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Lunch Challenge #1

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I just issued my first-ever Twitter writing challenge:

My words were TICKET, TAR, and CHOCOLATE. I think we can all see where this is going.

You step into a river running brown / Too blinded by a ticket painted gold / To realize the chocolate you see / Is tar that sucks and sticks and plays for keeps.

If you participated in #lunchwrite, please comment below with a link to your creation!


Protection for Witnesses

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I read a great profile of the wonderful Lorrie Moore at The Millions today. (If you're bookish and you haven't been there, I recommend you stop reading this post now and head on over to that website, linked above. Then come back and thank me.) A sizeable portion of the article discusses one of the perennial concerns of writers and those who love them: borrowing. Borrowing. Because writers are often observers--even witnesses, standing one degree removed from life--it's almost inevitable that they're borrowing things from the people around them, whether strangers or friends.

Others closer to Moore have also questioned whether or not they’ve made it into her work. “People get confused. People get paranoid,” she says, telling the story of a man she once dated who became suspicious of a specific character. “First of all, the character is a woman,” she remembers saying to him, “Second of all, darling, the character has a job.” (from Arianne Wack's The Millions profile of Lorrie Moore)

I recently wrote a story about a woman who worries that her boyfriend may accidentally kill her in his sleep. I stole some of the details surrounding this couple from people I know. I translated most of the details I stole into other details. Ultimately, the story is a fiction, the problems and dynamics of the couple a complete fabrication that may, but probably doesn't, reflect the reality of their real-life relationship. My husband, who is a great first reader for me, had only one comment about the story: "Don't let them see it."

This is a problem when you're working hard to publish your work.

And when you're actively promoting any work that does get published.

It's not the first time I've struggled with how to go about borrowing, or not, in my fiction. Last year I worked on one of my few realist stories, which was built from a pastiche of real-life source materials: things I saw in the Navy, details of a cousin's accident, snippets of stories from another relative's farm, bits of biography from someone I knew back in high school. Even the names were borrowed.

The story proved a failure (though I'd like to return to it one day), and had become a complete fiction in the process of being written and rewritten. Jack, the main character, was Jack: he lived only in my imagination, and his life was his own. But I worried, nonetheless, that if the people who helped inspire me read it, they would be more furious than flattered to have played a part in sparking my imagination.

Last year I went on an Anne Lamott streak, reading her memoirs Operating Instructions and Some Assembly Required, her book on writing, Bird by Bird, and one of her novels, Imperfect Birds. In her writing she sometimes discusses borrowing--taking friends, say, bowling, with the stated understanding that she's going to be using them as inspiration.

Is that the most honest way to borrow? Do we owe that to the people around us?

And speaking of memoir, that space where borrowing turns into something closer to strict transcription of events as you recall them to have transpired--well, that's even trickier, isn't it? I've been trying my hand at a memoir built of flash-length essays (under 1000 words) about my time in the Navy. I'm quickly realizing that I may not want even to try to publish it, given that I may lose friends out of the deal (and that doesn't even begin to touch upon the difficulty in making sure I avoid revealing anything classified, which could lead to loss of my personal liberty in the form of a prison sentence, I suppose).

Incidentally, my husband suggests the solution to this particular problem is to set it in outer space. He lobbies me almost daily for a space opera.

Does the answer to my problems lie in a galaxy far, far away?

Add a degree in anthropology to the mix, which makes me passionate about accuracy in observation and getting things "right," and I'll admit I'm stymied. My favorite professor in grad school once said something to the effect that the main difference between writing anthropology and writing literature is that anthropologists have to stick to the truth, especially since truth is elusive. If the native wear green hats, then they must be written down as green hat wearers. A fiction writer can make the hats blue if that somehow better serves the story. But is making the hats blue enough to make the story your own? And it almost goes without saying that keeping the hats green won't save you if you get everything else wrong.

So. How do you deal with the question of borrowing in your work?


Jacquelyn Bengfort

Ironically, I recently learned that there’s a word for a wordhoard from one of my favorite ways to build a wordhoard: word of the day emails. Currently, I get the OED word of the day, although I used to get the (somewhat less fanciful) email. (Note to self: try, again, to sign up for emails...and check junk folder because you’ve definitely signed up with your current email address.)

from the fine folks of the Oxford English Dictionary

My largest wordhoard is a series of index cards that I can sometimes wrangle with a one-inch binder clip. (You know, when I’m feeling strong. This is not one of those days and there’s now a loose pile of index cards in my idea bin.) I built it during a 322-day deployment with the U.S. Navy, from March 2011-February 2012. When I enjoyed a word, it got a card. While I have (and will) always love language, I became especially geeky on that trip because 1) it was a long one and being a sort of uniformed Manic Pixie Dream Girl sprinkling the fairy dust of English lit nerdery helped me cope and 2) I was voluntarily teaching a vocabulary class to a rotating roster of Sailors and Marines hoping to raise their ASVAB scores.

That class deserves its own post. Suffice it to say I sometimes became breathless with excitement as I expounded on the glory of my mother tongue, and I would conclude class by recommending everyone replace their smoke breaks with short story breaks. (I recommended starting with Tony Earley's "Charlotte," and if you're lucky enough to have access to Harper's Magazine online or a copy of the Best American Short Stories 1993, I suggest you stop reading this post and go read it immediately.)

Here are some highlights from my 2011-2012 deployment wordhoard.

BLEB: a bubble; a blister or vesicle. This one becomes meaningful when you become a mother, it turns out. At the time I just liked how it felt in my mouth. Bleb. Bleb. Bleb. (The pleasant associations with this word are now long gone.)

REMORA: an obstacle, hindrance, or obstruction; any of several fishes of the family Echeneididae, having on the top of the head a sucking disk by which they can attach themselves to sharks, turtles, ships, and other moving objects. Obvious appeal to the seafarer. Looked this up in a dictionary so old the spine had actually fallen off and it was one of the few entries sporting a line drawing. Score.

OUROBOROS (alt. UROBOROS): a circular symbol of a snake or dragon devouring its tail, standing for infinity or wholeness. I used this one as an example of the serendipity of the English language when I was in teacher mode, trying to convince my students never to let an unknown word pass them by. First I drew one of these in a meeting (not knowing the word for it). Then a meeting-mate saw the word in a book he was reading and wrote it down for me. Then I looked up the definition. Then it came up in a book I was reading. Magical.

DARKLE: to grow dark, gloomy, etc.; to appear dark or show indistinctly. It’s also fun to say. A nice word to bandy about around sunset while standing watch on the bridge.

CHAPTALIZE: to increase the alcohol in a wine by adding sugar. Possibly it appeals to me because of my limited experience with beer brewing. I believe this practice is illegal.

GLACE: ice placed in a drink to cool it. It reminds me of one of the two words that kept me out of the state spelling bee: GLISSADE (to glide). The other? SHRIEK. Icouldabinahcontendah...if I could have spelled either of these words correctly under pressure. Quick, please, someone get me a drink. With glace.

PROCRUSTEAN: tending to produce conformity by violent or arbitrary means. I want to have a whole chapter in a book some day that consists of only this word. Chapter 3. Procrustean.

SALVO: a round of cheers or applause; something to save a person’s reputation or sooth a person’s feelings; an excuse or quibbling evasion; a simultaneous or successive discharge of artillery, bombs, etc.; a round of fire given as a salute. One must love the English language for words like this one, with its many distinct meanings dependent entirely on the context of its use.

PICA: an abnormal appetite or craving for substances that are not fit to eat. Did you know that some pregnant women crave dirt? I was lucky. I just craved cookies.

MILQUETOAST: a very timid, unassertive, spineless person, especially one who is easily dominated or intimidated. Challenge--call someone a milquetoast in such a way that they don’t realize they’re being insulted, and report back.

Just think, next time you hold a dictionary: all the words are there for you to write something amazing. You just need to pick the best ones and arrange them in the right order. Spill some ink. Organize some pixels via word processor. Build your wordhoard, and then deploy it to the best of your ability.

How do you build your own wordhoard? Any favorite words? Comment below!


God Bless Ben Schott, or, Preserving Napoleon

Jacquelyn Bengfort

writing drawing

I bought a copy of Schott’s Quintessential Miscellany two years ago. It’s hardback, with a pale lilac dust cover and tiny typeface.

It’s not a book one reads cover to cover--at least I don’t. Rather, it’s a dip-in book. For example: open to page 130 and you’ll find an explanation of how the “Proust questionnaire” as popularized by Vanity Fair got its name, along with Proust’s own answers to two such surveys, translated into English from the original French. Crack the spine at page twenty-five, meanwhile, and among other things you’ll find listed the characters that constitute Mystery Inc., which, lest you’ve forgotten, is the corporate name of the “darn kids” from Scooby-Doo.

When I find I have nothing percolating in my brain, when I have nothing to write about, there’s a game I play with this book. I dip in, flipping pages at random, until I find a fact or list or saying or diagram that makes me wonder. Then I wonder about it, on paper, for twenty minutes. I give myself plenty of space to make things up. When I was young I used to do this all the time, for myself, for my friends. If I didn’t have an explanation for how something worked or why it was the way it was, I came up with a semi-logical explanation and stated it has fact. (Example: I thought refried beans came by their texture because a “big boss man” in an office pre-chewed them all as a quality control measure. Both disgusting and inaccurate but it explained the texture.)

During the twenty minutes, I strictly forbid myself to use a search engine. It’s my personal belief that our wondering facilities are under threat of extinction, and I find this exercise useful for kickstarting a bout of wonderment. One of my favorite things to do used to be to try to place familiar actors in films I’ve seen before. Now I can pull up my IMDB app and find the complete filmography of any actor, down to commercials and late-night television show appearance, in nearly no time at all. So, you know, I need an impetus to wonder.

What follows here is a lightly edited sample of the sort of material that comes out of these writing sessions. This one was inspired by...well, you’ll see. Especially if you get a copy of the Quintessential and turn to page 57 and read the last line.


I’ve a book that claims the preserved penis of Napoleon was auctioned in 1977 for $3000. These are my immediate questions:

1. Does the purchaser display it?

2. How was it preserved?

3. Is it in good condition?

4. Do they mention it at parties?

and finally

5. Do you suppose the owner has any of the penises of other famous men of history?

My questions don’t stop there--man or woman? Who owns Napoleon’s penis today? Has the original buyer passed on? Was it willed to an unsuspecting inheritor? How does one react when one finds that instead of, say, 3000 bucks, one is to receive one (1) preserved penis, said to be that of Napoleon Bonaparte?

Furthermore, doesn’t Napoleon have any descendents? How do they feel about the whole affair? Wouldn’t they have some sort of legal claim over it? They do owe their lives, in part, to its exploits.

It also makes me wonder of more delicate things, being as I am so unfamiliar with death and the dead, up close. For example, I think I read once that men die erect. But then, what would the effect of embalming be on an erect penis? And maybe that only applied to men executed by certain specific means. The entry is vague; it reads “penis, preserved after autopsy.” So was it preserved flaccid? Or, like the taxidermied lion I visit each summer during family vacation, was it restored to its most glorious, one might say victorious, state? makes me wonder historical facts. Napoleon died ages ago, so who has had the penis in the interim? What circumstances necessitated the sale? Which auction house agreed to  handle the sale? This was pre-eBay, after all.

Meta-wondering--I wonder how much research it would take to answer all these questions. I wonder if, but for the mention of it in some dusty auction program almost fifty years old, the penis has been lost to history.

I wonder: could I write a series of stories about the penis?

I wonder: could I write a story about someone writing a story about the penis?


Fairly useless writing, about a dead man’s genitalia, no less. But it’s writing, and if you’re seeing this, you read it.

The only thing I know about Ben Schott is his name. He, like the preserved penis of Napoleon Bonaparte, remains for me shrouded in mystery. But I’ll say it again: god bless Ben Schott and his delightful books of oddities.


Jacquelyn Bengfort

2013: not my best, most productive year, writing-wise. Can I pull the new motherhood card? (Pulled.) But looking back was sobering. At the start of 2013 I had three forthcoming works--a story, a play, and an essay. At the end of 2013 I had only a couple of submissions out for consideration and had managed to have only one additional story accepted for publication. Worse? I had hardly produced any new material. Hard to submit when you don't have anything you love to send out.

But 2014 is a new year, and I'm employing a few new strategies.

Submissions. My goal is to submit to one place per week. Even if I don't do simultaneous submissions, and at the moment I haven't, I'll still have more writing out in the world, crossing desks, than I did last year. In fact, in January I sent out more work than I did in all of the previous year. I've got eight little soldiers made of paper and ink, or, less poetically, made of 1s and 0s rendered on a screen out there fighting on my behalf. Some of these soldiers came out of a bevy of writing courses I took--very helpful when you're feeling blocked. (I've also received two rejections, already.)

Rejections. While we're on the topic, I've decided not to wallow. Since I'm not doing simultaneous subs at the moment, my new method is as follows. 1. Receive rejection notice. 2. Re-read rejected writing. Patch up any shoddy bits newly obvious. That day. 3. Re-send rejected, remodeled writing out to another possible publisher. That day. It's likely healthier than my old response, which was to spend several hours watching television and eating ice cream.

Hokey butt-in-chair trick. I don't like the phrase "life hacks." I put it right up there next to "selfie" in the "IRONIC USE ONLY" section. But...somehow the internet gods directed me in early January to this old Lifehacker post. And, yeah. It took me until the last week of the month to actually set up my calendars, but now, I've got momentum. I write five days a week (I also work on my house five days a week, exercise five days a week, and spend time working on obedience training my dog every day). It's been a week. But I feel good about where this is heading. Life: hacked. (Ugh.)

And, yes, today this post counts for my writing.

How is your new year shaping up? Any hacks (ugh, again) you're employing or strategies you hope will make 2014 a better one than 2013 was?

January Round-Up

Jacquelyn Bengfort

January was a quiet month, but I'm happy to report that it was also a fruitful one: I'm finishing up an online flash fiction course, taught by Rae Bryant, through the Eckleburg workshops. This class is my fourth since fall, and I highly recommend them if you need a kick to get going. There is still space in the February essay class, taught by Chelsey Clammer, so, you know...sign up now.

My latest article for EdTech went live today. "Efficiency in Motion" is a look at how university-developed apps are streamlining all sorts of campus processes.

Finally, I took part in Kafe Bohem's relatively new monthly reading series, which takes place on the last Monday of every month. It was an absolute blast sharing the room with poets, essayists, and story writers of all sorts. My friends Paul and Adam were a fantastic support crew as I read some short essays about my time in the Navy. I leave you with a photo Paul snapped during the reading.

On to February!

Grant Writer? Grant Getter!

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I'm happy to announce that I was able to secure sponsorship of the 2013 Bloomingdale House Tour from DC Water! As Tour Grants Committee Chair, I gained experience with writing grant letters-of-inquiry and filling out the often really really long and repetitive webforms preferred by some grantmaking bodies. For more on the biennial event, which took place in October of this year and will be back in 2015, check out the website.

Need a Toast Ghost?

Jacquelyn Bengfort

A lot of people hate public speaking. A lot of people hate trying to come up with the perfect words for weddings and other functions.

I am not one of those people.

If you have an upcoming event that requires a short public speech, such as a toast, and it's keeping you up nights in a sweaty mess, check out my new Toast Ghost services and let me ghostwrite for you. We'll work together to make it a personal, from-the-heart speech that, in five minutes or less, will impress your friends and let you get back to enjoying your life--and the party.

This month only: 31% off Toast Ghost services! 

To celebrate the launch of my new service as well as my favorite holiday--Halloween--take 31% off the cost of all Toast Ghost services during the month of October. This includes panic pricing!


The New Stuff

Jacquelyn Bengfort

If you haven't checked out the Feature Articles tab in a while, you should--lots of new stuff to read, including my latest for EdTech, which is both online and in print! The other new stuff: I recently began working as the editor and publisher of a new corporate blog, On the 'Brain, for Cobrain, a start-up based in Bethesda, Maryland. You can learn about the inspiration behind the company, get a taste of the technology powering the endeavor, and see what it's like to be working there by heading over to

District Lines official launch

Jacquelyn Bengfort

The first volume of District Lines, Politics & Prose's new anthology/literary journal featuring DC writers, is now available! You can purchase a copy here and read my second-person essay, "Chicken Bones," about walking in Bloomingdale, LeDroit Park and Shaw. On June 15 there will be a celebration at the bookstore (5015 Connecticut Ave NW), featuring readings from the anthology.

My MOOC-y Experiment

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Dare you think yourself an education reporter if you haven't experienced that most novel of course formats, the MOOC? I've enrolled in Coursera's UPenn offering "Design: Creation of Artifacts in Society." Over the course of the next eight weeks I'll be seeking to find, define, and fill a gap in my user experience of life. You can follow along by viewing my portfolio here--or better yet, enroll yourself! Only a few days in and I already know I'll never look at an ice cream scoop the same way again.

Author page on EdTech site

Jacquelyn Bengfort

I recently began contributing to EdTech: Focus on Higher Education. You can link directly to my latest work via my Feature Articles tab, or view it aggregated right on the EdTech site here, where as a bonus you can check out my cheeky new freelancer bio.

The Latest News

Jacquelyn Bengfort

Quick update: "The Desert" was rescheduled and will be read on March 19, with Micah Chalmers directing. A brief synopsis is online here. The location and time of day remain the same. And it remains free and open to the public! In addition, the next issue of Storm Cellar Quarterly (featuring my short story, "The Mathematician") is now available for pre-order. You can find out how to get it, whether in paper or pixels, here. It's expected to ship out mid month and, for reasons as yet obscure to me, the issue has been nicknamed This Bird Will Die. I can't wait to find out why.