Something Good

It’s been a while since I put something on the blog, so I wanted to take the opportunity to tell you about a project I’ve been working on since January. Something Good is a daily e-newsletter sent out by yours truly. Each e-mail contains something good to do for yourself and something good to do for all of us. The project was born in the wake of Donald Trump’s inauguration, as I was struggling with how to stay vigilant and resist, while also taking care of myself. These “somethings” range from tiny tasks to larger actions. For instance, taking a bath, embarking on a creative project, or calling your representatives about a certain issue. Take a look at the past e-mails in our archive and you’ll see what I mean. 

I’ve been sending out these e-mails daily for almost six months now, and it’s been an invaluable experience. On a personal level, this project has been an anchor for me, challenging me every day to look at our world’s problems and think seriously about what actions I can take. Even when reading the hardest news, I find myself being pulled out of despair by the question: “What can we do to help?” (My Google history is filled with searches that begin “how to help.”) I’ve come to realize in earnest that there is always something good you can do.

This project has also been a way for me to explore some areas that I would love to expand on in my career. I’m deeply interested in advocacy and activism, and I hope I can jump into more advocacy-related projects moving forward. The e-mails reflect a lot of the causes that I care about (e.g. LGBTQ rights, environmentalism, education, female empowerment, discrimination), and I’ve found myself digging deeper into these issues as the project has developed.

I’ve also discovered that I love writing about things that make people feel good. Confidence and relaxation are two pillars in my thinking when I write the “Something for You” columns in these e-mails, and I’ve really enjoyed thinking about how to build people up and pull out the positive. One of my goals is for each of these e-mails to be a bright spot in somebody’s day. It’s been so fun and so rewarding for me to craft each e-mail with that in mind.

So, obviously Something Good has been a great experience for me, but I also hope it has touched the people it’s reached and made an impact on the issues that we’re facing. For me, Something Good reflects an idea that taking care of ourselves and taking care of the world are two things that go hand in hand.

You can sign up here to start receiving Something Good in your inbox!

Advertisements

Paris, Je Ne Sais Pas

I was not expecting to be held so warmly by Paris. On a weekend during my sturdies abroad, I took the train in from Oxford with a group of fellow students. I did not speak much French, mostly all I knew how to say was a joke about cheese and “Je ne sais pas, je suis American.” (“I don’t know, I’m an American.”)

Our first full day there, I embarked on what became a six-hour walk through the city. I wandered aimlessly, hopping on the Metro as I felt like it. I soon learned this was a city of life, of conversation, of coming together. I bought macaroons and looked in shop windows.I guess-and-checked my way through street signs. I people-watched as I walked by cafes and strolled through gardens.  A musician on the metro cheerily told me he could “give me a baby for free.” A few times, I was asked for directions, and I would smile and say “Je ne sais pas.”

I loved those moments, of being confused for a local. I was proud of them. I felt, at the end of even just that single day, like Paris and I had become very good friends. Comrades, confidants. I am, I know, not the only one who has felt this.

This September was the first September 11th during which I lived in New York City. As the anniversary came,  I was so aware of how ours is a City Who Has Survived. There is no doubt in my mind that Paris will make it through this tragedy. That we will not let fear and hatred overcome. That among this shock and anger and heartbreak, there will also be strength and love.

Right now, things are confusing and terrifying. I do not know how people could conceive of doing such a terrible  thing.  I do not know how one processes a loss this great.

A friend of a friend is in Paris and she hasn’t been in touch. And as my friend sends me her worry, all I’m able to say is “I don’t know. I don’t know. I’m sorry.”

Brooklyn Book Festival, Baby!

Book festivals are magical, wonderful events and I love them more than anything.

Rob Spillman in conversation with Ann Hood, Phil Klay, and K'wan for the Brutality and Faith panel

Rob Spillman in conversation with Ann Hood, Phil Klay, and K’wan for the Brutality and Faith panel

This past weekend, I attended/worked at the 10th Annual Brooklyn Book Festival, as well as many of the bookend events that took place around Brooklyn in the week preceding. I was hired as a BKBF ambassador, so I was sent to various events to help with logistics and distribute festival information. Since I only moved to New York 11 months ago, this was my first BKBF. Spoiler alert: It was fantastic.

One of the many things that make book festivals so great is how easy it is to find new authors and books to fall in love with. You’ll go to a panel to see your favorite author, and you’ll be introduced to three others. You’ll go to a session because you’re interested about the subject, and voila! A handful of brilliant minds who share your interest, and whose books have something to say about it. At BKBF, this discovery experience was heightened for me, because as an ambassador,  I went to the events where I was needed and couldn’t just focus on authors that I already knew I liked.

briefhistory

Marlon James reading from A Brief History of Seven Killings

My schedule ended up taking me to three different events about Caribbean poetry/literature. Before this week, I’d had some exposure to Caribbean literature (I’d just finished Marlon James’ acclaimed A Brief History of Seven Killings, and I had read some Caribbean authors as part of my undergrad curriculum), but I was by no means an expert. Getting immersed in this cultural vein was fascinating.  I did see some familiar names: Marlon James read from A Brief HIstory… and Tiphanie Yanique (author of the hit novel Land of Love and Drowning) read from her upcoming book of poetry. But I was also introduced to so many new voices and new stories. Favorites included poet Sassy Ross, poet Vladimir Lucien, and novelist Naomi Jackson.

Along with new voices, each of these events presented an engaging conversation about the Caribbean experience. One of my favorite things about reading is the opportunity to empathize with and  learn more about perspectives that differ from my own, and I was exposed to so much about the Caribbean community. The authors’ work was used as a starting point for discussion about Caribbean identity, the future of Caribbean literature and its growing place in global literature, the Caribbean experience in the United States, and other vital issues. This open dialogue is extremely important and productive. The more we diversify the literary scene, the more we publish and spotlight global and minority voices,  the more chances we have for such fruitful discussion and greater understanding of the world/people around us.

bocaslitfest

Bocas Lit Fest presents “The Word is Fresh”: Vladimir Lucien, Tiphanie Yanique, Danielle Boodoo-Fortuné, and Sassy Ross

***

Working at the bookend events meant I spent the week treating Brooklyn like my personal literary jungle gym. I felt like I was on a constant adventure, peeking into the nooks and crannies of my adopted city and finding literature and culture wherever I found it. I went to new bars, to museums, to culture centers. Brooklyn hums with literary energy and creative spirit.

treegrowsinbrooklyn

Bushwick Book Club presents “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn”

At the first event I worked, Bushwick Book Club presents “A Tree Grows in Brooklyn,” I walked into the bar Superfine and found myself in a dream. People performed original music in response to the classic A Tree Grows in Brooklyn by Betty Smith. Banjoists, a capella singers, violin ensembles, full bands, dancers…every performer had a different take on the book, a different aspect of it that had sparked their creative fires. It was like everything I love was coming together.

I also went to the event “Storytelling and Social Transformation: A Brooklyn Quarterly Celebration,” situated in the treehouse like upstairs space of  61 Local.  Featuring three writers–novelist Anna North, poet Robin Beth Schaer, and journalist Chaya Babu– this event celebrated diversity in writing and the different ways we tell stories. It was such a warm atmosphere, and it really reminded me of how reading can bring people together to care about the world.

brooklynquarterly

Storytelling and Social Transformation: A Brooklyn Quarterly Celebration

***

The actual day of the festival, I was working the information booth most of the day, and the booth was situated right in front of the main stage. Even though I was constantly busy helping people,  I got to catch a ton of authors, including Libba Bray, Matt de la Peña, Wendy Xu, Chris Kluwe,  David Simon, Nelson George, Ann Hood, and Phil Klay .  The highlight for me was that I got to hear one of my newfound favorite poets, Saeed Jones, read from his amazing collection Prelude to Bruise.

IMG_2165

Watching Saeed Jones read from the booth.

In addition to events, BKBF had over 500 exhibitors booths. Small presses, large presses, organizations, self-published authors– it was like the marketplace in Aladdin but everything was literary. I tried to dive in on my lunch break, but had nowhere near enough time to explore all the different books and swag there was to offer. I did manage to score some free books though, and you can’t beat that!

Book festivals are pure celebrations of literacy. Free and open to the public, they showcase how accessible and exciting reading can make the world.  I had such a great time at BKBF! Next stop for me is the Texas Book Festival on October 17-18!

How to Make the Essay Section Your BFF

“Fall is here, hear the yell, back to school, ring the bell… “

Fall means a lot of fun, pumpkin-y things, but if you’re applying to an advanced degree program, fall also means it’s time to start working on your applications. Grad school, med school, vet school—they all have deadlines coming up, and they all require a massive amount of writing. There’s no way around it, applications suck. But, with the right attitude and toolkit, you can turn the essay section into a great wing-man, showing schools why they have to have you.

In my time as a writing consultant, I’ve seen hundreds of applications for all kinds of programs. Here are some of the most important things I’ve learned.

Vague Prompts are a Blessing in Disguise

We’ve all seen them and groaned. “Tell us about a challenge you’ve encountered. ” or  “What interests you about medicine?” Applications are infamous for providing the most mind-numbingly dull prompts. At first, it can be overwhelming; how on earth are you supposed to write an interesting essay about that?

Here’s the secret: these prompts give you creative freedom. The trick is to answer a generic prompt with a singular, specific, focused experience. Try to be as narrative as possible. This is your chance to show them your personality and make them think of you as a real human. Your job is not to provide the correct answer, but rather to show them your character.

For example, if a prompt asks you about what interests you about medicine, talk about the time your friend broke her arm and how it felt to help her, or something that happened while you were volunteering at the hospital. Think about experiences that are unique to you and affected you in a meaningful way. Experiences that excite you to talk about. The readers are going to be looking at thousands of forgettable essays that list the benefits of medicine, so don’t make yours about the medicine, make it about who you are.

If you’re having problems thinking of experiences, the best way to brainstorm is to have a conversation with someone about the prompt. Find a friend or family member, or, if you’re in college, visit your school’s writing center, and chat about the path that has led you to this point in your life. Ideas will find you in no time.

Word Count Wizardry

count

Applications are infamous for pairing those vague prompts with minuscule word count maximums. How on earth are you supposed to sum up all of your experiences in 500 words or less? Don’t panic, it’s easier than you think.

I’ve seen a lot of students feel the pressure of the word count while they’re in the brainstorming or first-draft stages. While you of course shouldn’t plan for a six volume epic about your life, try to ignore the word count until the second draft or after. Write first, cut later.  It’s much easier to get your ideas on the page uninhibited by stressful limitations. Then, in your next draft, it will be no sweat to revise, delete, and rearrange as needed.

Once you get to the cutting-down stage, there are plenty of sentence-level tricks to put up your sleeve. Think of the word count as a way to keep your writing concise and clear. The first step is to look for places where you use a lot of prepositions (i.e. of, as, to). That’s usually a sign that you can reword your sentence to make it simpler. Here are some good examples from The University of Wisconsin of how to do that.

Another thing to cut is softening phrases, which take up extra space and,  as I’ve discussed before,  make your writing sound less confident. When writing about personal experiences, it’s easier than usual to overuse these. Avoid phrases like “I think,” “seem to,” “I believe,”  and “sort of.” Try to be as straight-forward and declarative as possible.

When you’re working with a word limit, there is no place in your essay for repetition. Go through every sentence (that’s right, every single sentence) and ask yourself, “What does this add to my story or argument? Have I said this already? What does this show about me, and is it something new?” Keep an extra sharp eye for redundant words or phrases and throw them right out.

Finally, search out multiple-word phrases that can be shortened to one word. For example, “a lot of” can be turned into “many.” The transition “in addition to” can be rephrased as “additionally.” Saying “Maria was from Texas” can be turned into “Maria was Texan.” Once you start playing this game, you’ll spot opportunities everywhere. The words you save will quickly add up.

Quick Tips and Speed Traps

  • Be positive and confident! Sometimes when you’re working on applications, it’s easy to get stressed and down on yourself.  But your essay section is your chance to sell yourself. Don’t undermine your accomplishments. You are going out for this degree because you love what you do, and you’re going to be great at it.
  • Don’t talk about how awesome the school is. They already know all about themselves, and the simple fact that you’re applying shows you think they rock. Instead, concentrate on what makes YOU special.
  • Contrary to most of your college writing, it is more than okay to speak in the first-person for application essays. You’re writing about yourself after all!
  • Don’t use exclamation points! It’s tempting, because you want to show schools how excited you are, but ideally the content of your writing should accomplish that on its own. You want to keep your style as professional as possible.
  • Don’t try to do this all in one sitting. Give yourself some time to breathe! Even if you just take a walk or watch an episode of a TV show, going back to your work with fresh eyes always helps the process.

While application essays can feel terrifying at first, once you start embracing them you may even  have a little fun. Keep in mind how great it’s going to feel once you get everything turned in, and that this is just another step on your way to your next grand adventure.

Want some individual help or a proofread? I’m a master at making essays shine, and I’d love to take a look at yours. Click here for rates and details. 

Excitement!

The other day, I watched the movie The History of Future Folka delightful indie film about aliens who come to conquer Earth and end up forming a folk band instead. In my favorite scene, one of the aliens, Kevin,  hears music for the first time. He, understandably, freaks out:

Kevin’s reaction is exactly how I feel when I’m reading a great new book. I want to giggle and shout and belt out opera. Finding something new just feels good.  It makes me want to tell everybody I know (and even people I don’t) about the amazing new thing I’ve come across. (I would probably be a horrible pirate, for this reason. Instead of burying my treasure, I’d ask for everybody’s thoughts and feelings about it.)

This is why I love to talk about books. I love to finish a book and immediately call my friend to gossip about all the imaginary characters. I love to formulate fan theories and argue about ships. I love to argue about what an ending meant, or postulate on what the writer was really trying to say. This constant pontification is why Infinite Jest continues to be one of my favorite books: there’s always something to discuss, always a new angle to be found.

Books are incredible to me in this way; they’re like portable dreams. They exist inside you as well as millions of other people, and everyone has dreamt the dream in their own way. I will never get over this.

I think too often we are afraid to show that we’re excited about something. We’ll write reviews in tempered tones, we’ll quietly rate something five stars on Goodreads, we won’t admit to being obsessed with something because we don’t want to come off as crazy.

Instead, let’s shout about the books we love. Let’s literally go to the roof and yell things like, “Roxane Gay is my hero!” and “I’m so worried about Tyrion!” Let’s not care if the people next to us on the subway think we’re insane as we chuckle and gasp at our paperbacks. Let’s let the excitement run wildly through our veins and become something new.

Reading  is about so much more than the turning of the page. It’s about being alive and sharing that aliveness. IT’S JUST SO COOL.

What I Look for in Good Fiction

In a recent job interview, I was asked what I value in fiction, and what I think makes a piece of fiction “good.” This question is such an important one, and to be honest, in the space of the interview, I didn’t feel like I answered it to its full potential. I’ve been thinking about it constantly in the weeks since the interview. It’s so easy to rattle off the elements of craft (character, plot, point-of-view, dialogue, description, pacing, setting, voice, and theme), but ultimately fiction is about  so much more than the ingredients.  As I wrote this blog post, I found myself reading it back to myself in the voice of Taylor Mali:

I value fiction that makes me feel. That makes me care and makes me curious. Fiction that makes my toes have emotions. Fiction that I push through not because I want to, but because if I don’t get one word more I will shatter.

I value fiction with characters that I know so well, they’re a part of who I am.When they suffer, I suffer; when they find joy, I’m grinning right along with them. Characters that I dream about. Characters who are real. Who, when I’m walking down the street, I can feel them walking with me.

I value fiction that does something new. That leaps and dives and barrel rolls over my expectations. Fiction that makes me gasp so loud on the subway that people move away from me. That makes me throw my book at the wall in shock and anger and marvel.

And by the same hand, I value fiction that is diverse. That lets me relate to people with different voices and different stories to tell. Fiction that introduces me to new perspectives, and fiction that lets me feel like my own voice can be heard.

I value fiction that takes me somewhere. That cracks open the world and shows me new colors inside.  Real places and imaginary, I value fiction that makes them all come alive.  Fiction that makes me forget where I am, so that when I close the book I come up blinking and disoriented.

I value fiction that makes me think. That plays my brain like Ben Folds plays a piano. Pulling new melodies out of me, and harmonizing with the things I already thought I knew. Fiction where I can piece things together. Fiction that challenges me–whether it’s a challenge to my opinions, a challenge to my knowledge, or even just a challenge in the reading itself.

I don’t just value good fiction: I breathe because of it. I’m the girl who will read Station Eleven by Emily St. John Mandel in the morning and Terry Pratchett’s Discworld series late into the night. I’ve towed Infinite Jest around with me like a security blanket, and I consider Harry Potter to be my primary lifestyle choice.

Good fiction goes beyond genre, beyond science. It catches you when you’re not expecting it. It slithers into your imagination and makes itself a home. Stays with you long past the final page.

 

5 Things You Can Do Right Now to Improve Your Writing

I was excited when my workspace community sent out a newsletter about how to instantly improve your writing…and then immediately surprised when it turned out to be just a list of apps. While apps and web gimmicks can sometimes be a fun way to experiment with your writing process (I’m a huge fan of Written? Kitten), they aren’t really solutions. However, whether you’re writing epic fantasy novels or interdepartmental e-mails, you don’t need technology to become a better writer.

1. Read out loud to yourself as if your life depended on it.

Last year, I casually told my roommate that I had started working on an essay, and she said, “I know, I could hear you reading it from all the way outside.”

The advice to read your work out loud is pretty common, but in order for it to work, you have to do it right. I’ve seen a lot of people blow through the words as fast as they can under their breath. That’s not helpful. The point of reading out loud is that it fires up your natural intuition; if it doesn’t sound right out loud, it’s probably not right on paper. You have to really listen to yourself and make an effort to read exactly what’s on the page. When you read out loud, pretend there is someone else in the room who’s listening to you. (Or better yet, find an actual person to read to. ) When I was a writing consultant, most of my students would find and fix a lot of their own mistakes just from reading their paper to me.

2. Cut “seems to,” “I think,” and other softening phrases.

I’m a little bit guilty when it comes to this.

Good writing is confident and clear. It is much more effective to say, “Colin Firth’s last line in Bridget Jones’s Diary is the best moment in cinematic history.” than “I think that Colin Firth’s last line in Bridget Jones’s Diary is the best moment in cinematic history.” If we’re talking about fiction, it is a stronger image to say, “The light from the streetlamp bounced off the windows like unasked questions.” than “The light from the streetlamp seemed to bounce off the windows like unasked questions.” It is very tempting to use these phrases, but ultimately they just end up being fluff that dilutes what you’re trying to say.

Whether you literally use Ctrl + F or not, look through your writing for any phrases like these and find ways to cut them out.

3. Write a little bit every day. But give yourself some slack.

Most writing workshops you take will advise you to write every day, but does anybody actually manage to make it happen? Finding time to write is one of the biggest struggles of being a writer. We get busy, we don’t feel inspired enough. and we fall into patterns of guilt and dread. The kicker is that the best way to get better at writing is to write.

So, don’t put too much pressure on yourself. It doesn’t matter what you write, just write something. You can delete immediately if that will make you feel better, just get words down on the page. Last Christmas, I bought myself 642 Things to Write About by the San Francisco Writers’ Grotto which gives you great, tiny prompts you can do in five minutes or less.

Find little pockets of time to write. I’ve been journaling and doing 642 Things to Write About prompts every time I get on the subway. (In fact, I wrote most of this post on the subway.) But if you live in a city that doesn’t have mass transportation, you can do things like write in the time between classes, in the last ten minutes of your lunch break at work, or for ten minutes between chores.

4. Make an inverse outline.

This was probably my most common trick as a writing consultant. It really helps if it feels like you’re having problems organizing your writing.

I know not everyone prescribes to the writing process guideline of creating an outline before you write. That’s fine– I personally like to get it all out, too. But ultimately good writing has organized thoughts, so you need to get to that point somehow.

Enter the inverse outline. Take a piece of writing you’ve already written, and, next to each paragraph, mark what that paragraph is about. Now, it should be very easy to go through and visualize how everything pieces together. Does it make sense to have a paragraph about trains right after you’ve introduced an idea about planes? Does every sentence in the paragraph about monster trucks contribute to the point about monster trucks? Move things around and see what works best– remember, on computers it’s easy to put things back if you liked it better the first way!

5. Turn off your inner editor.

One of the best things I ever did for my own writing was NaNoWriMo. As you may know, NaNoWriMo is when you attempt to write a 50,000 word novel during the month of November, which means writing at least 1, 667 words a day. This is a lot of writing, and the only way to do it is to think about the amount of words you’re writing, and not the quality of what you’re putting down on the page.

After doing NaNoWriMo, even the years that I didn’t succeed, my writing changed a lot. I became accustomed to getting a huge amount of volume out in short amounts of time, so blank pages and deadlines didn’t scare me as much. Everything felt easier. My writing became more daring and imaginative, because I was letting my brain loose.

So, I say to you now: put what you’re thinking down on the page as-is, and worry about the rest later.

It seems counterintuitive to improve your writing by not worrying about what you write, but it really works. A lot of times people get stuck because they feel pressure to put the right thing down on paper. It’s a lot easier to edit than to come out with perfection right away. Not to mention, good writing comes from honesty, from aha! moments, and from introspection. If you’re constantly stopping yourself, those elements are not going to come.

To wrap up, I want to leave you on this thought: The most important element of writing is clarity. Your number one priority as a writer is to make sure your audience can understand what you’re saying. Sometimes all it takes is to be simple and direct.