Life

My students want to read more, and it is a huge win for two reasons

Hello, everyone. This will be a short post, but I have been thinking about this thing that happened since it happened, and so I want to share it with you.

Some of you may know that I teach creative writing for non-traditional students at an area university. This has been one of the best things I have ever done. You see, this course is required, part of the students’ “Self-Expression” requirement, and so the students come in reluctantly, just to fulfill a requirement. I usually get some variation of “I just need this class to graduate.”

But our class, only ten short weeks, is buckets of fun. My students learn something, and they are exposed to new things, and so I am not only happy to do this, but it feeds me, on some primal reptilian level.

Last week, I read my students some essays from Brian Doyle, one of my favorite essayists. And then I had them do an assignment in which they mimicked a writer of my choosing for each of them. I only have three students this time around, so it was super easy, even this early in the term, to decide who was going to get the most out of what.

One of my students was really taken with the Doyle I read, so I assigned another essay of his for her to mimic.

Here’s what she said this week, in the middle of class, in outburst fashion.

“I never knew people like this existed. After I read ‘Joyas Voladoras,’ I read everything I could find of his work. And I read about how he died and about his books. And I feel so stupid, that I didn’t know this kind of writing existed.”

Well, look. I about died, and not in a good way, either. My damn heart cracked, and I wanted to cry, because people, you shouldn’t ever feel stupid about something you didn’t know existed. I can’t remember exactly what I said back to her, but it was this torrent of something that was equal parts hopeful and sad: joyful, right, because she’s got this huge canon of stuff that she can’t even categorize yet right in front of her, and sad, because hello, I don’t want my students feeling terrible about something they’ve never encountered before.

Maybe the upshot here is two: I am so happy that my students are discovering new things. But also, imagine what else we don’t know, haven’t read, even those of us whose professional and personal lives only exist because of words.

Imagine all the people we haven’t met yet, whose stories we get to hear.

Read on.

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

I’m reading Moby-Dick, so you don’t have to

…Actually, I think everyone should read Moby-Dick. That doesn’t mean I admire the thing, it just means I’m finding it intriguing. This is my second attempt at reading it; I last tried in 2015 and made it all the way to chapter 18 before I realized the whale wasn’t going to show up anytime soon. This time, I’m halfway through it. Moby-Dick himself still hasn’t shown up yet, but enough interesting stuff has happened that I thought I would share it with you. I don’t know that I’ll make it all the way through this time. It’s a testament to the book, I guess, that I remembered enough of it to continue on nearly four years later. Or maybe it’s a testament to the fact that nothing of real interest plot-wise has happened yet. As my Twitter friend @angryreporter put it:

 

At any rate, here we are, 62% of the way through Moby-Dick. And here’s the link to my spreadsheet of my reading of Moby-Dick. Or, rather, so far of the things that made my ears go up. Let me know if it doesn’t work. Let me know what you think. Commenting is on. I’d especially be interested in hearing from those of you who have already read it.

 

 

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Accountability in the disaster-relief world

Hello from Dubai, where I’m on a long layover on my way home from my 13th deployment for ShelterBox. I want to take some time to tell you a little bit about something I don’t think a lot of folks consider when they think of disaster relief: How this agency works to continuously refine both what we deliver to families in need and how we deliver it, so we can be sure we’re doing the best we can.

A large part of this responsibility rests with our MEAL team.

This has nothing to do with the fact that I need feeding every two hours. This has to do with Monitoring, Evaluation, Accountability, and Learning. After a decade at ShelterBox, I think this is one of my favorite parts of working with the agency. In theory, it’s about making sure we gain knowledge to improve every time we deploy aid and resources. I’ve had the great privilege of being a part of putting it into practice three times now, and I think I’m ready to share some of its most salient points with you.

First: Post-distribution monitoring (PDM) can start happening as early as a few weeks after we give families in need our aid, and, in fact, can go on while distribution of aid is still taking place. Some of this is due to our desire to see that the families we helped can use and understand our aid. So we go back and do things like making sure tents are set up properly; tarps have been installed correctly; solar lights are functioning properly and optimally (we might remind a family that using the solar light at full power will drain its battery faster, for instance). This helps us to check up on two things: 1., that the training we helped to provide was accurate and useful; 2., that the family is moving forward from the disaster they’ve experienced.

Second: Another phase of PDM involves longer surveys and focus groups. In the past, this has taken place about six months after we deploy the aid, but we are always trying new things, and this methodology may change. We spend somewhere from half an hour to an hour with randomly chosen families who have received our aid, and walk them through how hey felt about both the distribution process and the actual aid package itself. Since the families have had more time with the kit by the time we reach this stage, we are able to get more in-depth answers from them.

Focus groups are one of my favorite parts of the MEAL process. Since the beneficiaries are in the focus groups with their friends and fellow community members, this is a bubbly, lively event. The MEAL team works really hard to come up with topics that will help us to respond to each disaster, and each region’s, more specific needs. We then work together as a team to come up with questions revolving around the topics, which might touch on things like the potential for cash aid packages, how aid affects larger families, and other relevant issues that affect the communities we worked with.

In a focus group, recipients of ShelterBox aid selected which of the items they received was their favorite by attaching stickers to pictures of each aid item. Photo: Josephine Mendoza, Calbayog Journal

 

The MEAL team might opt for focus groups comprising all men, all women, or mixed. Any way you slice it, we get such valuable information–and such wonderful stories, the likes of which we don’t always hear if the families are just being interviewed by themselves. The air of discussion really loans some focus group participants bravery, and the backing to speak up.

Third: This is another one of my favorite parts of MEAL: The interviews we undertake do not happen without some help from locals. I mean the invaluable interpreters we engage in order to ensure we are understanding the families accurately. Several times we’ve leaned on our drivers, who sometimes do double duty as interpreters, and I’ve twice had the experience of working with students recruited from the local high school or university. These people come to help us as volunteers. These volunteers are amazing. They spend a lot of time being walked through the survey. And they also spend time learning about the software we use so they can use smartphone or tablet versions of the survey if they want.

Sometimes the interviewers are workers from the local government, or community health workers. Sometimes they are Rotarians. Either way, what ends up happening is a collaboration of a most remarkable sort, where people get to make connections to people they might otherwise have ever been able to meet. Another neat side effect: We’ve also heard from some volunteers that the skills they learn, and the experiences they gain, as volunteers for us end up encouraging them in different life directions.

An initial setup for a focus group at Bayho Barangay, in the Lope de Vega municipality of Northern Samar, in the Philippines. Things didn’t stay this way for long.

 

When I was younger, I loved the urgency of disaster relief. Part of me hungered for the drive involved in its immediacy. I thought delivering aid by hand to a family in need was the pinnacle of responsibility. But I’ve seen a lot more since then, and I’ve often wondered how people are after we leave them. Ultimately, our MEAL team and processes allow us to see these families again, which fulfills a certain emotional urge, but it also gives us the tools to improve, so that we can keep on getting better at providing our aid to families who need it the most.

 

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The lenses through which we see may not be our own

When I was 18 or so, I went to Oregon to be a camp counselor. All the counselors had camp names–Seaweed, Alpine, Whinny, Weed, Shaggy, Scribbles, Moondog, Kramer. One of the ones I admired the most was about my age, but she was way, way cooler than I was. Or am. I only remember her real name, if that’s any indication. Anyway, she had a boyfriend who came to visit. I met him once, and he was coming to visit us at camp at some point in the summer. Just before he came, Turtle, whose real name I also remember, asked me what he was like. Or maybe she didn’t ask me.

See, in the family I grew up in, my parents just gave opinions, willy-nilly. They didn’t ask if anyone wanted to hear them; they just gave them, because no one but your family would ever tell you the truth, or some other adage designed to excuse the hurt such opinions could cause.

Anyhow. I started talking, talking, talking, telling Turtle about the guy, and then Turtle said something like, “How about you let me meet him first?”

It was the first time it ever really occurred to me that maybe I shouldn’t be influencing other peoples’ opinions with my own jabbering. It was the first time, actually, that it ever occurred to me that maybe I didn’t need to have an opinion, really. And maybe it was the first time that it occurred to me that other people most definitely didn’t need to hear my opinions on everything.

(That last part is constantly a work in progress; the pressure to seem relevant is always there.)

Anyway, it’s been slowly occurring to me that anything we do or say; any time we appear, is meant to imply, to impress something upon the viewer, or the reader, or the persons you interact with. I’ve had this thought a number of times over the last two decades or so: People walking their dogs in their pajamas, for instance, imparts for me not an admirable sense of independence, but, rather, a sense of sloppy insouciance, a lack of pride in one’s appearance.

Likewise, when I walked down the street with my dog off-leash, it was meant to imply confidence over a blatant disregard for the rules, but I couldn’t have that much control over people’s reactions. Or could I?

When I wrote for the J. Peterman and Patagonia catalogs, those pieces were meant to convey very specific emotions built around getting people to buy things. Earlier this week, I gave some brief remarks on behalf of a nonprofit I volunteer for; I did it in a logo’ed top and an exaggerated houndstooth-print skirt and walking boots, an outfit I chose to convey the efficiency and yet, continued relevance and constantly evolving nature of the charity.

Sometimes these things go awry. Years ago I delivered an earnings report in a nice suit, but I did it leaning against the wall, in a posture meant to convey confidence and a modicum of intended arrogance (it was a complicated relationship) but I know for a fact–could sense it, even while I was doing it, that would backfire. And I once walked into a meeting of marketing people with my huge French cuffs deliberately undone, but they flapped while I was talking, causing a terrible distraction.

All of these things seem sartorially bent–it’s the easiest thing for me to think of–but really what I’m referring to is narrative. What I’m referring to is context.

Take, for instance, the podcast Serial, which I’m finally listening to. (If you haven’t heard it yet, pick it up here.) In the first season, the reporter tries to make sense of a murder case she feels has gone awry. I haven’t heard the end of it, so I don’t know what we’re going to find out. But there are so many moving pieces to this story–the characters, the settings, the very social backdrop of the time the murder took place–that I couldn’t help but wonder why this reporter chose to tell this story in the way she did. Why, for instance, is it crafted in segments like this?

Why does she feature the defendant’s voice in some episodes over others?

Why does she include her own musings as she’s reporting?

Why does she follow the very specific timeline she follows?

For me, all of these questions are leading to even more questions, and although I’m only just nearing the end of season 1, I’m worried that I’ll walk away from the podcast feeling like I’ve been played–that I won’t actually feel happy about the outcome of this particular series, because it will have just opened in me–has opened in me–the desire to see it for my damn self, to root through the stuff, before I can believe what the reporter has told me.

Some things are like this. Maybe the whole intent of Serial is to make you ask questions, make you realize what else might be out there that you’ve either misinterpreted, or just taken for granted because something you deem a higher authority told you so.

Or if, like Turtle, you’d been primed to see something one or or another because of something someone said.

It strikes me that this is a key part of art, the capability to shape someone’s view of things, to prime them with a narrative of your own making, before they even get to witness the thing themselves. Last weekend we took my dad to see a photo exhibition featuring pictures his friend Dr. Dean Hsu had taken on his travels around the world. Every part of that show–from the photo itself to the placement of the photos and the editorial choices made by the curators–was meant to imply and help you to form an opinion of the places Dr. Hsu had been, even if you’ve never been there yourself.

We walked around the town of Visalia a little bit between lunch and the exhibition. I took some photos of the buildings there, because I love the buildings of that era, and I like to do watercolors of them. They’re my safe spot. And before lunch, we took a tour of the cancer care practice Dr. Hsu used to work at. It was such a warm, lovely place.

I never thought about it this way before, but the intent of the drawings I do is meant to convey to you, the viewer, my own impressions of the place I’ve visited. So when you look at these pictures, the first of a window in Dr. Hsu’s office; the second of a building I particularly liked, I hope you get the sensation that these are places that made me feel warm and happy. Whether or not they imply the things I want you to feel is a mark of the work’s success–or failure.

I’ve spent a lot of time writing and teaching about intent and its importance in writing stories and essays, but this is the first time I’ve thought about my visual art this way. Which is funny, because surely there must be some kind of internal desire around each painting I do.

It’s good to approach everything, I think, with intent, whatever that may be. The conveyance of who we are and what we’re about comprises these small details. More importantly, we have the power to change the way that others see things, and I think that’s not something to be wielded lightly.

For my part, I like to keep reminding myself that these things have more weight that we might have otherwise considered–or intended.

What have you seen, read, or heard that’s irrevocably changed your opinion or the way you think and view things? Tell me in the comments below.

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

A small-but-significant change for 2019

If you’re anything like me, you like shiny things. I don’t mean shiny things like diamonds and pearls and watermelon tourmaline, but I mean shiny things like all that distracts from the work you do to make a living or build a career, or even just  something that distracts from your everyday flow.

For me, it could be anything. It could be:

  • A long read I want to delve into and take time with
  • A web site offering new organizational tools that might be useful to me
  • A note I want to write to a friend
  • A friend I’ve been meaning to call but haven’t yet
  • A question or discussion I’d like to open up with someone
  • A new-to-me book I want to learn more about before I buy
  • A new shop I want to visit

The list is broad, and runs between my IRL and my virtual life. Keep in mind, these aren’t “tasks,” or “to do” items. They are THINGS, in my parlance. STUFF that translates to something I can hold, I think. I’m not sure what the actual rules are, but they don’t lead to anything. They are individual discrete items, in and of themselves. Anyway.

In previous years what I’ve done is to list these things down on my daily to-do list and get to them when I have time that day, but that tactic has failed to work. That is, I haven’t stuck with it. I either never get to the item on the list and then I forget it, thus decreasing the pleasure I get out of each day, or I just never write it down, trusting to memory, and then I never get to it that way, either.

But I think I’ve found something that will really work for me: A gift box to me, to be opened at the end of every week. The plan right now is to take one day out of my workweek to do this. Today’s Friday. I’m going to use this day for this catchup for a couple reasons:

  • Friday is a good day to gift yourself
  • Jim doesn’t work on Fridays either, so it’s a nice dovetail
  • If I want to follow up further on these things, I have the weekend to do so, and I can go into Monday worry-free

(This isn’t a new idea, by the way. Productivity pundits have been touting their benefits for ages, but more recently, the former director of leadership at WalMart wrote about his “Untouchable” days in the Harvard Business Review. It’s something similar, I think. Have a look here. If I find the other post I’m thinking of, something I read back in the early 2000s, I’ll post it for you.)

Okay, so what is a gift box to myself? It’s basically just a box in which I can store the things I want to take time for. I like this concept for two reasons: First, I like to open presents. Second, I’m of the “set it and forget it” mentality: If I can write something down somewhere and put it away, I can feel confident that it’s in a safe place and I won’t misplace it or never get to it.

My current gift box looks like this:

It’s basically just a fancy cardboard box. It wasn’t the prettiest box I could find (I’m not one for florals), but the New Year had started, my pile of things I was already interested in was growing, and I needed a place to Put Stuff. So yeah. Panic. I had a couple conditions for this box, though:

  • It needed to be attractive
  • It needed to be easy-open, so I could get stuff into it quickly
  • I wanted it to feel somewhat sturdy, with some heft, because the stuff in that box is important to me. I wanted it to match up.

So how do I manifest the things I listed above, the stuff I want to look into? Really low-tech: I just write it down on a piece of paper and dump it into the box. I have a little pad of llama paper that a friend gave me, no lie, a decade ago, I think, and this is the perfect use for it. Also, index cards. Scraps, sometimes. But the llama paper is nice, and loans a little uniformity. Plus, it’s always easier to find a pad of paper than a scrap. Sometimes I put the business cards of people I want to learn more about/formulate a relationship with in there, too.

How’s it going so far?

Well, it’s only been a week. But I can tell you that I feel much clearer over previous years. Like, the ugly spackle that I formerly pictured this stuff as has changed into little gems that I can put into this box. I don’t fret about things so much, I don’t have nearly as many windows open on my browser as I used to—

These are little things. But ultimately, they get to add up to big changes, in mood and in productivity.

Hey! I just thought of another thing I should put in this box. Blog post ideas. That’s a good place to store them.

Do you have a new, shiny productivity/life improvement thing for 2019 you want to share with me? Tell me in the comments below.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

New Year’s Eve in Morro Bay

I met some people over the two days and a night we were in Morro Bay.

Well. That’s not entirely true. I met one person. Watched another from afar. And found an item that helped me to write the first entry to my new column at The Writer magazine. (Launches in print in April, and it’s about the things I learn from my various writing and editing and teaching jobs.)

I don’t know either of the person’s names that I’m going to write about, but they made an impression on me. I wish I’d gotten photos of the one I talked to; he was a real gem. The odds that I’ll run into him again are low, but he was pretty special.

He was walking along the beach, in a helmet, drysuit, and booties, carrying a surfboard. He was walking north along the beach, checking the waves, and so I asked him: “What kind of water are you looking for?”

“Oh,” he said. “You want a wave that kind of peels, but with an open end to it. There, there! Like that one, but…oh, it’s closing up now. You want to be able to ride it for a long time, see.”

We talked for awhile longer. He said he’s been surfing for sixty years, and that he’s never had a shark encounter. He also said he’s been a white-water kayaker, a race-car driver, a sky-diver–and that surfing is the sport that he loves the most. But he also said that, in every other sport he’s ever tried, there’s been a kind of community, a kind of sharing. Surfing, he says, doesn’t have that. “There’s a kind of selfishness,” he said, but differed with Jim’s assessment that it was about preserving the best breaks for yourself.

I wish I’d had a chance to talk more, but he wanted to get on the water. I don’t blame him. I just thought he was really cool, and I wanted to share him with you.

All I have from the second person I want to tell you about is this photo:

No big deal, right? We’re on a beach, so why wouldn’t someone be barefoot? Well, it was January 1. I was bundled up in a sweater and a jacket and jeans and a hat; Jim was wearing a jacket, even. We were both wearing gloves. This guy, RayBans on, bluetooth headphones flapping around his neck, was in shorts and T-shirt, striding through the water, up the beach and then back down it. He had his shoes in his hand.

It was easy to imagine some self-affirmation stuff going on in through his headphones, especially because of the way he was walking: toes pointed slightly outwards (you can’t really see this in the photo above, but I’m telling you), chest out. He was in a navy-blue V-neck top and white shorts. He was short, a little bit pudgy. He had a full  head of black, wavy hair, and he was Feelin’ It, whatever it was he was hearing through his headphones. He was On a Mission.

I would have been freezing. But he was out there, struttin’ like a seagull. It was pretty cool to see.

Here’s the last thing I wanted to tell you about:


Sometimes you find rocks on a beach that have a lot of holes drilled in them. They’re usually thicker rocks, great big lumps. The holes are made my sponges or sea snails or piddocks that live in them. But this one was probably a mistake, like someone started drilling and went, “Oops! THAT’s not going to be an appropriate home!”

Anyway. I spotted this one and really debated about whether or not I should take it home. I like to leave cool things for other people to find, especially since it’s so easy now to take photos of them. But then I put it to my eye, and I knew I had to have it.

Why? Because looking through that tiny little hole made everything clearer. This little rock gave me the metaphor I needed to write my first column, so you’ll have to wait until then to see what I learned from it. In the meantime, hope everyone is having a great start to their new year. I am.

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

The Shame of Getting Paid to Write: Live-blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 16 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-15 can be found 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.

“Freelancers have to decide if they’re willing to accept PR or publicity-related writing opportunities alongside traditional gigs. Many writers do both but rarely talk about the corporate-sponsored writing they do (which usually doesn’t include their byline).”

The Business of Being a Writer, pg. 230

Wooooeeee. It has been a long, long time. I am sorry, because I have really, really missed writing these, AND we are coming to the end. (My high school track coach used to always yell at us if we didn’t sprint through the end of the race. This feels a little bit like that.)

I was away for a little bit, and then we acquired New Puppy, whose name is huckleberry, small aitch.

Tell you what, people. New puppies are demanding. Mine is great in his crate, unless you’re not within eyesight, and then, according to Mr. Gooddirt, it’s howl city. As far as I know, this does not happen when we leave the house. We’re just in the full swing of house training now in his total of 16 days with us, huckleberry has gone a total of five days without peeing in the house. I count it a win, although those days were not consecutive.

And he has largely stopped eating rocks, bits of patio cement, and flower petals, but his new favorite thing seems to be lizard poops. Sigh. Yes, yes, to eat.

In any case, he’s a confident, curious creature, and the differences between he and Sprocket are stacking up. (My vet says I have Second Dog Syndrome. Apparently it’s a Thing among people who had great first dogs.) But that’s another post.

Anyway! Moving on. Oh, sorry. Here’s a photo.

(For the record, huckleberry is not at all forlorn about being under the couch. That is where he wants to be.)

Okay. Sorry for that minor diversion. Now, onto this post, which strikes at a subject that is near and dear to my heart. This is a little jumbly right now, because, although I’ve been living with this train of thought for a long time, it is a long, long train, with lots and lots of interesting little cars that don’t always want to stay on the track. But I am going to give it a shot.

When I was in my first editorial assistant job, I was already working for the J. Peterman catalog as a copywriter. So “corporate copy” wasn’t something I shied from, although I’d be lying if I didn’t say I told myself that the fictional nature of that copy and the imagining it allowed me to do was fueling my future career as a novelist. I’d also already done a stint in advertising, and spent a good amount of time picking apart commercials and advertisements, wondering how they worked and made me Want Things. (For more on my beginnings in marketing and corporate copy, listen to this episode of Writers’ Rough Drafts.)

But this is not the post on why we should look at corporate copy/advertorials/whatever with as much gravitas as we look at “real writing.” (That post is here.) This is a post on the harm we do to the industry of writers in general, and to the generations of writers who come after us, if we don’t acknowledge all the work we do.

Am I being dramatic? Not in the least.

Listen. We’ve all heard writers kvetch and moan about how annoying it is when someone says, “Oh, you’re a writer? Cool. Write anything I’d have read?” It seems to be a sly way of asking writers if they’re famous enough. Lately, I’ve taken to answering this way:

“It depends on what you like to read.”

I like this answer for a lot of reasons. It puts the onus on the asker of the question to tell me what they like, and it opens up conversation. But we all know that’s not the intent of the question, and that intent is why I think it’s important for all of us to disclose how writers actually make their money:

Many people believe that, if you get paid for putting words down on paper, you are not a real writer. 

I know. It sounds crazy. But I can’t tell you how many times I’ve heard that writing corporate copy or social-media posts “isn’t really writing.” I once heard this from a jackweed customs officer, believe it or not.

Come on, people. Writers who write corporate copy or social media copy are quite likely making more bank than any of us ever will penning short stories or poems. I made $5 a word easy when I was writing for Peterman, and that was in the late ’90s. Tell me I’m not a writer, for writing pithy, imaginative copy that makes people want to up and buy a tiny faux-croc-skin change purse for $75. I dare you.

And here comes the second reason for being loud and proud of where you make your money: I can’t think of another profession that is as head-in-the-clouds when it comes to how we make our money as writing for a living is. You’re not doing the profession any good by not placing a dollar value on what you write, and accounting for it over the entire arc of your career. This attitude is destructive. College students and their parents regularly ask me if it’s still possible to make a living as a novelist. The answer is that it never was possible to make a living JUST as a novelist. Writers always have some other thing going on, whether it was writing corporate stuff, or speaking gigs, or editing, or writing articles about the craft of writing. Sure, it’s all related, but it’s not all strictly writing novels.

We are not one-trick ponies. We are hacks, sometimes. And we should be damn proud of it, because it puts food on the table and keeps us writing and awake and doing things we also like to do, like  having lunch with writer friends. And signing up for races that cost a pretty penny. And going to writer’s retreat. And running literary magazines.

So: Got a day job? Say it loud and proud, right alongside of your “Yes, I’m a writer.” Write copy for a living while you’re penning your magnum opus? Say that, too. Giving guided tours of New York while you’re screenwriting? Yeah, that too. Walking dogs? Man. You’re going to have some awesome stories.

Listen. When we can come to terms with the fact that writing does not pay all the bills, we might actually be able to make people value our work. We might actually then bring it home to people who expect us to do stuff  “for free,” because we are ostensibly “living our dreams,” or whatever.

The more we can get used to the fact that writing is a commodity, the more we can expect to get paid for it. Because every time I open up a new word document, or a new notebook, I am putting a little piece of my memory, my education, my heart down on that piece of paper, and dammit, I expect to get paid well for it.

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Measuring your career and profitability: Live-blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 15 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-14 can be found 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.

“When your book hits a major best-seller list, it does create a meaningful ripped effect—more people hear about it, more sales get triggered…and you’re likely to get more invitations to do media or to speak.” (pg. 220)

“It’s important to see and track where the work comes from as well as the profitability of the work.” (pg. 229)

These two quotes come from two different sections of Friedman’s book. The first is from a chapter on book launches, and the second is from a chapter on making a freelancing career.

I see them as being related. My book career is, more and more, related to my freelance writing career, and I am looking to streamline this even more, as I get older and, uh, mature in my career.

Hopefully you’ve seen by now how a lot of writing actually mirrors a lot of the way we would work in any other career: tracking your successes, doing your research, training for success, making sure you have the right resources to succeed, are all par for the course, just as they are in any other field. This is as it should be.

For today’s post, we’ll talk a little bit about what it was like for me before and after my book was published.

My book was published in 2016. Before then, I was doing a lot of marketing writing and content creation. I still do this, because I really enjoy it, but the bulk of the things I was hired to do was either pitched magazine articles or corporate work. A large part of this is not only my actual qualifications, but where I felt most comfortable offering expertise. Even while I was in the process of getting published—a long year, because that’s how long it takes in the traditional publishing world—I didn’t feel quite comfortable talking about what it was like to write fiction or publish it.

Most of my speaking gigs and teaching gigs up to then leaned on my expertise as an editor for the Tahoma Literary Review: I would come into classrooms and talk about things like working with an editor, what editing careers look like. I focused more on the broader field of publishing, since I had a lot of experience in that already, on both the publishing end and the editing and writing ends, as a freelance writer.

After I published, though, it was like a switch flipped in my head. I could see the various options that were open to me more clearly, and, probably most importantly, I felt confident in my offerings. Here’s the key, though: Nothing had changed in terms of my expertise at writing fiction, but the book—that product in my head—gave me key currency with which to trade.

Not a Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu debuted at number 5 on my distributor’s fiction bestseller list. And it crawled its way up to number 3, and then eventually fell off the back end, after eight long months. And although this is not one of the major best-seller lists that Friedman refers to, it gave me even more of a leg to stand on, if only in my own view of my career as a published writer.

After I published, I felt much more confident pitching magazines with articles on the art of publishing and the craft of writing. And even the nod I got from the Thurber House (Marty Wu was a semi-finalist for the Thurber Prize in American Humor) gave me the added emotional impetus I needed to pitch and write an article on black humor, a topic I’ve always wanted to cover.

This where tracking the profitability of these ventures, though, becomes paramount. It’s very easy to lose yourself in the headiness of chasing after speaking gigs and teaching opportunities, or penning blog posts and interviews. And, because much of this work is done with no immediate financial return on time investment (no, you do not usually get paid for doing Q&As about your book), it’s also easy to fall into the trap of justifying this time spent as moving towards more book sales and more speaking gigs.

But you have to work to balance these out. You must acquire paying gigs in order to offset the “free” work you’re doing in order to promote your book and its work.

Pre-publication, that work looked like marketing work for me. Post-publication, it’s paid articles about writing and publishing. It’s also adjunct work.

When I visit college classes, students often ask me if it’s “still possible” to earn a living off of writing books. I tell them yes, but that it’s time to expand the definition of what that means: “Being a writer” means, to me, sharing what I have learned with others. It means building on the capital I’ve acquired and leveraging that.

I mentioned tracking your profitability in the headline of this piece, and I think, the things I mention above are all parts of that puzzle. But one tool you must use is a time tracker and invoicing service. I have used Harvest for many years, thanks to my colleague at TLR, Ann Beman, who introduced me to it ages ago. It comes with a built-in set of parameters that include billable and non-billable hours, so that I can see where my time is spent. I have a complicated formula in my head that allows me to “weigh” what I’m doing against its inherent value, which I’m not going to share with you here because it is too involved—and frankly, I’m not 100% sure of what it actually is.

But I do value the work, on both a practical and an emotional level. And in our society right now, which is based on money exchange and not on, say, the barter system, well, measuring your profitability is the only way I can see of being sure that we are valuing our work on the same level everyone else does.

Here are some tips for you:

  • If you’re doing work for free, be sure you offset it with plenty of work that pays well.
  • Measure or track your time. Be clear about this; no wishy-washiness. You need to know where your time is going.
  • Find your own sense of worth and value around your work. Experience counts, so you can’t expect to command top dollar if you’re just starting out.
  • Finally, don’t underestimate the emotional value of a hard piece of “currency,” whether that be your published book(s), articles you’ve written, or your degree. I mean this mostly from an emotional standpoint. And if you don’t feel ready to make an offering because you haven’t published or are mid-degree or whatever, that’s okay, too, but be realistic about it: many great writing coaches don’t have MFAs, but you may not feel comfortable stepping into that field without one. Everyone is different, and respecting your own parameters is good. But so is pushing your own limits.

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Great Literature Events: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 14 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-13 can be found 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.

“Unless you’re a household name as an author, you need to think carefully about how you’ll structure your reading or event. What will be instructive, entertaining, or delightful for those who turn out? Readings have a tendency to be dreadfully boring, with audience members wondering when they will end..” (The Business of Being a Writer, page 214)

In my work as a disaster relief volunteer, we have the end user of our aid always in mind. The end user in our case are the families receiving our aid, so everything we do must in some way contribute to a good result for them. This kind of thinking–asking ourselves who we ultimately serve–makes everything easier, by way of allowing us to benchmark: Does this course of action serve the families who receive our aid? No? Then let’s pursue another solution. Yes? Okay, let’s follow this road and see where it takes us.

I think folks who hold readings must also consider carefully who their end user is. Often, writers run into the question of why they’re having a reading or event, and the answer isn’t always, “oh, to sell more books.” Your experiences may vary, but for me, the end user is always the reader, and the reason I make appearances is to win people over, to keep them reading me.

The why of being a writer is about the readership; the why of why I choose to put pen to paper is about the readership. For me, then, the why of readings and events is also the end user.

Years ago, when I was involved in marketing for the MFA program I graduated from, I was asked to produce an event at AWP, the biggest writer’s conference of the MFA’s year. As part of our sponsorship of the conference, we had access to a space that we could use for a cocktail party. We wanted people to socialize, but we also wanted them to get something out of the event. My only tenet going into the planning of the event was that I wanted to make it an event that people–our end user, the attendees of the party–would have fun at, would get something out of. I wanted them to be impressed with our graduates and walk away with a bright, warm spot that they would associate with our MFA.

We had readings, sure. But they were pop-up readings. Our meetings at the MFA were called to order with a big ship’s bell, so we used that to “ding” the room into order whenever a reading was to start. That kept people on their toes. And after every reading—thirty seconds max, I think it was—the person who was reading drew from a big hat of raffle tickets and someone would win a prize.

There were very short speeches. But mostly, it was a packed, rowdy room full of people who hadn’t seen each other in awhile, and people who had wandered in to see exactly what the hell all the dinging and laughing and cheering and ruckus was about. Members of the board of directors for the conference stopped by. They said they had never seen such a turnout for these value-added events before

It remains, by far, one of my most memorable and happy professional experiences, and it was all down to making sure we kept the end user in mind.

When my book was published and I started to plan readings and events, I remembered how well that event had worked, but I don’t think I saw much in the way of possibility to recreate that kind of event. The closest I came was helping to put together a panel discussion between myself and two other writers at a New York City bookstore. We all read from our works, very briefly, and then we had a robust conversation about the state of diversity in literature. It was a great evening. I really enjoyed myself, but I was pretty clear that was because I felt like the audience was walking away with some solid information under their belts, stuff they could feel happier about having learned. I recently participated in a similar event that had the same structure, and I was so happy to be asked to join in.

I love events with other writers. Two or three or four heads are always better than one, and the energy in a room is so much better when you can bounce off of someone else. But even if you’re doing a solo event, there are ways to make it feel like someone else is up there with you, and ways to promote other writers: One writer I know, Kaitlin Solimine, buys copies of books by people she knows, and raffles them off at the end of her events. She also printed pre-stamped postcards with her book’s cover on them, so that we would almost inadvertently spread the word.

Probably, for me, the best thing ever is getting a chance to promote someone else’s work. I love the sensation you get of using your success, however limited it might be, to bolster someone else’s work. We see this in our opening event for the invitation-only (for now) twice-yearly writer’s retreat, too. Twice now we’ve given the faculty members the option of just doing a reading or opting into a discussion with one of our retreat’s staff members as moderator, and both times they’ve opted for the moderator.

This might be for the simple reason that three people makes for better dissemination of nervous energy. Or that it’s just easier to talk to a moderator whose job it is to see the connection between two vastly different pieces of work. In any case, it’s preferable.

You may not come to the same conclusion as I did about who my end user is. That’s okay. But you should know, at least, who you’re aiming to reach, and build your strategy around that.

And now, your tips!

  • Each event may be different. Ask yourself who’s likely to be there, and what they may expect out of it.
  • Don’t be afraid to show your personality. I’m loud, so when even me at the mic couldn’t make the room hush up during the big event I mention above, I started to sing The Carpenters’ “Close to You.” Pretty soon, the whole room was singing, and it’s easier to make everyone stop singing than it is to make them stop talking to people they really like. And at the very first reading I ever went to, the author only read for a little bit before he said that he didn’t really like long readings, and he pulled out his steel guitar and started playing for us instead. I don’t know how many instant fans he made that night. I was one of them.
  • Do ask other writers to join in. This is one thing that never, ever fails. I love spending time with other writers, and this is such a great way to support each other. Share the love!

What were the best readings or literary events you’ve participated in or attended? Tell me in the comments below.

 

 

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Getting Creative with Audience: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

This is Part 11 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-10 can be found 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.

In a section on Building a Blog Readership, Friedman posits a few methods. One is “Create Guides on Popular Topics,” and in it, she writes,

“If you’re a nonfiction writer, then this probably come s naturally. Put together a 101 guide, FAQ, or tutorial related to your topic or expertise…If you’re a novelist, this strategy may take some creative thinking. Consider a few examples…”

Friedman then goes on to list a few tactics, including a travel guide if your book is strongly regional, a list of favorite reads by genre/category, or an FAQ around a strong “avocational pursuit” that influences your novels.

Please indulge me while I do a little beating up of myself. For bucket’s sake, my novel is based in Taiwan. And Las Vegas. And New York. My character is obsessed with self-help books. And diaries. 

Listen. You are never going to be able to hit all the marks when it comes to marketing your own books, or building your own platform. Someone somewhere is going to look back on your marketing efforts and see big, black, gaping holes, and if you’re very unlucky, that someone will be yourself, say, two years after your book has been published.

Woe. Oh, woe.

Listen. This is why they created the Internet, so that we can correct our own mistakes. And now, I would like to tell you a little bit about Marty Wu’s Taiwan, or, rather, the Taiwan that *I* know, which made me feel like my heroine needed to go there.

Taiwan 101, for those who might someday want to visit

Nomenclature

My mother calls it “Our Little Sweet Potato Island.” This image has stayed with me for so long that, whenever I look on a map for Taiwan now, I half-expect to see a tiny orange blob in the middle of the ocean, Not only that, I expect to see little tendrils of roots, sprouting into the water on any map.

My late dog used to lie on his belly on the floor, one leg tucked in and the other–*sproing!*–canted out at an angle. From above he looked like Taiwan, and thus like a sweet potato.

Black-and-white dog lying on belly with one foot out

Do not call Taiwan the sweet potato island when you visit. No one will know what you are talking about.

You might see it on older maps as “Formosa.” This is the name the Portuguese gave it in 1542. It was named this for a very long time, well into the 20th century. Although it carries with it a lot of baggage, my parents, at least, never seemed to mind it being called that, since it translates to “Beautiful Island.”

Language

“I speak only Taiwanese, not Mandarin,” is a common refrain for me when I go back home.

The people who have come over from the mainland to make their homes on Taiwan are usually perplexed. “But…are you uneducated?” one said to me. Silly cow,** I said back, this is Taiwan.

In the south, more people speak Taiwanese than in the north. In Taipei, the capital, you will find people who speak English. And most signs are spelled out in both phonetics and Mandarin, although Taiwan seems to have not decided on a system of romanization of the Mandarin.

Ah, the Mandarin. Yes. This is the official language of Taiwan. This is a hangover from the many years we were occupied, and then, the post-war years, when we were under martial law. Also, Taiwanese can be written, but it doesn’t have a strong written tradition.

Which I kind of love. Hearing a story told in my native Taiwanese is probably close to one of my top ten experiences.

Weather

Hot. Sticky. Rainy in the afternoons, providing brief respite from the humidity. Winter is the best time to visit Taiwan, hands down. We took a November visit one year, and although it rained a fair amount, it was still utterly beautiful. I’ll always aim for a winter or late fall visit. I’ve also been in December, and I loved it then, too, although the humidity made it feel like it was summer.

Bring layers. Light sweaters are a good thing.

Geography

In the mountains, there is coffee and bamboo.

There are hot springs in vinegar distilleries, at which you can taste the produce.

In the fine, fertile fields of the west, you’ll find such fresh vegetables that you’ll never want to season with anything but a little bit of salt, ginger, and garlic ever again.

Further southwest, mudflats are everywhere, and so are oyster beds. Have some oyster and dried-radish omlette; you’ll never be the same.

In the woods, out on the flats, in the cities–wherever  you go, eat the fruit.

Cuisine

Oops. See “Geography,” above.

Places I have Been and Loved

Anping Fort, or Fort Zeelandia: I love it because it is the last memory I have of my second uncle before he passed away. You will not have these memories, but you will find it very weird that there is a Dutch fort in the middle of Taiwan. Also, around the fort there are people making candy and you should buy some and eat some.

Kaohsiung: I love this city. Another uncle teaches at the medical college there, and my cousin teaches Mandarin for foreigners at yet another university. My aunt, an artist and loosely the inspiration for Marty’s aunt in the novel, had an exhibition at the art museum here. You will not have such memories. But you can walk along the Love River, and go to the wonderful department store, and have good coffee and a kick-ass Taiwan breakfast, all within just a few miles of each other.

Taroko Gorge: The waters through this gorge used to run so clear and so blue, but then there was an earthquake in 1999, one that really rattled the entire island. Since then, the locals say, the waters are still blue, so deep is the gorge, but they are very, very cloudy. It doesn’t matter. This is an extraordinary place and you will walk away knowing there’s nothing else quite like it in your recent history and probably in your near future.

TouLiu: This is home for me. It means nothing to you, except we grow great fruit and coffee. If we go together, though, I will make you visit. There is a street here called “Taiping Old Street” which is…I don’t know. It’s the place I eventually set some key scenes. But it’s also a place of great pain: the Japanese occupied Taiwan for a very long time, and this stretch of shopfronts has been preserved to recall this era of architecture and history. How strange, to remind oneself every day of this period, while you are going about your daily marketing.

japanese colonial architecture on Taiping Old Street in Taiwan

Anything else you need to know

Call me. I will talk your ear off. I will show you my photos. The place will steal your heart, and then some, and you will be happy you went.

Mostly, though, you are likely to be interested because you know me. Maybe you have read my novel, and you are a little bit interested in the things that drive Marty.

What drives us to visit a place, after all, but the stories we’ve heard about it, and the stories we hope to find for ourselves?

I do have tips for you:

  • When you get an idea for anything tangentially related to your book, write. it. down. You do not want to be kicking yourself for later.
  • Don’t forget to review this sheet of paper on which you will write things down. Do not pull a me.
  • Think of your book as a reader might. What things will this reader discover in your pages that would make them curious, or want to Google something or another?

What exciting things can you think of to do with the book you’re working on, or the books you’ve published? Tell me in the comments below.

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.