Go to College, Hippy

So earlier today on Facebook, a friend of mine posted about this article, lamenting about how this did not make him feel good about the idea of leaving his current, lame job.

First of all, I don’t understand why Craigslist is currently the platform for social experiments.* Craiglist Joe and now this? What happened to social experiments in the middle of the street with a camcorder?

(*Also, the Craigslist Killer, if you think murder = social experiment)

Secondly, I think this is a bit of a poor example of how things are currently. The writer created his fake posting in New York City. Cue the hot sauce commercial: “NEW YORK CITY?!” Because seriously. Let’s use one of the most densely populated spots in the country, a place where the number of jobs people need are multiplied by the size of their family and the apartment they live in (squared) and that’s the statistical garbage pool you’re dealing with.


So, the conversation sparked a response by one of my Facebud’s younger friends about to head off into the wild blue sea of undergrads to get a degree in Computer Science. He explained how he was frustrated, frightened and confused about his job prospects as well as the idea of going to college and accruing debt. The following is my response. Take it as you will. I’ll title it, “Let’s All Calm the Eff Down, Shall We?”

I am on the opposite side of your spectrum: I am five years out of college with a Bachelor’s Degree in English and a minor in Writing. I wanted to use it to write, not teach. And I am currently doing that; I have several books I’m working on and I’m doing freelance with a blog on the side. However…I’m also doing a 9-5 job at a large health care provider.

Going to college is a great experience and one that you should go through. It may not seem like it now, but trust me, you will have get so much from it. If you play your cards right, you have a chance to make some serious connections and plan for the future — network with teachers (realize that they are valuable resources and not just authority figures you’re handing in homework to), do internships, visit your career center, get a job on campus and make an impression.

As for afterwards – and I don’t know how the world is going to be by the time you have your degree – I’m not going to lie to you. You may have to get comfortable with the fact that you’ll have some debt. It’s not the end of the world. That being said, though, you should also accept that there is a decent chance you will not find a job in the area for which you went to school (hopefully not if you do all those things above, but still — there’s a chance). The best thing is to figure out what job is going to make you the least insane (for me, it’s puzzle-y work and manual type-y stuff) and grab it and stay there. Pay the bills and keep looking and – most importantly – don’t let your day job define you. Introduce yourself as a computer wizard or whatever; just that admission to yourself that that is who you are will do wonders while you’re waiting for the good times. Plug along and eventually you’ll be where you want to be.


Writing Tip #14

Keep an organized desk.

“No! My creative clutter! If I confine my million pieces of paper to notebooks or folders, or if I force my books onto shelves, or if I know where everything is…why, what kind of writer will I be?!”

A saner one.

Recently, I went to Staples and I bought this giant cube. That’s not really what it is, but it’s what I call it. It’s a square shelf with 3×3 square compartments. I forced my husband to put it together because I was sure I’d end up throwing it off the hill we live on. It is one of the best investments I’ve made in months.

You don’t have to go all out, but figure out places for things. It makes such an awesome difference when it feels like you can breathe again, when there isn’t a mound of receipts or to-do lists or low-carb cookbooks taking up your writing space.

My recommendation: make it a goal of picking up at least one thing every night. One single paperclip. One single sticky note pad. Find a place for it. Then get back to work.

If your desk is a real disaster area, there is another last-ditch idea. Grab a shoe box. Throw it all in. Stick it under the bed. I recommend against continuing this habit, though — if your bed is anything like mine, those boxes are going to disappear. They may even make friends with vagrant pests.

Don’t have time? Make some time.

I also recommend toys. I love having things to pick up and reminisce over when I’m stuck on a piece. Currently, my monitor is bordered by a set of Lord of the Rings figurines. They are both on horseback: the Nazgul and its steed, Gandalf and Shadowfax. They make me think of my father, and that makes me smile.

And don’t call my a hypocrite; I always know where my toys are.


5 Movies a Writer Should Watch

I love movies. Good movies, garbage movies, artsy movies, stupid movies. Movies give my word-spitting mind a break and give me visuals, music, people. They move me along by inspiring me, by putting into motion things that are sometimes stagnant images in my head. They put faces to the characters I’m trying to imagine. They make me go, “Ah, yeah, that’s…just right.”

So. Here are five movies that are good for writers. And everybody else too.

1. The Royal Tenenbaums – There is something magical and amazing that moves between the characters in this movie. You’re holding a magnet that pulls you into all of them like a group hug.

2. Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – Intense, weird, beautiful. It takes the ‘what if’ but won’t sacrifice the movement of the plot for the science. Good music, too.

3. The Science of Sleep – I saw this movie when it came to theaters. I was in college, and it still remains one of my favorites. There It is everything you can expect and more. A magical reality, and a real magic.

4. Secretary – The characters in this movie are by far some of the most interesting I’ve ever seen in print or on screen; they connect when there is nothing between them but breathing. Also, it’s one of the few adaptations I can say I like more than its literary counterpart.

5. Stranger Than Fiction – Aside from the chuckle I get recommending watching a movie about a story about a character in that story, this film proves how much power one story can have.


Writing Tip #13

Introduce yourself as a writer. Frequently.

For a long time, I wasn’t published. To me, this was practically being tossed down the stairs in the wrong direction. It was a terrible feeling for a person who wanted to be a writer as soon as they recognized their words on paper didn’t look too bad. I was routinely put into situations where people would shake my hand, bright smile on their face and say, “Oh! And what do you do for a living?”

I have, from the time I wanted to be a writer to now, been:

  • a student
  • a floor worker at a shop that sold glass pipes, CD’s, incense, weaponry and knick-knacks
  • a waitress
  • an office manager/DJ/editor/writer/accounts manager at a Student Media Center
  • a quality auditor
  • a call center rep for a power company and a Medicare carrier
  • an assistant and agent at a bagpiping school/folk music agency

While some of these sound like interesting stories – and they all come with more than a handful – none of them rolled off the tongue in the same way that ‘a writer’ did. But how could I say that when I didn’t have a book to flash or something more than my college rag?

I tried it out with a stranger at Super Cuts. “Oh, what do you do?” she asked.

“I’m a writer,” I said. “I also have a certification in sky diving and breed Saint Bernards. And I may be distantly related to British royalty. Wealthy British royalty.” The lies, the lies, the lies.

I voiced this concern to one of the first people who introduced me to the idea of writing professionally. We had met at a creative writing class, and she had been nice enough to look at several pieces I had written and wanted published. “Oh, you’re a writer,” she had said, smiling, not even pausing. “You can go on ahead and say that. I mean, it’s obvious.”

It was what I needed to hear then, and that’s why I’m telling you now: if you’re a writer, you’ll know it. Go ahead. Even if all you have is a notebook full of half-hashed short stories. Even if your novel is just strands and strands of fortune cookie paper. Say it. You’re a writer. Shake someone’s hand and yell it in their face.

Not too loud, though. You don’t want to be that writer.


Writing Tip #12

Read about writing. This includes grammar and other boring stuff.

Recently, I paid for the Writer’s Workshop subscription on Litreactor.com. By doing this, I gained access to about 36 essays written by Chuck Palahniuk. I’ve been working my way through them over the last 24 hours, and it’s been an incredible experience.

Now, I’ve read a lot about writing over the years. Bird by Bird, Room to Write, Wild Mind, currently The Right to Write. All good books for when a writer needs a hug and a gentle pat on the butt on the way back to the desk.

These essays kick you in the ass. They make you consider picking up a bottle. Whether that’s a vodka or wine for some heavy drinking, or just a weighted item to chuck at your computer, or a plastic container of something very flammable for your pile of writing…well, I guess that just depends on how creative you are.

They also make you think. They make you recommend them to other writers who are serious about making their work better.

Read as much as you can about your craft. For every flowers-and-rose-scented-Muse book you read, go through a desk manual on grammar. Start with the Elements of Style.

Most importantly, don’t freak out. Even if you’ve been breaking every other rule since you started submitting work, and a voice inside of you says of course nobody has accepted submissions from a hack like you. Take a breath, then carry on dancing.

Living is about growing. And that goes double for writers.


Writing Tip #11

Be kind to others’ children.

As I’ve mentioned before, I’ve been involved in several fiction and writing groups in the Pittsburgh area. It’s a good time, getting that chance to open up and share with others, give and receive feedback.

I encourage all writers to find a group of people who they feel will help their work get better. It may take time; I feel like I’ve established that sort of relationship with several people from my groups because we’ve been doing this for years now. A few tips, though:

  • Know what you’re getting into. Do some homework. Ask people who are in the group or who have been a part of the group what types of writing people bring, what the standard etiquette is for attending (handouts or emailed a week before? Margin comments or specific questions?) and how people respond to certain types of criticism.
  • Start out with something nice. I adhere to this rule adamantly, and when I’m discussing a piece of writing, I always go into what works first. There’s always at least one good thing. Find it. Let the writer know that you don’t think it’s complete garbage (even if it is).
  • Be thoughtful. And by that, I mean, never say, “I liked it. It’s very nice/good.” For the love of God. Even worse, “I didn’t like. It just wasn’t my thing.” That does nothing for a writer. Why didn’t it work for you? What made it particularly effective? Back up your opinions.
  • Acknowledge that there has been at least a decent amount of time put into every piece of writing. Even if it is complete drivel, he or she took the time to put the words on paper, bring copies or send it out and mentally prepared themselves to go under your literary knife. It’s all Golden Rule crap you’ve certainly heard before: play nice.

Writing Tip #10

Turn that frown upside down. Always be grateful for what you have.

Recently, I applied for a freelance columnist position on a website I think is quite super keen. Quite super keen indeed with sprinkles. It was the first time I applied for a “real” writing position that required actual clips of my work and a cover letter and a resume. And there were quite a few moments as I was getting ready to throw my hat into the ring for this “real” job that I got “really” anxious.

“A monkey probably has more writing credentials that I do,” I found myself saying as I plowed through clips from six years ago. “God, did I really write this garbage? What was I thinking? What AM I THINKING?

I continued shrieking even as I sent the email equivalent of what felt like the emailed equivalent of newspaper clippings pasted on construction paper with post-its and a handful of glitter.

It’s easy to start drowning in the horrible things you can say about yourself as a writer. Hell, the horrible things you can say about yourself as a person. Get a pen. Write some of those things down. Then get a magnifying glass and some tweezers and squeeze out the silver lining.

Here are a few of mine:

“I don’t have enough clips of my writing.” -> “I have a few clips. Some people aren’t published at all!”

“I am a horrible procrastinator. I’m not working nearly as much as I should be.” -> “At least I’m making some progress. Some is better than nothing.”

“My writing sucks.” -> “But I had a great time making it!”

“I don’t update my Tumblr enough.” -> “OH YEAH? 10 tips!” (editor’s note: more now!)


Writing Tip #9

Life is short. Read a lot, and read the stuff that you want to read.

There are many people who believe that there are certain pieces of literature that everyone should read. War and Peace. Moby Dick. Wuthering Heights. This is not a post saying you should not read those things. This is a post saying that if you like Russian aristocracy, whaling and doomed romances, then read those things.

For everyone else, there’s The Hobbit. Or Wicked. Or Charlotte’s Web.

Read the stuff that you want your writing to be. Devour books that make you walk with the characters, breathe them in, feel with them. Find books that feel good clutched to your chest, that fit into the nook of your breathless lungs. Trade books. Share books. Give books as gifts.

Question recommendations. Nicely, though. Don’t be a jerk. I’ve had about four people tell me to read Freedom by Jonathan Franzen. “It’s the new Great American Novel,” they’ve said. I might read it. I might not. So far nothing I’ve been told has made me think that it sounds better than many slice-of-life books I’ve read.

Books are the delicious foods we want to cook but enjoy when given the opportunity. Sometimes they are short, so very satisfying. Sometimes they seem to go on forever. Sometimes once you’re done, you regret it a little.

And there’s nothing wrong with sending back a plate or not finishing your meal.

Life’s too short. Read a lot, and don’t waste reading time on shit.


Midnight Poems: On Having a Monkey

Midnight poetry – n. nonsensical writings put down in lieu of sleeping appropriately

“On Having a Monkey”

I think having a monkey would be the worst
Monkey brains never switch off —
You’d always look at it
Is the little bastard trying to outsmart me
And everybody
A monkey decides what to do with its poop
A monkey judges you
It understands standards, expectations, potential
That you just aren’t living up to
It will never respect, fear or love you
The most you can hope for
Is a conversational piece
For the parties
You never have


Writing Tip #8

Write something that scares you.

Now, I’m not just talking about, “Write your own Stephen King story” or “Write a story about being covered in scorpions.” Not that you can’t do those things. Have at.

However, I encourage everyone to write at least one piece of fiction in their lives that really scares the piss out of you. You don’t have to show it to anyone. You don’t even have to keep it. Tear it up into tiny pieces and throw those pieces away in a Dr. Pepper can. Burn it.

Write about the things that come up in conversation that make you go, “Oh, hey, look, a cheeseball. I’m going to go over here and hang out with the cheeseball for a while.”

Write about the things that haunt you between when you lay down to go to sleep at night and when you get to that point where you forget your thoughts five seconds later.

I can’t tell you what that something is. But you know what it is. Own it.