Tiny Essay, tiny prompt

The following tiny essay and prompt is part of a working collection entitled just that: Tiny Essays, tiny prompts. If you love writing in short form like I do, and you’re up for a few weeks of learning and exercise (pen to paper, fingers to the keyboard), register for the next online course, Flash Nonfiction I: An Introduction. Seats are filling fast, and the course begins on January 7th!


I pulled out my notebook and pen in the middle of church, when I should have been singing or meditating on the Gospel, because something struck me that needed to be written down. Sure, I felt guilty. Profane. But I wrote pensive, as if I was simply taking note of the hymn number (which one time I was), so that I might return to the verses later and ask for forgiveness.

The Prompt: guilty

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The Power of a Simple Photo:
Excerpt from SKATING ON THE VERTICAL by Jan English Leary

“I see myself in the two of them–my mother’s prominent front teeth, the crease between her eyebrows that makes us look worried even when we aren’t. My father’s hairline with the dip in the middle, the wide spacing of his dove-gray eyes.” ~ from “Wedding Photo” by Jan English Leary

Every photo tells a story, and often it’s the tiny details within the framework that reveal more than one may expect. The same is true in writing and reading short stories; character, place, and emotion can be explored to great depths, even within a limited word count.

In the excerpt of Jan English Leary’s story “Wedding Photo” (below), we glimpse how details in a simple photo, once studied, open the door to a greater understanding of past and present. “Wedding Photo” was first published in Cease, Cows (Nov 2013) and Sunset Drinking the Black Ocean (2016) and now appears as part of Jan English Leary’s new collection, SKATING ON THE VERTICAL from Fomite Press.

Small Press Picks calls her collection “profound” and says the stories read of “soul-searching, self-doubt, and mistakes that are natural—sometimes inevitable—during times of change, difficulty, or discovery.” Sample a story from Jan’s collection in the excerpt and enter the book giveaway for a chance to win a copy (with thanks to Fomite Press and Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity).

This is the second in a series of book giveaways from last week through December, with one more giveaway from Hidden Timber Books in a few weeks–gifts for you or your favorite book worm!

Wedding Photo

by Jan English Leary

          My parents are standing on the steps of the church, squinting into the sun on the day of their wedding, nearly twenty-five years ago. My father’s smile is confident. He’s sure of his decision, eager about his new responsibilities. He holds her arm as he guides her, his new bride, from the church. My mother is looking off to her right and up a bit, away from him. At what? A well-wisher? A curious passerby? She doesn’t smile. Some people might blame wedding jitters, but I know she is swallowing back the nausea of morning sickness, my six-week self nestled inside her, a secret to be revealed later. She is only twenty-four but feels her choices narrowing, believes my father is her best chance and maybe her last. And of course, I am the real reason they’re doing this. I look to see if I can discern any hint of her future unhappiness, of her dissatisfaction with the marriage she finally dared to leave after more than twenty years together. All I can see is two young people, shy and hopeful, strangers to each other.
The three-quarter profile shows off her straight nose and her brown hair, over-permed for the occasion. She is wearing her mother’s satin dress with a high collar and covered buttons down the front—a full skirt under a peplum jacket, not yet tight, but snug. Beneath her skirt, the toe of a platform shoe peeks out. She told me her feet hurt that day, but she couldn’t take off her shoes because her dress was too long. Besides, without her shoes, she’d throw off the stair-step alignment of the heads for the wedding party photos.
My father is wearing a cutaway coat and vest. He is rugged-looking, not tall, but solid. In the sun, his eyes are nearly closed. He is twisting his new ring with the thumb of his left hand. His right hand clutches her satin sleeve, wrinkling it, probably leaving an eager, sweaty palm print.
I see myself in the two of them—my mother’s prominent front teeth, the crease between her eyebrows that makes us look worried even when we aren’t. My father’s hairline with the dip in the middle, the wide spacing of his dove-gray eyes. Eyes that chose not to see what was in front of him all those years. Eyes that still can’t see that his wife has changed. What features might I pass on to a child? How will I be viewed in future photos? What will I see in them?
In the upper corner of the photo, I see for the first time what caught my mother’s attention, drawing her gaze away from my father. A flash of white. A pigeon. Not a love bird or an eagle, or even a phoenix. A pigeon. The image is blurred as if the pigeon were attempting to escape the camera but was captured in mid-flight. From my perspective, it looks like the pigeon has been shot, halted on its way to freedom. Maybe my mother only saw the flight and all that it promised. In a way, we’d both be right.


In Jan English Leary’s collection of sixteen short stories,we meet characters who are at their most vulnerable—lonely or grief-stricken, tackling change or revelation. For instance, on “Eunuchs,” a boarding school teacher empathizes with her foreign student’s alienation, but his dramatic rejection of the institution makes her realize how alienated she is, and in “Skin Art,” a cutter finally discovers a way to appreciate her body—even though her husband is critical.

With her unflinching gaze and deep compassion, Leary’s stories reach to the very core, making SKATING ON THE VERTICAL a haunting, deeply powerful book.


JAN ENGLISH LEARY’S short fiction has appeared in Pleiades, The Literary Review, The Minnesota Review, Carve Magazine, Long Story, Short Literary Journal and other publications. She has received three Illinois Arts Council Awards and taught fiction writing at Francis W. Parker School and Northwestern University.  Her first novel, Thicker Than Blood, was released by Fomite in 2015. Skating on the Vertical, just released by Fomite, is her first collection of short stories. She lives in Chicago with her husband, John, an artist and former teacher. More information at http://janenglishleary.com/.

DON’T FORGET: enter the giveaway by Tuesday, December 12th,
for a chance to win a copy of SKATING THE VERTICAL.

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Q&A (& #Giveaway) with Steve Wiegenstein,

“The tang of woodsmoke from cookstoves and fireplaces seasoned the evening air, and the first stars salted the sky. It was a good six miles to the railroad as the crow flew, but [Josephine] could hear the distant clack-clack of the northbound line, the banging of cars, and the screech of a whistle as it passed a crossing. Up from Texas with a load of cattle, no doubt. Cattle going north, emigrants and orphans going south. Bodies in motion.”

Bodies in motion. Change in action.

In general, I am a person who loves consistency and predictability. But even as I find solace in the routine of every day and plan my next 24 hours with care, I know there is only so much I can control. Change is inevitable.

In Steve Wiegenstein’s new novel, THE LANGUAGE OF TREES (Blank Slate Press), we witness the inevitable in the late-19th century Missouri town of Daybreak. Steadfast in its idyllic communal values, where no one man owns the land and every member of the community contributes to the well being of the others, Daybreak stands out as anomaly of its time with its years-old utopian philosophy. But booming industry and the American Lumber and Minerals Company circle the community in pursuit of Daybreak’s prized timber, forcing members of the community to make choices and threatening their unity. And even if the community can stay in tact, every person will be changed.

Steve Wiegenstein stops by today to talk about his newest novel, and (thanks to Blank Slate Press and Caitlin Hamilton Marketing & Publicity) there’s a giveaway! ENTER HERE by Tuesday, December 5th, for a chance to win a copy of THE LANGUAGE OF TREES.

Now, welcome Steve Wiegenstein!

Christi Craig (CC): Outside of writing fiction, you are a scholar of utopian movements. Was there something specific within your research that sparked the idea of Daybreak and its characters?

Steve Wiegenstein (SW)*: When I was studying the Icarians, a group of socialists who lived in the Midwest for about fifty years in the latter half of the 19th century, I was struck by the incredible level of commitment they showed to their ideas. They lived difficult lives, full of hardship and struggle, but they persisted.

I began my research with the typical sort of skepticism, but over time developed a great deal of respect for the “impractical utopians” who demonstrated such a belief in the power of ideas.

CC: On the topic of characters, I’m intrigued by the strong women in your book. Both Charlotte Turner and Josephine Mercadier stand out as leaders in the town with more freedoms to speak up and speak out than perhaps was the norm in the 19th century. Can we attribute this to the utopian society of Daybreak alone? Or could it be that women like Charlotte and Josephine in such a society simply find more courage to rise above normal expectations of gender?

SW: I think alternative communities definitely presented women with a broader latitude of opportunity, even under 19th-century circumscriptions. The Shakers were led by women for much of their history, and the Nashoba commune in Tennessee was founded by Fanny Wright, a Scottish-born abolitionist who was way ahead of her time. If you were an independent-thinking woman, the ideals of equality and social justice espoused by many of these communities would have proved quite appealing. Alas, quite a few of them didn’t live up to their words. The Icarians, for example, espoused equal suffrage but never got around to granting women the right to vote in their own community.

The strong women in my books are more influenced by the wonderful and strong women I have known in my own life. It’s been my great good fortune to have known many such women, from my own grandmothers, to my mother, aunts, spouse, daughter, and others, and to be able to observe them and draw lessons from them. In many ways, Charlotte and Josephine rise out of my own story more than they do from history.

CC: Language of Trees is the third novel in a series, though it stands well on its own as a complete and captivating story. Still, is there anything you’d like readers to know about books one and two (SLANT OF LIGHT and THIS OLD WORLD)?

SW: Well, they’re both great reads! But beyond that, the stories do interlink, although each book can be read separately. In SLANT OF LIGHT, we see the founding of the community that has reached its second generation in THE LANGUAGE OF TREES.  Characters also develop across the books; Charley Pettibone, for example, shows up in the first book as an illiterate and rather boastful young goofball, but by the second book he’s been through the war, with all the psychological baggage that entails, and when we see him in THE LANGUAGE OF TREES he’s middle-aged and people are looking to him for wisdom. So there’s immense satisfaction in that. I think reading the three books in order is its own sort of experience, over and beyond reading them individually.

CC: In a conversation with Steve Yates on Fiction Writers Review, you talk about Ozark writers and “writing the Ozarks.” I’d love to know more: other than place and setting, what does it mean to you to write the Ozarks?

SW: Two things: first, a keen interest in the natural rhythm of things. Above all else, the Ozarks are a rural place, and they ask for an appreciation of rural experience. That experience includes setting but goes beyond that, I think. Especially in the 19th Century, rural life was lived according to a different clock than urban life – not much of a clock at all, really. That’s one of the themes I work into THE LANGUAGE OF TREES, the conflict between lives lived by the sun and seasons. When J.M. Bridges builds his mill town, one of his first acts is to install a whistle to summon the workers at a set time in the morning. Such a thing was unknown before then, and the historians record all kinds of sabotage and resistance that workers engaged in to challenge this ownership of time. There’s an element of that resistance even today.

Second, a willingness to see past stereotypes into the lives of people who actually live there. I cringe when I watch or read a lot of narrative portrayals of the Ozarks, because they fall into the familiar tropes of murderous hillbilly, small town with a dark secret, outsider with suspicious motives, and so forth. I love it when writers engage with those stereotypes, because after all they do exist and we can’t pretend they don’t, but also move through them into richer and more nuanced portrayals. I grew up and went to school with a lot of people that a visitor to the area might call a “hillbilly,” with all the negative connotation that involves, but who have substantial inner lives behind that appearance. Working between these perceptions of character is a lot of what I would call “writing the Ozarks.”

CC: In response to the days when (for one reason or another) we cannot write, Patty Dann (The Butterfly Hours: Transforming Memories into Memoir) says we should not dismay but consider that time away from the page as a chance to “fill the well,” because “you must do something besides write, or you will lose your mind.” What besides your research fuels your writing or fills your creative well?

SW: My favorite activity to “fill the well,” which is such a lovely image, by the way, is to get in my car, head south, and get onto a river. I can be from my home to a river in a couple of hours, and the rest of the day is spent forgetting time, forgetting the challenges of life, and simply existing in the natural world. I have a half dozen rivers to choose from, each with its own personality: Black, Huzzah, Current, Jacks Fork, Gasconade, Meramec — and another dozen more that take a longer drive and at least an overnight stay. But a day on an Ozarks river will make a new man out of me. 

And to that “fill the well” image: when I was a youngster, I would occasionally visit the country school my parents had attended during the Depression, and it had a well out front. Since it wasn’t used very often by those days, you usually had to pour a little water down the pump shaft in order to create the necessary suction for the hand pump to work. That’s what is known as priming the pump, and most people nowadays have never actually primed a pump. But that reference reminded me of the act, which I think is most appropriate to the writer’s experience. You pour a little of yourself down that deep hole, and in return you get back a seemingly endless supply of sustenance. And the harder you pump, and the longer you pump, the more that comes out.


Steve Wiegenstein is the author of SLANT OF LIGHT (2012), THIS OLD WORLD (2014), and THE LANGUAGE OF TREES (2017). SLANT OF LIGHT was the runner-up for the David J. Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction, and THIS OLD WORLD was a shortlisted finalist for the M.M. Bennetts Award in Historical Fiction. Steve grew up in the Missouri Ozarks and worked there as a newspaper reporter before entering the field of higher education. He now lives in Columbia, Missouri. Learn more at stevewiegenstein.wordpress.com.

* Photo of Steve Wiegenstein (above) by Kaci Smart.

Don’t forget! Enter the giveaway by Tuesday, December 5th,
for a chance to win a copy of THE LANGUAGE OF TREES.

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