Things I’m Working On

Some notes on “literary community” for writers

Sunday morning, grey out, and there are sooo many things on my mind, not the least of which is what feels like a metric ton of snot pressing on my sinuses. Sorry, Internet, but you needed to know what you’re dealing with.

I’m still noodling over the first part of my book tour, and this thing folks are calling “literary community,” or “literary citizenship.”

What does it mean, exactly? Some have said that, in order to be a great literary citizen, you need to show up at book signings and readings. You should volunteer at your local bookstore and buy books from your indie bookseller whenever you can. You should support other writers.

I agree with all of these. But there is one aspect of literary community that I think is often overlooked in the great equation of “platform building”: You were a reader before you ever became a writer. It’s easy to forget that, when you are all writerly stuff, all the time. Here’s some of what that means for me:

  • When I asked for beta-readers (read: test readers) for my novel, I asked folks who are readers, not just writers. That is, I asked friends who were not at all connected to the writing world, and who were avid readers.
  • When I craft events, I try to build in an element that the non-writers in the audience will enjoy, as well. Sometimes this means asking someone outside of the writerly world to interview me; sometimes it means making an event that everyone can enjoy. Either way, I like it when someone walks away from an event with a take-home.
  • I read willy-nilly. That is, I read outside of my own genre on a regular basis.
  • I work extra-hard to maintain relationships with people who aren’t writers. This isn’t to say I value any of these relationships of any of the others. I’m just a little hyper-aware that it takes more to maintain friendships with folks with whom you don’t also work.

Now, looking back over this short list, I think it maybe comes down to this: We are more than our professions. We are well-rounded people with lots of interests. When we think about our writerly careers, we should also consider the stuff that falls outside of the writerly boundaries.


No Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

What “Being On Book Tour” Means


Hi there. It’s been awhile, hasn’t it? Sorry about that. Things have been a little cockadoodle, as they say in the dark hinterlands of my brain.

I have had an amazing few months. But that also means I have been neglecting this blog, which is really sad, because I really like this blog, this talking to you. Sure, I keep a diary. But somehow, work feels different when you know it’s being read by others, doesn’t it? Also, a lot has happened, and while none of it has changed much in my status quo, it is still worthy stuff to be sharing.

I have been on Book Tour. Many people have been asking How That Feels. Here is how it feels:

  • Before you go: “I have to leave the house again? For how long, this time? OH OK FINE.
  • During the events: This [reading/workshop/panel/event] is the best thing ever! I want to do this forever!
  • After the events: …What just happened?

Yeah. That’s pretty much what it feels like. But here’s what it really is:

  • Staying with friends, in their spaces. Taking that in; feeling the pieces of the puzzles–click, clack, flippity–that are your friends fall together, because you have been where they live, walked where they walked, had tea and coffee from their kitchen appliances.
  • Passing on all the knowledge you’ve amassed up until now; watching folks get excited about their own projects.
  • Exploring towns and cities you’ve always wanted to spend more time in, even if it’s freakishly fast-moving time.
  • Seeing friends you might not otherwise get to see, even those you haven’t seen in a decade or more.
  • Seeing friends you only, until now, knew online. Realizing the pleasant fizzzzz that is an online friendship gelling into something tangible–a hug! a shared interest in good liquor and food!
  • Meeting new writers you never heard of; discovering work from writers you never knew; hearing them read from their own works and walking away feeling ever so much wealthier for it.
  • Meeting booksellers. Getting to thank them in person for the work they do to forward literature.

So yeah. That’s what being on book tour is like. And that’s why I’ve been gone. But I’ll be back here more frequently, I promise. I have missed you guys. So here are some photos, as a thank you for sticking with me, along with some links. And you can sign up for my brand-spanking-new newsletter here. It’ll go out once a month and cover what I’ve been reading, some things I saw that you might be interested in, and maybe even some embarrassing photos of my drawings. 🙂 (More likely it’ll have some writerly tips and tricks, and some other brain flotsam like upcoming events and locations.)

Okay! The photos!


Not A Self-Help Book: The Misadventures of Marty Wu now lives at the Lopez Bookshop. I was invited to appear there in conversation with my good friend Iris Graville.


Signing books! So much fun when surrounded by an amazingly curated selection like they have at Lopez Bookshop!


In Seattle, I got to read at the incredible Looseleaf Reading Series, along with four other really talented writers and the amazing musician Ramona Shore. Here, my talented friend, Whidbey Island MFA classmate, and Looseleaf co-founder Samantha Updegrave introduces us, along with Looseleaf co-founder Suzanne Warren. (A tremendous shout-out here to my friend Roz, without whom I am reasonably sure only a fraction of this PNW traveling would have been possible.)


This is Iris’ dog Buddy. <3.


Writers leave notes for each other.


Sunrise, from the front window of the house we rent while on Whidbey Island.


The Kenton Library, in Portland, OR, where I hosted a workshop on memoir smack-dab in the middle of the day, and then followed with drinks with a friend I’d only ever known on the Interweb. What a treat! My friend Haley Isleib, a children’s/young adult writer and screenwriter, invited me to teach here. Friends are awesome.


Mt. Hood, Oregon–from the Fruit Loop. Fruit Loop! Not a breakfast cereal. Hosted by my friend Jo, from HIGH SCHOOL! Eeee!


Llama llama ding dong, on the Fruit Loop. (Not just fruit, obviously.)


In New York, I was honored to appear alongside Jen Baker (creator and moderator of Minorities in Publishing), Hasanthika Sirisena, and Leland Cheuk in a panel at the amazing Word Up Community Bookstore in Washington Heights. Y’all, you need to go to this incredible space. Tremendous thanks to Hasanthinka for setting this event up!


In Chicago, I was in conversation with Alexandra Salomon, producer for WBEZ’s WorldView at Chicago’s wonderful Women and Children First Bookstore. I’m privileged to call her my friend and proud to count her among my peeps.


And these people. These people saw my novel in its very first draft. They are Tabitha Olsen and Nancy Stevenson, members of my Chicago critique group and talented writers themselves. You can buy Nancy’s book for middle-graders, about a code-cracking, plucky heroine, here. It’s called “Capitol Code,” and it is every page worth a read.


I miss you, Chicago.



In wonderful Decatur, Michigan, I was hosted by my fast-talking, speedy-thinking friend, Ami Hendrickson. If you’re in need of a writing coach, Ami can help. We had amazing conversations and have wonderful synergy, and I was so happy to visit her and learn from her. Here she is, teaching her class on narrative.


St. Joseph’s, Michigan, where I visited with Listen to Your Mother host Kim Jorgenson Gane, was a wonderful town to hang out in. I will visit again, St. Joe’s. Get ready.

IMG_4524And the whole shebang kicked off with a trip to Skokie, Illinois, to teach a workshop on memoir at the Skokie Public Library. Folks, public libraries are IT. Go. Visit. Support.

Okay. That’s it. More soon. I promise. In the meantime, don’t forget: The Newsletter!

No Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

A Real Wookie of a Father’s Day

I went to a high-school graduation the other week.

Bonita High School Graduation

Bonita High School Graduation

The crowd was amped. The parents never stopped looking for their children, and when they picked them out among the sea of green or white gowns, there was frantic waving, shouting, and something uniquely American: the “Wooo!” that is the hallmark of any excited person living in these United States.

Woo! It took me ages to learn how to do this, with varying levels of success. The first time I tried it, I adopted the Julia Roberts version, the one where she’s at the polo fields in “Pretty Woman”? In that spotted brown dress with the big, big hat? “Woof! Woof! Woof!”

I had to try, you see, because the Woo! had not made its way into our family. Certainly it never came out of a woman’s mouth. Men, in my family, express approval with stern nods, compressed lips, vaguely approving eyebrows, I think. No one ever smiled. Certainly no one ever whooped. So I had to work on it, make it sound casual, make it sound like I really meant it.

But here in America, we whoop. We whoop at everything. We whoop at goals; we whoop when people get married. We whoop when we have managed to land a Cheeto into our moths after tossing it into the air. We whoop when we have manage to get on-board a flight at the last minute.

I know this, because after many, many years of practicing, I have developed a passable “Wooo!” and I deploy it at will. With impunity, whenever I damn well feel like it. Sometimes I think I might even Wooo! more than I high-five. (At best, it’s a close call.)

Now that I am 41, I can “Wooo!” with the best of them.

Anyway. I digress. When it was my turn to graduate high school, like five thousand years ago, I was kind of…trembling. Not from excitement. No, I was worried that when I crossed the stage, there would be crickets. I wasn’t especially popular; I had fought with all of my best friends during school at one time or another, and I knew my parents wouldn’t make a peep. I didn’t have any visiting family, either, not that they would make a peep. Sure enough, they didn’t.

But I was lucky; apparently I did have friends, and they whooped for me, even if the size of whooping was smaller than it had been for our homecoming queen or princesses, or that girl who was so nice that everyone liked her even if her accomplishments were questionable and she missed all the college application deadlines by accident.


may have dreamed this. But I think, months later, my parents commented on how enthusiastic Americans were, how happy they were. How awesome it was to hear all the noise, how joyful these parents were for such a small accomplishment as graduating high school. What, after all, is there to be proud of? Almost everyone graduates from high school.

I think I may have smiled weakly.

Anyway. Maybe it wasn’t by coincidence that, not long later, at a baseball game, with my brother and I yelling at the players and me occasionally get poked in the leg by my Ma, who was not excited at all to hear her daughter yelling, “You suck!”* at a random player on the field, my dad got up and did the wave. And out of his mouth came a noise that made me freeze solid. It was a cross between a cow in some kind of pain, although it sounded like it wasn’t actually sure if it was in pain, and Chewbacca. “Uuuhhhhhh! Whuuuuuuuh!”

I stared. My dad was  cheering. He was working on it, just like I was working on my Woof.

Four years later, I graduated from college. First, I heard my brother. “THAT’S MY SISTER!” and that was awesome, but then, everyone already knew my brother is capable of generating awesome. Then, the dying-cow-choking-Wookie noise. “Uuuhhhhhh! Whuuuuuuuh!”

My dad, cheering for me.

Never was a sound so welcome, ever.

Here’s to the dads. The ones who buck everything they know, everything they think they know, just to make a kid feel special.

*I no longer do this. The PollyAnna in me says “Everyone is trying their best on that field.” And then, “Oh, look, hot dogs.”

No Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

How I landed my publisher

…Or, I obsess over my spreadsheets.

I’m sure every writer writes a post like this. But every writer’s experience is different, and every writer’s publishing experience might be different, so I wanted to add my voice to the mix. Plus, this Friday I am teaching a workshop on publishing at my alma mater, so this is a good lead-in.

Oh, hey there, final product of years of work, or something!

Oh, hey there, final product of years of work, or something!

Here is my road to official pub date (May 6!), by the numbers:

  • Months spent querying, in total: 21
  • Agents queried: 85
  • Agents who didn’t reply at all: 20
  • Eventual offers of representation: 1
  • Small/indie presses queried: 21
  • Offers of publication (2.5; one wanted a rewrite that would have sucked the life out of the thing, in my opinion)
  • Heavy revisions: 2
  • Folks involved in the final, pre-offer, big revision (includes one top-notch agent; one publisher; one acquisitions editor): 7
  • Months between final revision and offer of publication: 4.5
  • Months between offer of publication (contract signed) and actual publication: 11

Here is my road to official pub date by mistakes I made/things I did:

When I started querying I felt I had worked so hard on this manuscript that I decided I was going to be bull-nosed about it. Much of the constructive feedback I received from agents I binned, for no good reason. A lot of this was stuff I couldn’t do anything about, like “I didn’t connect with the voice,” or “I’m not a fan of epistolary novels.” But some of it was very concrete, actionable stuff. Lesson learned: Keep every personal rejection. You will use what you learned, what they said, later in your writing career.

When I got a form rejection from an agent who had shown great personal connection in a previous correspondence, I followed up. It had been sent by accident and he had constructive, useful things to say. Lesson, with caveat: If you feel very strongly about something, I think it’s okay to follow up. But be smart about this. Don’t rant, obviously. And really ask yourself if it’s the right thing to do. 

I didn’t pay attention to conventional wisdom about novel length. Mine was too short by about 6,000 words. I joke about the day a top agent asked me to add 6,000 words (“Oh, sure, I’ll do that while I’m pooping”), but it is an agent’s job to sell books, and your job to write them. It was my great privilege to have had this feedback. And it made my work way, way stronger. Lesson learned: Some conventional stuff you can ignore–“Oh! Everyone’s writing YA now! You should write that!”–but some stuff you should be paying attention to. 

I didn’t make this my full-time job. I know for most of us, this is an impossibility. But I could have easily spent at least two hours a day querying, or at least working on my connections in the industry. And I didn’t. Sometimes, whole weeks went by where I didn’t query. Lesson learned: If you really want to make this a part of your life, get on it. 

I did my research. And I leveraged the crap out of my community. Every single guest lecturer I met at the MFA program I graduated from (the ones that made sense, anyway); every single friend I’d ever talked words with–they all played a critical part in the making of this book, from introductions to agents to how to Make Things Better. I’d have never been able to do this if I existed in a vacuum. Lesson learned: Literary community isn’t a buzzphrase. It’s a living, breathing, thing, and you should contribute to it and then gain from it. 

I included the fact that my manuscript was on offer in my bio. Every time I wrote something for someone, I asked them to mention it. This led me to experience one of the greatest possible moments in a writer’s life, ever, even including publication: Some random bigwig agent wrote to me to say she’d read my essay and loved it, and needed to see my novel. Lesson learned: Er. Sometimes pipe dreams actually happen? Yes? Yes. 

There is so much more I could say about this. But I don’t want to give up the bulk of our lecture on Friday. 🙂

And P.S. You can buy my book here and here. And visit my awesome publisher here.






Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Brain Flotsam 6

Welcome to Brain Flotsam, the weekly digest of things I read, saw, or otherwise encountered that made my week more interesting. This week I saw five friends in person and got to interact with so many more in real time. What a great, packed week. And, the following:

  • One night this week I dreamed I had tried out for and made the high school cheerleading squad. We had to go to a tournament soon after. And I spent all of my time F-R-E-A-K-I-N-G O-U-T. Like, “I can’t do this! I have never been in a TOURNAMENT before!” And then part of me said, “Ridiculous. Why do you think they picked you for the squad? You have been training for this all your life! A tournament is just a bigger tryout! You can do this!” I like to think it was my conscious, slowly realizing I was dreaming, or do I like to think that? Wouldn’t I rather think that my subconscious, telling me that I can do whatever it is that’s coming my way? (NB: I have never wanted to try out for cheerleading, although I did rather envy the little pleated skirts and tiny sweaters.)
  • Sometime last week I stopped hitting “like” on facebook posts. (I borrowed the idea from this guy.) I think, honestly, it was because the introduction of the new “react” options tipped me over the edge into decision fatigue. Now I react only using comments. I think it’s made me a more thoughtful person. (Don’t laugh.)
  • A new museum! It’s of broken hearts!
  • I made this fish stew this week. It was delicious, and then I left it out on the counter after we’d had our second meal from it. Sad. Oh well.
  • The MFA program I graduated from is closing its doors this semester. I don’t have anything coherent to say about this yet, except this: I am sad that I won’t be able to give back to the community that gave me so much, now that I’ll be a published author soon. Lesson learned: contribute whenever you can. Don’t wait.
  • I am still reading Stephen King’s It. I would like it to end sometime soon, and it looks like it will. After this, I think I should read something rather less gothic. And shorter. The last time it took me this long to read something, it was Moby-Dick (chapter 18! Still no whale!) and I was on deployment in Malawi, and I never finished it.
_It_ feels about as big as this whale.

Stephen King’s _It_ feels about as big as this whale.

I think that’s it for this week. Hopefully by the next time we check in together, I will have finished reading _It_ and moved onto something comforting and fluffy. What did you see this past week? Tell me in the comments below.

P.S. My MFA program’s mascot is the orca whale. I think I won’t be able to look at Orcas for a long time without feeling a little bit sad.


Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

On Greatness, or By Way of a New Year’s Resolution

My friend Mike signs all of his cards thus:



I thought it such a nice sentiment that I asked him about it. Why does he sign this way?

Mike says it’s a hangover from his days coaching pro and Olympic athletes. “I hope it has some kind of positive impact, however fleeting it may be.”

My brother signs his emails “Be good.” And I know a guy whose outgoing voicemail message is “And remember, Carpe Diem. Seize the day.” Do these things have positive impact on us? Does hearing  them remind us to “be good,” or “carpe diem”? Does seeing a gentle reminder to “be great” actually encourage us to do just that?

For me, seeing it–“Be Great!”–sent me into kind of a rocket-launch of both memory and aspiration. What does it mean, for me, to “be great”? I think, although it might look like a mere inspirational message, it does so much more than that. After I’d pressed him a little, Mike said, “Maybe it is a subconscious reminder to me as well. I think it is about intent and the journey towards, not necessarily the destination of being great, per se.”

Alexander. He of The Great. Not related to the point of this post at all.

Alexander. He of The Great. Not related to the point of this post at all.

For me, I recalled all the times I ever felt great–being with friends; helping a writer to produce and publish something s/he’s proud of; the day I followed my natural desire and chased a red balloon down the street, having seen it from my office window. And then I also recalled all the places I’ve felt great: in Malawi with ShelterBox; Mousehole, England; Guadalajara, Mexico, to name a few recent places. And that led to all the things I’ve done that make me feel great: Trying to learn a new language. Writing a new essay. Visiting a friend. Reading a terrific book. Trying to and semi-succeeding at sight-reading music from long-buried memory. (Okay, that last, more “relief” than “great.”) Cleaning out a drawer or two. Yes, seriously, if only for a fleeting moment. It’s okay, there’s always another drawer.

I think this is what Mike meant, when he talked about the journey towards being great. It’s about all the things we do en route to the end of each day that make us feel great.

Do all these memories make me want to “carpe diem,” or define what greatness is? Not exactly. They make me want to seek out that sensation, over and over again, of greatness, of having done something relevant to my own personal code of greatness. There is a difference.

The reminder to “be great” makes me want to find a way to feel great. And I want to feel great more often than not. So, for this year: Learning rock and jazz piano, maybe some blues, to keep music in my life. (Jazz hands! No.) Picking up a new language, with intent to acquiring some fluency. More work with ShelterBox. Visiting, and maintaining contact with, friends near and far. Letters. Always letters. And getting outside. And more writing. And publishing. And sharing stuff, and gifting, and and and and…

There are so many opportunities to be great, aren’t there?

What makes you feel great? Tell me in the comments below. 


Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

“Sparking Joy” is code for something else.

I’ve just finished reading The Life-Changing Magic of Tidying Up, by Marie Kondo.

I haven’t yet begun to tackle the first step, which is to gather all of your clothing into one place so that you can touch and hold each item before deciding whether or not it “sparks joy.”

That’s not in quotes because I don’t buy the concept. I get it. It’s just that I have to do this with all of my clothes, all of my books, all of my ephemera, and I can’t seem to detach myself from the “joy” that’s tied up in “memories.”

Marie Kondo would say that we need to drill down to the primary purpose of a very thing. Letters, for instance, serve their purpose the moment you open them, read them, reply to them. After that, there’s no reason to hang on to them. (The writers among us are shrieking, I’m sure.) I’m also willing to bet that Marie Kondo does not keep diaries. (I picture her mental space being clean, uncluttered, perfectly Zen-like in that she concerns herself with the here and now. This sparks a moment of envy for me. What must it be like, to feel so unfettered to what’s in the past?)

A partial collection of my diaries. Marie Kondo would say to dump them all.

A partial collection of my diaries. Marie Kondo would say to dump them all.

But maybe there’s room for interpretation. Take, for instance, this shirt:


Me and Pops in Buenos Aires. Credit: George Chen


I love this shirt. In fact, I am wearing it as I type. It sits snug around my biceps when the sleeves are pushed up, and more snugly across my shoulders than it used to (I have been swimming a lot). It has two chest pockets that I never use, because who wants lumpy boobs? It has tabs for when I want to fold the sleeves up and a tiny check pattern that I find both utilitarian and charming. Its button placket never ever really lies flat, no matter how many times I run the iron over it. (Which is, admittedly, almost never, because this is a shirt that looks better when it is rumpled.) It has good cuffs on it that I don’t button. I am more apt to let them flap, or roll the sleeves up partway, because this is also a shirt that feels better when it is half-done, like brownies and blondies: Better when they are half-baked.

My point is this: This is a shirt that sparks joy, but only partly because of its very being. It sparks joy because of where it’s been.

This shirt has been with me to at least eight different countries. I almost always pack it. It is far from being the shirt that makes the most sense: On a recent trip to Cornwall, England, where it rained down my neck and sideways at least four hours of each of the last 9 days I was there, it didn’t dry until I found a tumble dryer. And who takes a button-down traveling, anyway?

Marie Kondo, she of the anthropomorphic bent, might also say that the shirt likes to go traveling. That it finds its way into my baggage each time, that I would miss it if it weren’t along. I like this idea, but–it complicates things.

Because this shirt, and others items in my closet, carries with it joyful memories. In the photo above, it was in Argentina, then Antarctica, with my dad. In other photos in my facebook feed it is in Taiwan, looking cheery in a café next to a friend I hadn’t seen in 20 years; it is in Death Valley, at our wedding rehearsal dinner; in Claremont, hosting a dinner for friends; on a beach near Falmouth, Cornwall, looking sheepish because its fabric has failed to conceal the fact that my swimsuit is still wet and so there are embarrassing wet patches over my chest. Oh, well. It was still a damn fine day.

This shirt is almost always a shirt I am looking for. I wear it hiking; I wear it to the pool; I put it on over jeans and I tuck it in when I’m feeling the need to be neater than I usually am. I wear it out to walk the dog and for dinners in. I wear it probably once a week.

Maybe this is what Marie Kondo means by the need to hold each item before you can decide whether or not it sparks joy. Because when I put on this shirt, I imagine I can feel the grit of the Mojave; the crisp starchiness worked into the fabric from sea salt; the smoke from a steak dinner with friends. I think I can smell a story, like they say a dog can construct an entire narrative of who’s been where and where they were before, just from smelling one spot.

Is that joy? Are our memories tied up in each item? Is that a good thing? I’m not sure. But I’m keeping this shirt.

What item do you hang onto for its memories? Tell me about it below. 



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.



No Comments »

Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Some Thoughts on Missed Opportunities

When I was 16 I met a girl named Dana Hibma. We were both study-abroad students in Austria. There weren’t many people in town who could speak English, and we probably spent way too much time watching Euro MTV, but we also did some serious talking. One night, Dana told me she wasn’t afraid of dying, because she didn’t have any regrets about the life she’d lived so far.

We wrote letters for a couple years after that, and then, in reply to a letter I’d sent her, I got the worst note I will probably ever receive, ever: Dana had been killed in a car accident. I can’t remember who wrote to me. I’d glad they took the time to do so. (Pink envelope. Foldover card with flowers on the front.)

Anyway, two things this week have recalled Dana to me.

Wednesday: On my way into one of my local grocery stores, I spotted something unusual: a full family (father, wife with a kid in the stroller, two more kids), standing out in front with a cardboard sign: “Out of work with 3 kids. We’ll take anything: Food, water, money.” I nearly stopped walking; I was that surprised. See, I live in an affluent town, and it’s only recently that I’ve seen folks begging in our tony little downtown village. (Our police blotter is a hilarity to read.) I didn’t stop entirely, though; I wasn’t about to give this family money when I could buy them food.

Idyllic, hunh? No problems here, really!

Idyllic, hunh? No problems here, really! (Photo: Scripps College Admissions)

But when I came out with my own groceries and a family-sized hero sandwich ten minutes later, they’d gone. I looked for them for a while, up and down the little strip mall, and when I got back up to the same lady who’d checked me out, she confirmed the unpleasant feeling I was experiencing: customers had “complained,” so the store management had sent the family away.

I was disgusted, and now that I’m thinking about it, probably part of the reason I’m so bent out of shape is that this is the same store management, who, when I asked who I could talk to about setting up a fundraiser on behalf of the Nepal earthquake, with the agency I volunteer for as beneficiary, had held up both his hands at me, as if I were attacking him, and said, “We don’t have anything to do with that. You have to call headquarters.”

Two missed opportunities on the store management’s behalf in my book, now: One, a chance to stand out with upper management by offering to act on my behalf. Two, a chance to do the decent thing and maybe help out the family with food, or at least not make them feel like stray dogs. IRONY ALERT: This store actually TAKES DONATIONS where you can buy a bag of groceries on behalf of a family.

Actually, there were three missed opportunities: I’d be a loyal customer for life if I knew this was a store that looked after its community.

One missed opportunity on my behalf. I did actually think to myself that I bet my town would be the type with shoppers who would complain to store management about folks panhandling in front of the doors, and I did think briefly that maybe I could take the family to the quick-serve Chinese joint just next door, buy them a hot meal, but I didn’t act on that first instinct. (By the way, my cold hero cost just as much as a full meal for the entire family at the Chinese joint.)

Are you keeping track? Because I kind of am, and then something happened Friday that was an almost-miss on my part. Stay with me, because this gets a little confusing. (And, before you ask, I’ve spoken to the person involved, and s/he has agreed to let me share this story.)

I was reviewing the open queue for submissions to our literary magazine. (Writers submit their work, $6 per submission for nonfiction entries between 1,500 and 6,000 words.) I was into a submission, enjoying it, when I started to lose the narrative thread, and wondered where I was in the essay, page-count wise.

I blinked at the page count: Folks, I was reading an essay that was 46 pages long, nearly 3 times as long as a submission of 6,000 words should be. I took a glance at the cover letter. The writer confessed to knowing what our word limit is, but then added that she was open to editorial guidance.

Oh, guys, I was utterly gobsmacked. And then, I was angry. What arrogance! What cheek! What utter bullshit! I fired off a can-you-believe-it note to my co-editors, hoping for what I now know was approval at my pissiness, and then I sent off a standard form decline note to the writer.

The submissions engine we use asks, “Are you sure you want to do this?” I only hesitated a little bit before hitting “yes.”

But I didn’t sleep well that night. The writing in the essay I’d been vetting had been good enough to string me along for nine full pages before I got suspicious, and usually with good writing, I’ll at least send out a few editorial notes with a rejection, telling the writer how I believe they can improve their essay. Sometimes, in place of a rejection letter, I’ll send a note asking if the writer is willing to work on a revision with me.

Something about this essay had piqued, and I hadn’t even given the writer a chance. I was kicking myself, which is crazy, because really, it wasn’t my fault s/he had chosen to send along a 16,000-word essay when s/he knew damn well I only accept up to 6,000. And s/he’d paid for the opportunity, so I was pissed at the undue burden of guilt and the money s/he’d wasted.

Still. The next morning, after a brief confab with my co-editors, I opened up my email and wrote to the writer. Briefly, I explained where s/he’d gone awry, and that s/he’d received a form decline as opposed to editorial guidance because of it. I hoped to get through that I was really mostly pissed off because s/he’d squandered both the chance for the essay to see the light of day and for me to publish something I actually really liked for the first 3,500 words or so, until I started to wonder where the damn thing was going.

And then I invited a reply.

I didn’t know what s/he’d think or say. We editors all have stories of vitriol and ingratitude from well-meaning missives.

But I was lucky. The writer wrote back. The reply was enlightening. We’re talking on the phone this week about the essay, with hopes.

I suppose I’d file this under second chances, really, rather than missed opportunities, for both myself and the writer. I probably should have never pressed the button to decline, thereby closing the door further, without actually giving myself  a chance to think about what I was doing.

The essayist had thought about submitting for a long time, knowing that the essay was too long, but s/he took a huge chance and did it anyway, which some would see as carving out an opportunity, but in my letter, I called the submission a “missed opportunity, for a not very good reason.” In the end, the quality of the work saved the piece from possible obsolescence, and for this, I am deeply grateful.*

I don’t think we’re meant to infer everything about life from my friend Dana’s philosophy of life, my community’s failure to look after its own, or my correspondence with this essayist. I suppose, if I were to infer anything, it might be that we all should do the best that we can do, and hope, in the end, that we won’t regret anything we’ve done or not done when we close our eyes for the last time.

*Do not take this as permission to ever send me anything over 6,000 words. Seriously.


Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.

Smugness is ugly. And useless.

There’s a BMW spot out there that chaps my hide every time I hear it. The guy’s voice is rich, and vaguely cultured, but also incredibly self-satisfied. It talks about how BMW has been “first” in bla bla bla etcetera etcetera.

It goes on like this for an excruciating 35 seconds. Clearly it is catering to the kind of person who wants to have the number-one thing in his or her garage, to look at and pat every once in awhile. “My precious,” so on. You get the drift.

This is on my mind because last week, I went to shadow the assessment course for the ShelterBox Response Team, and I think I finally figured out why this kind of advertising irritates me so much. (Those of you who don’t know, ShelterBox is a disaster-relief agency. I’m a member of the volunteer team that goes in to assess needs and deliver our bespoke disaster-relief goods, and our candidates go through a rigorous testing process before we can deploy them to disaster areas, for obvious reasons.)


The testing is hard, but one of the candidates this weekend nailed it when we were all sitting around chatting after the course had ended. I asked what he thought. He considered for awhile, and then said, “A lot of the pressure was internal, and not from external sources.”

People. I have never wanted to slow-clap so badly in my life, and not in an ironic way, either. When push comes to shove, we don’t really care where you got your degrees, or even what you got them in. We don’t really care what you did in your past life. We don’t even care what you do for your career currently. (Unless, obviously, it affects your availability to deploy for us.) We care about who you are, at your very core, and about the stuff you’re made of.

In short, it’s about what’s under the hood, and not about the stupid bling you have all over your walls. For BMW, and advertisers like them, it should be about building a better car, or product, just like we’re out to build the best ShelterBox Response Team we can possibly build.

I’m so honored to have been a shadow for the course this past week. We trainers can learn a lot about ourselves over the course of the four days we have the candidates, so it’s a doubly-rewarding experience, even despite the sweltering heat, danger plants, bugs, and navigational mistakes. (*cough*.) I hope everyone out there gets an experience like this once in their lives.




Writer, editor, general crazy-pants.