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Friday, December 18, 2015

To Freelance or Not To Freelance

Photo Credit
Last week, I announced that I want my writing to reach a larger audience. Since then, I’ve been digging deep into the world of freelancing, finding out how to actually make this work.

I’m learning that freelancing takes a lot of time, between researching, reading, pitching, and writing. And so I’ve had to ask myself – why freelance? It’s one more thing taking me away from my “creative” writing, so it better be worth it.

Here are a few reasons why I think it’s worth it –
  • Visibility: writing for different publications allows you to get your name out there. Also, it’s a good way to make contacts and network with editors and other writers. You never know how these connections might play out in the future.
  • Money: even if it’s not a lot, it feels good to get paid for your writing. Writing is a skill, and I’d like to compensated for my ability the same way as engineer or massage therapist would be. That being said, it still might be worthwhile to write for a place that doesn’t pay, but only under special circumstances.
  • Practice: my teacher tells us that everything we write is part of our “writing life,” even if it’s a thank you note. Freelance writing is another opportunity to hone your skills as a writer. We can always use more opportunities to practice writing clear, concise, and interesting prose.
  • Portfolio: it’s important to have an arsenal of writing samples, specifically published pieces. Having a varied portfolio will beget more writing assignments, which will help your freelancing machine running.

Photo Credit
Here are some ways to be smart and efficient about freelancing –
  • Do your homework: Take the time to read lots of different magazines to see what sort of content they are interested in. I find that it is better to do this upfront, but you can also commit to researching one or two magazines per week.
  • Spreadsheets are your friend: Staying organized is super important when you're your own boss, so make sure to take notes on different magazines – what they are looking for, who is the contact, what is the word count, etc.
  • Make a schedule: I get great satisfaction in checking items off a list, so I like to make a master to-do list at the beginning of the week to get organized. Some things to consider: Which articles will you work on this week? How many pitches will you send out? Keep track of where you’ve sent your work so that you can check back in with the editor if you haven’t heard from them in a week or two.
  • Think outside the box: lots of places need writers, not just the sexy mags like Salon and Bustle. Think about something you're interested in, say knitting or kayaking, and get in touch with magazines about that topic. Also, you'd be surprised how little you need to know about something to write about it well. 
  • Set aside time for unpaid work: This is SUPER important. It can be tempting to devote all of my time to paid work, but I don’t want to lose sight of the reason WHY I’m doing this. My freelance writing is in direct connection to my greater goal which is to have my writing reach a larger audience. Always keep sight of the bigger picture!

Photo Credit

Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Getting SMART About Goals

Hello, friends! I am happy to report that this week marks the successful attainment of my writing goal for 2015: to get a publication in a literary magazine. In fact, I got two! The first one is already posted for your viewing pleasure at Lunch Ticket, and the next one will be published at The Toast next week. With only 21 days left in 2015, I made it right under the wire, but at least I made it!

Riding the high of checking a big box off my list, I decided to set another goal. “In 2016,” I told anyone who listened, “I want to be published in Salon!” But the more I said it, the more nervous I became.

“What are you scared of?” Cait, my best friend and writing partner, asked.
“Well, speaking it out loud means I gotta do it. And what if I… don’t?”
Being the former high school teacher that she is, Cait was ready with a foolproof plan. “Make it a smart goal,” she said.
“As opposed to a dumb one?” I asked.

And so she explained. SMART is an acronym that people (entrepreneurs, teachers, etc) use in order to make headway in their professional and personal lives. I did some research and decided to give it a try.

Step 1: Write down your goal in as few words as possible.
My goal is to: have my writing reach a larger audience

Step 2: Make your goal detailed and SPECIFIC. Answer who/what/where/how/when.
By the end of 2016, I will have several mainstream media publications (online or in print) in order to advance my career as a freelance writer. (I am using the term “mainstream” loosely. Of course, I’d love to be published in The New York Times or The Atlantic, but I’m aiming at places where a newbie like me might have more of a chance, publications like Salon and HuffPost. I’m dreaming big but also staying realistic!)

HOW will you reach this goal? List at least 3 action steps you'll take (be specific):
1. Speak to writers who publish regularly in mainstream venues about the process.
2. Read an abundance of writing published in magazines where I’d love to place my work.
3. Pitch articles to publications such as Salon, Huffington Post, and Outside magazine.

Step 3: Make sure your goal is MEASUREABLE. Add details, measurements and tracking details.
I will measure/track my goal by using the following numbers or methods:
·         I will submit 2 polished articles to mainstream publications per month.
·         I will spend 4 hours per week working on pieces for publication.

I will know I've reached my goal when:
ð  *I have 2 publications in mainstream venues.*

Step 4: Make your goal ATTAINABLE. What additional resources do you need for success?
Items I need to achieve this goal: my computer + butt in chair
How I'll find the time: I will dedicate at least 4 hours per week on these pieces.
Things I need to learn more about: the editorial expectations and submitting process at mainstream magazines.
People I can talk to for support: writer friends who have bylines in major publications [get in touch with said friends ASAP!]

Step 5: Make your goal RELEVANT. List why you want to reach this goal:
If I want to develop a long-lasting writing career (working in multiple genres), I need to set the groundwork now and establish myself as a reliable and capable freelance writer.

Step 6: Make your goal TIMELY. Put a deadline on your goal and set some benchmarks.
I will reach my goal by (date): 12/31/2016
My halfway measurement will be one major publication (eek!) by 6/31/2016.
Additional dates and milestones I’ll aim for: continuing to publish my creative work in literary magazines like The Normal School, Lunch Ticket, etc.

Looking forward, my ultimate goal is to make my living as a writer. This is different than just writing. Lots of writers have a day job and write when they come home. I could do that, too. But what I’m saying – committing in print – is that I’d like my day job to BE writing. Just writing the words feels terrifying. And I am fully aware that writing this in my weird little blog does not guarantee that this will happen for me. But what I am saying is that I’m going to give this crazy thing my best shot.

For me, creating a writing life often feels nebulous and scary in its haziness. I think the practice of setting goals will be good in the long term, since being a freelance writer means that I will probably be my own boss, which means being organized, setting deadlines, and motivating myself.  

Hopefully this SMART goal concept is helpful to you, too. Think about something you want to accomplish in the next year, whether it’s creative, professional, or personal, and break it down using these steps. It’s also interesting to explore the reasons WHY you want to achieve this goal, and how accomplishing it will further your greater purpose in life. 

Friday, December 4, 2015

The Case for Creative Writing

Yesterday was our last creative writing class of the semester, and my students each had the chance to discuss their successes and challenges over the past few months. Many of them were surprised by a newfound love for poetry, and others mentioned an appreciation for the meditative moment that we started every class with. Several students talked about their amazement at the revision process, which warmed my little writer heart.

Narration & Description
When we started discussing writing goals, I was disheartened when a few students shared feelings of distress about the future. As it turns out, some creative writing professors think it’s helpful to tell their students that they’re never going to make it as a writer – they’re never going to be Stephen King, and they’re never going to make money at this.

I struggle to understand the reasoning behind this scare tactic. No one was telling me I was going to be destitute when I was an American Studies major in undergrad. Why the obsession with dashing the dreams of young writers? What does it accomplish besides chasing students away from the writing life?

What this message does is only assign value to something with a dollar sign attached to it. Essentially, if something you are doing is not quantifiable in terms of money, then it is not a worthwhile use of your time.

Must everything be in the pursuit of money? Do we not engage in all kinds of things purely for pleasure? In my opinion, doing things solely for the sake of a paycheck makes for a sad life.
The truth of the matter is this: it is hard making a living as an artist of any kind, whether you’re a painter, dancer, writer, singer, or sculptor. Creating art is a way of life, and it nourishes us in many ways beyond the wallet.

There are jobs that pay you to write. One of my students got an internship writing for a nonprofit. She’ll be collecting and telling stories of people in the community, writing grants, and designing and editing children’s books. That’s great, but writers will always have to carve out time for their own writing. Very few people spend their whole lives sitting at a desk, working on their own creative writing. Very few people get paid to dance all day, or splash paint on blank canvas. 

There is a myth that writing must be the end all, the only thing you do with your time. If you are truly creative, you will find ways to make money AND write. Writers come in many stripes; they can be researchers, teachers, doctors, farmers, social workers, web designers, actresses, editors. Elizabeth Gilbert worked three jobs while writing her first two books, including as a waitress and bartender. Her writing made her no money, and yet she came home from working long shifts and put pen to paper.

I’m not saying we shouldn’t be honest with our students. If they have questions about finances, we should answer them to the best of your ability. Tell them that they should only write if they truly love writing, because that is the bulk of the writing life. Publishing is cool, if you’re so lucky, but even if it comes to that, it changes nothing about the writing process: you in a chair at a desk with your favorite writing utensil.

I think you should write if writing makes you happy, if it feeds something inside of you. Ask yourself: What is the ultimate goal for your writing? Is it simply for the sake of having a creative outlet that is your own? Does writing help you make sense of this life? Does writing in your journal feel like speaking to your oldest friend, or cuddling up with a bowl of chicken noodle soup? Is there a fire in your fingers that can only be quelled by putting pen to paper?

We are creative writing teachers, not financial planners. My job as a creative writing teacher is to keep my students writing. If a student wants to major in creative writing, good for them! If they want to make a living as a writer after they graduate, good for them. If the lights get turned off or their bellies rumble with hunger, they’ll get a job that pays the bills and fills their pantry. If they love writing a lot, they’ll do it still, regardless of the job and the bills and the kids. Because the act of creating something that didn’t exist before feeds a part of you that isn’t quantifiable with dollar signs. 

Wednesday, November 25, 2015

The Art of Shutting Your Pie Hole

When I saw Brian Doyle speak at the NonfictioNOW! Conference a few weeks ago, his big message was to ask questions and then shut your pie hole. Luckily, I was given the opportunity to practice this when I was offered a job working on a community photo project with Corine Vermeulen, a Dutch photographer based in Detroit. Her walk-in portrait studio concept started in Detroit and she was commissioned by USF's Contemporary Art Museum to set one up here in Tampa.

She was asked to focus on a neighborhood adjacent to the university known colloquially as “Suitcase City” and officially as the USF Area.

For weeks, she walked and biked the streets to scope out potential sites for the walk-in studio. Once she decided on a spot, that's where I came in. For four days, we set up the studio next to a convenience store, in an empty lot, in a community center, and at a church.

The photographer at work
Her smiling subjects
While she shot the portraits, I interviewed the locals, asking them questions about life in the neighborhood – their favorite parts about living in “Suitcase City,” any changes they have seen over the years, and what name they would call it if they could call it anything else. We got all kinds of answers from “Hell” to “Malfunction Junction,” from “Little Mexico” to “Progress City.”

In order to get to the good stuff, I had to listen – really listen – to what they were telling me so that I could steer the conversation into interesting territory. I learned when to back off a topic, and when to press further. Afterwards, I had hours of interviews to transcribe and then find the gold nuggets amidst everything.

Projects like this one remind me that words carry great power. Even though the people in this community live there day in and day out, they most likely are not asked very often to reflect on their experiences. Also, this project promotes visibility of an population that lives very near to this university campus, and yet, is virtually invisible to us. 

Hopefully, Corine’s photographs and the quotes that I have captured from interviews paint a fuller picture of a community that often gets overlooked or oversimplified as “ghetto” or dangerous. Language is my craft and I am grateful to use it in a way that benefits a community and brings light to a subject that otherwise hovers in darkness. 

I am extremely grateful to the Contemporary Art Museum and to Corine Vermeulen for inviting me to take part in this project. It's been an amazing opportunity to learn more about my neighbors and this city that continues to reveal itself to me in all sorts of interesting ways. 

Here are a few photographs that I took at the artist talk last week where Corine discussed previous projects and explained some of the conclusions and questions that she was left with after working in Suitcase City over the last few months.

The artist and her exhibit, Elsewhere

Corine and museum curator, Megan Voeller
Corine Vermeulen
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Friday, November 13, 2015

The Economics of Writing

In my writing classes, we talk a lot about PROCESS being the most important thing. And yet, most writers I know are hoping to get a PRODUCT out of that process. Get an MFA, publish a book, get rich and famous, meet Beyoncé. Right?

One of my friends who graduated from my MFA program a few years ago released a beautiful anthology of essays about yoga. Cheryl Strayed wrote the foreword. Dinty Moore, Brenda Miller, Dani Shapiro and Amy Monticello all wrote essays for the collection. It's on display at Barnes and Nobles and other fine book-selling institutions. And yet, she has not seen a dime for her efforts.

“If I sell 500 e-books,” she announced to a wide-eyed group of MFA students the other night, “I'll see one dollar.”

A few days later, I came across these two articles by seemingly successful women writers, Emily Gould and Roxane Gay, who give an honest breakdown of their economic experiences in publishing. (Interestingly, Gould and Gay have teamed up for the first episode of Bindercast!) 
Emily Gould was on cloud nine when she sold her work-in-progress for $200,000 in 2008. Unfortunately, your writing career weighs heavily on the sales of your last book, and unfortunately, the sales of her book were nowhere near the projected expectations. Living in New York, the advance did not take her very far, and the failure of her last book “guaranteed that no one will ever pay me [Gould] that kind of money to write a book again.” Since then, she has sold a novel for $30,000 and has started working a “a full-time job that, while it leaves me no time to write, is helping me slowly repay the debts I incurred by imagining that writing was my livelihood.”

Roxane Gay tells a different story. She has three published books: one with a micropress, another with a small press, and a collection of essays with HarperCollins. Her experiences have run the gamut, and yet, she writes that “the first and only dream dashed was the one where I could quit my job to write full time.” She writes about her first book: "Ayiti has remained in print for three years. I have earned $205.60 in royalties. That is a success story." Roxane admits to obsessively refreshing the Amazon sales rank for her book only to find that, on any given day, “there are literally 300,000 or 10,000 books selling better than mine.” And this is a woman who writes for Salon, the New York Times Book Review, BuzzFeed, Jezebel. She runs multiple lit mags and she's been a keynote speaker at all the conferences I've been to (or wished I'd gone to) in the past year. Shit, I've even seen her on television discussing the feminist merits of Magic Mike. This woman is everywhere, and yet, she makes her livelihood teaching at Purdue University, not selling books.

So this brings me to my question: Why write? The notion that writing is going to make someone rich and famous is a grave misconception, one that should be dispelled sooner rather than later. As a beginning writer, it's not hard to imagine not making any money from my writing. No one has ever paid me for my writing, unless they were my client with the Family Roots Project, in which case it's not really my writing that they're paying for, but their own story told by me.

Speaking to my friend who edited the anthology, though, it's easy to understand how this misconception melts away once you're in the thick of publication. You see your book on the shelf at Barnes & Nobles. It's normal to assume that this venture will bring you money. Plus, writing takes A LOT of time, like any craft; is it wrong to think that writers should be paid for their work?

Sadly, very few writers make their livelihood selling books, and that's a fact that we MFAers must befriend. Here are a few things I am learning about making a "living" as a writer.
  • “If you want to write, keep a low overhead.” —Grace Paley
  • Diversify. Think of writing as a trade like any other, and find other venues that will pay you for your craft. You won't make a lot of money doing it, but you'll be doing what you're good at, and getting paid for it!
  • Have a different career that makes you money. The myth is that you won't have time for writing if you've got a full-time job, but the truth is that finding the time to write is hard no matter what you do for a living. Perhaps having LESS time to dedicate to your creative ventures will make you use the time you do have more judiciously.
  • Being independently wealthy helps!
P.S. Check out this great article by Amanda Hirsch at Having it Alt about "The Artist Tax"! 

Friday, November 6, 2015

Restless in Recovery

            “I never go out anymore,” I say to my best friend Selena. “There’s nothing to do in Tampa.”
            “I remember you complaining two years ago – I gotta get out of Miami! I’m having too much fun and not getting any work done.”
            “Really?” I ask. “I said that?” How quickly we forget the past.
            Two years ago, I was applying to MFA programs and living it up, Miami style. I was between house-sitting gigs and a tent pitched in my mom’s backyard. I spent most of my day working in my food forest and hanging out at the botanical garden where I volunteered as an environmental educator. My afternoons were spent hustling around town from one tutoring job to another, maneuvering Miami’s crazy quitting time traffic and teaching everything from French grammar to SAT essay writing. In the evenings, you might find me practicing my salsa moves with the Salsa Craze dance club, getting down at Vixen, or owning the streets of Miami with my bike posse. Every now and then, I took on an extra shift as a waitress with a fancy catering company, mainly to hang out with my friends who also worked with the company, but also for the gourmet freebies. In between volunteering and dancing and tutoring, I stopped by the beach in the middle of the week for long swims along Virginia Key’s shallow shore.

            These days, my life looks nothing like it did two years ago. Each day is eerily similar to the last. I wake up early and go to sleep late. In the mornings, I meditate, make my lunch, water the garden, eat breakfast. I bike to school and am sitting at my computer by 9:30. (My friend Sam says – “Carmella’s got a cubicle? The world must surely be ending!”) Weekdays are some amalgamation of consulting at the Writing Studio, teaching classes, attending classes, and doing homework. I eat lunch at my desk or by the pond across the street from my office building, although the benches are usually too full of duck crap to find a safe seat. At the end of the day, I try to make it to a dance class or the swimming pool before biking back home, where I’ll stay put until the next morning (writing, presumably).
My muse, hard at work
            A few days ago, I got an email from Graduate Assistants United (our union) inviting me to their monthly social at a local bar.
            “Ugh,” I told my co-workers. “Is it terrible that I really don’t want to go?”
            “You should go!” one of them said.
            “Going out is risky,” I said to my roommate later that night. “If I go to my dance class, I know for sure that I’ll have a good time. But going out – you just never know.”
            “You should go!” she said.
            I did end up going, and I had a nice time. But still, the whole situation made me laugh. The girl who used to triple and quadruple book herself in one evening can’t summon up the energy to go to a bar for an hour?

My professor says that people are way more productive as they age because they just don’t want to do all the things they once did. Their knees hurt and they’d rather stay close to the hearth. Plus, there are cats at home, and what’s better than kitty cuddles?
Kristyn + kitty cuddles = happiness
Perhaps this all part of the natural aging process. I’m nearing thirty, after all! Or maybe grad school is getting the best of me. It’s also possible that this strange phenomenon is simply temporary… Who knows? You might find me in a year and a half, a fresh-faced bushy-tailed MFA graduate, back to my old restless ways.

Tuesday, November 3, 2015

Dispatches from NonfictioNOW!

Last week, I returned to my restless ways and went westward - to Arizona for NonfictioNOW!

Rule #1 of traveling : Have friends everywhere!
Lucky for me, my artist friends, Chris and Shelby, recently moved to Sedona for a glass-blowing gig. My visit coincided with their day off so we were able to have an adventure in the Red Rocks Secret Wilderness!

Rule # 2 of traveling: Learn something! 
There was lots of learning happening at the High Country Conference Center. I attended over 10 different panels, on topics ranging from "Mixed Media Memoir" to "The Complementary Worlds of Narrative Journalism and The Essay." Brenda Miller, the queen of form-bending nonfiction essays, showed a short BBC film of the life of hermit crabs! The keynote speakers were thought-provoking and hilarious. Brian Doyle had us start off "stupid" with a "Yankees suck" chant! And then went on to deliver a truly inspiring speech. I learned about tons of awesome books, new authors, and literary magazines, and to top it off, there were nightly readings at a nearby coffee shop. I left the conference re-energized, with a notebook full of scribbles and some new friends.
Brenda Miller discusses Hermit Crab essays!
Rule # 3 of traveling : Say yes!
Friday morning, I woke up early and played hooky from the conference to drive the 1.5 hours northbound to THE GRANDEST CANYON OF THEM ALL! In the company of a new friend from Couchsurfing, we explored the South rim. I even caught sight of an elk! 

I am still trying to process the beauty of this place. I hope to return someday and spend more time getting to know this wise land. 

Rule # 4 of traveling: Live like the locals 
Flagstaff is a really cute town. It's all trains and coffee shops, book stores and adventure outfitters. The people we were staying with living within walking distance of all of these things, and had a gaggle of chickens. My heart! 

a shipping container house!
very bike-friendly town!
When I saw a poster for a New Orleans brass band show on Halloween night, I decided there was no place I'd rather be on Hallow's Eve than surrounded by dancing goblins and spooky saxes!
The Haymarket Squares opening at Orpheum Theater
The Dirty Dozen
NOLA Brass!
Here are a few choice quotes heard around the conference:
  • “A place is a story happening many times” Kim Stafford
  • “A guest for a moment sees every flaw” Yiddish
  • “You have to take notes in the bathroom” Pico Iyer
  • “Normal is hard on curiosity”
  • “A human being is an animal who knows she’s going to die, and that’s hard.” Maggie Nelson
  • All times are good ones if we all but know what to do with them – Emerson
  • "Academia is in the biz of sorting and norming." Michael Martone
  • Skewer yourself first (in CNF)
  • “I can only write nonfiction about things I don’t understand. Writing as an investigation” Tim Flannery
  • "We investigate the passage of time, not for nostalgia but for friction” Jessica Handler 
  • "Change is inevitable – positive change is directive" Amy Wright on the future of women writers
  • "I will not be in any anthology of women writers" Elizabeth bishop
  • “We don’t live in a gender-less, color-less world. Why not embrace it, make it visible?” Marcia Aldrich

Brian Doyle is amazing:
Its not about writing, its about the attentiveness
“I’ve commited novels”
We all live in a small town, even in a big city
Pretend you’re stoned without being stoned
Witnessing is the greatest thing you can do with your work
Writing is a benign neurosis; you have the virus. 
We are the guild of scribblers and scrawlers.
You have a moral charge, a strange gift, in a world w/ sales pitches and lies, where politics is performance art
“take a line out for a walk”
Some stories are bigger than the writers
We are story catchers, agents of stories
It’s about learning to ask a question and then shut your pie hole
Use your tool to LISTEN – ask people for their stories
Families are our foundation for stories
“No one talks about what happens to the ppl nothing happens to, but something happens to them and no one talks about it”
Don’t let your work be stuff on your resume
You should be startled/shocked/surprised by what’s coming out. If not, you’re not working hard enough
Mill your gift to the nth degree

Friday, October 23, 2015

Revision: The 95%

As the semester progresses, I’ve been teaching my students about revision. I regret not having “taught” it sooner; the more I write, the more I realize that this lesson needs to happen day one of any writing class.

For many new writers (myself included), it is enticing to write something, re-read it a few times, rearrange some words, and jump straight into editing: grammar mistakes, punctuation, formatting. Unfortunately, this does not guarantee good writing. In fact, it will most likely produce the opposite.

The word “revision” means to “see again.” This means going back to the drawing board and re-envisioning a story or essay. In the process, the writer learns more and more about the characters or essay topic. Our writing ancestors had it write when they used the word “essaie,” or efforts, to describe what we do.

William Stafford says it best:

“I do revise in the sense that I do go back over what I write, but it doesn’t look like a different process. It’s just the same process, going back through the same terrain again… seeing if the signals are different. And every now and then, you may get a little nudge of a new idea, or adjustment.”

To illustrate what I mean to my students, I use the example of paintings. Most painters will study their subject extensively, sketching the dancers or the sailboats that they want to portray on the canvas. From these sketches, they learn about their subjects, understanding the way a dancer’s feet move in a pas de bourrée, or how a boat sits on the water under full sail. 

The sketches inform the painter's drawings, and they begin to have a deeper sense of what they want to depict in their paintings. After much trial and error, the painter is ready to sit at his easel and bring the paintbrush to the canvas. When we look at the final painting, we see hints of those first sketches; but we can also see that the painter has come a long way in their process.

Now imagine if a painter made a sketch and decided it was good enough to start applying oil paints to it right away. What would it look like? A masterpiece? Not likely.

That is what a writer is doing when they try to edit their first drafts. It’s like putting icing on top of cake batter; the cake is not ready to be iced yet until it has gone through the fire and then cooled.
Proofreading, or editing, means to polish up what is already written. In case you needed another analogy, this is putting the shingles on the roof of the house. Unfortunately, we cannot put shingles on a house if the foundation isn’t strong, or if the walls haven’t been built yet.

My thesis advisor is pushing me to birth the first draft of my novel as quickly as possible.
“It’s going to be a disaster,” he says. “And that’s okay. Because then at least you’ll have something to work with.”

He knows the secret – 95% of writing is revision.

“After I write this draft, I’m just going to set it aside and start over, aren’t I?”
“Yep,” he says, smiling. “And over and over and over again.”

The blank page is a scary place, but I am trying to acquaint myself with the idea of returning to the drawing board again and again. I find solace in knowing that I won’t be returning empty-handed. With each new draft, I’ll be armed with the wisdom and lessons of each one that came before it. 


Please visit my new page on the website and fill out the form to receive a free chapbook of my work! Also, feel free to shoot me an email anytime at . 
I'd love to hear from my readers!

Friday, October 16, 2015

My Mother, My Cheerleader

My mother recently bought me Elizabeth Gilbert’s book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear.

“I’ll send it to you,” she said. “After I’m done reading it.”

I had to laugh. My mother’s been a lawyer for all of her adult life. This means pantsuits, a name plate and a private office, her own secretary. Most of her time is spent at her desk, in her chair, on her computer.

She balked when I got out of college and worked odd jobs, farming, tutoring, baking, writing. I started and abandoned business projects. I moved around, taking housesitting gigs and living in my tent when necessary.

“Don’t you want something steady?” she asked. “A retirement plan?”

“Hell no,” I said, running headfirst into the next thing.

The truth is, I could never do what she does, and she could never do what I do. And that’s okay. (Strangely enough, I used to love spending time at my mother’s office when I was a kid. So many office supplies! Rolly chairs! Sugar packets in the tiny kitchen! My dream was to be a secretary and tap on keyboards with long nails while talking on the phone all day.)

That being said - my mother is my strongest cheerleader. She doesn't really understand what I do, but she always stands behind me no matter what. Without her support, this path would be harder than it already is.

Differences are places for conflict, but they are also places for compassion and growth. My mom and I engage with the world in very different ways, and yet, we have much to learn by stepping into each other’s shoes from time to time.

I probably won’t have time to read Big Magic until grad school is over… But I’m really glad my mom is reading it! Perhaps learning about creativity will help my mama understand the world I inhabit on a daily basis. Reading this book might give her some insight into the inner workings of weird “artistic” types like myself. And who knows, maybe she’ll be inspired to dip her toe into some “creative living beyond fear”!

Thursday, October 8, 2015

A Rejection A Day Keeps the Doctor Away? Or, How To Be Thick-Skinned.

I recently started sending my creative work out in earnest, mostly to literary magazines. My hope is to get a publication by the end of the year. Just one! It’s all that I ask of the lit mag gods. But alas, my inbox (and mailbox) has only been receiving rejection letters. They’re not all “bad,” but they’re all essentially saying the same thing: thanks but no thanks.

As an aside: You know you’re a writer when there’s such a thing as a “good” rejection letter. These usually include some personalized message about how much they liked the piece and it was a tough call and yadda yadda, but… it’s still a no. A softer letdown than some.

So, how am I doing, you ask? Spiritually, emotionally, psychologically, etc-ally? Surprisingly okay. In fact – call me naïve, call me crazy – but I’m actually excited about the rejection letters. They feel a bit like battle scars; I fought for these rejections. As I told my roommate recently: “At least it means we’re trying!” She was not convinced. The truth of the matter is that rejection is a basic element of this vocation. If we’re going to be strapped together on this long journey, rejection and I, then why not befriend the beast?

I recently came across this quote from the prolific and well-respected poet William Stafford:

"Now and then a sequence appeals to me for long enough to be teased into something like a poem, and when I feel sufficient conviction, I detach it from the accumulated leaves – my compost heap – and halfheartedly send it around to editors. I never feel sure that I have anything worthy, though I often feel affection for these products; and of all my writing only a very small portion goes forth into the world, and of that portion a large part never gets an editor's approval. I suppose at least nine out of ten pieces which I surmise to be poems find themselves coming home permanently to roost." Taken from Writing the Australian Crawl.

His words are a good reminder that every writer, no matter how great, experiences rejection. J.K. Rowling’s Harry Potter manuscript was rejected "loads" of times before a publisher took on the project. (I bet those rejecters regret that terribly now.) The sooner I can come to terms with that, the sooner I can move on and do my work. Because that’s all I can do.

Also, I’m realizing that rejection doesn’t hurt as bad when you are keeping busy – creating, revising, trading work with other writers, sending work out. The trick is not to let the grass grow beneath your feet. We can’t let our creative self get stale, waiting for someone to “accept” our work. The most important part is the creation of it in the first place. The rest – the readers – is icing on the cake.

I’m trying to use each rejection as a reminder that writing is revision. But more on that next time. Til then, keep chasing those literary dreams! 

Rumi on the prowl!

Friday, October 2, 2015

Author Spotlight: Andrea Chapin

Yesterday, I was lucky enough to attend a reading of The Tutor and have dinner with the author, Ms. Andrea Chapin. The Tutor is a work of historical fiction that explores the possibility of Shakespeare having a muse, a woman named Katherine de L'Isle, who helps him develop his writing. Chapin's story gives an account of what the Bard might have been up to during his "lost years."

It is always lovely to meet the writer behind the book, but it was even more exciting to meet a fellow Amherst College alum! (Side note: There's a novel with the same name as my college?) I love learning about creative writing jobs outside of academia, so I was very excited to speak with Andrea about her longtime work as a "book doctor." I had never heard of such a thing, but apparently, editors often tell writers to find one in order to polish up their manuscript. According to Andrea, her job is to take books apart and put them back together again. (Much like her character, Katherine!) Sounds like a lot of fun!

Andrea and a few of the other of the published writers sitting around the table spoke about their publishing experience; it's always interesting to learn about the process, so I kept a keen ear to the conversation. We always hear that publishing is a crazy world, but their stories made me understand just how crazy we're talking. Publishers taking on a book and then quitting the company, orphaning their eager writers. The constant fear of having the advance money taken away. Publishers leaving authors hanging for months without a word.  Of course, the rest of us unpublished writers listened with bated breath, hoping wishing praying to one day have the chance to experience these "book publishing problems."

Check out Andrea's new book, The Tutor!

Wednesday, September 23, 2015

Fighting the FOMO

FOMO: The disease that's sweeping the nation!

Fear Of Missing Out, or FOMO, as it's known among millennials, is the phenomenon of always feeling like you are missing out on an important social event, even if you are already attending one. This phenomenon stems from our generation's constant access to social media that reminds us that many people are doing way cooler things than you all the time. Even marketing campaigns have latched on!

I've heard that some people have never been afflicted by this tragic disease; unfortunately, I have always been one to fall prey to its clutches. Even before social media - ever since forever! - I've wanted to be in the middle of the action. I have been known to triple or quadruple book myself in one night, racing around town to attend happy hours, writing groups, birthday parties, dance classes, ETC.  Hey, I guess you could call me an extrovert? It's mildly possible.

Since starting graduate school, I have noticed my terrible case of FOMO wane. First of all, I am no longer living in Miami, a city where I know too many people and have too many hobbies. Besides a few literary events and some salsa socials once in a while, there is not much going on in my world here in Tampa. Second of all, school kind of takes everything out of you. Not having internet at my house also helps. With these factors combined, I am well on my way to a life of writerly hermitude!

But I think the change has been even more important than all that. It hasn't been a fight against FOMO so much as it has been a redirecting of its energy. Rather than fearing what I am missing in the outside world, I find myself fearing what I am missing out on at my writing desk. The more I get connected to my writing projects, the harder it is to abandon them for some party or happy hour.

Anyone who has tried their hand at writing can tell you that writing takes time. So, so, so much time. And so,  I have become protective of the little time that I have. Rather than going to every social event that comes along, I pick and choose more carefully now.

Like I have learned with writing in general, the hardest part is getting started. The trick is to get yourself to the desk, to the page, so that you can fall in love with your work all over again. Starting a new project can take some adjusting, but once it has sunk its teeth into you, it's hard to tear yourself away! Next thing you know, I'll be turning down travel opportunities to stay home and write. HA! We'll see about that...

Monday, September 14, 2015

My Secret Love Affair

Friends, I have a confession. I am having a love affair,.... with fiction.

I know, I know – I came into the MFA program as a nonfiction writer. Memoir is the house where I live, where I feel comfortable enough to put me feet up on the coffee table. On the other hand, fiction has always been that funky next door neighbor’s house where I wanna hang out but I’m not cool enough to get invited.

“I don’t know how to lie,” I’d say when people asked me why I wrote nonfiction. I was certain that I wasn’t creative enough to make stuff up.

Last semester, I took a class that focused on Zora Neale Hurston’s work. We all know her most popular book, Their Eyes Were Watching God, but in this class, I was introduced to a wide range of her writing. We each got the chance to choose a book that wasn’t being taught in the class and present it to our peers. I chose Dust Tracks on a Road, Hurston’s autobiography. Reading this book, I was amazed by the striking similarities between the characters in Hurston’s novels and the real people that were a part of her life. In Jonah’s Gourd Vine, she didn’t even bother to change the name of the main character, John, who was a thinly-veiled portrait of her own father.

Maybe memoir and fiction weren't as different as I thought!

I have had this epiphany before, when I read Isabelle Allende’s memoir, Paula. Being familiar with her fiction, I was floored by the way her stories mirrored the trajectory of her own life. But this time, something clicked for me. It’s as if I realized that a doorway had been open to me all along, but I had never dared to step through it.

Excited about the possibilities of autobiographical fiction, my professor let me try my hand at it for my final project. While writing, I found myself slipping into the first person “I” over and over again; my nonfiction hat was still firmly fixed on my head. At one point, I remember discussing the piece with my professor. She made a suggestion to change something about one of the characters, giving them an illness or a different job. I looked at her in surprise. “But, but – ”,  I started to say and she stopped me. “It’s okay if it didn’t really happen that way, Carmella,” she said.

This semester, I am taking a fiction workshop and I have officially delved into the genre. I’m making shit up left and right – and it feels great!

Well, it felt great at first. And then I had a freak out. I’m not a fiction writer, I’m a memoirist! What will I do! I need to choose one for my thesis and quick! I found myself talking in “should” – I should do my thesis in creative nonfiction because of x,y, and z. I decided to call up a previous graduate from my program, Melissa Carroll. She was a nonfiction student who dabbled in poetry and fiction with much success (she also published this lovely anthology about yoga!). She said for her it wasn’t a hard choice to stay with nonfiction, but she could hear in my voice where my heart lay: fiction.

“It doesn’t mean that all you can ever write is fiction forever and ever. After graduate school, you’re just a creative writer, plain and simple.” This made me feel better. I don't want to be pigeon-holed into one genre! “But listen," she continued. “You’re going to be living-eating-sleeping with this thesis for the next two years. So you better have a massive crush on it.”

My fiction affair turns out to be a good thing! I’m still getting used to the idea of defecting to the fiction camp, but hopefully, my writing career will be long and full of forays into all the genres! Most of the modern writers I love have their pens in all the pots…. But more on genre-crossing another time!

In other news, I am having a second [not-so-secret] secret love affair. 
With a kitten named Rumi.

"You didn't need your desk, did you?"
"I like books, too"