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Citizen journalism in the age of Trump

February 26, 2017
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These are anxious times for free media. We have a president who systematically and deliberately delegitimizes the press, fears the truth, and views the First Amendment as a threat. At the same time, many newsrooms are lean and have limited resources.

There is hope, though. Thanks to social media, the Internet, and the proliferation of media outlets, there is an opportunity for anyone to become a citizen journalist – engaging, informing, and educating others.

Like it or not, we are the truth-tellers now. And this is how to do it.

  • Work a beat

It’s too easy to become overwhelmed by outrage fatigue. Instead, find one or two issues that you are passionate about, whether it’s gun violence, climate change, immigration, healthcare, LGBTQ equality, religious freedom, etc. Research those issues, and channel your energy in that direction. Become your own expert.

  • Be persistent

This is particularly important when confronting members of Congress who don’t value the voices of their constituents. When the voicemail is full, fax them. When the email goes unanswered, go to their office and knock on the door. Remember: When someone is evasive, that means you’re on the right track.

  • Greet the news with skepticism

Don’t be an impulse buyer of news. Read beyond the headlines. Find primary sources. Question numbers. Read transcripts in their entirety.

  • Be accurate with the news you spread

Confirm numbers. Look up facts. Make sure quotes are in context. Spreading falsehoods ruins your credibility, and other people will no longer take you seriously.

  • Demand answers

If you’re talking to an elected official, assert your power. They work for you. If you receive a response that isn’t adequate, call them on it. Ask what they’re going to do about the problem, how will they accomplish this, and when you can expect results.

  • Be clear

Communicate your message in a clear, concise way. We’re often talking about complex issues with a lot of nuance – we must cut through the noise to help people understand what is important and how it affects them.

  • Listen

A lot of people don’t post their politics on Facebook, tweet their issues, or write letters to the editor. They make their voices heard at the ballot box. It’s imperative we listen to their concerns now so we know how to best address them. We don’t want a surprise in 2018.

  • Ask questions

Find out why your friend, neighbor, or relative voted the way they did. Ask what they are looking for and what they hope to achieve. Why do they feel what they feel? Give up trying to find common ground; just find their ground.

  • Amplify the voices that aren’t being heard

The people who are loudest have an agenda, and their voices are already well represented. Find those who aren’t being heard and lift them up.

  • Look for new entry points into the conversation

I love novels because fiction allows us to address important issues at an angle. Fictional characters offer a distance we don’t get with the news, and it opens up valuable entry points for conversation. Find books, movies, TV shows that allow you to have difficult talks with other people.

  • Use the tools of storytelling

Legislation isn’t just a dusty document in some Congressperson’s office. These decisions affect real people, real families, maybe even you. Find the human story, as well as the significance and meaning of the story, and make the connection that policy is personal. Form a compelling narrative. Explain why this story matters.

2014: The year I was gutted

December 31, 2014
Photo by peddhapati.

Photo by peddhapati.

 

My 2014 can be summed up with one fact: It took five months for my c-section incision to heal, a wound that should have closed in less than 6 weeks.

I’m not saying this to inspire sympathy or to have a conversation about childbirth in America. Just know that when I say I spent a good deal of my year split wide open, that’s not hyperbole.

There was one moment when I was at home, wildly trying to juggle my crying newborn during a conference call for work. I was bouncing the baby on my hip, walking past the bathroom, and I happened to look in the mirror just as my robe fell open. I saw the lipstick red slash of my incision reflected back at me, and I thought, “I am so broken. So very, very broken.” The idea that I might never be fixed, that my life might never again have a sense of normalcy, was terrible and frightening.

Many days I wondered when I would be whole again; if I would be whole again. The unknown is such a vulnerable place to reside.

Don’t get me wrong — it wasn’t a bad year. I had a lot of achievements: I finished my master’s degree, and I hit a few professional goals. I gave birth to a wild, funny boy, who has wispy hair and gentle cow eyes. I have a husband who inspires me on a daily basis and friends who are generous with their love. Many days were filled with pancakes, dance parties when the baby wouldn’t sleep, sunshine, fairy lights, a new blue dress or two. It was actually an extraordinary year.

This face.

This face.

 

But underscoring all the good things was a new and overwhelming feeling of helplessness — it seemed every time I felt like I was in the driver’s seat, the “service engine” light popped on in the car.

So 2014 was challenging. This was a year of allowing buried things to surface and giving air to raw skin. Watching old wounds heal and waiting for scar tissue to form. Of making peace when things fell beyond my control. Of learning patience. Of being.

Here’s to achieving more balance in 2015.

 

Writing Process Blog Tour 2014

September 17, 2014

My friend Maggie Thach was kind enough to tag me in the Writing Process Blog Tour. You can check out her answers to these very same questions on Jim Ruland’s blog.

Here we go:

What are you working on?

Well, I gave birth just two months ago. So there’s the writing I did before Everest was born, and then there’s what I’ve been doing lately, and the Grand Canyon sits in between. I can’t even see the other side from here.

Pre-baby: A memoir. Essays. The occasional short story.

Post-baby: Sleep. Grocery lists. Little bits of this and that. Finding things that rhyme with “Go to sleep.”

I’d like to say I’m working on more, but finding an hour of quiet, hands-free time now is like spotting a unicorn in the wild. During those rare, lovely moments when Everest is napping, I have a decision to make: Do I sleep? Do some housework? Should I chip away at the marketing work that gives me a paycheck? Or write something creative that might result in payment eventually?

Housework usually wins, since I need clean dishes and laundry and such. The marketing work is a close second, because money is good. The creative work suffers the most.

Honestly, I should sleep more. I should be sleeping right now. I am so tired.

Also he should sleep more.

Also he should sleep more.

 

Why do you write what you do?

My mom. I was a writer before my mom was diagnosed with early-onset Alzheimer’s Disease, but her disease added a deeper purpose and a sense of urgency to my writing. It also changed how I live my life. Knowing that the disease might be genetic, I made a conscious decision to experience more while I still could and capture those moments on the page — and that’s pretty much the whole story of my memoir.

Also because Alzheimer’s steals so much from a person, I wanted to give my mom the dignity of being remembered. This book is my way of maintaining her presence in the world. I didn’t want her to be like a Monet in the attic, something beautiful that is never seen again.

 

How does your work differ from the other works in the some area/genre?

My story is not quite a travel memoir and not quite a grief memoir. It’s something in between, and it’s different because it’s mine.

It was devastating to witness the degeneration of my mom — as each day moved forward, she was erased a little more — but it was also transformative for me.  Watching her die helped me learn how to live. I didn’t want to put things off anymore. I had to see the world, love radically, and collect memories. And in the process, I wanted to honor my mom by living out her dreams.

So I spent one year backpacking to 18 countries around the world, hiking the Inca Trail to Machu Picchu, whitewater rafting down the Nile, praying at an ashram in India, tending to abused elephants in Thailand, volunteering at a monkey park in the jungles of Bolivia, fleeing the Arab Spring in Egypt. My trip was made mostly solo, and it involved quitting my longtime journalism career, losing all sense of security, and leaving my newlywed husband in California for the first year of our marriage. It also meant rediscovering home and what it means to be part of a family.

 

How does your writing process work?

I don’t have a process anymore. In the two months since Everest arrived, all red-faced and hollering, I’ve felt the itch to write but I haven’t had much luck actually doing it. Some of it is a time issue, since this kid is super needy and refuses to pull his own weight around here — but mostly I can’t string together coherent thoughts anymore. My brain is blurry, and my hormones are pinging around like crazy. So I’ve been keeping notes, lists and snippets of things on my iPhone, things to tackle later when the mom fog dissipates and my body returns to normal.

Also he is loud. Have I mentioned that? It’s hard to write when your ear drums are shattered.

Some days are hard.

Yep.

 

At first I felt guilty about not writing. Then I remembered an amazing conversation I had with Attica Locke, back when I was eleventy months pregnant and about to pop. She said to put the work on a shelf. Let it sit there for a few months, maybe more. Focus on taking care of my baby and taking care of myself. “The work will wait,” she said. “The baby won’t.”

So that’s where I reside now. I can only handle one thing at a time that is demanding to be fed. Right now it’s a human. Eventually it’ll be my book.

 

Continuing the blog tour: I tag Heather Scott Partington and Leigh Raper, both incredible writers and friends from my MFA program.

About Heather: Heather Scott Partington was raised in California’s central valley. She teaches high school English and lives in Elk Grove, California, with her husband and two kids. Her writing has appeared at The Rumpus, Bookslut, The Nervous Breakdown and the Los Angeles Review of Books. Heather holds an MFA in fiction from UC Riverside’s Palm Desert Campus.

About Leigh: Leigh Raper writes both fiction and non-fiction and sometimes posts on her blog about pop culture at leighraper.com. Her work has appeared at Spilt Infinitive and in the Best of Spilt Anthology and on The Coachella Review blog. She is slightly obsessed with television, rocks out to classic ’80s hair metal, and plays fetch with a wicked smart Labrador Retriever. She lives in the hamlet of Palisades, NY, on a rural postal route 12 miles north of New York City.

 

15 writing tips from Panio Gianopoulos

February 7, 2014

I’m such a sucker for craft talk, especially lists of writing tips. Oh, those adorable, bite-sized bits that promise to reinvent my prose! I can’t get enough. I gobble them like dumplings.

Unfortunately, those lists rarely stick with me. As easily digestible as the tips might be, they rarely give me any real narrative strategies or provide me with something that truly lasts. Or if they are substantial, the lists are so dense and overwhelming I can’t even think about applying the tips to my own writing.

The exception to this came a few months ago at my MFA residency. And it was a surprise too. Author, essayist and publisher Panio Gianopoulos gave a very thorough lecture about novellas — writing novellas, classic examples of novellas, the market for novellas.

This is the novella that Panio built.

 

Then POW! Out of no(vella)where, Panio ended his talk with his top 15 writing tips. Not just for novellas either. And he gave me permission to pass this list along to you.

So here you go. These tips are smart, practical and best of all, super helpful. Enjoy. And thank you, Panio!

Here’s Panio in a photo I illegally swiped off the internet. Photo credit: Molly Ringwald

 

1. Write toward discomfort.

Panio talked about this in the context of fiction, but this comes up a lot in my nonfiction classes as well. Proceed directly to the scary, uncomfortable place. That’s where all the feelings are.

2. Pursue the accidental. (Don’t learn to type real well.)

I don’t remember the example that Panio used here. It was something about how he mistyped a word, but it led him down a different, more interesting path with that sentence. Like when autocorrect invites your boss to a poop party instead of a pool party.

3. Things are usually half as funny as you think.

e.g. My poop party joke. (See: above)

4. Movement! Action! Things have to happen.

This is a good one. You wouldn’t believe how many short stories I’ve written where people just sit around a coffee shop, talking. Then sometimes they have sex.

5. The reader has to care about the protagonist. (They don’t have to LIKE the protagonist. They just have to have a reason to care.)

I can actually think of a lot of books in which I didn’t like the protagonist. For example, I didn’t want to become BFFs with Nick from “Gone Girl.” But I wanted to watch his transformation through the story, and that propelled me through the entire book.

6. It’s OK if you don’t write fast and sloppy first drafts.

This one is liberating. I’ve had so many writers tell me to dash off a quick, messy draft — “You can’t fix a blank page!” they chirp — so it’s refreshing to hear the opposite of that. I’m a person who labors over every word of my draft, and I fix sentences as I work. I’ve tried to overcome this by banging my work out on an old Royal typewriter — I don’t own White Out, and I don’t even know how to do a backspace on the damn thing, so it forces me to leave a messy draft on the page. I even took an online course called Fast Draft. Still, my writing is slow going. According to Panio, that’s OK.

7. Don’t overly discuss a first draft while writing it.

Oh, man. I’ve already killed one story by doing this. It was a rookie mistake — I was new to my MFA program, I was inspired by the great work happening around me, and I wanted to participate in the conversation too. Except, in the process of explaining my book idea to everyone, I strangled the story before it ever found a voice.

8. If you’re worried that it’s boring, it probably is.

Writing is transparent. When I really struggle with a piece and force myself to slog through it, then it reads like drudgery. And when I bore myself? That’s a good indication that readers will be bored too.

9. Title as soon as possible.

This is an interesting tip, and maybe it’s one of those chicken-egg debates. I’ve always thought that as a piece progresses, the work will present a title. But Panio believes having a title in hand will shape the piece in subtle ways. I’m sure it can work both ways.

10. Write two hours or 500 words a session, 5 times per week.

This. This works. I know because I’ve been trying to follow this plan ever since Panio shared it.

11. With feedback, ask your reader the right questions. For instance, what’s the story? What do you think happened? What do you take from this? 

This is another good tip, and it addresses something that is rarely discussed among writers: What exactly are we trying to get from workshop/feedback?

12. Separate publication from validation.

This might be the most difficult one of all. I have gotten better about squashing my envy when good things happen to my writing friends — there’s plenty of space on the bookshelf for everyone’s work, after all. But I’m still very hard on myself when my own essays are rejected, my pitches go unanswered, my work doesn’t get noticed. I assume I suck, and the whole world hates me, and I should become a professional barista already.

13. Beware: Research easily slips into procrastination.

Ah, the rabbit hole of the internet! I’ve lost many writing days to exploring the pop songs of Uganda and discovering how long it takes for a whale carcass to decompose on sand.

14. Read often. And while you’re reading, analyze and record what works.

My seventh-grade literature teacher, Kathi Russell-Rader, always said good readers make good writers. I’m not sure I believed her at the time, but I get it now. On the same note, I’m shocked when I meet writers who say they don’t read. That’s like a chef who doesn’t eat. It’s impossible to be competent in a field without some knowledge of it.

15. Support other writers.

This gets to one of my New Year’s Resolutions for Other People — to be a more active participant in my literary community. Buy more books, support more authors, encourage more reading among everyone.

Speaking of supporting other writers, why don’t you start with Panio? Read an excerpt of his book here.

 

Resolutions for other people

January 1, 2014

The idea for this post began as a joke. One of my neighbors — I’m not sure which one — regularly leaves dog poop all over the place, so I wanted to make a 2014 resolution for him/her. A mean resolution. Like what precisely that neighbor can do with that dog poop.

But the more I thought about the coming year, the more I realized that making resolutions for other people is not such a bad idea. Resolutions to help others, I mean.

Helping others: In Laos, the monks subsist on the food they receive as alms each morning.

 

I’m tired of thinking about myself all the time. It’s boring. I’ve spent all these years trying to cultivate good habits, set goals, improve my lifestyle, reinvent myself, look better, get smaller, tone up, slim down, learn more, grow more, be more, do it all. Sometimes I succeeded, sometimes I failed — either way, I’ve been there, done that. I’m very experienced when it comes to self-improvement.

What I haven’t focused on, however, is how my life affects the lives of those around me. So that’s what I want to do in 2014. Here’s how:

* Be a better citizen of the world.

Everything is connected.

The biggest benefit of my trip around the world was that I saw how closely our lives are all connected. Though it seems like we’re so different and separate, what with all these borders and language barriers and miles between us, the truth is that we’re all here together. What I do here can have an impact on someone else’s life on the other side of the world.

This means volunteering in my own community, as well as engaging more with people in other places. It means offering more support to organizations that legitimately try to make the world better, like the Landmine Relief Fund. I’m also a fan of microlending opportunities like Kiva.

We all have the same desires for family, love, safety and shelter. Let’s try harder to help each other with that.

* Be a more active participant in my literary community.

Kickass literary magazine. Photo from dumdumzine.com

 

When I started grad school for creative writing, I began meeting a lot of authors — people who work hard to develop their craft, devote their lives to art and get very little in return. And that’s when I stopped illegally downloading books. Because writers deserve to get paid. (This goes for all art, by the way. Not just writers.)

But I can still do more. I would rather have fewer nights at restaurants or movies if it means filling my house with more books, putting more money into writers’ pockets and helping them continue to do what they love.

My grad school also introduced me to some badass people who do wonderful things for the literary arts, and I want to support their efforts. For instance, my mentee Liska has the coolest experimental lit/art zine. (You should buy it! And submit to it!) My friend Natashia is the creator of Dirty Laundry Lit, an innovative and exciting reading series in LA. (Go to it!) And my friends are always publishing the most breathtaking work, the kind of pieces that make me so thankful these people exist and live and write. Like thisAnd thisAnd thisAnd this. I could go on and on. (Read these pieces! Share them!)

 

* Keep reading.

Book love.

 

I grew up an avid reader, but when I started working in newspapers, I just stopped. It’s embarrassing how little I read. I remember several years ago, a friend of mine compiled a list of her top 10 books of the year and I was incredulous. How could a person possibly read 10 books in a year?

Well, this past year, I read 54 books. My life has improved dramatically since I’ve made reading a priority. My world has expanded. I’ve learned more. I can contribute more to conversations and in a more meaningful way.

Knowing how much books boost my happiness, I’m aiming for 50+ this year. I’d really like to raise that number, but I’m also realistic about my time. I have a great big thesis due this summer, and I know that will take a lot of my energy and attention.

 

* Consume mindfully.

Vote with your dollars.

 

I already try to consume mindfully, but I want to get better about it. I don’t want my dollars going to CEOs who support things I don’t, companies that don’t operate in an ethical manner, factories that don’t treat their employees with respect. I’m not just talking about Domino’s Pizzas and Chick-fil-A, but also the everyday products I use. If I buy toilet paper and that money ends up in some Koch brother’s wallet, I want to know about that. I’ve downloaded the Buycott app to help me make more informed consumer decisions.

I will also continue to make organic and fair trade products a part of my lifestyle. I am on a budget, but I would rather have less and consume better.

Consuming less overall is part of this too. For too long I bought clothes/shoes/accessories according to what was trendy, and eventually those items seemed to take on a disposable quality. They are not. It takes resources to make these items, I spend good money on them (and the products are usually crappy), and ultimately they end up in landfills. I want to get better about fixing/refurbishing what I already have, purchasing already-used goods or not buying at all. This is going to be a real test as I try to make it through my pregnancy without purchasing a load of maternity clothes that will only be used for a few months.

 

* Be kind to myself.

Fine. I’ll eat less salt.

 

I’ve spent years trying to create a better relationship with my body, but that has taken on an increased importance now that I’m pregnant. The better I eat, the more active I am, the more I care for myself, the better I will be as a mother, wife and role model. Also, right now my habits literally have an effect on the baby inside me. If that doesn’t inspire me to be better, nothing will.

I also don’t want to beat myself up anymore. I’m tired of referring to certain foods as “bad” or “guilty pleasures.” I don’t want to feel like I’ve done something wrong if I skip one of my daily walks. I’m an imperfect person, trying to do the best I can.

 

* Nurture my relationships with friends.

I love these people.

 

My friends are treasures, and I don’t always treat them like they are. Sometimes I get busy or I don’t want to bug anyone, so I hunker down and don’t communicate. I need to try harder at making phone calls, extending invitations, following up on lunch dates/coffee dates, spending time with them, asking about their lives. I truly love the people in my life, and my actions should show it.

The amazing this is how much all of these things are linked. Reading more widens my literary community and keeps me more engaged with the world around me. Consuming mindfully causes less waste and potentially creates better working and living environments for everyone. Taking care of myself makes me a more active person in the world and gives me the chance to do more for others.

This 2014, it’s not about me anymore.