On Writing Badly


I get a lot of emails asking for writing advice, so I thought I’d try to address some of the most common questions…

Sometimes the writer has already written a book and is facing the Herculean task of trying to get it out into the world. There are a ton of resources for people at this stage of the game and I don’t consider myself an expert. Ask your writer friends how they did it. If you don’t have writer friends, you should. Get involved in your literary community. Go to readings and events and classes and meet people. Put together a list of appropriate agents and send them kick-ass queries. Remember- you’re a writer, so write an awesome letter.

More often, I get emails from people who don’t quite know where to start. Or who have started and don’t know what to do next. Or have written two scant chapters of a memoir and want to know how to get an agent with it (hint- probably don’t yet).

Here’s the sucky thing… it takes time to write a book. A lot of time. That is also the great thing about writing a book. Because all that time will teach you a certain kind of patience and mindfulness that will benefit not only your writing but your entire life.

The part between staring down the blank page and seeing your name on the spine of a book is a mess. It will drag you to the depths of doubt and will require the blindest of faith. We live in a world of blogging and posting and send buttons, and our expectations have shaped themselves around that kind of immediate gratification. Writing a book requires the opposite emotional skill set. You have to go deep and throw words into what feels like a black hole. You have to sit for hours and hours alone with your inner life, with all its lightness and shadow. You have to write stuff you know sucks and keep writing anyway and then throw most of it in the trash. My latest memoir started out as an 800 page doorstop. 500 of those pages are now gone and forgotten.

Don’t quit. A boxer friend of mine once told me that the secret to being a good fighter is not that you like to hit people, but that you like getting hit. I think of that every time I face another rejection, another disappointment, another failure. It’s not that I like it, exactly. But I do derive some self-confidence from the fact that I have learned to get back in the ring. I trust now that I will keep fighting to have a life in which I get to create stuff.

Of course, there is also a benefit from not trying– from constantly walking around with that brilliant book “all in your head.” Because that way you don’t have to fail. You never have to grapple with the thousand ways your words will inevitably fall short. If you don’t try, you can always be the undiscovered genius. It’s basically just bald fear that prevents me from succumbing to this temptation. When I wake at 3 a.m. wracked with anxiety, one of the top five tracks in my playlist of worries is that I’ll find myself at the end of my life wondering, what if I had just tried a little harder.

Demand space for your voice. It’s hugely difficult for moms to demand space for ourselves. I’m not talking about a manicure or a movie once in a while. I’m talking about real, significant, daily time. Most moms are probably uncomfortable with even the word “demand.” To carve out a space for our voice, we need to fight against a ubiquitous cultural rhetoric that values maternal selflessness above all. I got a chain letter the other day urging me to, “Tag 12 great moms you know who put their kids first!” Right now, I am in my office overlooking the Silverlake hills, watching as a rare rainstorm blows in. I rent a desk here, because when I am in my own home, the call of selflessness is too irresistible. How dare I sit around playing with my little words when my kid needs a pizza bagel stat? Or wants to read Frog and Toad? I mean, what could I have to say that’s so important anyway? So I run as fast as I can from the house, and I don’t come back until the hours I’ve committed to writing that day are done.

I won’t lie. I trade things to be able to do this. I trade time with my son that I can never get back. Sometimes I trade homemade nutritious dinners in favor of corn dogs and that one precious more hour of writing. The juggling act makes me crazy, brings me to tears often. There is never enough time for anything. In order to write, I leave boxes unpacked for months. I shove piles of crap in my closet. I answer emails late into the night when I would far rather be watching Downton. I am banking on the fact that it will ultimately benefit Tariku to see his mom creatively engaged with the world and pursuing her dreams, but I can’t even be sure of this much.

Write a shitty first draft. If I could give you only one piece of advice, it would be this. I didn’t make up- I stole it from Anne Lamott, where I get all my best material- thanks, Anne! Not everyone does it this way- some people edit as they go. But for me, this is a great way to get out from under your own self-judgment and just write straight through to the end. Sometimes I barely even punctuate my first drafts. I like to soft focus my eyes and write as if in a trance, going on tangents, allowing the most treacly sentimentality and absurd hyperbole. I breathe and write and try to open my mind to the click, the spark, the flow. I soldier on this way until The End. By that time I usually have some idea of what my book is about. It’s never what I thought when I started.

Move around. Take a walk. Stretch. Breathe. Don’t live in your head so much that you forget your body. The body is one of our greatest recording devices– a goldmine of wisdom, memory and emotion. It digests and assimilates our thoughts and experiences, taking on a perspective that is often wiser than our intellect, and more accurate.

There is no secret. To those of you who write me hopeful, confused, searching emails…I know you don’t want to hear “write badly” and “don’t quit” and “wait around” and “take a walk.” I know what you want is my schedule (here it is: mornings, at least four hours a day, five days a week), a template of the perfect outline, a recommendation to the magic graduate school, a shortcut, an agent introduction, a way to make it not hurt so much. I often talk to people who are “stuck” with their memoirs, and watch their face fall when I ask them, “Have you thought about writing it straight through to the end and not looking back?” They usually have a million reasons why they can’t or shouldn’t do that. And maybe they shouldn’t. I don’t know what they need. But I do know three over-edited chapters won’t magically transform into a book one night while you’re sleeping.

Writers are readers. We have grown up treasuring the books we devoured late at night, by the light of a stolen flashlight. We dreamed one day we’d be the name on the cover of just such a precious object. That may or may not happen, but either way it’s a worthy quest and I honor yours. I hope to meet you one day on this twisty turny path. It’s so easy to forget, while caught up in the morass of self-doubt and self-pity that can swamp our fragile writer souls, that this life of struggle is a dream come. I love it fiercely. I hope I get to keep doing it until the day I die.

For inspiration, Here are my favorite books about writing:

Bird By Bird, Anne Lamott
The War of Art, Steven Pressfield
The Tools, Phil Stutz and Barry Michels
The Modern Library Writer’s Workshop, Stephen Koch
Still Writing, Dani Shapiro
The Situation and the Story, Vivian Gornick
Writing Down the Bones, Natalie Goldberg
The Hero’s Journey, Joseph Campbell

Here are some terrific book coaches and resources:

Claire Bidwell Smith
Shawna Kenney
Meredith Maran
Samantha Dunn
Antioch’s (my alma mater) Inspiration to Publication program, which has both classes and coaches.

The Next Big Thing

My buddy Cecil Castellucci tagged me in this meme, in which you talk about a project you’ve been working on. Which is incredibly scary for me because I almost never talk about the project I’m working on. I worry that the magic will leak out. But Cecil is a magical being and I’m pretty sure she would never let me do anything to drain the mojo.

First, you should know about Cecil because her books are the only ones that consistently go missing from my bookshelves. I always tell my babysitters that they’re free to borrow any books they want and somehow Cecil’s never make it back. I don’t mind, really. I get it. They’re treasures. Cecil Castellucci is the author of books and graphic novels for young adults and the young at heart. You will want to read them under your covers with a flashlight. They will make you remember who you were once, who you still are somewhere. Read one now!

The book I’m writing right now is a memoir about my epically post-modern family. Here goes:

Where did the idea come from for the book?

This memoir is different from Some Girls in that it addresses the very recent past. I think that my blog has got me in the habit of writing from a life-in-progress, rather than sharing a narrative that was all tied up in a bow long ago. I knew that I wanted to talk about identity, motherhood, adoption because those are my most pressing themes right now, but I wasn’t sure what the medium was going to be. Initially, I wrote a one-woman show, which I toured with this summer. But it became clear to me that I needed a wider canvas. I needed space to explore the issues more in-depth. When I sat down to write, a memoir started coming out of me. Ultimately, I think that where books come from is a mysterious thing.

What genre does your book fall under?


Which actors would you choose to play your characters in a movie 

Tariku should definitely play himself. Who else could possibly do it? Scarlett Johansen as me (as if!). Vincent Price as my father (kidding). Mike Patton as Scott (just cause he’d be STOKED and also I want to watch the fake me make out with him).

What is the one-sentence synopsis of your book?

MAPPING THE FAULT LINES is the story of letting go of my mothers in order to become a mother, and how the journey enabled me to forgive all three of us.

When will this book be published?

I’ll let you know when I know!

How long did it take you to write the first draft of your manuscript?

The first draft is still in progress. But I imagine it will take about four or five months. Then there will be seven or eight more drafts, because that’s how I work!

What other books would you compare this story to within your genre?

Lit by Mary Karr, Why Be Happy When You Could Be Normal? by Jeanette Winterson, The Mistress’s Daughter by A.M. Homes.

Who or What inspired you to write this book?

Becoming a mother is so transformative that it’s almost impossible to ignore, as a writer of non-fiction. Plus, I find that people are very curious about our story. People ask me about it all day long. They seem to really want to know how I got from where I was back in the ol’ harem days to where I am now. So this book is the answer.

Here are the other super talented people that Cecil tagged:
Jenn Fujikawa and Sarah Kuhn and Amber Bensen., Liza Palmer, and Sherri L. Smith.

As for who I’m tagging to go next, here are some of my fave writers/friends/humans:

Shawna Kenney is the author of I Was a Teenage Dominatrix (Last Gasp), which is in development as a tv series with the FX Network. She also wrote Imposters (Mark Batty Publishers), a book about the celebrity impersonators of Hollywood Boulevard. She and her husband Rich Dolinger are currently co-editing Live at the Safari Club: a people’s history of harDCore. Her work has appeared in Bust, Ms., Juxtapoz, Creative Nonfiction and numerous anthologies.

Jamie Rose is an actress, teacher and author of the fabulous memoir Shut Up and Dance! The Joy of Letting Go of the Lead–On the Dance Floor and Off.

Amanda Fletcher doesn’t have a blog yet, but she’s cooking up a hell of a memoir. She was my mentee in the PEN USA EV Fellowship and she blows me away. Amanda, don’t give me lip! You’re it! Just post on fb or something!

These Birks Are Made For Walking


I’m old school. I believe that when you’re schlepping your tushie halfway across the European continent, you should do it in a pair of Birkenstocks. So I took this pair on their virgin voyage today in preparation for tomorrow’s journey. You fashionistas out there will be happy to know that I’m at least foregoing the backpack.

I leave tomorrow for a press tour that will take me to Amsterdam, Antwerp, Vienna, Bratislava and Hamburg and I’m having wildly mixed emotions about it. I’m a girl with a nomadic soul and I love a good adventure, but I’ve never had to leave my heart behind before now. I know that T-Bone will have an amazing time with daddy and I’m not worried about them. But every time I think about it, I have a feeling like I’ve been kicked in the gut.

I’ve had a fun couple of weeks leading up to this, though. I did my final L.A. area Some Girls readings and I definitely went out in style.


In Laguna Beach, I had a reunion with Sierra Sky and Shawna Kenney, both of whom attended the writing workshop in which I first dipped my toes into autobiographical material. They’re soul sisters and it felt like coming full circle to be together again. Shawna and Cara Bruce were there with their anthology, Robot Hearts: True and Twisted Tales of Seeking Love in the Digital Age, and I shared the night with a number of talented contributors.

The 24 Hour Literary Marathon at The Writer’s Junction was an unusual and cool event in a really great building that acts as an affordable shared workspace for writers. The Writer’s Junction is described on their website as a place “where you can work in splendid isolation, within a supportive community.” If they open a Writer’s Junction on the East Side, I’ll be their first member.


Erin Tavin and Steffie Nelson’s Little Birds #3 at Tavin Boutique in Echo Park was also a magical night. Just look at the place. It was truly a treat to meet the very talented and lovely Janelle Brown. Plus, I wound up buying some fantastic gypsy dresses. How many reading venues send you home with a new wardrobe?


Last night was my swan song at Vermin on the Mount. I felt kind of sad and strange afterwards, maybe because of the way the way that endings never feel like endings. Probably because they usually aren’t.

So that’s all the latest memoir news. Don’t know how much time I’ll have to blog while I’m in Europe, but I’ll certainly see you on the other side with more pictures than you care to see.

I had better hop off now because Scott and I have about four minutes in between him returning from his tour and me leaving for mine. And not to be crude, but nothing says “I want some action” quite like a new pair of Birkenstocks. Men go crazy for ’em.

Last Chance(s)


I’m participating in four L.A. area events in the next two weeks and after that I’m taking the post-its out of my copy of Some Girls and putting it on the shelf for a while. I’m reading with some great people, so if you haven’t come to see me read yet and are looking for a fun night out, I’d love to see you at one or all of them. You can look at my facebook events page for complete details.

The first is this Friday at 7pm at Laguna Beach Books. I’ll be reading with Shawna Kenney, Cara Bruce, Shira Tarrant and other fantastic authors who contributed to the Robot Hearts anthology.

This Saturday I’ll be taking the 7:20pm slot at the 24 Hour Literary Marathon. All L.A. based poets, writers, and muscians are invited to help celebrate The Writers Junction shift to 24-hour access. There are still some slots left so get on board. Bonus- I’ll have the baby with me because I couldn’t find a sitter. He always spices up any party.

Next Thursday the 29th at 7pm, I’ll be reading at the Little Birds series at Tavin Boutique in Echo Park, with the fabulous Janelle Brown and Mandy Kahn.

Finally, I’ll be reading at the sixth anniversary of Vermin on the Mount on Sunday August 1st, 8pm at The Mountain Bar. Also reading will be Aaron Burch, Amelia Gray, Lindsay Hunter and Adam Novy.

The picture above is from the reading I did in NY last week at Rachel Kramer Bussel’s In The Flesh. It was a great crowd and the other readers were outrageous. It was particularly fun to meet the very talented Twanna A. Hines, who had interviewed me for SMITH Magazine the week before. I also really enjoyed the fact that Jo Weldon got her editor’s assistant to participate in a pastie demonstration.


In the Flesh readers from left to right are Jo Weldon, Rachel Shukert, Kevin Allison, moi, Rachel Kramer Bussel, Twanna A. Hines and Jerry Portwood.


Tour Day 10: The Family that Rocks Together…


I love this picture because in Scott’s glasses you can see the reflection on the sky as seen through the bus window. My boys love to sit together and look at the sky.

35,000 fans showed up for yesterday’s show in Columbia, MD. The free Virgin Mobile Festival was held at Frank Gehry’s soaring Merriweather Post Pavilion, though I didn’t get much time to admire the architecture because I was too busy trying to keep Tariku from eating smooshed french fries out of the dirt and playing with used beer cups.

I was looking forward to this tour date, because my cousin Andrew actually organized the whole festival. Andrew is one of my fave relatives, though his wife Maria gives me a complex. She’s an MD who does research into women’s public health policy, while looking and dressing like a supermodel. I have a friend who was attacked in New York and woke up in the emergency room at Bellevue looking at Maria’s face. He told me that he seriously thought he was looking at an angel. Barf. I wish I had a picture to share, but T blew by everyone so fast I barely had time to give my family a hug. He made a mad dash for the barricades and I spent the next three hours chasing him while he romanced teenage girls. He likes to charm the ladies by pointing out airplanes, then he leans in and tries to bite their thighs.


We did catch Richard Branson’s parachuting escapade, which was impressive. We also got to spend some time with my old friends writer Shawna Kenney and guitarist/hubby Rich Dollinger, the self-titled baby roadies for the day. On most days they’re stars in their own right.

We missed the Public Enemy show, but T had his ‘fro tousled by Flavor Flav on Flav’s way off stage. In his short almost-18 months on earth, T has had his ‘fro tousled by Sir Paul McCartney, Brian Wilson, Flavor Flav, Jeff Lynne, the Blink guys and all the members of the Weez, of course. That’s a lot of icons to have up in your hair.


My photographs are suffering terribly as a result of my mom duties. My iphone is all I can handle most of the time. At my friend Danica’s suggestion, I got this toy camera application, which puts random filters on pictures. Cute, right?