than engaging parts two or three.

Some examples of “good” sequels are simply the case of a publisher breaking a large manuscript into smaller volumes to increase sales. For example, Tolkein did not conceive of The Lord of the Rings as three volumes. The manuscript he submitted was complete and the publisher added the volume breaks. Other authors such as J.K. Rowling or George R.R. Martin have vast outlines for further volumes in readiness upon submission of their initial manuscripts. They knew in advance where the story would go, and they probably would have written them whether or not the first volume had achieved critical or financial success.

Years ago, when I was initially planning this project, I had an interesting conversation with Janet Morris of Perseid Press. Morris is famous for having written the Thieves’ World novels, and she now dedicates herself to publishing thought-provoking manuscripts. Perseid doesn’t have the advertising budget of some publishers, but the encouragement to create intellectually stimulating narratives is, for me, of foremost importance. It’s a relief to know a discerning reader like Janet Morris will be the first to evaluate my manuscript, because I know if I become intellectually lazy the work is going right in the trash where it belongs.

In 2014, Janet gave a speech at the Library of Congress, and I had the opportunity to present her to her audience. The Reader of Acheron was in print at that point, and after her talk we chatted about where the series would go. I remember saying, “This world I’ve conceived of has more problems than I can resolve in a single volume.” Even as I said it, the phrase struck me as something of a mission statement. I remember the look of knowing satisfaction Janet flashed me in response. That moment, for me, cemented the justification for subsequent books.

In fact, in the early days of writing The Reader of Acheron, I realized the narrative was growing too large. Initially I’d planned concurrent plots involving many characters in separate locations, but a month or two in I realized I was working on two books. I cut out four chapters and set them in a folder, and those chapters became the beginning of “The Literate Thief.” Actually, the very first chapter that I wrote for “Reader” was cut only to show up in the subsequent book.

What you hope for in a sequel is to convey further detail of your concept so that you retroactively enhance the first volume. The best example I can think of that illustrates this idea is The Empire Strikes Back. It’s interesting how much of the Star Wars mythos was only introduced in the sequel. The progression of the narrative from Star Wars to Empire is also honest, truthful and reasonable to the development of the characters, but much, much bigger. There is a huge advantage to bringing your readers into a sequel. You’ve established a certain kind of narrative and trained your audience to be familiar with that narrative. Now, you can accelerate your thematic ambition. You can build upon concepts and use shorthand representation of items you had to explain in great detail in volume one. When done right, a sequel is a tremendous chance at advanced storytelling. Most of the sequels that fail, do so because they try to repeat the success of the original without making an effort to introduce anything new or expand on the existing themes.

I had a tremendous time writing The Literate Thief, and I’m happy to have conveyed some themes that were necessarily cut from The Reader of Acheron. However, the underling thematic narrative of this series still gnaws at me, and there is still a lot to say. There will certainly be a third book, but at this point I’m not entirely sure if it will continue after that. I have almost 40 pages of notes ready as I work on the last volume, and it remains to be seen if all of those ideas will make their way into the last volume, or will turn up in another series. I can guarantee this though, I care too much about my characters and my readers to subject them to a work without purpose.

Having Trouble Writing? Write Faster


by Katie Venit

Ah, writing. That’s what we’re all here for, right? Connecting with readers through telepathic magic, transmitting our thoughts to someone else...it’s a powerful experience. But first you have to fill that blank page, and sometimes that really sucks. You have an idea, a word, a character in mind… but then what happens? What if it’s just slop? What if the ideas vanish before they can be fixed on the page? These doubts can really get in the way of productivity. 

One of my favorite writing adages is that rough drafts are perfect just for having been finished. You should have doubts about your rough draft--but not until after it’s done. Somehow you have to ignore the doubts to complete the perfectly imperfect first draft. 

Enter fast writing. 

With your writing group, take a minute to reflect on your intentions. Set a timer for 30-40 minutes. Everyone writes as fast as they can, with absolutely no edits, no pausing, no doubts. Don’t correct your grammar or spelling. The backspace key does not exist. Your goal is to get as a high a word count as possible. 

After the timer dings, each person reads aloud. Listeners take turns sharing something that they liked about the draft. Constructive criticism is verboten; after all, it hasn’t been revised yet. 

If I have a good idea of what I want to write (or if I’ve had half a beer), I can write almost 900 words in 30 minutes. One of my groupmates consistently tops 1,000. I may only get about 400 words if I don’t really know where I’m going (or if I’ve had the entire beer). Either way, that’s several hundred more words than I had only a half hour earlier, and I can push forward from there in revisions.  


  • In person, this works best with groups of 2-4 people. If you have a larger group, split into pairs or triads.
  • In addition to giving positive feedback, talk about directions the piece could go in, bring up questions about the piece, or answer any concerns the writer herself brings up. Still, no negative constructive criticism. Just positive energy.
  • Everyone can respond to the same prompt, choose one of several prompts, or continue whatever they’re already working on. My favorite sessions are when I finally pin down an idea that’s been knocking about loose in my head for several weeks. What a relief!
  • Writing longhand on paper is the ultimate way to avoid editing. You probably can’t write as many words per minute, but there’s no backspace key. I also find that I can think more creatively when I write longhand. 

Distance variations

  • Call up a friend and say, “go!” Both of you write for 30 minutes. When time is up, call her back and read your pieces to each other. This works best with two people, unless you’re better at conference calling than I am. 
  • For an online community, set a prearranged time for everyone to start writing into wikis, a private blog, or google docs. When time is up, share the documents electronically and leave feedback for each one. Remember, no one has edited their documents; positive feedback only. 




When the Pen Won’t Work, Try the Axe: On Chopping Writers Block Out of Your Life


by Ron Davis

A coffee cup holding pens, pencils, a Daisy Duck Pez dispenser and, for some reason, a size 9 blue Rapala sits on my desk. Boldly lettered in dollar bill green on the cup’s side is the phrase, “Will Write For Food.” As a motorcycle magazine columnist, feature writer and reviewer, I do that. But as any writer trying to turn words into bank deposits knows, writing for food often means butting up against the most creativity-crushing, soul-sucking, motivation-murdering impediment to writing anything you’ll ever be happy with: deadlines. Deadlines force compromises; you may never find that certain word, that certain slant you know is out there. Worse, deadlines may also lead to dead ends. A stalled vehicle on the side of the road, at night, in the rain, with no cell phone bars—not just writer’s block—writer’s paralysis. In the words of Old Lodge Skins in Little Big Man, “Sometimes the magic works. Sometimes, it doesn’t.”

What do I do then? I stop writing. But just walking away to scarf a sleeve of Caramel deLites  Girl Scout cookies or watch one more season of Homeland doesn’t work. I head out to the wood pile.

Splitting and stacking wood works, sometimes. Barring no wood pile, I try mowing the lawn. As long I don’t have to worry about garden hoses, rocks and the neighbor children, it’s a meditative state, the sound of my aged mower even sounding like a mantra…Ommmmmm, cough cough, ommmmmm... Walking the dog can be good, too, though there is a certain level of distracting focus and dexterity involved in daintily bagging dog poop. Driving? I don’t think so—too much imminent danger uses too much brain. Riding a bike? Maybe, but motorcycling, definitely not. Huddled over a luke warm cup of coffee while gazing vacantly out the Acoustic Café window has never beckoned the muse for me. And drinking Scotch just makes me want to, well, drink more Scotch. 

Shoveling snow, now there’s something to try when nature cooperates, but snow blowers, no. Painting has its merits, but isn’t a half-done wall just another deadline? Cleaning the garage, washing the car, all pretty good, as long as I don’t get too fussy. Reading, I would not recommend—too demoralizing to know some smug writer has actually hit his or her deadline.

For me, to break a stalemate with the keyboard, an activity has to walk that wobbling tightrope between having just enough self-absorption to counter the heebie-jeebies of the approaching deadline, while leaving enough room for my “inner writer” to work. As Michael Perry aptly wrote in Coop, “While the bones and meat wrassle, the mind is free to sort and ponder.” 

So, my coffee cup taunts me. Another looming deadline with not so much as a first paragraph, and it’s once more into the backyard where the wood pile awaits. It’s a frosty morning, and breaking the silence, a lone cardinal chimes from the highest branches of a barren ash. It’s working, the oak splits cleanly, and with it the Gordian Knot of another writer’s block. If you’d like to try it, I have about five cords. Bring your own maul.

Craft Talk Preview: Courtney Kersten Talks Memoirs and Reality


By Emilia Hurst

I recently had the chance to speak with Courtney Kersten, the author of Daughter in Retrograde, a memoir forthcoming in the spring of 2018.  Find out what she has to say about writing and her upcoming craft talk!

Emilia Hurst: What are some tips you wish you had known when you first started writing?

Courtney Kersten:  If I could’ve spoken to myself then, I would’ve told myself to be patient, to know that your work will take revision and lots of insight and occasionally major overhauls to feel anywhere near “complete.” I would’ve told myself that letting your work “marinate,” so to speak, to put it in a drawer and not look at it for a while, will help you see your work with new eyes when you return to it. Suddenly, wacky sentences will stick out, moments too slow or too quickly paced will be glaringly obvious, and the path towards revision will seem clearer. I wish I would’ve known that often clarity and concision trumps gimmicks of language and form.

Why did you decide to write nonfiction instead of fiction? Do you have a preference between the two?

Courtney Kersten:  I guess I didn’t really make a concrete decision to write fiction rather than nonfiction. I suppose the kind of stories I had always found myself drawn to were nonfictional. I don’t prefer one genre over the other—fiction can intervene in nonfiction; what is fictional can be nonfictional on the level of emotion or in other ways. I think the boundary between the two genres is fascinating and complex.

Can you tell us a little more about what we can expect from this craft talk?

Courtney Kersten:  You can expect a little reading from the memoir. You can expect to hear about process and the major questions I had to answer in writing this memoir and how it shaped the book on the level of form and content. You can expect to hear about rendering the Midwest in language. You’ll hear my Midwestern accent come through.

What are some memoirs that you really enjoy?

Courtney Kersten:  I love Kim Barnes’ work. I love Sarah Manguso’s work. Micah Perks’ Pagan Time showed me new way to envision memoir. In writing Daughter in Retrograde, I was particularly influenced by Joan Wickersham’s The Suicide Index—it’s a brilliant memoir. There are also lots of poets, fiction writers, and essayists I love too. Reading Jo Ann Beard’s collection of essays was what hooked me into writing nonfiction. I love Gloria Anzaldúa work. Leslie Marmon Silko is fabulous. Svetlana Alexievich’s work is amazing. I’m grateful for the chance to learn from other writer’s work.

And you, dear reader, can look forward to learning from her work!  Be sure to swing by the Local Store at 7PM on Thursday March 22 to hear Courtney Kersten’s craft talk, “Rendering Reality: Writing with Honesty and Complexity in Memoir.”

Pulling Back the Curtain:  A Chat With Playwrights Jim and Jane Jeffries


By Emilia Hurst

Jim and Jane Jeffries are local playwrights that have done some really fascinating work on unique subjects.  Their play Ninth Train is about the Kindertransport, an often forgotten historical aspect of the holocaust, and their play Locked In is about a girl with Locked in syndrome, in which she is unable to move at all but can still see and hear everything around her.  They've also written comedies such as Desperate Housewives of Shakespeare, in which one of the wives from Shakespeare’s plays murders the famous bard, though the question remains: which one?  I recently got the chance to ask them a few questions and learn more about their work and why they love it!

What do you find really interesting and enjoyable about playwriting as opposed to writing novels or poetry?

Jane & Jim Jeffries: While you do have live reading for poetry and novels, most of the time you do not get to see the reaction of your readers. In drama, you see if the play works or not. This can be really good or really bad. For our first comedy plays at the Wisconsin Renaissance Faire, we’ve had whole audiences get up and leave. Let me tell you, playing in front of empty stands really motivates you to improve your play.

Emilia Hurst:  How did you first get into theater?

Jane & Jim Jeffries: For Jim, he was allowed into his high school concert choir only because they needed him to write scripts for their dinner theater. When it came to the actual singing, his choir director requested that he sing, “really, really softly.” For Jane, she was blackmailed by her husband when an actress dropped out of a sketch that they were doing the next day.

What advice do you have for those that aspire to write plays or other scripted literature?

Jane & Jim Jeffries:  Make peace with the fact that you are going to write garbage. 50% of what we write never makes it on stage, and of that 50%, 30% more is changed after we see the audience’s reaction. Writing garbage is not your enemy – the blank page is. A friend of Jim’s once asked him how his playwriting was going. Jim said that he had writer’s block. The friend said, “Huh. My dad’s a truck driver. And you know, he never once had truck-driving block.” Writing is work just like cleaning a toilet or measuring twice before sawing a board.

Can you explain the process of playwriting?

Jane Jeffries: We are a little different because we write as a couple. We usually have two plays going. We each write about five pages on separate plays, switch plays, then revise what the other has written and then advance it five more pages. It involves a lot of trust and sometimes some pretty tense conversations. You’ve got to be willing to “kill your darlings” if they are not working in that particular script. Jim, in particular, has had some particularly hilarious dialogue cut just because it did not advance the plot. Or develop the characters. Or make sense.

Do you have any current projects or upcoming showings?

Jane Jeffries:  We are doing a show on March 8, 9, 10 at the Hollywood Stage at 7:00 pm. It’s called Arrivals and Departures . It includes 12 shorts scenes telling the stories of different travelers whose journeys intersect at the terminal. Performances are March 8 – 10 at 7:00 p.m. on the Hollywood Stage at Valleybrook. Proceeds will be split between Fierce Freedom and Valleybrook (to help on stage renovations). Cost is by donation. (Suggested donation is $10, but pay what you can.) 

Be sure to check out some of Jane and Jeffries awesome plays some time soon!  If you’d like more information or would like to purchase any of their plays you can check out their website here.

Our Organization Is Now A Two-Year-Old

 ABOVE: Launching the Chippewa Valley Writer's Guild, February 2016 

ABOVE: Launching the Chippewa Valley Writer's Guild, February 2016 

by CVWG Director B.J. Hollars

On a Thursday night in February of 2016, I arrived at the Volume One Gallery half an hour early in anticipation for our first ever craft talk.  Titled, “Jump Off the Cliff and Build Your Wings On The Way Down” (an homage to my literary hero, Ray Bradbury), I’d prepared to talk about how our fledgling organization might grow for the good of the community.  But the truth was, I had no earthly idea how it might grow.  What might we be?  I wondered.  And how might we do the most good?

Two years later, we’ve found our footing.  Not only do we work hard to provide an array of high-impact educational opportunities for residents of the Chippewa Valley, but we also strive to provide support beyond our craft talks, writers retreats, and other regular events.  What does that support look like?  It comes in many forms.  Maybe we’re partnering with other local organizations to expand our shared missions, or maybe we’re providing an outlet for your work by way of Barstow & Grand or our newsletter.  The point is: we’re here for you, and we’ll continue to be here for you.

And already, our work is receiving notice.  In February, the Guild received more recognition than we could have hoped for.  For starters, on February 27 the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild received a proclamation from the City of Eau Claire in recognition for our commitment to the literary arts.  “Eau Claire values all the writers who live and work among us because they open our minds to what is familiar and challenge us to understand what is different,” said City Council President Kerry Kincaid.  “I am pleased to help elevate the craft to its rightful place among the arts.” And we’re pleased to accept such an honor.  

In addition, on February 9, I was extremely humbled to receive a Vanguard Award on behalf of the Guild’s work.  Once more, to be abundantly clear: this is your award.  Admittedly, my mug (rather embarrassingly) takes up all the air time on the recipient video (who says writing doesn’t make for good film?), but that doesn’t make this award any less yours.  For me, it’s a testament to the power of our literary community, and it’s a reminder, too, that people are paying attention.  

Now that our organization is a two-year-old, I fully except a lot of crying and temper tantrums in the days ahead.  (I imagine I’ll be the one doing both).  But on a more serious note, we’re at a point where there’s still so much to look forward to.

On that note, I’m pleased to announce the formation of 6x6, a new reading series to be held right here in the Chippewa Valley.  What’s 6x6 mean?  It means each reading will feature 6 readers for 6 minutes each.  The catch: once you read in the series, you’ll never read in it again.  This isn’t meant to be exclusionary.  Quite the opposite!  We have so many talented writers in this region that we can fill the series again and again and feature new voices every single time.

In short, we’ve already put some great days behind us, but we’ve got plenty more great days ahead.  Let’s look forward to the good work (and good writing!) ahead of us.

Cirenaica Spotlight: An Interview With Writer-in-Residence Holly Hughes


by Emilia Hurst

This summer the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild will be hosting five amazing writers retreat.  Over the next few months, we’ll be featuring one retreat in each of our newsletters.  This month, we’re excited to share a few behind-the-scenes details on our first retreat, “Words to Hold a Glittering World: Crossing Genres Mindfully” featuring Seattle-based writer-in-residence Holly Hughes. This retreat will take place from June 21-24.  

I recently had a chance to catch up with Holly and ask a few questions about her personal writing philosophy, as well as what potential participants can look forward to this summer:

Emilia Hurst: What do you feel is a unique experience or aspect about these retreats?

Holly Hughes: First, I appreciate the philosophy that I believe underlies Cirenaica: that we’re gathering to learn from the natural world as well as from each other;  that we’ll be combining writing instruction with time spent writing; and that the focus is on building a community of writers during the time we have together.  Writing workshops and retreats can feel intimidating, especially if participants feel that they’re in competition with each other.  I like to create a supportive atmosphere in which we’re all there to encourage each other to become the best writers we each can be.  And as a former seafarer, I love that Cirenaica means “siren of the sea.”  In my experience, the sea has provided a rich reservoir of imagery for creative work—and I think that can be true for the natural world in general.   

What part of the retreat are you most excited for?

I’m excited about all of it!  But I must admit I’m looking forward to returning to the Midwest for a few weeks—I grew up in Winona, Minnesota—so it’s a chance for me to experience the landscape of my childhood again.  Walking is definitely an important part of my writing practice, so I look forward to walking in a different landscape.   I’m also looking forward to experimenting with writing in different genres—and helping participants discover how crossing genres can feel freeing. 

What kinds of people would enjoy and benefit from this retreat?

I hope that my workshop will appeal to anyone who’s interested in words and place and how the two interact with and inform each other.  I also hope it’ll appeal to writers of both prose and poetry who share a willingness to write outside their comfort zone.  Finally, I think it will appeal to anyone who wants to experience a supportive writing community, where the focus is on exploring the craft of writing, though I will address questions about publication briefly, too.  

How would you say your latest poetry collection Passings is different from your previous publications?

Passings is unique in that it’s a chapbook focused on a specific subject:  extinct birds, an interest/passion  I share with BJ Hollars.  It’s also unique in that it’s a fine-art limited edition letterpress book—only 375 copies were printed. Like the birds, when they’re gone, they’re gone.  I hope it will raise awareness not only of the bird species we’ve lost, but those we’re in danger of losing as birds’ habitats and ranges are affected by changing weather patterns.  And finally, I included a short prose essay as a Preface to establish a context for the poems, so it’s an example of a cross-genre book.  

What can people expect to take away from this retreat?

Through the time-honored tradition of walking as a means of inspiration,   students can expect to take away a variety of strategies for connecting with both their inner and outer landscapes.  More specifically, they’ll also learn a few hybrid forms, such as the Japanese haibun, and do some collaborative writing, by working on a renga together.  I hope everyone will come to the workshop with an open, receptive mind—what the Buddhists call “beginner’s mind” -- and a willingness to try out new forms, all in an effort to hold the elusive beauty of our glittering world. 

What more could you ask for? Click here to apply today for this wonderful opportunity! 

From the Mouths of Writers 6: How do you get out of a writing funk?


by Jeana Conder

Several months ago I set out on the task of asking local writers to answer a series of eight questions I compiled.  The responses I received are now creating our series, “From the Mouth of Writers.”  We hope that this series allows upcoming writers to gain knowledge from others with the same passion. 

This month’s question: How do you get out of a writing funk?

Allyson Loomis

The only cure for it is a hot shower, maybe a long walk.  Then I just have to sit right down again and stare at the glowing computer page until something occurs to me.   If I step away from a project for too long, it’s hard for me to reconnect with it.  I have to sit with it, persistently.  It’s a very boring process to watch.

Sandra Lindow

I don’t seem to have writing funks; although I sometimes go through periods of time when I don’t write much poetry, I can always write academic prose.  My critical book, Dancing the Tao:  Le Guin and Moral Development was published in 2012.  Right now I am writing about Nigerian-American writer Nnedi Okorafor.  With my poetry, I have recently turned toward modern sonnets and golden shovels for condensing my ideas.  A golden shovel takes a line from another poem or essay and those words in order become the first or the last word of each line.  Poet Ron Wallace has a book that uses haikus as golden shovels which recently inspired me to do this.  The result is a kind of conversation with the original writer over time.

Bruce Taylor

Write into it, write over it, around it, through it, just write. Get in motion, put something on the page, anything, put something else, then something else. When a writer says they can’t write, it usually means they can’t write anything that they think is “good enough.” The best advice I’ve ever heard was from William Stafford, “lower your standards.” There are, however, many different kinds of “funk” a writer can get into.

Jon Loomis

I sit down and write something.

Martha Qualey

I get out of the house.

Molly Patterson

I'm in a writing funk right now, unfortunately. I'm working on a new novel and putting words on the page, but they're terrible words and I know it, and I keep running up against dead ends. Generally, I just try to write through it. You have one bad day and the next might be better. But when it's bad upon bad for long enough, I'll take a break to work on something else. Lately, I've had edits to do on the novel that's coming out this summer, and that feels like easy work. Generating new material day after day, that's the hardest thing for me. There are no easy answers. You keep sitting down to do the work and you keep yourself from thinking that it requires magic to do it. Eventually, you'll have a good writing day—or even a good writing moment—and you'll start to come out of it.

Brett Beach

While in graduate school, I developed the habit of writing—which, if I had any wisdom to pass on, I would advise writers in a funk to do. It can be hard, I know, but I think one of the least appealing things I can do as a writer is complain to people about why I’m not writing. So I discovered that if I only wrote two days a week, say, and both days were the bad ones where the computer screen sat empty, the notebook page blank, or, worse, every line I wrote was insipid and uninspired, I’d have less reason to try again. It’s all bad, I’d think. I’ll never be a writer. I should quit.  

Instead I took a mathematical approach—probably the only time I’ve ever successfully used math. If I write five or six days a week, and three of those days are bad writing days, that’s roughly half, which is much better than one hundred percent. If one bad day is followed by a second, but I know that four more days of writing lie ahead, there’s an ease to the pain of the funk: maybe the third day won’t be so bad. Or, if it is, by sheer force of routine, I know I’ll still sit down to write on the fourth. The fifth might be good, or the sixth—and one tiny, good day is enough to make me try again the next day.

I’m also generous in what I consider a writing day: some days it is pen and paper, other times it is reading over old work. Sometimes I stare at the computer for an hour, and call it a day. Sometimes I read, and that feels worthwhile too—to remember why we do this.

Jay Gilbertson

Should this happen, and I suppose it has, I get the hell away from my desk and get thee outside! And, if it’s winter, which it is in these parts a great deal of the time, well, I can certainly find something to do. Writers are famous for finding ‘other’ things to do than write. Famous.

Nickolas Butler

I take a walk or go for a drive.

Cathy Sultan

I keep the problem in my head, mull it over and over until I have it figured out and then return to my computer.

Sandra McKinney

Sit with it; embrace it; love it and eat chocolate.

A Q&A With Poet Jeannie Roberts On Her New Chapbook, Writer’s Block, and Inspiration

 Photo:  Volume One

Photo: Volume One

by Emilia Hurst

Jeannie E. Roberts is the author of four poetry collections and one children’s book, her most recent being a chapbook, The Wingspan of Things. I recently had a chance to chat with her on an array of topics.  Check out what she has to say!

Emilia Hurst: What advice do you have for writers wanting to pursue poetry? 

Jeannie Roberts: My advice to writers wishing to pursue poetry is this: read as much poetry as possible, including the classics, sign-up for writing workshops, and invest in guides to understanding and writing poetry. There are a number of handbooks available. For beginning poets, The Poetry Home Repair Manual by Ted Kooser is a good one. Also, attend a local writing critique group, and write, write, write ― every day, even for a few minutes. The more you write the better you become at your craft. Lastly, if you find that poetry is truly your passion, one you'd like to make a career out of, think about obtaining a degree or two, perhaps even an MFA in creative writing.

Can you explain the process you go through when writing a poem? 

My process depends on what kind of poetry I'm writing. If it's an ekphrastic poem, words inspired by a visual image of some sort, the image really drives my words and imagination. If it's a poem inspired by an experience, usually a first line or a title emerges. From that emergence, my words tend to flow quickly. If it's a poem that requires research, which many of my poems do, I begin researching (accuracy is important). When I begin a poem, the first few drafts are handwritten, in pencil. Around the fourth draft, I transfer my words to a Word document, where I revise it. Usually it takes between 10 and 15 drafts until I'm satisfied with a poem. Toward the end of my revisions, I record myself reading the poem; I read it multiple times, listening for awkward transitions. It's here the fine-tuning takes place, small word changes, etc., until the flow and cadence feels right. A poem is meant to be read aloud; its aural integrity makes all the difference. 

Does writing energize or exhaust you?

Typically, writing energizes me, especially creative fiction; however, dry, technical writing tends to exhaust me. I love a good dip into the imagination, that is what truly enlivens and energizes me. 

What can you tell us about your latest collection? Is it more different or similar to your past collections and how so? 

My latest collection, The Wingspan of Things, is a poetry chapbook published by Dancing Girl Press (Chicago, IL). This book is dedicated to my son, includes sixteen poems, and its cover displays my nature photography. Most of the poems included in this collection have been published in journals and other online magazines, including Volume One's Local Lit section. Some of the poems in The Wingspan of Things have also appeared in my other poetry collections (Beyond Bulrush, Nature of it All, and Romp and Ceremony), but there are some new poems included, too. The work in this chapbook is similar to Nature of it All (Finishing Line Press, 2013) with many poems about nature, in particular birds, butterflies, and other winged-creatures. It contains moments surrounding and memories of my son, and suggests the fleeting nature and flight of things, including parenthood. Jason Splichal, local teacher, writer, and founder of Sky Island Journal wrote this about my chapbook: "The Wingspan of Things is a luminous journey through landscape and memory, and Roberts' elegant craft and subtle sense of rhythm are constant companions throughout the collection. Few poets can transport readers, from the tactile to the spiritual, the way she can." 

Do you believe in writer's block? 

I believe there are fallow periods for writers, not necessarily block. Fallowness can be a time of inactivity, where new ideas can develop and percolate. Thirteenth-century Persian poet Rumi sums up this idea of fallowness (which is liken to winter) quite nicely in this quote: "Do not think the garden loses its ecstasy in winter. It is quiet, but the roots are down there riotous." 

Where do you most often get your writing inspiration? 

I find inspiration just about anywhere, but especially while exploring our natural world. Outdoor activity, biking, hiking, and walking, exhilarates my Muse. I do find that prayer and meditation, quieting the mind, listening internally, has also been an integral part of my writing process and inspiration. 

I'd like to add . . . The majority of my work includes richly crafted descriptions of our natural world. Through the cycle, impact, and imagery of nature, I try to create a framework where the reader can find meaning and commonality within their own lives. My poetry is typically written in free verse, but I also enjoy exploring poetic forms, including found poems and crown sonnets. Within my work, I tend to use the same literary devices, including assonance, metaphor, simile, analogy, imagery, alliteration, internal rhyme, rhythm and rhyme.

Dear Writer - February 2017

Dear Writer, copy.png

Dear Writer,

I am a few years into taking writing seriously and I mostly have rejections to show for it. When my family asks me how the writing’s going, I always just blush and reply, “Good.” In the back of my head I am thinking something different. In fact, I wonder if I can even call myself a writer! Just about every place I have submitted to has rejected my work with nothing more than a form letter. It’s hard to say what I am doing wrong, but to put it bluntly, it feels like everything. How can a writer who is both young in age and in experience keep going when it feels like the deck is stacked against him?

Young & Not Having Fun

Dear Young & Not Having Fun, 

I started writing sporadically in middle school, right around the same time I began to take running seriously. I’d run, I’d write, and I’d hope I was improving, at least a little, in both realms.  After logging enough miles, I began to see a clear correlation between the two activities.  First, running helped me develop my work ethic, something that comes in pretty handy when trying to find time to write. Since we were hitting 60+ miles a week, I had to run in the morning in addition to afternoon practices just to hit my mileage. Although I didn’t continue running competitively beyond high school, the chance to see how hard work can pay off did wonders for my writing life.

There were other similarities, too.  In particular, how distance running may seem like a solitary sport (like writing!), but the truth is, you’re always part of a team. While competing we were a team of “individuals”, though throughout the most important part—the training—we always suffered together, strengthening the bonds between us. When one person was down, we knew what they were going through because we had all been there ourselves.  We knew how to fix one another when we felt broken. 

Upon entering college, I left running behind and focused my efforts exclusivity on creative writing. In an attempt to prove myself, I’d submit everywhere, only to get rejected.  At which point I’d scream my head off at open mics only to make a fool of myself. Suffice is to say: those were some rough times in my life. Without any sort of team to fall back on, I started to question if I had made the right choice.

Up until that point, writing had always been fun. Bringing in the competitive notion of submitting sprouted so much unneeded stress that I just stopped writing creatively for a few weeks before I realized I was wasting my time by not writing. 

With a few things changing in the years following my initial experience as a writer, the most important was putting myself out there. Not always in terms of submitting or reading, but going out into the community and meeting other writers who either went through the same thing, or were going through it at the same time. Knowing that I was not alone in this endeavor to try and make something of my work reminded me of my cross country team. Regardless if you ever had a team, there is a community of writers out there who want to help you. Luckily, in the Chippewa Valley, we are full of them, and not to mention, experienced writers willing to give craft talks or workshops because they were once in your shoes.

Young & Not Having Fun, I hope we cross paths someday so we can go through this together.  For now,  just know that you are not alone.  If running taught me anything, it’s that life should be measured in miles rather than sprints.  Enjoy the journey, enjoy the scenery, and remember: we’re only young once. We should not waste it worrying.


Check Out 6x6: A Reading Series


Welcome to 6x6: A Reading Series

What happens when we give 6 readers 6 minutes each to share their finest work? 

Welcome to 6x6, a new reading series sponsored by the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild.  Our inaugural reading will feature Jennifer Hazen, Jennifer Golat, Aimee Johnson, Anders Shafer, Paul Thomas, and Dan Zerr. It will be hosted by co-founder Jan Carroll.

“This series is all about getting new voices out in the community,” said Carroll.  “Fresh voices from a lot of different disciplines.”


In an effort to do so, in addition to featuring 6 writers each reading, there’s another catch: once someone reads as part of the series, they'll never read in the series again.  “It’s not about being exclusive,” says BJ Hollars.  “It’s about ensuring that we can get as many new folks in front of the mic as possible.”

In a literary community as robust as ours, filling the slots will hardly be a problem.  In fact, Hollars believe the number of interested readers will likely ensure the series’ longevity for years to come.

Do you want to have your 6 minutes at the mic?  Shoot us an email at chippewavalleywritersguild@gmail.com with “Sign me up” in the subject line.  We’ll add you to the list, and you’ll hear from us soon. 

The inaugural reading will be held at The Volume One Gallery at The Local Store on Tuesday, March 6 at 7PM.  Swing by and support our 6 readers!

National Book Award Finalist Carmen Maria Machado to Be Featured In Video Discussion at The Oxbow Hotel


by Emilia Hurst

On Sunday, February 25 at 7pm, Dotters Books will host National Book Award finalist Carmen Maria Machado for a Skype conversation at The Oxbow Hotel.  Machado is a short story author, essayist, and critic, and has been published several times in The New Yorker, Granta, and Lightspeed magazine to name a few. Dotters Books’ book club has selected Machado’s short story collection, Her Body and Other Parties, for their first book of 2018. 

“Last year, our book club held a virtual discussion with Bryn Greenwood, the author of All the Ugly and Wonderful Things.  It was one of the highlights of the year, as it gave us a better appreciation and understanding of the book,” says Dotters Books co-owner Elizabeth de Cleyre.  “So we jumped at the chance to have a virtual discussion with Carmen Maria Machado. Her short stories are modern fairy tales oft steeped in popular culture (like rewriting almost 300 episodes of Law & Order: SVU) and its treatment and impact on women's bodies and psyches. Since Machado's work is very of the now, a virtual discussion with her seems like the best medium.”

And for Dotters Books, this virtual conversation is only the beginning.

“Traditionally, authors went on long and exhausting book tours and then disappeared into their studio to write again. Using Skype, FaceTime, or video conferencing, we're able to connect with authors year-round, in a way that's a lot lighter on their schedules, the environment, and the bookstore's overhead. In this way, we can offer frequent and free events to the community that promote culture and ensures the sustainability of a bookstore.”

Be sure to join Dotters Books and the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild at the Oxbow Hotel Gallery on Sunday, February 25 for this exciting event!  

February 27: Chippewa Valley Writers Guild to Receive Proclamation from the Eau Claire City Council


On Tuesday, February 27 at 4:00p.m. the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild will receive a proclamation from the City of Eau Claire in recognition for the Guild’s commitment to the literary arts.  “Eau Claire values all the writers who live and work among us because they open our minds to what is familiar and challenge us to understand what is different,” said Council President Kerry Kincaid.  “I am pleased to help elevate the craft to its rightful place among the arts.”

Since its founding in February of 2016, the Chippewa Valley Writers Guild has worked hard to provide an array of high-impact educational opportunities for residents of the Chippewa Valley and beyond.  By way of writers’ retreats, craft talks, a robust newsletter, and other events, the Guild has continued to showcase the vibrancy of our region’s literary community.

“It’s an honor to receive formal recognition from the City of Eau Claire,” said Guild executive director B.J. Hollars.  “This region’s support for the arts is well-known, and by working closely with city officials, I’m certain the arts can continue its upward trajectory.”

Craft Talk Preview: Hit a Home Run In Sports Writing


Emilia Hurst

I recently had the chance to talk with Joe Niese and Nick Erickson about their upcoming craft talk.  Here’s a preview of what we have to look forward to! The event is on Tuesday, February 20th at 6:00pm at the Galaudet Gallery (618 S. Farwell Street).  See you there!

EH:  What are your favorite sports to write about?

Joe Niese:  I’ve strictly written about baseball up until my latest book about Gus Dorais, a famous football player from Chippewa Falls. I’m always looking for a good story and would love to broaden out to other topics, whether they are sports-related or not.

Nick Erickson: I really like to cover hockey because there are so many nuances in the game that multiple plays can become instant story lines. So much goes on strategy wise that the regular viewer may not see, and it's fun to uncover them. Also, the hockey players I have spoken to have been some of the most polished and respectful people I've been around, so that always makes it a plus.

 EH: How did you get into sports writing?

Joe Niese:  I started writing shortly a few years after I stopped playing organized baseball locally. I was working at the Eau Claire Public Library and they had just digitized a bunch of early 1900s newspapers. I keyword searched “baseball” and haven’t looked back. My first article was published by the now defunct Wisconsin West Magazine over a decade ago.


Nick Erickson: My father was in sports media and I grew up in locker rooms, practices and games. And I think many sports writers will tell you there's a professional athlete that didn't make it in us still, so writing about it is the next best option.

 EH: What kind of tips can we expect from your talk?

Joe Niese:  I’ll talk about the marathon process that can be researching a book. I also have a background in traditional publishing and self-publishing, having done both.

Nick Erickson:  I think the most important thing in sports storytelling is the creativity it can bring out in a writer and large range of audiences you can bring in. You have to think so much more than just how a game turned out. Who were the people involved? What were their back stories? Why is this event important to so many people? That's what you constantly have to be thinking.

 EH:  What's your favorite thing about doing sports writing?

Joe Niese:  First and foremost, I enjoy the individual’s journey. I love the minutiae of people’s lives, too. For the longest time People magazine was my guilty pleasure read. I’ve always been sports-minded, though, and read dozens upon dozens of sports-related books and biographies through my teens and early-20s. Being able to emulate that has been a surprise and a great joy in my life.

Nick Erickson:  It gives you the opportunity to meet so many people, and there's a lot of adversity in sports than can make for the best stories if someone overcomes them or is trying to.

And that’s just the beginning.  For more on how YOU can become a sportswriter, be sure to check out our craft talk, “Getting The Ball Rolling: Sports Writing from 300 to 100,000 Words And All The Words In Between” at the Galaudet Gallery on February 20 at 6:00 pm!  Come for the craft talk, stay for the cracker jacks and cold ones!  (Really!  Free food and drink!)


Planners vs. Pantsers: Which Are You?


By Katie Venit

Rumor has it there are two types of writers: planners and pantsers. Planners outline the heck out of a piece. They know every scene, plot twist, and character’s favorite color, all before firing up the word processor. Pantsers (those who fly by the seat of their pants) don’t do any of that. They wait until the muse moves them, then they simply record what it says. They let the characters decide their own fates and are excited to write because they want to find out what happens. 

The reality is that most of us are planner/panster hybrids, and could benefit from some casual prewriting planning. Drawing graphic organizers like mind maps can generate ideas or explore unconscious connections between topics.

Start by writing a word or phrase in the middle of a piece of paper. Let’s say, “apples.” Branching from that like legs on a spider, connect “apples” to whatever associations that word brings to mind: tree, pie, fall, apple of my eye, Lowly Worm, Apple Dumpling Gang, comfort food, crisp, sweet, Gramma.

If one of your associations seems especially rich, such as “tree,” branch associations off of that: shoe trees, climbing trees, wood, carpentry, family trees, tree of life, Adam and Eve… whoa. Adam and Eve branched off of “tree,” but it also connects to “apples.” Draw a line from “Adam and Eve” back to “apples,” connecting the two. That might be an interesting theme. “Family tree” is another area that seems intriguing. How can you connect “family tree” with “apples”?  Could “Gramma” be the connection? 

Does a particular area of the map calls to you? If so, that might be a rich direction for your story. 

You can do this on your own, but it’s really fun with your writing group. Set a timer for 10 minutes and quickly map words without second guessing your choices. When everyone finishes, take the group through your map, explaining the associations and what parts intrigue you the most. 


Everyone creates a map on the same topic. Compare and contrast. This is a great team building activity that offers a window into how your groupmates think. 

Related to the above, consider having everyone draw mind maps for one of your member’s specific projects. These maps can provide inspiration when it comes time to write.

Everyone draws maps using different word prompts then share. What areas are most intriguing? Despite being drawn from different words, do the maps inform each other somehow? 

If everyone maps different topics, trade maps and spend another few minutes adding to someone else’s map.

Work simultaneously on the same map. You might not need a timer for this variation; just work until it’s finished. 

After finishing the maps, spend 30 minutes writing drafts based on the maps (trade maps or have everyone work on their own). Maybe the challenge is to write an entire piece or maybe it’s just the first paragraph. 

Distance variation: The internet has a plethora of free mind mapping tools out there. Create one, and email it to a partner.