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Citizen journalism in the age of Trump

February 26, 2017

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.

Five steps to a perfect budget babymoon (or any kind of vacation!)

March 26, 2014

Travel is very important to The Husband and me. But so is saving money, especially now that we have a baby on the way.

So while we did want to indulge in a babymoon — our last getaway as a couple before our boy is born — we also wanted to keep enough cash in the bank to afford diapers when it was all over. We decided to ditch the traditional advice, since an all-inclusive in the Virgin Islands was simply not in our budget, and plan our own luxury-on-a-shoestring excursion.

Here are five easy questions we asked ourselves. Use them to plan a babymoon, or any kind of vacation, of your own.

1. What do you want to do?

Are you seeking action or something more leisurely? Want nightlife or nature? Sightseeing or sunset gazing? Determine the kind of vacation you’d like to have. Once you figure out your priorities, you can whittle down the destination options.

Even though The Husband and I typically enjoy more adventurous excursions, we desperately wanted to relax and recharge. We decided to look for a beautiful location where we could hike and take long walks, as well as a nice room where we could curl up together.


2. How will you get there?

Decide how you want to get where you’re going. Think about what will be the best for your budget AND the most hassle-free. We all know how to get a cheap flight, but if you have to drive a few hundred miles to catch a redeye or endure a 7-hour layover somewhere, is it still worth it?

While The Husband and I love to fly, we knew driving would be the easiest and most frugal way for us to travel. Depending on where you live, though, you might find some terrific air travel deals that are both time-saving and low-cost.

With the goal of a one-tank trip in mind, we looked at locations within a five-hour driving radius of our home. Our options included Las Vegas, coastal California, southern Arizona and northern Mexico. I’m not crazy about Vegas (I know, I know — I’m THE ONE person who doesn’t care what happens in Vegas or if it stays there), and we’ve already spent considerable time vacationing throughout California and Arizona.

We figured Mexico would give us a new locale to explore, and our money would go farther there. For instance, for the price of two nights at a beach hotel in California, we could afford four nights in Baja.


3. What time of year is your vacation?

This sounds so simple, but you’d be surprised how often it slips past when planning a getaway, and it can actually make or break your vacation. Ask yourself: What’s the weather like where you’re going? Do they have any festivals or major events happening when you’ll be there?

There are plenty of travel articles that will tell you vacationing off-season is a great way to stretch your budget, and that’s true. But really think about where you’re going, consider the potential risks and determine your comfort level, which is particularly important when you’re pregnant. Are you willing to brave Miami in the midst of hurricane season? Will you still enjoy Costa Rica if it rains every day? Will you be comfortable in the desert if it’s 120 degrees? It’s fine if your answer is yes; just arm yourself with this information in advance and plan accordingly.

Now look at what else will be happening in your destination while you’ll be there. To use an extreme example: Say you end up babymooning in Rio during the World Cup. Not only will you be battling crowds for tables at restaurants and places to stay, you’re also going to face severely inflated prices. You’ll probably still have a great time — but it might not be the getaway you originally envisioned.

In our case, The Husband and I were a little apprehensive about heading to Mexico during spring break. But since we decided to stay in a sleepy, seaside village and not anywhere with a Señor Frog’s, we didn’t have any issues with drunk fraternity brothers.



4. Where will you sleep?

Think about what kind of accommodations will make you most comfortable. Do you want to stay in a big hotel with a lot of amenities? Or are you looking for a boutique hotel with a lot of personality? Do you want a pool, a gym, a restaurant on site? Or are you looking for a totally unique experience, like a B&B? What’s important to you? I’m not much for room service, but I have some friends who consider it one of life’s greatest pleasures.

The Husband and I like to use Airbnb, an accommodations website with unique listings all over the world — anything from private rooms to entire houses. (Even clock towers and treehouses!)

For this vacation, we wanted an entire apartment to ourselves. It was also important that we have our own kitchen, because we both have special dietary needs, and we wanted to keep costs down by making some of our own meals. (We tend to cook two of our own meals a day, eat one nice meal out.)

This is the suite we booked.

What made this place special is that our host gave us the kind of personalized experience that you rarely find from a hotel, unless you’re paying top dollar. Cathy organized our Mexican car insurance for us in advance. She booked our massages with a trustworthy and experienced professional. She welcomed us with a tray of fresh-basked cookies. And she gave us invaluable advice on places to go, things to do and what to eat.


5. What else will make you feel comfortable?

This will be different for everyone and will depend on your situation.

I had two major concerns about leaving the country for my babymoon: Medical care and clean water.

Again, our Airbnb host was incredibly helpful. Cathy is an American who has been living in Mexico for 12 years, and she assured me of the quality doctors/hospitals located near her rental. She also offered to give me a list of physician names and phone numbers.

Her place does have filtered tap water (and all the restaurants nearby use filtered water too). That said, I’m very, very careful when it comes to water, so I purified it anyway. I use a SteriPen Adventurer Opti, which is my constant travel companion. It’s portable, it’s easy, and it works. And it’s saved me thousands of dollars over the years, because I never have to buy bottled water, no matter where I go in the world.


Here’s the final breakdown of our babymoon, which you can read more about here:

* The price of the suite rental came to $320. ($300 + cleaning fee).

* Our Mexican car insurance, required by law, was $40.

* Before we crossed the border, The Husband and I took out $200 from an ATM to pay for our food, massages, tolls and other assorted expenses — and we returned to the U.S. with $10 in our pockets.

So our grand total for five days was $550. (Plus one tank of gas, but I factor fuel into a different place in my budget.)

I’ve definitely traveled cheaper, but our priority here was comfort as well as a budget. We could have done without massages or some of our pricier meals, or we could have stayed at a smaller place off the beach. But we wouldn’t have quite as many beautiful memories — and those, of course, are priceless.



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


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.

Maggie Dreams of Writing

September 19, 2012

The other night my husband and I watched a spare and elegant documentary called “Jiro Dreams of Sushi.” It’s the story of 85-year-old Jiro Ono, owner of the Michelin 3-star restaurant Sukiyabashi Jiro in Tokyo. Although he is already considered to be one of the world’s greatest sushi chefs, Jiro wants to perfect the art form and elevate the delicacy to new heights.  His quest becomes an obsession, to the point where Jiro even dreams of sushi.


Of course, the film isn’t just about the sushi. I paused the movie and asked my husband if he feels a similar obsession for his profession.

“Do you dream about teaching?” I asked.

“All the time,” he said. “Do you dream about writing?”

“I do. Scenes and characters and things I haven’t even written yet.”

“When you worked for newspapers, did you ever dream about journalism?” he said.

“Yes. But only in the nightmare way.”

And that’s right about the time I had a writing epiphany. Because when I pressed play and the film started up again, Jiro looked directly into the camera and said, “I fell in love with my work and devoted my life to it.”


Now, I’ve always heard the old cliché, “It’s not work if you love what you do.” But Jiro’s take on it is slightly different.

When Jiro says “fall in love with your work,” he isn’t talking about having a strong affection for your chosen career path. This is a matter of loyalty. It’s doing this thing for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health, as long as you live. Jiro fell in love, and he made a lifetime commitment — the guy has been creating sushi since age 10, and I bet making sushi will be the last thing he ever does.

For me personally, that means putting my ass in the chair and writing, even when the mail brings me nothing but rejection letters, even when I’m scrounging for grocery money, even when I wonder why I bother. It means standing by writing’s side, even when she is a nagging whorebeast who refuses to do the dishes.

It means that I’ve already made the commitment — I quit the only career I’ve ever known; I sent myself back to school to learn more about the craft; I’m giving myself ample time and opportunity to write. Now it’s time to see it through. No more messing around. If I’m going to be putting my ass in the chair anyway, don’t I owe it to myself to be the best possible writer I can be?

Sounds so simple. But, then again, so does sushi. And Jiro’s been working on that for 75 years.


Later in the film, a Japanese food critic ticks off the five attributes that separate great chefs from average chefs. I believe these attributes could apply to anyone, no matter the field.

1. “They take their work very seriously and consistently perform at the highest level.” — Strive for excellence, which requires unyielding focus and determination. Sacrifices must be made.

2. “They aspire to improve their skills.” — There is always room to learn something about your craft. The day Jiro received an award that declared him to be a national Japanese treasure, do you know what he did? He returned to work.

3. “Cleanliness. ‘If the restaurant doesn’t feel clean, the food isn’t going to taste good.'” — Keep it simple. You want your readers/customers to focus on the thing they showed up to do — and they’re here to savor your work.

4. “They are better leaders than collaborators. They’re stubborn and insist on having it their way.” — Trust your instincts. Don’t accept substitutes for your vision.

5. “Finally, a great chef is passionate.” — Fall in love with your work every single day, all over again. Wine her, dine her and slip her the tongue. It’s your job to make this relationship work.