Found in the Vault, a Weekend Writing Prompt: Paint Chip Memoir

Benjamin Moore
Benjamin Moore

Did you know the list is a legit narrative nonfiction form? Yep, and it’s ancient. McSweeney’s did not invent the list. Around the first day of the first month of Noah’s 601st year, as the ground was drying out, a writer in Sumeria (now southern Iraq) carved wedge-shaped letters into stone tablets, composing a work of wisdom scholars consider to be the first work of literature. It was different from the lists kept for commerce or civic life: goats, bushels, grapes, and the like. The List of Ziusudra showed the writer’s mind in thought. It was, arguably, an essay. Some of the most well known examples of the form come from ancient writers whose lists persist as time capsules, preserving the writers’ thoughts and cultural contexts. So for your weekend writing prompt, sharpen your pencils and write away. Make up some paint colors that describe your day, your week, or a month or year in your life, and list them. It’s fun, and discovered years later a list can be a little bit fascinating. I found this list in the free-write vault, no doubt leftover from 2010 when I was eyebrow deep in kitchen remodel decor decisions. It’s not the most refined list, and to say it’s an “essay” is a reach, but each silly little entry instantly revives in my memory a story from my family life at the time it was written.

My Paint Chip Memoir (2010)

  • Mono Throat
  • Pink Slip
  • Age Spot Tan
  • First Gray Hair Greige
  • Bathroom Floor
  • Enchiladas
  • Blood Blister
  • Mono Palor
  • Stubborn Toilet Ring Gris
  • Heart Cath Bruise Purple
  • Dust Bunny Taupe
  • Burnt Rhubarb Pie Crust

I want to read your paint chip memoir, I really do. Post them in comments?


Wrangling An Elusive Essay Form: Mosaic


Collage, fragmented, montage, segmented, lyric, sectioned: a mosaic by any other name was still a thorn in my flesh. The first mosaic I ever tried to write amounted to little more than a clumsy knockoff of a Richard Rodriguez essay assigned in my first MFA nonfiction workshop.


Three years later, I tried again. I picked up the same Rodriguez and works by Montaigne, inventor of the form.


I read and froze.


I re-read Rodriguez. I couldn’t grasp the peculiar features of the form firmly enough to do it myself. Reading Rodriguez did not help.


Stained glass makes sense, the image my professor used to illustrate the mosaic essay. Like stained glass in a church, each paragraph or group of paragraphs a single scene, which viewed with all the other scenes, make sense alone but make the most impact only when the last scene clicks into place.


But my own mosaic attempts continued to be stilted, round-peg-square-hole experiments. Shrinky Dinks in my mother’s oven.


More research. More reading. If I can grasp “the rules,” I can write a mosaic.


Montaigne, On Some Verses of Virgil. I meditate more on Montaigne’s words searching for clues. Of Books: “Let attention be paid not to the matter, but to the shape I give it.”


Nester’s Teaching Blog. Daniel Nester: “What Papa Montaigne means, I think, is that the form of the essay, the way the essay reflects the consciousness of the writer, is just as important, if not more, than what is addressed.”


Ned Stuckey-French lights a candle and guides me toward understanding in his characterization of Rodriguez’s Late Victorians. “(Appearing) as a mosaic personal essay – constructing a solid theme through bits and pieces of different subjects.”


Closer to clarity, I can’t think of a single topic to squeeze into a patchwork prose quilt. Maybe I’m trying too hard to get it.


I scour my public library, the Internet. Ninety-day diet.


I gobble up every mosaic essay I can find. Over three months, I rack up $10 in overdue fines for the convenience of Best Creative Nonfiction anthologies on my bedside table for multiple nighttime readings of the same mosaics.


Magic. Osmosis. Click. Eula Biss breaks through with pure, original mosaic, with only the faintest hints of Montaigne or Rodriguez.


Robin Black grabs me by the throat, her heartfelt essay reflecting the angst of parenting decisions in its own herky-jerky structure and section titles.


Ander Monson’s quieter mosaic offers another, contrasting example of how a fragmented essay can be daring in its structure, through the use of titles, tone and pace.


Dev Hathaway breaks my heart. “North Pole, South Pole, the Sea of Carcinoma” presents medical facts with deft restraint of sentiment.


All my favorites differed from examples left by the inventor of the mosaic and from one another; but they are all indeed mosaics. I immersed myself in these works. I stopped trying to apprehend the concept of mosaic and gave in to the experience of mosaic. And I got it.


The more I tried to comprehend the rules the more I realized that the key to mosaic is its suspension of the usual narrative rules. Nester’s rationale behind Montaigne’s approach to mosaic personal essay was the final tile in the mosaic of my search that made the form clear to me, at long last:

The demands of a narrative, of exposition, of having to explain everything can frustrate the writer who has other things to say. The desire to write a piece of nonfiction that lets other, perhaps nonlinear, factors affect its shape goes back to the origins of the essay itself.

Nester nailed it. I had other things to say. I scanned through my daily writing entries, found one with a topic that had eluded me for ten years, and started riffing. Riffing sans structure freed an essay to collage itself to life. I gave it permission to emerge in tiles that tell a story individually and in the aggregate” with its its content and its form.

Me and Mosaic

In the process of grasping a form I’ve found a new friend, a secret weapon that helps me write about the most complex and slippery subjects from as many different angles as my mind can think to write.

via The Institute for Sacred Architecture
via The Institute for Sacred Architecture


A Gem from Help, Thanks, Wow: A Word About Heart Armor

via Boing Boing
via Boing Boing

“Sin is not the adult bookstore on the corner. It is the hard heart, the lack of generosity, and all the isms, racism and sexism and so forth. But is there a crack where a ribbon of light might get in, might sneak past all the roadblocks and piles of stones, mental and emotional and cultural?”

Anne Lamott, “Help, Thanks, Wow” (p. 62)

The truth in this quote seized me from the pages of one of my Christmas gifts, but typed up on this 17-inch screen the words are damning. My heart is tender, too tender, and so I have learned, finally, to seal it up tight to keep the hurtful barbs of life and crushing betrayals from causing more cardiac damage. But then, at what point does guarding this most critical muscle give way to hardening? And isn’t a hardened heart far more tragic than a broken heart?

Guard your heart for it is the wellspring of life.

Check out the stunning portfolio of futuristic armored organs at Viaframe.

Inspired by Koreanish, My Year in Review: 2014

I’m no Alexander Chee, and by comparison my brushes with achievement are mere crayon self-portraits on the fridge. Chee’s are more Matisse in the MoMA, with categories such as “Best of Me on NPR” and “Best idea I had in public where people could hear it.” You know that whole Amtrak residency thing? Yeah, that was Alexander Chee’s idea. My big NPR and rail travel accomplishments of 2014 involved listening to Wait, Wait Don’t Tell Me and watching Hell on Wheels, but the year in review Mr. Chee offered on his blog, Koreanish, inspired me to take stock. “It’s good for perspective,” he said on Twitter.

And so here we go, for perspective:

Surprising Career Development: After a few years of writing and editing consulting-only while chipping away at my MFA, I went to work for a publishing company that hired me as copy wonk for a newly created content marketing team. Best. Boss. Ever.

Meaningful Day: Butler MFA grad ceremony. Toasting and roasting with friends and writing compatriots after years in the workshop trenches, it was nearly as sweet as my wedding day on the Gunnison River.

Prescient Failed Blog: I started 2014 with a verse and then began a blog, “To Number My Days,” to keep that verse in mind and try to abide by it. I didn’t promote my posts much—they were more for me. Then life got busy (see Surprising Career Development), I forgot the blog, and the verse took on uncanny meaning (see Exciting Medical Event).

Exciting Medical Event: On July 23, the morning after spinach enchiladas, margaritas, and much laughter with best friends at Buen Tiempo, our favorite Ouray, Colorado eatery, I survived a heart attack, my second. After three days plugged into the ICU at the hospital where I gave birth to my daughter fifteen years earlier, I spent one week admiring deer and Grand Mesa vistas from the deck of my dear friends’ home before flying back to Indiana. I spent the next six weeks sleeping before heading back to work. Five months post-MI, I’m feeling 100%.

Visible Changes: two dress sizes dropped in an effort to prevent a third heart attack. Here’s to staying a 6 in ’15. I can’t afford another wardrobe makeover.

Biggest Writing Accomplishment: my thesis revision, wherein I murdered about 40 pages of darlings with the ruthless help and incisive input of advisor Andy Levy and reader Lili Wright.

Best of Someone I Know on NPR: The latest book by my dear MFA thesis advisor just dropped. Read what Linda Holmes had to say about it on NPR — “In ‘Huckleberry Finn,’ A History in Echoes.” And, from the buy page:

An eye-opening, groundbreaking exploration of the character and psyche of Mark Twain as he was writing his most famous novel, Huck Finn’s America brings the past to vivid, surprising life, and offers a persuasive—and controversial—argument for why this American classic deserves to be understood anew. See more at:

Best (only?) Publication: an essay selected for the Brevity-promoted American Vignette. Wordpress Freshly Pressed it. I suppose submitting more than one or two essays to five or six publications in 365 days might improve my odds in 2015, because math.

Personal Best: stopped dogging my senior about homework. In direct proportion to grades slipping peace in the home increased.

Second Personal Best: unfriended Facebook. I’ll get back on when I secure an agent for my MS. Maybe. I’m enjoying the fresh air.

Feats in TV Viewing: I mentioned Hell on Wheels, but it was also the year of recovering from Breaking Bad with my Mr. Bates, with a little help from Frank and Clare Underwood.

New Cyber-Friends: It was a good year in friendships with imaginary people, all of whom made my life a little less confusing (Heart Sisters), richer (Coffee), lovelier (Butterfly), and a whole lot weirder (Shouts). By far, Greg Adam York takes all, though: I don’t know how he’s surviving his life at the moment. Thank you, fairy godpeople.

Reading That Stuck: I can’t keep track of all I read—I’m a bad Goodreadser—but the stuff still lodged in the brain folds came from Goldfinch, Orphan Master’s Son, Unbroken (finally), TMR, Harpers, three volumes of Creative Nonfiction, and issues of CNF Magazine (thanks again, Lerner, for the subscription).

Writing: back to the novel, half-written over a year ago and patiently waiting for me to finish my essay collection. On to act 2.

Peace and health to you and yours in 2015. I’m going to keep on numbering my days. How about you?

  1. And what did you read that most stuck with you in ’14?
  2. What are your 2015 reading plans?

Which reminds me, writing plans for the new year. That’s next.

So long, 2014. (Thank you, A.C., for the idea.)

Creative Nonfiction, Gumby of Literary Genres


Creative nonfiction is a gloriously flexible genre. What we don’t know or can’t know doesn’t have to wreck our writing. Instead, what seemed at first to be only an empty space can be an opportunity to shape and expand a narrative, exploring the gaps and writing our way through the myths.” 

Jessica Handler, author of Braving the Fire: A Guide to Writing About Grief and Loss and Invisible Sisters: A Memoir

Don’t Be Trolling: “A Typo Is Just a Typo”

Kermit T. Frog

I have raised two lovely literary citizens. My teenagers appreciate literature and love to read. They enjoy attending author readings, and the boy’s favorite place on the planet is the public library. My son and daughter care about precision in the usage of English grammar in the written (and spoken) word, and though they are still in the process of learning, they pay attention to rules of punctuation and other matters of style.

The downside: I have raised two grammar rule snobs pained by a grammar-oblivious generation.

grammar-2Jack and Grace gasp at every offending “alot” and noun-verb disagreement they encounter in emails, web articles, and Facebook posts. The nightly news is a heckle-fest. The boy corrects his family members, Brian Williams, and POTUS for the most minute infractions. The girl has been known to correct (boy)friends’ grammar in their texts. In training them in the way they should go, I have ruined them. I have burdened two innocent children with the belief that the people who start their sentences with “Me” (as in, “Me and my buddies are going to spend the day playing Halo but none of us are ever going to read books, ever”) are the huns who will destroy civilization.

It’s all my fault, but I can’t help it. I cringe when I read a friend’s blog and see her misuse of “none” (None IS! None is singular!) and “I” used in place of “me.” I admit it: I used to be one of those people who publicly corrected people’s misspellings and typos on Facebook. It burned my eyes. I couldn’t let it go. Ick on me. I am thankful my friend John-not-Jon Stewart called me out one December, lending me an epiphany that my habit was the height of cyber-douchebaggery. That January 1, I resolved not to edit my friends, not even in my mind, especially on Facebook and even in emails.

Still workin’ on the “in my mind” part.

Creative NonfictionSo when my friend Susan recently gifted me with my very own subscription to Creative Nonfiction, you can imagine my excitement over the promise of an article with the tease Think you can be a copyeditor? It’s more complicated than it looks in the first issue in my mailbox, Mistakes. The article would exonerate me and justify my righteous indignation and panic over the online storm of messed up jots and tittles. As a writer whose job also requires occasional copyediting, with great anticipation I dove into to the article titled (not entitled, hear me?!The Correctors, written by Carol Fisher Saller, the Subversive Copy Editor and editor of The Chicago Manual of Style’s online Q&A. (Squee!)

To me, Ms. Saller is a rockstar. As cool as Clapton, more hep-cat than Sting. As authoritative on writing and editing as Strunk or White, but updated. Anything Saller says, goes. Deep down I expected her to confirm my concern that the grammar hacks of the world will crumble life as we know it… But she didn’t.

She did one better. She corrected me, and chastening never felt so good.

“It’s not all that clear,” Ms. Saller says, “even to the experts, what’s ‘correct’ when it comes to great swaths of language and grammar.”



Queen Saller
Queen Saller

This is the queen bee of correctors we are reading here, the corrector of correctors, calling out correctors (including yours truly) for thinking we’re all-knowing.

Copyeditors themselves are not always current on the issues. People who haven’t studied history or engineering or biology since high school or college naturally assume that their knowledge is outdated—that the subject has evolved and changed over time. They wouldn’t dream of passing themselves off as professors or engineers or doctors.

When was the last English class you took? When was the last English class I took? Not this century.

Never mind that whoever taught us in 1992 was probably using grammar she learned in 1972, which very likely came out of a textbook published in 1952: we still believe that only barbarians could question the rules of English we learned in our youth.

Though they may sting a little, these words are the most incisive and insightful I’ve heard or read on the subject, from an ultimate subject matter expert:

First, have a heart. A typo is a typo, not a sign that the barbarians are at the gate. Second, educate yourself. Read the fun and informative posts at Language Log or Lingua Franca or Grammar Girl. Third, if you’re a writer, work kindly and collaboratively with your editor. And finally, resist the temptation to post those “gotcha” comments online, pouncing on every its for it’s. While you’re busy fussing, you’re failing to read for knowledge, inspiration, or pleasure.

“That,” says Saller, “would be the real mistake.”

Listen up, my beauties. Do as Saller says, not as your mother does:

“…resist the temptation to post those ‘gotcha’ comments online, pouncing on every its for it’s. While you’re busy fussing, you’re failing to read for knowledge, inspiration, or pleasure.”* 



*Especially when reading your mother’s work, including this here blog (but also remember the the impotence of proofreading)

Downplaying symptoms: just pretend it’s NOT a heart attack

Heart Sisters

by Carolyn Thomas  @HeartSisters

When a blockage or spasm in one or more of your coronary arteries stops allowing freshly oxygenated blood to feed your heart muscle, a heart attack can happen. The faster that you can access emergency treatment to address that culprit artery, the better your chance of survival.  The period of time between your first symptoms and actively getting the help you need can be divided into three phases:

  1. decision time – the period from the first onset of acute symptoms to the decision to seek care (for example, calling 911)
  2. transport time – the period from the decision to seek care to arrival at the Emergency Department
  3. therapy timethe period from arrival at the Emergency Department to the start of medical treatment

Only the first phase is the one you have complete control over. So don’t blow it.

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The Traditional Publishing Path: a Midwest Writer’s Workshop agented author shares her wisdom, from how to find a literary agent to what to expect while you’re out on submission

Annie Sullivan celebrates Vietnam
Annie Sullivan celebrates Vietnam

With NaNoWriMo coming to a close, you might be wondering what the next steps are. Here is a handy list you can use to figure out how to query literary agents and to trace your path through the publishing industry.

1. Have a completed, revised manuscript.

This means you didn’t type “The End” and then declare the book ready to be sent to agents. Make sure you have other writers read it first to look for pacing issues, plot errors, etc.

2. Draft a strong, attention grabbing query letter. (See link below.)

3. Thoroughly research the agents you want to query.

Find the best agent for you based on location, how many clients they take on, whether they give editorial feedback, whether they give a lifetime contract or a single book contract, etc.

4. Follow agent submission guidelines as mentioned on their agency website.

5. Treat finding an agent like a business.

Start a spreadsheet of what you’ve sent to each agent and the date you sent it. It can also be helpful to record the date you heard back from them in case you want to query them again later you’ll know when to expect a response.

6. Wait. (And start working on something new!)

7. Revise your query/manuscript based on agent feedback.

8. Get an offer.

9. Inform all other agents that you have an offer.

10. If you receive more than one offer, select the best agent for you and negotiate a contract.*

*If you don’t get an offer with your first book, always write something new and start over again at step 1.

11. Sign contract and celebrate.

12. Revise based on agent’s thoughts.

13. Go out on submission to editors.

14. Wait some more.

15. Either get an offer or get a rejection.

If it’s an offer, celebrate. If it’s a rejection, decide if you should revise, and then submit to more editors.

Why Choose the Traditional Publishing Path?

1. An agent to bounce ideas off of and who knows the market.
2. Direct Access to the “big” New York publishers.
3. More time to write (because you don’t have to deal with the business side of things)!!!
4. Advance Money
5. More marketing and publicity support.

 Helpful links:

1) Literary Rambles
• Great for finding Young Adult and Children’s agents

2) Absolute Write Water Cooler
• Find out what other writers are saying about agents

3) Query Tracker
• Find out what other writers are saying about agents

4) Preditors & Editors
• See if an agent is legitimate

5) Query Shark
• See examples and get advice on query letters

Annie Sullivan graduated in 2012 with her MFA in creative writing from Butler University. Her work has been featured in Curly Red Stories and Punchnel’s. Her novel won the Luminis Books Award at the 2013 Midwest Writers Workshop, and she is currently working with her literary agent to get it published. She lives in Indianapolis and loves traveling and exploring new cultures. When she’s not off on her own adventures, she’s working as the Publicity Coordinator at Wiley, a 207-year-old publishing company based Hoboken, NJ.

Connect with Annie Sullivan –
Twitter: @annsulliva

Read Annie’s flash fiction story “Blarney”.

Be Thanking

Living on pins, needles these past months since

Surviving a second heart attack in eleven years I’m finally

Beginning to relax,

Feeling better, better than back to normal, lighter, back to

Working at my

Marketing job for a

Publishing company, which isn’t all that creative but freed me to reserve my creative energies for

Digging into deep thesis revisions, finally finished, and now the joy of

Crafting it into a manuscript, because a friend who read it thanked me for

Revealing, in my stories, a gracious God, a

Loving God, the same one who let my heart keep

Beating in July, so that in November, this quiet


Morning I am

Enjoying just

Sitting on my Crate and Barrel couch

Watching another Macy’s Day parade, my 49th, and

Sipping coffee my

Darling husband brewed, and I can see outside tiny snowflakes

Falling, and I can hear the egg timer shaped like a chicken

Ticking down the minutes for the pumpkin pie, my sweetie’s favorite, in the oven


Filling our home with cozy aromas after yesterday, a glorious, common day of

Cleaning and

Cooking and

Nesting to give my babies, two teenagers who are still in their beds

Sleeping, memories of a normal holiday with their mother who loves them more than life still


Typing this little post,

Trying in vain to capture her gratitude by

Counting the ways she is blessed with gifts so good it’s

Embarrassing, so extravagant that all she can do is just be


Which Way to the Vomitorium?

Which Way to the VomitoriumAs I’ve mentioned before, being a mom to this particular son* is a gas—and always educational. This morning I decided to visit him in his room before he fully woke up and remembered his mother irritates him to no end. He rewarded me by reading aloud, in Latin and then English, selections from “Which Way to the Vomitorium?” My personal favorites came from the “Girl Talk” chapter, which offered handy phrases for any modern woman:

“I need 8 slaves to carry my litter.”

“Can you pass me the rat head mixture? mM hair is getting a bit thin.”

“Please don’t read any of your poetry out loud again at dinner; we’ll lose all our friends.”

With holiday season upon us (I know this because of the piped-in carols I heard at my grocery store last night 3 weeks before Thanksgiving), you’ll want to add this book to your gift list for your favorite Latin teacher or smarty pants polyglot friends and family. Merry Holidays!

*He prefaced his recitation by explaining to his Latin-ignorant mother that “vomitorium” means “theatre exit,” “from ‘uomere,’ meaning to spew forth.”

What I Wish I Knew After My MFA Ended

I’m re-blogging this wisdom list as a reaction to the commenter who called it “atrocious advice,” whom I would redirect to Sara Finnerty’s point #2. xo

BREVITY's Nonfiction Blog

A guest post from Sara Finnerty:

420-Jacquelyn-Mitchard-splits-limbo-looking-back.imgcache.rev1308082218874In the years after I got my MFA I was a miserable mess. I felt like a failure as a writer and a human being. I still feel that way sometimes, but now I try and fail and try again and I know that does not mean I am a failure, it only means I am a person like everyone else. If I could, here are some things I would tell my self six years ago when I was finishing graduate school.

1)   Don’t even try to get published. There are some people in your class who will stop writing altogether. There are some who will only tangentially write. You will never stop writing, but don’t try to publish right now because your writing is still borderline terrible. Yes, you have an MFA but an MFA does not give you the heart, the will, the…

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