Get Your Book Banned


Welcome back, you crazy Bannagahammers!

While licking my wounds from my latest rejection, I’ve been taking a LOT of Buzzfeed quizzes. Evidently, I am not very 90s (which was weird since that was the decade of my youth), however, when I took the “What Era of Rock Are You?” quiz, I got 90s indie rock (very confusing);

 If I were to be a 90s teen girl icon, I would be Laney Boggs (not surprisingly, I also have no idea who this is).

Everyone knows that if I am going to be a 90s teen girl, I would have been Kathleen Hanna from Bikini Kill.

The Grey’s Anatomy character that I most resemble is Lexie Grey (I don’t know this person since I don’t watch this show); and in a past life I was an ancient Grecian philosopher.

You get the idea.

I then took all the “How many of these ____ books have you read?” quizzes.

When I took the banned books quiz, I had read almost the entire list. And that started me thinking about why so many of the books I adore were on that list.

 Did I read them because they were good books, or did I read them because they were banned?

What gets a book banned?

I went here and found out that there is really no rhyme or reason why books get banned, but there were some major themes that most people cited for the reason they wanted a book banned.

Offensive language:

Books that have been banned because of “offensive language” include Huckleberry Finn by Mark Twain, a bunch of books by Henry Miller because they were written by Henry Miller, and Sherman Alexie’s book An Absolutely True Diary of a Part-Time Indian were all banned for using offensive language. But, it’s more than just swearing a lot.

It’s how you swear, and how your characters swear. If you and your people use words society has a problem with, ones that speak to a larger problem like the N-word, people are going to become sensitive and are going to judge you on how you use it. When you’re a writer, swear words are no longer words you can just drop because you are frustrated and mad, they carry all the connotation and weight that made them swear words in the first place.

Sexually Explicit Content:

Toni Morrison’s Beloved has a yellow card for having sexually explicit content, as does Margaret Atwood’s A Handmaiden’s Tale.–TnWs7Pfl–/c_fit,fl_progressive,w_636/18qj4hkn89swljpg.jpg

Beloved and A Handmadien’s Tale are not books that I think of as overtly sexual. However, they do deal with complicated feelings about sex and intimacy from a point of view that is not the standard one. We already know the story of the characters above: Fabio is a swarthy wild-man who lives by his wits and brawn, the Blonde is a plucky girl whose father dies and she has to head west to find a teaching job; they can’t fight their attraction and start doing it like monkeys; and at the final moment Fabio turns out to own the entire town and is filthy rich. They live happily ever after.

Or, something like that.

It is the “happily ever after” that people like. If you step away from this in your fiction, prepare to get your book banned.


Probably the fastest way to get your book banned is to have some sort of homosexual connotation to it.

The most recent brouhaha about a homosexual book was And Tango Makes Three, which is about two male penguins who do not have sex with each other, but do bond as a couple, who are given an egg to raise by the zookeeper, which hatches, and who then raise Tango, the hatchling, as their adoptive daughter. This kerfuffle  has already been made fun of quite well:

  But, still, it was just a book about penguins. Naked Lunch has actual homosexuals in it and it has been banned on and off since it was published. Leaves of Grass by Walt Whitman has a red mark, as does Howl by Allen Ginsberg. People have tried to ban The Color Purple not because it deals with issues like incest, but because of its homosexual content. 


Here, as in most things American, the rules are little more lax when it comes to violence. However, some interesting books have been sidelined for being “too violent.” Jack London’s Call of the Wild is a pretty good example. What gets a “too violent” label are memoirs or manifestos like Malcolm X’s Autobiography of Malcolm X, or The Words of Caesar Chavez by Caesar Chavez. Anything that might rile up the status quo can be threatening, and could possibly get your book banned.

Religious Viewpoint:

This is a pretty straightforward reason. However, it’s a free-for-all that depends on who is doing the condemning. Books get banned for religious reasons because they anger certain groups of people, like Salmon Rushdie’s The Satanic Verses or the Harry Potter series. It really all depends who is doing the banning. Bizarrely, Twilight is usually banned on religious grounds, and not for being “overtly sexual.”


Books banned on the grounds of excessive drug use are usually getting banned for other reasons, like Howl and The Perks of Being a Wallflower. Go Ask Alice by Anonymous is the poster child for a book banned due to including excessive drug use, and even though the book predates Lifetime movies, it really should have been one because it shows the main character, Alice, falling into despair because of her teenage drug use.

What does it all mean?

I think that if people want to ban your book, you’re probably doing something right. What I think you’re probably doing right is exploring a thought or a feeling that is uncomfortable and complicated, and in so doing exposes some hypocrisy that resides in us all. I saved my best example for last: Lolita. In 1955, the Sunday Express called Lolita “the filthiest book ever written.” Yet, on the cover of the copy of Lolita that I have, Vanity Fair’s blurb says that Lolita is the “only convincing love story of our time.”

Think about that.

Nabokov told Playboy that “I think my favorite fact about myself is that I have never been dismayed by a critic’s bilge or bile, and have never once in my life asked or thanked a reviewer for a review.”


When asked about Ernest Hemingway and Joseph Conrad, authors who have not had their books banned to the extreme that Lolita was, Nabokov says that “in neither of these two writers  [Hemingway and Conrad] can I find anything that I would have cared to have written myself. In mentality and emotion, they are hopelessly juvenile, and the same can be said of some other beloved writers, [to be] the pets of the common room.”

It all depends if you want to make cute and cuddly art or not. To make a really great book is to risk being banned. So, follow these rules, and your book will probably get banned:

It is how you swear and your characters swear.

Deal with complicated feelings about sex and intimacy from a point of view that is not the standard one.

Just make your character gay.

Have all the violence you want.

Don’t worry about the religious vote: it will come, no matter what you do.

Do all the drugs you want.

If it gets banned, your book will live on because people will be talking about it, wrestling with it, and, especially, thinking about it for a very long time. Your book will live on long after the people who banned it do.

Glitter Pen 2014

Hello, fellow pen dancers!

Let’s talk about the hardest part of writing. And no, it’s not giving a reading, like I said last week. Submitting your work is terrifying.,-green-sweater-124730.jpg\

Putting your work out there to be judged and scrutinized seems to be the most nerve wracking part of the business of writing. I’ve been thinking a lot about this since I’ve been reading fiction submissions for the upcoming issue of Lunch Ticket. And since doing all this reading, I’ve come to realize that not everyone shares this fear.

Some people have no problem putting their work out there.

Isn’t he amazing? What makes him so brave? How come some people have no fear and others, like me, stay in the shadows?


I surveyed (read: messaged on the Facebook) some very successful writers for some tips and secrets to submitting your work and getting it published. What came back a lot was what Winston Churchill said about World War II:

Never, never, never give up.

He also said, “If you’re going through hell, keep going.” This seems to sum up trying to get published. However, there are some small tips that can help our efforts in getting published.

So, let’s keep going.

1. Follow directions.

No matter how confusing you think they are. Even if you think they are pointless or cannot understand why they would require you to send it in the way they want it, it will be the first one rejected. Read the submission requirements before submitting your work. And especially if you’re sending in money to a contest, it’s in your best interest to be thorough. Just before you hit that submit button, double-check again.

2. Do not get creative with your query or submission letters. No funny stuff!

Just say no to glitter pens or anything that might be “eye-catching.”

It won’t work.

They will laugh at you.

3. Be persistent in your submission numbers.

I have a friend that I know has submitted at least 25 times to one literary magazine, and was rejected every time. She does not let a rejection deter her, though. Just because you can’t use glitter pens does not mean you can’t be shameless when submitting. Just keep submitting. You never know, maybe the 26th thing you submit will be the golden egg. You never know unless you keep submitting.

5. Find magazines that publish work you like.

We’ve talked about this before, people: READ the magazines that you want to submit to. Even within my MFA community there is still an attitude that you don’t have to read all the magazines you submit to. Submittable has seen to it that submitting has become one of the easiest things you can do, even easier than spending an hour reading the magazine.
Another reason to read the magazines you want to submit to is so that you know the little things about the editors, like if they’re a boy or a girl and have preferences about the little things like being addressed by certain pronouns.

Don’t be a princess. Get your hands dirty, put your back into it.


6. No matter what, never, never, never give up.

Winston Churchill was a wise man. No matter what you do, just don’t give up. Have complete conviction in your work. No matter how many times you get rejected, just believe that there is someone out there who will understand your work if you are persistent enough to find them.

How a Person Should be at a Reading, or Otherwise and in General

Hello, word workers!

We need to talk. We need to have the talk…


Nobody wants to talk about this with other writers, but the best form of communication is honesty. Writers, when you read your work to other people, make sure to make it good. I know, I know, this is the hardest part of writing, being asked to turn around and PERFORM it.

Awkward does not even cover it.

We toil in obscurity…

We do our best work alone…

We are the observers, not the observed…

How do you kill it?

Let me tell you a fact: I have been to many, many readings. I have been to big readings. I have been to small readings. I’ve been to readings in doughnut shops and I’ve been to readings on boats. I can count on one hand the number of awesome readings that I have gone to. They all have one thing in common, the reader/author acknowledges the audience.

Before I talk about what makes a good reading, lets talk about what makes a BAD reading, because we are all guilty of this so we should just be honest and get it out in the open:

1. You only look at the paper in front of you.

2. You mumble while you’re up there

(I’ve never really been able to understand what Dylan is talking about and for the longest time I thought it was me, turns out he just mumbles all the time.)

3. If you’re not mumbling, you’re talking too fast and can hardly understand yourself.

The more we do these things in combination with excessive sweating and standing in one position the entire time, the more awkward the audience will feel and the less they will listen to your words.

FYI, David Foster Wallace had a terrible sweating problem so he used to wear a bandana to readings and now the bandana is iconic. So, it helps to think practically about your sweat problem.

I know!

I really do know!

Public speaking is hard and hateful to someone used to being in the wings rather than in the spotlight.

I’m here to help you, and so are these guys:

From left to right; Chelsea Cain, Lidia Yuknavitch, and Chuck Palahnuick. These guys know how to do it right. When I first started writing I went and saw Chuck read at a local venue in Eugene, OR that held a couple hundred people and it was full. Chuck came out, explained that he had gotten Mono by accidentally drinking from Quentin Tarantino’s water mug on The Late Show with Jay Leno. Even though he prefaced the whole performance with the fact that he had been sick, he still entertained us. The way he did it was very simple.

I usually start a reading with “Hello. How is everyone?” This allows you to break the ice and allows your audience, even if it is just your mom, the feeling that they are participating in the reading.

Anyway. Back to the secrets to a good reading.

Lidia here models one of the secrets: Wear a costume.

Lidia is in a swim suit because her book The Chronology of Water is about how she found herself, and one of the ways she does that is through swimming. As a member of the audience you are much more likely to pay attention if the author is in something out of the ordinary.

The next secret to a good reading: Party favors.

This is Chelsae Cain and her daughter passing out finger puppet monsters at a book signing. Chelsae does not necessarily need to do this since she is an author whose Heartsick series about Gretchen Lowell, a very nasty serial killer, is regularly in the NYT bestseller list. She gives away little baubles because her fans are important to her, and she remembers when she went on her first book tour and no one came to the readings.

Chuck really goes above and beyond when it comes to party favors:

Here is Chuck with an autographed blowup doll that he used to give away to people who asked him a question when he was touring with Choke, which is about a sex addict.

The added benefit of these party favors is that your audience will go home and blog about what a good time he or she had at your reading, as is the case with the lady with the autographed bloody stump.

Here is another tip: Practice your piece until you don’t have to look at a piece of paper.

If you do need to look at your work, make the font

this big so

that you barely have to glance down. This is a size


All of this is about audience participation. If people leave your reading having had a good time, they are more likely to remember what you said, buy your book, and talk about you on their blogs.

It’s all about creating an awesome atmosphere.

Last, but not least, think long and hard about how much liquid courage you need to make it through your reading. It is only very rarely  that people will remember your words and not your actions.

The trick to a good reading is to be as awesome as your words. If you realize that you have to get people to pay attention to you in this day and age, you will have a head start over other authors who don’t. It doesn’t have to be an awkward experience: it could, if you want, be pretty amazing.

The Anatomy of the Madeleine, an Owl, and General Hospital

Hello, fellow truth seekers!

Today, we are going to talk about something all of us (hopefully) have: Memory. As writers of words, I think we come  back to our memory whether we want to or not.  What we do with our memory seems to arbitrarily separate us into genres these days: fiction, creative nonfiction, and poetry. But I am just going to go out on a limb and say that we’re all doing the same thing; trying to make sense of our memories.

I’m talking about a specific kind of memory:

The kind of memory that I am talking about is the kind that  Virginia Woolf calls “moments of being.” They are the moments that stick with us. These are the moments in life that we have no real reason to remember, they don’t have a beginning, middle, and end; they exist as a self-contained moment. Like Woolf says, they are moments where we just are.  The weird memories are especially potent because we have no idea why we still remember them. Literature is full of these inexplicable moments that authors return to over and over.

Consider the Madeline:

Eating this little cookie explodes Proust’s memory wide-open to the time that his mother gave him the cookie when we was younger:

Many years had elapsed during which nothing of Combray, save what was comprised in the theatre and the drama of my going to bed there, had any existence for me, when one day in winter, on my return home, my mother, seeing that I was cold, offered me some tea, a thing I did not ordinarily take. I declined at first, and then, for no particular reason, changed my mind. She sent for one of those squat, plump little cakes called “petites madeleines,” which look as though they had been moulded in the fluted valve of a scallop shell. And soon, mechanically, dispirited after a dreary day with the prospect of a depressing morrow, I raised to my lips a spoonful of the tea in which I had soaked a morsel of the cake. No sooner had the warm liquid mixed with the crumbs touched my palate than a shudder ran through me and I stopped, intent upon the extraordinary thing that was happening to me. An exquisite pleasure had invaded my senses, something isolated, detached, with no suggestion of its origin. And at once the vicissitudes of life had become indifferent to me, its disasters innocuous, its brevity illusory – this new sensation having had on me the effect which love has of filling me with a precious essence; or rather this essence was not in me it was me. I had ceased now to feel mediocre, contingent, mortal. Whence could it have come to me, this all-powerful joy? I sensed that it was connected with the taste of the tea and the cake, but that it infinitely transcended those savours, could, no, indeed, be of the same nature. Whence did it come? What did it mean? How could I seize and apprehend it?

Proust wrote six volumes of Things Remembered, this excerpt is just the beginning of page 48 of volume 1. Thanks for reading allllllll of that. The reward for reading this excerpt is that it is the best example of what Woolf was talking about. This is Proust’s “moment of being,” and he has excavated every last layer of that memory. 

What is the result of this exhaustive effort? Proust remembers a time when he was happy.

A simple truth.

It all started with the madeleine. More importantly, it is the taste of this humble cookie that sets Proust’s memory off. The cookie is what causes Proust to investigate why he remembers the cookie. If you are interested (and you should be) in Proust’s exploration of what the cookie meant to him read the rest of Things Remembered.

According to Woolf, it is the why of the memory that authors excavate over and over. Tim O’Brien’s The Things They Carried is another exemplar of a book of memories written by an author who will never stop searching his memory for the why of his memories. O’Brien says “What sticks to memory, often, are those odd little fragments that have no beginning and no end…” The whole book is all about the odd little fragments of the the things his fellow G.I’s carried in their packs as they marched across Vietnam. Vietnam becomes O’Brien’s “moment of being,” where he tries to find the truth of what happened to him there:

In any war story, but especially a true one, it’s difficult to separate what happened from what seemed to happen. What seems to happen becomes its own happening and has to be told that way. The angles of vision are skewed. When a booby trap explodes, you close your eyes and duck and float outside yourself. .. The pictures get jumbled, you tend to miss a lot. And then afterward, when you go to tell about it, there is always that surreal seemingness, which makes the story seem untrue, but which in fact represents the hard and exact truth as it seemed.”

A harder truth: War

O’Brien advances our conversation about the use of memory in story because he talks about the differences between the happening-truth and the story-truth: Here is happening-truth: “I was once a soldier. There were many bodies, real bodies with real faces, but I was young then and afraid to look…” Here is the story-truth: “He was a slim, dead, almost dainty young man of about twenty. He lay in the center of a red clay trail near the village of My Khe. His jaw was in his throat. His one eye was shut, the other eye was a star-shaped hole. I killed him.”

As authors it is our duty to our memories to find the story-truth. What Proust and O’Brien do very well is that they explore their memories no matter how mundane or traumatic they are through story in the hope that the find the why or the story-truth. As fellow authors, we would do well to treat our own memories with the same fine-toothed combs that both these authors do. There is story gold in every author’s memories, we just have to figure out the best way to get it.

For Proust and O’Brien, that medium was fiction, but more and more, the medium that has quickly taken over as the realm of memory is creative nonfiction. CNF is a funny umbrella term that holds a lot of different kinds of writing; memoir, essays and biographies are sheltered under this term. Why, I have no idea.×411.jpg

David Sedaris is another excellent example of a writer who mines his memories for the truth. Sedaris has many awesome essays about his personal life. In his essay “Understanding Owls” Sedaris wonders at what kind of person he actually is. He does this by telling the story of trying to buy a taxidermied owl as a present for Valentine’s Day:

The taxidermist knew me for less time than it took to wipe my feet on his mat, and, with no effort whatsoever, he looked into my soul and recognized me for the person I really am: the type who’d actually love a Pygmy, and could easily get over the fact that he’d been murdered for sport, thinking, breezily, Well, it was a long time ago. Worse still, I would flaunt it, hoping, in the way a Porsche owner does, that this would become a part of my identity. “They say he has a Pygmy,” I could imagine my new neighbors whispering as I walked down the street. “Hangs him plain as day in the corner of his living room, next to the musket he was shot with.”

Read more:

An embarrassing truth: macabre interests

Through the use of this memory of a creepy encounter with a taxidermist who might be a little too into his job, Sedaris uncovers a story truth about himself: that he is a person who is fascinated with the taboo and the macabre.

Lidia Yuknavitch is a friend of mine who wrote an awesome memoir called The Chronology of Water. This book has the strongest story-truth that I know of, and, in fact, I don’t think there would be a truth in it if this wasn’t told as a story.

“When my mother tried to kill herself the first time I was 16. She went into the spare bedroom of our Florida home for a long time. I knocked on the door. She said, “Go away, belle.”

Later she came out and sat in the living room. I went into the spare bedroom and found a bottle of sleeping pills – most of which were gone. Alone in the house with her, I scooped up an armful of vodka bottles and pills and brought them to her in the living room, my eyes full of water and fear, my mind racing. She looked at me more sharply than I ever remembered, and more focused than I’d ever seen her. Her voice was weirdly stern and two octaves lower than the southern cherry slurry drawl I was used to. She said, “Stay away; this isn’t anything for you, I’m not talking about anything.” She turned her gaze to the television. General Hospital was on.

A sad truth: You could hate your mother

In whatever genre you decide to express yourself in, finding your story-truth in your memories is the job of the writer. Virginia Woolf would have you look at the memories that you circle back to again and again. Proust shows us that these memories do not have to be explosive to be worth exploration. O’Brien shows us that to find the story-truth of those memories can be more powerful than the happening-truth. David Sedaris shows us that you don’t always look heroic or altruistic when a truth is discovered, but it’s still worth the exploration. Lidia Yuknavitch shows us that the story-truth will set you free.

I’ll leave you with this quote from Tim O’Brien:

“Stories are for joining the past to the future. Stories are for those late hours in the night when you can’t remember how you got from where you were to where you are. Stories are for eternity, when memory is erased, when there is nothing to remember except the story.”

What is your story-truth?

Spines of Unwritten Novels, A Love Affair

We meet again, fellow logophile!

Many of us have just gotten back from the Shiny Happy People Convention, AKA AWP, the all writers and writing programs convention. So many smiling faces. So many familiar faces both wandering the vast isles and behind the booths. I have gotten more than one request to do a recap of AWP 2014, but I think I will let the awesomeness of my previous post stand (Hey! throw in a comment if you have anything you want to say about AWP!), and tell you about the most important part of AWP: The small presses.

It was just like this!     []

While my friend and I roamed the aisles and aisles of small presses and schools with MFAs my friend asked me the best question ever: How do you know who to talk to?

Who do you talk to indeed. Who do you talk to when there is more than one hall dedicated to the convention? In the sea of small presses, schools and independent do-it-yourselfers, who do you talk to regarding your work?

If you write environmental creative nonfiction in urban settings (Hey, Jennifer!), do you have to ask everyone at the convention if that is something they read?

It really is overwhelming…

Where do you start, was also my friend’s problem. Since I have been to AWP and other conventions like it (Wordstock in Portland, Oregon), I was pretty sure I had an answer for her.

Dear friends, you need to start reading more small presses. AWP is a convention full of people publishing. The trick to being ready for the insanity junket that is AWP is to read books put out by all these houses before you go to get yourself familiar with who publishes what. For example, I am a fiction writer so I spend a lot of time reading small presses that publish fiction. Over the years I’ve learned what small presses publish writers who write like me, and so, when I go to AWP, I make sure to talk to those guys.

I love these guys! I sign up for their quarterly every year. Every three months I get something new in the mail from them. I really look forward to this because it seems like the only thing that comes by mail for me these days is bills. But, just about every time I have forgotten that I have signed up for this I get a new volume that makes me smile every time.

You have to open his head to get at the chap books.

This also has the added benefit of making your bookshelves look AMAZING! On a funny aside, I went to the McSweeny’s AWP off-site party in Seattle and no one from McSweeny’s showed up for their own party. The joke was on them, though, because they had graciously provided an open bar until midnight, so I drank as much top-shelf whiskey as I could manage. Thanks, guys!

Reading McSweeny’s leads to other presses, because if you look up the authors you like in the anthology chances are they have been published by other people as well. Read all the works by the authors you like, wherever they have been published, because this will give you an idea of the aesthetic of the presses. This will give you an idea of where would be a good home for your work. A small press called FC2 is how I found an author who is now a friend: Lucy Corin. She put out a book through them called Everyday Psychokillers: A History for Girls, which I loved, so I read everything she wrote. Recently, McSweeny’s published her latest book, which is also amazing.

look how beautiful this book is!

Once you do that, you can start seeing the circle of people you think you should submit your work to.

Don’t be afraid of other influences, too. I went and saw Andrea Gibson on a whim because all my friends were going to see this slam poet and everyone was telling me how much I was going to LOVE her.

“I don’t do poetry,” is what I told everyone.

And then…

Andrea Gibson

made me cry my brains out.

Who knew?

At the end of her performance I went up to her table to see what she was selling, and so I bought one of her books of poetry, and looked up the rest of people this small press published, and read them all as well.

awesome books/ awesome people

And now my world expanded a little but once again. I love this press: the books they put out are just as awesome as the ones from McSweeny’s.

How do you go about finding small press books like McSweeny’s and Write Bloody? If you are lucky enough to live in an awesomeamazing place like Portland, get your lucky behind down to Powell’s to see what this guy has curated:

Kevin Sampsell runs the small press section of the local independent bookstore, Powell’s. This guy has spent years curating books that would not necessarily receive shelf space at chain bookstores. He has most of FC2’s, McSweeny’s, and Write Bloody’s books. He has many presses that I have never heard of, and ones that I have no idea how else to find. He also owns his own small press called Smashwords. 

What if you don’t have access to Kevin Sampsell’s constant curation and connections? Well, Powell’s is online, so you should go there and look around, chances are you will find something cool. If you simply must walk into an independent bookstore, and keep your money in your community, there is a website for that. Second, another good place to look is other literary magazines (beside the one you are currently reading).



 Places like the Atlas Review or The Citron Review are great places to start reading people who write like you do, since you are reading this blog. If you write really sensitive poetry or music, there is a review for that! Seraphemera is a great publisher that is looking for that kind of thing. Do you write punk fantasy? Mandem would probably like to see your stuff. Don’t be embarrassed that your write fantasy! These are your people. Not only are they looking to publish you, chances are that you are going to read and connect with other writers they’ve already published. This is where you are going to find your readers and develop your “reader base.”

A “readership base” is something to think about when deciding who to hit up with your new manuscript about a man in search of the American dream, or your manuscript about the dolphin in search of the American dream. Because they might be willing to take a chance on the dolphin manuscript if that’s the audience they cater to.

These are the things you need to think about when you submit. The resources go on: Asymptote, Weekenders, Whiskey Paper , The Blue Hour, The New Poet, and check out The Adirondack Review, as it is just so dang pretty. Not only do you begin to see who publishes work that looks like your own, but you are also supporting your community, keeping your tribe going by buying their books and anthologies

It’s true that small press books cost more than a paperback from Random House, but when you buy a book from a small press or an anthology from a school, you aren’t just buying a book, you’re supporting the people who will support you.

We all want to be a name. We all want to be sold in airports and supermarkets.

We all want to be her:

 But, this is not the reality for most of us. The reality is that there is a large and flourishing community of hard working people who love books that don’t get sold at supermarkets, perhaps because they do not get sold at supermarkets.

get it? its a small press.

The spine of every unwritten novel is the small press house. Remember this when you send your work out. These people are dedicated and hardworking just like you. When I see you in Minneapolis for AWP 2015, you are going to know the people behind the booths because you will have been reading them all year long. They will be happy to see you, and to talk to supporters who love their work as much as they do. You really cannot go wrong. After all, it just takes some of your time and internet access to find something that you’ll really fall in love with.






But I’m an Astronaut! (AKA write what you know)

Hello, fellow scribes!

We meet again.

Today, I want to talk about something that has been bothering me for a while because I just now (after years and years) got it. All you have to do to be a good writer is write what you know.



I know what you’re going to say:


I’m an astronaut!

I only know about space related things like physics,

or aliens.

I can’t write about anything else because I don’t know about anything else.



You would be wrong!

If the idiom “write what you know” was limited to vocation

or location


Or even avocation…


(By which I clearly mean dressing your cat up like White Snake)

We would not have a lot to read:


It would just be an exchange of information, and that’s boring. If we just wanted to sit around and exchange information all day then phone books wouldn’t have died out. We want something more out of what we read, so how do we put it into what we write?

According to J.D. Salinger you need to have fire

between the words.


Consider Catcher in the Rye, what is that story about, really?×198.jpg


Catcher in the Rye is about a boy named Holden Caulfield who is kicked out of his latest prep school and decides to run away to New York before his parents find out what has happened.


Is that what the book is really about?

Would this book be as popular as it is if it was just about a rich kid afraid to go home and face the music? Would the rest of us relate to Holden if that were the case?


Here is the secret to Catcher in the Rye and the many many books out there that we all hold beloved…




That’s it.

It is the ability to reach out across the void and see the kindred spirit in the other, be it elephant, dog or that other person across from you on the bus.




How do you take what you know and make it so it matters to everyone?



Let everyone see your heart.


We have all been in love:

We all know about war.

We are all going to die.

(Thanks David Haglun, I died a little bit inside too when I found out about the movie.)

The human experience is vast and there is so much to say about it.

(Or you can just read ANYTHING by Shakespeare!)

Being able to tell us all your fears, for example, about love, death or war brings us closer to you the author, and more importantly, it brings us all a little bit closer because we share an understand of the other person.

Just remember a good writer has empathy, even if that author happens to be an astronaut.×639.jpg


I’ll leave you with Holden telling us all what makes a good author:


“What really knocks me out is a book that, when you’re all done reading it, you wish the author that wrote it was a terrific friend of yours and you could call him up on the phone whenever you felt like it. That doesn’t happen much, though.”

How about you? Where do you find your empathy?



What Would Dolly Parton Do?

Hello fellow Word Processor Mavericks!

When I first was asked to write about voice I thought I had drawn the short end of the stick. What, exactly, are we talking about when we talk about voice?



What does it mean to have an “original voice?” And how do I get one of those?

Let me lay some knowledge on you:

In her essay, What is Voice in Creative Writing, Paulette Bates Alden quotes Eudora Welty:

In One Writer’s Beginnings, Eudora Welty talks about how from an early age, she always heard the sentences on the page in a voice “…saying it silently to me.  It isn’t my mother’s voice or the voice of any person I can identify, certainly not my own. It is human, but inward, and it is inwardly I listen to it.  It is to me the voice of the story or the poem itself…  I have supposed, but never found out, that this is the case with all readers – to read as listeners – and with all writers, to write as listeners… My own words, when I am at work on a story, I hear too as they go, in the same voice that I hear when I read in books.  When I write and the sound of it comes back to my ears, then I act to make my changes.  I have always trusted this voice.”





What does she mean?

That quote is jam packed with little bits of goodness:

“It is human, but inward, and it’s inwardly that I listen to it.”

“To read as listeners.”

“Write as listeners”

I have always trusted this voice.”



But, I still didn’t get it.

What does this little voice have to do with a distinct voice?

And then this happened:



The hair! The makeup! And we are not even talking about Dolly Parton, (though Dolly’s hair in this gif is especially epic). It all dazzled me for a moment and then I remembered something that Dolly had said:

“Figure out who you are; and then do it on purpose.”

Dolly is right. If you know who you are then it makes it a lot easier to have a voice. I think that Dolly is more succinct than Eudora, but they are saying the same thing; if you are true to yourself, then it makes listening to that little voice a lot easier because there is not a lot in the way. This is why Dolly is able to be so amazing: she knows who she is, and she sticks to it. She wrote “9 to 5” on her Lee Press On nails and was nominated for an Oscar for it.



She wrote “I Will Always Love You”



Here was a woman with a voice. (All the puns intended.) She is a country girl and she does not stray far from this idea. She listens to the little voice in her head and she doesn’t let anyone get in the way of that. She could have been another lady country singer with big “assets,” but she is more than that because she doesn’t let anything get in the way. Dolly hasn’t changed down through the ages.

From the 1970s

Young Dolly

To today:

Older Dolly

Dolly and Kenny

On a not-so-funny aside when I lived in Asia I had to sing “Islands in the Stream” with my boss at a kereokebong. This was the most awkward moment of my life.



 The real trick to voice will lie in how each of us goes about retelling this tale. We should all do as Dolly Parton does and chose a way of telling that keeps the retelling true to who you are as a writer. We are looking to become aware of our “authorial voice”. If you’re a poet, what does Snow White look like as a poem? For all the CNFers, what would Snow White look like as a personal essay? Do you feel like you always write about the country, or do you write about the city? Are you more interested in zombies and aliens?



These things that preoccupy us, the zombies, the country, sex, and the city; these are the things Dolly was talking about when she said “figure out who you are; and then do it on purpose.” When we know our preoccupations, we know why we write about them and we become more of an authority on the subject. This authority colors our writing and, I think, makes it better.

For brevity’s sake, if you’re doing something wild and crazy like a poem or a personal essay, you could just do the first paragraph or a first draft of the poem. What we’re after is not quality but an awareness of how and why we choose the words we do, the way we tell our story, and the parts of the story that we deem important.

If you would like to see what a different interpretation of Snow White looks like, here is Donald Barthelme’s twist on the old classic:  Snow White

Please leave your responses as replies to this message. I think it would be interesting if  we can all see each other’s responses.

Please leave your responses as replies to this message. I think it would be interesting if  we can all see each other’s responses.


AWP: A Field Guide To and For the Dangerously Reclusive

It’s that time of year again, fellow scribes!

For anyone who loves books.

For anyone who loves writers.

It is time to heed the call…


Have no fear!

There is a party for everyone, and writers and book lovers are no exceptions.

It’s AWP, my zebras!!!!!!!!!!!

Dancing Zebra

They say it’s not a party. The party line is that it is a “conference” that brings together All Writers and Writing Programs (why it’s not called AWWP, I don’t know). I would say that AWP is a writers’ party with a conference problem.

Everyone comes to this.





(J.K Rowling hasn’t, that I know of, been to AWP, I just like her expression in this photo)

And, small (but, not for long),

Jamie Moore (headshot)

(This is Jamie Moore and she has a book, Our Small Faces, out with ELJ publications. You should buy it, just saying.)




Mostly, thank the heavens, it’s a lot of small presses,


[Hey Rhonda!!!!!]

Like Hawthorne Books





In a later post, we will talk about the pros and cons of the small press, but for now they represent the most flourishing part of the book publishing industry. These presses vary wildly in what they publish, who they publish, and when they publish. There are presses that have been around for a while and ones that are just starting out. And they will all, for the most part, be at AWP. This represents your best chance, as a writer, to talk to people who are in the business of publishing.

They represent the real American wild west attitude. They publish what they want, they do it themselves, and they don’t have a major conglomerate overlord to answer to. If the writing is good, they will work themselves to the bone to publish it.



AWP doesn’t just have a book convention. It also has panel discussions, and it has big names who come to give talks and be involved in discussions. Admittedly, the panels can be hit or miss. Some are run really well, and you walk away from them with some insight.



Other panels are not so good, and you find yourself more interested in the hairstyles of the people sitting in front of you than you are in the disembodied speaker who doesn’t go up to the podium because he is either too shy or too nervous which makes his voice warble like a wee song bird and causes you to check Facebook on your phone. One. More. Time.



AWP also has a lot of guest speakers, as well. These people tend to be the “big names” of writing. I guess you’re a big name if you sell over 100,000 copies of your book, or you win an award everyone has heard of, or they make a really awesome movie that wins an award that everyone has heard of.



I didn’t go to Cheryl Strayed’s last year because I wanted to go to see Jeanette Winterson. I waited in line. I got a pretty close seat. I talked to other fans of Winterson who love her work as much as I do. Winterson was supposed to share the hour with another author who got snowed in at another airport, so she couldn’t make it, but you would never have known it from the way Winterson handled it. She lectured on what made her a writer for an hour, and it was mostly off the cuff, and it was all awesome.

JeanetteWinterson(Jeanette barely cleared the podium)

AWP is also an excuse to go somewhere new. I am a West Coast person, from birth to death, but I wanted to go see Boston, where AWP was last year. I thought I was going to get out more, but it was snowing pretty heavily, and it made sightseeing seem like more trouble than it was worth.


Google maps told us that the place we were staying was “a short walk” to the convention hall. So, if urban hiking in the snow does not sound like your idea of a good time, stay at a hotel that is super close to the convention center, otherwise vaya con Dios.

I did get out a bit:




My friend and I yelled “Norm!!!!!” when we walked into the bar. The hostess did not bat an eye, and no one looked up from their conversations. We thought we were pretty funny. We had a beer and talked to a local bar tender who told us where to go if we wanted to have a good time in Boston, but we told him we really only had time for the beer before we had toPhoto:

So, we have all these people who don’t get out much together in one place, and what do they do? AWP kindly offers a dance that starts at 10.


This was either the best or the worst part, but they had an open bar with beer and wine until 12 AM. They had one bartender who could care less, and let me double fist it as fast as I could. And then this happened:


And then they started playing some 80’s music so this happened:


And, finally, this:


(Your guess is as good as mine.)

The moral to that story is that you should always be responsible with beer and wine, even when it is free. Anyway, the funny part to the whole thing is that at exactly 12 AM they turned the lights on and told everyone to go home, probably so people wouldn’t get too crazy. #whatweretheythinking.


I digress.

AWP is a quickie camp for writers. Come meet and mingle with your tribe. These are the people who love words as hard as you do, they are toiling with their own words and everyone there understands this struggle. You won’t have to explain yourself to anyone because we will all understand why you are here.

So, this year, the year of the horse, 2014,

come to Seattle,

be with your people.


Come see me and my people at the Antioch University LA booth. Not to brag, but we are pretty awesome. We work hard, and we are passionate about our program and will gladly talk your ear off about it. I’ll be manning the booth on Friday, I think. We are all going to have matching T-shirts, like a sports team, or Starbucks.


[Thanks Burnadette, you look good!]

You have the opportunity to make many new connections if you visit all the booths. Those connections, thanks to Facebook, can last a long time. If anything, it is three days to hang out with your people and enjoy their company.


[Thanks Marcia]

All joking aside, the best part of AWP is when you get to meet an idol. This is me and Jeanette Winterson. She hung around after her epic lecture to sign books and take photos with us little people. I got to ask Winterson a question: “What is the best part of writing?”

She answered: “Wrestling with myself and the world, and sometimes winning.”



 How about youdear readers? What is the best and worst part of AWP for you?

Comments? Concerns? Jokes?

Leave them in the discussion section!

The Best Idea For A Novel Ever!

Hello fellow pen slingers!

To kick off the inaugural blog post here on Free Lunch I want to talk about the one question that bothers writers the most:

Where do you get ideas from?

I surveyed my writing friends quite scientifically (think Facebook) and asked them what question they get the most. “Where do you get your ideas from?” was the front-runner followed closely by “How do I get published?” I thought I would try to answer the one question I can help you, dear reader, with.



In all honesty this is a perfectly valid question and I think that we, as writers, feel the need to answer as dramatically as we can so that we can be real writers. Writers with a capital W.  



But, really, what do you say? Here is a list of places I’ve said my inspiration has come from:


I got this one fortune cookie that told me to do it:




I was messing around on Google search:




Drugs and/or alcohol were messing around with me:





God whispered the plot in my ear:


The truth for all writers is that inspiration is much more complicated than divine intervention. Good ideas, the kind that lead to novels, movies, or dance routines come from a nebulous place that can be hard to put your finger on.

Stephen King says that he came up with the plot for Misery in a dream on an airplane. It was so vivid he had to sit down at the airport and write the first fifty pages.



Some dream.

King says , “I’ve always used dreams the way you’d use mirrors to look at something you couldn’t see head-on, the way that you use a mirror to look at your hair in the back (Epel, 24).



How do the rest of us go about looking at the back of our heads? What can we do to have the same trust in our dreams? How do we know the difference between a sit-down-and-immediately-write-fifty-pages-about-it dream and a nonsense I-ate-way-too-much-chili-last-night dream?

Photo: tanks funny-potato!

Photo: tanks funny-potato!

Maybe what Mr. King was getting at is the need to listen to your brain when it is in a more relaxed state; when, theoretically, your creativity flows more freely. I know something else the flows very easily. I’ll give you a hint:

Photo: Retuers;

Photo: Retuers;

Ernest Hemingway is famous for saying “write drunk, edit sober.”




Of course the rest of us mere mortals don’t look quite so heroic when we try to write drunk.




I think there must be a better way of accessing that altered state without the dire consequences of “going too far.”



Speaking of going too far; Hunter S. Thompson once said “I hate to advocate drugs, alcohol and violence for anyone, but they have always worked for me.”

They were all after the same thing: Hemingway with his drinking, King with his dreams, and Thompson with his …anything he could get his hands on… These men are perhaps best known for their honesty about their (sometimes absurd) attempts to hear their muse.

They were all after that spark of creativity. We have all felt the need to go to ridiculous lengths in an effort to “listen to our muse.”




While we make fun of Thompson’s epic consumption of mind-altering substances, Hemmingway’s prodigious drinking, and King vast inhalations of Coke in the 80s,  I think it is more important to recognize that all three men were dedicated to their craft. All this drug and alcohol use was just smoke and mirrors, cloaking what was really important about these guys. It isn’t about how these men searched for their muse, rather, it is that they showed faithfully up to listen for her.

They wrote…




and wrote…



and wrote some more…



Until they were sick of it…



But, they still wrote. And they kept writing.

No. Matter. What.




So, how do you get your ideas?

How do you look at the back of your head? What works for you?