Submission guidelines for Reads & Eats

In July,  I started a new publication called Reads & Eats. (View it here.) Each month, I pen an essay about an American food I’m obsessed with, from club sandwiches to Long John Silver’s crumbly bits and everything in between. I also feature an emerging writer. It’s my way of sharing my platform as a published writer and professional editor.

Here’s what you need to know to submit to Reads & Eats. 

You must be:

  • An emerging writer with fewer than five paid publications. None of these publications should be a book.
  • Marginalized (I do not ask for proof or anything like that.)

Your submission must be:

  • A work of either fiction or nonfiction
  • 1250 words or fewer
  • Pasted into the body of your email
  • About food in some way
  • E-mailed to readseats@gmail.com

I accept 25 submissions per month. If I have reached this cap, you will get an autoreply. Please wait until the 8th of the following month to submit again.

Writers get paid $100, and I buy first Internet and Online Rights for two months. After that, all rights revert to you. Please reference Reads & Eats in future publications. You also get a free yearlong submission to Reads & Eats.

That’s it! Super easy, but write to me if you have any questions.

watercolor of carrot and broccoli in a hottub. they are smiling.

Meanifesto: How I’m addressing my complicity in the America we have today

cartoon of businesspeople walking around blindfolded on edge of cliff

Years ago, at my MFA program, a person who was considering joining the MFA test-drove a workshop. After, the new guy came up to me and said, “I just wanted to tell you, you’ve adjusted to life in America really well.”

full set of diverse facepalm emojis

It had been a long time since I had heard something like this, so I just smiled and said, “I’ve lived here a long time.”

Some of you will be horrified reading this. You will say, “Oh! He was so rude! He should not have said that to you!” To you, I say, thank you for being offended, but I have not given you some key information: This man was at least in his late 60s. He had come from rural Washington state. He probably did not interact with a lot of minorities, and he was genuinely trying to give me a compliment. To people like this I give a little grace. And anyway, his was not the real infraction. The real infraction came later. My professor and I debriefed a little about this incident. I approached them about it. I just felt like it had to be addressed. But I’m sure I laughed about it, treating it as if it was some kind of aberration–Can you believe that guy? I am sure they said something like, “I’m sorry this happened to you.”

This encounter, this laughing and this debriefing, happened in front of some other students and a guest faculty member of some standing, further evidence of how little weight I gave it. While I was talking to my professor, I noticed the guest faculty, who I’ll call B.D., over their shoulder, gazing off into the distance. He was well within earshot, and I remember thinking how odd it was that he did not exhibit any kind of shock over what I had experienced in class. He was deliberately escaping it, I felt, or trying not to take part in a conversation that was not for him. But my professor gripped my hands and repeated something like I can’t believe that guy, and we eventually parted, them to their dinner engagement with said guest faculty member, me to the bar, I’m sure.

Are you ready? Here’s the infraction.

We revisited later, my professor and I. And they said, “I’m really sorry that we brought that up in front of B.D. He must have thought we were nuts.”

At the time, I felt a deep sense of shame. Yeah, I said. Sorry about that.

I can’t remember what they said.

I no longer give a fuck, except I do. Because this fact—the fact that I felt bad for causing someone discomfort over a bad thing that had happened to me—makes me complicit in what is happening today. My apology, the fact that I’ve not been able to comprehend until now what was happening at the time; the thirty-some-years I spent trying to “fit in” (read: be more white) before I published my first novel from a minority perspective and realized Oh shit, I am going to have to market this thing like an Asian-American, because that’s who I am and that’s what white America sees and this book with this character who speaks perfect English and swears like a sailor but who is Asian is going to be confusing for some of them; the hundreds of times I valued people’s comfort over making them practice my name until they could get it right—all of this makes me complicit in perpetrating a system that allowed the deaths of so many black people.

“America is convulsing,” writes Melvin Rogers in a post on George Floyd and police brutality and the protests that followed. (If you don’t know what I’m talking about yet—say you live in a different country—please read on here, and then come back.) “Convulsing” is accurate. But there are two different kinds of convulsion going on: Yesterday I read a post on Facebook that yelled, “racism has no place in 2020,” and an immediate comment afterwards that said that when the commenter watched the tape of George Floyd’s murder, he “saw police brutality, not racism.” The commenter was ostensibly asking a question, but when I pointed out that police brutality was a symptom of systemic racism, he immediately dismissed me: “People seeing what they want to see.” (It’s worth noting that the original poster had not made an attempt to clarify.)

And then some other jackhat piled on, saying that there was an Asian cop, there, too, so there, or something like that.

It was at this point that I left the thread after chucking in one more hail-Mary, something about how Asian people aren’t immune to acting on behalf of systemic racism, duh. But these white men were not going to listen to me. So I left the thread, and I asked a white friend to step in, because white people only really listen to other white people. A rubber band had snapped in my head. I had been civil as long as I possibly could, and I knew I was no longer capable of it.

But then I realized two things. First, I have spent forty-five years (that’s how old I am, coincidentally) training myself to be civil. I have amassed a vast library of diplomatic linguistic gymnastics that I can deploy at will. I practice them. I try and educate myself in logic and the art of having the difficult conversation so that everyone walks away feeling okay about themselves.

Some of this is rightful: I have a big voice, and I’m a tall woman, and I grew up in a household where we were bullied a lot, so I spent a huge part of the first half of my life acquiring and defaulting to a lot of bluster and useless noise, and I wanted to divest myself of that, speak more concisely and with more meaning. I spend some time in humanitarian relief and the stakes are higher there, so I’m happy to continue to try and built a cushy, comfy place for every one to have conversations in, even if they’re dominated by white men, so we can make people’s lives better after hard events like conflict or earthquakes. And I teach, so I want my classroom to be a place where students can really learn, and that means a light touch.

But some of this is wrong. Every time I overlook a comment that sits wrong with me; every time we don’t have the difficult conversation about that thing you said, I am favoring the continuation of a racist system that values some people’s comfort over others.

Second, I did not give a rat’s ass about these people I was fighting with. They did not matter to me, and they were surely the responsibility of the person who listed them as “friends.” At the very least, they are the responsibility of themselves.

Oh! Some of you will say. One bad apple does not mean a bad system. These examples are just anecdotal. In fact, someone once said this to me, when I brought to their attention the fact that a racist had been working with us. This person would jovially call out for his Korean wife, or Cambodian wife. Of course he meant me, because I was the only Asian around. And of course I laughed it off, until I couldn’t anymore. (Remember when I said I was complicit?) “A company’s culture does not define its systems,” this person said, and I about lost my shit. We were on video conference, though, so I carefully re-arranged my face from disbelief to deferential. “For the sake of this conversation and in hopes of some action on this front, I’ll let you have that, although I seriously disagree,” I said, or something like that.

Friends, I have a lot of practice rearranging my face. A white friend from high school once told me me that she was pretty sure she knew more about growing up as a minority in the town we grew up in than I did growing up poor. I said to this person, “Let’s keep talking about this. It’s important.” This required some re-arranging of my insides, as well.

I said earlier that I was complicit. You’re complicit, too. Every single time you expected someone to “be civil,” to “have a reasonable conversation about this”; every time you shied away from calling a racist comment what it is; every time you valued someone else’s comfort over righting a wrong, you were complicit. Every time you stood by thinking that “liking” a minority friend’s comment showed enough support when they were fighting some racist blow-hard friend of yours? This is why we are where we are today. You valued your comfort, your relationships to the offender, over what was right. That day, you showed me where I stood in your social strata, how much you value me.

By now you are wondering, Hell, when is she going to get to her meanifesto, already? And you are wondering why I’ve misspelled it, because you know I am a stickler for correct spelling and grammar.

We are here.

First, some realities:

  • America is a nation founded on racist ideologies and white supremacy. Here, read up on Levittown, Long Island, one of the first-ever suburbs. Thomas Jefferson believed blacks were inferior. The division between black people and white people was written into the colonial law in the 1600s. And after that, the courts were the ones who decided who was white and who was not. There is “white” and there is “other.” Everything else follows. These are incontestable facts; don’t @me like that one student who wrote to me to tell me she disagreed with a dictionary definition.
  • 47 of the U.S.’s 50 governors are white.
  • Congress is 80% white.
  • The industry I work in, publishing, is 87% white.

These figures in and of themselves do not make a nation racist. What makes it racist is the belief that white is better. This is experience I have lived, and this belief is instilled in us from a very young age. It isn’t our fault. It is in the air we breathe.

Second, the pledge I am making to myself, my meanifesto:

I will not value my comfort, nor anyone else’s comfort, over breaking this system of inequity.

Here’s what this means for our interactions:

  • I expect you to do your homework. A more diverse world is a better world for you. Invest in it. Read books by black authors. Read up on your American history as it pertains to white supremacy and black people, and no, your eighth-grade history class doesn’t count, because your textbook does not tell you what you need to know.
  • Get ready to experience discomfort. I expect you to make me uncomfortable, too, when I do something wrong. And I will go wrong. We have a lot to learn.
  • I usually default to nice. That may happen less now.
  • I’m going to be asking a lot more questions.
  • We will talk about race. There will be no more euphemisms.
  • I may come across as mean to you, or tactless. I’m okay with that.
  • I’m going to be prioritizing compassion (more on that below).

Two interactions in the academic space are on my mind. First, one in which a Latinx instructor serving on a diversity and inclusion committee with me lamented that he never knew when the right time was to bring up diversity. It is always, always the right time. And second, when the well-meaning white instructor of a class I’m taking in creative nonfiction asked after our well-being and then wrote, “I know that we’re all here to learn and grow as writers, not necessarily to discuss politics or racism.”

This comment illustrates the problem I have with most conversations about race and politics: For minorities or immigrants living in white America, who cannot escape the fact of our race, every space is a space to discuss politics and racism. This is my life, because white America sees me as other and treats me accordingly. But white Americans do not live my life. They do not have to cart around a face that immediately conjures up all kinds of stereotypes; a name that immediately has people wondering, “Oooh, what exotic locale is she from?” (This is just the way our brains work. I am not blaming anyone for prejudice, although being aware of it helps a lot.)

White people are not playing on the same ball field as minority America. No wonder all of our conversations are screaming matches: We cannot hear each other from our individual stadiums, much less see each other. We aren’t even working from the same knowledge base.

cartoon of businesspeople walking around blindfolded on edge of cliff

There’s been a lot of call for empathy. I don’t have much patience for it. You, a white woman or man, cannot possibly know what it is like to live an Asian woman’s life. You cannot empathize with me. I cannot empathize with a black man. But we can have compassion for the idea that our lives may be different due to the color of our skin. You can leave space for a deeper understanding. You can try to visit my playing field and see what it looks like.

I have said a lot here. I’m going to close with two requests. Please take some time out of your day to take one of the Implicit Association Tests. You need to know which implicit biases you are carrying around, even if you are one of those who claims you do not see color. I suggest starting with the one that addresses skin tone preference.

Also, here is a great list of books to read. I will add two more to this list: Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be and Doug Stone’s Difficult ConversationsBooks on the list provide context and background. The two I am recommending provide concrete steps to put what you’ve learned into play.

Don’t go around blind. It’s a colossal waste of time, time that you could be using getting to know the America we live in and love.

Have a nice day.

 

 

 

Seeing hidden systems: Part 6 of live-blogging Dolly Chugh’s _The Person You Mean to Be_

A family of three stands outside a straw hut covered by a white tarpaulin. They are a man, a woman, and a child. Two solar lanterns hang from the hut.

This is part 6 of a multi-part series on Dolly Chugh’s The Person You Mean to Be: How Good People Fight Bias. Chugh writes about how to move from believing in good, with all of its slippery connotations, to building structures in our lives that allow us to be better, and make more connections. Each post will start with a quote from the book. Leave comments for me below. Let’s talk about what you think. Buy Chugh’s book here, so we can discuss more at length.

Many of DENCAP’s customers and health-care providers come from Detroit’s African American, Middle Eastern, and Hispanic communities, so Joe wanted his employees to reflect those communities. Many of DENCAP’s customers are also on Medicaid. “Detroit is 80 percent poor. I want employees to understand what my customer base is struggling with.” …A younger Joe might not have seen these possibilities…He just knew he could do better.
Noticing has been a big part of the journey. Joe began paying closer attention to experiences he may have missed or dismissed in the past.

Dolly Chugh, The Person You Mean to Be, pp. 92-93

Part of my volunteer work for ShelterBox involves the distribution of ShelterKits and ShelterBox tents. The former is a set of tools that is usually paired with two robust 4-meter x 6-meter tarps. The family can use the tarps to replace walls that have been taken down by floods or earthquakes, or roofs that have been blown off by hurricane winds.

The latter is our signature piece of equipment. It’s a big white igloo tent that can shelter a family in the most urgent times of need.

Along with this kit, we also distribute kitchen kits, water-purification units, blankets, solar lamps.

And education. We teach the families how to use the equipment we’ve given them so that it can best help them through the weeks and months after a disaster. Things like water-purification units come with a prescribed set of directions. Tents should be erected with tight guy lines, so that the fabric doesn’t flap in wind and isn’t as prone to tearing. And we have a worksheet that tells you how to best use your tarp so that it’ll last a long time, until you can get a real roof or wall up.

But when we come back to check on the families as part of our post-deployment monitoring process, we see some modifications to the family’s kit. Sometimes they’re using the tarp in ways we never envisioned. In the Philippines, where I was most recently, some families were using them as covers for production of their coconut harvest, so they could work longer hours without as much heat exposure. “Oh, that’s cool,” we said. “We haven’t seen that before.”

Some families were using them in still other ways: they had draped the tarps loosely over the frames of their homes, leaving the ends flapping free. We approached the families. “You know, right? That you can use the roofing nails we gave you to nail down the tarp? Here, fold it over, like this”–we demonstrated–“so that the edge will be even stronger. And then put the nails right in.”

“And then, for this one here,” we went on, helpfully, “where you have it doubled over? See? There’s a seam here. You pick at this seam, and rrrrip!-—” we mock-tore at the tarp-—”you now have two tarps!” We may have grinned. “See?”

Our interpreters dutifully gave the instructions. The families nodded politely. And then they told us that they had it hanging so because they didn’t want to put nails into the tarp. That they wanted it to remain whole.

That they couldn’t be sure, in the future, if another, bigger storm might come through, when they needed to have true, strong, whole tarps to depend on, rather than a variety of half-tarps with holes in them. Or they needed them for their harvest. Or their family members who weren’t working and who didn’t have a means of building a new room quickly needed them instead.

This is Violeta and her husband Wilmy, with their son Reince. Wilmy was cutting hair for his neighbors when we met them for this photo.

These are all systems that were not readily visible to us. Things we couldn’t see right off the bat. Sometimes, it’s hard to see beyond fulfilling what’s an obvious, immediate need.

We are still duty-bound to repeat the education, just in case someone couldn’t be at one of the training events we put on for the community, but I am always interested to hear what the family has to say about how they’re using the equipment we gave them.


Another book I’m reading, Story Genius, presents some methods that help writers to craft great novels. Author Lisa Cron posits that a novel doesn’t go anywhere without the writer understanding what the character’s underlying beliefs are.

As with any theory about process, Cron’s may not work for everyone’s brain. But it definitely works for mine. When I was penning the nineteenth (or thereabouts) draft of my first novel, my thesis advisor begged me over and over again to look for my character’s north star, just so I knew what she was about. And another trusted friend, writer and professor John Brantingham, urged me to make her act in correlation to this north star. “She is a protagonist. She must protag,” read John’s margin notes to me. Between the two of them, I have the single most common piece of advice I pass on to new writers.

Cron and my thesis advisor are pointing to things that lie in the background of any good story. They may not necessarily be stated outright, but they eventually manifest in the character’s actions, to Brantingham’s point. So that everything makes sense. So the narrative rings true.

Without knowledge of this narrative, the writer can’t convey why we are meeting the character at this point in time. And the reader, consequently, won’t care.


I don’t think it’s too much of a stretch to say that hidden narratives (or, in Chugh’s parlance, hidden systems) underlie a great many misunderstandings. Someone once said to me that they didn’t understand why homeless people didn’t just go out and get a job like the rest of us. Welp, I said, to get a job you need an address. To get an address you need first and last month’s payment, plus a bank account. To get a bank account you need a social security number.

Years ago, someone told a table full of us about the narrow escape he’d had as an exchange student in 1980s Kenya. He said he had nearly been the subject of human trafficking. His host families were about to sell him on the black market. The guy sitting next to me said that this story showed that Kenyans were so corrupt. He wouldn’t mind, he said, if the whole population just up and disappeared. Of course that’s wrong. But what mattered to him then, at the telling of that story, was how awful he felt that our friend had had this happen to him.

A decade ago, the writer Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie gave a TED talk about about the danger of the single story. You’ve probably seen it, but it’s worth another 15 minutes. Here:

https://www.ted.com/talks/chimamanda_adichie_the_danger_of_a_single_story

What I told my friend that day draws from the end of Adichie’s talk: No matter what we think of a population, or a group of people, there is always a story we don’t know. There is always a reason things, and people, are the way they are, and do what they do.

In the case of Kenya, we need to look to the long, ugly history of colonization, and lack of representation, and the imbalance of power before we judge what feels like an innately corrupt system.

In the case of my novels’ heroines, we need to understand that the heroine is coming from someplace when we first meet her. She was not just birthed, the minute we open the book.

In the case of the families we help at ShelterBox, we need to keep our minds open to solutions that we can’t, in our need to address the urgency, quite see yet.


What I think I want to posit is this: Seeing hidden systems means we have to step a little bit outside of what’s easy. We need to work to find another narrative, to dig a little deeper into someone else’s story.

But although it might look like work, it feels like joy. It feels like scratching an itch. It feels like satiating some curiosity. This kind of curiosity is exactly the reason that the two Youtube channels titled “How It’s Made” and “How Its Made” have a combined 800,000 subscribers. And why etymology is fascinating. And why science shows and nature documentaries will aways be interesting.

And why, because it’s almost football season here and I’m about to lose Mr. Gooddirt for two days out of the week, instant replay is even a thing. And why I’m always interested in seeing slo-mo videos of dogs missing treats tossed at them.

https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=6w2UxDdhZPk

We love to see how a thing happens.

If we can apply this innate curiosity to finding out how people are the way they are, and how they’re they’re different, why they’re different, we can alleviate a lot of misunderstanding. And, if we assume hidden systems behind everything we see, maybe we can prevent a lot of hurt.

What’s the last misunderstanding you had debunked for you? Or a time when you were able to provide perspective to someone? Tell me in the comments below.

*ShelterBox has deployed an assessment team to the Bahamas in the wake of Hurricane Dorian. Please have a look here to see how we decide to respond: https://www.shelterboxusa.org/home-page/decision-to-respond-criteria/

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The Daily Life Text

Welcome to WordPress. This is your first post. Edit or delete it, then start writing!

Tipping Points

The Daily Life Text

Over Twitter a little while ago, the author Sequoia Nagamatsu posted this:

I don’t have the same feelings Mr. Nagamatsu has about literary Twitter–I think I probably read Twitter with full knowledge that the medium is totally curated–but I think it’s good to take real stock of what the hell happened over the course of the year.

Like, how the hell did I get to the point where it’s year-end already, three full years after I decided to write a new novel and had already decided what it was going to be about, who the heroine was, etcetera? How much time have I spent on Netflix? How many books have I re-read because I couldn’t take starting anything new???

Here’s my loose stock-taking of some things that mattered to me:

Some shows I binge-watched that I can remember:

Supernatural
Dr. Thorne
Penny Dreadful
Lucifer
Unbreakable Kimmy Schmidt
Grace and Frankie
Cheers
Death in Paradise
Father Brown
Great British Baking Show
Jack Taylor
Jackson Brodie

Books I re-read because they were “comfortable”:

God knows how many Dick Francis novels*

*I did not count many of these in my Goodreads reading challenge

Books that I didn’t finish reading, lying open on their fronts next to my bed:

Lord Jim (Joseph Conrad)
Midnight in Broad Daylight (Pamela Rotner Sakamoto)
Redeployment (Phil Klay)
The Man with the Compound Eyes (Wu Ming-Yi)
Under the Tuscan Sun (Frances Mayes)

Books on my TBR pile, depicted with photo evidence:

(This is only a partial pile.)

Number of words I wrote towards WIP: about 10K

Number of new works produced: 11 (counting articles for The Writer magazine)*

*I’m being generous here. Works on commission truly should fall into a different category.

Number of new works published: 7 (but 1 written in 2017)

Classes and workshops taught: 6+

So…okay. Looking back, not a great year for creativity. I did a couple of drawings, and made some new friends, so all of that is really good. But the last time I wrote anything new and fresh (excluding lesson plans) was in October, and that includes anything posted to this blog, which is kind of sad. Because writing is like a muscle, and if you don’t use it, it will eventually atrophy.

The good news is, there is a backstop for writers, and it is called The Cranky. It’s the natural enemy of atrophy. If I don’t create something new every once in awhile, I get cranky. The same goes for my relationship with exercise: If I don’t run or get on my bike or something involving sweat and the outdoors on a semi-regular basis, I get very hard to be around.

When I was younger I used to say that I longed for a life in which exercise was a natural part of my life. You know, like, I’d get exercise by clearing out my yard, say, chopping wood or feeding chickens (???) or something. I have a yard now, and I could spend all my days raking and pulling weeds and pruning things, but I don’t.

I can, however, exercise something similar when it comes to writing. Regular blog posts and newsletters are like the gardening of the exercise world. It can be done everyday as part of your tasks, even without your realizing it. But it must be done, because otherwise, the balance of one’s writing life gets tipped.

This year, my friends and I produced three issues of our literary magazine and managed 2 writing retreats. I taught one college-level class and one graduate class, and a handful of workshops. I came up with a bunch of new ideas for posts, got excited about them, and then distracted with some other things and lost those ideas to the wind. I don’t know that I’ll ever get them back. As of now, at the end of the year, I’m starting to feel really, really sad that I let those ideas go away. And I’m starting to realize how important it is for me to be better about balancing the work you do for a paycheck with the work you do that addresses your need to put some new ideas out into the world, ideas that are your own.

Here are some things I did right:

  • Started using a desktop app called SelfControl that blocks me from certain sites while I’m working, an hour at a time
  • For a time, I was writing first thing in the morning before it got light and then going for a run or other exercise immediately after
  • I logged most of my hours, whether it was time spent on retainer or time spent on project-based fee work

So I guess I’ll close with some new resolutions for 2019:

  • Write when the mood strikes, even if it’s just writing ideas you had down someplace
  • Be cognizant of what I’m doing with my downtime
  • Balance client work better with creative work
  • Take forced time off

As I get older, I’m learning more about my work processes and my particular failings. I suppose the good news is, there always seems to be another year to rectify and adjust. But it’s good to continue to take stock.

How did you do this year? What did you do that you’re proud of, or not so proud of? Tell me in the comments below.

 

 

Finding Your Fingerprint: Live-Blogging _The Business of Being a Writer_

The Daily Life Text

This is Part 12 of a multiple-part live-blog of Jane Friedman’s The Business of Being a Writer. Parts 1-11 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.

Sometimes ‘platform’ is used as shorthand for a writer’s celebrity factor…Think of your platform as a fingerprint: your background, education, and network affect what your platform looks like in the beginning…platform can’t be built separate from your creative work. (The Business of Being a Writer, page 173)

I met Friedman while I was a student at my MFA program. Her talk to us was the first time I had ever heard the phrase “platform” used with regard to a writer’s resume; and, at the time, I just filed away my notes from her talk and logged the phrase in my head.

But I was coming to an MFA from a different perspective than many MFA students do, I think: I was already an established writer and editor and had credits and a publishing history to speak of. In short, I already had a “platform”; I’d just never referred to it as such.

But as I gain more distance from my past as a writer, I am beginning to realize that maybe I never did really have a platform that I could really call consistent. For a long time, I specialized in writing about the outdoors and the environment. (I discovered the personal essay around this time, too, and have never really left that behind.) Then I realized I wasn’t very good at reporting, so I went into marketing and copywriting, and actually, I’d write anything if it kept me in funds while I was working on my novel. I stayed there for awhile, but I found I missed editorial, so I went back to dabbling in that by way of some freelance writing in the environmental world and eventually found a home in editing and critiquing longer work.

I once heard a respected businesswoman say that she believed you should reinvent yourself every six or seven years. She said she based that on some biological fact about people’s cells: every six or seven years, we get a whole new set of cells–by then, everything should have turned over. Okay, I buy that. And it’s kind of nice to believe so.

But how are you ever to build a platform if you are, like me, perpetually curious?

Well. You can specialize–really dial in to one thing or another. That wasn’t something I was really willing to do. I’m interested in too many things to confine myself to studying one thing. Or you can do what I think of as layering. I’ve pulled the lens way out on myself, and if I were to envision it, my platform would now look pretty broad.

I’ve been called a “renaissance” type of person, and while I don’t exactly love that idea–jack of all trades, master of none, is the impression I get from that description–the truth is that sometimes, your personality is what ends up defining your platform. And at the end of the day, what feels right is sometimes just plain right.

Here’s what feels right to me right now:

“Hi. My name is Yi Shun. I’m an expert in working with words.”

Here are a few things to consider for when you start thinking about your own platform:

  • Consider what fires you up, what makes you lose time when you’re working on it.
  • If you’re stuck, go back to the basics that Friedman lists: your education, your background, and your network. What do these things say about you?
  • Whatever your platform is has to jive with your personality. For instance, I know a friend who loves to write about outliers, and that’s because he has aspirations to be an outlier himself, although he’d never abandon his family to do so. Another friend is fascinated by extreme sport, and so his professional life has tinges of extreme thinking in it–he regularly pushes and challenges his team to go outside of their comfort zones.

What would you say your platform is? Tell me in the comments below.

 

 

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

The Daily Life Text

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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

Some tips:

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

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

When Your People are Hurting: Part II

The Daily Life Text

Part II: Far

In 2012, I went to Peru with ShelterBox. In the state we were working in, pocket communities needed shelter after their homes had come down in mudslides. And in 2011, in Arkansas, a community needed help after tornados came through their region. In Malawi in 2015, big floods wiped out farmlands and grass huts.

In each of these disasters, before I deployed, friends asked, “What’s going on there?”

I never get tired of answering this question, for a specific, singular reason: People always care.

Even in these terrible, fractured times, folks are always concerned when we tell them what we’re working on. Perversely, they are even more concerned if it’s a disaster they’ve not heard of happening, or if there’s something else happening closer by that’s been taking over the news cycle.

Here’s the hard, horrible truth about refugee or displaced persons situations, whether manmade or natural: Our attention is demanded by so much else, our world so much smaller now, that the suffering of people both near and far can slip off your radar screen before you even know it existed. So when I get a chance to let people know about things that are going on that they may not have been aware of, I see it another way to help.

It’s easy to forget that people still care. While we can’t deny that humanitarian plights are too often used as political action points, we should also remember that everyone deserves an equal chance at life, especially if they’ve been through things the lucky among us can’t even fathom having to experience.

While eyes are on the damage Hurricane Harvey has caused right now, ShelterBox is operational in eight other locations and monitoring several other crises. My teammates are working in Nepal and we’re positioning a team for Bangladesh; our partners are busy working in Cameroon, Chad, and Niger, and our work with the Syrian refugee crisis is in its 6th year.

The New York Times‘ Neediest Cases fund runs a campaign that costs nearly bupkus. Throughout the year, you’ll see a boldfaced phrase at the bottom of columns or scattered in other places across the paper; it reads, “Remember the Neediest!” Whenever I see this, I think of people far away from areas of terrible disaster and displacement, thinking of those who are the neediest.

Thank you for your support. Every donation helps agencies who respond to crises to be ever ready.

spinning-globe

Shelter, Warmth, Dignity–and Education

The Daily Life Text

Hello.

Two Fridays ago I returned from Haiti, where ShelterBox, the disaster-relief agency I volunteer for, is helping the nation to recover from Hurricane Matthew.

As always, there are many different things I saw and people I met that left me feeling richer and better rounded, but I want to take some time and space today to reflect on something that sometimes gets overlooked in our normal understanding of relief efforts.

So let’s picture what people think of when they think of disaster relief: Food. Medicine. Shelter. Yes. All good, necessary things. But what happens in the immediate days after a disaster? Depending on where you live, you’ve probably encountered a sign like this somewhere in your neighborhood:

tornado-shelter

Where do you usually see them? Civic buildings, generally: Stadiums, churches, sometimes–and schools. Schools are well-built; it’s the place to which parents will naturally turn if a natural disaster strikes during school hours, since they’ll want to see if their kids are okay.

But quite often, places of education get turned into shelters that may serve a population for weeks on end if families have no place to turn.

When we arrived in Haiti, a few days after Hurricane Matthew came through, schools had already been pressed into service. One chalkboard I saw had its last lesson on it, from September 28. When we left Les Cayes, there was no news as to when schools could go back into service.

The problem is, when schools are housing families, serving as places to stay safe and out of the elements, they can’t be used for their original purposes. In the Haitian earthquake of 2010, schools only started to reopen after a few months. And in Malawi, where I was last year, even after schools opened to regular classes, classrooms were still serving as shelters, so families had no place to go during the day, while school was in session; and school staff and communities had to work every morning and every afternoon to effect the change from classroom to shelter and back again.

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The classrooms in this school in Malawi were doing double duty when we showed up: They were serving both as shelters for families while they rebuilt their homes and as proper classrooms. You can see the kids in their school uniforms with my teammate here.

The effect of natural disaster on a society goes far beyond the more acute needs of food, medicine, and shelter. It’s one of the reasons aid agencies like ours work so hard to get families back onto their home sites, so life can go on.

For more of our work in Haiti and worldwide, visit ShelterBoxUSA.org. And for more detailed information on what effects disaster can have on education, see this paper from the Brookings Institute.