Learn “Deep Yes” so You Can Say “No”

JustineMuskLast year, I was on the verge of burnout and a friend sent me the most wonderful list: Justine Musk’s 25 Badass Ways to Say No.

I’ve always had a hard time rejecting requests, whether they’re from a family member, a friend, a coworker, or a total stranger. I want to be the perfect hostess, making sure everyone enjoys the time spent with me. Making sure everyone likes me.

My exhaustion last year didn’t only depend on not wanting to disappoint people. Life threw me a few hurdles: my dad’s fast onset of dementia, my mom’s reoccurrence of cancer, my husband’s shoulder injury, which although not life-threatening required caretaking duties. A person saner than me would have recognized that these events demanded less commitment elsewhere. But I barged on, over-committing myself to write a grant, organize a physics conference, join work committees and initiatives, and keep up with my regular volunteer duties in the community.

Hence the burnout.

Even when life doesn’t throw huge boulders in our paths, creative folks don’t always recognize that it’s okay to say “no.” It’s okay to set aside time to practice our art. We’re not being selfish. We’re not being entitled. We’re just doing what’s necessary to nourish that part of us that feeds our soul.

Justine’s list didn’t cure my tendency to instinctively say “yes” to any and all requests, but it I am learning to be more protective of my writing time. I’m not yet brave enough to say all the things on the list out loud, but it’s so much easier for my mouth to utter a “no” when my brain is thinking one of these:

-Life’s too short to do things I don’t love.

-My ladyballs are not that big.

-There is a person who totally kicks ass at this. I am not that person.

-The idea is bad and you must be punished.

-I no longer do things that make me want to kill myself.

-It would cause the slow withering death of my soul.

It’s easy to think that until we are published, sold our first photograph, or recorded our first song, we don’t have the right to turn down a request in favor of writing, painting, creating. But actually, we do.

Actually, we must. Read more »

The Sponsored and Sold Dictionary

All week I have been contending with Walter Mitty in my mailbox. Even words like o·nei·ric (/ōˈnīrik/ adj. formal 1. of or relating to dreams) have sponsored content, advertisements, and quotes from the movie.

It makes me want to see the box office bomb even less. I realize that the movie is based off of a James Thurber short story from the 1930s and features a copyeditor as the main character, two considerations that mean I may have eventually watched it. However, I’m not a fan of being a targeted market audience for quotes about living life to the fullest because in a moment of panic while studying for the GRE, I signed up for the word-a-day service.

I’d always been a fan of Merriam-Webster’s corporate history. When I was in grade school, I had a Webster’s dictionary that I began to realize was antisemitic.
Read more »

fucking writer’s block


i get writer’s block sometimes.  i fucking hate writers that say, “i don’t believe in writer’s block.”  they are assholes.  and i don’t mean that in a i’m a jealous/frustrated/hack writer kinda way.  well, maybe a little bit of that.  but mostly i just mean they’re assholes for issuing an edict to all writers everywhere.  fuck those dudes.

the rest of us writers, we get stuck sometimes.  and those bullshitty listicles on buzzfeed/flavorwire/huffpo really don’t do a damn bit of good.  (they do have nice cat .gifs, though.)  which is why i did a little happy dance when i read jeffery renard allen’s response when he was asked about his secret to fighting writer’s block (as part of the spring books preview in the chicago reader):

When I get stuck, I will pull a random book off a shelf, open a page, and start reading. I usually search for a sentence or phrase that strikes me, write it down on a sheet of paper, then start to improvise on it until I come up with something…

why the shit i never thought of that before beats the hell outta me.  but i freaking love this idea.  i love the thought of encountering a random phrase, or a scene, or a place, or a person and trying to imagine how one of my characters would react to it.  inserting my character somewhere they (probably) don’t belong will inevitably lead to some nice surprises.  and if that random fictional prompt is too much a stretch, i love the idea of my character even just reading what i’m reading & having them react to the writing.  do they throw the book across the room in frustration?  does it remind them of someone they used to know?  so many possibilities.  so friggin’ great.


The Zombies Descend

Photo by Lareign Ward.

Photo by Lareign Ward. In Texas, even the zombies are Longhorn fans.



Like many MFA students who are staying here for the summer, I’m going to need either a summer job or a large supply of gold teeth, and fast. So when a friend posted on Facebook about a zombie series filming in Spokane, I started thinking.

Sure, being a zombie extra wouldn’t be the steadiest job, but it’s chasing after people and moaning “BRRAAAIIINNNS” is probably less degrading than a typical day at a fast food restaurant (I worked in fast food for three weeks at age 18, and it did not end well). I also write creative nonfiction, and I’m always looking for new material. As a fellow student told me, “When you’re a writer, anything and everything is research.”

There’s no guarantee I’d get chosen once I register, of course. If all the people discussing The Walking Dead on my Facebook are any indication, zombie fever is running rampant. Still, here are a few reasons why I think me as a zombie just makes sense.

1) In high school, I played a stern East German nun and the ugliest girl in town, respectively. Appearing as a zombie with no lines in a series brought to us by the producers of Sharknado seems like the next logical step.

2) Give me a few milligrams of melatonin and call me at 7 a.m. the next day. You’ll be amazed at just how much I sound like a zombie in my inability to form complete words.

4) Want me to shuffle and lurch like a zombie? Put me in three-inch stilettos and watch my center of gravity vanish.

3) I don’t have an actor’s ego. In fact, after my triumphant turns as a nun and a hideous girl, I decided to major in theater as an 18-year-old undergraduate. It went poorly. My self-worth was so damaged that I decided to become an English major instead.



some things I have been wondering

photo by the author

photo by the author

I’ve been wondering about the implications of your saying, “soon we’ll have to have a second car just to take to the poor neighborhoods, because I’m not driving my car there.”

I’ve been wondering how that would work, and what it is about cars, and what is at the very center of your saying it.

I’ve been wondering how far out from themselves a person can usually navigate before the edges get dark and a person turns back in.

I’ve been wondering this not just about you.

I’ve been wondering what makes us deflate and what makes us expand.

We are in line at the grocery store and we are very polite and content with our things and we’ll smile at anybody and we look at no one too long.

I’ve been wondering who it is we want to see and what we want them to show up as.

I am sometimes sure people are wanting me to show up as someone opinionless, cheerful, someone they have known all their lives.

I am sometimes sure people are wanting me to show up as a piece of soft metal they can bend in their hands.

I’ve been wondering about when I came home to find the house trashed, the window open, the T.V., computer, jewelry, everything gone, it was then deemed safe to let two very large strange men with guns in the door who brushed past me with no introduction.

I showed up as victim and they showed up as heroes and we were all supposed to feel seamless in roles decided by who.

I’ve been wondering which car you have decided on, and who it is I want you to show up as.

I’m wondering if we can take each other gently apart, hair by hair, just to see.

I’m wondering when the fear falls out, will we know what to do without it.

poems of the people

I heard that you ask’d for something to prove this puzzle the New World,
And to define America, her athletic Democracy,
Therefore I send you my poems that you behold in them what you wanted.
- walt whitman

it’s april.  which means it is, once again, national poetry month—that time of year when poets try like hell to get non-poets to give a shit about poetry.  (i kid because i care.)  if we are to believe the poetry foundation’s 2006 report, poetry in america, then 64% of adult readers think that people should read more poetry.  not only that, but while more than 80% of former poetry readers find poetry difficult to understand, only 2% of poll respondents didn’t read poetry because they felt it was “too hard.”  to me, this sounds suspiciously like all those nielsen families who over-report the amount of time they spent watching pbs.

but i’d like to give the poetry foundation huge props for trying something different this year.  last fall, they asked america “what’s your favorite poem?” and, god bless them, americans responded.  i’m not even talking about the obvious respondents: professors, mfa students, and sullen/lovelorn teenagers.  no, i’m talking about the people you didn’t think gave a shit about poetry.

the favorite poem project has some pretty fantastic video footage of everyday americans not just reading a poem, but talking at length about what that poem—and poetry—means to them.  you’ll see a jamaican immigrant talking about sylvia plath, a marine reading yeats, a construction worker waxing about whitman, hillary clinton (and her husband) reciting some verse, and dozens of others.  it’s enough to make you believe that, goddamn right, poetry is not dead.

still, on more than one occasion, i’ve found myself siding with the non-poetry crowd, those who say the knock against much contemporary poetry is that it’s not—what’s the word?  accessible.  i don’t recall ever thinking that poetry should be *easy* mind you.  but damn if there haven’t been some times when i’ve seen a contemporary poem and just thought, “you’re fucking with me, aren’t you? you fucker.”

that being said, i recently got a piece of direct mail from the poetry foundation, and in it was a quote attributed to the magazine’s editor, don share.  that single sentence is, perhaps, the best counter-argument to that “accessibility” issue that i’ve ever heard:

The value of reading contemporary poems, apart from the considerable pleasure of thinking about what they’re up to, is that it gets us to focus our attention and sharpen our critical skills, things we need more than ever in an age, like ours, of distraction.

i swear, i’m ]this[ close to subscribing to poetry magazine myself.


Springtime in Spokane

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I come from Texas, a land where school is canceled and the news channels go to round-the-clock coverage if two inches of snow falls. When that happens, Snowpacalypse 2012 (or whatever year) is all anyone in town can talk about. The grocery store shelves are bare. Drivers are warned to stay home unless it’s an emergency. apocalypse

Then I moved to Spokane.

I knew winter would be rough, but I didn’t quite know just how rough it could get. It snowed, and no one seemed to blink, although a few people did say, “You think that’s bad?” and shake their head, almost as if they pitied me.

The plows did not come through, at least not on my street. I am told this is not unusual, but it was still jarring to walk outside and see what looked like an ice rink that spanned several blocks. The snow fell, and it did not melt. More snow fell on top of it, and that didn’t melt either.

By early February, I felt numb, both physically and emotionally. Nothing was alive, and it seemed like nothing would ever be alive again. Everything was cold and gray. Colors no longer existed.

I bought a SAD lamp, but it was hard to even muster up the energy to turn the blasted thing on. When I did turn it on the first time, I was dumb enough to look directly at the light. Being rendered temporarily blind did nothing to improve my mood. At my lowest moment, a Lana Del Rey song came on the radio and I started yelling: “SUMMERTIME SADNESS? IT’S 3 DEGREES OUT, YOU MORON!”

Gradually, something shifted. A few weeks ago, I switched from my  heavy coat to my lighter coat (the latter being the only coat I really needed back in Texas). The snow cover started melting, and sleet and rain started falling instead of big, thick snowflakes.

Then, a couple of weeks ago, I started leaving my coat in the car when I ran errands. This was around the time the sun decided to start peaking out from  behind the clouds again, around the time the clocks sprang forward and the sun started setting at 7 p.m. instead of noon.

Nowadays, I walk outside my house in the morning and feel like Dorothy leaving her tornado-battered house and entering the world of Technicolor that is Oz. There’s an asphalt street instead of a yellow brick road, and there are screaming schoolchildren across the street rather than Munchkins, but that’s OK.

There’s also no sign of a benevolent blonde witch in a puffy pink dress, but hey, it’s only April.



The Poetry Machine

The Poetry Machine

Whoever Bert and Frank are, their little poetry machine is genius.

A friend of mine just introduced me to this cool toy: The Poetry Machine. It sounds a little dystopian, I know. A machine that takes over writing all the world’s poetry. All the poets sent to dungeons where they spend their days counting rocks or some equally mind numbing task. But no, this poetry machine is nearly perfect in that it requires human creativity to make the poems. What makes this machine great is that it provides a series of prompts in the form of images and questions, and the machine operator has to insert their original brilliance. After doing this five times, the poem pops out, and the poet gets to edit it and add a title before it’s all over.

Try it out and post your Poetry Machine poems in the comments.


Riots around the Corner

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Photo from the ABQ Journal

According to the US Census’ 2012 data, about 555,417 people live in Albuquerque. That’s about a quarter of the population of New Mexico. It is a majority-minority town and state. The state often markets its tricultural harmony.

Nearly 18% of the people here live below the poverty line. Starting police salary, without differentials for overnight shifts, is about $35,000 a year.

Several years ago, there was TV show called COPS. The intro song went like this”Bad boys, bad boys. Watcha you gonna do, watcha you gonna do when they come for you. Bad boys, bad boys.”

The vague pronoun “they” appears to refer to the police. Does the ambiguous “bad boys” refer to the police or suspected lawbreakers?

The show had a little film crew who rode along with the police and taped them making arrests. The crime series aired on Fox for 25 years.

Albuquerque has a lot of drunks and homeless people. Many people come into town and go on benders.

Since I live close to the Route 66 and the university, I’m near a lot of bus stops and places where people are allowed to sit in public for free. Empty, inexpensive pints of vodka litter my neighborhood.

Homeless people are often entering the dorms on campus and trying to sleep in the warm buildings, out of the wind.

Walking to work one morning, I encountered a man weaving his way down the street on a bicycle. He appeared neither homeless nor housed. “You have nice eyebrows!” he said as he wobbled past.

The drunks here are mostly harmless. Every few days, some Native Americans will catcall me in Spanish. (I am white; I could be Hispanic or Anglo.) They are just as likely to say something vulgar, as they are to offer some potato chips or ask for a couple bucks to get another beverage.

Part of the energy with the COPS show when it filmed in Albuquerque was that racial dynamic between the police and the people being arrested. Part of it was that the combination of characteristics was foreign to the rest of the U.S. In one episode that residents have shown me multiple times to explain the popularity of COPS involves a drunk Native American crossdresser in trouble with the police. For most of the country, this is a bizarre combination. It is a reminder of some social problems that stem from 500 years of colonization.

The TV show started filming here all the time. Every time you watched COPS it was taking place in Albuquerque. The mayor finally banned COPS from filming here—the show was giving the town a bad reputation. We did not appear to be three cultures holding hands and singing kumbaya.

In the last two weeks, the police have shot and killed two men.

One had his hands up in the air and was agreeing to come peacefully. He was homeless; they were arresting him for sleeping in the foothills. Read more »

What would you agree to for a writer’s residency?

Image of Denver Platform and Amtrak  Train

Denver Platform View, copyright Kathleen Crislip

There is a lot of chatter around the Amtrak Residency Program for writers. Free long-distance train ride with a sleeper car equipped with a bed, a desk and outlets. Countryside views unattainable from any other type of trip. Inspiration.

Writers flooded Amtrak with applications—8,500 in just the first week. Twitter is ablaze with the hashtag, #AmtrakResidency. This tells me that for many this opportunity is worth the cost. By cost, I don’t mean an application fee because there is none. The cost is giving up all rights to application materials, which includes a writing sample of up to 10 pages.

In legal-speak, the Official Terms of the program include provision 6, “Grant of Rights,” as quoted below.

In submitting an Application, Applicant hereby grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy Applicant’s Application, in whole or in part, for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing, and to sublicense such rights to any third parties. . . . Applicant grants Sponsor the absolute, worldwide, and irrevocable right to use, modify, publish, publicly display, distribute, and copy the name, image, and/or likeness of Applicant and the names of any such persons identified in the Application for any purpose, including, but not limited to, advertising and marketing. For the avoidance of doubt, one’s Application will NOT be kept confidential (and, for this reason, it is recommended that the writing sample and answers to questions not contain any personally identifiable information – e.g., name or e-mail address – of Applicant.)

Critics have come out against the program for this reason. Dan Zak calls it a sham in his Washington Post article. Mr. Zak points out the media coup this is for Amtrak, now getting crazy publicity for their long-distance trips, which are reportedly operating in the red by millions. Ben Cosman, writing for The Wire, shares parts of an email from Julia Quinn, Amtrak’s Social Media Director, written to The Wire, clarifying Amtrak’s intentions: Read more »

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