What I’m Digging Right Now #5

I love this time of year! My two yearlong classes* have wrapped up, and while I’m still coaching and teaching a few classes, I’m mostly reading, writing, getting my yard under control, and hanging out with friends and family. So, yay!

Here’s what I’ve been digging lately:

Hunger by Roxane Gay

hungerI read Hunger: A Memoir of (My) Body in one day. And that was an important day. That was a day when I thought a great deal about what it means to possess a female body. That was a day when I thought about how a single day can change the course of a person’s life. I thought about how the omnipresent threat of violence changes who we are and how we move through the world. I thought about my daughters and I thought about myself.

And since I’ve finished the book, I’ve been thinking about all those things and these haunting lines: “I finally did say no. And it did not matter. That’s what scarred me the most. My no did not matter.” (Page 51).

The lead up to Summer Solstice

solticeThe light! The light! Things just keep getting better and better! The days keep getting longer and longer!

Until June 20th and then….Okay, we won’t talk about that.

Let’s just enjoy the light while we have it!

Noise-canceling headphones

headphonesI recently took Shonda Rhimes’ Television Writing Master Class. Tons of insight into storytelling was packed into that class. Yet, the big takeaway for me was Shonda’s secret for teaching herself to write anywhere: Noise-canceling headphones. She shared that she’s trained herself to write (anywhere! anytime!) whenever she puts her headphones on. I had a hunch headphones might work for me as for a long time I was able to write (anywhere! anytime!) if I simply put my hoodie hood up. Somehow under a hood, I felt like I was under The Cone of Work. Under the hood, no one could interfere with me–not even myself.

My research quickly led me to the conclusion that good headphones can be super expensive. But I decided to splurge and go for some middle-of-the-road (but still, in my mind, very expensive) ones, justifying the expense with ALL the writing I was going to get done (!). I picked these Sony ones  and I have to say I love them. I’m trying to train myself that when headphones are on, I write (Pavlov’s dog!). But I’ve “cheated” a bit and have also worn them at the gym, where they worked really well to block out the super annoying sound of people running really fast and hard on the treadmills. You know the people I mean?


The art of Ross Penhall

penhallI’m loving the way Penhall brings my favorite city to life in the luminous and surreal paintings featured in Ross’ Penhall’s Vancouver.



You’ll Grow Out of It by Jessie Klein

51BvNtfqCnL._SX329_BO1,204,203,200_I hesitated to even take this book out of the library, thinking: Oh, it’ll be another one of those collections where there’s one good essay, one pretty good essay, and the rest is filler. But I took a chance and checked it out. (High stakes gambler at Seattle Public Library!). And guess what? I totally dig 90 percent of the essays in You’ll Grow Out of It. My favorites are “All the Cakes” and “The Cad.” Poignant AND laugh out loud funny!






*I teach a yearlong memoir manuscript class at Hugo House in Seattle. The next one begins in September. If you’re interested in that class, be sure to register during the Members Only registration period as that class fills fast. I have also taught a yearlong memoir certificate course through the UW’s Professional & Continuing Education department since 2006. Starting in the 2017/18 academic year, UW PCE will  just be offering one Certificate in Writing (rather than individual genre certificates), and I’ll be teaching four different classes for that certificate.

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How to Write a Memoir Book Proposal (That Stands a Chance)

This class was a live event in July 2017. To learn about my current courses, see my website.

Despite how tough it can be to break into big-house publishing, a lot of authors—even first-timers—do sell their memoirs as proposals. So how do they do it? What do these magical proposals look like? How do writers convince publishers to buy their memoirs before they’ve even been written?

In the How to Write a Memoir Book Proposal Webinar (July 9th 9am-11am Pacific), I will answer these questions from the perspective of an author who’s sold two memoirs on proposal (see instructor bio below) and walk you through the steps of creating a proposal’s major components. Guest speaker Anjali Singh will be sharing her insights into the business end of the process, speaking from her experience as both an editor who acquired memoir proposals as well as an agent who currently pitches proposals to Big Five publishers (see full bio below). Anjali will share with us the qualities of the memoir proposals that have made her say, “Yes!”

The How to Write a Memoir Book Proposal Webinar will cover the following:

  • The content and format of each of the elements of the proposal: Overview, Market Analysis, Sample Chapters, and Outline for Completion:
    • How to write an overview that both grabs attention and clearly describes the book
    • How to generate a credible market analysis
    • How to create an outline that gives a sense of the book’s voice and arc
  • Platform-building steps to take before sending out your proposal that will increase your chances of success
  • Writing an effective agent query letter
  • Avoiding common pitfalls of proposal writing

Webinar participants will receive:

  • A copy of a memoir proposal that sold to a big house publisher
  • Examples of actual query letters
  • A recording of the webinar
  • a Power Point slideshow with detailed instructions for writing a memoir book proposal and querying agents

Webinar format:

90 minutes of instruction and information plus 30 minutes Q &A, in which participants can ask questions of both Theo Nestor and Anjali Singh. Webinar begins 9am Pacific Time on Sunday July 9, 2017.

author photo 4How to Write a Memoir Book Proposal Webinar Instructor: Theo Pauline Nestor is the author of Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too) (Simon & Schuster, 2013) (sold as a proposal!) and How to Sleep Alone in a King-Size Bed: A Memoir of Starting Over (Crown, 2008) (sold as a proposal in an auction!), which was selected by Kirkus Reviews as a 2008 Top Pick for Reading Groups and as a Target “Breakout Book.” An award-winning instructor, Nestor has taught the memoir certificate course for the University of Washington’s Professional & Continuing Education program since 2006 and also teaches at Hugo House in Seattle. Nestor has produced a number of writing retreats, such as the Wild Mountain Memoir Retreat, Bird by Bird & Beyond, and the Black Mesa Writers’ Intensive, featuring talks by writers such as Anne Lamott, Cheryl Strayed, Julia Cameron, and Natalie Goldberg. You can follow her on Facebook here and on Twitter @theopnestor.

anjaliGuest speaker: Literary Agent Anjali Singh started her career in publishing in 1996 as a literary scout. Most recently Editorial Director at Other Press, she has also worked as an editor at Simon & Schuster, Houghton Mifflin Harcourt and Vintage Books. She is best known for having championed Marjane Satrapi’s Persepolis after stumbling across it on a visit to Paris. She has always been drawn to the thrill of discovering new writers, and among the literary novelists whose careers she helped launch are Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie, Samantha Hunt, and Saleem Haddad. Some of her editorial non-fiction projects include Baz Dreisinger’s Incarceration Nations, Diana Abu-Jaber’s The Language of Baklava, Kathy Rich’s Dreaming in Hindi, Minal Hajratwala’s Leaving India, Nuha al-Radi’s Baghdad Diaries, and Igort’s The Ukrainian and Russian Notebooks. She is currently a literary agent at Ayesha Pande Literary, where she recently sold the YA graphic novel, Jabs by Sherine Hamdy and Myra El-Mir, the coming-of-age story of a Muslim-American girl, to Dial Books for Young Readers. She is a member of the International Committee of the Brooklyn Book Festival.


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Last-day-of-School Advice for Writers

My two yearlong classes met for their final class meetings this week. We still have our class readings ahead (Many thanks to University Bookstore and Elliott Bay Book Company), but the classroom work is officially behind us. A number of class members have expressed concern about the loss of structure the classes provide. I remember feeling that same nervousness when I finished my MFA: Would I keep writing without the deadlines assignments provided? Or would I just be sucked into a vortex of life’s mundane demands?

Inspired by attending my older daughter’s commencement at Columbia College Chicago last week (Yay!), I offered my classes some parting tips to quell their anxiousness about continuing their writing practices without the group’s support. Maybe they’ll be of help to you as well.

1. Finish something.

finishYou don’t have to finish everything you write, but you need to take some of your writing all the way to the finish line–and you need to do this soon. Finishing means rewriting. Finishing means revising. Finishing means editing and proofreading. Finishing means sending your work out into the world.

Finishing is hard and scary, which is why we sometimes avoid it and prefer to have a lot of half-cooked documents simmering on our desktop. There’s a risk in finishing. When you call something finished, you’re saying this is the best I can do with this. When we finish and submit our work, we have to face the truth of our limitations. Our work may not always be as good as we wish, but we have to finish these good and mediocre and pretty good pieces, so we can go on to write the next one and the next one. And by writing the next one and the next one, we become better writers.

2. Install deadlines in your life.

deadlineIt’s hard to finish work when no one is waiting for it. Yes, there are a few people out there who can toil away without accountability, but we hate them and they’re not reading this post. Most of us need to work towards a deadline. In The Right to Write,  Julia Cameron writes: “Deadlines create a flow of adrenaline. Adrenaline medicates and overwhelms the censor.”

Take a step today to create deadlines in your life. Sign up for a class. Look for contests, grants, and residencies with upcoming deadlines. Join a writing group with due dates for writing exchanges.

3. Call yourself a writer. See yourself as a writer.

You don’t have to get paid to write to be a writer. You only need to write to be a writer. Call yourself as a writer, if only to yourself. Thinking of yourself as a writer will likely lead to more writing, to setting up your life so you have time to write, to investing in your life as a writer by taking classes and attending writing events.

nat writingAsk a friend to take a photo of you writing (not pretending to write, but actually writing). Keep this photo near your writing space as a reminder of who you are.

4. Follow your curiosity.

Let your interests lead you everywhere and anywhere. Curiosity is one of your most important traits, so don’t squash it. If you want to spend an afternoon diving deep into the arcane, do it. Don’t judge your interests just because they’re not scholarly.  If you’re called to do so, binge on the Beastie Boys, study up on how to achieve the perfectly lined eye, or read all about the life and times of your favorite pop star. Read with abandon and selfish lust. Curiosity fuels vision and voice.

5. Comfort yourself.

Most writers suffer bouts of anxious feelings about writing.  Frustration and exasperation are endemic to the writing life. So it makes sense to plan for how you’re going to comfort yourself during tremulous times. I’ve always had a cache of “comfort books” that I’ve returned to for solace: Writing Down the Bones by Natalie Goldberg, Bird by Bird by Anne Lamott, and The Right to Write by Julia Cameron to name a few. These books remind me to calm the eff down. To breathe. To chill the eff out. And to keep writing. In fact, these books have meant so much to me that I wrote a comfort book of my own: Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice and A Guide to How You Can Too).



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What I’m Digging Right Now #4

  •  Alison Bechdel

    alison-bechdel-photo-credit-elena-seibertRight now I’m preparing to teach a new course called “Writing the Self” at Seattle University where I’ll be a visiting writer next winter. We’ll be examining the autobiographical impulse in multiple literary genres, including graphic novels. I read  Fun Home several years ago and loved it, but I was curious about Bechdel’s earlier work, which led me to Dykes to Watch Out For. I thought I’d just skim a few pages of this hefty collection, but I ended up falling in love wit61TbO3pYgMLh the progressive community it brings to life as well as the individual characters— Sparrow, Ginger, Mo, Sydney, Clarice, Toni, Lois, and the rest of the gang. The collection follows their lives for more than two decades and ends up offering a heap of insights into the way women and their relationships evolve as they move deeply into middle age.

    The book’s commentary on the George W. Bush era will remind readers quite a bit of our current political landscape. In fact, Bechdel found herself returning to this strip in November 2016 after an 8-year hiatus, saying, “Since I stopped drawing Dykes to Watch Out For at the tail end of the Bush administration, people have asked me many times if I thought about my characters, and if so, what they were up to. And I would have to be honest. No, I didn’t think about them, and I had no idea what they were doing.But last week they all started flooding back.” DTWOF-strip-for-website-809x1024.jpg

    You can read more about the strip here.

    And speaking of autobiographical writing: Karen at Elliott Bay Book Company here in Seattle just recommended that I check also out Bechdel’s  memoir: The Indelible Alison Bechdel.

  • Fat Is a Feminist Issue.

    fat is a feminist issueThis book fell into my hands the moment I needed it the most. I was nineteen years old and I’d just gained thirty pounds. Thirty pounds that I didn’t understand, that confounded me. Thirty pounds that I believed betrayed me.

    I didn’t initially want to read the book because it had the words “fat” and “feminist” in the title. Even though I was both “fat” and “feminist,” I was also afraid of being those things. But within the first few pages of the book, my trepidation melted away and was supplanted by a deeply felt reassurance that my gained pounds had meaning. The hatred with which I viewed my body was not my own. I had been taught it, a lesson which continued every day I breathed air in a culture where the female physical ideal was something my body didn’t want to be.

Nowadays, I find that I relive the part of my life that corresponds with my daughters’ ages. Right now they are both college age and the feelings from those years–particularly feelings about my body have been flooding back. I’ve started reading about a new generation of women who are fighting back hard on the body image front, which inspired me to go back to Fat Is a Feminist Issue and reread it to see if its arguments still hold. They do. Hell, yes, they still hold. I can see now just how much ground this book broke.  As I’ve been rereading it, I’ve been wondering which passages must have jumped out at me at nineteen.

I’m guessing that I must’ve underlined this one: “What is crucial….is something often overlooked or misunderstood, both by compulsive eaters themselves and by those who try to help them. This is the idea that compulsive eating is linked to a desire to get fat.”

  • Essays.

    I’ve always loved the essay, but I’ve been particularly enraptured with the capabilities of this genre lately as I’ve been teaching some magnificent personal essays. Here are a few essays I am newly in love with (or falling in love with all over again): “What I Pledge Alegiance To” by Kiese Laymon, “Apocalypse Logic” by Elissa Washuta, “A Kingdom Like No Other” by Natalie Singer (Hawthorne Books will be releasing Singer’s memoir, California Calling, in March 2018), and “The Exploded Star,” the first chapter of Mandy Len Catron’s How to Fall in Love With Anyone.

  • Smoothies.

    Frozen strawberries, frozen mango, chunks of fresh pineapple, Fage Greek yogurt = Here comes summer!


  • Work logs.

    Like many self-employed, I’m plagued by two competing self-assessments; I’m either a lazy ordaily-work-log-template-2 a workaholic. I realized a few weeks ago that I had no sense of how much I actually work. I decided to keep track. Of course, once we start tracking something, it begins to change (Sometimes I’ll work a little longer so the log looks better), but the tracking has helped me to see that in reality I work a fairly average number of hours. I’m neither sloth nor die-hard. Just a regular person, it turns out.

Looking for a writing coach? Find out about my coaching here.

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What I’m Digging Right Now

  1. daveed hoodie.jpgDaveed Diggs. I don’t have a ton of regrets, but I do rue the fact that I missed the chance to see Hamilton  with its original cast. Last summer my daughters and I–along with millions of others–became obsessed with the Hamilton Original Broadway Cast Recording, and one of the voices I love the most in those songs is that of Daveed Diggs who plays Marquis de Lafayette and Thomas Jefferson–AKA  “The Fastest Rapper on Broadway.” (Check out “Guns and Ships”). But this week I got to see Diggs perform with his group Clipping. at The Crocodile here in Seattle, and I may never be the same.  Witness:

    (video courtesy of Mitch Gutierrez)    How is anyone this fast? This talented? I chewed on these questions for the entire hour Diggs held the sold-out crowd in his hands.

  2. Contently. Want to make an online writing portfolio in about 10 minutes flat? Check out Contently. It’s free. It’s visually appealing. But most importantly, it’s easy.


13th-netflix-documentary-trailer33. 13th. Netflix asked director Ava Duvernay to create some original content on any topic she liked. Her pick: Mass incarceration. And in 13th, her 100-minute documentary named after the 13th Amendment of The Constitution, she brings together isolated pieces of our terrible penal history–the advent of private prisons, sentencing inequities (see crack vs. cocaine), three strikes—into one coherent narrative that tells a haunting tale that begins before the Emancipation Proclamation and ends (for now) with Trump egging on his supporters to violently kick a black protester out of one of his rallies. Make sure you also check out the interview Oprah Winfrey did with Duvernay, which gives an interesting peek into Duvernay’s creative process, her interviewing strategies, and the jitters she felt interviewing Angela Davis.

4. Snowshoeing! I went snowshoeing last weekend for the first time. Why did I wait so long? It was so fun and so calming. And I lovesnowshoes a sport that is essentially free after the initial investment of the snowshoes. I borrowed a pair from my friend, but I’m definitely going to get a pair of my own.

5. The Props Person at Jane the Virgin. What a thrill it was this week to hear that Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too) had been spotted on the latest episode of Jane the Virgin. I had no idea my book was making a cameo on the show and probably never would’ve known if one of my students hadn’t emailed to tell me. Thank you!

jane the virgin.PNG

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What I’m Digging Right Now

1. paintingsStrathmore Watercolor Postcards.

It could be a little intimidating to break out the paints after a decade of dormancy and start in on a full-size canvas or even a regular sheet of paper. But these 4×6 postcards provide the perfect scaled down frame for the novice painter who  wants to squirt some vermillion and canary yellow onto a makeshift palette and just play for a few minutes.  Theoretically, you can pop these cards into the mailbox  sans envelope, but I live in Seattle and it hasn’t stopped raining since 1973 so I haven’t tested that out yet. strathmore

2. Documentaries about creative types

vogue-the-editors-eye-1024x1024My post-election self-care involves upping my exposure to love and creativity, the two things that give me hope in a world that’s testing the limits of our optimism daily. When I watch artists engaged in any creative activity, the feeling  that Life Is Worth Living rushes back into my limbs. Some of the documentaries I’ve devoured these last few weeks: Blondie’s New York, In Vogue: The Editor’s Eye, Hip Hop Evolution, Serena (she renders tennis an art form), and the PBS SoundBreaking series about the history of recorded music (fascinating!).

3. Where to Draw the Line: How to Set Healthy Boundaries Every Day

boundariesI’m sure it’s not a coincidence that my renewed interest in personal boundaries arrived in the dawn of an administration led by a man who views the most obvious of human boundaries as a speed bump rather than a road block. But whatever the reason, I found myself wanting a spruce up my personal boundaries and have found Ann Katherine’s Where to Draw the Line to be an incisive and insightful primer. Check it out and learn the difference between a “boundary error” and a “boundary violation.” Bracing!

4. The Serialized Story “Here Be Monsters” by “Karen.”

I want to give you the full name of this writer, but she seems to want to publish this serialized story, “Here Be Monsters,” under just the first name Karen. If I get permission to share her full name, I’ll be sure to come back and edit this post. I am LOVING this story, and it is so fun to receive it in short installments via email. If you follow this link, you’ll see a Subscribe button so you can sign up yourself or just click back through the archive and get up-to-date in one delicious binge.  Here’s an excerpt from one installment to give you a taste:

Tieu Ly’s in the city for a few weeks and she meets you one day after work.

The pair of you walk to the nearest Marks & Spencer so you can return your latest example of buyer’s remorse: a cream trench coat that had whispered ‘Olivia Pope’ whilst on its hanger, but had shouted ‘Lieutenant Columbo’ whenever you tried to wear it outside of your house.

“Am I doing it wrong?” you ask her.  “Is clothes shopping meant to feel like I’m committing a hate crime against myself?”

Tieu Ly just nods and looks out at the sweaty crowd milling around the bus stop across the road.  It’s another tube strike so tempers are fraying, one banker type guy banging a fist  in despair against the side of a packed bus as it rolls away.

“Boy,” she says with a shake of a head.  “This stiff upper lip we’re famed for sure does disappear in the face of mild inconvenience.  One little travel strike and people are out here acting like it’s a scramble for the last chopper out of Saigon.  Ari,” she continues, stopping to look at you, and touching your arm lightly so that you stop too.  “I’m going to tell you something, but you have to promise not to freak out.”

5. The Placards of Dissent






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What I’m Digging Right Now

  1. moonlightMoonlight and all the conversations surrounding this film. I’m touched by the autobiographical impulse behind Moonlight; the vulnerability of the writer and the director, Tarell Alvin McCraney and Barry Jenkins, and the complexity of the protagonist, Chiron; and the simple elegance of the film’s three-part structure. Listen to the Fresh Air interview here and read the New York Times profile of McCraney and Jenkins here.

  2. Rebecca Solnit’s Facebook posts on the incoming administration.

  3. Astropoets Twitter feed. Just funny and so spot on–could make a believer out of an astrology apostate. (Thanks, Claire Dederer, for turning me onto this distraction!)

  4. Elissa Washuta’s My Body Is A Book of Rules. Form as Content is alive and well and living in the pages of this brilliant book. We just read this book together in my UW Memobodyir class, and I so appreciate the dozen containers for discourse Washuta uses to embody the book’s central theme described by the author as “my failed attempts at mastery over my own body.” The thing I dig the most: Washuta’s use of Law & Order: SVU scripts. So clever, so poignant.

  5. My brand new New York Times Sunday paper subscription. There couldn’t be a better time to subscribe to the Times, and the arrival of the paper on my front step Sunday at dawn brings me an absurdly disproportionate experience of living the high life. (Jordan Peele embodies this feeling with inimitable panache here). The cost of the Sunday subscription includes full digital access (which you can share with two friends!).

  6. year-of-yes-9781476777122_hrShonda Rhimes’ Year of Yes. I’ve been rereading passages from this book routinely as if it carries the secret of life, or maybe just the secret of being disarmingly casual on the page.

  7. These questions from Audre Lorde:audre-lorde

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4 New Year’s Resolutions for Memoirists

Want to finish  your memoir this year? Here are four resolutions to help you create an enduring memoir that transforms your individual experience into a universal one that speaks to a wide readership.

1. This year I will make myself vulnerable on the page.

What’s the one quality that keeps me reading a memoir? The narrator’s willingness to make himself vulnerable. Most often in memoir the narrator’s vulnerability originates from sharing stuff most of us want to hide — our fears, our mistakes, our smallness, our regrets. Yet, big confession doesn’t always translate to instant vulnerability. We don’t really need more tales of simple carnality and depravity. It isn’t necessary to have broken nine of the Ten Commandments to earn the reader’s attention. I think most readers of memoir are compelled by the nuances of intimacy over the lap dance; we’d rather read a slow rendering of envy or avarice than yet another bald confession of adultery. We’re looking for insight, for subtlety, but mostly we desire the writer’s complicity in the problem. Before writing, ask yourself, “What was my part?” and then dare yourself to show that part.

2. This year I will share wisdom in my writing.

In Writing the Memoir, Judith Barrington describes “musing” as the memoirist’s skill of making an insightful observation about a specific situation or a more general human condition. In fiction writing classes, writers are admonished to “show not tell,” but in memoir, it’s perfectly okay — and in my opinion, advisable — to show and tell. And musing is the tell. Musing is the place in the story where you get to share your wisdom about grief or alienation or the price of success. For most of us, doling out wisdom can feel scary and unnatural. Writing about the nature of betrayal or love, we can be met with a rush of “Who am I to say?” But it is this type of wisdom — and the underlying boldness that generates this expression of wisdom — that readers of memoir hunger for. We want the author to own her authority (yes, the roots of the words are the same). We long for it. Dare to offer not just your story but the wisdom you’ve gained from it.

Here are a couple of examples of musing that demonstrate the type of conviction I believe readers of memoir crave:

From Terry Tempest Williams’ Refuge:

I could not separate the Bird Refuge from my family. Devastation respects no boundaries. The landscape of my childhood and the landscape of my family, the two things I had always regarded as bedrock, were now subject to change. Quicksand.

From Anne Lamott’s Traveling Mercies:

[Grace] is unearned love — the love that goes before — that greets us on the way. It’s the help you receive when you have no bright ideas left, when you are empty and desperate and have discovered that your best thinking and most charming charm have failed you. Grace is the light or electricity or juice or breeze that takes you from that isolated place and puts you with others who are as startled and embarrassed and eventually grateful as you are to be there.

3. This year I will not shun drama.

In real life, none of us want to be known as a drama queen, but in memoir, you need to embrace the drama of your own story and not be shy about playing it up here and there, especially in the opening and closing lines of chapters. While we might feel self-indulgent underscoring the drama of our own narratives, I think that it actually takes courage and humility to own the dramatic in your story. Why courage? Because being dramatic means fighting the conditioning that tells many of us to stay small, to not make a big deal of things, to not make ourselves “the center of the universe.” But in our memoirs, we are the center of the universe. As writers of memoir, being the center of the universe is our job.

I find tremendous courage in the way Cheryl Strayed uses dramatic repetition and foreshadowing at the end of sections and chapters in Wild. I think it is brave to write the words “I would suffer,” as she does in the book’s first chapter. This seems like a wildly courageous and fierce way to end a first chapter:

It took me years to take my place among the ten thousand things again. To be the woman my mother raised. To remember how she said honey and picture her particular gaze. I would suffer. I would suffer. I would want things to be different than they were. The wanting was a wilderness and I had to find my own way out of the woods. It took me four years, seven months, and three days to do it. I didn’t know where I was going until I got there.

It was a place called the Bridge of the Gods.

4. This year I will seek to illuminate the universal aspects of my story.

I’ve written elsewhere about how important it is not to believe that our own stories are inherently interesting just because the events are sensational. My favorite quote about this comes from V.S. Pritchett: “It’s all in the art. You get no credit for the living.”

As Claire Dederer, author of Poser: My Life in 23 Yoga Poses, has said, “In memoir, the transformation of the self is the story.” It’s not enough to tell an exciting story; you need to tease out the story of transformation within your narrative. And the story of transformation is, in essence, the hero’s journey that Joseph Campbell wrote about in The Hero with A Thousand Faces, the cross cultural, universal story of a hero who is called to leave the ordinary world to journey into a special one. The hero — in a memoir, that’s you — heeds the call and makes his way through the special world over obstacles and through tests until, at last, he returns to the ordinary world. But he is no longer the same person who left pages ago for the special world; he is transformed.

And this universal story of transformation — even if it is transformation so externally imperceptible that no one but you might know it exists–this is the story of the most powerful memoirs. Read Strayed’s Wild with one eye to the hero’s journey and you’ll see what I mean. A woman is called into a special world; when she returns to the ordinary world, she is transformed. It’s the story of transformation your readers long for. Find it within yourself and give it to your readers.

You can read more on my thoughts on writing memoir in Writing Is My Drink: A Writer’s Story of Finding Her Voice (And a Guide to How You Can Too)


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Two Good Reasons to Read Twyla Tharp’s The Creative Habit

Image result for the creative habit pdfI first learned of Twyla Tharp’s book The Creative Habit from Claire Dederer, author of Poser: My Life in Twenty-Three Yoga Poses, when she quoted Tharp during a guest lecture for my memoir class. The quote? “You don’t really have a workable idea until you combine two ideas.” This line quickly became one of my beacon quotes* as it’s very much keeping with how I think. I enjoy exploring overlap. I’ve never met a Venn Diagram I didn’t like.

During bleak times (the U.S. Electoral College voted this week–argh), I return to the books that have brought me solace, and this week I picked up Tharp’s The Creative Habit once again. I just put it down long enough to tell you all about it because, dang, this book is helping me. In The Creative Habit, Tharp breaks down the creative process and offers insightful and unexpected approaches to the expected challenges. The book is a gold mine, but todayI just want to talk about two of the elements of the book I’m loving the most:

Reason #1: The Creative Autobiography

In this section, Tharp asks numerous searching questions about one’s creative history and then provides her own (really fascinating) answers. If you’d like to read Twyla Tharp’s  answers to the questions, you can see them here. I’m sharing her questions below, and I urge you to set aside 45 to 60 minutes to write out your answers. Normally, I love to skip exercises no matter how helpful the book, but I did the creative autobiography activity, and it was time well spent. The answers I produced reminded me of what matters to me as a writer and how to wring more work out of myself (spoiler alert: deadlines!).

Tharp’s questions:

  1. What is the first creative moment you remember? Was anyone there to witness or appreciate it?
  2. What is the best idea you’ve ever had? What made it great in your mind?
  3. What is the dumbest idea?
  4. What made it stupid? Can you connect the dots that led you to this idea?
  5. What is your creative ambition?
  6. What are the obstacles to this ambition?
  7. What are the vital steps to achieving this ambition?
  8. How do you begin your day?
  9. What are your habits? What patterns do you repeat?
  10. Describe your first successful creative act.
  11. Compare them.
  12. What are your attitudes toward:
    Money? Power?Praise?Rivals?Work?Play?
  13.   Which artists do you admire most?
  14. Why are they your role models?
  15. What do you and your role models have in common?
  16. Does anyone in your life regularly inspire you?
  17. Who is your muse?
  18. Define muse.
  19. When confronted with superior intelligence or talent, how do you respond?
  20. When faced with stupidity, hostility, intransigence, laziness, or indifference in others, how do you respond?
  21.   When faced with impending success or threat of failure, how do you respond?
    When you work, do you love the process or the result?
  22. At what moments do you feel your reach exceeds your grasp?
  23. What is your ideal creative activity?
  24. What is your greatest fear? What is the likelihood of either of the answers to the previous two questions happening?
  25. Which of your answers would you most like to change? What is your idea of mastery?
  26. What is your greatest dream?

Reason #2: The Chapter Called “Scratching”

One of the creative topics few teachers ever address is how we go from zero to sixty, from having no idea whatsoever to a tender shoot to a full-blown something. The truth is most of us aren’t sure how we go from nothing to something—even if we’ve done it a few times. In this chapter “Scratching,” Tharp starts by describing the feeling of nothing and then gives concrete ideas for how to scratch at the dirt and get something going. Most of us will relate vividly to the opening paragraph of the chapter that acutely renders the wasteland of pre-idea:

“The first steps of a creative act are like groping in the dark: random and chaotic, feverish and fearful, a lot of busy-ness with no apparent or definable end in sight. There is nothing yet to research. For me, these moments are not pretty. I look like a desperate woman, tortured by the simple message thumping away in my head: ‘You need an idea.’”

I’m sure this sounds familiar to you. But what comes next? “Scratching,” a territory familiar to Tharp as years of as a creative professional. During this period of scratching for an idea she takes walks, searches through books, looks to the work of heroes and mentors, scans everyday conversations, and noodles around.In the “Scratching” chapter, she uses her experience as a choreographer to build an argument about how ideas coming into being. Her three central points:

  1. Big ideas for big projects are rare.
  2. The way into big ideas for big projects is often through small ideas.
  3. We often discover these small ideas through improvising.

   “Remember this when you’re struggling for a big idea. You’re much better off scratching for a small one…

When you’re in scratching mode, the tiniest microcell of an idea will get you going. Musicians know this because compositions rarely come to them whole and complete. They call their morsels of inspiration lines or riffs or hooks or licks…

It’s the same for me. A dance doesn’t hit me whole and complete. Inspiration comes in molecules of movement, sometimes in nanoseconds. A quick combination of three steps is an idea. A turn of the foot coupled with an arm gesture is an idea. A new way of collapsing to the floor is an idea. …”

To get these “small ideas,” Tharp improvises. “To generate ideas, I had to move,” she writes. She then describes her process trying out various steps in the studio before a mirror with no expectations about the outcome of these improvisational sessions.

But how do we let go of outcomes and expectations when we are working on long writing projects, I asked myself? What would equivalent activities be for a writer stuck midway through a book? (Asking for a friend!)

One activity**I recently did with a class encourages just this type of on-topic improvising:

  1. Write for at least 10 minutes on whatever you’ve been thinking about lately, especially worries/burdens/obsessions. What’s been keeping you up at night?
  2. Create a Venn diagram. In one circle, give a title to your current concerns and in the other, write the general topic of your current project.
  3. Now ask yourself: What’s in the overlap? How are these two connected? Is there a word that describes this connection? (You might need to dig a bit for the answer).
  4. Write that connecting word or a phrase that describes that connection at the top of a new page.
  5. Write for 15 minutes inspired by that connective word/phrase.

I’ve found this activity to be productive, but it’s also simply a low-stakes way to improvise with your bigger idea. If nothing useful comes of it, some vital warming up has occurred. You’ve spent some active time “scratching” and the practice of scratching inevitably leads to those small ideas.

* Vivian Gornick’s The Situation and the Story is the source of another of my “beacon quotes”: “Every work of literature has both a situation and a story. The situation is the context or circumstance, sometimes the plot. The story is the emotional experience that preoccupies the writer: the insight, the wisdom, the thing one has come to say.” **This activity was inspired by Seattle author Suzanne Morrison’s talk called “Asking the Right Questions.” If you happen to be in Seattle, she’s teaching this class in February at Hugo House. See details here.

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The Question that Haunts: How to BE now?

It was a single candle that broke me open this morning.

I stood outside the French doors of my new writing buddy’s house and peeked into her living room at my spot where I write while she works at the dining room table. And there I spotted a single candle glowing. She’d lit a candle for me, a gesture that opened my thoughts to a large open field I’ve been hoeing this post-election week.

In this field grows a question: How do we BE now?

How do we be with ourselves? And how do we get together with each other and refrain from either howling with fear or simply dismissing the peril with empty aphorisms?

A week ago my new writing buddy and I wrote at my house. It was an age of innocence. We talked about the photos of pantsuited revelers we’d seen posted as we lunched on curried chicken salad. We worked on our books that would perhaps be published and read during a historic presidency, a presidency that promised to represent people like us (women) and protect our right to autonomy over our own bodies. Even if we hadn’t fully imagined the future the polls promised, it radiated a bit in the upcoming calendar pages. January was just around the corner.

But that future never came and instead we awoke into a world where the meanest kid on the playground becomes the hall monitor from hell. Since then those of us who’d imagined an imperfect but reasonably sane future struggle to catch up and to absorb, alternating between fight and flight, strategy and despair. Many have already articulated the enormity of this challenge, including John Oliver who does so with such vigor and needed humor here.

Crucial conversation, protests, and campaigns lie ahead, to be sure. But today and tomorrow:  how do we just be? How can we be there for one another and continue to do the work that compels us? One tweet I scrolled by seemed to capture the essence of this worry: My boyfriend says he doesn’t know how he can deal with four years of me not being able to deal.

I felt for her and for him. I felt for myself, for my family, and my friends. I felt for all the people I know and those I don’t who never wanted this outcome. We are all just so scared! So reasonably and rightfully afraid. And yet, we cannot collapse into fear. We cannot let fear take more from us than has already been taken.

Last Wednesday–the night after the election–I had to teach my usual Wednesday night class at Hugo House here in Seattle. I didn’t want to. I didn’t want to talk, to open my mouth and articulate ideas. In short, I did not want to give. It is my job to give, but I felt I had nothing.

I asked myself, How do I teach when I have nothing?

You pretend that you have something, I told myself.

Of course, I’ve done that type of pretending many times before—as we all have when a personal struggle has us in its grip and yet we still must show up for work. But this felt different because I knew my students were struggling too, that we were all in this together. Yes, that’s right, I remembered: We are in this together.

I stumbled into the classroom, feeling pale and awkward. “I know a lot of us feel badly today, but this work is our hope and it’s our freedom. Creativity can be offer us nothing else can right now,” I said and after I spoke those words, I realized I meant them. Creativity is the safest space I know. When I was younger, I was plagued by my external locus of control. I believed I could only be happy if someone made me happy. But writing has given me something no one else can: A place to lose myself.

Then, I led them through a writing exercise and they got to work. The little gesture—the candle I could light for them—was keeping their writing time free of distractions. That small gesture is also known as MY JOB, the thing I get paid to do.

Doing my job: An item to add to my list teaching me How To Be Now.

  1. Remember: We are in this together.
  2. Do my job.
  3. Light a candle.

On Saturday morning, I woke up and I knew I had to pull away from Facebook. In the empty hours since the election, I’d been reading status updates incessantly, scrolling and scrolling, looking for I knew not what. Solidarity, yes, and I found that. But I wanted something from Facebook it could not give me. I wanted Facebook to make me feel okay and reassured and connected.

I wanted it to teach me how to be now. Yet, it couldn’t.

In fact, it was making me feel less connected and more afraid. I resolved to log off, spend real time with family and friends, and connect with acquaintances through other channels. I bought a real newspaper, made lunch, hung out with my daughter and her boyfriend, laughing at silly memes.

  1. Avoid the places that fuel my fear and feelings of isolation.
  2. Show up in real life.
  3. Lose yourself in the writing.

That afternoon a naturalist from Discovery Park called: Did I still plan on participating in this afternoon’s Owl Prowl?

I’d signed up for a guided walk called Owl Prowl months ago when the meanest kid was NEVER ACTUALLY GOING TO BECOME THE HALL MONITOR FROM HELL. Why would I still want to walk in the dark (or near dark) with strangers looking for owls now?

“Yes, I’ll be there,” I said, even though I wanted to stay home.

       7. Walk in the dark (or near dark) with strangers looking for owls.

When the father of two standing at the back of the group called out, “There’s an owl right now,” I swung around in disbelief. We’d only been standing in this grove of cedars and maples for a few minutes! What were the chances of spotting an owl so soon? We  clustered around him. He started to point, but a naturalist asked him to simply describe the position of the owl and asked others to resist from shining their flashlights at the owl. Even the owl was granted respect and autonomy in this world of twenty who’d agreed to clamber together through this park on this November afternoon that was fast dissolving into evening.

“Okay,” he said, “Look straight ahead of me at the tall tree bending in wind. Halfway up on a clean short branch, he’s there clinging near the trunk.”

We all stared into the dusk. The grey of sky and the black of branches were barely distinguishable. I’ll never see this owl, I thought. Never.

But then I did.


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