Learning Flash in Exotic Costa Rica: A Chat with Writer, Professor, Geneticist Margaret Nowaczyk

Nancy and I are thrilled that accomplished writer and geneticist Margaret Nowaczyk will be joining us for our second Writing Wild in Costa Rica Retreat. Margaret graciously agreed to chat with me about the March, 2020 gathering, the writing life, and more.

Hi Margaret! What are you most looking forward to at Writing Wild in Costa Rica?

Learning how to craft flash fiction. In my writing, it seems that it takes me three quarters of the story to get to the beginning and another half to find the ending. Yes, I know it doesn’t add up—hence my problem. I adore pithy, punch-you-in-the-gut flash fiction yet writing that seems to be completely beyond my reach. And comprehension as to how it’s done. So far, I have written one short-short story (400 words) but nobody likes it enough to publish it. I have bought several books on writing flash and short fiction I had hoped would help, but no such luck. I wonder if I ever get the gist of things.

And, of course, I am looking forward to seeing the jungles of Costa Rica and swimming in the Pacific. But, wait! Are there snakes there?!

Flash fiction is definitely challenging to write well. Nancy and I feel really good about the program we’ve developed for our retreats.  I’m confident you’ll come away from the retreat armed with some great new skills. And oh, I think there might be snakes but I never saw any. I did see a beautiful, shy, slow-moving green iguana though. : ) Margaret, could you tell us a little about your writing life? 

Not sure that I have a writing life. I have a full-time job so my writing takes a back seat to that. I am also a mother to two almost grown sons (18 and 22). I write whenever I can: early mornings, evenings, weekends but there are days when I can’t seem to be able to pull myself together to put anything on paper. I have published several short stories and essays in literary magazines and, last year, defended my MFA thesis. Right now I am trying to finish and publish a memoir and oscillate between nice productivity and sheer, paralyzing terror. I am a sucker for writing retreats and how-to-write manuals: between the trips I have taken and the volumes on my shelf, my last name should be Atwood by now!

Ha! Well, I have to admit I’m a sucker for these things too. Favorite book or story?

 Le Petit Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery is my life-long favourite.

Oh I love that book. I read it in French in high school and was so moved. Is there something funny, unusual, interesting whatever about yourself that you’d like to share?

Nah. I’m just a little bit crazy, ehem, colourful.

Aw, I love that! Can’t wait to retreat with you in Costa Rica, Margaret. Thanks for chatting!

Margaret Nowaczyk MD, received her MFA from University of British Columbia in 2018. Her short stories have been published Numero Cinq, Broken Pencil, The New Quarterly, and Prairie Fire who nominated her short story “Cassandra” for the 2017 Journey Prize. Her non-fiction has appeared in GeistThe Antigonish Review, Grain Magazine and Pismo and, in translation, has twice won a national contest in Poland. She is a clinical geneticist and a professor of pediatrics and pathology at McMaster University. She is currently completing a collection of short stories and a memoir about her work as a pediatric geneticist. She lives in Hamilton, Ontario with her husband and two sons.

Note: Spaces remain for Writing Wild in Costa Rica! (See the glowing praise for our past retreats.) Nancy and I are excited to return to lovely and exotic Peace Retreat in March and hope you can join us!


Saturday May 25: Flash Fiction Featured Reading at Rome’s Otherwise Bookstore

When in Rome, Read Flash Fiction!

Flash fictions are complete stories under 1,000 words and they are increasingly popular around the globe. Come hear 14 visiting writers from the Ireland, U.K., Switzerland, Canada and the United States read their micro-stories at this one-time event!

Saturday, May 25


Otherwise Bookstore

Outside Otherwise Bookshop.8dbb3d_64fe77135ca649da94edf8851a8fe164mv2

The evening features award-winning writers, publishers, and masters of the craft including:

Nancy Stohlman (U.S)

Jayne Martin (U.S)

Beth Gilstrap (U.S)

Bryan Jansing (U.S./Italy)

K.B. Jensen (U.S.)

Kim Samsain (Canada)

Jude Higgins (U.K.)

John Wheway (U.K.)

Cath Barton (U.K)

Oliver Barton (U.K)

Marie Gethins (Ireland)

Nicole Schmied (Switzerland)

Gina Headden (U.K.)

and musical guest Nick Busheff (U.S.)



Ryan Stone on the Magic of Flash Fiction: A Perfect Five-Minute Escape From the World

I’ve been working virtually with Australian Ryan Stone for several years, so I was thrilled to learn that he has decided to take the plunge and fly halfway around the world to join Kathy Fish and I in Grand Lake, Colorado this August!
Nancy Stohlman: The biggest challenge most writers have is finding the time to write. How do you “retreat” in your day-to-day life in order to honor your creativity?
Ryan Stone: I still haven’t figured that one out! My writing is a series of staccato bursts, squeezed in around everything else. A common story, I guess. Nearly all of my writing starts while I’m running with my dog through the rainforest beside my house. He’s developed his very own ‘here we go again’ face that he pulls each time a run pauses so I can tap out a note or two on my phone.
I’m lucky enough to have my own room with a view, filled with my electric guitars, books, and music. On the rare occasions when I find myself in a quiet house with nothing else demanding my time, my favourite thing to do is to tuck myself away, put some vinyl onto my record player, and start revising all the drafts I’ve jotted down over the last few weeks. I find Metallica, Pink Floyd, Concrete Blonde, and The Doors work best when I’m writing.
Nancy: Ha! I can’t imagine revising to Metallica! Tell us about your relationship with flash fiction?
Ryan: I think I’ve always been a flash fiction writer, I just didn’t know it until recently. I’ve spent the last few years writing poetry. I’ve always had a particular fondness for haiku, senryu, and 5-7-5 as I love working within those tight constraints where I’m forced to focus on every single word. I’ve written a few short stories, and some longer ones, but I always feel like I’m padding in places. Since I stumbled across flash, I’ve pretty much written it exclusively. To my mind it’s the perfect middle ground between a poem and a short story. I love reading it too – such a magic form to provide a complete escape from the world for 5 minutes.
Nancy: YES! I can’t agree more. Now what is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?
Ryan: I can’t remember the exact phrasing, but my interpretation is, a draft is a beginning— revision is what makes good writing great. As silly as it sounds, for a long time I viewed my first drafts as almost-finished pieces. It wasn’t until I read that that I was able to view my drafts as a way of getting ideas out onto the page, and the revision process as the real honing and shaping that turns an idea into something more. I’m about as sharp as a bowling ball most days!
Nancy: What piece of your own writing are you most proud of?  Where can we read it (if it’s available)?
Ryan: In the fairly short time that I’ve been writing short stories and flash, I’ve been fortunate enough to win a few competitions and get some of my writing published. The piece I think sums up my writing style the best, and one I enjoy re-reading myself, is called Catching Tigers. It was a winner of the 2018 Scintillating Starts Contest at, and has also appeared in a few of other places in different guises. The WriterAdvice version is my favourite:
Nancy: I’m so excited for you–congratulations! Have you ever been to Grand Lake before? What are you most looking forward to?
Ryan: No! Attending this retreat in Grand Lake combines two of the things on the top of my “must do” list. I live in Melbourne, Australia, and have always held a deep fascination and love for America. I’ve completed a couple of online courses with Nancy but have been dying to attend one in person, as well as travel to America. A perfect combination! I’ve been on a couple of surfing trips to Hawaii, but this will be my first visit to Colorado.
There are so many things I’m looking forward to on this trip that it’s hard to narrow it down to a single one. I love the outdoors, hiking and trail running, so one of the top things on my agenda is to get up early and explore a new trail or two while the world wakes up.
Nancy: Colorado is so beautiful–you have picked a perfect American spot to land, I promise! Speaking of travel then, react to this quote:  “We travel because we need to, because distance and difference are the secret tonic of creativity. When we get home, home is still the same. But something in our mind has been changed, and that changes everything.”
–Jonah Lehrer, “Why We Travel,” Panorama Magazine (Deccember 2009)
Ryan: Wow! That sums up my thoughts in a far more articulate way than I’ve ever managed. After finishing a 3 year stint in the army, I surfed my way around Australia for 18 months. I discovered the truth in that quote for myself when I returned home. I wish I’d written it.
Nancy: Ha! Me too. Okay, last thing: Tell us something we don’t know about you?
Ryan: I have a good friend coming to this retreat whom I’ve never met.
Nancy: So exciting! And I look forward to meeting YOU in person as well! xoxo
My short fiction and poetry have appeared in publications including Eunoia Review, The Drabble, Algebra of Owls and Silver Birch Press, and won prizes in a number of competitions at venues including Grindstone, Writer Advice, Goodreads, Writers’ Forum Magazine and Poetry Nook. I’m a 2018 Pushcart Prize nominee and live in Melbourne, Australia.

Flash Fiction as a Puzzle: Sarah Arantza Amador on Creative Confidence and Reclaiming Your Writing Time


Kathy Fish and I are THRILLED that Sarah Arantza Amador is joining us on our return to Costa Rica next spring! I chat with Sarah here about the reality of writing and having confidence in your work…oh and we talk about bugs, too!

Nancy Stohlman: The biggest challenge most writers have is finding the time to write. How do you “retreat” in your day-to-day life in order to honor your creativity?

 Sarah Arantza Amador: This is such a tough one. When I was in college, I was dumbstruck by authors who detailed highly disciplined writing routines (“Up at 5am, write for four hours at a tiny desk in my bedroom, etc.). Back then I had the privilege of  youth and a lot of unstructured time day-to-day. Things have changed, as they tend to do, and I’m a busy lady with a full-time day job and other responsibilities and obligations, and I understand that need for discipline and routine more and more. These days, it takes me a combination of scheduled writing time (often when I take lunch at work, sitting at the little meeting table in my office) and being nimble and flexible, taking advantage of less structured time and “filler” time (commuting, walking, waiting in line at the post office, etc.) to “write” by recording audio notes and typing reminders to myself on my phone. I keep that writing time that I schedule for myself like I do time at the gym (better, even — not going to lie) or scheduled doctors appointments. Time is precious — and nobody is going to value your time more than yourself — so protect it!

Nancy: I can’t agree with you more–it’s so tempting to put our writing time last in a busy life. Tell us about your relationship with flash fiction?

Sarah: I’ve loved flash fiction for a long time — but I didn’t always know to call it that! When I was a teenager, I wrote poetry and then vignettes  (and even self-published a chapbook of vignettes inspired by Bob Dylan songs!). In my freshman year in college, my LIT 01 professor introduced my class to Augusto Monterroso’s “The Dinosaur,” a perfect, one-sentence short story. Look it up — it’s incredible! I was amazed by that story and how a single sentence could have so much traction and trouble. I loved that it operated like a puzzle — that it and the reader work together to build a world, a series of possibilities, outcomes. I’ve been a big fan of microfiction and flash fiction ever since.

Nancy: I just looked it up and read it–amazing! What is the best piece of writing advice you ever received?

Sarah: “Have confidence in yourself and your work.” This is easier said than done — I know because I’ve spent decades so far trying to follow it! With time and experience and self-reflection and genuine curiosity, though, it’s gotten a lot easier for me to discern what critiques and criticism serve the work and what I’m going to choose to ignore. It feels really good, really satisfying, to receive feedback that *could* sting, feel unfair or misdirected, and then hear a little voice within me say: “nah, I’ll pass on that feedback.” So, the second best piece of writing advice: practice resiliency, in writing and in life. Oh wait: they’re two parts of the same piece of advice, aren’t they?

Nancy: Yes, they are! What piece of your own writing are you most proud of?  Where can we read it (if it’s available)?

Sarah: It’s difficult for me to choose one piece. I have more pieces unpublished than published, and every work, regardless of whether or not it has an audience yet,  is like a miracle. Last year, I wrote and published a piece of historical flash that helped me stretch my voice and my imagination, too: “In Dead Waters,” selected for publication in the always excellent FlashBack Fiction. I’m really proud of that flash piece (this one came together for me on a long, solo car ride — I memorized it while reciting it to myself on the road!) and I’m so pleased to have had it published by FlashBack, a journal whose work I really, really admire. Big shout-out to FlashBack editor Ingrid Jendrzejewski, whose thoughtful and careful feedback really helped me tighten and strengthen this piece!

Nancy: I love Ingrid! Have you ever been to Costa Rica before? What are you most looking forward to?

Sarah: No, I haven’t been to Costa Rica yet! I’ve never been to Central America and I’m excited to see this part of my hemisphere. What I most look forward to: run-ins with iguanas, monkeys, and tropical birds; (daily??) beach swims; and falling asleep at night listening to the night sounds outside of my jungle cabina. I can’t wait to embrace my inner tropicalia!

Nancy: You will definitely “hear” the howler monkeys! We saw quite a few iguanas last year too. So then react to this quote:  “The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new landscapes, but in having new eyes.”

― Marcel Proust

Sarah: I like this quote because it reminds me that the brain is like a muscle — it responds so quickly and so well to exercise, training, new stimuli. You can flex that “muscle” — your cognitive functions, your memory, your imagination — in all kinds of ways, and travel, experiencing and responding to new sights, sounds, smells, and textures in new settings and circumstances, can be a great way to make that exercise — that work — really exciting and generative. I can’t really grow new eyeballs, but I can push and challenge the ones I have to see things with newfound imagination and wonder! Too weird?

Nancy: Love that answer. Last thing: Tell us something we don’t know about you?

Sarah: I’m real squeamish around bugs. This may be my biggest challenge on this retreat, overcoming my tropi-spider fears.

Nancy: I promise it won’t be TOO bad–we aren’t deep in the jungle at least! Anything else you want to add?

Sarah: I am so looking forward to reclaiming my time (thank you, Maxine Waters!) with Nancy, Kathy, all my new flash friends (who still feel like mere twinkles in my eye?), and the exciting Costa Rican surprises in store for us in March!

Nancy: And we are so excited to meet you! Twinkle back!

Residing in the Santa Cruz Mountains of Northern California with her dog Roscoe and person Richard, Sarah Arantza Amador writes about longing, ghost-making, the endearment of monsters, and the twists and turns of human loving kindness. Her work is featured in Best Microfiction 2019 and has been nominated for the Pushcart Prize. She tweets @ArantzaSarah and sometimes blogs from


Going with the Flow: A Conversation with Writer, Francine Witte

Writer Francine Witte will be joining Nancy and me in Grand Lake for our High Altitude Inspiration Retreat. We’re so excited to have her! Francine took some time to chat with me about all things flash.

Hi Francine! First off, I’m interested to know if you’ve ever visited Colorado before.

I have been in Colorado several times. The first time was when I hitchhiked cross country and stayed in a commune in Boulder for a few days. My boyfriend and I broke up there, and I certainly didn’t want to hitchhike back alone, so my parents wired me money, and I took my very first airplane ride.  Most recently, I was in Denver for the 2010 AWP conference. Colorado is so beautiful, and I am looking forward to returning this summer.

You have a fascinating history with the state then. What do you hope to get from our upcoming retreat?

Living in New York City, I am seldom around nature and open sky. So there’s that. And I am really looking forward to having nothing to think about but flash, flash, flash for a couple of days. I am also going to welcome the community of other flash fiction writers. I know many poets in my not-virtual life, but most of the flash fiction writers I know are from Facebook and Twitter. It will be nice to speak in more than 140 characters. (Though with flash, who knows?)

What is a favorite flash of your own?

I like my flash “How to Teach Your Cat to Talk.” It appeared in Jellyfish on October 8, 2018.

Ooh, I love this flash, especially:

“Place his little cat paws against your throat. You don’t like anything touching your throat, but get over it. Your husband is hundreds of miles from here. Make sounds so that your cat can feel the vibrations. Tell him that this is what talking will feel like. Compare it to how the house felt, shaking like a fist.”

What lessons about writing did you learn from being a high school teacher for 20 years?

I learned to write quickly and in small bits. As a teacher, you learn to “monitor and adjust.” There’s a fire drill in fifth period, so your lesson has to change. Half the class is on a field trip, so your lesson has to change. Nobody understood what you were talking about yesterday, so… Well, I learned to apply that to my writing. Go with the flow. Your stories can change right there in the middle. You might only have ten minutes to write. You just always have to monitor and adjust. This is one of the things I like best about flash. You can do a lot in a short amount of time, and flash allows for sudden changes.

That’s so interesting about learning to “go with the flow.” Seems like that would transfer nicely to all aspects of life, including flash writing. Thanks so much for chatting, Francine. We look forward to seeing you in Grand Lake this summer!

Francine Witte is the author of four poetry chapbooks, two flash fiction chapbooks, and the full-length poetry collections Café Crazy (Kelsay Books) and the forthcoming The Theory of Flesh (Kelsay Books)  Her play, Love is a Bad Neighborhood, was produced in NYC this past December. Her Novella-in-Flash, The Way of the Wind, is forthcoming from Ad Hoc Press. She lives in NYC.

Note: A (very) few spaces remain for our beautiful Grand Lake Retreat. We’d love to have you join us for four days of writing and workshopping and inspiration in the Colorado Rockies!