Category: writers

Step Into the Mind of Your Favorite Iconic Author

Angela Davis annotated If They Come In the Morning

Image from PEN American Center’s First Edition/Second Thoughts Auction catalog.

What if you could step into the mind of your favorite author while they wrote your favorite book? What if you could find out not only how they crafted that brilliant prose, but what inspired them in the first place? And what if you could find out how they would write the book differently if they wrote it today?

Guess what! Now you can. Well, if you have enough money.

Today, the PEN American Center’s First Edition/Second Thoughts auction takes place. If you don’t happen to be in New York, you can bid online or by phone.

More than 75 famous authors and artists annotated their most iconic work, including notes in the margins, whole essays, pictures, doodles, and in one case of a photographer, a whole new set of images added to the book. Participating authors include Alice Walker, Billy Collins, Tony Morrison, Jane Smiley, Amy Tan, Joyce Carol Oates and many, many more.

If not limited by funds, which book on the list would you bid on and why?

I’m torn between Barbara Kingsolver’s Poison Wood Bible, Sue Grafton’s A is For Alibi, and Amy Tan’s The Joy Luck Club. Each of those books showed me something new about reading, writing, and about myself. They are also books that have stayed with me longer–because of their characters, or story line, or plot twists–than some of the more established and more part-of-the-cannon literary works that I have read.

Here’s the PEN American center’s promotional video for the auction. It includes some of the writers reflecting back on what it was like revisiting their work.


How To Be a Writer on Social Media

We live in a bold new era. To become a successful writer, one must learn to navigate the unsteady currents of social media in order to discover, reach, and build an audience. No matter how groundbreaking your novel, a strong online presence gives you a leg up on your competition. I’ve outlined below a few basic strategies, including a few examples, for cultivating and maintaining a social media presence.

Getting short stories accepted at literary magazines is still a form of currency for finding an agent and a publishing company for your novel. Remember to keep your followers aware of any success, no matter how small. For example:

  • “My Short Story,” has been accepted for publication by Literary Magazine
  • “My Short Story,” has been published online by Literary Magazine
  • The issue of Literary Magazine with “My Short story,” has been published in print
  • In case anyone missed it, last month “My Short Story” got published.

Short stories may be a more pure form of fiction, but eventually it comes down to your novel. Consider sprinkling your news feed with some of these:

  • 100 pages in and feeling great
  • Whew! That’s 20,000 words in just two weeks #onaroll
  • Finished a new draft #couldthisbeit?

Even if you haven’t been working on your novel, you don’t want to stop the flow of information. Here are some examples of good generic posts about the writing life:

  • Nothing better than a good morning spent writing
  • So glad the muse returned. Never leave me again
  • Working on this story for months and just figured out the ending #epiphany

Social media isn’t just useful for getting the word about your novel. You can also crowd source for specific details:

  • What kind of music would a punk girl love in the early 80s?
  • What brand of suits would a hedge-fund manager in Connecticut wear?
  • What size tires would a ‘67 Buick Skylark need?

Read more »

Let’s Talk About Tao Lin

Like everyone in literary land, I’ve been following the events of the past week with a lot of interest. The allegations of rape and abuse have been absolutely abhorrent.

Tao Lin’s case—and the reaction to it—has been compelling. As everyone by now knows, Lin has been reviled for sleeping with a much younger paramour and subjecting them to an incredible amount of abuse. Clearly, what he did was reprehensible and he’s essentially admitted as much.

The open question seems to be—what now? Is Lin banished forever? Should he be?

Read more »

Amazon, Dissonance, and the Influence of Others

Colbert is "mad prime" about Amazon's tactics.

Colbert is “mad prime” about Amazon’s tactics.

I unliked Jeff Bezos before I liked him.

The reason I disliked Bezos and his company, Amazon, is pretty simple. My friends disliked them first. I realize that makes me sound like a lemming, but let’s be honest. Our friends have a lot of sway over how we feel about things. They influence our politics, our ambition, and our musical preferences. They help determine our buying behavior. I don’t drink Starbucks, shop at Wal-Mart, or buy Nike products, at least in some part due to the influence of my friends. And generally speaking, my friends don’t approve of Amazon. In this case, when I say friends, I mean a particular subset of my friends and acquaintances. I mean writers.

In the taxonomy of my Facebook friends, the categories, in descending order, are writers, former students, Peace Corps volunteers, people I knew in college or high school, and colleagues. Notice writers right there at the top? They are the people who most influence my mental space, insofar as that space exists on social media.

The writers I know are diverse and brilliant, and they are generally progressive – they, and I, tend to support the ACA and the DREAM act. They want to see assault weapons banned. They were down on DOMA before it was cool. They have equal signs stuck on their bike fenders and tattooed on their ankles. They’re also largely traditional in the way they pursue publication. They tend to take the slow road to getting published, sending the results of their long hours in front of laptops in coffee shops to editors, who the writers hope will find merit in the carefully crafted pages. Of course, it’s subjective. Of course, the writers are rejected. The rejection slips come, and the writers save them, delete them, maybe even frame them. They revise. They send the work out again. Onward.

Alternatively, they can take the fast lane to publication. It’s so easy! Just set up an account on Amazon and find the link that says “Independently publish with us.” Upload. Click. Done. Published. Right?

Few of the writers I know seem to engage in self-publishing beyond personal or shared blogs, like this one. Perhaps it’s because we distrust a system that has no checks and balances – if no editor is approving your work, who’s to say, other than you, that it’s any good? Perhaps it’s indicative of writerly technophobia. We love our paper books. We don’t want the system to change.

But some do. Read more »

Stories Sway Our Decisions

Last month, I attended a writers conference where Lisa Cron presented a master workshop on how neuroscience discoveries can help your story telling (and your writing). I had to leave early for an appointment, but Ms. Cron’s ideas about the importance of story telling and how stories influence our everyday decisions stuck with me.

So, I looked her up when I got home and found a TEDx talk by her. The video is a little more than 17 minutes long, but worth watching just for the share pleasure of discovering that stories–and therefore writers (hyberbole added by me)–are more important than we think.

In Ms. Cron’s words:

“We turn to stories not to escape reality; we turn to stories to navigate reality.”


“If you can’t feel emotion, you can’t make a single rational decision.”


“The Power of story is yours, use it wisely.”

Evidence of Life: Voices from the PSU Archives

Portland State University just discovered new life through history

Portland State University just discovered new life through history


Last week Portland State University made headlines after revealing decades of speeches that had been tucked away in their library’s archives, out of sight, out of mind, until now. Some of the greatest minds of our time — leaders, artists, activists — can be heard speaking at PSU online now. Check out Robert F. Kennedy, Toni Morrison, Allen Ginsberg, and a ton of other voices here.

I ain’t ‘fraid of no ghostwriting

Ghost Writer.

I’ve done some ghostwriting recently as a freelance content creator. My first ghostwriting experience came as a surprise. Strange as that sounds, I was expecting to publish commissioned blog articles under my own name. When my first article was published with a different person’s name without any discussion over the simple fact of authorship, I was surprised. I now know of my naiveté.

I’ve been paid to write before. I’ve created material with no attributed author—things like brochures, quick guides, user manuals, catalog copy, “about” web pages, and so on. I’ve also researched and written a weekly and monthly column, as an organization’s employee, for regional newspapers. That gig doesn’t make me a journalist, but still… I’ve had a byline.

So the surprise of the ghostwriting experience felt, maybe, a little insulting. Perhaps my pride was hurt. Or maybe that sense of ownership when creating something evoked my sense of violation. Whatever it was, I had to do a little bit of soul searching about it. It took me maybe a day or two to reorient my thinking and accept the circumstances. After all, I was given a topic and was being paid for the research and subsequent article. It was work. I was being paid. I accepted that my name wasn’t on it. However, I decided that if I ever found myself as a writer for hire again, I would definitely be sure to discuss all aspects of authorship before accepting the job.

Since, I’ve ghostwritten more blog articles. And now, if I know I’m ghostwriting for a particular person—someone I’ve met, interviewed, and taken the time to consider as the author—then I’m all set. And then, in a reversal of fate, I’ve been thrown by the suggestion that a ghostwritten blog post could be published under my name. I rejected the idea. What does my reaction mean? Am I so easily thrown by this idea of authorship?

At the basic level, I think it means that I approach marketing content creation as I would a piece of fiction. I construct the narrator and her (or his) voice based on the parameters, self-imposed or imposed by others. But that’s not enough of an answer, I don’t think.

I went looking for what others had to say. Read more »

Graduation Season



While there are still five weeks to go before I can officially welcome summer (the quarter system at EWU means we start in late September and finish in mid-June), I can smell graduation season in the air — or maybe that’s just tree pollen. The “Congratulations, graduate!” greeting cards are positioned right next to the Mother’s Day cards in the drugstore. Restaurants send me emails to remind me that a gift card to Fancypants Steakhouse would make a great gift for the graduate in my life. And, of course, there are cakes like the one above, spotted at my local grocery store. I’ve still got another year in the program, but I’ve promised/threatened to buy that cake for the graduating MFAs this year. I’m a big fan of cake, even if it takes the shape of a disembodied head with giant black buttons for eyes.

Graduations do something weird to me. I didn’t cry at my high school graduation twelve years ago. Everyone else seemed weepy, but I just wanted to get out of there. My graduating class was small, about 80 people. Commencement was held on the football field, and the chairs were placed so that they spelled out “02.” It was late May, and the Texas air was sticky and gross. We didn’t have a class song, although “When I Call On Jesus” was blasted over the loudspeakers after the last diploma had been handed out.

However, in the years since I’ve attended a lot of high school graduations. I’ve gotten weepy at every single one. I think it’s because high school is such a deeply weird time: The future is wide open, which is both exciting and terrifying, but you have lots of awkward failures to get through before things really start getting good.

My high school experience was neither great nor terrible, but I still wouldn’t redo those years if you paid me.

Luckily, a master’s degree graduation ceremony is much less emotionally fraught, at least in theory. It’s not a clear and universal rite of passage, one that makes you Officially a Grown-Up. I don’t know if it makes you officially anything, but it’s still a nice accomplishment that should be celebrated, ideally with cake.

Twitter Fiction and Creative Experimentation

I watched the TED Talks video “Adventures in Twitter Fiction” a few months ago and wondered, could I do that?

In the talk, Andrew Fitzgerald gives examples of successful storytelling, using Twitter as a micro-blogging platform with writers setting up Twitter accounts for fictional characters who interact with each other. The experiments seem complicated and brilliant and risky. What could a writer do with Instagram, Pinterest, or even a dating site? Social media provides the space for flexible identity and anonymity while engaging with the real world. Many writers have probably considered social media for marketing their work, but what about for creation? If you’ve already jumped into this type of experimentation, let me know. I want to see the risks, rewards and… I’m going to bring up the “F” word. Failure.

What about failure? With so many voices (real and bots) clamoring to be heard in the social spheres of the internet, could a creative experiment go unseen, or seen but ferociously attacked? But does any of that matter?

Writers risk failure with every word they put on the page, so maybe the medium of delivery doesn’t seem so scary, even if unconventional. I remember the first time I heard of actors and directors taking their work exclusively online with webisodes. Maybe this isn’t so different?

If you haven’t already, I hope you’ll watch the TED Talks video. Let me know if you feel inspired!

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 »

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