Why I Brought a Film Camera to Rome

One of my deepest fears is that I’ll rush through my life without seeing anything. Without actually taking in that which is around me–the moments, the people, the ordinary, the extraordinary, the Golden Gate Bridge or the gull passing by. During a sunset of apricot and periwinkle, I could be patting my pockets to make sure my keys are still there. I can drive to the store and home with no visual recall. Maybe you know exactly what I mean. Or maybe you remember the particular angle the light fell on the face of your child that one day in a long ago June.

And so in the high-stakes packing choices that included shearing off a third of a paperback guidebook and leaving it at home with everything else not imperative for joy or survival, I packed an aged Pentax with a heft of approximately 1.5 pounds to lug up ancient staircases. I did this not because I believed the film photographs would be superior to those I could take with my phone. I did this so I wouldn’t go all the way to Rome and miss it. I carried this camera so I would do what one would hope would be natural and automatic: To see.

I brought three 36-shot rolls of black and white film, which signified potentially 108 times I’d likely take in what I’d anticipated months to see: The Roman Forum.

The Forum has a specific meaning in my history of not truly seeing. I hold dear a couple memories from my youth of times when something unexpected streaked before me and I not only saw it, it held me in awe. One such beholding occurred on an August night in Vancouver, B.C. when I was eleven. My friend Melissa’s family was adding a top floor to their home perched high on the city’s mountainside and let us have a sleepover up there on the unfinished floor with only beams between us and the sky above. Deep in the night, I woke up to witness burning balls tearing across the black, black sky followed by snail trails of shimmering white. Melissa and I watched this together with no real words other than the inadequate phrase “falling star” for what I’d later find out had a name: The Perseids. I not only saw this meteor shower, I was enraptured by it.

Another experience of youthful unexpected rapture came when I stumbled across the Roman Forum. I may have been the least knowledgable of ancient history 20 year old to ever have visited Rome. I’m not proud of this, but that lack of prior knowledge created the conditions for the awe I felt when after viewing the Colosseum (at least I think I “saw” it?), I wandered across the street and came across…what on earth? A pathway wandering through a magical kingdom of majestic arches, broken columns, fading Latin on chunks of marble, all cast against the modern cityscape of Rome. How could such a thing exist? I didn’t know what I was seeing, but I was truly seeing it.

And now decades later, I was returning to the Forum! And this time, I spent months before the trip reading Roman history and poring over maps of the Forum, hoping my knowledge would help me to really take it in. I knew I’d never be able to recapture the feeling of stumbling across an unexpected universe, but maybe now I’d experience the Forum in a new way, profound because it was worked for rather than a gift of unearned grace.

The first planned Forum day went nothing as planned. I arrived late as the day was winding down and the light was soft.The crowds had thinned and the sky was clear and a darkening blue. Everything I’d read back in Seattle about Ancient Rome had mostly flown from my head. With my camera slung around my neck, I hiked past the heady wisteria and elegant cypress up the Palatine, ready to assess the possibilities, line up pictures, and feel the metallic finality of the shutter click. I was ready to see all of it and decide just what I’d capture in the limited shots I held, my precious chances to behold.

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Enrolling Now: July 7th Memoir Intensive

Let’s spend a day devoted to memoir together on Friday July 7th! In the morning we’ll focus on brainstorming activities designed to get to the heart of your work as a writer, shorter prompts, and craft lessons on scene writing and strategies for moving between timeframes and narrative modes. Then over a block of time that will include our lunch break, you’ll have a choice of longer prompts to work on. At the end of the is time, you’ll have the option to submit this writing to me for written comments. The last afternoon block will be devoted to lecture and discussion on topics ranging from inviting the reader into the work, narrative arc, thematic drive, collage techniques, the publication process, and how to make the most of your writing time.

Instructor: Theo Nestor

Cost: $295

Date and Time: July 7th, 10am to 4pm Pacific Time

Class size: 16 max.

Where: Zoom

Questions? Email me at theo@theonestor.com

Posted in More Stuff for Writers, writing advice | Tagged , , | 1 Comment

Monsters, Miss Americana, and Me: A Taylor Swift Fan’s Objection

Two nights ago something festered in the not-small Taylor Swift portion of my brain as I listened to my friend and colleague Claire Dederer talk about her new book Monsters: A Fan’s Dilemma at Third Place Books here in Seattle. One source of our dilemmas as fans, Dederer said, springs from the fact that these days “biography is everywhere.” We no longer have to wait years to read the one biography detailing the intimacies of our favorite artists’ lives. The biography is everywhere.

As I listened in this crowded room to a discussion referencing the names we’ve come to associate with fan exodus–JK, Woody, Roman–a particular biography that is everywhere began to form a montage in my thoughts unbidden: the biography of Taylor Swift. A biography dear to me as a Swiftie who’s found great joy not only in the music of Taylor Swift but in the Swiftie TikTok community that admittedly relishes connecting the dots between her lyrics and what we know of her life. Like a whirring and clicking microfiche in a movie about a 1970s exposé, my inner filmstrip zoomed in and offered up grainy images of Taylor’s reported new love interest, Matty Healy, at her May 2023 concerts in Nashville and Philly followed by truncated clips of TikToks outlining the questionable quality of the character of this guy, lead singer of the band 1975 and a known “provocateur” (ugh!). Over the last day, the temperature of the conversation had escalated, and I’d seen TikToks allude to his harmful comments. I watched but didn’t investigate, perhaps because I didn’t want it to be true.

The next day I saw a shift in the tone of the conversation: I scrolled through a number of TikToks of grieving Swifties collectively expressing sadness and making the point that whether she’s dating him or not, she has aligned herself with him and given him access to her platform. In Nashville, he made an appearance on the Eras stage with special guests Boygenius.

Taylor Swift performing at the State Farm Arena in Glendale, Arizona March 2023 (Photo: Taylr Scott)

But then, a turning point: I heard one creator mention Healy’s use of the Nazi salute onstage and racist comments about the rapper Ice Spice. And then I watched one of my favorite TikTokers, Black creator @adhdwhileblack, point out in this video Matty Healy’s degradation of Black women, emphasizing that “this is not ‘bad boy core,’ this is ‘racist core.'” This led me to this Buzzfeed article that enumerates his racist and misogynist comments, often offered up with dufus jocularity (ew!) and inchoate contrarian ramblings (ugh!). But most disturbing in this article–and the coup de grâce for me–is his joking recounting of his consumption of pornography that he himself admits portrays the “battering” of Black women. (Battering in quotation marks here to indicate that he himself used the word battering).

Okay, stop. Just stop everything.

Taylor, just stop. Stop aligning yourself with this man. Stop giving him access to your audience. You are hurting Black women. You are hurting Jewish people.You are hurting yourself. You are hurting us who have loved you.

In this TikTok from Jewish creator @moremesslore, she posits that the past actions, statements, and work of an artist create a social contract between the artist and their audience. She then argues persuasively that Taylor created a specific social contract–by aligning herself with Jewish artists (Jack Atonoff, the Haim sisters, others) and LGBTQIA+ and progressive communities–that assured @moremesslore as a consumer that there was little to no chance that she’d be exposed to anti-Semitism from the stage at a Taylor Swift concert. Her argument–please do watch her TikTok in full–convinced me that Taylor Swift has broken this contract with her fans by giving access to her platform, VIP seating, and the Eras stage to Matt Healy, who–as mentioned–has previously used a Nazi salute onstage.

One of the things Claire Dederer talked about at the Monsters event on Monday night was how we often focus on ourselves as “consumers” when we are discussing how to engage with the art of those who’ve said or done monstrous things. In her years researching for Monsters and thinking through “the fan’s dilemma,” she came to realize that the lens of the consumer was a limited view of engaging with art. It can also be a confusing one. Yes, I can tally up the money spent on concert tickets, CDs, and merch, but we often listen to music through radio and streaming services in which our money takes a less obvious route between ourselves and any one artist. And what about the cost of my time, my attention, my love?

After the event, I stood around with some other writers talking about our sadness over the artists we can no longer enjoy “even if we wanted to,” even if we decided our consumption was without consequence. We talked about the sadness of not laughing at one particular comic’s jokes any longer. The artists we love give us laughter and joy and a reprieve from our troubles. There is a social contract between us that allows us to let them into our hearts and minds. Of course, we are sad when that contract is broken. Of course, we are sad when the laughter ends.

If you’d like to know when I post here (and hear my other news), please subscribe to my newsletter.

Enrolling Now: July 7th Memoir Intensive

Let’s spend a day devoted to memoir together on Friday July 7th! In the morning we’ll focus on brainstorming activities designed to get to the heart of your work as a writer, shorter prompts, and craft lessons on scene writing and strategies for moving between timeframes and narrative modes. Then over a block of time that will include our lunch break, you’ll have a choice of longer prompts to work on. At the end of the is time, you’ll have the option to submit this writing to me for written comments. The last afternoon block will be devoted to lecture and discussion on topics ranging from inviting the rneader into the work, narrative arc, thematic drive, collage techniques, the publication process, and how to make the most of your writing time.

Instructor: Theo Nestor

Cost: $295

Date and Time: July 7th, 10am to 4pm Pacific Time

Class size: 16 max.

Where: Zoom

Questions? Email me at theo@theonestor.com

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The Thing You Least Want to Write About

In a June 2017 Fresh Air interview, Roxane Gay shared that her book, Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body, “felt necessary to write because it was the book I wanted to write the least.” She goes onto explain: “When I was thinking about what to do next in terms of nonfiction just before Bad Feminist came out, I thought You know, I’d really never want to write about fatness. And in that moment I knew that’s something I have to write about.”

I want to talk about the magnetic draw of “the book I wanted to write about the least,” but first I need to say a few things about Hunger. Hunger is a brilliant memoir and important read for countless reasons. First, it vividly portrays how the body can find a way to defend the self from further harm, a common experience that’s not often acknowledged. The book is also a stunning example of an essayist’s memoir, a memoir that uses beautifully expressed insights studded with curated specifics to illuminate the writer’s experience rather than a succession of blow-by-blow scenes. Hunger is masterful and rare example of how a memoirist can create an intimate narrative and communion with its readership using much more telling than showing. And, the book is an important lesson in how a memoirist can tell a deeply personal story and still define the parameters of what they will and will not share, that the writer is not required to “cannibalize themselves,” a phrase Roxane Gay uses in this all-star panel discussion on the topic of writing trauma at Yale in 2019:

The experience Gay shared in the Fresh Air interview of Hunger being necessary to write because it was “the book I wanted to write the least” is a common one I’ve rarely seen discussed. Miranda July has a book titled It Chooses You, and this phrase also sums up what I’ve experienced and what I’ve seen happen with numerous writers I’ve worked with. It usually goes like this: You sit down to write about X but the story of Y starts to pop into your thoughts. You try to push it away and maybe for today you do, but tomorrow Y is back. And, as Roxane Gay said, Y is the thing you least want to write about.

You don’t want to write about Y because if you do, you will also have to write about Z. And when you write about X, Y, and Z all together, A and B might be very angry. Or maybe it’s not that people will be angry or at least very surprised, it’s that it’s going to hurt so much to put those words on the page. It would hurt a lot. You can’t write those words. You won’t.

And so you don’t. Not today. Today and tomorrow you push Y away. You write about X. You do. But Y is still hovering and also there’s this other problem. You’re a bit bored with the story of X and you can tell there’s a flatness there others will sense. You don’t want write a boring and flat stories! The stories you love are about X, Y, and Z.

And then, maybe one day you are having a terrible, horrible, very bad day and you also happen to have a pen and a notebook, and you open it and the story of X, Y, and Z starts to tumble out. And maybe you see something in that story, you haven’t seen in other things you’ve written. You see something important, something others might need. Flashes of gold. But you think of A and B. Of the cost. The terrible cost of writing these words and maybe eventually sharing them.

And then you might just think, Fuck it. I’ll pay the cost. And you keep writing.

You are sweating and scared, but the words just keep coming. Bridges are blowing up behind you and you know there’s no going back. Even if you never share these words with anyone else, you have written them, and now everything has changed. You are somewhere new.

Keep going.

Enrolling Now: July 7th Memoir Intensive

Let’s spend a day devoted to memoir together on Friday July 7th! In the morning we’ll focus on brainstorming activities designed to get to the heart of your work as a writer, shorter prompts, and craft lessons on scene writing and strategies for moving between timeframes and narrative modes. Then over a block of time that will include our lunch break, you’ll have a choice of longer prompts to work on. At the end of the is time, you’ll have the option to submit this writing to me for written comments. The last afternoon block will be devoted to lecture and discussion on topics ranging from inviting the rneader into the work, narrative arc, thematic drive, collage techniques, the publication process, and how to make the most of your writing time.

Instructor: Theo Nestor

Cost: $295

Date and Time: July 7th, 10am to 4pm Pacific Time

Class size: 16 max.

Where: Zoom

Questions? Email me at theo@theonestor.com

Posted in Memoirists, More Stuff for Writers, Theo Finding Her Voice, writing advice | Tagged , , , , , | Leave a comment

5 Reasons You Need an Author Website Before the Book Deal

My best advice for writers wishing to sell their books: Act as if the book deal is already yours. If you can pretend it’s a done deal, you’ll be more motivated to do the work of building a platform. Besides great stories told in a compelling voice, publishers want books from writers “with a platform”–a verifiable existing audience. And, an author website gives you a central hub for showcasing that platform as well as a means for growing it.

1. An author website gives you a central hub for sharing your story

One of the best ways to sell a book is to publish a widely shared, related essay somewhere prominent, but we can’t usually control where or when our essays get published. We can, however, decide to tell part of our story on our own site. It’s actually quite exhilarating to have complete control over the publication process! And, if you’re writing a memoir, your site can also give you the needed opportunities to come out with your story and practice sharing publicly what you’ve likely shared with very few.

I recommend posting an overview of your book-in-progress on your website’s home or about page. Check out how Deli Moussavi and Barrak Alzaid offer overviews on their sites:

When you do start getting related essays published, you can also share those links on your site as well. Tamiko Nimura does that for her memoir-in-progress on her site:

2. An author website offers you a means for creating content (which helps you to grow your audience)

Adding a blog to your site offers the means for creating content you can share on social media, which can be a great way to grow your audience. If you’re sharing on Instagram posts, it’s a good idea to get a linktr.ee or beaconsai that allows you to have multiple links in your bio (see my beaconsai below). (You can add a link to Instagram stories. Yay! See example below). Another benefit to blog posts: Because readers will be following posts back to your site, they will be adding to your site traffic and–hopefully–subscribing to your email list.

3. An author website gives you a means to enroll email subscribers

It’s almost worth it to have an author website just to house the email signup field! Your total number of email subscribers is one of your most significant metrics as subscribers convert to sales at a much higher rate than social media followers. When someone’s on your list, you have the opportunity to build a relationship with them through your newsletter. This connection–often built through months or even years–can be a key factor in their decision to buy your book or come out to your book events down the road.

4. An author website provides agents a portal for contacting you

If your essays are getting published, an agent could come knocking on your website door to see if you are writing a book and are looking for representation. This doesn’t happen all that often, but still it’s a good argument for having a website up that shows you’re ready to sell your book and do the work of promoting that book.

5. An author website reminds you that you are a writer

Your website can be the first place you craft your book’s pitch, and the process of creating that pitch will solidify not only your own understanding of your story but also your belief in its importance. Your author website can make you feel like you’re the real deal. And that confidence will inspire you to keep pushing yourself to send out your writing and build that platform.

You might be thinking that you don’t want to pay to have a site designed and built or that you feel overwhelmed by the prospect of building a site yourself. I’ve been working with all sorts of writers who have been building their own sites–despite their fears that they couldn’t do it. Besides the savings, the other advantage of building it yourself is you become an expert on modifying your site and aren’t dependent on anyone else to make updates.

In my Platform Building 101 course, I’m walking small groups of writers through the process of building their websites, growing their list, creating authentic content and sharing that content with an expanding audience. The next session starts May 11th. Click through here to learn more.

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Help! I want my short writings to cohere into something publishable!

A question my clients and students often ask: “What can I do with all the bits and pieces I’ve written?” If you’ve written to prompts over a number of years, you may feel like you’ve written quite a bit without gaining traction on creating something publishable. You may wonder Could these writings actually cohere into a memoir, or at least a few published essays? Below I offer some approaches for mining the most significant material out of these writings and start developing essays or memoir chapters.

Step One: Hunt and Gather

I don’t want to lose any of you on this hunting & gathering step! I know that my dread of searching for scattered files could stop me cold here. So let’s not aim for an exhaustive and exhausting rounding up of everything you’ve ever written. Just try to…

  • Locate your most recent physical notebooks (if any) and any random digital files you’ve created from prompts or in-class writings in the last year or so.
  • Search your storage drives with terms like “writing” or “prompt” or the names of writing classes or writing teachers. You also might look by date if you know when you took a certain class, for example. (Looking at your calendar could help you remember when you took class/attended workshop).
  • Create a new “Short Writings” folder on your desktop (or better yet your cloud storage, such as Google Drive) and start moving the files to this new location.
  • Even if you find just a small fraction of your scattered writings, that’s good enough for now. You can always chip away at this project and you don’t want to get bogged down at this stage. (Some of us will use organizational tasks as a means for delaying writing–you know who you are).

Step Two: Label those Flashes of Gold

  • Skim through the writings looking for powerful lines and paragraphs–those places where you hit something that feels urgent and essential. Try not to reread everything–just cruise above at a fairly high altitude scanning for stuff that seems most exciting while also getting a general sense of the content of each writing.
  • When you see something you think has potential, turn down a corner on the handwritten page or relabel the file with the letter P (for potential) at the start of the file name: Writing Jan 13 2021 becomes P Writing Jan 13 2021.
  • Make a master list of pieces with potential and list their themes, using a notebook, Word document (saved in folder with writings) or download this Creating a Story Inventory spreadsheet (Click on the blue “Use Template” button in top right corner and save a copy).
  • Highlight the lines or passages you find most exciting, the flashes of gold. Make a note in your master list of the themes and topics in those pieces that show potential.

Step Three: Develop One of Those Great Starts

Try using one of the approaches below to create an essay or a memoir chapter:

  • Pick the short writing that excites you the most and just keep going. If you’ve written 400 words, see if you can turn it into 1000 words. If the writing is a narrative passage, write the next significant chronological scene. If it’s exposition, what else do you want to say about this topic? What story from your life might support the points you’re making? How could you dig in deeper and be more vulnerable? What is a related experience you could share? For example, if you’re writing about isolation, when is another time in your life you experienced isolation or what’s an image of isolation you could write about?
  • Choose an image, character, setting, or emotion from the piece and brainstorm two other incidents/moments/stories that feature that image, character, setting, or emotion. For example, if there’s a significant apple tree featured in the piece, brainstorm two other stories about that tree. Or if it’s a story about your uncle, list two other stories about him. Now write for twenty minutes on one of these occurrences. Next, write for twenty minutes on the next occurrence. Now look at the three pieces. Could they be placed together? What if you rearranged their order? What if you split one of the pieces up and wove it in throughout the body of a piece that combined the other two writings? This structure and approach is essentially triptych writing, which I talked about in this post (and in the book Writing Is My Drink).
  • Pick a descriptive piece of writing that lacks narrative and urgency. Insert into the opening paragraphs a problem or worry you were experiencing at the time that descriptive passage is set. Now that you’ve introduced the first element of dramatic structure–a problem–into the opening, can you see places where you could return to that story throughout the passage? Maybe you could create an essay that alternates back and forth between the narrative and the description?
  • Select two or three pieces from your master list that cover the same theme or topic and consider how they could be combined.

I hope this post inspires you to start finding connections between your short writings and developing them into essays and chapters. Obviously, you won’t be able to roll all of your short writings into a larger work. But no writing is ever “wasted.” All the writing you’ve done was time spent connecting to your voice and vision and developing your skills.

If you’re looking for places to submit essays, sign up for my newsletter and I’ll send you a downloadable list of interesting publications.

Looking to do some more prompts or develop your online presence as a writer? I’ve got two classes coming up in May you might be interested in:

Upcoming Classes

Posted in More Stuff for Writers, triptych, writing advice, writing prompts, Writing Tips | Tagged , , | Leave a comment

Is My Manuscript Ready to Send Out?

A question I get asked quite often: Is my book (or book proposal) ready to go out to agents and editors? Unless it’s clear the writer is jumping the gun, this is a tricky question to answer. True benefits abound from jetting out into the world–even prematurely. Most significantly: If the work is circulating, air is getting in and often giving life to new ideas, leads, and connections.The downsides are obvious–chiefly, a half-baked project blowing your shot with someone you value and self-recrimination over overeagerness raining down shortly after rejection’s sting.

And, this question about submitting is a nearly impossible question to answer for someone else–even if the question is posed to someone who’s seen the latest version of the manuscript or proposal–because no one else can gauge our risk tolerance or predict what stunning new development might be forthcoming.

That said–a phrase that’s a veritable cliche of agent/editor rejection letters– I want to share some questions you could ask yourself if you are on the verge of clicking “Send.” And hopefully, your answers will bring you to the right decision–or at least a bit closer.

  1. This first question gets asked a fair amount: “Have you taken the book as far as you can on your own?”

This can be a hard question to answer because we often feel that haunting doubt of “I guess I could do more” even if we have no idea what that “more” would be and absolutely DO NOT want to do any more of anything right now. So maybe a better version of this is, “Is there something you know the manuscript needs that you just don’t want to do?”

If the answer is yes, then you might ask yourself 1) Exactly what is it I think is needed and 2) Why exactly don’t I want to do it?  Sometimes the answer has to do with not wanting to share something. If that’s the case, you could ask yourself, “Is there a part of that thing I could share? Sometimes we just don’t want to. We are tired and it feels just gross to do it. Or just too scary. If that’s the case, you could ask yourself if you’d be willing to work for just 30 minutes on that thing (or less–See Virginia Valian’s “Learning to Work” for an approach to get yourself to do a tiny amount of work if you’re blocked). It could be that in just a short stint of revision we could make a crucial change. Or we open up a new possibility we want to work on for a bit before clicking send.

Also, “on your own” doesn’t literally mean “on your own.” During this “on your own” phase, hopefully you had at least one trusted writer/editor read it all the way through but perhaps a writers’ group or workshop gave you feedback on individual chapters. Hopefully, you used some of that feedback in revisions.

2. The next question: “Is there anything I could do to the first five pages of the book to make the reader want to keep reading?”

Editorial decisions to keep reading often occur paragraph by paragraph within the first five pages, so this question is worth spending time on.

If you know there’s something you could do to improve the first five pages, it’s worth it to set aside even just an hour to do that revision work. I once heard an editor say, “I can tell within the first line of a book whether the writer has control of the material or if the material has control of the writer.”

You might want to read the first pages of your book’s comps and ask yourself, “How are they pulling the reader in?” Doing just this led me to have a big breakthrough on how to revise the first pages of Writing Is My Drink. (But newsflash–I sold the book proposal before I had this breakthrough that greatly improved the opening. An argument for jumping the gun, perhaps? See next question).

3. Finally: Do you tend to stop yourself from submitting your work out of perfectionism or do you tend to share too early because you crave validation?

There is no right answer to this and we can’t really change our wiring completely, but most writers tend to fall into one of these two groups. I am a share-too-early person (give a shout in the comments, if you are my people!), but almost all my clients and students are stopping themselves out of perfectionism. A friend of mine proofread parts of the final draft How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed (it had already been sold on proposal) and said something like,”It’s really helping me to see your mistakes because I would never allow myself to have this many mistakes and I think that’s what’s stopping me from publishing my work.” And what she said is so, so true for most writers I work with–especially women. They are generally petrified that their work isn’t good enough, although they can’t exactly say why it isn’t good enough. They just feel a sense of falling short. The idea of other people seeing their work as less than perfect is mortifying to them. I don’t love it either, but I guess I was more terrified by the thought of not getting published. And, admittedly, younger me (my 30s and 40s) was a validation hound.

Because I have ADHD, I will always miss many mistakes, and I will always want to be “done” when something is not done. Sometimes, my brain has missed regrettable mistakes. But generally those mistakes were caught and corrected. And generally, all my success has come from sending my work out “too early.” Because it was out there, yes, it got rejected often, but it also got accepted by editors who helped my books transform in unimaginable ways. I could never have made the changes I made without their collaborative efforts. (Thank you forever, Rachel, Anjali, and Millicent).

Writing is extremely collaborative, but in a culture that’s enamored with individualism, this is mostly hidden from us with the exception made for TV’s fabled writers’ rooms. There is so much that happens between editors and writers that MAKES the book what it needs to become. At a Seattle Arts & Lectures talk in early 2020, Carmen Maria Machado shared with a packed Seattle Town Hall that some of the structure of In the Dream House (which is genius and adds so much to the book) came out of conversations with her editor. At another Seattle Arts & Lectures event, I asked Ta-Nehisi Coates when he decided to structure Between the World and Me as a letter to his son. He said something like, “Oh that came very late. My editor suggested it.” What?? I was so excited to hear him say this. The letter format starting with the “Son,” address at the beginning of the book changes everything. It raises the stakes of the book sky high and makes everything between its covers not only a brilliant history but also a relationship story. For me, this structural change made the book a gut punch.

I don’t think we often lose opportunities by sending out “early.” If it’s not for them now, it likely never would be. But if we hold onto a manuscript too long, we might lose our urgency and let the moment pass us by. Our imperfect creation might miss its chance to takes its place in the world. To become the perfect book for the readers who need it.

Whether you’re just getting started writing personal narrative or getting closer to sending your book out into the world, I have two classes coming up you might be interested in:

Posted in More Stuff for Writers, Publishing, writing advice, Writing Tips | Tagged , , , , , , | Leave a comment

Inspired by Taylor Swift: The Eras Writing Prompt

Taylor Swift at the State Farm Arena in Glendale, AZ March 18, 2023 (Eras Tour)

Last post I wrote about how Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour concert in Glendale last weekend made me think about the challenges of writing about our past selves. And that made me remember a writing prompt I created a while back called “The End of an Era” that you might like to try. You can do the whole thing start to finish in 35 minutes or do it in stages. Here’s how it goes:

Writing Prompt: The End of an Era

Step One: Divide your life into ten “eras” and label them. I’ve got an example below, but an era doesn’t have to be so obvious as the ones I’ve listed. It could be a phase when you were obsessed with knitting or held a certain belief about life.

Step Two: List a starting moment and ending moment for each era. The moment could have been invisible to everyone around you but it’s one you think of when you remember how the era began or ended.

Step Three: Give yourself 20 minutes to write a scene from this era.

That’s it! Want to do more prompts with me? I’m holding a generative writing class on April 2nd. Details below.

Posted in More Stuff for Writers, Taylor Swift, writing prompts | Tagged , , , , | Leave a comment

What I Learned at a Taylor Swift’s Eras Tour Concert

“I haven’t met the new me yet,” –Taylor Swift, “happiness” from the Evermore era

After the Great Ticketmaster Debacle last November, I didn’t think I’d be going to a concert in the Taylor Swift Era Tour. But last week I nabbed a last-minute ticket to the second night of the tour, which happened to be just an hour (make that 2.5 hours in concert traffic) from where I’m dogsitting this week. And so yes–against all odds and contrary to my predictions–I witnessed the absolute splendor of Taylor in all her many eras on Saturday night in the State Farm Arena in Glendale, Arizona from a strangely decent seat that I bought for an almost reasonable price.

And as she rapid cycled from a Speak Now era youthful romantic in a pink Cinderella gown to a Reputation era bad bitch clad in black and red to an Evermore cottage fairy, I found myself thinking about how the entire magical show was a giant lesson in self-acceptance and reclaiming the disowned parts of ourselves. And, how that reclaiming of disowned selves is 90 percent of why most who’ve tried it will agree that writing a memoir can be, um, hard. Like, brutally.

If you’re a Taylor fan or merely have been walking on planet Earth the past few years, you’ve likely heard that she’s been rerecording albums to reclaim the rights to her early music. No doubt that process that’s ushered back into heavy rotation “Taylor’s Versions” of albums from her twenties as well as the fact that she’s released four new albums since her last tour led her to this concept of an “eras” tour that includes songs from the full wingspan of her career from her teens to her thirties. Songs she wrote, you know, about experiences at age 19, 21, and, say, 30 steeped in a potent brew of feelings ranging from the joy of being sure the new one is The One to the burning anger of betrayal to the bleak despair of love lost.

You know when you come across an old journal or a long lost box of photos and you fall under a spell for an hour and maybe at first you just feel nostalgic? But then maybe you spiral into a pit of anguish about the general and specific foolishness of younger you? Well, there’s just got to be some of that for anyone who sets out to relive all their eras in a three-hour 44-song gauntlet.

And this anguish can be some of the true terror of writing memoir. To bring scenes from the past to life on the page, you don’t have much choice but to feel the wild ride of all those feelings again. The writers most willing to do this no doubt wrote your favorite memoirs that include moments they never, ever wanted to relive and yet did to write them (and rewrite them and revise them and copyedit them and proof the galleys and read them aloud at readings).

And in writing these scenes, you come face to face with your eras, all the past versions of yourself–the person who wanted X and rejected Y, even the you who was trying to be someone she wasn’t. In this British Vogue interview, Taylor describes her twenties like this: “My twenties were really, really fun, but I also equate my twenties to like walking into a costume shop and trying on all these different costumes. And then walking out of the costume shop in my regular outfit and being like, ‘I’m cool with who I am.'”

Taylor Swift singing “22” from Red in Glendale on March 18, 2023 (Photo: Taylr Scott)

Her costume shop analogy offers me some perspective just days after watching a 33-year-old Taylor whisper sing a 21-year-old’s “All Too Well” and belt out the sass of her mid-twenties’ “Look What You Made Me Do” that did not shy away from song’s conviction in the epic proportions of one’s own disputes. So what if we could see all our human experiences of jealousy and foolishness and heartache as simply past parts of ourselves? Our eras? What if we wrote seeing ourselves through the lens of the poet and memoirist Dr. Maya Angelou’s quote, “Do the best you can until you know better. Then when you know better, do better.” We did better when we could. Everything else: The stuff of books and songs people will see themselves in and find comfort.

If we can sing our old songs without shame–without even cringing–with the knowledge we were doing the best we could, maybe we would suffer less as we wrote and the writing would be better for it. I am thinking now of Cheryl Strayed saying once about writing her memoir Wild, “I tried to write with compassion for my younger self.” Perhaps, with compassion and the perspective of age, we can even comfort our younger selves with a bit of advice to our younger selves strung out on matters that once loomed so large and legendary. As Taylor sings (and wrote) in “Long Story Short” (Evermore):

Past me

I wanna tell you not to get lost in these petty things

Your nemeses will defeat themselves

Before you get the chance to swing

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Alyson Shelton & the Strange Magic of “Where I’m From”

This week I joyfully participated in Alyson Shelton‘s “Where I’m From” project.” I’d describe the process of filling the blanks of George Ella Lyon’s “Where I’m From” poem as a Mad Lib that jettisons you straight into the heart of your family legacy. I absolutely loved writing the poem and had fun talking about it with Alyson on Instagram Live–a part of Instagram I’d never travelled to before. I interviewed Alyson about the project below and throughout you can find clips from other “Where I’m From” Instagram readings and chats.

Alyson Shelton.

Theo: Could you describe how your Where I’m From project works and how you got started with it?

Alyson: I was first introduced to the “Where I’m From” prompt, inspired by George Ella Lyon’s poem, in a workshop with writer, Jeannine Ouellette. It was deep in the pandemic, so we were on zoom. We went into breakout rooms and I ended up spending most of our time chatting with my partner which left me with nothing to share when we returned to the main zoom room. Instead, I listened. And I was so moved by all of the poems. I wondered if there was a way to expand on that feeling.

Theo: What has surprised you most since you started this project?

Alyson:I think the thing that surprised me the most is how every participant has thanked me for creating the space and welcoming them to it. The desire to be seen and heard is real, an audience of one counts. I feel so privileged that almost 80 different people have joined me so far. I never get tired of listening to the poems. And I have always believed that everyone has a story and I love being proved right week after week.

Theo: How has Where I’m From poem impacted your own writing?

Alyson: I’m starting to accept that I have a story to tell. That my story matters too. And on the technical side, I am definitely better at thinking about and incorporating sensory details. I think I’ve internalized the prompt at this point and when I rewrite, I will refer to it to bring more nuance to my own writing. 

Theo: What piece of your writing means the most to you and why?

Alyson:That’s a really difficult choice, I’ve recently realized that my writing is helping me reclaim parts of myself and so each piece feels significant. I’ll go with my essay for Ms. magazine “The Repercussion of Trauma as a Former Patient of Dr. George Tyndall” because it’s the first personal piece I wrote and I stand by all of the feelings and ideas expressed in my essay. The repercussions of trauma are significant and life-altering. I’m still unpacking them. The suitcase gets lighter but it’s never empty.

Theo: Where can readers find your writing?

Alyson: The best places to find me are my website: www.alysonshelton.com and on Instagram and Twitter.

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The Essays That Came Before the Book Deals

Writers worry about “giving the story away” before their book is out in the world. But publishing a personal essay about a related story can stir up interest in the memoirist’s larger narrative. And, that following you create as an essayist can pay off when you go to sell your memoir. “That following” is also known as a platform, an author’s existing audience for a particular story. (This is why writing/revising/submitting an essay to a target publication is a key part of my Platform Building 101 course). Writing essays also gives a writer a chance to develop a story and explore its themes before setting out to write (and rewrite) 300 pages. But perhaps the greatest benefit of those essays: Early reader enthusiasm that boosts writer confidence and wards off those thoughts of who’s gonna care anyways? that haunt each of us with a personal story to tell.

Check out these essays that preceded the authors’ memoirs:

Putsata Reang, Ma and Me (MCD, 2022)

Essay: “At Sea, In Search of a Safe Harbor

Cheryl Strayed, Wild: From Lost to Found on the Pacific Crest Trail (Knopf, 2012)

Essays: “Heroin/e

The Love of My Life

Kristi Coulter, Nothing Good Can Come From This (MCD x FSG, 2018).

Essay: “Enjoli

Carmen Maria Machado, In the Dream House (Graywolf, 2019).

Essays: “The U.S.S. Awake and Dreaming

A Girl’s Guide to Sexual Purity

Brian Broome, Punch Me Up to the Gods (Mariner Books, 2021)

Brian performed a lot of Moth-type public readings of his short pieces. In fact, his agent found him (and signed him right away) at one of his first readings, at which he read the piece that became the chapter called “The Key” in Punch Me up to the Gods).

Recordings of Brian reading his work at The Moth and other story slam events can be found here on Soundcloud.

Ashley C. Ford, Somebody’s Daughter (Flatiron Books, 2021)

Essays: “My Father Spend 30 Years in Prison. Now, He’s Out.”

What Burns in the Pit

Nicole Hardy, Confessions of a Latter-Day Virgin (Hyperion, 2013).

Essay: “Single, Mormon, Female, Alone.”

Francisco Cantu, The Line Becomes a River: Dispatches from the Border (Riverhead, 2019)

Essays: “Bajadas


Theo Pauline Nestor, How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed (Crown, 2008)

And yes, this book of mine also got its start as an essay.

Essay:”The Chicken’s in the Oven, My Husband Is Out the Door

Write an essay of your own in Platform Building 101

Platform Building 101 combines live lectures & coworking sessions with prerecorded lessons and handouts. Weekly assignments offer structure and accountability. Zoom coworking sessions offer support.

The goals of the course: Build a “good enough” author website you can easily update independently (even if you’re “terrible at tech stuff”); connect with readers in a sustainable way that that doesn’t make you cringe; write and submit a calling card essay for publication.

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