Writing a Brave New Book

Most people don’t realize that it actually takes a lot of courage and guts to write, even tell, a story, especially if you’re doing it right. To share a story, fictional or true, you have to believe that another person will understand you, that you are communicating something universally true. Forget talent and ability.

Most people don’t realize that it actually takes a lot of courage and guts to write, even tell, a story, especially if you’re doing it right. To share a story, fictional or true, you have to believe that another person will understand you, that you are communicating something universally true.

Forget talent and ability. Writing well requires more than an ability to wield proper grammar and punctuation, even though this skill helps. The best, most classic stories, are so well loved because they capture something essential about being a human. When we close a book, we remember the most honest details.

Today, the simple act of describing something may offend someone. Our society is obsessed with being polite and politically correct. When you write, you risk pissing off a lot of people.

However, I believe that, if your intentions are pure, who you offend doesn’t matter. Each time you write, you must lose your ulterior motives, your anger, your sadness, and your regret. The emotions should live in the writing, but only if they ring true. Don’t cover up feeling with flowery language, and let the ugly stuff float to the surface.

Be true to your voice, your feelings, your memories, and yourself. Don’t be afraid to describe what seems most true to you, even if doing so feels ridiculous or embarrassing. The details that make you most uncomfortable are probably the most important.

We’re all intuitive, but we don’t always trust our intuition. Even when I doubt my writing the most, at least someone will tell me they connect with it, even if it’s only just one detail. The more I realize that we’re all so much alike, the more I’m able to trust my intuition and communicate something that might stick in your head.

(Photo by geese)

On Reading Texts that Annoy You

When I first started taking writing classes, I was shocked that my professors allowed us to express our appreciation for or hatred of a text. In my high school English Literature classes, I could never say that I didn’t like Moby Dick, even though I was thinking it. Then, liking or not liking a text was besides the point.

I had a feeling that my students would hate the excerpt from The Anthropology of Turquoise that I assigned for Tuesday’s class, and I was right – I’ve already received some reading responses that made it clear.

When I first started taking writing classes in college, I was shocked that my professors actually encouraged us to express our appreciation for or hatred of a text. In my high school English Literature classes, I could never say that I didn’t like Moby Dick, even though I was definitely thinking it. In high school, liking or not liking a text was besides the point.

In a good writing class, the teacher will stress that your aversion to a text can actually be instructive. The fact that you don’t like something can teach you about your own writing style. But it’s important to ask yourself WHY you don’t like something.

After reading The Anthropology of Turquoise excerpt, most students didn’t like it because they found it wordy, self-involved, and plotless. The voice is tedious.

In some ways, Ellen Meloy, the writer, handles description well – she avoids cliche by describing color in unique ways: she uses all her senses to describe something we can only see. In other way, Meloy fails; her writing depends so much on description that it can be hard to follow.

Many beginning writers get so caught up with the new-found thing called description or sensory imagery that they lose themselves in it, sacrificing an actual narrative for the sake of vivid language.

I was definitely guilty of that when I first started writing. I was so impressed with my ability to write a simile or metaphor that I neglected the fact that my story or poem had absolutely no point. My mom would always say, “Laryssa, your writing is beautiful, but it’s really hard to read.” Eventually, I realized that she was right.

I hope that, by reading something that annoys them, my students will realize how much they might be annoying their readers when they spend too much time describing something. In real life, aren’t we most annoyed by people who are somehow like us? Perhaps the fact that you hate something says more about yourself and what you need to change.

So, hate something you read. Read it again. Ask yourself why you hate it. Don’t repeat that writer’s mistakes. Realize that your preferences inform your writing style and reflect more on you than they do on the text.

(Photo by purplbutrfly)

On Forgetting Yourself, for Charm’s Sake

Though it’s often portrayed negatively, charm doesn’t have to be a method of manipulating or deceiving people. I believe that charm can be completely genuine, a tool used for good. I want to be charming to make other people feel comfortable and to shine as my best self. So, how does one forget oneself in order to be more charming?

In his short story “Bernice Bobs Her Hair”, F. Scott Fitzgerald writes: “The more parts of yourself you can afford to forget the more charm you have.”

I think of this quote often. Though it’s often portrayed negatively, charm doesn’t have to be a method of manipulating or deceiving people (think Mad Men). I believe that charm can be completely genuine, a tool used for good. I want to be charming to make other people feel comfortable and to shine as my best self.

So, how does one forget oneself in order to be more charming, per Mr. Fitzgerald’s advice? Children provide the best model. They are rarely self-conscious because they aren’t socially aware enough to be embarrassed. Embarrassment is the enemy of charm. Children are only embarrassed when they realize that other people are embarrassed for them.

This video, which I love, is a great example of kids being charming. They don’t care if their hair is uncombed or their clothes don’t match; good looks can certainly help someone be charming, but they’re not at all necessary.

I was thinking about the Fitzgerald quote and the kids before teaching my first class ever on Thursday afternoon. I went to Rutgers hours before my first class, hoping that I could mentally prepare myself for the new experience. I sat at my desk in an office that I share with another teacher. And I kept telling myself that I would have to forget myself from 2:50 to 4:10 and then again from 4:30 to 5:50.

That probably sounds weird, right? How can a person who is supposed to lead an hour-and-20-minute class forget themselves? You have to forget yourself, otherwise everyone will know that you’re trying too hard.

Since I’m no longer a naturally-charming six-year-old, I just have to come to every situation prepared. To be charming as an adult, you must be ready for anything. Arrive with a plan so that everything you can possibly control is under control. You don’t want to have to worry about whether or not something will go wrong.

I walked into the classroom. I knew that I was going to start with introductions, move to a reading, lead a discussion, do an in-class writing exercise, then explain the homework. I even made a bulleted list of my plan, just in case my mind happened to go blank. The only thing I had to insert was my personality. I could forget everything else.

What Job Interviewers Won’t Say to Your Face

Applying to and interviewing for jobs is one of the most tedious tasks. The job hunt requires patience, persistence, your best bullshit face, at least one clean pantsuit, confidence, and a sense of humor. Often, you will find that you are smarter and savvier than the people who are interviewing you and/or reviewing your resume.

Applying to and interviewing for jobs is one of the most tedious tasks. The job hunt requires patience, persistence, your best bullshit face, at least one clean pantsuit, confidence, and a sense of humor.

Often, you will find that you are smarter and savvier than the people who are interviewing you and/or reviewing your resume. You are sickened by the thought that these people are keeping you from your next paycheck.

When I completed graduate school in May 2009, I began looking for a full-time job. I applied to hundreds of jobs. Unfortunately, I graduated during a time when the job market was pretty terrible. Decent entry-level jobs were few and far between.

One eye-catching Craigslist job listing was posted by a consulting firm that needed a writer to build a knowledge base (Don’t know what that means? Neither do I.).

I received a response that began:

Congratulations, I’m writing to let you know that out of several hundred responses that came in for this Craigslist ad, you’ve made it to the final 50.

Oh, wonderful, I thought. This is a sweepstakes now? The message that followed was more than 500 words in length. It was so convoluted that I could hardly read the thing. Finally, the last part read:

So if you are still interested, awesome.  Sell me.  Make yourself stand-out.  Good luck. P.S. – Please respond with “Round 2” in the Subject Line.

I was so exhausted by the e-mail, but I decided to respond anyway, since an opportunity is an opportunity. I wrote something clever and charming, hit the send button, but forgot to change the subject line. Those of you who use Gmail, with its threaded conversations, will know it’s not hard to forget such a thing.

Anyway, I received this response:

Larysaa, I liked your response, I perused your blog, your other sites, and I would like to give you the opportunity to come in for an interview, but you didn’t follow the directions, and the competition is intense.

Whatever, I thought. I was going to let it go, but I guess I was having a bad day or something. I responded:

When you do find the person you want to hire, make sure you spell his/her name correctly.

And that prompted the best job-search-related e-mail response I have ever received in my life:

Please accept my apology for misspelling your name…

Allow me to tell you a quick story

When I was your age, I was an aspiring writer too. It was 92 or 93, and I sent a story idea to Details magazine about the Mod Scene. I was a scooterboy, and painted a picture of Mod Culture, using mod lingo, and pictures and I imagined that this would be perfect for Details.

But I got a rejected. It was a two sentence hand-written rejection on Details paperhead by the editor. That said something like he doesn’t see the Mod Scene as prevalent and modern enough.

I was so depressed and upset, I never submitted again.

Years later, I was dating an assistant editor of YM, and I told her the story, showed her the rejection and she asked what else did you submit to him? That rejection wasn’t a rejection like the kind you get from a college.

That rejection was the start of a conversation and the start of a conversation with a very important person at a major publication.

Anyway, from what I skimmed on your sites I suggest not thinking about [redacted] anymore.

Go write. This position is a step into the traditional small business that will lead you away from writing just like it led several of us already.

Cheers

I was baffled and amazed. After I got over the fact that he ever actually thought he could be a writer, I promised myself that I would never let a job interfere with my passion and love for writing.

In the past year and a half since I received that e-mail, I’ve had three jobs, all of which required me to write. However, none of these jobs demanded so much of my time and soul that I couldn’t also write for myself.

I’ve also received dozens of rejections from both literary and consumer magazines but never once doubted my desire and need to write. My rejections don’t become legendary sob stories. In fact, I rarely remember them.

Currently, I’m working a second part-time job and freelancing so that I can teach creative writing part time at Rutgers University. I had to quit a full-time job, which allowed me greater financial security than I have now. And I feel great.

Blogging and Creative Reinvention

When I feel stale, I like to reinvent myself, which is what I have done. As you can see, I’ve redesigned the layout. I’m also going to be covering more subject matter: writing, teaching, exploring current events and pop culture, living outside of New York City, and navigating friendships and dating in the Internet age.

About a year ago, I redesigned Comma ‘n Sentence and started to get serious about blogging about social media. During my year-long journey, I have trudged through the depths of social media, exploring how it affects our relationships and lives.

Now, to be honest, I’m kind of over social media – until something or someone new revolutionizes the current scene, I can no longer imagine myself getting excited about it. However, that doesn’t mean I want to stop blogging.

In the year and a half since I started this blog, a lot has happened to me: I finished my Master’s degree, I entered “the real world”, I moved out of my parents’ house, and I learned how to navigate a lot of “grown-up” issues like health insurance and making decisions about my career path.

When I feel stale, I like to reinvent myself, which is what I have done. As you can see, I’ve redesigned the layout. I’m also going to be covering more subject matter: writing, teaching, exploring current events and pop culture, living outside of New York City, and navigating friendships and dating in the Internet age.

I was recently offered an opportunity that may or may not be the key to helping me pursue my dream job: being a full-time creative writing professor. I hope to blog about teaching, new things that I read, the creative process, staying inspired, and being yourself in a society that expects you to be everything but yourself.

I hope you will continue to follow me in this journey, and I appreciate you for reading regularly. If you have any suggestions or thoughts, please feel free to leave a comment!

(Photo by Margarita Banting)

Is It Just Me, or Is It a Bit Drafty in Here?

Wordpress, and most other blogging platforms, allow you to save drafts; this function is useful if you have an idea you want to save for later, or if you can’t finish writing a post in one sitting. You can save your draft and come back to it at any time, on any computer with Internet access.

WordPress, and most other blogging platforms, allow you to save drafts; this function is useful if you have an idea you want to save for later, or if you can’t finish writing a post in one sitting. You can save your draft and come back to it at any time, on any computer with Internet access.

As much as I love this feature, there is one catch: you really need to return to your drafts in a timely manner. Upon inspecting my own blog posts, I found about a dozen drafts that I hadn’t touched in about a year.

While neglected drafts might inspire some people to return to a subject, especially if these drafts represent forgotten ideas, I could hardly remember what I wanted to communicate with my old, half-written posts.

My ideas were too vague to piece together, and I ended up deleting all the drafts. One of the drafts, untitled and from June 2009, actually made me laugh: “the issue of time and time-sensitive material”.

Well, about a year ago, I must have been very concerned about time-sensitive material, but the post was obviously not a top priority, as I had completely forgotten about it.

You may disagree, but I believe that blogging requires the writer to churn out content quickly and frequently while still maintaining SOME standard for quality. Doing things quickly means that you invite risk. If you’re not the kind of person who likes to take risks, then blogging is probably not for you.

Blogging will make you vulnerable, and you may regret things you write. But there’s a freedom to blogging too – it can allow you the ability to accept that you’re not perfect, that your opinions may change, and that you may not always know all the facts. The beauty of a blogger’s archive is the way it illustrates (hopefully) a person’s intellectual evolution.

Write about what’s current and relevant, in both your head and in society. Don’t wait too long to respond to your ideas because your response will lose its driving force.

(Photo by julio.garciah)

5 Ways that Writing for a Website Is Like Dating

If you want to keep a person interested, you should avoid doing certain things like belching loudly or talking excessively about an ex. Like dating, writing effectively for a corporate website or blog has its own rules and etiquette. Here are five ways that writing for a corporate website is like dating.

Brainstorming ideas for a web project the other day, I said to my coworkers, “Writing for a corporate website is like dating.”

They nodded in agreement. I could see years of frustrated dating experiences flash across their faces.

Whether you like it or not, dating has its own rules and etiquette. If you want to keep a person interested, you should avoid doing certain things like belching loudly or talking excessively about an ex.

Like dating, writing effectively for a corporate website or blog has its own rules and etiquette. Here are five ways that writing for a corporate website is like dating:

1. Don’t talk about yourself too much but reveal enough to portray an honest image. On a date, no one wants to listen to the other person talk endlessly about how great he or she is. It’s exhausting and, frankly, very boring. When someone visits your website, that person is not interested in plowing through the dense jungle or your content. In both dating and writing, reveal just enough (true) information to keep the person interested.

2. Choose your words carefully and use language responsibly. During a first date, the other person is probably listening very carefully to every word you say (I do). Pay close attention to the way you describe things; avoid using negative words, and you won’t seem like a negative person. On your website, you will also want to choose exactly the right words to best describe your product/service. When you only have a few words to describe yourself, you will want to choose those words wisely.

3. Stop trying so hard to impress and focus on finding the best fit. Sometimes, during a date, you may be so focused on trying to impress the other person that you lose sight of the point: to figure out whether or not you actually like that person. When you write, worry more about writing something that will attract the people you want to attract, instead of trying to impress everyone. You can’t win over everyone with your words.

4. Make sure your content looks presentable. For a date, you will want to present your best self. Take a shower, comb your hair, wear clean clothes, brush your teeth, apply some lipstick. When you write, your words should not only read well but look presentable too. Insert paragraph breaks where necessary. Make sure sentences look manageable and that they don’t overwhelm the reader.

5. Make sure you post the correct contact information. If you have a good date, you hope the person will call you or that the person gives you the correct phone number so that you can call them. When writing for a company website, make sure the site visitor knows exactly how to make the next move; no potential customer should be searching for the contact page or instructions to proceed.

(Photo by www.charlietphoto.com)

Private Blogs (Clap): They’re Helping You

Most people who have a blog update their blog because they want to share their thoughts with the world. Why would anyone want to create a blog that no one is going to read? Isn’t a lack of readership why most people give up blogging? And isn’t the promise of a readership why many people start?

Most people who have a blog update their blog because they want to share their thoughts with the world. Why would anyone want to create a blog that no one is going to read? Isn’t a lack of readership why most people give up blogging? And isn’t the promise of a readership why many people start?

If I told you that private blogs have a purpose, would you believe me? Did you know that, in WordPress, you can label a blog post private or public? You can also decide whether or not you want search engines to find your blog. You can even password protect your blog so that a few or no people have access to it.

I choose to share all my posts here because I would like feedback, and I would like to demonstrate that I think about and have an interest in things like creativity, writing, the Internet, and social media. But what if I don’t want to share? What if I want to blog/free-write but don’t feel like perfecting every post? What if I want to rid myself of the pressure?

I’ve been experimenting with private blogs to help me with my writing. Recently, I started a new blog to help me with a nonfiction writing project. I’ve actually been scared to write about the subject matter because I am so overwhelmed by everything I want to say. Starting a private blog about this subject allows me to explore the subject in small chunks, save drafts for myself, gather corresponding images, test creative ways to approach the subject, and feel motivated by the way my writing looks published.

Even though no one else can see my private blog, I like being able to view my posts with the layout that I have created. I can feel like I’m making progress and like I have some sort of order to my thoughts. I might make the blog public once I feel like I have a better handle on what I want to share, but, for now, I just add posts without any pressure. If I do decide to make it public, I will already have content to share with my new readers.

If you are an aspiring writer or have ideas that you want to explore, I highly suggest you start a private blog, especially if you don’t feel confident about sharing your work. Seeing the published product will provide you with some motivation and creative license. Writing isn’t always about the readers!

(Photo by ?????????)

Staying Tethered, Both Digitally and Metaphorically

For me, writing is a kind of tether lets me fly a little above the world but doesn’t let me stray too far. If I go for too long without writing, I feel heavy, and my mind feels bloated. I need to dump everything that’s in my head so that I can make sense of it, so that it doesn’t overwhelm me. While writing, I can distance myself.

I’m currently reading A Visit from the Goon Squad by Jennifer Egan, one of my favorite fiction writers. I’ve been enjoying the book so much that I’ve also been trying to learn more about Egan – it seems every literary publication has been interviewing her lately!

One of my favorite interviews is one recently published by Narrative magazine. More than anything, I like to learn a writer’s reasons for writing. In this excerpt, Egan discusses a period of time in her early 20s when she started experiencing anxiety attacks:

… I started having these panic attacks. I had never heard the term panic attack, since anxiety attacks are more commonly understood now, but I would just become terrified…I was terrified that my life was over. And in the course of that, writing became my lifeline…Again and again I clung to the idea that I was going to write and that was what I cared about. I’ve wavered tons over the years in terms of confidence, but even with a lot of discouragement, I’ve never wavered on the question of whether I was going to write. Not once.

I really identified with this, especially since I’ve also struggled with panic and anxiety. For me, writing is a kind of tether lets me fly a little above the world but doesn’t let me stray too far. If I go for too long without writing, I feel heavy, and my mind feels bloated. I need to dump everything that’s in my head so that I can make sense of it, so that it doesn’t overwhelm me. While writing, I can distance myself.

Last year, the New York Times published a piece about a super runner who, before brain surgery, used running as a way to stave off her frequent seizures. Obviously, thinking too hard about something is not as severe as having a seizure, but I do still identify with the runner.

Writing, like running, is a sustained mental practice (just ask Haruki Murakami!), and I often immediately start writing when I feel disconnected from the world or am so angry with it that I feel like I’m going to burst like a balloon lost in the sky.

I’d like to thank the Internet, for giving me and many other writers the freedom to fly a little bit above the crowd without flying too far away. Sure, a lot of the writing on the Internet is crap, but some of that crappy writing was born from a need, a sense of urgency.

Many struggling and aspiring writers waver in the confidence, as Egan did, but the Internet gives us a place to express ourselves. It provides the possibility that someone might read our work and wave to us from the ground.

Think of all the digital publishing options and the freedom they afford us: traditional blogging platforms, microblogging tools like Twitter, reblogging sites like tumblr, forums where aspiring writers can share and critique writing, and easier ways to save and access writing in the cloud. I can organize my ideas more efficiently than I ever could with a pen and paper.

I spend a lot of time in my head. Being able to blog here and share my thoughts has brought me more joy and release than you could imagine. I could always write these thoughts in my personal journal, but I am motivated by the possibility that ONE person (besides my mom) might read my words and tell me that something I wrote moved them to think, regardless of whether or not that person agrees with me.

For helping connect me to people who are important forces in my life and for giving me a public medium that didn’t exist 20 years ago, the Internet is simply the greatest.

(Photo by Originality Since 1994 Photography)

5 Exceptionally Written Blogs

As an avid blogger with a creative writing background, I really appreciate other bloggers who take the extra time to write insightful, meaningful content. I do enjoy tumblr blogs, photo blogs, and funny blogs as much as the next person, but I have a special place in my heart for blogs with more words than pictures.

As an avid blogger with a creative writing background, I really appreciate other bloggers who take the extra time to write insightful, meaningful content. I do enjoy tumblr blogs, photo blogs, and funny blogs as much as the next person, but I have a special place in my heart for blogs with more words than pictures.

When I started to compile this list, I realized how few blogs have exquisite content. Most blog posts are dashed off in a hurry, and the writing can seem careless or superficial. However, I managed to weed through all the crap. Of all the blogs I regularly read, here are five with truly exceptional writing:

Tweetage Wasteland: Dave Pell is an angel investor and the founder of Addict-o-matic. His blog is “An addicted insider’s account of what’s happening to our real lives and relationships in the era of the realtime, social web”, and his posts are some of the most thoughtful, insightful, real, and personal blog posts that I’ve read anywhere on the web. You don’t need to be tech-savvy to relate to Dave’s observations on the role that television plays in the household or the ways that social media can shape our prejudices. Posts are long, but they are absolutely worthwhile.

The Girl Can’t Help It: Jen Burger is the best friend you need to have. Luckily, we can all benefit from the sincere blogs posts she shares online. When it comes to friendships and relationships, she tells it like it is, and she’s got an attitude that you can’t help but admire. Jen is not afraid to share personal anecdotes to help you understand what you deserve when it comes to love. However, what I love the most is the fact that I can expect a sassy music video at the end of every post.

The Hyperlocalist: Jennifer Deseo‘s The Hyperlocalist is the most detailed and revealing blog about hyperlocal journalism on the web, period. Don’t think hyperlocal journalism can be interesting and/or fun? Trust me: this woman has a sense of humor! As former editor-in-chief of the Silver Spring Penguin, Jennifer has been there, done that, as they say. In addition, she knows people in the entrepreneurial journalism sphere and shares her knowledge in a style that’s both accessible and easy to read.

Go Fug Yourself: Hardly a day passes when I don’t find myself laughing out loud at something the Fuggirls have written. Heather and Jessica never cease to amaze with their wit and creativity. Though the posts are short, the sentences are packed with awesome similes, cultural references, and jarring insights about a rather superficial subject: celebrity fashion. My favorite posts include fake conversations between celebrities, often awkwardly posed in the main photo.

Shmitten Kitten: Shmitten Kitten is “a blog about dating for people who would probably never read a blog about dating”, and the posts include some of the most hilarious, truthful things I’ve read on the Internet. Post categories include “Things in His House that Make Me Sad”, “Bonerkiller”, “Things I’m Terrible at”, and “Boxerdropper”. Dating can be an awkward and daunting experience, and this blog captures the best of the most real human moments.

I’m always looking for new blogs to read – feel free to add your favorites in the comments below!

(Photo by {AndreaRenee})