AWP18: Meet the Readers

Join Under the Gum Tree, Fourth Genre, River Teeth, and Hippocampus for an AWP happy hour of telling true stories. Four magazines, all publishing exclusively nonfiction, are partnering on this event to bring you a line up of previous contributors—many of whom will be descending on Tampa for Association of Writers & Writing Programs annual conference (AWP).

Grab your happy hour drink of choice from the cash bar and toast some true stories in a short & sweet storytelling lineup of readers from past issues before heading out to make material for new true stories of your own.

If nonfiction is your thing, we hope to see you. You'll meet the staff, hear some of what we've published and get a peek at our current issue. Oh, and maybe even win a magazine (we'll be doing a raffle)!

For more information, visit our event listing on Facebook, and invite your friends! 

Event Details

Location: Ferg's Live

Address: 490 Channelside Drive, Tampa (just 2 blocks from the convention center)

Time: 6 p.m.


Meet the Readers


Under the Gum Tree Contributor

D. Gilson is the author of I Will Say This Exactly One Time: EssaysCrush, with Will Stockton; Brit Lit; and Catch & Release, winner of the Robin Becker Prize. He is an Assistant Professor of English at Texas Tech University, and his work has appeared in Threepenny Review, POETRY, and The Rumpus.


Under the Gum Tree Contributor

Elaine Gale is a former Los Angeles Times reporter and has tenure at California State University as a communication and journalism professor. She has an MFA in creative writing from Antioch University Los Angeles and a PhD in communication from University of Denver. She is the Writing Center Director for the Graduate School in Leadership and Change at Antioch University. She has performed her one-woman show called ONE GOOD EGG at Beyond Baroque and in a sold-out run at Center Stage Theater in Santa Barbara.


Fourth Genre Contributor

Alysia Sawchyn currently lives in Tampa, FL, where she is a nonfiction editor for Sweet: A Literary Confection. Her writing has appeared or is forthcoming in Indiana ReviewDIAGRAMAssay: A Journal of Nonfiction Studies, and elsewhere.

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Fourth Genre Contributor

A Milwaukee, Wisconsin native, Sheree L. Greer is a writer and educator living in Tampa, Florida. She founded The Kitchen Table Literary Arts Center to showcase and support the work of Black women and women of color writers and is the author of two novels, Let the Lover be and A Return to Arms, a short story collection, Once and Future Lovers, and a student writing guide, Stop Writing Wack Essays. Sheree is a VONA/VOICES alum, Astraea Lesbian Foundation for Justice grantee, and Ragdale Foundation Rubin Fellow. Sheree teaches composition, creative writing, and African American literature at St. Petersburg College in Florida.


Hippocampus Contributor

Rebecca Fish Ewan is the founder of Plankton Press (where small is big enough) and creates Tiny Joys & GRAPH(feeties) zines. She is a poet/cartoonist/professor/mom/writer and teaches in The Design School at Arizona State University. Her publications include work in Brevity, Femme Fotale, Survivor Zine and Hip Mama. She has two creative nonfiction books, A Land Between and the forthcoming memoir of cartoons and verse about a Berkeley childhood friendship cut short by tragedy. 


Hippocampus Contributor

Michael Fischer is currently earning an MFA in creative writing from Sierra Nevada College. He is co-editor of Sierra Nevada Review, a Moth Chicago StorySlam winner, and a Luminarts Foundation Creative Writing Fellow. His essays appear or are forthcoming in The SunBrevityHotel AmerikaThe Rumpus, and elsewhere.

River Teeth Contributor

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Anne Barngrover is the author of two books of poetry—Brazen Creature (2016 Editor’s Choice Selection, University of Akron Press), Yell Hound Blues (Shipwreckt Books, 2013)—and co-author, with poet Avni Vyas, of the poetry chapbook Candy in Our Brains (CutBank, 2014). Her poems have appeared in North American Review, Ecotone, Crazyhorse, Copper Nickel, Indiana Review, and others. Barngrover earned her MFA from Florida State University and her PhD in English and Creative Writing from University of Missouri. She is an assistant professor of English and Creative Writing at Saint Leo University and lives in Tampa, Florida.


River Teeth Contributor

Jill Christman is the author of Darkroom: A Family Exposure (AWP Award Series in Creative Nonfiction winner), Borrowed Babies: Apprenticing for Motherhood (Shebooks 2014), and essays in magazines and journals such as Brevity, Fourth Genre, Iron Horse Literary Review, Literary Mama, Oprah Magazine, River Teeth, & Brain, Child. She serves on the board of the Association of Writers and Writing Programs (AWP) and teaches creative nonfiction writing at Ball State University in Muncie, Indiana, where she lives with her husband, writer Mark Neely, and their two children. Read more about Jill at

Meet the Author: Liz Stephens

Liz Stephens is currently at work on a photographic essay book and a book about urban wild animals. Recent work can be found in the anthologies Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction and Dirt: A Love Story, and she has a piece recently published in Cleaver. Other work can be found in Fourth Genre: Explorations in Nonfiction and, among others. She has served as a managing editor of the journal Brevity, and teaches nonfiction with the UCLA Extension Writers' Program and through private workshops and retreats.

1. When and why did you start writing? What inspires your writing most now?

Oh I started writing badly very young. I started writing nonfiction in a voice I recognize now only in my thirties, in grad school, though it could have happened in any receptive, brain-turned-on type of setting. What inspires me now is both deep emotion and unanswered questions; to feel strongly about a subject for which I have only emotion and no information makes me wants answers. I crave articulation, like any good anxiety-ridden human, I suppose. Nailing down a subject offers a measure of control.

2. Why are you drawn to nonfiction? Have you always been writing creative nonfiction?

I haven’t always written nonfiction. I never even recognized the form when I saw it before about 30 years old. I found it in a time of cloudiness, when, I guess, I needed to hear actual real voices of others speaking to me about their lives. Interestingly, though that makes it sound as if I needed a path out of darkness, that’s not quite accurate. I never was drawn to what I call “trauma drama” and still am not; I can’t stand books about how hard people’s childhoods were. I know that’s not gracious to say, but personally I’m simply not good at thinking while I’m being that uncomfortable; so the form seems sensationalistic to me, and I’d rather be fixing issues than having them on a circular track.  If, on the other hand, the author has seen what’s transcendent and surprising in the world in that experience – Mary Karr’s Liar’s Club, also Ecology of a Cracker Childhood – those narratives appeal to me. Any nonfiction that reflects back to me the vaudevillian act-after-act brilliance and pathos and joy of the real world, I want that.

3. What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

Events that warrant a story happen continually. Of course, some are what we call in Hollywood “high concept”: “I had a brain aneurysm and now I’m a concert pianist, never played before." But typically, stories that unspool with the narrator explaining them in a satisfying way could be anything from taking care of a parent to traveling the world with your dog. It’s the self-discovery that appeals, even in a book about discovering the world.

I had an editor at a really prestigious journal love this very piece, and then turn it down. She wanted more drama, I finally realized, more expose to be exact, and I resisted that. I love, love, love editors’ notes; it’s the closest I get to having a workshop the way I did in my doctoral work. I love a prompt, a tweak, a rewrite, after a close reading. But does the world need another piece about what can go wrong in a strip club? I think not. Stories need to be told about discovery, asking questions in this blink of time we’ve got, and crossing the constant abyss between us to understand others. Not groveling and whining and absolving.

4. Did you initially try stripping because it was an open rebellion against the structured and somewhat powerless world of social climbing? Did it ever become something else?

I did try stripping because of what it was not; I was insecure at that age, but looking back, I was strangely aggressive about that insecurity! I would not let it erase me, I wanted stake in the room, any room. So my insecurity would never have let me think I was qualified to work in a cool, upwardly mobile Hollywood place but it did not leave me at home. Because frankly, my curiosity about the world was so much greater than my insecurity, so working at a strip club was just a ticket in to an experience I couldn’t have stuck around for, for so long, otherwise. And I was young enough to ignore what whole segments of the population may have thought (see above, re: myopia), and consequences as a whole category was just not even on my radar.

The job certainly did become something else as time went on. On a bad day, I think how much time I wasted when I could have been becoming a movie producer or some crazy business by putting in time as an assistant somewhere. But that’s kind of a moot point. On a good day, I see that the experience of stripping changed me permanently, and perhaps not in the way a good feminist is supposed to say—and I am if nothing else an ardent feminist—but stripping gave me permanent entrance into the world of people who cannot make a go of it the way most people do. The economic underclass, not to mention those who can do sex work because they are deeply confident in their ability to get out when they want, these are people I now get. What a loss it would have been in my life to live without knowing these people, standing outside, judging them. The net is thin and small that catches us from our lives being changed forever, maybe spiraling downward, and I needed to know that to appreciate every minute I spend still in the net without being bored to tears.

5. The lack of and maintenance of power runs throughout the piece. Is this the most tantalizing part of stripping?

Examining the idea that stripping, or any sex work, takes away power from the people in that line of work, leaves me with an uncomfortable idea: I wasn’t ready in my early twenties to behave like an ambition machine, or with any sense of direction and self-manifesting career goals at all. I simply had no idea what I wanted besides excitement. So it was a way of standing by. Older people, more self-actualized women, more educated or philosophical, or critically and culturally minded, or hey, maybe whiter and more economically advantaged, certainly can argue why I shouldn’t have done this, because it’s not like stripping is babysitting.

I can say with absolute authority that I have absolutely no authority over other women’s stories, but for myself, there have been no negative hang-overs on having done this. The experience of working there taught me how to take power and maintain it. Not because I always did it well in those days, but because I either 1) sometimes successfully did, or 2) saw it modeled again and again, on a battleground of overt power plays.

6. Did any of the other women resent you? Did they feel you were somehow invading their space because you'd taken on the job as a dare?

Occasionally a woman resented me on that job, but usually it was not when I was dancing, but when I had moved into bar-tending. The bartenders each night were in charge of the scheduling, and I couldn’t allow one of the “girls” to dance that night because there were too many already dancing; they don’t make any money if they don’t go up often enough. The moment any woman stepped behind the bar there, she was on another level, authority-wise, so the bartender was the final word. But the stage itself was a democracy. You either owned your moment there or blew it, but that was to your credit and not with any false crutch. Nobody helps you up there.

And another few women resented me. Customers. Women who would never have taken that job, but envied the temporary attention dancers got from the crowd on their own turf. It was envy in their eyes as they wished they’d have the courage to get up there. But that’s why it’s like nails on a chalkboard when those customers giggle their way up to the stage; they want to borrow that courage and ride it, say they’ve done the thing when they’ve only waved the hem of their shirt around for ten seconds to the cheering of their friends. That’s not the job.

The resentment of women who never would go into a strip club: I simply didn’t have to deal with then. Meeting a woman in a strip club who ethically disagrees with it is as you imagine pretty rare. And now that I’m older, and bossier, but also more patient…I can actually articulate what the power plays and ethics of sex work are to others. Or agree to disagree. Or simply agree; sex work sucks, politically speaking, for what it conveys to men. But here we are.

7. Why do you think people think of stripping as taboo?

I think stripping is taboo because it should be. I’m just saying here, in this piece, how it all worked out for me. But culturally, even if strippers themselves have an ideal rare experience in the job, they are screwing how most men see other women. If none of us would take our clothes off for those suckers, they’d get a more realistic sense of how that moment should actually be. But the world is what it is, for now. So if a woman dips into that system, other woman should respect that choice, because I can tell you for certain, any woman who judges the choice has not been out on her rear for rent money. Or hungry for long enough ever. To say a stripper was not confident enough for other work, though, is to oversimplify. Some work in some offices is boring, I think we can agree on that.

Do I want my daughter to ever strip? No. Do I want her to have some sympathy for and empathy for and understanding of other people’s economic and bodily choices? Yes. More than the first answer, if I’m honest. Hence my willingness to put this essay out in the world and live with it.  

Meet the Author: Morgan Baker

Morgan Baker teaches at Emerson College where she won the Stanzler Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2013. Her work has been published in The New York Times Magazine, Dead Housekeeping, Cognoscenti, The Boston Globe, Talking Writing, Brain Child, The Manifest-Station, and the anthology Done Darkness. She lives with her husband and two Portuguese Water Dogs in Cambridge, and is the mother of two grown daughters.

Q: When and why did you start writing? What inspires your writing most now?

I’ve always liked to write. I liked writing really bad poetry when I was young as a way to have a voice when I didn’t feel I had one. I liked writing research papers in college more than taking exams.

Life events are usually my inspiration. I’ve been working on some longer projects where the inspiration is from large events or time periods in my life, but for my shorter pieces, I am inspired by things that happen all around me that I think probably a lot of people experience as well. I wrote about a favorite bakery closing and going to a county fair.

Q: Why are you drawn to nonfiction? Have you always been writing creative nonfiction?

I like nonfiction because it allows me to make sense out of my life and gives voice to experiences I have a hard time articulating about in conversation. I think creative nonfiction validates experiences for the reader as well as sometimes shows the reader something new. I am also a feature writer so I came to creative nonfiction from a journalistic background. I like interviewing people and researching stories. I’ve tried fiction. I wrote a YA novel once, but I’m just not very good at it. I like taking slices of real life and putting them together to make meaning. It’s like putting a jigsaw puzzle together, something I enjoy.

Q: What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

I think you can write about anything. You don’t have to have had something dramatic happen to you in order to write something interesting. I tell that to my students all the time. It’s about how you see something and what new perspective you can provide on it. I wrote a piece about cleaning out my mother-in-law’s basement 24 years after she died (her husband was moving). That’s not super dramatic – it’s actually pretty common, but it resonated with people. I’ve written about my youngest daughter finishing college. I’ve written about going on dog walks. And then I wrote “Fallen” which is much more dramatic. But, I do think you have to consider the people you include in your stories and how they may be affected.

Q: "Fallen" is written from the second person POV. Did this help convey the universality of such an event? Or something else?

I’ve never really written in the second person before. I think it can fall flat. But there was something about telling this story that it just felt natural when I started writing. It was whiney in the first person and that wasn’t what I wanted. I think subconsciously I wanted the reader to feel the panic I feel when my husband has an anaphylactic attack. I wanted the reader to be there with me on this terrifying journey. 

Q: You're featured in our Flash Fiction section. What do you think a benefit of flash nonfiction is?

I teach short nonfiction and part of why I like it is that it keeps the reader’s attention. It delivers a powerful punch. I’ve written longer pieces too and there are subjects that just can’t be done short, but again, I find it a challenge to see how much I can get in in a short amount of space. Each word is so valuable. I have to really think about whether every word is necessary. It lends to tight writing.

Q: What are some of the struggles of condensing life events into bite size pieces?

You can’t include everything. You have to choose what parts of a story move it forward and what is dead weight. It does sometimes mean you have to leave out some great descriptions so you can get to the meat of the story faster. It’s like painting a picture that already has a frame on it. You can’t go beyond the edges. That can feel limiting or you can embrace it because you know when to stop. With longer pieces, you have the luxury of space, but you run the risk of blabbing for blabbing sake. But if you can write short, then you can transfer some of those skills to writing long. 

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Andrea Roach

Andrea Roach is a writer of memoir, essays, and creative nonfiction who lives and works in Boston, Massachusetts. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University and was a finalist for The Writer's Room of Boston Fellowship Award. Currently, she is working on personal narrative essays and the third draft of her first book, a memoir, about the blurred lines of love, family, and violence. Her work has also appeared in Blavity.

1.  When and why did you start writing? What inspires your writing most now?

I fell in love with writing and stories when I was very young. My mother was a reader and she filled my life with books and introduced my to the library. It was an elegant and symmetrical building built in 1898 with massive columns framing the front entrance and smooth stone walls with Renaissance Revival features and globed lampposts out front.   The Children’s Room had its own entrance on the side. I remember the mahogany door and the dark wood bookshelves. The library was the first place I was allowed to walk to on my own as a child, my first experience with independence.

I also consider my mother to be the first writer I knew and while she didn’t write stories or have the luxury to pursue a career for herself, she was the first person I saw put pen to paper. She wrote thoughts, letters, doodles and I of course wanted to be like her, so I began to do the same.  That kind of writing has a healing, cleansing quality to it that I appreciate.

I wrote my first story in the fourth grade with my best friend, Paula. It was a horror story, and it had all the standard scenes we saw in movies, blood pouring out of faucets and running down walls, with bits added from the ghost stories my parents told me on family nights. I didn't have a typewriter so I dictated and she typed. I wish I had saved those pages.

What inspires my writing now is the mystery and magic of telling a story, its movement. Once I surrender to the process of whatever story is trying to be told through me, I find myself on this fascinating journey of discovery that makes everything seem shiny and new. Even after long periods of time trying to figure out how to enter a piece, a stretch that can feel so heavy at times, the moment it comes to me is super exciting.  I really dig that rush. This current draft of my memoir has led me to the depths of human complexity, the pulsing heart of every instrument that Ornette Colemen played and the metaphorical genius of molting cicadas. I can’t wait to see where it takes me next.  

My characters also drive my writing.  I like to write about people I’ve experienced growing up, invisible people, the victims of domestic violence, the homeless men who live in doorways with their trash bags, newspaper-lined shoes and liquor bottles.  These people, who have suffered and struggled everyday of their lives, are full of wisdom and love and I think it’s hard for some of us to look past their tragedy and see their humanity.  Agatha and Aaron are the main focus of my essay but writing about the “Avery girl”, a person I only knew through a story  overheard as a child, who had such an impact on me that I recognized her a decade later, also felt important to the idea of how people, even strangers, imprint themselves on us and shape our viewpoint of the world.

2. Why are you drawn to nonfiction?

This is something else I’ll attribute to my mother.  She loved true crime stories and biographies.  She also turned me on to documentaries when I was young. We’d watch PBS together all the time and she’d scoff at anything that wasn’t “true”.  So that’s probably where it started.  What I like about nonfiction writing is that it demands a fearlessness and an honest confrontation of self.  If you’re going to do this kind of writing, you can’t be afraid to speak your truth and that requires some real excavating. As nonfiction writers, we have to get beneath the surface of experience and our own external representations to find verity. I actually like doing that kind of sleuthing. It helps me grow as writer and a person. 

3.   What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

I think you can find a story in almost anything.  I tend toward large heavier landscapes like death, love and abuse, but I also think an essay about the day you accidentally swallowed a fly that was in your coke can could be just as intriguing as going to the wake of the woman your uncle killed if the writer is able to connect it to the human experience in a meaningful way.  I look forward to writing some lighter pieces just to balance out the space I’ve had to occupy to write essays like the one that appears in Under the Gum Tree.

4. How much have lies and hope intertwined in your life? Do you continue to think of them as things that work off of one another?

Good question.  I’ll try not to go too far off the topic of the essay. The symbiotic relationship of lies and hope has always been part of my life, even before I was born. If you think about it, lies and hope are the foundation of our civilization. We live in a society/world where there have historically been hierarchies of wealth and privilege and ruling classes that have thrived on our willingness to believe the stories and promises told to us. The relationship of lies and hope is important to understand because it drives our thought processes and behaviors.  Edward Bernays, the father of public relations, understood this with his analysis of political propaganda and consumer culture and I think that some of his theories can be applied to the way we navigate certain situations and relationships. When I came up the title "The Lies We Call Hope," I was thinking of “lies” as self-deception, not really as purposeful untruths meant to manipulate. The stories and omissions we tell and justify to make people and ourselves happy or to avoid pain save us from being swallowed by fear and worry. They help us dream and imagine. It’s taught behavior and it’s useful but those same stories and omissions can also become crutches used to protect us from emotions that we think will crush us. I think in that way lies and hope can inhibit our ability to see and deal with hard truths. I try to be aware of the stories I tell myself in order to figure out what I’m avoiding or what I need to learn, especially in difficult situations.

5. Upon entering the funeral home and coming face to face with Agatha's family, are these hopeful lies stripped away? How did their grief force you to confront what had happened regarding your uncle, Aaron?

I think the hopeful lies were stripped away but I don’t think I was aware of it at the time.  I just thought I was naïve, and I was.  I thought that because I didn’t personally kill Agatha that it wouldn’t be a problem for me to go into someone’s space of mourning but the pain and anger was so palpable it scared me in a way I had never experienced. I left with an uneasiness that haunted me for years.  And it took a long time to find the words to express that feeling.   The wake was a turning point for me and the way I viewed violent men.  I grew up witnessing physical violence but a man has never beaten me. I describe my uncle, who is very close to me in age, having a soft angelic voice and that’s the man that I knew.  I had to separate the other man, the violent Aaron, from the loving one and that’s something I was taught by the women that raised me. The monster in men was something we had to exorcise with love.  It became our responsibility.  I think up to the point when I went to Agatha’s wake, I still carried the idea that somehow the abuser deserved more compassion than the victim because he was sick.  When I saw Agatha in her casket and was met with so much hostility from her loved ones, I was forced to start looking at abusive relationships in a different way.

6. "I told myself that it didn't matter what he did because in my family, love and violence are the same." Love and violence resonate throughout your piece; do you see them as two sides of the same coin?

I don’t see love and violence as two sides of the same coin but because I grew up with damaged people who really wanted to love and be loved I understand the dynamic. My parents could never get past the inherited pain and ideas about men, women and relationships given to them from other generations of damaged people. For them and for my uncle and me, love and violence morphed into normalcy. It was the only model for romantic relationships I had seen growing up. I was lucky that my mother was determined to make sure I didn’t live her life.  She guided me, the best way she could, to another path. I’m grateful for that and a lot of other factors that have helped me to live life differently.

7.   Agatha appears to be the opposite of you: stripped of her identity as a black woman and, in death, totally unable to express herself. Is she part of the reason you wrote this piece?

Yes, that’s part of it. I had only met Agatha twice, briefly, before she died and both times she seemed quiet and reserved. Maybe it was because she didn’t know me, I can be shy too when I first meet people.  I wrote the essay for Agatha, to give her a voice and perhaps even pay penance for my blind loyalty to my uncle. I’m exploring her more in my memoir.

My mother also had something to do with this essay, and everything in my life, as you may have noticed.  She died of lung cancer shortly before I started my MFA program and I initially wanted to tell her story.  We joked about it sometimes, that our life could be a “movie of the week.” It was part of my own grieving process and a way to honor her.  I was so afraid that she would just be erased and I couldn’t let that happen.  In writing my mother’s story I thought about the word survivor and what that meant and I thought about how my mother, a victim of domestic violence for 15 years, could have been Agatha.  My mother was also very different from Agatha, she was out spoken and strong but also misunderstood, called crazy, without any consideration for the abuse she endured.  That bothers me. So it’s important to me that the women I write about, who have lost their lives in one way or another, are seen and understood.

Meet the Author: Tiffany Michelle Brown

Tiffany Michelle Brown is a writer, Akido practitioner, archer, and whisky enthusiast who ran away from the deserts of Phoenix, Arizona, to live near the beaches of San Diego, California. Her fiction has been featured in Penduline, Black Denim Lit, Shooter, and Romance Magazine. Follow her adventures at

1. When and why did you start writing? What inspires your writing most now?

I've been reading and writing for as long as I can remember. My parents were diligent bedtime storytellers, and they claim I started reading on my own at age three. And then it wasn't long before I started writing my own stories. I recently found a handmade "book" I wrote (and illustrated and bound) when I was a kid titled "Nate the Great and the Case of the Missing Necklace." It's hilarious and very obviously a byproduct of my Encyclopedia Brown phase!

Now, just about anything can serve as writing inspiration: a song I hear on the radio, the book I'm reading, a snippet of conversation, a dream. I really like writing prompts. I also like researching themed anthologies that are actively seeking stories. I see it as kind of a challenge, to create something that fits a certain theme or idea. It's really gratifying to see a glimmer of inspiration turn into a something much larger and more complex.

2. Why are you drawn to nonfiction? Are there things you can better express in creative nonfiction than other genres of writing?

Nonfiction is visceral. It's honest. When done well, it taps into the human experience in a way that's truly powerful. Sure, all writers imbue their fiction work with pieces of themselves. It's there, but it's usually surrounded by made up characters or protective armor (perhaps metaphorical, perhaps literal). With nonfiction, you can't lie, not if you want it to be good. To put it bluntly, you have to tap into some shit. And I really admire the people who are able to write nonfiction consistently, because they are consistently giving of themselves, which can be exhausting.

3. What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

Absolutely anything and everything! The beautiful thing about writing is that there will always be an audience. Even if you think your concept or idea is really strange or too personal or too mundane or silly, you'll always find someone who wants to read about it. More specifically, I'm a big believer in writing about the things that scare you. Can you say free therapy?

4. As a teenager, did you find that your self-image was first constructed by what others told you was beautiful?

Oh my goodness, yes. At that age, we're so fragile, and validation is everything. I was one of those girls who was sweet sixteen and never been kissed. I didn't date. I thought my intelligence and my dance ability were the most beautiful things about me, because that's what I was always complimented on. There were so many diet fads swimming around when I was a teenager, too - Weight Watchers, South Beach, lots of detoxes. There was very little around that said to me, "Hey, you're great, just the way you are." (Bruno Mars, where were you when I needed you?) So, I started to think I wasn't okay the way I was. I wasn't dating because, well, I wasn't attractive. And then, as we see early on in "Shapeless," the moment I received a compliment, I latched onto it like a bloodthirsty leech. I was so starved for validation, I took a single compliment to a very dangerous place.

5. In the beginning, you describe your body clinically, and then toward the end, more lovingly. Is this an intentional way to draw the reader in to how thoroughly you disliked your body?

Absolutely. When you dislike things, you talk about them with clipped, sharp words. You don't add beauty to the language. The language in the beginning of "Shapeless" mirrors my mental state, too. When I threw myself headlong into anorexia, I was matter of fact about it, clinical, relentless. When you're doing horrible things to yourself, it's easier to be overly logical and conveniently detached.

As "Shapeless" progresses, and as I got older, I let more emotion in. I started to recognize the correlation between how I treated myself and the things that happened to me as a result. I began to work with my body instead of against it. I stopped trying to bend it to my will and listened. It's strange to say, but as a retired dancer, I feel more connected to my body now than ever before. Yes, dancing gave me body awareness, but building a relationship with my body gave me body love.

6. Upon returning from Paris, you have a healthier relationship with food and your memories reflect this. Was this, coupled with nutrition courses, what set you toward learning balance with food?

Paris was eye-opening on a number of levels. Culturally, they are so ahead of the U.S. in terms of their approach to food and general fitness. Yes, French food can be fatty and rich, and I've been at a few dinners that lasted hours and hours. But the French savor their food. They take pride in preparing it. They're all about fresh ingredients and food free of preservatives. They're active on a more consistent basis than Americans; where we go to the gym in quick spurts, they walk everywhere and movement is a daily part of life. I'm sure I'm romanticizing it a lot, but that trip really showed me what a relationship with food could be. Nutrition courses were invaluable as well. I needed a dose of science, of reality, to truly understand what I'd been doing to myself. Was I my healthiest, physically and emotionally, in college? No. But I definitely started to heal at that time, thanks to education and a break from American culture.

7. Has dance been both enemy and savior?

Ouch. Yes. On one hand, dance has been one of the most freeing, beautiful, healthy things in my life. There are certain things I can only express through dance, and you build so much emotional intelligence through tapping into that. There's something amazing about giving absolutely everything you are - breath, sinew, bone, muscle, emotion, brain - to a dance floor. Without a word, you can tell a whole story, and your audience is along for the ride. And honestly, it takes guts and self confidence to get up on a stage. Dance makes you brave. It takes a ton of dedication. There are so many things I Iearned from dance that I apply to non dance-related things in my life. 

Unfortunately, dance is also part of the dreaded entertainment industry, which can be such a dark place. If you want to go pro, which I did, you skin has to be both flawless and thick. When you have that first encounter with the real world and you discover that for that casting director, your aesthetic is more important than your ability, well, yeah, that's going to do a number on some people. Luckily, I've seen a lot of progress in the dance world. I'm not saying we've transcended the superficial nature of the business, but I do see more and more dancers of every shape and size out there. And that makes me so happy, because it's positively influencing how others see themselves. If I'd seen more of that when I was younger, I wonder if "Shapeless" would've been a different story. 

AWP17: Meet the Readers

We are gearing up for the annual AWP conference next week, and this year, Under the Gum Tree is partnering with River Teeth and Fourth Genre for an exclusive event dedicated to creative nonfiction. Nine readers, three from each publication, will read to AWP attendees live at Shaw's Tavern, on February 10 from 6-8 p.m. Please continue on to learn more about Under the Gum Tree's talented contributors and read excerpts from their contributions to our January issue.

Yahdon Israel is a twenty-six-year old writer from Bed-Stuy, Brooklyn, who writes about race, class, gender, and culture in America. He has written for Avidly, The New Inquiry, EPSNW and Brooklyn Magazine. He's a contributing editor at LitHub; he recently graduated with his MFA in creative nonfiction from the New School, and runs a popular Instagram feed which promotes literature and fashion under the hashtag #literaryswag. Above all else, he keeps it lit.

from Dorian (January 2017 Issue)

"The light-skin daughter was being asphyxiated with compliments having everything to do with her mother using her as an attempt to prove she could make her what she wasn't: 'People never believe me when I tell them she's my daughter.' The aunt could only say but so much. In her willingness to agree, she seemed incapable of producing an original thought. It looked as though thinking was never her purpose. Her purpose had been the same as her niece's: to be a muse for someone else."

Carol D. Marsh's essay "Pictures in Leaves," won the 2016 New Millenium Writings Nonfiction Prize. The book from which "Highest and Best" is excerpted, Nowhere Else I Want to Be: A Memoir will be published in January 2017. Excerpts have appeared in Soundings Review (Honorable Mention, 2014 First Publications Contest), bioStories, and Jenny magazine. Visit her website:

from Highest and Best (January 2017 Issue)

"Sometimes we exchange words and grunts, but mostly we are quiet except for the sounds of Rebecca's patient, heavy breathing and the water sloshing in the basin. The routine is familiar and comforting—Rebecca's mute acceptance of the intimacy, the cleansing of skin with soapy water and sweet-smelling lotion, the clean diaper fitted snugly around her hips, the satisfaction of a tidy bed and the comfort of another pillow or a sip of ice water, the leave taking with Rebecca already falling asleep."

andrea roach.jpg

Andrea Roach is a writer of memoir, essays, and creative nonfiction who lives and works in Boston, Massachusetts. She received her MFA in Creative Writing from Lesley University and was a finalist for The Writer's Room of Boston Fellowship Award. Currently, she is working on personal narrative essays and the third draft of her first novel, a memoir, about the blurred lines of love, family, and violence. Her work has also appeared in Blavity.

from The Lies We Call Hope (January 2017 Issue)

"I saw the Avery girl, about a decade later. It was the eighties, the era when crack cocaine was devouring the black community. She was standing on a street corner, selling her ass for money or drugs. Her emaciated body swayed as she walked in circles, barely covered with ripped jean shorts and a stretched sleeveless T-shirt that revealed her sagging breasts. Fake hair was weaved into her head, or maybe it was a wig. It was long and crimped and fell down her back, wild. Her eyes looked empty. I knew it was the Avery girl because of the thick shiny scar that marred her cheek."

The readers from River Teeth will be David Lazar, Steven Harvey, and Angela Morales, and the readers from Fourth Genre are Jen Palmares Meadows, Will Jennings, and Alis SandosharajWe're always thrilled to attend AWP every year, especially when we're able to bring so many voices together in a night of telling true stories. We couldn't do it without our readers and for this, we thank them. Opportunities like these make storytelling meaningful and inspiring. If you'll be in Washington D.C. next week we hope to see you on Friday night! 


Pushcart Prize Nominations

Under the Gum Tree is proud to announce 2016's Pushcart Prize nominations. The Pushcart Prize is an American literary prize published by Pushcart Press that honors the best pieces published in small presses over the previous year. Magazine and small book press editors are invited to submit up to six works they have featured. For us here at Under the Gum Tree, we're delighted to nominate these talented authors: Dorian Fox, Ira Sukrungruang, Matt Young, Sarah Wells, Stephen D. Gutierrez, and Rebekah Taussig. Read below for excerpts from the nominations.

1. "The Other First" by Dorian Fox (January 2016)

When I think of my first kiss, I usually imagine the dark, huge, carpeted rec room of Orchard Hill Church in the suburbs of Pittsburgh, where dances for middle schoolers were often held. I imagine the voice of Whitney Houston, belting the earth-shaking notes of 'I Will Always Love You' over the sound system while dozens of couples swayed awkwardly in the flicker of green laser lights. And I imagine Courtney Dover, my first girlfriend, who was generous enough to let me press my open mouth on hers and swirl my tongue around for twenty seconds.

That first kiss story is my go-to narrative, the story I've told, in some form, to anyone who's asked over the years. But it's not entirely true. The first time I felt another person's mouth on mine, who was not related to me, happened when I was ten years old, not thirteen. The person was my next-door neighbor, Nathan.

Nathan was one year older than me. We became friends shortly after my family moved from Chicago to Pittsburgh, midway through the summer before I started third grade. I don’t remember the circumstances of meeting him, but it must have occurred sometime in those first sticky-humid months, while I was still acclimating to our beige colonial with the blue shutters and smaller backyard, and the new difficult terrain around it, straining against my bike pedals on the hilly streets of our suburban development. Chicago had been flat, and it would be weeks before I could manage the steeper hills without hopping off to push.

2. "The Animatronic Dog" by Ira Sukrungruang (April 2016)

Rover seems real to me the way real dogs were real. I wanted to pet his animatronic head, made out of synthetic hair. I wanted to snuggle against his animatronic side, feel the thrum of gears that made him work. I wanted to sniff his animatronic breath, which carried the scent of oil. Rover, even without life, even if programmed to do the same thing for decades, was an example of family stability, and family stability, though I did not know it then, was what mattered most to me.

A strange thought came to me: What if my mother and father could be on display, too, that we could be robots and last forever?

Here is my mother sporting a beehive hairdo and a pastel housedress, and my father in a pink golfing polo and brown slacks. Here is my mother sewing Thai dresses under the Buddha in our living room, and my father putting at a masking tape X on the teal carpet. And here is me, their chubby son, glasses like petri dishes, sliding down the stairs in a laundry basket, and the glorious sound I would make, the shrill screech of happiness, the sudden rush of air that tousles his soft hair.  We would travel reincarnated lifetimes: a Thai family in the Wild West, my mother driving the horses, my father with a holstered revolver protecting our livestock; a family in Siam before the fall of Sukhothai, my father standing strong against the Burmese, my mother crying for the safety of his life; a family witnessing the blessing of the real Gotama Buddha under the weighty branches of a Bodhi tree - we would be birds nested in the top branch.

3. "The Body is Not a Coffin" by Sarah Wells (April 2016)

We talk about "the future" and "our plans" since this last miscarriage two weeks ago. I had heard the heartbeat, saw the seed on the ultrasound screen, returned to the doctor in Akron who frowned and said he was sorry, he knows how much we've been through. It is the sixth time I have known I was pregnant, the fourth time we have miscarried. "I don't know if we will try again," I said. "This is getting hard. My husband is tired of this, tired of seeing me like this, tired of feeling like this."

But I'm not ready to say enough. These are our discussions and our separate inner monologues, as if we have any say in what comes from this womb, what will be birthed, what will die. As if my decisions mean anything at all. But they do. I am ready to risk pouring out my heart, like lavender oil in a pot, before Him, ready to risk hope in the face of possible grief, possible disappointment. It means healing and embalming and cleansing and preparing and protecting, it is casting my bread upon the waters. Is it audacious to believe that this God cares deeply about me? But I believe anyway, in a loving, compassionate, patient, merciful, just, mysterious, powerful God of the universe and God of this dining room. He is the Spirit embodied in my daughter preparing for the baby's return with spoons. He is ever-present and hears the prayers of our daughter for her long-gone dog, for the grandfather she never met, for the baby in heaven, and I hear these prayers and my spirit cracks and heals, cracks and heals. He is the God who remembered Rachel, heard her and opened her womb. I don't know what that means, but I feel the verbs: remember, hear, open.

4. "Equal and Opposite" by Matt Young (July 2016)

An explosive detonates, because that is what explosives do. That is is the explosive's SOP. Step one: Explosive is built. Step two: Explosive is placed. Step three: Explosive is detonated.

There is little damage to our lead truck, which has triggered the explosive - a blown-out tire, some scorching of the steel armor. The explosive was placed too far off the road. We'll learn later that even small blasts needle into our brains, cause slight compoundable concussive incidents. We never blame the blast - that is only what blasts do.

People are inside their homes, have shuttered their businesses. Only an hour ago the shops were open and bustling, people swept from dust and dirt, children sold kerosene like we once sold lemonade.

Our trucks halt, because after a blast that is what we've been trained to do. That is our SOP. If a vehicle can push through a kill zone, it does. If it is disabled it stays put and the subsequent trucks disperse to a stand-off distance, obtain situational awareness and casualty reports, and assess the situation.

A group of men meerkat in the distance and we stare them down with tiger eyes behind bulletproof windows. Charlie, next to me, repeats over and over in his Oklahoma drawl, "Motherfuckers," which comes out, "Muhfuckers." The rest of us say nothing, and when the relay comes over the radio that everyone is five by five we rocket open the doors and pursue the meerkat men, because that is what tigers do.

5. "Spiritual Direction" by Stephen D. Gutierrez (October 2016)

Just above her head on the green wall, an office green with a soothing yellow undertone, a nuclear bomb explodes. The telltale gray mushroom forms and dissolves in an instant. I am not on drugs. I don't take heavy meds. It's a common image in my head nowadays. I fear the world community has forgotten the horror of Hiroshima and Nagasaki and are ready to accept nuclear as feasible. 'I think without prayer we would have been dead a long time ago.'

"Well, how about that?" she says. She's a hero. I consider her and all the varied religious who have prayed for peace over the past six decades the saviors of the world, the ones who have generated the energy to prevent horrible accidents and miscalculations in the war rooms of the Soviet Union and United States and China.  I am nuts about energy . It's the single proof of religion I have - that flow you enter almost casually when you let go and trust, have faith, believe - surrender to fate - and indisputably know it is at work for you; that flow with its many odd occurrences and synchronicities baffling the odds makers, disproving the the proponents of randomness. It doesn't need arguing to establish itself as real. It is real. It is mighty. It is awesome. It is scary.

"Are you afraid of death?" I ask her.

"No, I'm not, Steve," she says. Death is so simple, so natural. I've seen so much of it.  It's nothing to be afraid of. It's life you've got to watch out for." Her eyes twinkle.

6. "Reupholstered" by Rebekah Taussig (October 2016)

When Lydia asks me in the coffee shop if she can pray for me, her smile steady and sweet, my head explodes with the word 'no.' No. No. No, no, no, I do not want you to pray for my healing. As if my story's resolution won't arrive until I move from place to place with legs instead of wheels? Lydia can see the effects of childhood cancer on my incapacitated legs, but she can't peer behind my ribcage and scan the self-inflicted battle-wounds lining my insides, accumulated over decades of self-loathing for my differences and deformities. Surely she couldn't imagine the planet of energy it required to build a sturdy sense of wholeness - to let myself be seen gripping the side of my car as I drag my legs across the pavement to put gas in the tank, to allow my partner to watch me prop my torso against the sink as I try to balance well enough to floss my teeth, to hold onto affection for my strange and twisted story - a story that doesn't need walking legs or proportioned limbs to find resolution. I grip onto my sense of self so tightly, and my hand slips so easily.

Lydia is taking a risk with me - reaching out into a world of strangers with an attempt at what she must see as kindness. I share that desire to connect. I can even recognize in this moment that she does not intend to make me feel embarassed or inadequate. But in a room full of all kinds of bodies, she has singled me out as the Defective, herself as the Pipeline to My Restoration. "Oh, no thanks," I say. "I don't think I am comfortable with that."

Meet the Author: Sarah E. Bode

Sarah E. Bode's storytelling began with her Barbies; since then her creative work has been published in Cahoots Quarterly, Cigale Literary Magazine, and Five Quarterly (along with various articles found in the folds of Palaver, an interdisciplinary journal she co-founded in 2012). She currently lives in Brooklyn #twerkingfortomes at Oxford University Press. Sarah explores the city's coffee (counter) culture in an on-going montage of first dates.

Q. When and why did you start writing? What inspires your writing most now? 

I wrote my first short story in seventh grade, but I've been telling stories since my Barbie doll days. From Barbies to Sims to short stories to a horrible attempt at a novel length text at age 14 to torrid fanfiction to AP test essays to personal essays. But I distinctly remember the feeling I got when I completed my first written short story in the seventh grade. I turned in 23 pages, 20 pages past what was required by my Language Arts teacher. That feeling is something I've heard most other writers reflect - the unloading of yourself onto the page, whether fictionalized self or your naked truth. It was that feeling that kept me putting a cursor to the screen. What inspires me to write most now is living life and harvesting those life experiences in my personal essays. And of course, the current political circus is also highly inspiring as well as amusing and horrifying.

Q. Why are you drawn to nonfiction?  

I could say I'm drawn to nonfiction because it allows me to reflect on my life and choices and experiences and learn from mistakes, yada yada yada. But I think the more honest response is that I'm drawn to nonfiction because writing creative non-fiction, specifically personal essays, gives my self-centeredness and narcissism a place to play. What also factors into the joy of writing nonfiction is the different kinds of creativity that the form encourages. It's also a favorite turn of phrase of my father to exclaim when telling me about some news story or the like, "You can't make this shit up."

Q. You're featured in our Soundtrack section. How important is music in your everyday life?

As it's apparent in the sections about my family, music always had a presence in my upbringing. Whether it was being forced to listen to my father's favorite guitarist, Stevie Ray Vaughn, or watching musicals with my mother, or learning how to play the violin, or prancing around in my backyard with a Walkman belting out tunes - music has always been pumping in the background of my life. Most moments I remember, I associate with songs, as my essay explores. As far as my life now, music is available anytime, anywhere, and everywhere. I keep having to delete pictures off my iPhone, because I've choked its storage with songs. There's music leaking through the open doors of storefronts as I walk down my street in Brooklyn. Friends post new music videos to my Facebook wall, telling me, "YAS QUEEN." And while I stopped playing violin long ago, and since moving to the city, I don't have a car to sing in any longer and have been sequestered to my shower, music is still a constant. Always there in the background, ebbing and flowing into the consciousness of traversing my experiences.

Q. In your piece, you describe feeling both oppressed and free. How has music shaped this?

Natural responses to music can be very telling in a person, whether it's to dance or drum or sing. Mine is singing. This is how I best connect to music, how I feel it pulse through me, how I follow its themes and apply them to my own life. When it comes to singing along to music that I love (or in the case of my father's repeated classic rock soundtrack of my childhood, tolerated) there's a strong need within me to stick with the artists actual lyrics. For me, singing along is freedom to be loud and make noise and disturb the airwaves around me. But then there's also this oppression of being stuck to the artist's intentions, especially since I'm certainly no songwriter or musician. The oppression is also linked to my father making me sing his songs on repeat.

Q. There's a fascinating hold music has over us, and you explore this throughout your piece. Why do you think music in particular has this power? And do you find yourself battling against certain songs for the memories they hold?

Absolutely, music has this power. Often songs have memories for me, whether it was playing during a first kiss or I cried along to it in my car driving away from heartbreak. And throughout the essay, I tried to navigate the space between that music and those memories. I want to separate them, but I don't. I can still enjoy songs even though upon the first strums or breathy meows, I am hearkened away to my past for a couple of chords. I think for me, the essay in some fashion was about coming to terms with that fact, instead of continuing the struggle to separate. 


Meet the Author: Anara Guard

Anara Guard is a fiction writer and poet who has lived in Chicago, Minnesota, New England, and now Sacramento. She received the John Crowe Ransom Poetry Prize from Kenyon College and attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in fiction. Her poems were recently included in Convergence and Late Peaches, an anthology of Sacramento poets. Her new collection of short stories, Remedies for Hunger (New Wind Publishing), received four stars from the Chicago Book Review and was featured in their Best Books of 2015 list. She is currently working on a novel, set in Chicago in 1970.

Q. When and why did you start writing? What inspires your writing most now?

I wrote as a child and still have a copy of an early story which involved a shoe salesman who was sorrowful at how the customers mistreated their old shoes, tossing them aside in favor of the new, shiny ones. In college I focused more on poetry and then during years of raising children, I primarily wrote in my journal and published professional, nonfiction pieces. About ten years ago, I made writing a priority again and have produced a number of short stories, as well as working on two novels.

Q. Why are you drawn to nonfiction?

I admire how essays can combine the language of poetry and the creativity of fiction with the ring of truth that permeates nonfiction. When I read good fiction, I am living it; when I read good nonfiction, I learn as well.

Q. In regards to participating in Under the Gum Tree's creative nonfiction simulcast, what are the best parts of speaking/reading to a live audience?

There is, of course, heightened adrenaline in speaking to a live audience. Their reactions instantly let me know whether my humor succeeded, or if they feel what I intended. My words and the audience’s response create a richer, deeper experience that is like theater. Since I usually create in a lone, quiet space, I value such interactions.

Q. Do you think you sympathized more with your father as an adult or as a teenager?

Oh, I definitely sympathize more with him now, as an adult. I understand him better and the forces that shape his life.

Q. Why did you choose to end the piece with the image of the unripened bananas? What did they symbolize for you?

He was so amazed that green bananas were not a different type of fruit than yellow ones are, and I was, in turn, so astonished that he hadn’t ever learned that simple fact. In this instance, his naiveté had kept him green. But he wants to keep learning, to “ripen.” We bought the green bananas as a symbol of hope, even knowing that they will age, just as he is aging.

Q. Do you think your father's fear/understanding of his incompetence is a fear we all face as we get older?

I don’t think there are universal fears that ALL of us face, but no doubt there are common themes that many of us will recognize and experience. Men of his era (the WWII generation) have more resistance to feeling incompetent—at any age. 

Q. Are there common themes between your pieces that you like to explore? Do you use your work to come to a place of understanding or is your work a reflection of reaching an understanding prior?

I like to explore what it might be like to be in another person’s skin—to experience a situation from a perspective different from my own. To me, imagination is at the heart of compassion, and compassion can help expand one’s imagination. The process of writing helps me figure out and understand what I want to say. It’s like having a great conversation with a friend who knows me well!

Meet the Author: Rebekah Taussig

Rebekah Taussig is finishing her PhD from the University of Kansas and lives in a little, old house with two chunky cats in Kansas City. Her work often questions what it means to live in a particular body, and you can always find her pressing into this inquiry on her Instagram account @sitting_pretty. She is thrilled that her first published piece "Reupholstered" has found a home in Under the Gum Tree.

Q.     When and why did you start writing? What inspires your writing most now?

I wrote my first book when I was about five or six years old. I snatched a giant stack of computer paper, folded off the perforated edges, folded the pages in half, and told a story with pictures and a few words about a dark blue car driving through torrents of rain. As I got older, I wrote cheesy poems about sunsets and spider-webs, filled my journal pages with rants and confessions, and wrote essays for class about the absurdity of calories and cliques. I filled my undergraduate degree with strange and quirky short fiction and spent a good chunk of my life writing academic papers about Victorian literature during my master’s degree. But from the blue car driving through the rain to the analysis of disability representations in nineteenth century novels, I think I’ve always been drawn to writing because life confuses me. My inside world and my outside world often clash. I can feel confused, far away, disconnected, alone, bewildered. Writing feels like the bridge—the tool that allows me to make connections, build something I can grip onto—even if it’s just choosing the precise words to crystalize the moment I felt the universe would find a way to hold itself together when I glimpsed the light shimmy through a spider-web.

Q.     Why are you drawn to nonfiction?

I had been writing academic papers about disability and literature for years when I stumbled into my first creative nonfiction workshop. This was the first time I wrote directly about my own paralyzed body. I remember crafting the scene about the afternoon I overheard a friend say he didn’t want me to come sledding because he didn’t want to have to lug “that cripple” up the hill. It was a sharp, painful memory, but as I built it on the page—weaving and whittling it into a shape that felt honest—I felt awake and full. Creative nonfiction can be cathartic for both the reader and the writer, but it is also playful. It invites and empowers. It allows me to write about the things that catch me in the throat, without having to invent a cloak or a pretense.

Also, as a person with a disability, I believe that narrating my own, personal experience is a revolutionary act, and one I hope more and more people will do. Historically, people with disabilities have been written over and spoken for. Representing myself, as myself, participates in changing a larger cultural script that traditionally confines folks with disabilities.

Q.     What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

If Joy Castro and Eula Biss have taught me anything about creative nonfiction, every event, macro or micro, can evolve into a compelling story. In my own work, I am drawn to write about the events that won’t stop nettling me—that keep coming back to me during the day and when I’m trying to fall asleep at night, that make me feel things I can’t quite explain. This is exactly what happened with “Reupholstered.” After Lydia prayed for me in the coffee shop, I felt like I couldn’t breathe, and I didn’t understand why. For weeks, I kept bringing the incident up in conversation. It wouldn’t leave my mind—I could feel it clinging to the inside of my body. I started writing, and I still didn’t fully understand, but that unrelenting curiosity is the very juice that brings me back to the fourth and fifth and sixth drafts—the drafts where connections are discovered and hard-earned revelations decide to emerge. I also think this curiosity is the thread that leads us toward universal connections—when we dig and dig and keep digging for the motivations behind the motivations, I think (I hope) we find each other, all working out our own unique versions of shame, healing, fear, empowerment, loss, and reclamation.

Q.     Lydia's kindness in "Reupholstered" is somewhat marred by her blatant ableism. Is this a conversation/interaction you endure often?

People offering to pray over my body for its healing is something that happens relatively often. People making assumptions about me based on my physicality—that my partner is my hired care-taker, that I must wish to live in a body different than the one I have, that I don’t have a sexuality, that my life is forever tinged with a bit of tragedy, that I can’t open a door, get my wheelchair in and out of my own car, or carry my own grocery bags—happens regularly. It’s not possible to extract ableism from my daily experience. It’s a rhythm I’m sure anyone in an underrepresented, marginalized identity is familiar with—that feeling that you have to fight so hard to be really seen, not as a symbol or a short-hand or a collective face, but as me, my own self with a complicated history and a vibrant, often contradictory inner-world.

Q.     Your piece is a step in the right direction in talking honestly about people with differently abled bodies. Have you found it difficult to express this before?

Before I started writing nonfiction, I don’t think I ever spoke honestly about my particularly abled body, even to myself. Not fully. Despite the fact that I’ve been paralyzed since the age of three, I too was raised in a culture saturated in ableist thinking. My body felt like something to overcome, ignore, rise above—essentially, an object from which to detach. I started reading a lot of writers who engage this conversation with a wealth of intellectual curiosity—Alison Kafer, Andrew Solomon, Eli Clare—and I started to see myself as part of a larger community with a long history and shared stories. I moved hesitantly toward sharing my own stories through an Instagram account called sitting_pretty. (I spent much too long and way too many paper napkins coming up with that clever little name—good grief!). I used (and still use) this virtual space to share brief glimpses into my experiences as a woman with a disability. Very quickly, I felt overwhelmed by the many voices of understanding and support that met me there. I felt connected and seen in a way I’d never experienced before, which has led me to more writing, more sharing, more connecting. I am sure that part of the reason it took me so long to step into the process of narrating my experiences with disability is because I hadn’t seen it modeled. As a culture, we need more stories that represent the idiosyncratic, personal, contradictory experiences of living life with a disability, because stories have the power to shape the way we see each other—they provide a script for how we interact with one another. We need more stories that flip the script surrounding bodies with disabilities.

Q.     The reupholstered couch was perfect as it was before it was "fixed." Why do you think people desire to fix what they perceive as damaged? Do you think this reflects more about them than anything else?

I think that part of this impulse to categorize things as marred versus flawless, defected versus perfect, used versus fresh, broken versus whole comes from an illusion that we can wipe the slate clean, sanitize the instruments, fight off deterioration and decay and maintain a sense of control. I think we lose something when we do this. In an attempt to fight off what we’ve come to perceive as “damaged,” we erase and ignore the very stuff of life—stretch marks, scars, thread-bare pillow cushions, paralyzed legs—all evidence of vibrant, excessive, full-bodied, screaming-from-the-rooftops life. At least, this is how I’ve come to see it.  

Meet the Author: Stephen D. Gutierrez

Stephen D. Gutierrez has published three books of stories and essays. Live from Fresno y Los won an American Book Award, and The Mexican Man in His Backyard is his most recent. He has published widely in magazines and anthologies, including nonfiction in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Under the Sun, Alaska Quarterly Review, Third Coast, ZYZZYVA, and Cleaver Magazine. He is working on a collection of essays and hybrid nonfiction. He teaches at California State University East Bay. Stephen also participated in Under the Gum Tree's recent national nonfiction simulcast, reading from his piece featured in our October issue, "Spiritual Direction."

Q: When and why did you start writing? What inspires your writing most now?

I started writing in college but I had always been a good writer. I always considered myself one inside. I started doing it seriously after being tremendously inspired by quality literature in an English class in my miserable last year of high school. It gave me a path forward, the call. What inspires me most now is the wish not to waste whatever gift I may have and be regretful on my deathbed because I could have done more. While I can do it, I think it would be a shame not to write. As well, I read my contemporaries and convince myself I have something to add to the literary conversation that is exclusive in its way—that is a bit different, that is me.

Q. Why are you drawn to nonfiction?

In nonfiction you can be more direct and straightforward than in fiction. Really, you can write more nakedly and openly absent the required fictional mask of irony and authorial distance that yields its own rewards but that is always a mediating disguise. You can cry plainly in sight in nonfiction, which can be moving for the reader as well. Also, its confessional aspect appeals to my need to come clean.

Q. What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

Really anything that moves you enough to want to articulate it fiercely and exactingly for another person to experience is potential material. I suppose we go after that part of experience that isn't easily translatable or explained to justify our words, and whatever brought awe to you is worth trying to pass on. Often these are very private moments that don't seem worthwhile, but I think they are—the micro, the macro, the personal, the political, the act of writing itself—it's all worth writing about if you're passionate enough about it. Whatever excites your passion is your subject.

Q. You refer to God as female in "Spiritual Direction." Is there a reason for this subversion of the typical gender assigned to God?

It's automatic now. "God" doesn't exist. There's no big man in the sky. Everybody knows that. So when we speak of God we are of course speaking of something else; what that something else is confounds me and everybody else, though people are getting close when labeling it an energy, a flow, a rightness with the universe due to certain moral precepts propounded by many religions for a long time, or just right decisions that are most in tune with your elemental self. Anyway, to refer to "God" as "he" is a trap. Immediately, we see the old man, and that's not tenable anymore. "She" has its own risks because of reanimating the old human figure of God, but she's novel, and new, and might contain the power I'm talking about for the time being. She might serve us well as we grapple with this new, evolving notion of divinity. And we might learn that she is realer than we expected, only different.

Q. Sister Carmen Rodriguez has a deep, spiritual connection to her history and culture. Is this the spiritual direction you are seeking?

No, we're very different. I'm in a different place, historically, culturally. I even have trouble identifying myself as "Latino" sometimes, it seems false to my real life and sensibility. If anything, I'd advocate everybody breaking free from their histories and cultures as completely as they can. For me, the sign of a healthy culture is that its individual members grow out of the culture recognizing that it shouldn't be privileged or honored or regarded in any special way. It's just a vessel for the inculcation of absolute respect for the worthiness of every single human being outside that culture. With that said, you can draw on what is good in your culture or has been fructifying, and Sister Carmen makes me proud to be Mexican-American. She has strength and mercy and compassion in equal measure, and she has a spirit that is Mexican-American that is mine, I recognize it, and I honor it. I don't know what spiritual direction I wish to be pointed in or what I want spiritually, but I also think that is exactly the right frame of mind to have about all things spiritual. I'm lost, I'm okay. I'm not arrogant, I'm just trying to be as open as possible.

Q. You write, "Without prayer we should have been dead a long time ago." Even as you struggle with disbelief, you recognize the power of prayer. What accounts for that?

I think it's true. As I said above, I believe we're dealing with energies and forces we don't understand yet when talking about religion and prayer. My gut tells me that all the lonely monks and devoted sisters and religious of all kinds have saved the world from nuclear destruction through their constant intercession on behalf of peace, of sanity, of life on earth instead of death and destruction. I think it's the most sensible thing to do nowadays, pray against nuclear holocaust and for peace, without the assurance of a big ear in the sky bent toward you. Indeed, with the certitude that no such ear exists, desperation is added to the prayer-energy, and that must count. Prayer is serious business. It wouldn't have lasted so long if it wasn't.

Q. In regards to participating in our creative nonfiction simulcast, what are the best parts of speaking/reading to a live audience?

I'm usually nervous before a reading of any kind even though I've been doing them for a while. The main benefit is selfish. I'm told I'm a pretty good reader, and when I feel the power of the words read right coming through me, I'm inspired to keep writing. I'm very doubtful about myself as a writer sometimes, very down on my abilities and calling, and getting up and reading and getting some good feedback from audience members and feeling good about myself doing it is all positive. I think, Shit, I should keep doing this. I should never quit. 

Meet the Readers of our October 29th Creative Nonfiction Simulcast

We could not be more pleased to be hosting a cross-continent Creative Nonfiction Reading Simulcast. Our co-collaborators include Hippocampus, River Teeth, and Creative Nonfiction. This live streaming event on Google Hangouts will celebrate the art of writing creative nonfiction. Contributors from these magazines will honor us and entertain you by reading a bit of their work.

For information regarding times and event locations, please visit our live event page.

To learn more about the featured readers for this amazing event, read on!

Readers for Creative Nonfiction

Jeff Oaks' most recent chapbook, Mistakes with Strangers, was published by Seven Kitchens Press. A recipient of three Pennsylvania Council of the Arts fellowships, he has published poems in a number of literary magazines, most recently in Assaracus, Barrow Street, Field, Nimrod, and Tupelo Quarterly. His essays have appeared in At Length, Kenyon Review Online, and Creative Nonfiction, and in the anthologies My Diva: 65 Gay Men on the Women Who Inspire Them and Brief Encounters: A Collection of Contemporary Nonfiction. He teaches writing at the University of Pittsburgh.






Brian Broome is an English and creative writing major at Chatham University in Pittsburgh, PA. His work has appeared in Creative Nonfiction.

Readers for Under the Gum Tree


Stephen D. Gutierrez has published three books of stories and essays. Live from Fresno y Los won an American Book Award, and The Mexican Man in His Backyard is his most recent. He has published widely in magazines and anthologies, including nonfiction in Fourth Genre, River Teeth, Under the Sun, Alaska Quarterly Review, Third Coast, ZYZZYVA and Cleaver Magazine. He is working on a collection of essays and hybrid nonfiction. He teaches at California State University East Bay.





Anara Guard is a fiction writer and poet who has lived in Chicago, Minnesota, New England, and now Sacramento. She received the John Crowe Ransom Poetry Prize from Kenyon College and attended the Bread Loaf Writers' Conference in fiction. Her poems were recently included in Convergence and Late Peaches, an anthology of Sacramento poets. Her new collection of short stories, Remedies for Hunger (New Wind Publishing), received four stars from the Chicago Book Review and was featured in their Best Books of 2015 list. She is currently working on a novel, set in Chicago in 1970.

Readers for Hippocampus

Laurie Jean Cannady, Ph.d. has published an array of articles and essays on poverty in America, community and domestic violence, and women's issues. She has also spoken against sexual assault in the military at West Point.

Her memoir, Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul was named one of the best nonfiction books by black authors in 2015 by The Root online magazine. A Kirkus review describes Crave: Sojourn of a Hungry Soul as a "bold, honest, and courageous memoir." Foreword Reviews named Crave a finalist in the Indiefab Book of the Year 2015 competition in the autobiography/memoir category.

Cannady currently resides in central Pennsylvania with her husband, Chico Cannady, and their three children. She teaches English at Lock Haven University of Pennsylvania.



Stephanie Andersen lives in Reading, Pennsylvania, with two of her daughters, her husband, stepson, and two dogs. Her work, twice listed as Notable in Best American Essays and twice nominated for Pushcart Prizes, can be found in Brain, Child Magazine, Stoneboat Literary Journal, and The Washington Post. She is currently working on a memoir that details her journey toward healing after giving her daughter up for adoption and examines what it really means to be a mother. She teaches writing at Reading Area Community College and, in her spare time, she teaches Zumba and watches birds.

Thank you Laurie, Stephanie, Jeff, Brian, Stephen, and Anara for participating in this event! It's an honor to work with you. A special thank you as well to our friends at Hippocampus, Creative Nonfiction, and River Teeth. Thank you for your continued dedication to creative nonfiction!

Three UTGT Essays Listed as Notable in Best American Essays 2016!

These past few weeks have been a whirlwind of excitement. As Under the Gum Tree prepares to celebrate five years of publication (with a revamped magazine design and a national nonfiction simulcast!), we've received amazing news regarding three of our contributors. Their essays are listed as notable in the latest Best American Essays 2016! We could not be more proud of them and we hope you'll join us in congratulating them!

Follow the links below for excerpts from each notable essay, as well as the biographies of the authors who penned them:

  1. "Signs (2002)" by Susannah Clark (April 2015) 
  2. "I Like You" by Steven Simoncic (January 2015)
  3. "Crash" by Daisy Florin (July 2015)

About the Author

Susannah Clark received her MFA in Creative Nonfiction from Emerson College in Boston, where she also taught creative writing and freshman composition. Her work has appeared in publications such as Inside Higher Ed, Extract(s), Rock & Sling and others. She recently won Flyway Journal's Notes on a Field contest in nonfiction, for her personal essay about working as a barista during the Boston Marathon Bombings. She lives in Stillwater, Oklahoma.


About the Author

Steven Simoncic's plays have received productions, readings and worksops at The Goodman, Steppenwolf, Victory Garden, The Second City, Pegasus Players, The Baruch Center for the Performing Arts, Stageplays Theatre, and The Soho Theatre in London. Steven's play, Once Upon a Time in Detroit, was selected as a semi-finalist for the 2013 Eugene 0'Neill Theatre Center's National Playwright Conference, and Heat Wave was recently selected for Steppenwolf Theatre's 2015 Garage Rep season. At the time of the publication of "I Like You," Steven completed critically acclaimed productions of Broken Fences with Ballybeg in New York and 16th Street in Chicago, which was featured in The Chicago Tribune's "Best of 2013."

About the Author

Daisy Alpert Florin grew up in New York City and attended Dartmouth College. Her essays have appeared in Brain, Child, Full Grown People, Minerva Rising and Mamalode. She is the staff editor at Brain, Child and lives with her husband and three children in Connecticut.



Once more, Under the Gum Tree wishes to congratulate Susannah, Steven, and Daisy on this incredible achievement! 

Meet the Author: J. Daniel Thornton

J. Daniel Thornton is sorry if you’ve ever seen him dance. When he’s not writing, he teaches online courses at Miami University and lives in Bloomington, Indiana. He is an Associate Fiction Editor at The Indiana Review. Tay Zonday follows him on Twitter, and you can too: @joethelion23

Joseph’s piece, “Slouching Toward Abu Dhabi”, appears in issue 20 of Under the Gum Tree, published July 2016. 

Q.  When did you start writing and why? What inspires your writing now?

I started writing when I was fifteen or so. It was in some ways out of boredom and it was a lot of bad poetry, and in retrospect it's such a hackneyed story, but in some ways not really. What inspires my writing now is very much what inspired my writing then. I find that it's the odd or out of place things that are fascinating, particularly people who pretend to be something that they're clearly not in some cases. There's a fine line between what makes for an interesting fact, and what will make a good story, but I usually have to commit to that idea and explore it.

Q. Why are you drawn to nonfiction? What can you express through nonfiction?

I'm drawn to nonfiction because it forces me to be in uncomfortable spaces. It's a way of looking from the outside in, and really assessing who you were at the time and what's going on with and around your subject. Of course, you can't always write about these things up close, especially if they're powerful personal experiences. There's also something journalistic about it as well that for me at least, makes me feel that I have to be more fair in my nonfiction to people who appear in it than if they were fictional characters.

Q. You address the guilt you felt for hiding your sexuality from Janice, among other smaller lies. How did writing this piece let you come to terms with that guilt? Do you still carry those emotions with you today, or have you reconciled them?

I think I couldn't write the piece until I had come to terms with some of that. Much of guilt is a useless emotion, but I think that you can easily find yourself mired in it. And I think it would be fair to her that I wrote that essay in a way that was honest without being too self-aggrandizing, but since this is a personal essay, solipsism is something that you can't sidestep. You are, after all, talking about yourself. Janice and I were in an unhealthy relationship at the time, and it's much easier to see what was happening between us than it would have been if I had written about it five years ago. It would have probably been easier to be vindictive, but that would be unfair. We were taking two very different paths in our lives, and I wasn't certain of what I was going to do after college until I started applying to creative writing programs.

Q. Explain the significance of the title of the piece and why Sex and the City 2 came to be equated with the necessary punishment for all your wrongdoings.

The title comes from a Joan Didion collection of essays, "Slouching Towards Bethlehem," which is itself an allusion to W.B. Yeats' poem "The Second Coming." I think watching Sex and the City 2 became equated to me with that rough beast. The film is insufferable because well, everyone in the film is insufferable. But I think the most awful part about it was that these people were never honest with one another. Carrie never really tells Big how she really feels, and instead is pissed when Big wants to stay in after a long day of working. It's as though he has been a mystery to her for the entirety of their relationship, and that's really disappointing, as this is supposed to be about this savvy female writer. It's a film that doesn't deliver on its subject matter.

The more that I read about feminism and came to terms with who I am as a person, the more I was convinced that seeing that film was a bit of a wake up call and a cosmic/karmic payback for me not really being honest with myself and others about who I was or what I wanted in a relationship. That this was my destiny if I continued on the way that I was going to end up in this situation, where I would be watching something abhorrent on a screen and then being thanked for it, as if I had done someone a favor. I have done favors for others and have felt much better about myself that involved becoming entangled in their personal lives, but watching a movie about rich white women and their problems being rich white women is inherently uninteresting.

Q. What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

While I think the material for a story matters, what really matters is how it's executed. I've written (and read) stories that I am convinced have great material, but if you don't write it in the right way it will fall flat, or be terribly boring. But this happens with a lot of stories that I've written too, and it's about halfway through writing it that if its not going well, I'll abandon it and come back to it in a week before I continue.

Q. Why do you think you didn't react like Emily did upon seeing Sex and the City 2, in theaters for the first time with Janice?

I had similar feelings, but to me I was more bewildered than anything else. It was a long time after I saw it that I found that the film was so terrible to many of its characters. Emily was more offended anything else. It was hilariously mean-spirited. And I think she was really shocked that this was something that considered itself to be empowering to women, especially when it consistently disempowered them over and over again, as well as pigeonholed every other minority character on the show at the expense of these white female protagonists.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Katie Martin

Katie Martin is a Phoenix-based writer and graduate of Pacific University’s MFA program. Her work has appeared in several journals, including Green Briar Review, Silk Road, Vol. 1 Brooklyn, Gravel Magazine, and Split Lip Magazine. A chapter of her in-progress memoir has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize. Katie loves planning trips to Disney World and running with her lazy dog.

Katie's piece, "Leash," appears in issue 20 of Under the Gum Tree, published July 2016.

Q. When and why did you start writing? What do you enjoy most about writing and how has it shaped other aspects of your life?

A. When I was about six, I wrote, "I hope to be a writer someday" on a scrap of paper that I still have. I thought that was such a lovely memory until I flipped the page over and saw that I'd also written, "I want to be Indiana Jones" and "I want to be a wood cutter." At least one of those options stuck.

Q. Your piece is a “Flash Feature” this month. What was it like working with such strong emotional depth in a limited amount of space like this one?

A. This essay seemed to lend itself to be a flash piece, since the event itself happened so quickly. For my family, in the early stages of dementia, these odd, emotionally charged little incidents would just pop up, and I didn’t know what to make of them until they were hindsight. It was all those little things that eventually added up to a diagnosis.

Q. Are there common themes between your pieces that you like to explore? Do you use your work to come to a place of understanding or is your work a reflection of reaching an understanding prior?

A. Right now, everything I write seems to be about my dad and this disease, in spite of my best efforts! I'm working on a memoir that centers on his last few years and the changes it brought. I hope that the theme will ultimately be forgiveness and acceptance, not of the disease, but of this life that can be wild and messy and painful and lovely, all at the same time. I try to write from a place of having spent some good time reflecting beforehand. All of this is still a relatively recent event, and I'm sure if I wrote the same story in ten years, it would be completely different. But all I can do is dig in as deep as I can and hope to restore order to some of those memories.

Q. What was your editing process like for a piece that is so intimate? Did you need distance for clarity?

A. I'm not a very good editor, unfortunately! I have a bad habit of writing one . . . painfully . . . slow . . . word . . . at a time. I did need the distance that the years have brought. In the heat of the moment and for several months after, it appeared that my typically mild-mannered dad was just casually strangling our dog. It took some time to realize that it was so much more.

Q. “Leash” was a small, but impactful glimpse into your life. How has your experience affected your writing now? Do you come back to these moments often?

A. This experience has radically changed me and completely changed my writing. I’ve learned so much about people and how we all experience loss and grow from it. I think writing has taught me to pay better attention to the life around me—to try to see deeper than the circumstances right in front of us. It’s easy to look back on those moments in life and wish you had known then what you know now. But as we all know, it doesn’t work that way. And maybe it shouldn’t. I think all these events shape us into (hopefully) stronger people, and we wouldn’t be the same without them.

Q. Dementia is a disease in which all parties suffer. What was the biggest takeaway you wanted your audience to have considering it is a disease that we, as both a society and in terms of medicine, still know so little about?

A. Researchers are expecting that the number or people with some form of dementia will jump from 5.2 million to 13.8 million by 2050. It is absolutely sweeping our country, and it’s hugely important for all of us to understand what it is and what it isn’t. Dementia is way more than losing your train of thought or misplacing your keys or even forgetting names. It’s not romantic, (even though, yes, I still love The Notebook). It can destroy families, because the behavior coming from the loved one is so confusing in the early stages. We’re not used to a disease changing someone’s personality as quickly and dramatically as dementia does. These people often lose their marriages, their friendships, and their jobs. Someone incredibly sick can become homeless in a scarily short amount of time. I hope that readers will take away some compassion for these individuals and their caregivers. I hope they know just a little bit of what to look for, and maybe not be as caught off guard as my mom and I were if someone in their family suddenly starts acting like a different person. I hope they can forgive themselves for the way they’ve treated the people they love and forgive those people for the way they’ve been treated. I think sharing our stories can only help us all treat each other a little better, a little kinder, a little more human.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Katherine Groppo

Katherine Groppo is an educator and mother of two who lives in Sacramento, California, where she participates in writing workshops in her community. She is a graduate of the University of California, San Diego, where she majored in English Literature.

Katherine's piece, "Mixtape," appears in issue 20 of Under the Gum Tree, published July 2016.

Q. When and why did you start writing? What do you enjoy most about writing and how has it shaped other aspects of your life?

A. When I was little I had one of those small diaries with a tiny lock. Initially, I was attracted to the notion that if I wrote a lot, I must have very important secrets indeed. Then in high school I realized that I loved spending time searching for just the right turn of phrase to convey a thought. I loved revising my own journal entries, even though I never had an audience. Now, if I ever look back at those old volumes I'm mortified at the silliness of my musings and how seriously I took myself. But it's also a happy reminder that I've grown since then, and hopefully am continuing to grow. 

In high school and college I never took a writing class because I was too scared. The very idea of reading something I'd penned in front of others gave me horrors. It wasn't until I became an adult that I decided it was kind of boring to write without ever having an audience. I joined a writer's workshop, which reignited my enthusiasm for the craft. Today I experience writing as both a gratifying intellectual exercise and also as a way to force myself to pause in the midst of my often-chaotic daily life long enough to figure out what I'm actually thinking and feeling on a deeper level.

Q. Your piece is featured in “Soundtrack” this month. Does music heavily influence your other work? Are there any artists or songs you listen to on repeat that help you write?

A. In 2005 I actually wrote a how-to article about creating a club for sharing compilation CD's based on my experiences forming a "mix club" with a bunch of friends whose musical tastes I admired. Each month one of us would create a mix CD, burn copies, and then distribute them to the other members. We had a successful five-year run, but eventually disbanded because it became so cumbersome compared to just turning on Pandora. I still listen to a lot of those mixes, though. 

I prefer silence when I'm writing because I find music or ambient conversation distracting. I'm a big lyric-listener, and am drawn to songs in which the artists' voices are clear and there's a story being told. My brain always wants to decipher the underlying meaning, so I can't just tune it out and enjoy working to the beat. 

Q. Why do you feel music has such a profound effect on us?

A. I think one reason is that music is a way for us to connect our past with our present. For example, I have a vivid memory of the first time I heard the song and saw the music video for Sinead O'Connor's "Nothing Compares to You." I was fourteen and at a discotheque in Mexico, and I could not take my eyes off the large screen on the wall. When Prince recently passed away, I heard somewhere that he'd actually written those lyrics, and that night came rushing back, complete with all my internal emotions and physical sensations of that time and place. I immediately downloaded a copy, along with bunch of Prince songs that I hadn't listened to in years, and played it for my family. The song was like a mental catapult back in time. I ended up sharing anecdotes about that phase of my life with my husband and kids.

Q. Do you feel the shift from mixtape to online playlists has changed the relationship between “creator” and “listeners” of mixtapes/playlists? How so?

A. I feel extremely lucky to have been a teenager during the relatively brief period when mixtapes were so prevalent. It wasn't until cassettes overtook vinyl records as the dominant music format that they were even possible, and today proprietary laws about sharing music files make the gifting of playlists unfeasible. It's effortless to create a playlist, and listen on one's own device, but that's an entirely different act than laboriously manipulating a cassette recorder to produce a physical object, which can then be adorned with one's original cover art and liner notes. Today's playlists aren't really comparable. Plus, the ease of using Pandora and Itunes Radio removes any motivation to put forth all that effort to create a mixtape. This is not to say that I resent music streaming services. On the contrary, I am grateful to them for introducing me to many a new artist that I probably would not have stumbled upon on my own. But I do believe that something has been lost amid this progress. Mixtapes were a true art form.

Q. Your time without Jeanette was described as “muted,” creating a soul-crushing juxtaposition in your piece against the musical backdrop throughout—like an unexpected key change in the middle of a song. Did the structure of songs influence the structure of “Mixtape”?

A. While writing this I was thinking more about the structure of a whole mixtape rather than an individual song, and how when I listen to a favorite, the song order is totally predictable and comfortable to me. I imagined the turning part of this piece to be akin to flipping over a beloved, upbeat cassette, and having the B Side suddenly and inexplicitly play songs that were unknown and of a wholey different emotional tone. Before Jeanette died, my life had been on a very normal track and I thought I knew just what to expect as I grew up. Her death came out of nowhere and my world just fell apart for a while. 

Q. If you were to create a mixtape now, what tracks would be on it? Minding the order, of course.

A. Earlier this year we had friends over for a Cinco de Mayo barbeque, which was right after Prince passed away. Aiming for an upbeat homage, I compiled the following:

  1. 7: Prince & the New Power Generation
  2. Let's Go Crazy: Prince & the Revolution
  3. Stand Back: Stevie Nicks
  4. Challengers: The New Pornographers
  5. Kiss: Prince & the Revolution
  6. Love Song: Madonna
  7. I Took a Pill in Ibiza (Seeb Remix): Mike Posner
  8. Failsafe: The New Pornographers
  9. Purple Rain: Prince & the Revolution
  10. Gibralter: Beirut
  11. Come Save Me: Jagwar Ma
  12. Fader: The Temper Trap
  13. Something Good Can Work (The Twelves Remix): Two Door Cinema Club
  14. Myriad Harbour: The New Pornographers
  15. Nothing Compares to You: Sinead O'Connor

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Mackenzie Myers

Mackenzie Myers is a native Michigander, temporary Oregonian, and soon-to-be Californian who usually writes about places and the science behind those places. She just earned her MFA in nonfiction from Portland State University, and her work has appeared in various publications, such as Husk, GADFLY, and Traverse magazine.

Mackenzie's piece, "Annealing," appears in issue 20 of Under the Gum Tree, published July 2016.

Q. When and why did you start writing? How has writing shaped other aspects of your life?

A. I don’t remember when I started writing stories, but my career really kicked off in fifth grade when I wrote a story about a girl who turned her dog’s profuse amount of drool into glue that she sold to her classmates. (I was kind of a weird kid.) It won first place in a contest run by my local bookstore, McLean & Eakin. From that little slice of validation, something clicked and I wanted to pursue it further. Since then, writing has been a constant presence, a kind of long-term relationship with its ups and downs. There’s a box in the bottom of my closet full of journals from middle and high school. Both my degrees are in writing. It’s just always been there, both as a method of figuring out personal things and as a way to point to interesting things outside myself and say, “Hey, this is important! You should read about it.” 

Q.  What inspired you to write nonfiction in a world so drawn to the sensationalism of fiction? Who or what were your inspirations?

A. The first person to put me on the nonfiction train was Keith Taylor. I took his environmental writing class at the University of Michigan Biological Station in undergrad, and that flung the genre’s door wide open. I think there’s this misconception that you can only write nonfiction if something traumatic has happened to you, and Keith showed me how limiting that idea is. Though “Annealing” is pretty inwardly focused, my writing usually mixes personal essay with research writing grounded in the natural sciences. There’s just as much wonder and intrigue and sensationalism to be found in reality too, it’s just a matter of how it’s framed! But other mentors down the road, people like Josh MacIvor-Andersen, Paul Collins, and Michael McGregor, they’ve been extremely influential too. Josh and I worked a lot on this piece. He was incredibly supportive. 

Q. When did you know you had enough distance to write “Annealing”? Did you require distance? Or did you need to get the words out of you as soon as possible?

A. This piece in particular was something that just had to come out. In college, I got away from journaling as a method of self-processing and I hadn’t written something personal in a while. So when Monica passed, eventually I had to return to the way I’d always worked through tough things, the same way birds return to a warmer, easier place in winter. Considering her situation, the situation of a good friend of mine who had been close to her, and my own mental situation at the time, it  became too much to contain. It started to consume me. Writing it down was the next natural step. The original draft was much different than this one, though. The original was way rougher in terms of both mechanics and content, because I just had to spill it out. 

Q. “Annealing” dips back and forth between your time in the workshop and coping with Monica’s death. How did you know this was the right structure for the piece?

A. With extreme, emotional situations I feel like people become sort of robotic in how they process things. There’s input, there’s output, and there’s a methodology connecting the two. Sometimes it’s easier to think without feeling and that’s why I set the piece up this way. It was like making a grocery list. Splitting up the piece numerically helped me digest what was going on, and switching between two different environments gave me a break from writing all about the tough stuff. If I’d written straight through Monica’s passing and my own darknesses all at once, it would have been too much, for me and probably for the reader. Having a framework to work within helped me get the piece out, and giving the reader a chance to bounce between the sections probably helps maintain external interest in such a personal story. 

Q.  Your descriptions of the weather and shadows at play seem to reflect Monica’s artwork. Was this intentional? Or something that evolved naturally?

A. These evolved naturally through descriptions of what I was seeing and experiencing. Now that I think about it, the colors Monica used in her work did lend themselves well to the weather. Winters in the upper Midwest can be pretty monochromatic. Grey skies, white snow, longer darknesses. The shadows weren’t really intentional, though I suppose there was an obvious connection between Monica, an illustration major, and the metals shop which was also in the art building. But these things became more prominent on their own throughout drafts of the piece, I think, as I honed in more and more on what I wanted to say. 

Q. When did you realize the process of annealing applied to your life in a bigger way? Have you continued to live with that concept in mind?

A. Again, this was an organic thing I discovered while writing the piece. It wasn’t like I went into the essay knowing that this would be its overall message. But metals class—all the hot, loud, tactile, and violently delicate work that course required—got me thinking about my mindset at the time and where my life was headed. The chemical and physical processes did, too. The scientific stuff. When my professor talked about how molecules in the brass, copper, and nickel we worked with would just know to realign themselves after the stress of hammers and heat, I thought it was fascinating. Something in me latched on to what that meant and toward the end of the piece, when I’d sort of written myself to its conclusion, it seemed like the perfect analogy. It’s still something I have to remind myself of every now and again, but the ground is much firmer these days than it was then. 

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Jessica Love


Jessica Love, a native Memphian, serves seventy steaks a night while writing stories about mermaids in her head. She is a short fiction and nonfiction writer, who dabbles in poetry. Her short stories, “Eight Weeks to the Sea” and “The Losing Man,” have been published in Castings, the literary journal of Christian Brothers University, where she is currently earning her B A in Creative Writing. Jessica’s poetry and short stories have won several awards, and she has attended the Irish Writing Program in Dublin, Ireland through the University of Iowa.

Jessica's piece, "H(us)ks," appears in issue 20 of Under the Gum Tree, published July 2016.

Q. When did you start writing and why? What inspires your writing now?

A. In the most cliched sense, I've always wanted to tell stories. As a child, I created my own fairytales. Today, I write magical realism. I love trying to understand people through extended metaphors. 

Q. Why are you drawn to nonfiction? What can you express through nonfiction?

A. I think the stories about ourselves and our families are the first stories we know, and while they may seem like the easiest to tell, the truths that we find out in our most personal stories are the hardest and most gratifying to grapple with. Creative nonfiction allows you to discover these truths. 

Q. You use lots of figurative language in your piece, what do you think this adds to a story and why did you include it here?

A. Figurative language is creative writing. To be able to portray the emotions I'm feeling to the reader; I need images and metaphors. 

Q. What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

A. I attended the Southern Literary Festival this past April, and Ann Patchett spoke about why she writes. I don't remember everything that she said, but one thing stuck out: she writes the stories that she wants to be told. I believe in that. I tell the stories I want to hear in my fiction, and the stories I need to hear in my nonfiction.

Q. Explain the significance of the title of the piece. Your family turmoil doesn't really dissolve by the end of the piece. Why did you feel it was important to write this piece and what message did you intend to be left with the reader?

A. "H(us)ks" is a story about my childhood relationship with my mom, and the layers of that relationship. It's a story about the traces of your parents that you find in yourself. The story is framed within the day that I found out that my parents were getting divorced, and, as a child, this was the day that played on repeat.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Amanda Gibson

Amanda A. Gibson is a lawyer who has worked for the Environmental Protection Agency and the Maryland agricultural land preservation program. Raised in Connecticut, she lives with her husband and two children in southern Maryland. 

Amanda's piece, "Cookie Cutter Love," appears in issue 20 of Under the Gum Tree, published July 2016. It is her first non-legal publication. 

Q. When did you start writing and why? What inspires your writing now?

A. I wanted to be a writer when I was younger but for various reasons pursued law instead. I began writing creatively again about five years ago when a friend invited me to join a writing group.  I knew if I didn’t accept the invitation I’d never write the stories that had been nudging my consciousness.

Moments that touch my soul and heart inspire my writing.

Q. How were you finally able to reconcile the emotions you had been harboring toward your mother, and did writing this piece help you in the process?

A. Writing this piece helped me to understand the love my mother had for me, however flawed, and helped me embrace the love I can share with my children despite my painful childhood.

Q. Why did you choose to focus on the cookie-making tradition? Why was this tradition so meaningful for you?

A. This story came to me the moment I realized the cookie cutters were lost.  That’s when I understood that the cookie cutters recalled for me one of my few positive childhood memories.

Q. Why did you decide to close the piece with the image of a beautiful cookie decorated by your mother? What does that cookie symbolize to you?

A. For me the tree represents my mother’s love.  As flawed as she was, as burdened as she was by her demons, she was still capable of making beautiful things—like her family tree—her children and her grandchildren.

Q. What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

A. There are no limitations on what should be written.  Anything that inspires a person to write warrants being told.

Q. What allowed you to let go of the lost cookie cutters? 

A. Writing this piece helped me to say goodbye to the cookie cutters.  Also, after I shared the story with my writing group, a writing friend gave me several cookie cutters handed down from her mother. Tied together with a yellow grosgrain ribbon, nicked and darkened with age, they bore the signs of their shared past.  My friend’s thoughtful gesture was the perfect antidote for my loss.

Meet The Author

Meet the Author: Matt Young

Matt Young is a veteran, writer, and teacher. He lives in Olympia, Washington, teaches at Centralia College, and holds an MA in creative writing from Miami University. His work can be found in Yemassee, Word Riot, Tin House, River Teeth, and others. 

Matt's piece, "Equal and Opposite," appears in issue 20 of Under the Gum Tree, published July 2016.

Q. When did you start writing and why? What inspires your writing now?

A. I wrote in high school—angst-ridden teenage stories inspired by whatever Stephen King novel I was reading, or I pumped out the occasional uniformed "Legalize Pot" long form essay for my school's literary magazine. I didn't write during the bulk of my time in the Marines until I got back in contact with an old childhood friend (who's now my wife) during my third deployment to Iraq. I was trying to impress her so I tried writing a novella. It was a cross-country road trip companion story complete with a morose doomed protagonist, an other-dimensional creature dressed like Johnny Rotten, and a wise-cracking prostitute. It will never see the light of day. 

After I got out of the Marines and started college at Oregon State I took some creative writing courses and found that writing gave me an outlet to work through my time in the military. I'd heard and read about veterans using writing to help them better understand war, so I thought that I'd write about my experiences and then be able to move past them, but that's not how it works. At least not for me. It was (and is) re-traumatizing to confront those memories—to try and understand my identity, who I was and who I am—but I think in the face of trauma, reflection and honesty become so important for recovery. And as a witness I feel obligated to share my memories and contribute to that history.

The book of creative nonfiction I've been writing over the past three years (of which this story is a part) has been largely inspired by those feelings of obligation, but as an avid reader any kind of playfulness with form in fiction or nonfiction I come across gets my engine going. I've always been a movie and television fanatic, and I grew up reading comic books and sci-fi and horror novels—those frames and constructions have leached into my work. I love speculative fiction as well. It helps me recognize the uncanny in every day experiences and gives me inspiration to apply those frames to reality. 

Q. You illustrate the obligation you felt to follow orders and procedures. How do you feel that lack of control impacted your identity and how you approach the world?

A. I don't think it was a lack of control—no one ever ordered us to place people in stress positions, that was a decision we made consciously for retribution, to balance what we saw as an off-kilter scale. We talked ourselves into believing we were following orders so we could treat people the way we did without much thought in the moment. I had the freedom to say no, to walk away, and our command encouraged us to say no to unlawful orders if they were given. But there wasn't an order given, there was conscious choice made to hurt someone. We were trained to react to situations, but we were also trained that the situation dictates the reaction. This story illustrates our failure to recognize a changing situation. 

Now, I feel I have more luxury to think about the situations I'm in, about my actions and how they'll be perceived. I interrogate why I did something or why someone else acted a certain way. I try not to be reactionary. I'm suspicious of reactionary people. I know what it can lead to. 

Q. The piece has very little self-analysis yet still is able to present a critique of wartime behavior. Why did you structure the piece in this fashion?

A. I wanted the story to be immediate and horrible, and I wanted to situate the reader in a space where there was little room to think or breathe just as in that moment, so I went to the first person plural present tense. Adding reflection and analysis in that moment would've been dishonest, because it simply wasn't there. A part of me also feels like analyzing that moment would read like an excuse for our actions when there simply isn't any. 

Q. What significance does the title of the piece, "Equal and Opposite", have for you?

A. "Equal and Opposite" is a nod to our use of disproportionate force and skewed sense of Old Testament justice. 

Q. What events do you think warrant a story or should be written about?

A. In terms of personal narrative I like reading stories different from my own. We read and tell stories to understand the world. I came back from inhumanity through literature and writing. I want to read stories about events and moments that are significant to the people writing them—no matter what they are—and I want to know how those things have shaped their lives and identities so I can become a better more empathetic human. 

Q. Why did you choose to write this piece as nonfiction, rather than create a fictitious scene to present a similar critique?

A. This piece ended up being part of a memoir I'm working on, so that was most of the decision behind using nonfiction. However, the overall decision to write a memoir instead of a longer work of fiction or short stories is a response to myopic attempts at valorizing the Iraq War in past years. There's a movement toward sanitizing the war in mainstream writing and in film with harrowing special operations stories that outline the conflict in black and white, complete with specific finite missions and definite enemies. The characters become faceless and flat, are driven by fanatic patriotism, or they're broken war junkies riddled with that misunderstood acronym PTSD. It's important to remind people how quickly black and white outlines become scribbled with gray. It's important to remind people about the moral ambiguity of war. It's important to think about the weight of action. All those things I suppose I could've done with fiction, but I lived that war and struggle with it daily, so I think it's important to be honest, show my face, and tell those stories the way I remember them.