What I’ve Learned From 28 Brilliant Creators

February 8, 2016 § 65 Comments

It occurred to me recently that I am one selfish mofo. When I interview fellow writers and artists, which I do a lot for work (in addition to writing my own stuff, my jobs are: co-hosting a literary talk show, running an online lit mag, and selling books at an indie bookstore), I often take advantage of the conversation to seek advice on my own queries about creativity, productivity, and life. I’m supposed to be asking questions for the readers and viewers — and I am, I swear — but I also sneak in a lot of chit-chat on topics of my own personal interest. Because come on: It’s all about meeeEEEEeeee.

It was the interview I did recently with my friend Ed Tarkington that made me realize what I was doing. I’m a sucker for time management tips, and I’ve always been totally fascinated by the habit many writers have of getting up in the middle of the night to work in the dark, pre-dawn hours. I’ve never been able to drag myself out of bed at 3:30 a.m. though, so I asked Ed how he does it. (Answer: It helps to stand around outside in the cold for a few minutes or light a cigarette.)

As I looked back over other interviews I’d done, I saw countless instances where I’d asked something related to my own creative journey. (Or my own literal journey — once when I was about to leave for a trip, I asked food writer Michael Pollan what to eat in airports. See below for his response.)

Anyway — here’s a bit of the best and most surprising/unexpected wisdom I’ve gathered from just a few of the creators I’ve talked with over the past year or two. If I share them with you, then it’s not selfish anymore, right? Enjoy.

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Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 3.26.26 PMPulitzer Prize-winning novelist Jane Smiley on what she’d tell her 30-year-old self now if she could: Stop worrying.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 2.39.57 PMDavid Sedaris on editing aloud: All of my published stories have been read before an audience, some as many as 60 times. I’ll read something out loud, mark up the manuscript, and then return to my hotel to re-write it. Read, re-write, over and over. At first the changes I make are major: I’ll often cut an entire page or completely re-work my ending. As time passes, I might simply move a comma, or trade one word for another. Timing is such a tricky thing. Sometimes it’s a matter of moving the words “I said” from the end of a quote to the start of it. I wish I could determine these things in the privacy of my own home, but I can’t. Therefore I consider myself lucky to tour as often as I do.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 3.26.03 PMElizabeth Strout, another Pulitzer winner, on finding creative success later in lifeI had been writing really my entire life, and very few people knew of it, although of course my family and old friends did. But when I began to have a public career I think it took my family and old friends a bit by surprise. I had been so solitary in my endeavor for so long, that when they all found out it had “worked” so to speak, I think they may have found it was strange.
Tweet: On finding creative success at 40+:

hyperboleThe hilarious Allie Brosh on finding inspiration and new material: I thought I was out of material probably three weeks into my writing career. And every time I’ve written something since then, I’ve thought, “well, there it goes—my very last good idea.” But I seem to keep coming up with things that I can then think are my last good ideas, so I hope that continues to happen. Once you pick all the low-hanging fruit, fruit-picking becomes way scarier.

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Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 2.42.21 PMMatthew Quick, author of The Silver Linings Playbook, on the strange bedfellows of humor and despair: Humor has saved me a million times. I always say if I’m not laughing and crying throughout the writing of the book, I won’t finish the project. I’m someone who knows the great highs and lows intimately. As an author, I need to represent both, mostly because I want to tell the truth. Humor can acknowledge tragedy and comedy simultaneously.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 3.17.02 PMElizabeth McCracken on a similar topic, the intertwining of comedy and tragedy: The fact is, any comedy I love is as full of dimension, of sadness and psychological insight, as Tolstoy. Life is full of bad jokes, in the end. It’s the writer’s duty to portray that.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 2.41.07 PMRob Delaney on whether there’s anything we shouldn’t joke about: The short answer is no. And I don’t mean that like, “I’ll joke about whatever I damn well please!” I mean that humor is a wonderful, powerful thing, and it can be used for good. So I can’t think of anything that I just wouldn’t go near. You know, one thing that people have been talking a lot about lately is rape jokes: can anyone even joke about that? I think it’s absolutely possible and the good and responsible thing to do to use humor to reduce and eliminate rape in the world. Not like, “Ha ha, the punchline is…somebody got raped!” But to use humor to dismantle the system that allows it to go on. Now, that doesn’t mean that whenever something awful happens, you should run out and go, “How can I make a joke about this?” But humor can be a fearsome weapon. Why not use it? When something bad happens, your psyche may use humor to deal with it, so why not use that in a good way, in a kind way that helps people?

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screen-shot-2014-10-29-at-11-50-56-amMallory Ortberg, mad genius and co-founder of The Toast, on childhood (Note: I asked, “What were you like as a kid? Was your imagination always in overdrive? Lots of imaginary friends?” mainly because I wanted to know, “Were you like me?”): I read a lot, and I daydreamed a lot; I called it “thinking in cartoons” when I was a little kid. My parents had a hard time punishing me because whenever I got put in timeout I’d start shouting that I didn’t mind it at all and it wasn’t really a punishment because I was thinking in cartoons and I was free in my own mind, DAD.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 2.41.47 PMInsanely popular YouTuber Grace Helbig on what she wished she’d known when she was starting out: That no one has any idea what they’re doing.
Tweet: What @gracehelbig wishes she'd known starting out:

amram2Megan Amram on the messages we pick up from what we read, including fashion ads: Every single ad or article or whatever is all about teaching women how to act and look and dress in order to please other people: a boyfriend, your friends, your boss. Maybe we could start telling people that the healthiest way to to do something is to figure out how to make yourself the happiest version of yourself, for yourself. It would take a very small perspective shift, but it would mean a lot.
Tweet: .@MeganAmram to girls:

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Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 2.43.15 PMThe one and only Elizabeth Gilbert on the question of “But will it sell?”: I only know this: If I am worrying, before I begin a project, about whether my agent will like it, whether bookstores will be able to sell it, or whether it will be marketable to  a wide demographic, then I have already taken the wrong exit SO HARD off the highway that I need to be on, in order to create. That wrong exit is guaranteed to lead me to the worst neighborhood you ever saw, where vandals and bandits will strip my car and steal all my belongings and beat me up and leave me for dead. Nothing good ever comes of beginning the creative journey by veering off instantly onto the exit marked: “BUT WILL THIS THING SELL?” Immediately, with that question, my creative self dies — to be replace by a zombie called “anxiety.” There is only one way to do it. Write, draw, compose, or create whatever it is that ignites your own imagination and makes you excited to get up in the morning and work. It may become successful, it may not. It may sell, it may not. But since there is no guarantee, either way, you might as well do the thing you love. Otherwise, trust me, there are a lot easier ways to make a respectable living than through pure creativity.
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Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 3.15.05 PMAnna Quindlen on the pressure to be “relevant”: If you can put the question of money aside – a stretch, I admit – being professionally relevant is seriously overrated. Being professionally relevant seems to consist largely of being written about by people who don’t understand what you’re doing, or want to be doing it themselves so are shirty about you. I think if you can look at your own work and say to yourself, self, that is good work, you’re on the right track.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 2.49.51 PMOvernight sensation, suspense writer Paula Hawkins on following where your story leads you: It was an interesting process for me, because it felt as though I built the book in layers, with plots overlaid on plots, and the points at which they intersected become key, suggesting new directions, different strands of thought, and changes in the ways I viewed the characters. This meant that one or two of the twists were surprises even to me, they came to me late in the process.

sunPaula McLain on getting work done when you’re also in charge of a family: [I write] mostly in my home office in a very blue collar way, from 9-3, when my kids are at school. Morning — post-coffee — is prime time. I generally work until afternoon, and then switch over to mom mode for the homework/dinner/bath time trifecta. I’m pretty good about staying on task too, except when things aren’t going well — then I can’t seem to stop tackling huge cleaning projects or stress-eating cheese.
Tweet: Paula McLain of #CirclingTheSun writes

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 3.12.39 PMMichael Pollan on what to eat on tour: Eating on the road is always tough. Airports are the worst. If I absolutely have to eat at an airport, I’ll seek out the burrito place and have a rice and beans burrito.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 2.53.04 PMTony Earley on gratitude and the random chance of it all: No one has ever been able to explain to me why, given two books of equal artistic merit published in exactly the same manner, one becomes a bestseller and the other simply vanishes. So I don’t take anything for granted.

51bqo1NSzFL._SX326_BO1,204,203,200_Pioneering adventurer Beryl Markham by way of writer Megan Mayhew Bergman, on work ethic and risk-taking: Beryl Markham has the greatest antidote to the dreamer’s mode of being, and I’ve taken her words to heart: Never hope more than you work. When it comes to my career, I often find myself torn between two notions: “Don’t take yourself so seriously” and “Take yourself seriously.” I don’t read maps well or remember calculus, but I am a hard worker. That I can say about myself. But when you try hard at something, you make yourself vulnerable, because you’re expressing your hopes through that work. When you dare to take yourself seriously, you take a risk.

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Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 2.53.47 PMAdam Silvera, who wrote book reviews before he starting writing bestselling books, on evaluating one’s own work: I actually put into practice “reviewing” my own book in the drafting stage, so I can identify its strengths and its weaknesses. I review it through every draft . . . I can identify the weakness, and by the next draft I should have tackled that and improved upon it.

06BOOKHALLBERG-master180-v4Garth Risk Hallberg, author of the heaviest book I’ve held in the past year, on ambition: My ambition for the book always felt like, “I want to make the kind of book I’ve always loved.” That necessarily entailed becoming the kind of person who could make that kind of book. And in a way, I had to renounce a certain species of ambition to do it. Just the sheer scale of the work . . .  Maybe that’s why I didn’t tell anyone I was working on it. It wasn’t supposed to take me anywhere other than where the book itself wanted to go . . . Maybe in America it’s easy to get mixed up and waste years chasing being a personage, instead of sitting down with a pencil and paper like any other person.

screen-shot-2014-10-16-at-12-08-22-pmFive-time winner of the Coretta Scott King Book Award, Sharon Draper on humble beginnings: When I was in third grade I wrote something called “Clouds,” in which I described them as looking like bunnies, if I remember. That was NOT a life-altering moment, although I was very proud when it got posted on the school bulletin board.

screen-shot-2014-07-13-at-1-54-49-pmNovelist and screenwriter Smith Henderson on the strangeness of releasing a project you’ve been working on privately into the big, public world: It’s incredible. You know how YOU feel about it, but as you find out how others feel and you realize that they like it as much as you do, there’s this intense satisfaction of having hit your mark — that what you were shooting for is coming across. That part is really the most profound act of communication that a writer gets to have. It’s really intense. Even when the response is positive, it’s emotionally daunting. I felt like I was proud of the book, and it would be all right if people didn’t get it, but generally I was pretty confident that I had written the book I would like to read — and I hoped others would, too.
Tweet: Author/screenwriter @smith_henderson set out to write simply

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 2.56.07 PMSteve Almond, co-host of the Dear Sugar podcast with Cheryl Strayed, on how to have an authentic conversation on-air: It’s almost entirely improvised. We’ll look over the questions in advance, but we don’t talk about them until we can see the whites of each other’s eyes. That’s the thrill of it. Cheryl is a brilliant extemporaneous thinker and speaker. We both do best when we’re just yakking away and whatever stories or insights we offer arise organically. I think that’s true of most creative endeavors. “Self-consciousness is the death of art” — I think John Cage said that.
Tweet: “Self-consciousness is the death of art” #DearSugarRadio @stevealmondjoy quoting (more or less) John Cage http://ctt.ec/70yUB+ @marylauraph

If+I+Stay+book+coverGayle Forman on juggling multiple big creative projects at once: I don’t know! I don’t know if I’ll be able to keep it up. I start on one thing, and then another thing starts pecking away at me. I just work on multiple things until something wins the endurance contest.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 2.58.47 PMLily King on feeling like an outsider: I think for the most part a writer always feels like an outsider, whether or not it’s true. It’s sort of a job requirement. When I was reading about anthropology, I learned that the best informant in the field is a person who feels separate from the group in some way, is from somewhere else, or is different in some way that sets him/her apart. That is the person who can give you a wider perspective on the culture. So I think we need to feel that way.

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22725443Jill Alexander Essbaum on reading reviews/comments: I know my limits. And they are low. There’s little good that reviews can do me but desperately hurt my feelings. If a review is good my husband will tell me.​ I used to read them. But — yeah. You know?

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 3.03.44 PMPhotographer Melissa Ann Pinney on the risks and rewards of authenticity: There are two kinds of risk: physical and artistic. In the past I have done projects in dodgy Chicago neighborhoods late at night and alone; I’ve photographed a young gang member’s funeral. After my daughter was born, making photographs out of love for my family felt like a different kind of risk: the risk of appearing sentimental to an art world where a kind of bleak irony was more valued. The biggest risk and greatest reward is always in honesty and vulnerability.

Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 2.59.07 PMAndrew Maraniss on chasing a creative dream while holding down a day job: There are times now where I sit and stare at the book and wonder how it really happened. Mainly it just came down to making this my sole focus outside of work and family. Any spare minute early in the morning or after the kids went to bed, I spent on the book.

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And what have I learned so far? That I really like turning the conversation back to topics of interest to MEEEEEEEeeeee, yes. (Is this somehow a conflict of interest, I wondered, using work opportunities to ask my own personal/professional questions? No, I decided, it’s a confluence of interest. That’s my story anyway, and I’m sticking to it.) But also, when I look at it all on the same page like this, I’m struck by how much these folks have in common when it comes to setting goals, making revisions, letting go of hang-ups, and giving attention to the thing that demands to be created.

I’ll leave you with one more, from Joy Wilson (aka Joy the Baker), on what to do when you’ve made a real mess: Screen Shot 2016-02-04 at 3.00.27 PMSometimes things go all the way wrong. It happens to the best of us. I try to flip my perspective when things go bad in the kitchen. Can I call this tart “rustic”? Can I call this pie “well done”? If the answer is no, can I cover (and glue together) this whole mess with frosting? Sometimes the answer is no… and so we drink bourbon and try again (or go to a bakery and get out the credit card).

You heard it here: 

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How To Teach Your Demonically Possessed Toys to Dance

January 8, 2016 § 6 Comments

I saw a movie trailer the other day, and I can’t stop thinking about it.

It came on in the theater before the movie I was seeing with friends (Sisters, with Tina Fey and Amy Poehler, which was great). I was psyched for the trailers, because any movie advertised before Tina and Amy is going to be hilarious, right? So I didn’t really know what to make of this one:

Maybe it was the cocktail I had at dinner, or maybe it was because I was expecting comedy before comedy, but I couldn’t stop giggling at Brahms the Doll Boy. I mean… Brahms. I almost slid out of my movie seat snort-laughing. Even after Sisters was over and we were driving home, I kept remembering Brahms and spontaneously breaking into laughs again. OH, BRAHMS, YOU MISCHIEVOUS/MURDEROUS RASCAL WITH THE DEVIL’S PORCELAIN VISAGE.

The fact is, days later I’m still thinking about Brahms. I find myself imagining him in everyday situations, and I’m telling you, it really is quite a delightful mental exercise. For example, at a party over New Year’s Eve, someone was trying to teach me how to do the Roger Rabbit. You know, that classic 80s dance jam:

I am terrible at the Roger Rabbit. People who know how bad I am at dancing think it’s funny to try to teach me, but I always look like I’m in a robotic monkey band, marching and playing the cymbals. I just don’t get it. But as I was stepping-and-popping-and-flailing away, I wondered: How might one teach Brahms to do the Roger Rabbit? I think it might go like this…

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OK, Brahms. Start by loosening up your shoulders and throwing those elbows back.

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You don’t have to say anything, Brahms. Dance is the universal language.

Are you feeling the beat in your bones, Brahms? Nod if you feel it. OK, now get those knees up high and step backward.

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That’s a tad too far back, Brahms.

Now put the two together! On 5 and 6 and 7 and 8 and… go!

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Snacks after we dance, buddy. I promise.

Pop that chest out, Brahms!

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I think you can bring a little more energy to this.

Look, Brahms. If you’re not into this, I’m not going to keep showing you. I don’t Roger Rabbit for my health, you know.

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I can’t read you right now, kid.

C’mon. The bigger your back-kick, the better your front-pop. Just try.

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Maybe you’re more suited to crafts or something, no offense.

Look, I’ll draw you this little circle, and you just stay in it and dance. This is your dance globe, buddy.

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Brahms, man. You are literally the worst dancer. Ever. You should be sweating by now, and you’re just sitting.

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I don’t believe this. Is that a TEAR, you steely-eyed little fucker?

That’s emotional manipulation, and you know it. You’re manipulating me right now, Brahms.

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I thought we shared a dream. Do you even have a dream, Brahms? If you do, it must be a dream to do the opposite of dancing, forever.

You know what, Brahms? I don’t think you ever did want to learn the Roger Rabbit. Not at all. I think you were playing me. And I fell for it.

DAMMIT, Brahms.

A Few Feminist Editorial Notes on My Childhood Christmas List

December 17, 2015 § 8 Comments

I recently dug up some of my childhood Christmas stuff — like my old stocking:

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That thing at the top is a mouse-reindeer made of pompoms. And on the front is a cross-stitched image of me with angel wings. Also, there’s a pocket edged in rick-rack. I defy you to find a better stocking in all the land.

My dad also found an actual Christmas list from when I was about 8. It’s pretty special to be able to go back in time and hear what little-me was into, if perhaps kind of weird, too. Here’s what I asked for, along with a few notes from my right-now self to my younger self:


Dear Santa,

How are you? May I please have these things for Christmas?

Good start, but remember, 8-year-old self: leaders make declarative statements. Too many question marks here! Upward inflection implies permission-seeking. You know what you want, girlboss — TELL Santa. 

1. More pencils

So you have pencils, but you want more pencils? YEAH, YOU DO. There are people who would have you believe this is greed, but they’re wrong. Don’t stop collecting pencils until you have as many pencils as the boy in your class with the most pencils, and then get one more pencil than that.


2. Barbie Style-Me Head

I know it’s hard to make ponytails, and it probably seems like it would be easier to practice on a model than on yourself. But this is a DISEMBODIED FEMALE HEAD ON A TRAY. What the real-life hell. 

3. Jewls

I think you mean “jewels,” in which case, let’s move this goal off your Santa-list and onto your give-it-to-yourself-list, because if you want a shiny thing, you should (a) probably wait until you’re older, and (b) save up for it with money earned from your job, where you have flexible hours and uterus-friendly benefits. Unless you mean “jowls,” in which case, THAT’S RIGHT — women should be allowed to age naturally without being held to warped expectations of eternal youth.

4. Nightgown with robe

I started to cross this out, because I didn’t want you to feel like you had to conform to traditionally feminine wardrobe norms ‘round the clock, as if even in your dreams you might have to ride side-saddle on your talking unicorn. But you know what? Wear what you want. Footie pajamas might be more practical, but hey — your body, your choice. 

Thank you!

I’d suggest a more assertive closing such as, “I think I’ve made myself clear.”

PS: Hi to the reindeer.

That’s nice. Animals need a voice in this world.

Overall, this is excellent work, small-me. A little more effort will take this draft from good to great. I am proud of you, and I have great faith in your future, even though I know through the magic of time travel that you’re going to get a terrible perm in five years. Hang in there. In short: Keep speaking up, fuck the patriarchy, and stay awesome. 

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Meanwhile: Hello to everyone who’s here to see “How to Be a Ladyperson at the Holidays” — you can find it here. In a strange and delightful turn of events, it was also featured on the evening news in Philadelphia this week:

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I do not live in Philly, but I like how they interpret the term “news.” Thank you, Channel 6! Anyway, you might also enjoy some similar pieces, like these:

PS: Remember, if you still need stocking stuffers, there is hope:

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Ho ho ho!

Zombie Facials, Public Television, and Other Unusual Happenings

October 27, 2015 § 1 Comment

This is a zig-zaggy story about things I’m going to want to keep in mind come January, when I’m sitting under a blanket on the sofa, wearing the same sweatshirt for the third day in a row, sniffing old candy canes because I read somewhere that peppermint is a stimulant. Stay with me here:

Back in the summer, when the first leg of the little Penguins with People Problems book tour wrapped up in Asheville (shout out to the indie bookstore: Hey, Malaprop’s!), I was feeling rather treat yo’self. So I decided to celebrate with a fancy facial before driving back to Tennessee. Now, I know damned well that my sensitive skin has never been able to handle exotic emollients, so I’m not sure what made me think I could subject myself to an hour of greased face-massage with no consequences, but there you have it. Predictably, my momentary lapse of self-awareness caused me to break out the next day in a flesh-eating rash. My eyelids crusted over; my chin got all spotty; my cheeks turned red and angry. I looked like a very ladylike zombie.

Pride and Prejudice and Zombies (and facials)

This is not actually me. This is the poster for Pride and Prejudice and Zombies. (and facials)

Can you guess the first thing I was scheduled to do upon arriving home with leprosy-face? If you guessed a screen test for a TV show, you are tragicomically correct. (But not a zombie show, although it would have been a perfect day for that.)

Here in Nashville, our public television station recently decided to reboot a popular interview show called A WORD ON WORDS. For 42 years, it was hosted by the late John Seigenthaler, who in addition to being a trailblazing journalist, political figure, and public servant was a voracious reader who loved chatting about books with guest authors. The folks at NPT had asked early in the summer if I’d be interested in hosting the new show. “Sure,” I’d said. “But you should probably know I have absolutely no camera experience whatsoever.” Thus, the screen test.

And that’s how I came to be sitting under lights, with rashy face and no makeup, squinting into the space in front of me, going, “Look where? Am I allowed to move my hands? Can you hear me? WHAT ABOUT NOW?”

Believe it or not, NPT decided to hire me. The great news is that my skin was mostly healed by the time we started filming (although you can tell in my first episode that I was still kind of puffy from the steroids). The even greater news is that I’m not going it alone. My co-host is none other than the beautiful and talented JT Ellison, New York Times bestselling author of thrillers such as What Lies Behind and the forthcoming No One Knows. She also rocks a pair of smart-girl glasses like nobody’s business. See:

keep reading

This is me (on the left) and JT (on the right). As tempting as it may have been to sign off each show with “Stay classy, booknerds,” we’ve decided to keep John Seigenthaler’s trademark closing: Keep reading. And although the new show’s format will look and sound different from the original show, it will also keep one other very important detail — the name, A WORD ON WORDS, which honors John’s legacy.

Episodes of A WORD ON WORDS will air on Nashville’s public TV station (just like Downton Abbey, pretty much) as well as on the website, starting this Thursday, 10/29 and continuing throughout the year.

Speaking of work and unlikely events… This month was insane. All of the following happened in the first half of October: I had a blast speaking at the Southern Festival of Books and the Texas Book Festival; I kept running into Margaret Atwood everywhere I went; and I successfully wielded a handheld microphone on multiple occasions without accidentally throwing it across the room. Then I got to enjoy a signing at another great indie bookstore (hey, BookPeople!); a lovely dinner party in honor of Ruth Reichl, where I brought a fruit salad no one ate; and a very jolly encounter with Elizabeth Gilbert. (Speaking of which, I interviewed Liz for my day job — my other day job, not the TV one — and she said some smart things you might enjoy reading.)

This is a caption.

(Click the collage to see it bigger.) As I’m looking at these pictures, I’m thinking, Ew, is this a humblebrag? But then I’m like, nope, it’s a straight up brag-brag. My apologies. I can pretty much guarantee you there’s no shot of having a month like this again anytime soon, though.

Three months from now, when I’m feeling that hopeless midwinter drag because it’s getting dark at 3 p.m. every day, the voice of past-me will say, “Hey, remember that time when it was October and you got to see all your writer friends and Liz Gilbert called you ‘brilliant’ and you told Margaret Atwood you loved her hair and your TV show was announced and you made that fruit salad?” and January-me will be like, “No, that was never real. The sun is gone. I’m a dirty old sock, and I’m never getting out of bed.” And then past-me will go, “Yes, it was real, you dummy. Look — here’s proof.” Then I’ll remember that winter is temporary and everything is cyclical, I’ll have some coffee and wash my hair, and I’ll snap out of it. And that, my friends, is how time-traveling self-preservation works.

Anyway, if you’ve learned anything at all from this, let it be not to get a facial before anything important. Meanwhile, I’ll probably be back to talking about fashion ads and whatnot before long, so stay tuned. And keep reading.

The Advice That Works For (Pretty Much) Everything

September 21, 2015 § 11 Comments

Every now and then, people message me on Twitter or Facebook and ask for advice, which strikes me as hilarious, because even though I’m a full-grown adult, I have no more answers to the mysteries of life now than I did when I was fresh out of school, wearing maroon lipstick with my Rachel haircut. But hey, if you’re gonna ask, I’ll make up some answers.


Anyway — I received a really nice note last week asking about how to go about starting up a blog, etc. Here it is:

My name is S—-, and I think you are awesome. I’ve followed you on social media ever since a mutual friend “introduced” me to you, which has been maybe 5 or 6 years now.  Almost every post of yours makes me laugh and/or ponder, and I just LOVE seeing you pop up in my feed. [<– Ed. note: Obviously, this person has fabulous taste.]

I’m writing to ask for a few words of wisdom. I’ve always enjoyed writing, and I think I’m pretty damn funny. Both of my children are in school now, and I’d like to start writing more and finding out who else is awesome (i.e. gets me) in my social media world and maybe beyond.

I guess my question to you is, if you had to go back to the start of when you were trying to be YOU, is there anything you would do differently? How do I tie the social platforms all together and keep my personal stuff separate and have some followers who are not just trying to sell skincare or essential oils? I’ve got  a “handle” I can use, and I’ve set up a blog on WordPress with that name, and I also have an Instagram (if I can just remember the password to get back into it). 

I know you are a super busy person and I really appreciate you taking the time to read this message. Thanks for reading my message and for any pearls of wisdom you may pass along. Keep doing what you’re doing because you’re funny and insightful as hell, and your light reaches a lot of places!

 * * *

OK, that’s just about the nicest letter I’ve ever received from a person I’ve never met. So I wrote back:

Hey, S! First off: THANK YOU for saying hi! I’m SO HAPPY for you! [fist pump] I am always glad when I hear someone has decided to start writing — whether you’re doing it publicly where people can see it or just for yourself in a secret notebook you keep under the seat of your car and pretend is a mileage log. 

Well, I don’t know if I’d call it an “answer,” because I don’t know that I actually have the answers, but here is the best rule I can give you:

do it

I can think of a lot of situations in which this advice would work, especially situations on a boat.

I *almost* replied with just that, but your letter was so nice, and I feel like I should try to come up with more. So, here are some opinions, based on experience.

1. DO WHATEVER THE HELL YOU WANT — and forget about building a following. (At least for now.) It’s kind of fun to begin with hardly any readers, because there’s no pressure. Whee! So start small. Tap-tap-tap on the microphone and do a soundcheck. And just think about one thing: A story you want to tell or a point you’d like to make or an idea you want to share or a joke or some pictures or a song or whatever. Write a post about that one thing. 

2. DO WHATEVER THE HELL YOU WANT — even when it comes to social media. It sounds like you’re all set up to do some sharing on a few platforms; so when you’re ready, go for it. (Oh, you mentioned “keeping personal stuff separate.” If you want to keep your private accounts private, just set up separate pages/accounts for sharing your writing. Easy.) You also might consider reading and commenting on what other people post. Think about writing online like being a part of a big conversation. Just like in a real-live conversation, you might ask about or comment on things other people say that you find interesting. Engaging as a reader as well as a writer is one way to “meet” other people who are part of that big conversation and who might also want to read what you have to say. But you don’t have to. Really. If you’re more comfortable sharing posts just with your own friends and holding off on tweeting and such for now, rock on. 

(From experience: If you do decide to use social media to share your posts, make your handles match across platforms. Like, if you’re “@catsdigmuffins” on Twitter, be “@catsdigmuffins” on everything else, too. I totally screwed that up. I mean, it doesn’t really matter… it’s just easier for keep track of if they’re not all different like mine are — @MaryLauraPhilpottAuthor / @wheniblink / @therandompenguins)

3. DO WHATEVER THE HELL YOU WANT — and consider aiming for quality over quantity. The prevailing wisdom seems to be that you should post as often as possible — daily, even, or at least weekly — if you want to build a good following. Someone must have some math to back that up if people keep saying it, and I guess if building a following is the goal, then go for it maybe. But again: you don’t have to. (I don’t.) Why not post when you really have something to say or share, with whatever frequency that is, instead of just for the sake of posting something? I say, if everyone’s telling you that you HAVE TO post all the time because IT’S THE RULE, but you don’t feel like it, then FUCK THE RULES. (And if everyone else you ask says this is terrible advice, feel free to throw me under the bus and say you knew I was full of shit all along.)

4. DO WHATEVER THE HELL YOU WANT — with whatever level of creative discipline your brain enjoys. Are you more of a blurter? Or a thinker? Do you like to edit your words carefully before you share or just toss ’em up there and see what happens? It’s your blog, so do what makes you happy. Me, I’m an editor by nature (not to mention by profession). I’m not saying I don’t post something unless it’s perfect; I just mean that instead of sitting down and drafting something and hitting “publish” right away, I let it marinate a bit. Your style can still be loose and candid, even if your approach isn’t slapdash. As a reader, I appreciate it when a writer takes the time put some care into whatever I’m taking the time to read, you know?

5. DO WHATEVER THE HELL YOU WANT — and be true to your own voice. You nailed it when you said, “I’d like to start writing more and finding out who else is awesome (i.e. gets me) in my social media world and maybe beyond.” It’s great to write just for yourself, but you’re right — there are good reasons to write things for others, too. We want to find our people. We want to be heard and understood by someone who says, “Me, too,” or “Oh, really?” or even, “That’s insane, but tell me more.” We want to be witnessed. (I still love how Ted Hughes described that.) So don’t fret about being “as [clever / eloquent / crazy / whatever] as [whoever else].” If you do what YOU want to do with your words, the people who dig it will hang around and you’ll have more fun.

It’s your site. It’s your brand-new can of Play-Doh, and you can make it into a blue giraffe with six legs if you want, and NO ONE CAN STOP YOU. It doesn’t have to be like anything else. Give it a theme or let it wander all over the place. It’s yours. Just start.

Anyway — thanks again for reaching out, and I hope you have a great time.

 * * *

So, that was that. Another piece of advice I give a lot is: Always wear gloves when handling habanero peppers, or when you accidentally scratch an itch on your eye you’ll get a terrible rash on your eyelid. Don’t ask how I know.

(PS: If anyone else has advice for S, feel free to chime in. I probably don’t know what I’m talking about.)

Lazy Trollop Burns Down House

September 14, 2015 § 22 Comments

I regret to admit that internet advertising works on me. I wish it weren’t true, but my brain forms a false familiarity with things it sees enough times, even in stupid sidebar ads. Like — oh hey, there’s the sassy gal with the work slacks that are also yoga pants, biking to the office under a clear autumn sky. She’s such a hard worker! There she is again, lunging effortlessly for her desk phone. So efficient! And there, rolling her chair across her office, uninhibited by plackets or seams. Smooth! Soon enough I’m thinking, maybe I need yoga work pants for my busy lifestyle, just like her.


I work in a bookstore, but I guess we could make room for yoga over near the spirituality section. Is “fitness reading” a thing? Maybe it’s one of those combos that’s catching on, like karaoke bowling or barbershop cinema or flowershop wine bars.

Honestly though, combination activities don’t appeal much to me, because I do not excel at multi-tasking. I tend to plow full-brain into one thing at a time. That might be why the ad for a slow-cooker really stuck with me. I saw it once. I saw it twice. I saw it a third time — and hey, there’s the slow-cooker again, filling that person’s kitchen with so much warm chicken-stew goodness while requiring so few simultaneous tasks. Think of it: one pot, a whole dinner! No juggling of multiple pans and calculating different cooking times. I’d never had one before (we were wed in the year of the rice steamer; I have four of those), but I began to feel the lack of this appliance in my life. I needed one.

My problem was fear. The lady in the slow-cooker picture always looks ecstatic to inhale the aroma of her supper in her immaculately clean kitchen. She’s not at all afraid of a house fire, like I am. You’re supposed to put food in there, plug it in, and then walk away, letting it cook for hours while no one watches? And no one’s worried about fire? Whenever I see a piece on the news about a house fire, I always wonder if the unspoken story behind the story is that someone in that home started up a pork loin 8 hours earlier and then just left the damn thing sizzling on their countertop all day.

But after giving it a great deal of thought — as I do when talking myself into something — I decided maybe slow-cookers weren’t causing all those fires. I mean, if they were, we’d hear about it, right? I’m pretty sure women are the leading users of slow-cookers, and you know the media loves to pin things on women whenever they can. Worthless Female Refuses to Use Two Pots, Sets Fire to Kitchen. Or Shiftless Slattern Leaves Pot Roast Unattended, Ignites Cabinetry. God help you if you’re a working woman. Stone-wombed Career Gal Sets Condo Ablaze. And if it were me? Well, I’m a writer. So: Busy With Witchcraft, Songstress Ignores Flames.


The more I thought about it, the more I extra-wanted the slow-cooker, so I could use it to say “fuck all those stereotypes,” but well… when I finally surrendered to the ad and bought one, the first thing I cooked was grits. I know. Southern girl makes grits — how unique. I bet you wonder if I made collards next. No, I did not, but thank you for asking. Just an enormous vat of grits. (I do wish I had gotten the 3-quart model instead of the 6-quart, though. Six is too many quarts of food.)

Because I’m obviously more of a cliché than I like to think I am, I guess if I did burn down my house, the story would have to follow one of two forms:

(A) The Southern Gothic scenario: That’s where the whole house burns down and becomes a creepy cautionary tale to families everywhere who ought to beware their wicked womenfolk. “I heard she killed them all with one pot,” the cross-eyed old gas station attendant will tell the travelers who pass through. “They say the soil around the old place is . . . gritty.” And, “If you listen, when the wind blows, you can hear the trees creak: ‘Dammit, y’all.’ 

(B) The Steel Magnolia Fried Green Tomato Designing Women scenario: That’s where I notice the flames and start flapping around, dashing off on a madcap spree around the house, gathering all the half-drunk glasses of bourbon and sweet tea and splashing them on the fire. It would be a real riot, right up to the poignant part of the story, when a very special dog named Skeet dies in the smoke while saving a neighbor’s baby from the fire.

real grits

The tale would be recounted in beauty parlors and jam-stands around the state for decades. You’d probably hear it from a spunky gal named “Fioña” (pronounced with a long i — like, “there’s a fi’ on ya”), who as it turns out is the very baby who lived to tell the whole crazy thing.

Somehow it would probably be a little of both, in keeping with family tradition, as I am descended from women who know their silver and their liquor and their adverbs and their cusswords and their squirrel traps, all equally. So when I imagine burning my home to the ground, I imagine it being a tragicomedy of great depth and breadth. Lazy Trollop Burns Down House, Both Horribly and Hilariously.

Anyway. All the recipes I found for slow-cooked grits said to start your grits before you went to bed, let them cook overnight, and then wake up to a delicious breakfast. I decided to cook mine during the day, so I wouldn’t spend my night having fire nightmares. But to ease myself into the fear factor, I did leave for work while they were cooking.

As I microwaved my tea in the bookstore kitchenette, I found myself wishing I had one of those remote baby monitor apps on my phone, so I could dial into my kitchen and see live video of my slow-cooker doing its thing. Not that it could do me all that much good. What was I going to do if I saw smoke on the screen? “HANG ON, DON’T BURN, MAMA’S COMING.”

I ended up going back home midway through the day to give my grits a stir and to satisfy my fire-curiosity. Everything was fine. By the end of the 6-hour cooking time, they tasted as good as if I’d stood over them at the stove for an hour, but with more time and less effort, which is the American way. Plus: no fire.

I am very happy with my new grits method, although the truth is I half-wanted them to turn out badly. That way, I could say, Ah-HA! I’ll never pay attention to internet ads again! Instead, now I wonder what else might be waiting off to the side of my newsfeed to change my life. Maybe those stretchy yoga work trousers? I’ll certainly need them if I eat all six quarts of these grits.

 * * *

MLPs Grits Recipe

Four Funny Things

August 24, 2015 § 4 Comments


It is absolutely, 100%, seriously-for-real still summer. It’s August, for damn sake. Yet the other day I noticed a little flock of leaves blowing across my windshield. And tonight, the temps where I live will drop into the 50s. Cool your jets, fall. Stop breathing down my neck.

My spirits always take a little dip when summer ends, probably because deep inside I’m 11 and still think of it as “back to school” — but also because there’s less sunlight when fall comes. Brain science. Luckily, this time I’m prepared. Like a squirrel stockpiling acorns for winter, I’m storing up funny things. Here’s a starter pile, in case you need some, too:

1. Every time he yells, “Sonofabitch!” I laugh.

2. I also laugh every time I hear the line, “You pretend every slot machine is a robot amputee waving hello.” Picture that for a second. That is EXACTLY what slot machines are.

(Actually, that first song is about alcoholism and the second is about . . . Las Vegas and/or emptiness? But still. They make me laugh.)

3.  My friend Sissy sent me this the other day. Either I never watched this when it came out OR I watched it and totally forgot it (the latter of which is just as possible as the former). Watch it while you’re stuck in a waiting room or something. Tig Notaro is what would happen if Louis CK and David Sedaris magically had a baby. Fabulous storytelling:

4. Oh, and here’s a floating owl.

Good day.


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