Here’s a poem for today by…

One of my favorite morning rituals is listening to The Writer’s Almanac. When I’m working in an office, it’s the first podcast I listen to on my commute, the shortest leg between my apartment and my train station. These days it’s an over-the-tea pleasure, and Garrison Keillor has just been killing it on poem selection this month so far. I just wanted to share/save a few of my favorite pieces — I used to think I never liked poetry, despite having an English professor for a dad, but it just turns out I have not yet learned patience for reading poetry. Listening to it, however, is a joy, and Keillor, whose “News From Lake Wobegon” segment has been a constant pleasure throughout my life, is the perfect voice for it.

I’m going to be quoting my favorite bits from each poem, which is sometimes the end, so… spoiler warning? Each of these links comes with a recording embedded in it, but I’d recommend subscribing to the podcast wherever it is you subscribe to such things. It really is a nice way to start your day, if you’re a literary nerd like me. Continue reading “Here’s a poem for today by…”

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Plus ça change — except they really do

Good nails, not great much else
Good nails, not great much else

This photo is a year old, which means that last year right now I was also sick with Whatever Is Going Around. The timing is awesome (well, extra awesome) because despite earlier reports, the coldest day of the season is actually going to be this weekend, with polar vortex-esque temperatures and all that attendant fun. My decade-plus in Chicago has prepared me well for this terrible time, but it’s sort of a no-brainer solution: hiding in my apartment, chugging down tea and cold medicine, paying huge tips to delivery guys if for some reason I run out of food.

Well, you say to yourself, this could be all right. You’ve run out of Parks & Rec on Netflix and you could really use this time to focus on self-improvement fun. This is always true! I keep having books I could read for pleasure, food-and-travel shows I could bask in and Hamilton songs to finally learn. I have a lot of practice in all those things. I’m an expert in many kinds of loafing.

Except here’s the thing. Last week I finished up Summer Pierre’s online comics-making course. Short version: It was wonderful. Making comics with no pressure to be perfect, surprise surprise, makes it so much easier to get in there and actually make comics. Can’t recommend the course enough, it starts again in April, you should definitely do it if you’re curious but think you can’t. It has nothing to do with drawing ability, just a desire to do it.

That’s actually really good for me to relearn. See — surprise, surprise — I’m a lifelong perfectionist. I keep forgetting that everyone is a beginner at some point, and that you get good at things by experimenting and practicing, not by doing it really well out of thin air or panicking if it’s something you have to work at. Somehow this is not obvious to me, but luckily my therapist is very patient about it. Summer’s comics course is wonderful because she insists on using the most low-stakes materials right out of the gate — some index cards, two pens and a cheap composition notebook for drawing in (so you don’t get caught up in the fear of ruining the pristine perfection of a brand-new fancy blank sketchbook — how did you know, Summer? it me!). That’s it. You just throw yourself into it and don’t give yourself the time to get caught up in your head.

My favorite for practice is the list comic (see also: Nine TV Shows I Love to Rewatch, Nine Things I Miss About Chicago). If I accidentally leave a page blank in my daily planner, it’s just the right size for a simple grid of nine and either organizing some organizables or observing what’s around you. I used to draw all the time as a kid, and I probably fell out of it because I didn’t think I could catch up to the people who were really good, even though every other class I’ve ever taken post-college — singing, social dancing, improv — has been about embracing your beginner status and rejecting the idea that you’re “bad” at anything you don’t know how to do.

One of the amazing things about Tumblr, probably my favorite time-waster, is getting to see all kinds of incredible art all the time. I really love it when these artists share progress updates — this is how far I’ve come in a year. If you just discovered me, I’ve been growing a lot, and you can too!

I want to make comics a habit. It’s an art form that’s excited me my whole life, and actually sitting down to try it, to experiment with visual language and challenge myself to use fewer words, is exhilarating, actually. Getting stale is the worst. Trying new things is great. So, without revealing too much about the process (take the class!), here’s the rough draft of the final, real, nine-panel comics story that I made, with thanks to Virgie Tovar and Agent Carter:

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Her name is Merle Van Der Ellis, and she’s a fashion designer. At least, she started out that way. Turns out I made some discoveries when asked to play around with her. My improv teachers would be so proud!

And here’s what happened when I sat down, smoothed it all out and… actually made a comic, ohmygod:

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I know I’ve literally blogged before about how buying art supplies will not make me an artist, but I’m not going to lie: Yesterday I went to Dick Blick and bought some slightly heavier drawing paper, because printer paper was making me nervous about erasing too much and I have all kinds of things I want to keep making and trying. I resisted all the gorgeous pens and colored pencils, but the notepad, I think that’s a good present to myself.

(Sidebar, for real: Summer’s class is a great present to yourself. She’s warm, welcoming and so, so good at what she does. I’ve been admiring her from afar ever since her book The Artist in the Office saved me at my first desk job, and I’m so glad to have gotten to learn from her and my amazing fellow classmates. She makes comics so accessible! Look at me — Miss Perfectionist central, and I’m all ready to keep scribbling and developing my style and skills. Like a beginner. Which is a pretty good place to be.)

Wining, whining and winning with Matt Bellassai

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We made the cover!

I spent New Year’s Eve with a guy who’s made his career getting drunk at his desk, and even though we were both sober, I had a fantastic time talking with him. Matt Bellassai is in Los Angeles tonight, because he’s a nominee for a People’s Choice Award (Favorite Social Media Star), but I hung out with him on a Thursday afternoon at the BuzzFeed office in Manhattan and talked about origin stories, Internet fame and why kids are the root of all evil. You can read all about it in today’s cover story at RedEye Chicago: Matt Bellassai’s guide to drinking (and whining) your way to the top. (To my delight, we also cast his biopic. I love his choice for starring role.)

That story includes exclusive video, as well as some behind-the-scenes photos of his star-making series, Whine About It. This much is true: Matt does drink an entire bottle of wine and then makes hilarious viral videos complaining about everything from pants to holiday parties to dealing with airplanes. It’s simple but effective — in addition to the PCA nomination, his videos have more than 150 million views, and the series only started last May.

You’ll be pleased to hear that Matt is a great pleasure to interview, that he’s both thoughtful and funny and that cutting down this interview was extra hard because of how much fun I had. Please enjoy these pictures, some of which didn’t make it into the article, and, because journalism is the beast that it is, feel free to share the article on the social media network(s) of your choice!

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With director Jeremy Briggs, who really collaborates on the filming with him and draws out a great performance.

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Detail from his desk
Detail from his desk
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FYI, out the big window to the right of this image, you can see the top half of the Empire State Building.

Matt Bellassai’s guide to drinking (and whining) your way to the top (RedEye Chicago, Jan. 5, 2015)

Forbidden Secrets of Novel-Writing (and Sorcery)

It’s been a very good week, all in all. My first two pieces for Mental Floss went up (unusual riots and repurposed mental hospitals!), I just found out a good friend got his dream job and I cleaned my kitchen in a major and necessary way, thanks to inhaling the available-on-Netflix season of The Great British Bake Off. The coming few days will include long-overdue quality time with the friend who got me into Studs Terkel, and therefore journalism; a trip to my favorite hair salon for some touch-ups and pampering; and more than a few excellent holiday parties.

What I’m thinking about, though, in my off-hours, is fiction. I did wind up completing that 50,000-word novel during the month of November, although I’m learning the truth of Terry Pratchett’s dictum now more than ever: The first draft is just you telling yourself the story. What I churned out during NaNoWriMo has a few nuggets and flashes that feel like the right direction, but the more I wrote, the more I realized it was maybe 18% of the thing I ultimately want this story to be.

I say story and not novel, even though novels are what I’m most comfortable with, as a medium, because I have such strong visuals for this story, and I’m really wondering if it should be a comic or a script. But again, written fiction is what I know how to do, so it’s how I can get the story down soonest. This is the first of many things about which I’m getting way, way ahead of myself. (Not a new struggle for me, either.)

But I’m trying to figure out the best way to tease out or work toward the rest. My elevator pitch for this story is “Three young witches join the USO during World War II.” So: What’s the system of magic? What are the communities of magic? What are the rules about participating in non-magic conflicts? How much backstory should I include, on the individual protagonists and on their mutual history? How am I going to research what USO entertainers could reasonably expect on the foxhole circuit, during their day-to-day? Where should they live? How late in the war were U-boats blowing up Allied ships? How do I even write the middle of this book, which I pretty much skipped entirely?

This is in addition to the complexities I want to explore in my three heroines, one of whom is furious that they’re not using their gifts to put an end to the Reich. How exactly do you confront the Holocaust as it’s happening without either trivializing it or letting it dominate the novel? Is that even right? (For instance, I can’t wrap my head around The Book Thief, in which the Holocaust was virtually incidental, save for some plot points that enlightened or ennobled the gentile protagonists. On the other hand, my beloved Captain America sidesteps it entirely, which is no better a solution.) There are also questions of religion meeting atheism meeting magic, and how that upends your world, and how you keep this story from turning into yet another earth-shattering epic, not to mention the accidental triangle of sexual tension that’s emerged with a ghost. Whoops?

There is an answer to all this, and that’s talk to people and do the work. Worrying about how you’re going to organize that conversation is a good way of convincing yourself that you’re doing something when you’re actually just spinning your wheels. (See also: perfectionism.) Anyway, one of my favorite working comics artists is doing an online course starting next month. Why worry when you can just learn?

(Good pep talk, self! Hope you enjoyed that too, reader. What are your best methods for just getting the novel done?)

The Gift From the Allied Field

Right now my love-hate relationship with National Novel Writing Month is tipping solidly into the “love” column. Last night I finished my daily installment at exactly 37,000 words for the whole manuscript. The story is a hot mess and I skipped over basically the entire middle of the novel, but it’s a story I’ve wanted to tell for years and years and years, and I have a good feeling this will clean up into something really cool (and salable!).

Beyond the product of the story itself, I love how NaNo forces you to confront your fear of the blank page. It doesn’t matter how much you’re in your head about the writing itself, you have to put down about 1,700 words a day for 30 days. (There’s even an agreement you sign at the outset.) The beginning of each day’s installment usually feels rough and tentative, but once you get into your flow, it’s amazing how many words end up in your document before midnight. (I seem to do all my writing between 10 p.m. and midnight, which I wouldn’t actually recommend, but racing the clock to log your words before midnight helps in ways that word sprints or word wars on Twitter don’t seem to for me. Comparing your total against a handy wallpaper word count calendar has also been great; I’ve been using this typewriter one.)

But NaNo has been helpful in another way. Earlier this month, I left the job I moved to New York for. It’s been a big change, but I’m moving closer to the career path that most excites me, one that involves a lot more talking to people and writing about them. I’ve been thinking about what NaNo has taught me over the years: Break the big task into manageable bits and celebrate your accomplishments, because the small ones do add up. For instance, I spent a day or so retooling my RealName.com as a genuine portfolio site. I got anxious about spending so much time fiddling with clips selections and choosing templates, but when it was done, I felt confident about what I’d put together. I’d reminded myself that I have a lot to offer, and I can back up that potential with proven work.

In the past few weeks, several friends of mine have moved on to great opportunities at great publications, and from the outside, it’s seemed like those just fell into their laps because they’re great journalists and great people. But they’ve all put in incredible amounts of work and time, and I’m just starting, so, you know: it’s okay to not immediately field dozens of job offers from your dream outlets when you’re an unknown factor. I know it can happen, though. I’ve seen the end result.

Off to the races, self — 50K and freelance both.

How to overthink things: A list

This is not actually going to be a list about overthinking. But I am really good at overthinking things. It’s finally the weekend, and even though it was a four-day work week, I am terribly glad it’s Saturday. Weekends are easy for me to lose, though. I get caught up in mindlessly browsing Tumblr or putting off household chores or not making plans with friends or getting angry at the news (and not even getting paid for it). These are the kinds of things I would rather be doing instead:

  • Papier-mâché — I used to run a blog about this, actually. I recently tried it out again, and it’s still hideously fun and pleasant for me. I’m still settling on how to decorate this dopey vase (thanks, weird juice bottle + toilet paper roll), but I’ve got a whole list of other things I want to make: monsters, dioramas, decorative boxes, birds, tea sets. Past me was super zen about how to do it and improv-style mindsets. I want that again!
  • Photo challenges — I have this fantastic camera and I really, really love photography. Why not? (But which! CaptureYour365? #365Project? the 30-day version? the one that got the “photo challenge” domain name? the Shallow Project? This… might be me overthinking things, in action.) (For real, though, I’m so glad the iPhone has a good camera too. I love how freaky the Empire State Building looked yesterday, in that photo up top.)
  • Writing — I continue to want more storytelling, fiction and non, in my life. I’ve had luck before with timed writing sessions, particularly Pomodoro-style breakdowns. I have so many projects to take on: NaNoWriMo, my renewed feelings about an old Americana noir project that never got off the ground, a whole bunch of journalism, even more possible short stories
  • Biking — I really love city biking. I enjoy biking to work, which takes exactly the same amount of time as taking the train, with the added bonus of showing up at the office drenched in sweat. I’m always happier during the day when I do it, though, and let’s be real, the weather is super cooperating right now.
  • Swing dancing — I’m angry every week that I beg out of throwing myself into the social dance community. I make all these excuses about the long train rides to the venues, the early hour I have to wake up for work, and yet. And yet every time I’ve done it, I’m so happy. Being sleepy for a bit the next day has to be worth that.
  • Ukulele — Music in general, really. I really need to commit to a little learning on this baby, but I miss Sacred Harp singing quite a bit too, not to mention how much I enjoyed basic singing lessons back at the Old Town School of Folk Music (an institution for which Chicago is much, much richer; I wish I knew where something even vaguely similar lived in New York).
  • Friend dates — New York is as lonely as everyone likes to moan about. I’m still looking for that group of friends or community that I crave, but I fully admit that is partly because I am easily discouraged when I’m overwhelmed. (I have considered making this blog more confessional, in addition to semi-professional-ish writing. I have other outlets for that kind of writing, but we’ll see. It’s not invalid work.) Anyway, I know a bunch of people here, and it’s no good sitting around on Tumblr waiting to be invited somewhere. I have a lot of good ideas for hangouts, including and incorporating all of the above, plus more.

The thing that’s not on here is “reading for pleasure,” which I’m basically doing pretty okay on. Right now I’m about halfway through Escape From Baghdad! by Saad Hossain, and I’m working my way toward accepting that it’s okay to buy ebooks when I can’t find the physical stuff quickly without ordering from Powells or similar. (Ugh, screw Amazon forever when it comes to books, okay?) In the meantime, it’s mid-morning now, and I’m ready to stop making lists and actually do something. (She wrote, determined to do so! Fake it ’til you make it, don’t fail me now!)

Thanks for reading, friends. I’ve got 36 good hours ahead of me, and they’re all mine.

Famous last words to break the silence

I’ve been thinking about trying National Novel Writing Month again.

Last year I had moved to a new city a week before November started. The previous year was my final quarter of graduate school. The year before that, I was in no shape to do much more than survival stuff. But this year, this could be a thing. I’m looking for ways to write without shame again. I have this novel that I ought to just — write, rather than endlessly fret about whether I can make it perfect the first time around. I’ve got a 30-minute commute each way, and a nice new little Moleskine that could do the trick. (I’m easily bribed into doing things by rewards, including stuff and social encouragement.)

It also helps that I’m reading for pleasure again. This was a thing that felt lost to me for a really, really long time, but I’ve become one of those people who keeps finding reasons to go back to the Strand, and it’s given me some great, great things. H Is for Hawk was the grief memoir I knew I needed; Station Eleven made me want to do better; The Orchid Thief reminded me of how great nonfiction could be; I’ve discovered the amazing Jo Walton, whose Farthing ignited me and put my heart in my throat, and whose My Real Children I just finished tonight, which fascinated me until — tragedy! — it fumbled the very last chapter.

I logged into my NaNoWriMo account over the weekend and saw that I’d been a member of the site for “over 10 years.” That’s bonkers. But I can feel myself preparing for NaNo again. I’ve got these books to read for research (thank goodness for Sherrie Tucker!), and I’m collecting images for inspiration, and I’m wrestling with the basics of the story itself — is it during or immediately after the war? Is it all in Europe or is it sometimes in the U.S. first? Is it chronological, or do I do my weird time games with the story? Should I try NaNo as the social thing it’s designed to be, or just keep to myself like I usually do? I think I know the names of my three main protagonists, and I have to keep myself from worrying whether I should be writing more X or a different Y. I just have to write it first.

This is accountability, this kind of announcement. This site was always meant to be an author blog. We’ll see what happens. Hey, friends. Nice to feel like I’m back.