A Porch Light to Sanity

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It’s been a tumultuous couple of weeks, hasn’t it? Kids have been killed. Kids have spoken up against the killing, gotten companies to divest from the NRA, and received death threats as a consequence.

A gerrymandered state congressional map has been overturned, and that overturn has been challenged, and upheld (so far).

And the number one movie in the world right now is Black Panther, which seems a kind of miracle. Let’s hope all the voter registration efforts at the theaters–and of those gun-control advocates turning eighteen this year–make a difference in the midterm elections, turning all those strong feelings on the part of so many into a sea change in D.C.

Amid all this (and of course the ever-present threat of total annihilation! Thanks, 45), I’ve discovered something new: the power of memoir.

This is not to say I have not read or loved memoirs prior to this–only that I have been a bona fide fiction addict since a tender age, and had only read a handful of memoirs in my life, until two months ago. Since then, I’ve read six of them, and friends, I have to say, in a world gone increasingly dark, the right memoir really can be a porch light to sanity.

I read the story of a woman looking for a long-lost, larger than life father–exploring, in the process, the nature of memory and the mythology we create around our parents, along with Michigan, New York, and Paris (Playing with Dynamite by Sharon Harrigan).

I read the story of a woman whose mother committed suicide, after showing signs of mental instability, which lays bare the ways that we fail to have hard conversations until it’s too late, as well as the courage it takes to seek the truth when illusions are more convenient (The Art of Misdiagnosis by Gayle Brandeis).

I read this crazy awesome memoir/novel hybrid thing about teen pregnancy, witches, feminism, queerness, community, and crushing student loan debt (We Were Witches by Ariel Gore).

I read an account by a former U.S. Border Patrol agent that blew the top of my head off, and opened my eyes to both why people from Mexico are so desperate to reach the US and what can happen to them after they do (The Line Becomes a River by Francisco Cantu).

I read the story of a woman who started stripping in the Bay Area as a young speed freak in search of cash, became an accidental sex worker, and wound up helping to form one of the nation’s first stripper’s unions (Spent by Antonia Crane).

I read the story of a woman who, when she was eighteen, did something even crazier than I did when I was eighteen–she ran away to Central America to join the Sandinistas (which makes the fact that I went on the road with a hippie circus, you’ll have to admit, seem pretty tame) (Revolution by Deb Olin Unferth).

I recently reviewed all of these awesome books for Litreactor and talked about how and why each one of them helped me to feel just a little more sane, grounded, and capable of dealing with the world at large, so if you’re looking for some reading right now that will help you get your shit together, consider this my gift to you.


Winning Without Washington

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For the next week, I’ll be on a writing retreat on the Oregon Coast working on my next novel, World’s Smallest Parade. I’ve been working with some of the exercises developed by one of my sheroes, the master book coach Jennie Nash, on the blueprint for this novel, and this morning, I worked out the short description, or elevator pitch.

It’s a work in progress, but here it is:

What does it mean to live a meaningful life in the midst of the environmental crisis? World’s Smallest Parade is about young man on an epic cross-country quest to find out, who falls in love instead—with a woman and with a town in the Southwest, where an eco-village has sprung up in the barrio, full of folks dedicated to the low-carbron lifestyle, often to humorous extremes. These individuals are all more or less nuts, but together, they might just save the world.

In preparing for this, there are two articles that have been inspiring to me recently. The first is this interview with green biz guru Paul Hawkens on GreenAmerica.org, which details the most sophisticated analysis yet of what it will take not only to fight climate change, but to actually reverse it, and build the kind of society we’d all like to live in in the process. Hawkens and friends have done the math on every strategy there is for achieving this “drawdown,” and some of them are not what you’d suspect. (For instance: Educating women could do just as much–or more–as scaling up solar to reverse global warming.)

The message, to me, is galvanizing, in tune with the book I’m writing: The solutions are far more numerous (and accessible) than we’ve been led to believe, so whatever your passion is, whatever your expertise, dig in and double down. We can get there.

I’ve also been inspired by Bill McKibben’s recent article for The Guardian, entitled “We Can Battle Climate Change Without Washington, D.C. Here’s How.” In it, McKibben points out that that the strategy that’s been evolving for US climate action (and action in many other places around the world) bypasses central government as much as possible, because that’s where the oil industry is strongest and has the most influence. This, he acknowledges, makes a frontal attack on the oil industry hard, but he reminds us that “its flanks are wide open.” If we work together at the grassroots level, pursuing a strategy of “Sun, Sit (in) and Sell/Sue,” we can safeguard the future of life on earth.

Take heart, friends. Onward!

Know Hard Feelings

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I started the year by pledging to be more real, which is to say, being willing to slow down enough to acknowledge the tough stuff. A few weeks back, I’ve received news that a friend of a friend had died, and this morning, my husband and I were talking about the travesty that is American military spending–this insane drug our country is addicted to–even as the real cybersecurity challenges of the 21st century go unmet, our veterans are out on the streets, and the infrastructure of our country is crumbling.

I’ve been doing that thing where I make myself busy, where I stop thinking about things like this–about the wholesale giveaway of our public lands to extractive industries, about the folks I know who are battling cancer, about the friends left holding the shattered pieces of a marriage.

It can feel like too much sometimes, this business of being real, this business of feeling.

But this week I’ve received Gayle Brandeis’s memoir, The Art of Misdiagnosis: Surviving My Mother’s Suicide, which I’ll be reviewing for Litreactor this month, and in its pages, I’ve found that I’ve been given permission to, in the unintentional humor of one of Brandeis’s relatives, “know hard feelings.” This book reminds me that when we give ourselves permission to feel the tough stuff, we not only give others permission to do the same, we open the door that leads back to the sunlit place where we’d like to live our lives.

In that spirit, I thought I’d share a poem of mine, Death’s Head, to which I have returned at times as a reminder. Of what lies through that door.

Death’s Head


Sometimes when a dead love leaves you,

the memory of pain, which is not the same as pain,

will tug upon your heart in passing

and lift off like a moth

that alit between your shoulders

years ago

so light you never felt it.


Sweetness, you never knew the weight

of what you were not yet.

It was only some part of you

you could not use and carried

from one lover to another

like a begging bowl.


All the fortune-tellers of the world

took one look at your smile

and took their mark

all the dogs bared their teeth as you walked by.

I’ve watched you labor so long beneath it,

this thing that keeps you pinned.


Look, this morning the lavender

has bloomed beside the step—

if you sit beside me in its perfume, I promise,

this great sadness that has lived upon your life

will beat its wings once

and leave you.

Submission Strategies for Writers

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If you’re a writer, you know how hard it is to get published. You probably also know that if you’re serious about making it happen, you should be submitting more than you are.

After years of taking a fairly half-assed approach to submitting my creative work, I decided to get serious about it (in part because I’m working on a collection of short fiction). In the last few months, I’ve leveled up my game, both in terms of my numbers and my record-keeping–and so far, I’ve seen more acceptances in January alone than I did for the better part of 2017. =)

If you’re interested in doing the same, here’s my recent post on the subject for Litreactor, “8 Submissions Strategies That Get Results.”

January means New Year’s resolutions—many of which we will ultimately fail to keep. But If one of your resolutions this year is to get more of your work published, friends, I’m here to help you make it happen.

The following tips and techniques are from a class I recently taught for Litreactor, Fiction: Final Draft, an intensive for emerging authors who are in it to win it. Which is to say, it’s a class for those who have worked hard, put in their ten thousand hours, and are now ready to beat the numbers game that is publishing.

If that sounds like you, it’s time to put the following strategies into play—now, early in the year—and consistently apply them over the course of 2018. If you really have put in the hours necessary to hone your craft, I can guarantee you they will produce results.

1. Set Aside Time

If you are not currently setting aside time on a regular basis to submit your work, now’s the time to establish that practice. (I would also recommend that you keep this time separate from your writing time, because if you try to perform these two functions at the same time, not only will you not be working efficiently, you’ll be more likely to second-guess your work.)

Here are some of the tasks I’d suggest you include in the period of time you set aside for submissions: A) researching reading periods, open calls, and opportunities; B) researching target markets and updating your “hit list”; C) submitting your most polished pieces of work, formatted according to the guidelines of each publication; D) updating your submissions records.

2. Do Your Research

It’s great to have big ambitions for your work, but everyone wants to be published by The New Yorker or Asimov’s, which means everyone else is submitting to these publications too. There are plenty of other publications that are worthy of your best work, in terms of their prestige, pay, or both, and on a purely statistical basis, you have a far better chance of being published by them.

But in order to suss out these publications, you’ll have to do your research. So don’t just hit the same ten or so dream pubs over and over again—do the research necessary to expand that list of target publications to 20, 30, or more. (And hey, if a publication sounds intriguing, consider a subscription—while we can’t do that with every journal or magazine, there’s no denying that actually reading a pub is the very best form of research there is.)

Looking for resources? Check out Poets & Writers online and Duotrope.

Read the rest of the post over at Litreactor.