Word Play

Warning: the following is about to get super nerdy.

A woman I used to know from childhood recently showed me up on a vocabulary quiz making its rounds on that time-wasting, insecurity-inducing, why-do-I-care-so-much super highway we refer to as social media.

When the quiz came to my attention, I quickly jumped aboard and finished it without too much sweat on my brow, I proudly noted—only to be taken down a few notches when my “grade” came back. Turns out I seem to have the same breadth and depth of vocabulary as a “30-year-old professional,” I believe is how they worded it. Considering the fact that I have a good ten years on any 30-year-old and have been making my living for some time now as a writer, I was—to say the least—not satisfied at all with this (highly scientific, I’m sure) assessment.

On the other hand, the woman who sent me the quiz—I’ll call her Wanda the Word Nerd—was labeled as a genius akin to Shakespeare. And while I don’t doubt her intelligence or her hefty vocabulary (although I have no way of knowing she didn’t just sit there with an open dictionary the whole time she was taking the quiz), I did suddenly doubt my intelligence and vocabulary.

I mean, it’s easy to forgive the meagerness of one’s own lexicon when comparing it to people like the late Christopher Hitchens or the current Rhoda Janzen or, well, any Vanity Fair contributor, whose scarily prodigious vocabularies are equal only to old-school comedian Dennis Miller’s wealth of obscure references. But because I don’t count myself in any of their companies, I didn’t—until recently—feel particularly lessened.

Wanda the Word Nerd is another story. She falls within a range we’d call socially normal (meaning she’s not a savant or anything) and has a job in software. Unless she’s got a secret late-night obsession with Webster I don’t know about, there’s no good reason I should fall short of her in the god-damn quiz!

Other than, I might just be lazy. And I’ve been out of school for awhile. Since no one is asking it of me, I’m not asking it of myself.

Which is why I thought: maybe it’s time to start asking.

So I started making a list.

Every time I encountered a word in a book or an article for which I had a hazy idea at best of its definition, could use it only uncertainly in a sentence, or flat-out didn’t know what the heck it meant, I wrote it down and looked it up later.

That’s how I came to have more than a passing acquaintance with salubrious and inchoate, among others. (I’ll prove it to you: My trip to Whole Foods today offered a salubrious journey into fresh fruits and vegetables, while leaving the ebook I’m supposed to be working on in an inchoate state.)

I know what you’re thinking: since most people in this country read somewhere between a fourth- and an eighth-grade level (don’t quote me on that; it’s the nearest I could get doing a cursory search), why bother with a bunch of multi-syllabic, utterly pretentious-sounding terms I’m unlikely to use in my paid writing anyway?

Sure, part of it’s my ego. But the other part is that enlarging my vocabulary is about crawling out of the slump. Which is to say that I, like a lot of people, end up using the same words over and over again. (Sidebar: my dad uses perspicacious an inordinate amount of times—I’m on to you, Dad—finding ways to slip it into regular ol’ emails and conversations just because I suspect he likes the sound of it). The words I use often also happen to be words I like the sound of…or words that convey the right meaning…or words that have that special sauce when special sauce is what I need. The problem is they end up forming an exclusive club of which few new (or lesser-known or slightly vintage or downright oddball) words are allowed entry, and therefore deteriorate into a puddle of stale, obvious, tweed-wearing, ascot-donning, cigar-smelling, leaves-a-grit-in-your-mouth, fuddy-duddy old mud I’ve grown tired of.

If my brainy friend Micha were reading this, he would run all of my written pieces through some kind of big-data-driven, only-the-government-has-access word-parser and find out which words I use time and again (and send them to me in an easily readable chart for quick and shame-filled reference). He could probably even tell me how many times I string together a host of words with hyphens to create a kind of bumbling, stumbling, Frankenstein of an adjective when I can’t think of a more appropriate one-word adjective to use…you know, on account of my lagging vocabulary…and my apparent unwillingness to sift through a thesaurus.

So I figured learning (or re-learning) all the words on my list can only help me, since I’m pretty sure that one day I actually will need to call upon a larger phraseology, like when the late Christopher Hitchens visits me in a dream and asks me—me!—to write his memoir.

Which is why I’m brushing up on nadir (don’t want to reach that point again after another vocabulary quiz) because I wouldn’t want to seem jejune or anything. Can’t have a recalcitrant attitude when it comes to my own work, now, can I? Can’t be querulous or doggerel. That’ll just seal my bathos (not to be confused with the pathos you might be feeling right about now to the tune of Concerto for Sad and Pathetic Violins No. 1).

And just you wait, random clients for which I write: I might throw in a sneaky specious to jazz up that fourth-grade-sounding paragraph about politics…and you might actually like it—and, perhaps, be inspired to start your own list.

Books that Changed Everything

My friend who works for a library recently posted this question on social media: What was the book that changed your life? She included a link to an article with writers giving their answers and I skimmed through it, not recognizing most of the titles. But it got me thinking.

I’ve been reading since, well, the day I could read, and really even before that if you count all the hours I spent on the living room couch as a child with a picture book on my lap, making up the story because I couldn’t understand the actual words yet. So I’ve been ingesting information and fantasy and debate and romance and mystery and history and humor and dialogue for nearly all my life…and that’s a really tall order to sift through all those years and chapters and sentences and come up with an answer to this now seemingly trite question.

But as I said, it got me thinking.

Two answers came to mind immediately:

First, A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, which is a beautiful, poignant memoir I could say a lot about, but really because it introduced me to Dave Eggers, a man who would become one of my all-time favorite authors. If you’ve seen my Favorites page, I mention You Shall Know Our Velocity, but everything I’ve read by Dave has pricked my soul on some level. Why? Because he writes in this spare, crystalline way that I aspire to, for one. But for two, he writes the truth. Whether it’s the inane conversation between two friends trying to plan a trip, or the innermost thoughts of a young woman unable to think for herself, or a trek up Mt. Kilimanjaro by an under-prepared man, he writes the truth. When someone is able to tap into what is true—even if you’ve never experienced for yourself the exact thing being written about—you know it without knowing how you know it. And whenever that happens, it’s like a seam opens up in the fabric of your life and you see into the secret place wherein all the world’s wisdom lies.

My second answer is The War of Art by Steven Pressfield. I have a story about this. A few years ago I was at a wedding with my boyfriend. We were going through a tumultuous time, lots of ups and downs and breakthroughs in our relationship, lots of vulnerabilities and hurts and doubts, and the bottom line was that I did not want to be at that wedding. I barely knew the couple getting married, I was deeply tired on an emotional level, and that night I was so on edge I could barely speak because I was afraid we’d get into an argument as we’d been doing a lot of back then. As we were making our way around the buffet table, my boyfriend got caught in a conversation with a woman holding a baby. A man, who turned out to be the woman’s husband, turned to me to introduce himself and made a few other polite inquiries by way of small talk. I must have told him I was a writer, because he told me he was a musician. And then he asked me if I’d read The War of Art. I said no, I’d never heard of it.

And you know when you have one of those moments where everything in the room just stops…the background noise disappears…everyone else fades into a blur…and the only thing you’re conscious of is your heart beating and the face of the person in front of you who’s about to change everything? This man whose name I don’t remember, who was a struggling musician as much as I was a struggling writer, who had met me as a stranger and would forget me as a stranger but somehow understood that the vocation I had embarked upon—much like his—was fraught with self-doubt and fear, told me he’d found enlightenment in this book and I believed him. I bought the book the next day and devoured it in one sitting. As with all my favorite books, I’ve read it several more times, and every time I am slapped upside the head and humbled and vow to recommit myself to my work. It’s a book that doesn’t let anyone off the hook. It holds you accountable, in your life and your art. It asks how willing you are. It has nothing to do with bestseller lists or profit margins or six-figure deals, all the things we humans deem important.

(Note to readers: whenever you have one of those moments, pay attention. And for heaven’s sake, if it involves a book you need to read, go out and read it. Books are messages; the writing comes not from the author, but from the divine. Steven Pressfield will tell you all about it).

Many other books have left permanent impressions on me. I could try to talk about them all, but such self-indulgence might become a bore to you (and to me). So I’ll just leave you with these. And the original question. And your thoughts.

An Abrupt Catapulting

When I published my first novel back in 2011, I had no idea what to expect. Would strangers actually buy my book? How much work would I need to do to market it? What would any of this amount to?

Here’s what I learned: when there’s a vacuum of expectation, the ego is more than happy to step in and fill it.

I’ll give you an example.

At the time my book was published, I worked for a big newswire company. And one of their enterprise-level service offerings (that’s a sticky mouthful of jargon) was to display—for a hefty price tag—an image of your product, your company logo, your coiffed C-level executive, whatever you wanted, on a four-story jumbotron in the middle of Manhattan’s Times Square for literally millions of people to see. The end result: unbelievable publicity.

When some people at my company found out I had published a book, they offered this to me…for free. “Send us an image of the cover of your book and up it goes!”

I remember the words of one of my coworkers upon hearing the news: “You’re going to be famous!”  And with a tingle up my spine, I kinda, sorta believed him. I could see my company’s sales and marketing teams salivating over one of their own getting to be a guinea pig in the best kind of way, eventually becoming a case study, a success story they could hock, “an author who saw her sales triple overnight!”

In reality, there was a brief email exchange with a girl in New Jersey asking me for my .jpg, but it didn’t stop me from filling in all the fantastical details.

But wait, there’s more.

Also part of that enormous service offering was the ability to send out a press release about my newly published book to a media list of my own choosing. So, giddy with my impending transformation from unknown writer to bestselling author, I got in touch with an acquaintance of mine in PR, thinking she could maybe give me the names of five or six people for a small fee. Instead, she unexpectedly and generously turned over her entire media list of publishing and entertainment reporters, editors, and publications to me—for no charge.

This wealth of free help, valued at thousands of dollars—way more than I could ever, as a single girl with an average-paying job, hope to afford—did something to me. These people were helping me and they didn’t have to. I was getting stuff handed to me when normally I’d be charged an arm and a leg. This had to mean something. It had to. This was certifiable success knocking at the door. The universe was conspiring with me. I was weepy with gratitude.

So I said yes, YES, to it all, and a few days later, there was my book…four stories tall in Times Square…with an accompanying press release whizzing over the wire to all relevant media points. I posted about it on my Facebook page. My publisher posted it on her Facebook page. My company gave me the thumbs up. Any minute now, fame and fortune! I waited by my phone. I waited by my email.

Except…there was nothing.



Twenty-four hours later turned into two days, then a week, then two weeks, then three weeks.

And still nothing.

Not a single interview request from a reporter. Not a single inquiry from an editor. Not one mention from the millions of people out there whom I presumed had seen the cover of my book. Absolutely zero came out of that this-has-to-be-a-sign-from-the-universe event.

It was, as they say, an epic failure.

Especially for someone like me who had hoped to skip about a hundred steps and a few more years and hit the bulls-eye on my first try.

Without talking about it to anyone, I retreated into myself to sort out what had happened and where I had gone wrong.

Like Elizabeth Gilbert says so eloquently in her TED talk about failure, I got “lost in the hinterlands of my psyche.” And for a long time afterward I struggled to find my way out of it and back to my writing—this crazy, hare-brained, frustrating, humbling, soul-leveling thing I had embarked upon, told everyone I was doing, was arranging my life around, speaking openly about (which is always hard for me), and which, God help me, I so desperately wanted to make work.

To another of Liz’s points: like great success, great failure flings you far from your center and leaves you disoriented.

I’ve had to ask myself this question often since those days: do I love writing more than I love myself?

Many times the answer has been “I don’t know.” In fact, I would say most days it’s still “I don’t know.” And that’s because the sting of that failure lives on. The utter pompous naiveté with which I approached my novel being splashed across Times Square still lives alongside the excited little girl in me and the “what if?” hopefulness of my heart.

How do you tell that excited, hopeful little girl not to be hopeful or excited?

I’ve studied a lot of new age theories and esoteric wisdom and quantum physics and great googly-moogly. I’ve probably studied that stuff as much as I’ve spent hours writing. So I wanted to believe, with every Higgs boson particle giving material form to my cosmic self, that the gift of immeasurable publicity was a validating nod to my dreams and aspirations, and surely the very thing that was going to get me to the next level, whatever I conceived it to be.

So when it didn’t work, I took it to mean that I wasn’t meant to be a writer.

Yeah, that’s a sad thud of a thought…

(Fast-forward through the Pit of Despair months).

Since then, I have a few more years under my belt. I’ve made it through a few more of those “hundred steps.” I’ve met some really significant people who made me look at my writing and my choices in a new way, and I’ve had a few small successes that mean more to me in their tiny, twinkling purity than that screaming, lit-up jumbotron ever could.

No matter what, a writer wants to be read. A writer wants an audience. We’d all be lying if we said we didn’t want others to read our work and appreciate it. An audience is our Higgs boson: it gives form to the deeply mysterious work of hauling a story out of the ether and onto the page. That’s why an audience—any audience—is all the more sweet because we know, deep down inside, that some of us will labor all our lives without ever getting one. And the vast majority of us sure as hell will never get Times Square. Not because it’s impossible. But because those of us who are truly serious about what we’re doing don’t get serious until our creations stand tall inside of us first, rather than outside of us.

I don’t envy the Times Square miracle for someone else because it may very well be a legitimate stop on his or her journey. In fact, I’d love it to be a stop on someone’s journey because it would give me renewed faith in astonishing occurrences.

It just wasn’t mine.

Mine was an abrupt catapulting into a hell of my own self-doubt.

Then a soft, kind, encouraging walk back to where I needed to be.

The way I see it, that failure may not have been a failure at all. A particle can be in two places at once. I just observed the silence after the hoopla and called it defeat. The other particle was alive and well the whole time, in another place, setting up the band and the confetti for the “You’ve Arrived” celebration. I don’t even need that celebration anymore. I’ll take peace in my heart and courage to go on any day.

Because the Times Square miracle pales in comparison to the miracle of simply getting up every morning and trying to do what you really want to do and trying to love it as hard as you can. If you don’t believe me, Liz has something to say about that, too—only she calls it magic.

It is important to expect nothing, to take every experience, including the negative ones, as merely steps on the path, and to proceed. – Ram Dass

Newswriting 101

I was a college sophomore when I took Newswriting 101.

Our professor—I’ll call him Mr. C—was old and pale and grizzled from years of working the beats as a newspaper reporter. He liked to wear khaki pants belted around his chest and red plaid shirts that matched the distressing spray of broken capillaries on his face. He spoke to us in a nasally voice so filled with irritation that it was often hard to understand what he was saying.

We found out soon enough. “You guys are idiots.” In fairness, we were.

The class worked like this:

He’d give us a make-believe event—a fire broke out in an apartment building around 8 p.m., two people injured, one cat missing (and a host of other facts)—and then we’d get 20 minutes to put together a news story following the holy dictates of the who, what, when, where, and why news pyramid. While we sweated and scribbled, erased and squirmed, he’d stand—hunched and troll-like—at the front of the room, leafing through The Denver Post, muttering his dissatisfaction. Then one by one, we’d go to the podium and present our work to him.

He had a big red Sharpie and would swipe it across the page, circling this, slashing through that, shaking his head. In his nasally voice, he’d admonish us. Why did you put the why before the what? Where is the where in the lede? How did you miss all the pertinent facts and only talk about the secondary ones? (All of this punctuated by a high-pitched laugh that told us our ineptitude was making him insane). And worst and most damnable of all, why did you use that word? Couldn’t you see that you were introducing bias?!?

So back to our desks we’d go to sweat and scribble some more, and this process would repeat itself until we had produced a competent story. None of us was spared the red Sharpie. All of us had to make at least two trips to the podium, and for many, three or four trips, before our work was accepted.

I got a B in that class. For an A student, it was the end of the world as I knew it. But since no one else got an A, I quickly got over the insult. I had to.

Because as it turns out, I didn’t know anything at all. None of us did. The simple fact was that Newswriting was hard, the hardest of all the core classes in my major, the hardest because teaching the basic principles upon which journalism was built is like teaching a toddler to walk. We staggered around drunkenly until we got the hang of it, which took weeks and sometimes even months, and even then we’d occasionally crash into a wall or stumble down the stairs. Funny how much we take the basics for granted. Funny how above it all we think we are.

I bet you’re guessing what I’m going to say next:

That crotchety, curmudgeonly Mr. C taught me everything I know and I owe all my successes to him.

The truth, of course, is a little less tidy. The truth is that he frustrated me. He didn’t want to be there, that was obvious. He hated teaching with every breath in his body. Teaching for him was nothing more than a way to make a living in his post-newspaper-reporter twilight years and the minute he got home every evening, he probably poured a tall whiskey and sniveled over some mangy cat in his lap and reminisced about the good ol’ days when he and his compadres cracked open that bank robbery story. His disdain for us—a bunch of know-it-all kids barely out of our teens, thinking we were going to save the world—was palpable.

But at the end of the long, weary day, no matter how little regard he had for us, he still tried to do his job right. Which meant teaching us how to be responsible journalists. Which meant imparting something sacred to us that he feared was going to be lost: the art of thorough reporting, free of emotional bias, with “just the facts.”

Here’s where I grudgingly tip my hat to Mr. C.

As far as I’m concerned, he was right: that sacredness is lost. And though he was one of my least favorite professors and I do not look back on his red Sharpie or his plaid shirts with fond memories, I do think about him on the rare occurrence when I skim a newspaper article or click through the nightly news.

Mr. C’s ideals of journalism are nearly impossible to find in practice anymore, though there are some people making a real and valiant effort. And of course this is not the first period in history when the rabid “reporting” of news with divisive effect as the goal has become the status quo, although the speed of rabid reporting happens faster than ever before as news organizations clamor to dish the details first, whether those details have actually been verified or not. It’s not the first time in history where editorializing is mistaken as reporting or even its intellectual cousin—investigative journalism—and is revered above all else. Everyone’s a pundit; everyone is a narcissist with an opinion that must be shared.

But it may be the first time in history when “bias” is no longer an alarm bell.

Ah, what the hell do I know, anyway? I’ve never earned a living as a reporter. I’ve never had to see what reporters are up against, or feel first-hand the sordid business of news. And it’s been a long time since I was in journalism school, so I don’t even know what they teach the kids anymore. For all I know, there are a hundred incarnations of Mr. C out there, trying to whip students into shape.

But despite teachers like him who held aloft the candles of Standards and Idealism, you can always count on the great fuel of human emotion to spin out the siren song of the news story and crash us all on the rocks. As long as there is something to be afraid of, outraged about, or titillated by, human beings will sell their souls to the media in the name of “wanting to stay informed”…and then in the very same breath call the media the devil.

On the other hand, a lot of people are smart enough to know what’s really going on. They know about the amygdala and Edward Bernays. They know what independence truly is.

I propose this:

If you want a good story, go write it yourself—not for the consumption of others, but for the betterment of your own understanding. Put yourself in the middle of the action, touch the wall, look into someone’s eyes, walk the street, swim the river, sit down with the tribe. Try not to use the word “victim” for one whole day. Try to understand what the color of the pond means, what the houses without roofs imply, what the solar panels are capturing. Mourn the loved one, listen to the stories, dance with the children, eat the food, drink and be merry. Go observe war if you have to, but don’t upset your family needlessly. While you’re at it, be curious, be moved, be angry—but not reactive. Be challenged, and then be open to changing your mind.

Your own experience is all you need. When you can derive from direct, personal experience, you’re less likely to be manipulated. You won’t need someone else to tell you what’s real or what isn’t, what’s important or not. You won’t hungrily consume approved information in all its many guises. You won’t be a consumer at all. You won’t let yourself be used.

I realize this all sounds lofty. It is. I have no plans to observe war myself; I don’t have the means to travel the globe for a year. But I think you get the point, which is that the stories out there are just stories until you live them yourself. This means something. It means perception is in the eye of the beholder. It means there are a lot more shades of gray than there are black and white. It means there are a lot more professionals earning a paycheck from your unchecked emotions and not your actual knowledge of events.

But we also know this: that rational humans don’t really exist, not in the way we’d like to believe. It’s why the earning of profit from our primary anxieties is too tempting. It’s why bias is ubiquitous. So we have to go out in the field. We have to start traveling. We have to do our own information-gathering and write our own stories, as much as we can.

Here’s one for the class: Go visit a farm. Or a glacier. Or the border—our border, anyone’s border. How about a place of worship you know nothing about. Another country is a given. A country you’ve never heard of is even better. Take part in someone’s most sacred ritual and see what it brings up for you. Read the books and lengthy investigations of those who have gone before you and done the same thing with the same purity of intention. At the very least, have a gathering with your Republican and Democrat friends and make a rule that you will not talk politics, but instead will find out something about them you never knew before. Dive deep.

Afraid of what you’ll uncover? I know, me too. Who would we be without our tightly held, partisan-approved, socially sanctioned ideas? We’ll uncover anyway. We’ll write about what we saw and what we learned.

Here’s the part where I go soft:

Mr. C, wherever you are, don’t give up hope. Intelligent life still walks on this earth and not all Newswriting students are idiots (OK, well even if they are, they at least mean well). I’m certain you were a good reporter in your day. I’m sure you took your job seriously and were rewarded for it. I think they still try to use the news pyramid somewhere, so all is not lost. Above all, you believed in the sanctity and integrity of news-gathering as both a duty to the public and a civil right, and I thank you for that. Wow, am I thanking you for something?

I’m sure you understand, though, that it’s up to us now. You taught me that. It’s up to me to be a responsible journalist.

Checking Back In

I just did what you’re not supposed to do as a writer.

I checked out.

For over a month, in fact, which is significant. That’s 30-some days I could have spent in front of my computer putting words on the page, and not a single one flowed out of my brain to any meaningful degree.

Instead, I helped my boyfriend after an unfortunate ski accident mid-March. Then I nursed him back to health after his knee surgery last week. I spent a weekend in Florida with my boyfriend’s parents riding around in golf carts and shamelessly enjoying the weather. I tried like mad to stay on top of a sudden and overwhelming influx of work after a winter of almost nothing coming in. I panicked, wondering if this career I’ve set up for myself just so that I can write is even working. I signed myself up for a class to learn how I can make this career work for myself a little bit better. I worried about taxes and finances and the pitfalls of being self-employed (and listened to my accountant’s fatherly lectures about the pitfalls of being self-employed). I reminded myself to take deep breaths, to work out, to read books, to stay sane…but I wasn’t doing the thing I most needed to do.

In the writing world, they’re all called “excuses.” In my world, it’s called “life.” If Steven Pressfield were here right now, he’d kick my ass. I’d kick my ass, too. But then I’d sit down and take stock and realize that sometimes you just need to pay attention to what’s happening in front of you, to participate in the ebb and flow of the world you inhabit with your loved ones, to honor your emotional wheelings and mental dealings, and to know that there will come a week, a day, an hour when you can, in fact, return to the page.

Which is what I’m doing right now.

This post is not going to win any awards. It’s boring. Everyone has shit happen. Every writer goes through these struggles whether they admit to them or not. Nothing I’m saying is interesting, insightful, or new. The guilt I feel about temporarily abandoning my calling is irrelevant.

The important thing is that I’m saying something right now. When readers go back and look at my archive, they will see that in April of 2015 I broke a streak of hedging. I summoned the energy from somewhere. I did what I’m supposed to do as a writer, which is to eventually check back in and let everything else go.

If you’re not writing right now, make sure you know why. Make sure there is a why. If there isn’t, get to it. If there is, it’s OK.

Soon, it’ll be better.

Soon, it’ll all come back.

Soon, we’ll forget we ever had anything to worry about at all.

This Is One of Those List Thingies

I don’t usually hang my hat on these kinds of lists, let alone pass them along, but this one made me pause (thanks to my publisher for sharing it yesterday).

For my writer friends out there, you can find a fair amount of truth in here. But considering this list came from best-selling author Curtis Sittenfeld, I took the liberty of commenting on each item from my current position in the writing world, which is clearly a very different position than Curtis (and by different, I mean earth-bound vs. astral plane).

You can find her original post on BuzzFeed here.

24 Things No One Tells You About Book Publishing

1. When it comes to fellow writers, don’t buy into the narcissism of small differences. In all their neurotic, competitive, smart, funny glory, other writers are your friends.

ME: This is true. If for no other reason than it’s good to have people who intimately understand your specific brand of neurosis…because they share the same.

2. Unless you’re Stephen King, or you’re standing inside your own publishing house, assume that nobody you meet has ever heard of you or your books. If they have, you can be pleasantly surprised.

ME: Except for a smattering of people in three other states who happened to read my book, I am still the equivalent of a literary wallflower.

3. At a reading, 25 audience members and 20 chairs is better than 200 audience members and 600 chairs.

ME: I wouldn’t know about that. I’m pretty sure I’d freeze in front of an audience of three people, two of which were related to me.

4. There are very different ways people can ask a published writer for the same favor. Polite, succinct, and preemptively letting you off the hook is most effective.

ME: The favors I get asked are whether or not a comma is in the right place. Polite, succinct—yes…but there’s no letting me off the hook since they usually need to know right NOW.

5. Blurbs achieve almost nothing, everyone in publishing knows it, and everyone in publishing hates them.

ME: I didn’t have any blurbs when my novel was published, so again, I wouldn’t know.

6. But a really good blurb from the right person can, occasionally, make a book take off.

ME: I believe this. Imagine what Oprah could do.

7. When your book is on best-seller lists, people find you more amusing and respond to your emails faster.

ME: When I tell people I’m a writer, people find THIS amusing. No one, however, responds to my emails any faster.

8. When your book isn’t on best-seller lists, your life is calmer and you have more time to write.

ME: Amen.

9. The older you are when your first book is published, the less gratuitous resentment will be directed at you.

ME: What’s the average age of a first-time published author? And to Curtis’ point, if I’d published a book when I was 19, I’d probably be a terrible human being right about now, positively crusted over with other people’s resentment and my own.

10. The goal is not to be a media darling; the goal is to have a career.

ME: I’ve learned that lesson. I’ll go a step further AND get all spiritual on ya: the goal is simply to do what you love, whatever success may or may not come as a result.

11. The farther you live from New York, the less preoccupied you’ll be with literary gossip. Like cayenne pepper, literary gossip is tastiest in small doses.

ME: I’m in Colorado. We have mountains. On a nice day, nobody works and the parks are full. Literary gossip to me is who’s read “50 Shades of Grey” and who hasn’t.

12. Contrary to stereotype, most book publicists aren’t fast-talking, vapid manipulators; they’re usually warm, organized youngish women (yes, they are almost all women) who love to read.

ME: I don’t have a publicist, but my book editor once talked up my manuscript to a rep from HarperCollins. That made me feel kind of good. Oh, and he was a warm, middle-aged GUY who loved to read.

13. Female writers are asked more frequently about all of the following topics than male writers: whether their work is autobiographical; whether their characters are likable; whether their unlikable characters are unlikable on purpose or the writer didn’t realize what she was doing; how they manage to write after having children.

ME: I tend to get questions along the lines of “How long did it take you to write your book?” and “How many pages is it?” Really? How many pages is it? This is what you want to know?

14. If you tell readers a book is autobiographical, they will try to find ways it isn’t. If you tell them it’s not autobiographical, they will try to find ways it is.

ME: The latter point. I never said my book was autobiographical, and yet every single friend who’s read it thinks they know exactly who “my” character is.

15. It’s not your responsibility to convince people who don’t like your books that they should. Taste is subjective, and you’re not running for elected office.

ME: Amen again.

16. By not being active on social media, you’re probably shooting yourself in the foot. That said, faking fluency with or interest in forms of social media that don’t do it for you is much harder than making up dialogue for imaginary characters.

ME: I can barely maintain my Facebook page. Twitter, Instagram, Pinterest—all of it confounds me.

17. If someone asks what you do and you don’t feel like getting into it, insert the word freelance before the word writer, and they will inquire about nothing more.

ME: I do this all the time…because I actually am a freelance writer. It pays the bills.

18. If you read a truly great new book and feel more excited than jealous, congratulations, you’re a writer.

ME: See my post from last year called Four Novels. That was pure excitement at play. No jealousy in sight. Wow—does this mean I’m a writer?

19. Fiercely, fiercely, fiercely protect your writing time.

ME: I’m just now learning how to do this. Gave up a fun happy hour with friends the other night because I was on a roll with some revisions. Felt guilty for a millisecond, and then knew that I’d absolutely done the right thing.

20. It’s OK to let your book be published if you can see its flaws but don’t know how to fix them. Don’t let your book be published if it still contains flaws that are fixable, even if fixing them is a lot of work.

ME: Can I get another amen? I’m doing rewrites on my second novel as we speak to fix its obvious flaws. And yes, it’s a lot of freakin’ work.

21. Talking about how brutally difficult it is to write books is unseemly. Unless you’re the kind of writer who’s been imprisoned by the dictatorship where you live and is being advocated for by PEN American Center, give it a rest.

ME: I used to do this. And then I stopped. No one really cares how books get written. They just want to see the end result. And frankly, so do I. (Besides, don’t you know it’s magic?)

22. Books bring information, provocation, entertainment, and comfort to many people. You’re lucky to be part of that.

ME: I never met an open society with a thriving literary culture I didn’t like. And yes, I am damn lucky.

23. Sometimes good books sell well; sometimes good books sell poorly; sometimes bad books sell well; sometimes bad books sell poorly. A lot about publishing is unfair and inscrutable. But…

ME: But we deal with it anyway? Because we have to? Because not trying to put our writing into the world would be like not breathing ever again?

24. …you don’t need anyone else’s approval or permission to enjoy the magic of writing—of sitting by yourself, figuring out which words should go together to express whatever it is you’re trying to say.

ME: Yep, what she said.

Timed Writing: Storage

(Every now and then I’ll do some timed writing exercises in Natalie Goldberg’s books, most recently from “Old Friend from Far Away: The Practice of Writing Memoir.” It’s fun to see what you can unearth from your own psyche in 10 short minutes, and Goldberg is a master at drawing out the unexpected with her breadth and depth of topics. I highly recommend her work for any writer, or for anyone curious enough to tap that well of memory and see whatever light or dark ripples appear. Below is one of mine, unedited.)

I would like to tell you about the storage unit I had for two weeks when I was in between apartments several years ago. But it was just a square concrete box without features or markings. And the moving  men packed everything into a neat jigsaw puzzle, so the only thing left to do was click the padlock and walk out and wait fourteen days to reclaim my stuff. Instead, I can tell you about the second bedroom of the place I had moved out of, which in effect held everything I wished to ignore, forget about, or hold out of my sight for fear of the in-between place they occupied in my life. Pictures of my friends and I in college. Framed posters that hung in my teen-age bedroom and later my first apartment. A green rug I bought for $75 at Urban Outfitters. Floor pillows whose covers my mother had sewed, covered in layers of cat hair. A stray lamp. My rarely used ironing board. And all the books I owned—arranged in a bookshelf and packed away in too-heavy boxes—because for awhile they needed to be in another room, not front and center, because somehow I was more aware of men, relationships, a career, and glamorous outfits than the driving pulse of literature that had always occupied my soul.

We Need a Montage

The hardest thing about writing is that sometimes the words don’t come. They’re not there. They swirl in a stew on someone else’s back burner.

Today I was writing for a client (my “day” writing job), and I just couldn’t do it. No matter what I said, no matter how I said it, it all ran together into a mish-mash of confusing, stale, what-is-this-crap-I’m-producing-ness.

It’s even harder when someone says to you: “Hey, are you going to knock this one out of the park?” Yeah, I’d like to, but it doesn’t mean it’s going to happen, jerk.

That’s when you know you have to stop. Look out the window. Take a walk. Search for wrinkles and gray hairs in the mirror.

Or…I sometimes find it helps to reflect on the occasions when I (and other people I know) decidedly did NOT hit it out of the park. More like performed abysmally to the sound of sad violins. And possibly broke some bones. Shall we go there?

I’ll start:

I once got an F on my forward dive off the diving board. Yes, but diving can be challenging, you say. And I say to you: an F, for Pete’s sake. I could have not even showed up that day and done better.

My sister tried boogie-boarding for the first time in Manhattan Beach, California, when she was about 16. We were born and raised in Colorado. Enough said.

My boyfriend and I had a bum anchor and non-existent boating skills in Croatia. Go read about that misadventure here.

I ran full-speed into a brick wall in sixth grade playing tag in a backyard. With two loose teeth held in place by my braces and blood pouring out of my nose, the emergency dentist told me, “Those teeth will die over time.” He was right. And I wasn’t even tagged out!

Twisted ankles and torn knee ligaments, anyone? My basketball-playing boyfriend and brother-in-law can relate.

How about the poor woman in red pants who had the misfortune of crossing an icy bridge in Estes Park in full view of my best friend and I (who, lucky for her, happened to share my comic love of anyone falling down). She did one of those Looney Tunes scrambles before landing squarely on her ass, and I’ve never laughed so hard in my life.

Let me keep going. I once hit a parked car on a straight road. Yes, I’m a good driver. And no, I was not intoxicated.

A girl in one of my college classes, which was held in one of those theater-type classrooms, walked in 15 minutes late one day. The only empty seats were in the front row down a long flight of stairs. Halfway down, she tripped and did a tumble-and-slide all the way to the bottom as we all watched in utter horror. Hats off to you, sister. Thank God it wasn’t me. (And I’ve never silently laughed so hard in my life).

I once did a mocking imitation of a client to a co-worker while said client was on the phone—on hold—or so I thought. She heard everything. My only excuse was that I was in my twenties.

And all those other little failures and offenses: traffic tickets, blowing a deadline, putting your foot in your mouth, taking a swing and missing the ball, getting slapped in the face by the jump rope, sitting in the wrong seat on the plane, flubbing a speech, stubbing a toe, diving under the news desk when the tornado sirens go off, delivering sub-par copy to an expectant client. Oh, the humanity…

So now that we’re done with the bloopers, let’s get back to work. Because though it can always be better, it can always, always be worse.

I Am Not a Brand

I have a Facebook page and a website. I sometimes keep people informed about what I’m doing. I have thought about my color scheme. I have asked for marketing advice. Yes, there is a whiff of “brand” here.

But I am not actually a brand.

I don’t Tweet. Occasionally I blog—about a lot of different things.

What I do is talk to my friends and family, face to face or via email, with great uncertainty about what’s happening (or not happening) with publishing my books.

I have zero sound bites memorized. I have zero thirty-second elevator speeches. I have zero media training. And when people ask me about my books, I have zero clue what to say.

Because I’m not a brand.

There are no coffee cups with the titles of my books on them, no t-shirts, no key chains, no beach towels. No one is going to associate my name with something you’d find in a swag bag—yet. And if ever there was a coffee cup with my name on it, it’s just a coffee cup…with my name on it.

I don’t have a team or an entourage, a glam squad or a publicist. I don’t have a perfume or a line of bottled water. No one is paying me to wear their clothes and vice versa. I don’t have an acceptance speech prepared. I don’t have to thank the divine in public. I never, ever want to be on the cover of a magazine that uses candy-colored lettering to announce something scurrilous about me, and then go check out my sales report to see if anything has changed.

Because I’m not a brand.

I don’t wake up in the morning and make sure that everything I say, do, wear, or think is in line with Me—the capital-letter Me that wears make-up at all times and knows my good side in photos and has a winning smile and hands out business cards at every opportunity.

And I have actually never followed the advice of anyone who talks about me or my writing in terms of “my brand.” Perhaps I am short-changing myself; perhaps I’m not. Perhaps every marketing and PR person I know is getting ready to string me up by the ankles.

But I don’t care. Why? Because I am not a brand.

I’m a writer. And foremost, a human being.

And when did we, as a species—the bundles of radiant atomic energy that each of us are, totally unique from each other in form and character, but all intrinsically connected at our deepest level—agree to not only aspire to, but make sure that our passions and ourselves embody the kind of contrived, cereal-boxed, professional-logoed, air-brushed identities with which companies use to boost profits?

This is not who we are.

Business is business, yes. Marketing is a practical function, of course. Everyone wants to look good in pictures. And I want people to read my stuff.

But I—as a creative individual—am not a brand, and neither are you.

Remember that the next time you read a book (watch a movie, listen to a song, gaze upon a painting), simply because it speaks to your soul in that elusive yet insistent language of which no packaging, tagline, or story board can ever capture. I promise you: it’s not “the brand” doing the talking…

Four Novels

So I boldly said on this site that I don’t read a lot of novels, and then I plowed through four in a row recently. Be careful the claims you make, I guess.

But all my many reasons aside for not reading a lot of novels, I’m still enchanted by a good story and accomplished writing. The following books were worth every page.

City of Thieves by David Benioff. Awhile back I watched Benioff on a random little show called The Writer’s Room, and from that I learned he’d written a couple of novels before he got into the writing-for-television business. I looked him up, read some reviews, and decided to give City of Thieves a try. It’s about two young men in World War II Russia who are thrown together and forced to go on a strange little quest that doesn’t turn out to be so little. I’m not usually drawn to plot-based fiction—and there I go with another claim—but this one was so well-crafted that I couldn’t put it down. Then I gave it to my boyfriend and he couldn’t put it down either. Apparently Benioff had to do a lot of research for this, and I’m thankful that he did, because now I realize there’s a whole section of history I never knew about, and it makes me sad all over again for what I was taught—or not taught—in school. Sigh.

Lemongrass Hope by Amy Impellizzeri. You won’t find this on the shelves…yet…but I was lucky enough to receive an advanced reader’s copy from my friend and fellow writer Amy. Lemongrass Hope is both an exploration of contemporary love and a tale of time travel, which poses these questions: If we had the chance to go back and make different choices, would we? And what if life is simply about what you do with the choices you make—good, bad, or indifferent? I was honored to read her touching and thought-provoking work. But here’s a really interesting thing about Amy. She was a total stranger until a few months ago, when she sent me an email out of the blue and told me she was reading my first novel. We started exchanging emails, and from this I learned that she was finishing her first novel (the very same Lemongrass Hope). She inspired me to keep writing—renewing this blog is, in fact, a direct result of her—and is now at the beginning of her own journey as a published author of whom you should take note. Lemongrass Hope will be released in October of this year.

A Constellation of Vital Phenomena by Anthony Marra. One afternoon I was walking through a book store on my way out when I passed by a shelf with a sign saying something like “Staff Recommends.” Constellation was front and center. I was leaving on vacation in a few days and already had a lot of reading material to take with me, but thought, “What the hell.” Not only is the book divinely wrought, it is also, like City of Thieves, about war-time Russia and unlikely partnerships, set during the Chechen wars in the 1990s and early 2000s. When I got to the end, I read the author’s notes and found out that Marra had read City of Thieves prior to writing Constellation. Marra considered Benioff’s novel a kind of green light to launch into the unearthing of his own unique story in a country and during a time in which he had no particular background (more history that escaped me…what was I doing all those years?). Anyway, after I was done falling off my chair, I realized I was grateful to have been one of the many anonymous third points in this reader/writer triangle, and to have stumbled upon the connection between these two authors.

The Lacuna by Barbara Kingsolver. I read an interview with Kingsolver a couple of months ago in The Sun, and was intrigued by her, even though I’d never particularly taken to her fiction before. I bought The Lacuna and dove in. The protagonist is a boy from two worlds—the U.S. and Mexico—who comes of age in the 1930s when the art and political influences of Diego Rivera and Frida Kahlo, and their friendship with Leon (Lev) Trotsky, pressed upon the sensibilities of both countries. He eventually grows up and moves back to the States from Mexico, where he becomes a popular writer and then, true to the times, suffers accusations of anti-American activities. It was the Mayan part that made my skin prickle (when he makes a trip to the Yucatan peninsula to research the Mayans for one of his books), because a few weeks earlier, before I’d ever even considered reading The Lacuna, I had written a blog post about my adopted brother and his Mayan roots. As well, the window into history, the blind hysteria around communism, and the pulse of revolution present in City of Thieves and A Constellation of Vital Phenomena culminated in a great crescendo for me there in The Lacuna. The book is close to genius and I now have a newfound respect for Kingsolver.

It’s not an accident that I read these novels. I’ve learned to pay close attention to those small coincidences, the lines drawn between seemingly unrelated things, and the people who come into my life with insistent messages. Many times books have cracked open the world just a little bit more for me, and I’m always in awe of what authors can do when they tell the truth—the truth as they see it, anyway.

And I shall now officially stop telling people that I don’t read novels.