Geekdom

On “Content,” and Writer as Artisan: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer._

This is Part 4 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1, 2, and 3, on networking, “Good luck,” and MFAs, respectively, are here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“The more business-oriented and consumer-facing the publisher, the more likely you’ll hear the word ‘content’ used instead of ‘writing.’…’Content’ can be reshaped, reconfigured, and reimagined for many different people, places, and purposes.
“This, too, can upset writers, who may have a more artisanal outlook on publishing.” (The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 62.)

A long, long time ago, I told someone that I loved writing marketing and corporate copy. He hitched a short laugh, and then double-took. (Is that a thing? Can you past-tense double-take? Anyway.) “Wait,” he said, “are you serious?”

We were having drinks, and I wasn’t sure if he was joking, so I laughed, too, and then I was like…wait a minute. “Yeah,” I said, finally. “I really do.” My friend went on to say that he was surprised, since I’m “literary.”

So then I had to explain to him why I think marketing writing and corporate copy is so great: When it comes to working for small businesses, it’s about helping someone to get their message across, helping to crystallize someone’s brand. When it’s working for large companies, it can be about fighting a tiny battle to keep sloppy, imprecise language from conveying whatever makes a product or a company unique. So yes, I love copy. I love content. I love anything that helps a thing to convey itself.

This idea that content and copy is somehow less than writing of a literary sort–oh, excuse, me, littttrrrraaaaaary–really rankles. And, as Friedman notes in her pages, it’s not unusual to hear someone lamenting marketing work as hack work, or “just to pay the bills.” But there’s something really off about that, and I don’t just mean for its abject snobbery. What I mean is this: Working on content takes just as much skill as working on a novel or a short story or a poem.

(For an idea of what I mean, here’s a post I wrote awhile ago about coming up with a new tagline for the back of my business card, and my editing business.)

Think about the way we talk about writing: We talk about it in terms of  craft. We sometimes refer to it as wordsmithing. We talk about it as something requiring skill, and training. If writing copy, if crafting a message for a brand, isn’t inherently artisanal, I don’t know what is.

Marketing and advertising copy, or content, is also accessible to everyone. It’s made to be. There’s something really beautiful about that concept, that anyone can “get” what you’re trying to say. And it also takes skill. (Have a look at William Zinsser’s wonderful chapter on business writing, in his book On Writing Well, for a refresher.)


If some work is artisanal, is the other work junk?

I won’t get into that whole attractive notion of pay for work (content and marketing copy pays a hell of a lot better than short stories, I can tell you that right now), since that’s a no-brainer. And I utterly refuse to get into an argument about whether or not writing you get paid for is better or worse than writing you toil over, only to get paid nothing or a stipend for. Those are…I mean, it’s not even apples and oranges. It’s apples, and, like, battleships, or something.

(This reminds me of the day I complained to my cousin Otto, who is way smarter than I am, that movies made from books were way worse than the books. Otto blinked, all speed-processing behind a casual slow-lizard exterior, and then said, “Well. They’re two different things. You can’t compare them.” There followed a short silence during which I ate my hat.)

In the end, I think my view is this: Copywriting and content writing is a thing which requires a great amount of skill. Writing short stories and novels and poetry and essays is a thing which also requires a great amount of skill. Some of these skills are shared. Some of them are unique to the job. But more importantly, neither of these is more or less artisanal than the other. They are both equally hard. One of them pays with more regularity than the other. That’s the only thing that should be up for conversation. The rest is just a conversation about whether, in fact, you have the right skillset to do one or the other.

Some tips:

  • Try your hand at all kinds of writing. Don’t be fooled into thinking one is better than the other.
  • Be aware that each kind of writing takes different skill sets. Yes, even the social media stuff.
  • You’re producing all kinds of content, all day, from the comment you posted on a friend’s image to your Instagram caption. Look at those as room to practice. 

What’s your take on content and marketing writing, as opposed to literature? Tell me in the comments below. 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On MFA Programs: Live-Blogging Jane Friedman’s _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 3 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1 and 2, on networking and the concept of “Good luck,” respectively, are here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

…”Third, it can be worthwhile to enroll in an MFA program based solely on its faculty and networking opportunities…Don’t take it on faith that you’ll love any program or faculty sight unseen–get as much exposure as possible beforehand.” (The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 37)

Up until the moment I got accepted, selecting MFA programs had been easy. I wanted a low-residency program, so I could continue on with my day job and stay near my husband, and I wanted something that felt new. I didn’t much feel like taking graduate school exams, but I wanted something that would allow me to teach at the college level if that’s what I wanted. I wanted a faculty that comprised working writers, and an alumni pool that was also working as writers. I knew, too, what I wanted out of an MFA, so that made things even easier.

It came down to two low-res programs. One was much more established, and I knew people who had graduated from it. The other was new. Scrappy. So scrappy that it had sprung from a writer’s organization, and wasn’t affiliated with a college or university. Its facility boasted a live otter cam, and it was based out of a place I’d never really visited. The facility it hosted its classes out of boasted a live otter cam.

(not that kind of ottercam, you guys.)

They each had things to recommend them. Program B’s faculty looked as if they were all steadily working writers, and they said they only ever wanted to produce working writers. Program A, the more established one, had some faculty I had heard of, and they were renowned for their work in the young adult genre, a field I was pretty sure I wanted to work in. But in the end, it came down to the student body. Program A had both graduates I knew and had heard of. Program B had neither of these things.

But program B offered to put me in touch with their students. Program A took a few days to get back to me. I was very clear about who I wanted to talk to: I wanted to talk to working writers who were in the fiction genre. Writers who were working on long fiction, preferably. Within a few minutes of my sending a query to the program director, the e-mails from students and alumni of program B started rolling in. Four…five…six…seven and more students all had things to say, and all were willing to talk to me. All were working in fiction; all were able to address my specific questions and concerns, and if they didn’t know the answer, they pointed me to another student.

By contrast, program A sent me to a playwright, a guy who was in jail, and a graduate who said she wasn’t quite sure why Program A still had her on the list of people to talk to about their experience at Program A, since she was still doing the exact same thing she was doing before her degree and didn’t see a future in writing. I did not get to talk to the guy in jail, but the playwright was interesting, and completely not useful.

Friedman’s right: you should get to know the faculty. And I’ll never know what it’s like to have gone to that other institution. But, as I’ve previously mentioned, I leaned and still lean so heavily on my co-hort from my MFA and the huge number of guest faculty that I met while I was in school there. I think a good set of peers is at least as important, for many reasons, and maybe even more important, for another set of reasons.

I also want to point out the following, which has been thrown into sharp light now that I’m running a writer’s retreat of my own: the best faculty members are not necessarily those who are the biggest and brightest stars of literature. In fact, we had a few guest faculty lecturers at program B who were bigger names and who were, frankly, terrible instructors. Finding people who are talented, giving, generous educators and great writers isn’t always the obvious equation you think it’ll be.

Nope, for me, I’m happy I chose my MFA program based on the students who were there and who had graduated from the program.

Some takeaways:

  • Always ask to speak to students at whatever MFA program you’re considering.
  • Be intentional about why you want to get an MFA.
  • Be open: Although I wasn’t interested in making friends when I enrolled in my MFA, it happened despite me, and now those friends are colleagues, and I couldn’t be happier.
  • Don’t be afraid to ask for exactly what you want. It’ll save time on both ends.
  • Have a look at the faculty member’s teaching resumes, or look for information about their teaching backgrounds otherwise.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On “Good Luck”: Live-Blogging Jane Friedman’s _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 2 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Part 1, on networking, is here.

Writer and editor Jane Friedman believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

“Finally, it’s useful to remember the famous line from Seneca: “Luck is what happens when preparation meets opportunity.” Writers tend to get increasingly lucky the more work they produce (preparation) and the more work they submit (opportunity).” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 23)

Have you ever noticed how often people sign off with the phrase, “Good luck!”? It’s meant to impart support, well wishes. It sounds nice. It rolls off the tongue easily, so tightly woven is it into our vernacular. We say it a lot, for lots of reasons: When people are about to start a race, say. When they’re about to go into interviews. When they’re going in for major surgery.

The thing is, only the last of these things can really even be remotely said to involve any element of luck. (The doctor could find something else while he’s rooting around in your leg, say.) But for the most part, when we say “Good luck,” we’re usually referring to stuff that can be prepared for, stuff that the subject of “good luck” has worked a really long time towards. Take the marathon, for instance. A runner doesn’t need good luck to cross the finish line; a runner who has signed up for a marathon has probably spent the past few months of his or her life working up to the marathon, building mileage. And the person who’s going into an interview doesn’t need luck to ace it; that person needs to have laid the groundwork to get to the interview in the first place, thereby securing the opportunity to interview; then he or she needs to have prepared for the interview.

Any other situation (going into a marathon badly trained, say, or not researching the potential job ahead of time) will warrant a “Good luck” of a different variety, the one whereby you roll your eyes and adopt sarcastic font and go, “Um, yeah. Good luck with that.”

So I decided awhile ago to stop wishing people good luck. I don’t do it anymore because I want to give people credit for the work they’ve inevitably done in getting to the start line, the interview room, the point where their novel is waiting to be submitted or is deep in progress. (Seriously, the last time someone wished me “good luck” on my novel I almost busted a gasket. I wanted to tell them it has nothing to do with luck; that it’s hard work and my own procrastination; that they could take their luck and shove it right … oh, sorry.)

Right around the time I stopped wishing people good luck, I started to notice my own response to when people would compliment me on the coolness of my job as a writer or editor. “How awesome is that?” they’d say, and I’d return, inevitably and with great enthusiasm, “Mmmhmmm! It is! I got lucky.”

But an older friend was not fooled, nor was she taken by what I now realize was a repeated lame attempt at modesty. “Nope. Nope. Not luck. Work. Dedication,” she said.

Well…yeah. And passion, maybe. A little bit of recklessness. But she was right: Not luck.

Since I’ve stopped looking at events in my life as lucky, and stopped wishing people good luck, I’ve been able to appreciate more deeply the work that goes into the various elements of our lives. I’m so grateful for this tiny shift of perspective. It changes things, when you realize how much “luck” you’ve been sowing your own life with, just by dint of good preparation and creating opportunities for yourself. I think it behooves us to recognize the same preparation in others.

You don’t have to stop wishing people good luck. But I do have a few parting thoughts for you:

  • Assess the good things currently in your life: What work went into making them happen? Jot these down somewhere.
  • When you want to wish someone “Good luck,” ask yourself what you’re really hoping will happen for them that day.
  • Consider the people in your life who have helped you to get where you are. You might consider yourself lucky to have them in your life, but I’m betting it wasn’t luck that brought you together.

Now, instead of wishing people “good luck,” I wish them all the very best. What phrases do you use besides “good luck”? Tell me in the comments below.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Networking: Live-Blogging Jane Friedman’s _The Business of Being a Writer_

I’m a huge fan of making a living off of doing what I love. If this sounds obvious, or cliché, consider that so many writers don’t believe they can earn enough to have a career in writing: It’s a “hobby,” or a “passion” rather than a job. This makes me crazy.

I’m not the only one: writer and editor Jane Friedman also believes writing can be a career, and her latest book, The Business of Being a Writer, lays out just what components go into writing as a business. It should resonate with everyone out there who writes or would like to write for a living. It’s my hope that teachers of writing, especially at the MFA level, will also take up this refrain. 

I’m working through Friedman’s book right now, and I am finding places where my own experience either bolsters or informs Friedman’s neat summation and gentle advice. For the duration of my time through this first read of The Business of Being a Writer, I will be posting these experiences for you. I invite you to share widely, and add your own experiences to the comments. Each post will begin with a quote from Friedman’s book, and end with some actionable tips that you can put to work in your own writing career.

…”When you see a successful writer and try to trace their path to success, keep in mind that what you see are only the visible aspects of what they have done. Behind the scenes are mentors, other relationships, and communities that contributed to their success.” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 17)

I went to a college that worked really hard to help you to understand the value of networking, but I don’t think, when I graduated, that I understood exactly what that meant.

In the summer of 1996, this was underscored to great effect when I got accepted to the prestigious Radcliffe Publishing Course, now moved to Columbia University. At Radcliffe, it was easy to be dazzled: Morgan Entrekin. Steve Florio. The editor who had acquired Ethan Hawke’s first foray into fiction–these were just a few people who came to speak to us about their work. Mornings and afternoons were lectures and exercises. And every afternoon, there was sherry hour, where the guest faculty would be on hand to talk in a casual setting to us about–well, I don’t know what. I never actually spoke with any of them outside of class. But I do know that when I graduated from RPC, after six weeks of classes and getting lost on the Harvard campus, I was pretty sure that I would land a job, no problem. I had three job offers, one of which came from someone who was an RPC graduate herself, and took that one.

Later, when I was looking for another job, I turned to RPC. And nothing came of it. Years later, when I was launching my book, I turned to RPC again. And nothing came of that, either.

Wanna know why? Because I didn’t invest in any of those relationships. I learned a lot about publishing, some of which I still use today, and I met a lot of really great people, and I utterly failed to leverage any relationships with people who were in decision-making positions.

I really only made a few close friends while I was at Radcliffe. One of those girls became my first New York roommate; the other was a pretty steady friend throughout my life in New York.

Later, when I had a bona fide freelance career of my own and a lot more experience with, uh, basic people skills, I applied to be a member of a critique group. One of them I stuck with for a couple of months, the other I was part of for a whole few years, I think. And then at some point I decided to go for my master of fine arts, because, despite my relative success with marketing copy and personal essays and short stories, the big Kahuna of my writing career was still escaping me: I had drafted several novels, had them critiqued, sent them to agents, with no success: I had a plot problem. An MFA would fix it.

At the MFA, I made a lot of friends. I met a ton of guest faculty members, and I worked really hard to keep in touch with the ones whose work really resonated with me. I revised my novel (the third of three manuscripts I had knocking around in my drawer) during the MFA, drew up synopses and query letters, and finally sold the damn thing a year and a half after graduation. (I fixed my plot problem.)

But I did not do this in a vacuum, like I went through the Radcliffe course. (I have just remembered I had a boyfriend that summer, too, which is…like, dumb. I was not on campus a lot. I missed out on a lot!) Because our MFA had residencies, we were all basically breathing each other’s work and stories and stuff for ten days, twice a year. So when I went to revise the book, I leaned on members of my co-hort. When I agonized over plot issues, I turned to my co-hort. When I could not see the way out of a synopsis, I turned to my co-hort.

When I pitched the thing, I leaned on faculty members I had met, both to introduce me to their agents and to take a first look at the thing as agents. And I also kept in touch with faculty members I just liked, as people, even if their work wasn’t remotely related to the work I was pitching.

Fast forward, okay? The book sold, everyone who had had a hand in it championed it, it went into its fourth printing four months after its release date. Some college professors (one of whom I met via my MFA) taught it in classes.

At my first bookstore event, at Women and Children First, in Chicago, lots of people showed up, including some members of that long-ago critique group. And some new friends I’d met recently on the Internet. And the girl who used to live upstairs from us, ten long years before my book ever was a possibility.

While I was in Chicago, I also did a library event. It had been set up by a woman I met at my brother’s wedding. And later that month, I did a few more events in Michigan, which had been set up by a woman I met on Twitter, when we were both working on marketing projects that involved running.

I also want to point out, briefly, that I got into literary magazine editing because of an alumna of my MFA program. And I run a writer’s retreat with some members of my MFA co-hort. And that members of the disaster-relief agency I volunteer for support my writing and my on-the-side watercolor work. And that I’m part of a really supportive online group of marketing and copy experts who help each other through everything, including harrowing book launches and the day my dog was diagnosed with an auto-immune disease and then cancer. That group not only supports my creative work, they also hire me.

I’m only a part of that group because one of the women in it read an essay of mine that she liked, and reached out.

Someone I published a few years ago at Tahoma Literary Review invited me to be on a panel last year, and on this panel with me was a woman who now runs a writing center. Our literary magazine will now partake in the writing conference the center sponsors. And earlier this year, when I was doing some research on a topic I was fairly new to, I reached out to a writer I had published and spoken to extensively in the editing process. And a guy I met at a conference four years ago had me on a panel two years ago with a woman I just had teach at the writer’s retreat I mentioned earlier.

I think I have finally learned what it means to network. What it really means is contributing to a community (Friedman addresses the concept of “literary citizenship” on pages 19-21).

Listen. You never know where you’ll find the supporters of your success. I like to think of them as my people, because it’s not just that they’re supporting me, is it? We all support each other’s work, eventually. So keep your eyes open, sure, but also be cognizant that not everyone you meet will be a connection, or should be leveraged. It all works best when it happens naturally.

Lessons learned, and tips:

  • Meeting someone really high up is great, but you might get more mileage out of someone you meet who’s at your same “level.” If you’re working on a novel, you’ll have more to talk about with someone who’s also working on a novel, for instance. There’s also more give-and-take in this relationship; you are more likely to be able to return the favor to someone who’s working at your level. (Steve Florio was never going to read my short fiction and pass it on to The New Yorker‘s Fiction Editor, amirite?)
  • Get to know the people who are “outside your genre.” This is in quotes, because I think maybe some folks think that only writers want to hear about writing. Or that you should only be spending time with editors and writers and agents, if you’re going to take your craft seriously. Well, that might be true for some, but it wasn’t for me. People who want to hear from you are out there, and the ripple effect is powerful. Our world is highly connected now, so don’t think you should just be talking to people who are “literary.”
  • Don’t be afraid to reach out for a deeper relationship. Some of my closest acquaintances—and friends–are people I met via Twitter first, and then in real life. (My mother still cannot get over this.) It is a remarkable time to be a writer—and a person in general. My life is richer for the people I have met via the Internet.
  • Confidence in your own work and status can help in networking. When I went to Radcliffe, I think I probably wasn’t as confident as I would have liked to be. When you’re presented with a golden networking opportunity like the six weeks of that course, you want to be ready to take advantage of it, feel like you have something to contribute to the conversation. But don’t worry—opportunities do present themselves when you’re ready to take them on.

Next time around we’ll tackle something little lighter: how much “luck” plays into publishing.

Who do you see as being supporters of your success? Tell me in the comments below.

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

My reading roundup: 2017

For the better part of the last two years I’ve been trying to do better at reading diversely. I already knew I wanted to read more books by women, but I’ve been espousing this idea of reading diversely using the U.S. Census as a convenient backbone.

The most recently available figures in terms of ethnic/racial breakdwon are:

  • 5.8% Asian
  • 13.3% Black
  • 17.8% Latinx/Hispanic (The U.S. Census notes that “Hispanics may be of any race” so are also counted in those applicable categories.)
  • 1.3% Native American

I read 60 books in 2017, and here’s where I ended up:

  • Books by Asian writers: 13%
  • Books by Black writers: 10%
  • Books by Latinx/Hispanic writers: 1.6%
  • Books by Native American writers: 0%

Well. That’s not so good. On the one hand, I’m glad I managed to read widely in my own ethnic makeup, but I definitely missed the mark in terms of reading works by Hispanic writers or works by Native American writers. If I’m generous to myself, and I extend my query to the last 100 books I read, just to make it easier in terms of math, my percentage of books read by Black writers falls even further, to 8%, and even though I gain a Latinx/Hispanic writer, well, that still puts me at a miserable 2%, far, far below where I want to be.

This year I will hope to do better. This year I will read at least one book by a Native American writer. I’d been meaning to pick up the Sherman Alexie memoir, and my own publisher, who is Latina, has a book out too, so…all things I can get cracking on. You can add me as a friend to see what I’ve been reading lately.

What’s are your reading resolutions for 2018? Tell me in the comments below.

books

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Me and My Headshot

Three things happened in the past few weeks or so that have me noodling about the way we present ourselves to the world.

  1. A friend, upon seeing me at a panel with my accompanying headshot, said, “Well, that’s pretty glam.” I said back, “Well…it has to be. It goes on my publicity materials and on book jackets.” “I didn’t expect that,” he returned.
  2. A friend asked to adapt my book as a screenplay. I returned the request, as far as I can recall it, thus: “I’m flattered, thank you! What are your thoughts as to royalties and rights agreements?” His reply: “Whoa, tiger.”
  3. Making some calculations one day with another friend, I said, casually, “I’m absolute shit at math. I know, I’m a terrible Asian.” Some minutes later, he said, “I have a question: Aren’t you, by making that comment, just perpetrating a stereotype?” Stymied, I said, “Ummm. Yes. Of course. But it makes people laugh.” “Ahhh,” he said, and didn’t need to say any more.
  4. Years ago (okay, this is a bonus), when Jim and I were training for Ironman, we kept on meeting people who would say, “That’s AWESOME. I’m so impressed,” or some variation thereof, and I’d inevitably counter, “No. It’s stupid.” Someone challenged me once. “But it’s great,” he said. “Such a commitment.” “And idiotic,” I insisted. “But amazing,” he returned. “Really dumb endeavor,” I said. He finally capitulated. “Okay, fine, it’s dumb.”

I find myself revisiting these events. They’ve made me consider the way I present myself, and the advice we often see to be proud, to be not afraid of the greatness we can accomplish, to [insert whatever roaring Pinterest quote you want here about being your best you, or something like that].

Oh, sure, it’s easy to encourage that. The reason we must do it is much more complex.

I am surprised every time someone else is surprised by the fact that I have a professional headshot. Or that I’m asking about royalties and things like contracts for use of my work. Or that I demand to be paid for my work. The immediate internal rejoinder is this:

  • Of course I have a headshot. What’d you think, I was going to just slap some selfie on my book cover?
  • Of course I’m going to ask for a contract. Whaddya think this is, some kind of Mickey Mouse operation?

And yet, when you look at the way I’ve presented myself over the years, it looks like some variation of the Ironman conversation, or this:

[Waits for someone else to bring up my novel. Someone asks about it.] Me: It’s just a debut novel. Tiny press. Tiny but mighty. You won’t have heard of it. It’s a very slim book. Some say it’s funny. It’s taught on some college campuses. Yes, there will of course be a second. But! [weakly] It’s a semi-finalist for a major humor prize! 

It’s no wonder folks are surprised that I’m asking for a contract, or that I have a pro headshot. I have set them up to expect something less than professional.

The last two examples I give you, I think, are more complex. They’re still about the way we present ourselves, but they’re tied up in that elephant in the room, the issue of not wanting to rock the boat because immigrants already look different. If we keep our heads down, the common wisdom goes, we’ll be safer.

(Additional background: In my parents’ culture*, it’s bad luck to praise your children, ever. It’s thought that the spirits will hear you praising them, and take the lovely, over-achieving children away. So we weren’t ever in the habit of hearing praise. And getting it always made us feel pretty embarrassed, like we didn’t know what to do with ourselves.)

That third one is tied up in a sentiment I read a loooong time ago in a young adult novel (was it _The Cat Ate My Gymsuit_?) about getting in the jibe about yourself before someone else gets to it. You see, it hurts less coming from yourself.**

When you look different, you’re an automatic target. Your parents want the best for you, so they tell you to keep your head down and just quietly achieve. But quietly achieving things doesn’t make you any less of a target, when you are any kind of minority in any kind of society with any kind of pre-determined ideas about who you are and how you are supposed to behave. Heck, I’ve never been a great achiever, either in the quiet department or in the regular achievement department, and I’m still trying to keep my head down. It’s baked into my DNA.

And so, you get this: “You’re loud, for an Asian.” “Over-achiever, right? Typical.” “Lemme guess, your parents wanted you to be a doctor.” “You’re a writer? Wow, that’s…unusual, for your culture.” And, of course, “You can’t do math? I thought Asians were supposed to be good at math!” sometimes preceded by, “Your English is really, really good.”***

And, from my family: “Shhhh. Good girls don’t laugh like that.” “Don’t get into an argument with that person. They’ll make life hard for you.” “Just let it go.”

And so we come back to the advice, every piece of blithe cheer we get that’s meant to motivate and inspire:

You are enough

You are worth it

You are beautiful

Love yourself

No one is going to love you if you don’t love yourself. 

 

People, that shit is hard. You don’t just wake up one day and go, “Hey! I’m going to love myself!”**** And yet, we struggle to get there. The internet is awash on how to do so. But no one ever tells you why you should.

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Now look, because we are logical creatures and like things to fit together, there must be a reason we are willing to do this. We don’t just up and do these things.

Here’s why it’s important to represent yourself with pride, to give your accomplishments due credit. It’s easy: It’s really very tedious to backpedal from everything you’ve ever said about yourself before. It’s also an uphill battle, and one you might not ever win.

Trust me. I know.

So here’s your friendly tip for the day: You don’t need to love yourself every day. You don’t need to go around Wonder Woman-posing every chance you get, and you don’t need to stick up those lovely inspiring quotes from Tiny Buddha or Muse or Buzzfeed or whatever at eye level all around the house.

But you need to be able to recognize your achievements for what they are. Call them as you see them. Neither aggrandizing them nor minimizing them will do any good at all.

Eventually, you’ll get used to seeing yourself with clarity.***** And that’s a very, very good thing, even if there’s no meme-quote-illustration thing out there for it.

*This is a shift. I’ve always referred to it as my culture in the past, but let’s be real. I’m very Asian-American, and my parents are very Asian.

**This makes me sound like a snowflake, but there’s nothing I can do about this.

***I confess one of the most joyous, freewheeling exchanges I’ve ever had was with a close Jewish friend. We were sat at an Ukranian restaurant having lunch. The check came and I struggled with the tip. Alan barked, “What the hell kind of Asian are you? Here, give it to the Jew!” and snatched it from me. The WASP we were with looked utterly horrified, and we laughed and laughed. It’s different if you’re saying it about yourself, do you see?

****This leads down the rabbit-warren to ever more motivational quotes. “I am a work in progress,” “One day at a time,” “Today is a new day,” yadda, yadda, yadda.

*****c.f. above motivational Work in Progress. Heh.

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Snippets

It has been what feels like an obscenely long time since I’ve blogged.

In the meantime, my book had its birthday and we had ten days’ worth of houseguests, and then I went to Seoul to participate in the Rotary International Convention on behalf of ShelterBox, and then I had a most extraordinary time being carted around South Korea, talking about writing and publishing with interested parties all around.

Truly, I lead a charmed life.

On the last day of lectures, a grueling 4 hours of talking broken up by a pleasant hour-long lunch, I got a note from one of the attendees in the audience. Having evidence of the work we did together outside of Instagrammable, social media fodder in my hands, a tiny little craft-paper envelope with precise writing on it, still warm from her hands, is such a present. I, too, may take to carrying around little cards, the better to thank people in tangible fashion, on the fly. How much we can learn from each other!

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Over my three days with the Embassy, I met some other characters, people I’ll forever be grateful with for making it so obvious that sharing what I’ve learned with others is bound to be a most gratifying existence.

The Old Storyteller: He comes to many of the American Corner Daegu’s events. He speaks pretty spot-on English and has stories he wants to pass on, but he’s 85 and wanted to know what I would tell someone like him, someone who’s tried to write but can’t seem to do it. Time is short, he says. “When should I quit trying?”

The Anxious Girl: “You said we should write every day. Well, I draw every day. Is that okay?” Later, meeting me one-on-one, her hands shook as she tried to turn to a page in her notebook. I mis-stepped, asked if she wanted an autograph, like her classmates, but no, she wanted to show me her drawings, and boy! Were they something! Reptile claws over a planet overgrown with trees and scrub and vines; silhouetted people standing at the hearts of planets, trees rising out through their heads…Yes, yes, write every day, but geez, don’t stop doing these, ever.

The Concerned Citizens: “I wanted to know if you consider yourself a feminist.” And “You say we should fight the efficient fight when it comes to unfairness in the workplace. What is the best way for writers to do this?” And, “As a writer, do you think Donald Trump is exercising free speech?”

The Enthusiastic One: “You’re my very first author ever.”

The Worrier: “I think I carry around so much of what people say in critiques. How do you know what to take and what not to take?”

The Interpreter: Did you know that, during simultaneous interpretation, interpreters have to switch out every ten or fifteen minutes? It’s that grueling.

The Single Girl: My handler over the three days in Korea was this amazing young woman who has no plans of getting married and no plans for kids. She’s truly a career woman, a person who’s constantly curious, always living, it seems, whether that take the form of hiking up Seoul’s beautiful hills or scouting locations for visitors like me or enjoying whatever it is she’s eating. I wish we could have spent more time together.

The Veteran: “Could you sign this for me? I want to show our young people what we can do with our creativity. And I want to show them what we Orientals [sic] can do when we go abroad.”*

What a terrific three days. How lucky I am!

*No, I’m not offended. It’s a dated phrase, and the guy was near 80.

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Brain Flotsam 4

Welcome back to Brain Flotsam, the weekly feature that touches on things I heard, read, and saw that made me go Hmmmm. Here’s what I encountered this week!

A tour of the British Isles in accents! I haven’t vetted this with my English pals yet. But I found it a very useful lesson in both accents AND *cough* geography.

I’ve decided to stop saying and writing “Best of luck.” To my ear, it sounds disingenuous, almost sarcastic–“Yeah, good luck with that“–and it nearly assumes that whatever it is the person is attempting, s/he’s going to need luck to get it done. I think “all best” is a good way to go.

I just started watching Star Trek. It feels a little bit funny, to immediately “know” that Spock is half-human; that the thing he’s doing to that guy’s neck is the Vulcan neck grip; that the guys in the red shirts are all likely to die. There’s no element of surprise or discovery for me. But still, I’m enjoying it to pieces.

I had a shock this week after reading a most undemanding book. It was called Penelope Goes to Portsmouth, and the edition I was reading had this cover on it:

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I read it as light, fluffy, frisky modern lit. Like I said, it was completely undemanding work. But then I went to enter the book into Goodreads, and up popped this cover:

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And suddenly I was like, o WOW. I had no idea I was reading outdated old-lady romance garbage! We are, as ever, visual creatures, aren’t we? (Capsule review: This book was really fun to read, if not predictable and not assuming a very sophisticated reader. But it was a nice, quick, one-day diversion.)

Pockets. Pockets are on my mind. Nearly all of my dresses–even the nicer ones–have pockets in them. I look for them. When I am out, I keep business cards, a small notebook and pen, lip balm, in them. And sometimes I store things in them–other people’s business cards, for instance. But pockets are also good for memories. This week I found this in the pocket of a dress I last wore in December, in England:

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It is a tiny propeller off a tiny airplane that was a toy in a Christmas cracker. It immediately sent me back, briefly, to an awesome evening with great friends. Pockets. Good for finding memories.

Tune in next week for more Brain Flotsam!

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Cheez-Its, Springtime, and Book Publishing

Or, Stray Memories.

I think my predilection for orange food (see Cheez-Its; Cheetos [the caveman-club-shaped kind, not the poufy kind]; Annie’s Extra-Cheddary Bunnies; Goldfish; Clementines; carrots with their skin on) may have been encouraged by one Pat Crow, the first editor really to take me under his wing. He, too, had a weakness for nuclear-colored foodstuffs, and I met him at a most impressionable age.

This is Pat, with my friend Julia.

This is Pat, ca. 1998? 99? with my friend Julia.

I didn’t meet Pat until he was done with his New Yorker tenure. He used to take me to lunch, and our cubes at Audubon magazine were right across from each other. He used to buy me copies of books if he went to book signings, and notebooks from Kinokuniya when he went. He was, it’s safe to say, my very first mentor. He edited a short story I’d written, showed me where I went wrong; gave me advice on totally unrelated things: “Stop twirling your hair. You look like a twit.” (Which, by the way, is something my mother was trying to get me to stop doing for, like, ever, but I only stopped doing it when Pat told me to knock it off.)

I think, all in all, our lives only intersected for less than a year. We lost touch after that, and Pat passed away in 2011. (Read: I didn’t work hard enough to keep in touch, and he had enough young writers, I’m sure, vying for his attention beyond me.)

But in a copy of the only novel he ever wrote, Pat wrote this:

For Yi Shun —

My mentor at Audubon, my friend and colleague, who has more promise than springtime itself. 

With affection, 

Patrick Crow

And when I read it, I knew I would carry that phrase around with me–“more promise than springtime itself”–in my mouth, saying it to myself sometimes; in my heart; in my deepest of hopes and sometimes, through the query rejections that followed. If I could have it tattooed on me, massage the copy into a phrase that made sense to everyone who saw it, I might just do it, maybe in Pat’s distinct handwriting, because even if the man who edited John McPhee; who probably shepherded more young writers than I ever will; who probably passed on the name of his favorite tailor to everyone he could; who probably even told many a young office worker to stop twirling her hair, lest she look like a twit, penned that sentiment in a temporary fit of, well, sentimentality, it meant the world to me and my young career.

I wish Pat were here to see May, 2016, which is when my novel, NOT A SELF-HELP BOOK: THE MISADVENTURES OF MARTY WU, comes out from Shade Mountain Press.

It’s a big promise to fulfill, that of springtime itself, and it sure is nice to know that someone thought I could.

But that’s not the point of this post. The point, I guess, is that we might all go around saying nice things to people we feel deserve it. Something you say might provide them a little talisman of sorts, to carry around, a star to orient oneself by.

 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

If Literary Readings Were Major Sporting Events

Howie Long: Hi, sports fans, I’m Howie Long.

Phil Liggett: And I’m Phil Liggett.

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HL: And we’re back from break to bring you live coverage of a very special event: The annual Golden Pencil literary readings.

PL: That’s right, Howie. Now, you may not know this, but this is actually the 20th anniversary of the readings. At stake? The coveted Golden Pencil, a prize absolutely salivated over by every budding writer since 2005.

HL: Well, Phil, the energy in here is certainly up high for a reading.

PL: Who knows what the readers are feeling tonight? We’ve seen some remarkable talent tonight, through the genres, but we have a ringer coming up right now, the penultimate reader of the night. Susie Weekins has just come out from behind the curtain, looking like she’s deep-breathing. Now, Howie, this is a common exercise for seasoned readers. You often can tell the newbies because they’re in the bar, quaffing one too many Cherry Cordials before they take their places at the podium, instead of working on their lungs.

HL: Cherry Cordials!

PL: Yes, Howie, it’s a thing.

HL: Well, anyway. So Susie is up next. She’s a veteran reader, isn’t that right, Phil? And, our sources tell us she actually is a veteran of the Air Force–did I just make a pun?

PL: You did, Howie. Well done.

HL: Next to Susie, you see her coach, Bob Kirkland, one of the nonfiction faculty here at the workshop. Looks like he’s whispering some peptalk into Susie’s ear. What kind of pep talk might writers need, Phil?

PL: Well, Howie, it could be anything from “Remember the windmills”–a nod to Don Quixote, you know–to a more modern quotation from essayist Elissa Washuta, designed to evoke feelings of great calm.

HL: Great calm! Well, who knew? This sure is unlike any sport I’ve ever covered.

PL: Indeed, Howie. And after Susie reads, the lineup will end with the rarest of rare in this arena, Chuck Panterson.

HL: But Phil, why is Chuck such a rarity?

PL: He’s male.

HL: Ohhh.

PL: Indeed, Howie. Oh, Howie! Look at Susie as she moves towards the podium. She’s got her game face on, for sure. And she’s wearing that great maroon top, the same one she wore last year when she rocked the house with her reading about a canoe–

HL: A canoe! Writers can operate canoes?

PL: Shut up, Howie.

HL: Sorry.

PL: Anyway, the fact that she’s wearing that same top tells me that she’s feeling good and strong. You know, Howie, writers often have funny little quirks. Some of them don’t bathe for days before a reading. Just look at the way Susie cranks that microphone towards her. She is feeling good. Last year, the MFA invested in a new mike. It’s going to improve the readers’ performance for sure.

HL: Do you go to a lot of these, Phil?

PL: Do shut up, Howie.

HL: Sorry. Ooh! What’s Susie doing now?

PL: Oh, she’s engaging in a common crowd-engagement tactic. She’s calling for their support by telling them she’s feeling nervous. Now, I know this is something we see a lot, but I gotta tell you, coming out of Susie, I don’t buy it for one minute. She’s trying to psych out the other readers, and I think it might just work. Once you get the crowd behind you, you can’t lose.

HL: What does Susie have to do bring home the bacon tonight, Phil?

PL: Well, readings are tricky, Howie. Not only do the writers have to read well, they also have to come in under the time limit. Remember last year, when Susie nearly lost The Golden Pencil by a pesky second?

HL: I do! Remind our viewers what happened, though.

PL: She managed to get in under the wire by eliminating a metaphor. It was close, but I’m glad to see she’s recovered from that.

HL: Shh. She’s starting.

PL: Indeed.

HL: Oh! Oh! She’s killing it! She’s bringing it home! She’s…she’s…singing!

PL: Indeed, Howie, she is! Few writers would dare to try out their tremulous vocal chords on an audience so attuned to monotone, but Susie has her eyes closed, she’s pulling out all the stops, she’s dancing over the notes with a confidence that must be borne of a million repetitions and rehearsals. You know, when writers write, they don’t often imagine music. But this one clearly has, and we are PROUD of her.

HL: I can’t believe the crowd. They are going nuts. They are bolt-forward in their chairs. Some are swaying! They are under her spell! She’s in! She’s in! Susie is bound to take home the Golden Pencil for a second year in a row!

PL: Just look at Coach Kirkland, there on the sidelines. He’s crying. We never see this from a writerly coach, never.

HL: Chuck can just sit down, can’t he, Phil?

PL: Well, no. Even though Susie has clearly won the Golden Pencil, Chuck still needs to show up. He’ll win points towards the lifelist series of Most Readings Read At.

HL: Phil, that was a moment to beat all. I’m quaking. I think Susie’s set a new bar for readings.

PL: I think so too. Let’s ink it right now. Susie Weekins has just created the literary reading version of figure skating’s Salchow. Tune in to our web site to vote for what we should call it. And tune in next week as ESPN 2 covers the Wine Tasting 2015 competition, a feat of tongues and nasal passages that will have you riveted to the screen. Thanks for joining us. I’m Phil Liggett.

HL: And I’m Howie Long. And we’re signing off. Good night, all.

Thanks to Ana Maria Spagna, Nancy Rawles, and Kelly Davio for planting the seed for this post. And to Samantha Updegrave, who knows why. 

 

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Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.