The Hats We Wear

Guest Blog by Melanie Unruh


2012-05-12 08.45.32.jpgAt my college graduation, my Spanish professor told my family that I am someone who grabs hold of an idea and refuses to let it go until I’ve seen it through to the end. At the time, I thought this was just an amusing anecdote, but the more I live, the more I know it’s true: I hate to be interrupted.  Inspiration is such a fleeting, fickle thing that when it comes my way, especially when it relates to writing, I don’t want to lose my flow of ideas.

Fast-forward to eleven years after that graduation ceremony. Uninterrupted work of any kind is a luxury, a miracle, even. On a given day, I am a teacher, a student, a wife, a mother, an entrepreneur, and yes, a writer. These are only the major titles. There is no such thing as continuity.

I love my life, but sometimes I think I’m half-assing every single thing I do. How can I call myself a writer when I have to force myself to carve out time for it? After my son goes to bed in the evening, I usually have a pile of dishes and a mountain of essays that need attention. I can’t remember the last time I changed the cat litter, but they’re not shittting on the floor yet, so that’s okay, right? The winter has been long and full of late night snacks, so I really need to start working out again. But what about writing? Continue reading

Dive In!: Actions Speak Louder Than Thoughts

by Marisa PC

One day about twelve years ago, I met with Sarah, a then-MFA student in poetry, to talk about her first attempt at writing a short story. It was a good story, a good discussion, and a strong stride toward friendship. I wasn’t Sarah’s fiction teacher, but as her friend, I had the pleasure of reading each of her stories and hearing her ideas for fiction. I distinctly remember when she ran one of those ideas by me: “I imagine my point-of-view character as a man who has a large aquarium with tropical fish. He likes to sit in front of the aquarium and think.”

“Good,” I said, “but he can’t sit and think in front of his aquarium during the story.”

Sarah wrote the story. The POV character was too busy juggling his duties as the husband of a dying woman with his affair with another woman to sit in front of his aquarium and think. But the aquarium was there, filled with tropical fish who also needed caring for, and now merely a feature of the story’s setting. Sarah knew of her character that spending time contemplating his fish calmed him. She also understood, after our conversation, that letting him sit and think on the page would create a lull in the action, a lull from which the story might not be able to recover. Continue reading

Sunday Sound-bites: The Week 3 Edition

By Guest Blogger Randi Beck

Think of today’s offerings as two tapas of the podcast world. Each is a very listenable 25-35 minutes and gives you just enough to think about but not so much that your head will explode.

Here they are:

why I writeWhy I Write

This one is brought to you by the National Council for Teachers of English and consists of 30 minute interviews with writers of all sorts.  The writers are delightful & inspiring. The host sounds like a morning radio disc jockey. The intermittent sounds of traffic, birds, and shuffling papers gives away the fact that all or most of these interviews are done over the phone…in other words, sound quality is not always top notch, but it doesn’t really interrupt the experience.  It’s still very new as it started up late last year, but episodes are released every two weeks.


Yes, if you are a frequenter checker-upper of what’s new and hip in podcasts, you’ve seen this name before. You’ll be entertained and (if you’re a good listener) you can learn some things about story-telling or gather some sci-fi/mystery/horror inspiration from these creepy, suspense tales based on true stories and legends around the world.  If you like being creeped out, listen before bed. If you don’t…don’t.  And here’s a fun bonus writing exercise: After listening to the tale in the 3rd person, try writing a short-short story in 1st person from the POV of a character living through one of these little nightmares. Go ahead and be a little crazy if you feel so inspired, taking on the point of view of the werewolf, murderous child, or disturbed elderly woman choking someone to death.


How to Write When You Have a 8-5 Gig


Life before a full-time gig:  writing and latte

Ever since I started a full-time 8-5 gig this past December I’ve been falling behind on everything from laundry and house cleaning to keeping in touch with friends (except for the scanning of Facebook which mostly just depresses me).  And of course writing.  Which makes me feel like I have no business writing this post.  It has been hard. So damn hard.  I can’t even imagine what my friends go through to work on writing, many even have written books!   And these are friends with spouses and children along with their full-time jobs and writing aspirations.  Some of them even manage to get exercise routines into their regular daily schedule! Continue reading

If At First You Don’t Succeed: How Writing Resembles Dating

By Guest Blogger Cynthia Patton


You might not believe this, but writing and online dating have a lot in common. How do I know this? I’ve been writing (and sadly, dating) for a considerable period of time. Admittedly, I’ve been writing far longer, but after a decade spent using multiple apps and sites, I’m practically a certified dating expert. (Although my lack of success with said dating might undercut this claim.) In any case, I think I’m qualified to make a few comparisons.

For starters, writing and dating both require a proactive approach and a thick skin. Think rhino hide. They also demand that one embrace rejection as part of the process. If you are a writer of any genre, you know the drill. You send out work, it gets rejected. You brush yourself off and submit again. Continue reading

What I Learned From Thinking About Teams: A Midpoint Check in!

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A glimpse of UC Merced

You may not know this about me, but I teach professional writing at the University level, and I love it!  There is a practicality to this writing style that aligns with daily aesthetic, a sense of order and audience awareness that, in the vast openness that is the creative path, offers my brain relief.  Not sure where to start?  Consider your audience.  Identify your purpose.  Find a way to deliver information that is quick and easy to digest (and use headings and lists because that often helps!).  In this way, professional writing realm really can resemble that plug and chug formula that (yes, I admit) I sometimes  crave.   (So, before you get all huffy, dude, I know…the prof writing forms can still have style and personality, but you and I both know that we can churn out, oh, say a blog post, in a matter of hours (or days if we are being a bit picky) while a story or essay or poem can take us years upon years  to complete…and then more years to have someone decide to publish it…)

Anyway, this is all to say that my two worlds – the professional writing world and the creative writing world – rarely intersect.  And yet, the practical professional writing approach CAN help us creative types approach our own work better.

And so, today, I want to offer advice I learned from my course readings about working in teams. Continue reading

On Copying and Imitation as Practice, Not Plagiarism

by Marisa PC


Every semester, as I teach scene-writing, I dedicate a class or two to dialogue. The content and pacing of dialogue are themselves worthy of discussion, but they are not my subject today. Instead, I notice that in at least half the cases, my students have difficulty punctuating dialogue correctly and sometimes struggle to paragraph it as well. Each time I teach it, I reflect on why these technical particularities come so easily to me. I’m detail-oriented, sure, and blessed with an undying love of grammar and mechanics. However, I’m also aware that no one—no teacher in a classroom, I mean—took time to teach me the hows and whys of dialogue punctuation. I’ve decided I learned how to do it through the practice of imitation.

In high school, I was already full of original stories to tell, but sometimes when another author’s work inspired me, I would rewrite it. I would copy in longhand whatever words had caught my attention, because I wanted to experience what it felt like to have such amazing words unspool from my pen. In no way was my copying an act of plagiarism. It was, rather, an act of homage—and of apprenticeship. I kept whole notebooks of song lyrics and passages from poetry and prose that moved me. Once, I even copied an entire novel but changed the point-of-view character to the one I preferred. Quite possibly, my long, attentive copying sessions led me to learn dialogue punctuation. I’m fairly sure it led me to learn other things about writing, too.

Among the creative writing textbooks in my possession is one by Nicholas Delbanco called The Sincerest Form: Writing Fiction by Imitation. I haven’t used it with any of my classes, but I find it an intriguing approach. Delbanco introduces each chapter with a short story—Tim O’Brien’s “The Things They Carried,” Bharati Mukherjee’s “The Management of Grief,” and Flannery O’Connor’s “A Good Man Is Hard to Find” among them—and follows with a step-by-step analysis of each, along with ten exercises promoting imitation of the story. The exercises for O’Connor’s story, for example, include incorporating dialect to write a scene between two characters discussing the Grandmother, writing five different endings, and expanding the relatively small role of the mother. An anthology of other stories and exercises follows.

Perhaps you have objected, as so many do, to the notion of imitation as a vehicle toward learning. You have your own style, your own stories, your own original you-ness of writing. I get that, I do, but Delbanco makes a strong case for such practice, pointing out how often we learn by example in other ways. We learn to walk and talk by example, he points out. Actors study other people’s actions and intonations; artists in their apprenticeship attempt to reproduce what they see. Delbanco goes on. And I’ll join him in promoting imitation as a fair practice.

Today I invite you to copy several pages of a story, essay, or book you admire or several poems by a poet whose work inspires you. Use longhand, and feel the words. If you want to take the exercise further, try writing a short original passage or poem of your own that follows the structure and mechanics of the admired piece. See whether you can develop a sense of how the author or poet of the piece you’re imitating made each decision—from word choice and sentence structure to development of character or theme. And if punctuating and paragraphing dialogue gives you fits, by all means, copy a long, effective passage of someone else’s and take note of what the author is doing!


In regard to the photo: Felix LaFollett is an African gray parrot who has his own Facebook page and is trainer to the people with whom he lives. As many of you know, I live with three parrots, and though they often repeat words, phrases, and noises, they are never merely imitating. Their gift of clear communication is one we humans should learn from and hope to emulate.

Sound Bite Sunday: The Bite-Sized Edition

Guest Post by Randi Beck

In honor of “bite”-sized sound bites, we’ll keep this intro equally small!  First, here are two bite-sized sound-bites (followed by one that is a bit more than a bite-sized chew):

writing-2bexcuses-2b-2bcoverWriting Excuses Podcast (“15 minutes long because you’re in a hurry”)

This show is primarily an advice & discussion session with some notable sci/fi/fantasy/romance writers.  This podcast is geared toward genre writers, but there are plenty of useful things here for writers of all tropes so for all you high-brow literary types, try it before you snub it. (Then erase it quickly from your list of podcasts so no one knows you’re listening to it.) Topics range from simple craft questions on POV and the like, to more sensitive issues such as cultural appropriation, gender dynamics, and colonialism. They also discuss issues on the business end of writing (how to hand-sell your book, for instance) and on the psychological end (how not to feel like an imposter). A great choice for the commute home if you write in the evenings or to enjoy with your coffee if you’re a morning writer.

rawGrammar Girl Quick & Dirty Tips For Better Writing, with Mignon Fogarty

A nice and tidy little podcast that tells you all you need to know about it right in the title.  It helped me solve my embarrassing who vs. whom incompetence once and for all. Imagine what it can do for you. (And if you like the podcast, the website is equally nice, tidy, quick and dirty.)


170x170bbDon’t Keep Your Day Job, with Cathy Heller (The not so bite-sized podcast that is still easy to digest):

This is one for creatives of all sorts. Its purpose is to inspire you to follow your passion by sharing stories of how other artists have made a living doing what they love.  It’s positive and uplifting…and the host’s sincere enthusiasm go-get’em attitude might eventually get on some people’s nerves. But there are some great stories here and good advice for thinking and living outside the box. A couple to start with: “Turning Misery into Motivation” (with photographer Elisabeth Caren) and “What Can You Do Today?” (with the host, Cathy Heller). Episodes are 45-60 minutes.

And that’s all…until next week!

When to Write What Consumes Us (And Why Josh Chan Should Keep Singing)

I was a teenager when I learned that writing “in the heat of the moment” ends badly. For example, if in the middle of a lousy afternoon, I wrote a poem about my lousy afternoon, the poem turned out lousier than the afternoon. As another example, in an episode of the musical comedy Crazy Ex-Girlfriend the character Josh Chan becomes so jealous of his two friends’ romance that, at his dojo, he bursts into impassioned song:

“Angry! Feeling . . . bad!” he grunts more than sings. His emotions are raw, and as a result he struggles to be coherent. He doesn’t have what a writing workshop might call “temporal distance”–he’s too close to the situation to be able to see it and reflect on it with any kind of grace. If he sang/grunted about it later (maybe the next day, maybe months or years after the fact), he’d have the distance needed to create something eloquent and worthwhile. That’s what some people–me included–might say anyway.

But since I’m an essayist who uses writing to thrash about in muddy contradictions, I’ll include a quote from Annie Dillard’s book The Writing Life:

One of the things I know about writing is this: spend it all, shoot it, play it, lose it, all, right away, every time. Do not hoard what seems good for . . . later . . . give it, give it all, give it now. The impulse to save something good for a better place later is the signal to spend it now. Something more will arise for later, something better. These things fill from behind, from beneath, like well water. Similarly, the impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is not only shameful, it is destructive. Anything you do not give freely and abundantly becomes lost to you. You open your safe and find ashes.

This passage (and, yes, do read the whole book) says adamantly not to wait, not to indulge in temporal distance, that if we feel the urge to express something, we should do so and do it now. Or does it say that? Dillard declares, “[T]he impulse to keep to yourself what you have learned is . . . shameful” (emphasis supplied). Maybe this means that we must reach a place of wisdom about a subject before trying to tackle it.

Image result for the writing lifeBut I argue with that. Waiting to write until we feel confident in our wisdom is like waiting to live until we’ve figured out how not to mess up. It’s the same logic commitment-phobes use to avoid serious relationships–“What if it doesn’t work out?” becomes the reason never to work.

Thus, the pickle is this: If we should write about what consumes us, but we should also have something to say about it that’s more enlightened than “Angry! Feeling . . . bad!,” how do we proceed? In another section of The Writing Life Dillard poses an illuminating Q&A:

“Who will teach me to write?” . . .

The page, the page, that eternal blankness, the blankness of eternity which you cover slowly, affirming time’s scrawl as a right and your daring as necessity; the page, which you cover woodenly, ruining it, but asserting your freedom and power to act, acknowledging that you ruin everything you touch but touching it nevertheless, because acting is better than being here in mere opacity; the page, which you cover slowly with the crabbed thread of your gut . . . that page will teach you to write.

These two Dillard excerpts in tandem suggest that (1) we must write about the thing that consumes us, (2) this writing must become wise, and (3) only the act of writing will empower us to accomplish (1) and (2). Put differently, Josh Chan can (should!) sing, “Angry! Feeling . . . bad!”–and he’ll have to keep singing to find his way to the real story.

As a teenager I learned that writing “in the heat of the moment” ends badly. As an adult I’m discovering that I should write despite that–heat is energy, after all–and I have to keep writing out of the original moment into other moments. As I draft and revise, the initial heat will transform into a stronger, more potent heat, a heat that dwarfs the disappointment, shame, ache, rage, or obsession that first goaded me.

So, this March and onward, write the tsunami in your head, the thing you dream and rant of, the thing you pen notes about on your hand and forearm, the hot thing that singes every article, book, TV episode, conversation. Write it in dumb words and broken sentences. As you write you will gain temporal perspective and build something that others need to hear–the page, the page will show the way.


The Elephant in the Room

By guest blogger Bob Sabatini

Well, now, it’s been an interesting couple of months, hasn’t it? When I was asked once again to write a guest post for yet another March, the first thing I had to know was whether I would be welcome or encouraged to write about “the Elephant in the room,” because that would make a huge difference in how I would frame whatever I might want to say. And do you notice how I didn’t even have to specify which elephant I was talking about? Sam knew exactly what I meant when I asked her, and I bet you did too. It is safe to say that the recent election is one of the most polarizing events in recent memory. And since I am a guest (blogger) in this house, I wanted to be sure I knew the rules. Continue reading