Gift Guide for Writers, 2018

The Situation and the Story, the art of personal narrative by Vivian Gornick

On Writing Well, the classic guide to writing nonfiction

Give the gift of time. Send your writer on a retreat. Offer to babysit or book them a room at a retreat center or if you have a cabin or empty room at your home, invite them to use it. Then when they come over, do.not.engage with them. Let them write and be silent and don’t interrupt.

Classes. Online or in person. See if your town has a literary center. If not, check out The Loft online courses or Gotham Writers Workshop. I have loved The Loft and am still in regular contact with several writers I met through classes there 7 years ago.

Subscription to their goal publication magazine or a beautifully produced magazine that really deserves to be read in print. Suggestions include Plough Quarterly, Ruminate, the Pacific Standard.

Tiny notebooks. Every writer needs several of these, one for every bag they carry, for the car, for the bedside table, maybe even for their running kit.

Pens. These are the only pens I will write with. Trouble is, the clip part always snaps off. I think the packages should come with extra caps. Oh well, I can rotate the caps after I use up the pens.

Small candy. I suggested this last year, too, specifically Swedish Fish. So this year I’ll suggest gum drops. They are small, so writers can eat a good-sized handful. And, they stick in the teeth, so the flavor and chewing lasts an extra long time.

Also, candy canes.

Jane Austen book coasters. Last year I shared this Jane Austen mug. This year, put it on something.

*contains affiliate links

*for more ideas, see the 2017 list

By |December 5th, 2018|Categories: Writing|Tags: , |0 Comments

Pirates! Poverty! War! FGM! On Manipulating Headlines to Capture a Reader

How the heck do writers get people to care about other parts of the world?

Editors often tell me (in my many rejection letters) that North Americans don’t care about the Horn of Africa.

Unless I can come up with a salacious or titillating angle (both intriguing words), why would a reader in, say, Minnesota, care about Djiboutian girls making bead jewelry? Maybe they like working their hands to create beautiful things. Maybe they are serving their families by earning extra income, maybe they are developing math, business, negotiation, marketing, and general work ethic skills, maybe they are forming a beautiful community.

But.

Who cares?

Clearly, I do. And clearly, I hope you do. But writing about community, creativity, and beauty isn’t click-bait the way other things are.

(By the way, you can see the handiwork of these young women on Facebook and Instagram and you can even purchase it as of April 2 here)

Stories of hope and joy out of a far away region and culture, struggle to capture the attention of a general reader.

This is why Syrians are crying out for people to care but few respond. It is why many have not even heard of the war in Yemen, what has recently been called the worst humanitarian crisis in 50 years, even with Syria in the picture.

How do writers up the readership on stories from this part of the world which I find inherently fascinating and which I love, but about which few outsiders care?

Here’s what I came up with (while on a run with a friend who also cares about this part of the world):

It has to be about FGM. Female Genital Mutilation. Or pirates, poverty, war.

So here are some possible headlines, to get clicks, readers, and attention. Whether or not they actually represent reality is highly debatable.

For a story about Dreamer and Co, the bead business:

Girls Saved from Pirate Marriages Turn Trash to Treasure

(granted, they were never at risk of getting married to pirates, but I suppose its possible, in the sense of all things are possible)

For a story about the most amazing place I visited in Hargeisa, Somaliland during Marathon week, a place that almost made me cry:

They Don’t Have Clitorises but They Have a Library!

(because who wants to read about a library in Somalia, even if it is the most inspiring place in the entire city)

For a story about the incredible strides Somali women are making in medicine:

Raped in the Middle of the Day, Now a Medical Student

(as if sexual assault has anything to do with her capability as a student or doctor)

For a story about the running club in Djibouti, Girls Run 2:

With No Bras, Underwear, Socks, or Shoes, Girls Still Run

(as if the most important thing about them is what they lack, rather than what they have to offer)

Of course FGM, piracy, poverty, rape, war…all these things are significant issues for the region, for the world. I’m not saying they don’t matter or shouldn’t be written about. I write about them, I talk about them with friends. And there very well could be a place in an article about the first class of medical students to graduate to write about assault and trauma. But using those kinds of troubling details as the main point or a kind of requirement for getting through the editorial doors, skews stories and perpetuates the ‘exotic’ otherness of people, rather than our shared humanity.

We are all broken, broken in unique ways. We can also all celebrate unique stories of healing and beauty, while lamenting the brokenness, without dehumanizing each other.

Maybe it is wishful thinking, to imagine people care about those far away and outside our own borders. There is both too much brokenness and too much beauty to expect anyone to hold it all. I can’t summon the emotional energy to care about all the joys and problems of the world. But at the same time, there are billions of us. Surely there is room for all the stories, surely we can diversify a little bit more, stretch our minds past presidents, past preconceived ideas, past our comfort zones.

Surely we can tell all the stories, in all their dark and beautiful complexity, without insisting on twisting them.

(and no, I will not be using any of those headlines. Preempting the fail of sarcasm online here)

 

The Bookshelf: All Our Waves are Water, a Review

(I received a free copy of this book)

I first read Jaimal Yogis’s work in his book The Fear Project: What Our Most Primal Emotion Taught Me About Survival, Success, Surfing . . . and Love. Fear is a common theme in my own writing – feeling it, describing it, facing it, overcoming it, living with it…so I was curious about his perspective on fear, through the lens of surfing. It was a beautiful and challenging exploration of living with fear, but not bending to it. Here is just one quote, of many, that I wrote down:

“If we can understand fear rather than demonize it, reframe fear as a natural part of our biology rather than avoiding and repressing it, stretch our comfort zones just a little every day and walk peacefully and courageously into those scary memories of embarrassment and trauma, we will gradually learn to transform fear into focus and compassionate action, and our sons’ and daughters’ world can be better than the one we live in. Will we collectively freeze, fight, and stagnate? Or will we learn and act?”

When Jaimal contacted me to review his newest book, All Our Waves Are Water, I was eager for the book to get all the way to Djibouti. I’m not a surfer, but a runner, so a fellow athlete. I’m not Buddhist but I seek to uncover the holy and the Divine in daily life and the exploration of all faiths intrigues me. I am a lover of water. I grew up in Minnesota, land of 10,000 lakes. I’ve lived 15 years within a mile or two of the ocean. So – sport, faith, water, book. So many of the things I love, yes, this would be a great book for me to read and review.

I read it in two days, even during the holiday season.

Jaimal had a significant challenge on his hands in writing this book. Faith, especially the mystical aspects of it, is one of the hardest things to describe in words without sounding, well, not quite sane. And to get non-surfers to understand and appreciate the thrill, terror, and irresistible pull of a wave without sounding condescending, redundant, or confusing, must have felt daunting. I’ll admit I didn’t quite grasp all the surfing scenes, or quite understand some of his more deeply experienced religious moments. But that works in this book. Faith is embracing mystery. The surfer’s high, or low, like the runner’s high or low, is intangible. Writers throw words at meditation or the ocean or God and they are our attempts to name the unnamable. I didn’t mind that I couldn’t exactly picture what he described and instead, I imposed my own mystical faith experiences and sport experience over his, and felt a sort of kinship.

The book is poetic, especially when he writes about the water and describes waves. It is a story about friendship and love and faith and surfing around the world. But ultimately, it is a story about Jaimal’s search, which is the search of so many of us. Through nations, girlfriends, friends, studying, working, yoga, meditation, and surfing, Jaimal takes the reader along on his search for self and for grace.

He finds both, even while acknowledging that every day presents a fresh opportunity to search yet deeper. But grace and his sense of identity are not actually in the waves, or the water, not in his work, not in his romantic relationships, not in the experiences he had of traveling all over the world, not in the yoga meditation or retreats. At least not in any of these things exclusively or eternally. He finds himself and uncovers grace in daily life.

The holy in the ordinary, grace in the mundane, self where you are.

After a rather shocking experience, he writes, “…had given me a gift. He’d made me recall briefly that nothing beats spring pasta on a Tuesday with your girlfriend, the sensation of breath in your lungs, a walk on the dunes after dinner, the full moon sinking behind the city.”

I finished the book and wanted to do two things: run to the ocean and dip my fingers in, to taste the salty water that so perfectly accompanies the book, and to be more faithful in practicing meditation. A book that calls the reader to experience nature with joy and to sit quietly, exploring the soul, is a good book. Even if you miss some of the the surfing nuances or don’t follow the same specific faith ideas, there are depths of beauty and honesty to enjoy in All Our Waves Are Water.

And more of Jaimal Yogis’s work here

A Christmas Story about a Surprising Baby Named God (not that one)

Quick link: A Muslim, a Christian, and a Baby Named God

 

This is a story close to my heart because it is about my first friend here, someone who was and remains exceedingly precious to me and my whole family. Someone who made me believe that this place, so different from Minnesota, could become home. Someone, without whom, I sincerely doubt we could have stayed so long.

When I needed someone to love my kids, she did. When I needed someone to make me laugh, she could. When I wanted to understand a cultural thing, she untangled it for me. When I need someone to hear my anger or my sorrow, she welcomed it.

This is a story of two women, coming from such different places, with such different faiths and such different ways of living, and finding each other, finding ourselves, together. It is about becoming mothers and about digging into our souls and finding beauty there.

When God and his mother were released from the maternity ward they came directly to my house to use the air conditioner. It was early May and the summer heat that melted lollipops and caused car tires to burst enveloped Djibouti like a wet blanket. Power outages could exceed ten hours a day. Temperatures hadn’t peaked yet, 120 degrees would come in August, but the spring humidity without functioning fans during power outages turned everyone into hapless puddles. I prepared a mattress for Amaal* and her newborn and prayed the electricity would stay on so she could use the air conditioner and rest, recover.

In 2004 when my family arrived in Djibouti, I needed help minimizing the constant layer of dust; Amaal needed a job. I needed a friend and Amaal, with her quick laugh and cultural insights became my lifeline. My husband worked at the University of Djibouti and was gone most mornings and afternoons, plus some evenings. We had 4-year-old twins and without Amaal I might have packed our bags and returned to Minnesota out of loneliness and culture shock.

I hired Amaal before she had any children. She wasn’t married yet and her phone often rang while she worked, boys calling to see what she was doing on Thursday evening. To see if she wanted to go for a walk down the streets without street lights where young people could clandestinely hold hands or drink beer from glass Coca-Cola bottles. She rarely said yes until Abdi Fatah* started calling. He didn’t drink alcohol and didn’t pressure her into more physical contact than she was comfortable with in this Muslim country. She felt respected. She said yes.

Click here to read the rest of A Muslim, a Christian, and a Baby Named God

Gift Ideas for Writers, 2017

Here comes gift-giving season. (There are definitely affiliate links in this post).

What to buy for the writer in your life? Speaking from experience, here are some awesome gifts to both receive and to give. Gifts that will encourage, support, and inspire.

Coffee Mugs

I love this one, with Jane Austen quotes

And this one, with Cheryl Strayed’s signature quote, “Write like a mother f*er.”

 

Scrivener

To quote their website, scrivener is

“For writing. And writing. And writing.

Scrivener is the go-to app for writers of all kinds, used every day by best-selling novelists, screenwriters, non-fiction writers, students, academics, lawyers, journalists, translators and more. Scrivener won’t tell you how to write—it simply provides everything you need to start writing and keep writing.”

I just started using Scrivener in November and wish I had started long ago. Instead of using paper index cards, spreading them all over my living room floor and sweating because the ceiling fan would destroy the meticulously arranged piles, I could have used the handy digital index card tool. Scrivener has so many other useful tools, I’m still figuring it all out.

A standard license costs $45.00

 

 

The Artist’s Way

“A course in discovering and recovering your creative self.”

I checked this out from my Kindle library, not realizing it is actually designed to be a course with tools and ideas to be implemented over time. Sadly, my checkout period ended far before I had time to finish, but I could already tell this is an incredibly useful tool and resource for inspiring creativity of all kinds.

Available, currently, for $13.29 from Amazon

A writing class

There are so many options for writing classes: in person, online, in small groups, in large communities.

For the writer you love, you could check out Gotham Writer’s Workshops, The Loft Literary Center, and Jeff Goins’ Tribe Writers, to name a few.

Prices vary widely

An afternoon or evening of free babysitting

For parents of small children, this communicates that you both enjoy their kids (hopefully!) and that you value their creative endeavors. A large chunk of time spent concentrating on the work can make a huge amount of difference, especially in the lives of longer projects or work that requires uninterrupted thinking and wrestling.

Small candy


I seem to concentrate better (and have fewer excuses to leave my desk) if I have either gum or pieces of small candy. I’ve heard this from other writers, too. These serve as rewards: finish three pages and eat a Swedish Fish. Or, they serve as mindless things to nibble while untangling a conundrum on the page. One at at time is the key for making this work and for not later rolling away from the desk instead of walking. Nerds, one by one, though? Not sure that would be as effective. I like hard candy or chewing, like Werthers, Starlite mints, Mike N’ Ikes, or gumdrops. And I will never acknowledge how many Swedish Fish I have eaten over the course of writing this book.

These make great stocking stuffers.

 

Bird by Bird

Writers need this book, by Anne Lamott, and they need to read it again and again.

On Writing

Same with this one, by Stephen King.

Walking on Water

And this book, by Madeline l’Engle

Writers, what do you love to give and receive for holidays or birthdays or at random, gifting moments?

By |December 6th, 2017|Categories: Uncategorized, Writing|Tags: , , |0 Comments
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