hen I think of innovative creative nonfiction forms, Nicole Breit springs to mind, both as a writer and teacher. I relish the creative sparks I get from her imaginative writing prompts and enjoy her warm, personable teaching style. Over the past year, I’ve had the pleasure of sharing her free webinars and writing challenges with the WOW community, and I’ve participated in them all with great enthusiasm. I’m always in awe of Nicole’s generosity in sharing her knowledge with fellow writers, as you’ll see in this interview! Nicole and I chat about the craft of writing creative nonfiction, targeting markets for your work, her Spark Your Story programs, and more.
Nicole Breit (she/her) is a queer, award-winning essayist + the creator of The Spark Your Story Lab—a 12-month program for writers who want to craft publishable creative nonfiction. Her writing has been widely published in journals + anthologies including Brevity, The Fiddlehead, Room, Hippocampus, Event, Swelling with Pride: Queer Conception and Adoption Stories + Getting to the Truth: The Craft and Practice of Creative Nonfiction. Nicole’s essay about first love and loss, “An Atmospheric Pressure,” was selected as a Notable by the editors of Best American Essays 2017.
WOW: Welcome, Nicole! Thank you for joining us today. I always enjoy sharing your fun and inspirational offerings with the WOW community, so it’s a real treat to interview you. You’re an award-winning writer and teacher who helps fellow writers create their own beautiful stories. Can you share with our readers how you got started in teaching? How has your own publishing journey inspired your teaching style?
Nicole: What a lovely welcome, Angela! I’m so delighted to chat with you about my writing and teaching.
I think I was born to teach. I remember when I was a kid, my neighbor’s mom was an elementary school teacher and she’d give us extra worksheets, so we could “play school.” Is it weird that I loved playing school? I trained and worked as a primary teacher for a few years after I earned my English degree. Then, almost twenty years later, once my writing started getting recognition, I started teaching creative nonfiction via my online courses.
I love your question about the relationship between publishing my work and how it might have influenced my teaching style. Recognition of my work gave me the confidence to teach writing to adults. My publishing journey also allowed me some firsthand observations about how the literary market worked. I loved being able to share that info with my students, so they could meet their own publishing goals more quickly.
I think my teaching style is a mix of my personality, my passion for helping writers, and my training as an educator. I’d describe it as warm, friendly, structured, and story-based. My understanding of pedagogy and different learning styles—as well as my own neurodivergence—has helped me design courses that are easy to digest with tons of extension reading for those looking for a really deep dive. I love it when I hear from other teachers who take my classes that they can tell I have a background in teaching. I really want my lessons to be spirited, engaging, and above all, useful.
WOW: I’m not surprised to hear about your background in teaching! I can picture you “playing school.” You are definitely a warm and friendly teacher, and I simply love your practical, generative courses! Your Spark Your Story Programs focus on form and structure, among other elements. Why are constraints so important for writers, and how did you choose which forms to include in your curriculum?
Nicole: Imposing constraints on your writing, whether that be a word count limit or setting a timer or deciding, up front, how many sections you’re going to work with, is a simple and effective way to enhance creativity and innovation. It also can help avoid that feeling of overwhelm for those of us working with deeply personal material. I can easily feel immobilized when I think of how much info I have to draw on when exploring an experience in writing—memories, thoughts, feelings, impacts, changes. Everything feels important, how do I focus?
Constraints turn a writing project into a problem we have to solve, and that engages the creative brain and can make the process much more fun. I get lost when I sit down and just start drafting from wherever I think the story began straight through to the end. Then I just have a bunch of sentences I’m not sure what to do with. But beginning with some kind of structure or shape makes the process so much easier and more organized, from the outset, for me.
I teach forms that I love to play with myself, including hybrid structures that blend genres, like the prose poem and visual essay. I wanted to include a broad range of possibilities for storytelling that invite playfulness, exploration, and experimentation that I knew would also be fun to read!
“Constraints turn a writing project into a problem we have to solve, and that engages the creative brain and can make the process much more fun.”
WOW: Your courses are so much fun, and your hybrid structures are the most innovative I’ve come across! They aren’t the typical ones you see everywhere, and I can tell you put so much thought into creating them. So, who are your courses for? Are they mostly for creative nonfiction (CNF) and memoir writers? If so, why did you decide to focus on CNF rather than fiction?
Nicole: My courses are for new, emerging, and seasoned writers who want to experiment with creative nonfiction and want to shorten their learning curve, improve their craft, and submit their work for publication. I came to creative nonfiction from poetry with little experience in fiction writing (although many writers who come to my CNF courses write fiction). What I love about creative nonfiction is that it is a catch-all genre. If you write poetry you have skills to bring to your CNF; if you write fiction, you do, too! Understanding what makes for good storytelling and evocative writing in any genre is going to help you write solid creative nonfiction. I’ve always just been called to personal storytelling. My poetry tends to be narrative, self-exploratory, and sometimes reads like poetic prose. I was so excited to discover creative nonfiction when I took a course on the lyric essay in 2014. I was familiar with the personal essay, but cracking open the lyric essay was when my journey as a CNF writer really began.
WOW: Lyric essays are my very favorite genre to read and write. I appreciate that your courses also encourage writers to submit to journals and contests! Since that’s also the mission of this newsletter, I’d love it if you would share a few tips with our readers. We have a somewhat overwhelming number of markets listed in this newsletter because we’re trying to serve writers in many genres. What are some key elements to look for when targeting a potential market for a piece’s publication?
Nicole: The best advice I can offer to writers who are looking for that first acceptance is to write and submit short-form CNF to contests and journals (e.g., a 100-word story or flash-length CNF). You can generate short-form memoir quickly, and strong CNF is more likely to get picked up by a journal than strong work in other genres, simply based on numbers. Creative nonfiction is the fastest growing genre with more online journals popping up all the time, and editors I’ve spoken to in Canada and the US tell me they receive far fewer CNF submissions than in fiction or poetry for regular calls as well as contests. Your odds are just better for standing out when the pool of entries is significantly smaller.
WOW: You’re so right about the submission rate. One of my favorite journals just shared their submission numbers from 2023, and they received somewhere around one thousand submissions, and only seventy of those were creative nonfiction. That’s a huge advantage! Here at WOW, we typically have an equal number of submissions split between our fiction and CNF contests, but I bet that’s only because we limit our submissions to three hundred each contest. It’s so great you encourage submitting through your programs. You offer three Spark Your Story Programs—the Bundle, Lab, and Intensive. What are the key differences between them, and which one is the most popular?
Nicole: In the last year, I’ve noticed more interest in my Spark Your Story Intensive, which is my high-ticket twelve-week program that includes 1:1 coaching and feedback. I think that speaks to a growing interest, post-pandemic, in personalized instruction and guidance over a self-guided program with little instructor interaction.
The goal of each of my programs is to give creative nonfiction writers meaningful instruction on story form, process, and craft, so they can quickly develop as writers, empowered with key knowledge often left out of professional writing programs.
The key differences in my three programs are laid out nicely here:
“Creative nonfiction is the fastest growing genre with more online journals popping up all the time, and editors I’ve spoken to in Canada and the US tell me they receive far fewer CNF submissions than in fiction or poetry for regular calls as well as contests.”
WOW: Thank you for sharing that! I agree, personalized feedback is so valuable. Many of our writers know you from your 555 Story Challenge, where you provide a daily lesson, writing prompt, community forum, and a chance for writers to win prizes. I’ve participated in this challenge, and it’s a blast! How did you come up with this amazing idea, and what has been the response? Do you plan to run another challenge in 2024?
Nicole: I’d been wanting to host a challenge for a few years that aligned with the themes in my Spark Your Story Lab and could help writers accomplish an exciting goal while really honing their skills. I’ve been writing 100-word stories for several years, and the idea just came together, bit by bit, in my mind: Let’s write five 100-word stories in five days on five themes! One of the brilliant minds on my marketing team suggested we call it the 555 Story Challenge. I just heard from a writer the other day who wanted me to know the challenge completely changed her writing life. She just received her first publication. I love emails like that!
I’m considering whether to run the challenge again this spring. If writers are interested the best way to stay in the loop is to subscribe to my mailing list: https://www.nicolebreit.com/newsletter/
WOW: Oh Nicole, that’s heartwarming to hear feedback like that. You put so much care into the challenge, and it really can change lives. I think that’s because you’re also a writer and get why writers have blocks. I read you started writing because you had a big story to tell, one about grief. I also started writing at a young age because of grief and have written many essays about my mother’s passing when I was thirteen, but I still haven’t worked through my grief narrative yet because it keeps changing. So, during NaNoWriMo, I used that time to work on a grief story about caregiving my father and took your workshop, How to Write About Trauma, Grief, and Loss. I found it powerful and nurturing! It’s a workshop I’ll return to again and again when I need to work past blocks. In your experience, what are the most common blocks writers face when writing about grief, and what is one tool they can take away and use right now?
Nicole: That’s interesting what you say about your grief continually changing. I know that my perspective on loss changes with time, as I age and experience life at different stages. I’m so glad you found my workshop on how to write about trauma, grief, and loss helpful and empowering.
One of the most common blocks that come up for writers delving into a grief narrative is emotional overwhelm—trying to avoid reliving difficult emotions. That desire is directly in conflict with wanting their readers to understand and empathize with the emotions they experienced.
My approach to writing into difficult material starts with experimenting with form and structure. It helps break the thought patterns we have around a loss and creates that puzzle for us to solve that I mentioned earlier around constraints and creativity.
Write your story in the form of a crossword puzzle or how-to article or Yelp review. It might sound silly, but it won’t diminish the seriousness of your story. It can be devastatingly beautiful, and unforgettable, to take something that feels ordinary and banal, like a to-do list, and turn it into a mirror that reflects back how loss has changed you. Often this approach liberates a writer who is stuck and inspires a piece that just couldn’t have been written or expressed as well in a straightforward narrative.
“Write your story in the form of a crossword puzzle or how-to article or Yelp review ... Often this approach liberates a writer who is stuck and inspires a piece that just couldn’t have been written or expressed as well in a straightforward narrative.”
WOW: The Yelp review is giving me great ideas! I can see that format applied to trauma and grief narratives. One thing I worry about when writing memoir of long-ago events is getting the details right. Do you have any excavation tips for writers like me who don’t have the best memory or ways to work around those missing parts? Or do you think it’s okay if we can’t fully retrieve the entire story?
Nicole: I also worry about getting as many of the details right as I can and have diaries I can check back on. It can be pretty humbling, though, to realize how I’ve misremembered something; often there is more to a situation than I remember. The complicating factors—the finer details—are what disappear from memory over time.
I do think it’s absolutely fine, and to be expected, that our memories just aren’t always wholly accessible to us. Memory is fallible; our readers know that. We can only do our best to tell the truth of our story, checking the facts and capturing the details we remember as best we can. Perhaps in the end it’s the emotional truth that matters above all, anyway? You might misremember the facts, but no one can argue with you about the truth of your emotions.
To fill in missing parts, I like to time travel in my imagination. What was the number one song on the radio? What season was it? What was my favorite item of clothing? Who was I spending time with? What touch points can I bring in to recreate a clear picture of a point in time?
I also like visiting places that might help me bring back memory when possible. I spent a lot of time walking the trails and parks around my childhood home when I was writing the essays and poems around the loss of my first love. Social media was helpful because I was able to reconnect with people I’d lost touch with who could help me retrieve forgotten memories from decades earlier when the story took place. Creative nonfiction writers might feel they have to rely entirely on their own memory of events, but second-hand observations can be really useful to fill in the details that make a story come alive.
WOW: That’s such a great idea to listen to music from the time and reach out to people you’ve lost touch with from your story’s timeline. Speaking of an essay you wrote about your first love and loss, I adore your dynamic CNF, “An Atmospheric Pressure,” which won Room Magazine’s CNF award and was selected as a Best American Essays Notable. I love the swirling timeline and how you wrote it in third person. Your sharp, evocative prose (“See the girl...”) reminds me a bit of Cormac McCarthy’s Blood Meridian. The segments have such great flow, and the ending is powerful. I’d love to hear about your process of creation and revision. How long did it take to write that piece, and how did you come up with the structure? Did you spend a lot of time arranging the various fragments? Were there any authors who influenced or helped you with this piece?
Nicole: Thank you so much for your kind words about my essay. I don’t know that another author’s work influenced or inspired “An Atmospheric Pressure,” but I’m curious now to read Blood Meridian. The process for creating this piece was very collage-like. I had a bunch of disconnected memories and had no idea how they could come together to tell a cohesive story. I decided not to try to tell a story in the usual way and allowed each scene to tell its own small story. When read together, the piece offers an impressionistic view of the experience of falling in love and then processing the loss of that love when he died. After I wrote the scenes, I ordered them chronologically at first, then reordered them so the piece proceeds in an unending grief loop. Chelene Knight, Room magazine’s managing editor when “An Atmospheric Pressure” was selected as the CNF contest winner, called my invented structure a “mixed time lapse essay.” I like that categorization of form.
As for how long it took, I think it was assembled over a month or two. I did spend a fair bit of time deciding which scenes were essential to tell the story; I think I left out a handful of scenes that felt repetitive or touched on an emotion I’d already captured. Once I came upon the idea of moving forward and backward in time, it was easy to figure out the final order.
WOW: “Mixed time lapse essay” is a perfect description! Oh yes, if you haven’t read Blood Meridian, take a sample read on Amazon. The prose is mind-blowing and sharp! Like yours. I’m often influenced by other authors. In one of your webinars, you mentioned writing pieces “After” another author. Recently, we’ve had a few questions from writers about this, but I couldn’t find much about it online, except for poems written after another poet and plenty of CNF pieces written after Jamaica Kincaid’s “Girl.” I’ve heard that using “After” is like having a conversation with another writer or a piece that’s in discussion with another piece. Is that correct? What are the “rules,” if any, for writing a piece “After” another author?
Nicole: Yes, I think “After” acknowledges that a literary work is influenced by or in conversation with another creative piece. I spoke about the use of “After” in a workshop to encourage writers to borrow another writer’s form or style as a way of getting started, then to make a piece their own, acknowledging the inspiration, so it isn’t cheating—or perceived as cheating. I think if you read a lot and love writing it’s likely unavoidable to borrow from other writers unconsciously. I don’t know that there are rules around using “After,” but I do think it’s a respectful and elegant way to acknowledge a writer’s influence.
WOW: That’s so helpful, and it’s great to acknowledge another writer’s work. I’m glad you talk about that in your workshops. What about teaching brings you the most joy?
Nicole: I love seeing writers recognize the beauty in their work—the moment of illumination and excitement and possibility when they understand they are in the process of transforming lived experience into art. Writers are so filled with doubt, and I love proving to writers who are struggling with imposter syndrome that they can do what they believed was impossible.
“I love seeing writers recognize the beauty in their work—the moment of illumination and excitement and possibility when they understand they are in the process of transforming lived experience into art.”
WOW: That’s such a great answer! Here at WOW, we talk about imposter syndrome a lot, so it’s important to celebrate your own work. In one of our back and forth emails, you mentioned going on a writing retreat! That sounds wonderful and refreshing. Do you have any writing projects in the works? Are you a solitary writer, or do you have a critique group?
Nicole: Yes! I created a five-day retreat for myself last fall and hired a writer I admire to help me make progress on a book I’ve had in the works for ages. It was very productive to be away from home and my regular responsibilities (thank you, wife!) to just empty my head and make room for my writing. I’m working on a memoir in essays and am quite solitary with my practice. I don’t belong to a writing or critique group. I know a lot of writers say they want critique, but I’m not sure it’s the most helpful way to develop a work-in-progress, especially with creative nonfiction, which is such vulnerable, truth-telling work. The conversation in any writing group has to be focused on craft to be useful and not cause harm, but not every critique group understands this.
In my Spark Your Story programs, I encourage writers to share what they see working well in a piece. Writers often can’t see what is working or what they’re already doing right! I hear again and again how unhelpful feedback, especially given too early in the process, can stifle a project or shut a writer down for years. What I know I need more than critique is space to just get things down, so I know what I’ve got—then figure out what I need to do to shape it into something polished. Having said that, I think writing groups are great when they provide accountability and fun. It’s always healthy and nourishing to connect with kindred spirits!
WOW: I agree! I’m so grateful to connect with you today, Nicole, and you are definitely a kindred spirit! I appreciate you sharing about both your writing and teaching process. Okay, our interviews always end with a fun, random question. Since we’re in the midst of a chilly winter, what is your favorite hot beverage, and what do you enjoy watching or reading while drinking it?
Nicole: I’m drinking hot chocolate right now! I love good chocolate in any form. As for what I enjoy watching while drinking it, I’m currently deeply immersed in The Morning Show streaming on AppleTV. My wife and I haven’t fallen under a show’s spell like this one in quite a long time and binge a few episodes every night.
Thanks so much for the conversation, Angela. I always love talking to you!
It’s been such a treat to chat with CNF instructor, Nicole Breit! Writers, find out more about the Spark Your Story Programs here, and if you want to stay up to date with the latest news from Nicole, sign up for her newsletter here.
Angela Miyuki Mackintosh is a writer and illustrator living on a ranch in the Sequoia National Forest, California that she’s renovating into an artist retreat. Her writing has been published in Writer’s Digest, Under the Sun, Exposition Review, Harpur Palate, Eastern Iowa Review, X-R-A-Y Literary Review, Permafrost, and elsewhere. Most recently, her essay about sex trafficking, “The Recruit” (2023, Exposition Review) was nominated for Best of Net and Best American Essays. Angela is editor-in-chief at WOW! Women on Writing. When she’s not writing or editing, she enjoys oil painting, trail running, off-roading, watching horror flicks, visiting old cemeteries, and snuggling with her three rescue cats.