"I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I'm doing." - John Cage

Monday, March 7, 2016

March 24th Nevada County Arts Salon Series: The Business of Writing

So you want to be a writer? I will present a talk and answer questions on how to develop a career as a writer on March 24th at 7 pm for the Nevada County Arts Salon Series in the Howser Room at the Superintendent of Nevada County Schools building. I'll share tips, tools and resources for developing a writing career and making a living as a writer of poetry, fiction, magazine writing and memoir. 

As Wallace Stevens said, “It is necessary to any originality to have the courage to be an amateur.” The path of making a living as a writer is, like the writing process itself, an organic re-visioning of the self.  It is paved with concrete steps that writers can take to build a public platform. In this discussion I will offer specific tools to develop a writing process in a busy life that meets goals and deadlines, to edit and publish your work, to improve your craft, to build an author platform, to seek opportunities for increasing exposure of your work and new possibilities for your writing.
Experimental musical composer John Cage said 'I am trying to check my habits of seeing, to counter them for the sake of greater freshness. I am trying to be unfamiliar with what I'm doing.' It is with this fresh perspective that I have approached my own writing career.  I earned an MFA in creative writing at Goddard College in 2007 and launched my business Tangled Roots Writing in 2008, offering workshops and one on one coaching to help writers develop and publish their work. 
I have taught writing and literature at Sierra Nevada College, Lake Tahoe Community College and Sierra College in Truckee.  My poems have been published in many journals such as Puerto Del Sol, Rhino, West Trestle Review and Meadow.  My book of poetry titled Bite and Blood was published by Finishing Line Press in 2015.  As an advocate for building literary community, I am co-organizer for the monthly Literary Arts & Wine Reading Series in Truckee, CA.
Nevada County Arts represents and advocates for the arts in Nevada County and facilitates a range of collaborative activities that educate and inspire the community about the value of the arts. The audience is encouraged to bring questions about specific writing projects and goals.

Sign up here: http://events.r20.constantcontact.com/register/event?oeidk=a07ebuu3q4mafb20ee6&llr=z6oetldab
Event info:
March 24, 2016
7:00 PM - 9:00 PM
Price: $20.00 General Public
Nevada County Arts Members $15.00
Students under 21 with ID $5.00
Howser Room, Nevada County Superintendent of Schools
112 Nevada City Hwy
Nevada City, CA 95959
Find more information on the talk at

Monday, February 22, 2016

The Business of Writing - Curiosity, Serendipity and Risk

“Life is a succession of habits, since the individual is a succession of individuals.” – Samuel Becket

Do you have questions about how to get your book project published or develop a writing career? I've developed a new 4 week class at Sierra College Truckee Campus called The Business of Writing. Through presentations and discussion, handouts with resources and panels with visiting authors, a diverse group of writers and I have been exploring the ins and outs of writing and publishing.

Sit next to a stranger on a plane, pour out your heart and discover they are an agent now interested in reading your novel.  Participate in a writing retreat and meet a publisher who later accepts a different project. Risk a dream job editor situation by giving up everything in order to find freedom and challenge through freelancing.  Write several "practice" novels that will never see the light of day. Write a novel for the Novel in 3 Days contest on a whim - and then win! Ghost write and "Fix" a celebrity's memoir. Which of these situations is real?  All of them!

What stands out in the stories of these writing careers? Curiosity to write in many forms and for many purposes - essay, article, novel, memoir, nonfiction, greeting card, screenplay, cartoon, photojournalism.  Serendipity generated by being open to and prepared for opportunity when it suddenly appears to you. Risking to write bravely, be vulnerable and give up what is certain in order to try for a daunting goal. The omnivorous-ness of finding sustenance for creativity as a writer across the disciplines of a life's experience. 

Next: what makes a good query stand out and hook the attention of an editor?

Thursday, February 4, 2016

Build a Professional Writer Platform

My own focus most often is on the craft side of writing and the business side of a writing life can seem distracting to the "art".  Now that I consider it, much of my daily time is spent building the business of my writing in many small ways.  Before your writing project is ready for publication, there are things you can be doing now to prepare your audience to receive your work.

Your platform as a writer includes all the different ways you can be present in the lives of your audience.  First, you need to figure out who is your audience - and to do this you need to figure out what you have to give them.  What do you have to offer?  What do you have to sell?  What needs does it fulfill?  Spend some time writing on these questions.

Think of your platform as having planks.  Each plank is a way of putting yourself out there.

Social Media
Email lists

Articles and reviews you publish in magazines and newspapers
Other publications

In Person:
Readings and book signings
Other writers' readings and book signings
Literary festivals, workshops, retreats and conferences
Talks you give
Classes you teach
Giving back to your community - volunteering
Supporting other writers - brainstorm what do you have to give?

Read writer Angela Render's blog for more great ideas to build your platform.

To get the brainstorming juices flowing, answer these questions for yourself:
  1. Why do you write?
  2. What do you write about?
  3. What is your unique perspective?
  4. What needs and emotions do you cater to or go after?
  5. What is your message?
  6. Who is your audience?
  7. Which planks do you currently have and which ones would you like to add to your platform as a professional writer?
Now set your goals for this year:

Wednesday, January 6, 2016

Literary Citizenship: Reach Out to Sustain Your Writing Process and Build Literary Community

“Literary citizenship is the importance of remembering that no one is alone in the writing world.” – Roxane Gay, Eight Questions Writers Should Ask Themselves, Writer’s Chronicle, Nov 2013

As citizens of Tahoe and the larger literary community, we are all contributing to the same big work; we are all on the same team.  One writer’s success is success for the whole community. How can you find ways to reach out and participate in order to make a difference in our communities?

Play more than one role in the community.  In a strong community, we also play the roles of volunteers, organizers, in-kind contributors, and board members. From A Good Literary Citizen, Joey Franklin, Poets and Writers, Nov/Dec 2013: “I don’t see writers as simply writers anymore.  They also inhabit these roles we used to call editor, publisher, agent, and even reader. When one goes to the AWP book fair one sees the same people on one side of the table move to the other side of the table…Working in a writing community can be a seamless existence. There is not a specialty category, not a ladder to climb.  It is a network, a hive.  It is this big work we are all contributing to, doing what little and all we can.”

Participate in literary events.  Sundance Books in Reno hosts talented speakers, salons and readings monthly.  The Literary Arts & Wine reading series presents 3 regional authors at Coffeebar the third Sunday of each month.  Attend this reading to meet other writers in Tahoe and be inspired by new work.

Network to find ways to connect and collaborate.  What goes around, comes around. Is there a nonprofit organization that shares a common value with you that you can “adopt”?  I have volunteered my coaching skills to ARC, an amazing program that teaches literacy, wilderness and leadership skills to ESL students here in Tahoe.  Stoli the Cattledog and I are also a Certified Pet Therapy team at the Truckee Elementary, working with students on reading skills each week. 

Communicate your gratitude. Focus on thankfulness. Send a note to an author you admire or a mentor who helped you this past year. Send a note to an organization or business that you admire in the community for its work in building and sustaining community.  Notice the benefits that you gain in taking these actions before any expectation of reciprocity.

Reach out to your community in order to accomplish your own goals.  As you look for opportunities to network and collaborate, ask yourself what support do you need? Where can you find it? Answer these 5 questions for your writing process. Be measurable and specific with your responses:
  1. What are your writing goals for 2016?
  2. What has worked for you so far with community and networking?
  3. What opportunities do you see in your community? How can you develop these further?
  4. Who/what can you help support?
  5. Make a list of actions/connections to make in the next year.

One person can make a difference! Supporting community will in turn strengthen your own writing and help sustain a strong literary community that we all share.

Tuesday, November 10, 2015

Writing Great Stories: Notes from Chris Millis' Talk at Sierra Nevada College 11/6/15

Chris Millis presented a dynamic and powerful talk on what makes good story and especially a good screenplay.  He played excerpts from movies that model this structure such as Moonstruck, Star Wars, Boogie Nights, Ali, and his own hilarious anti-hero film Small Apartments. Here are my notes from his talk.  I find that rewriting my notes into a post helps me assimilate the knowledge into my own work.  

What follows are Chris' talking points:

Chris started with setting up some context on story by quoting Toni Morrison, my newest hero (as I've just finished reading and teaching The Bluest Eye), from her essay The Site ofMemory.      

Excerpt from The Site of Memory – Toni Morrison:

I consider that my single gravest responsibility (in spite of that magic) is not to lie. When I hear someone say, "Truth is stranger than fiction," I think that old chestnut is truer than we know, because it doesn't say that truth is truer than fiction; just that it's stranger, meaning that it's odd. It may be excessive, it may be more interesting, but the important thing is that it's random - and fiction is not random. Therefore the crucial distinction for me is not the difference between fact and fiction, but the distinction between fact and truth. Because facts can exist without human intelligence, but truth cannot.

Humans need story to reveal the meaning of our existence

Plot is character revealed by action – Aristotle

·         Syd Field – Foundations of Screenwriting
·         Robert McKee –  Story
·         Blake Snyder – Save the Cat
·         Creativity, Inc
·         Andrew Stanton – TED talk on Story
·         The Site of Memory – Toni Morrison essay

Average Screenplay is 110 pages total

Act 1: 9-10 scenes (1-30 pages)
            Presents thesis, Ordinary world

Act 2: (31-84) (page 55 is the midpoint)
            Strange new world, Presents anti-thesis

Act 3: 85-110 pp
            Wisdom, Synthesis

More on Synthesis:
Hegel: The only way a battle could cease between a thesis and an antithesis was through the construction of a synthesis that would include elements from both sides and transcend the opposition, a transcendent “third” that is a new entity in which both are included.

Jung: The individual is faced with the necessity of recognizing and accepting what is different and strange as a part of his own life, as a kind of ‘also-I’.

How the subject has to recognize in the foreign power it fights the misrecognized part of its own substance – reconciliation of the subject with its alienated substance

We must see the character at work/home/play – play includes some special skill that can come to its full flowering – important in the synthesis

Movies as models of this structure:
  • ·         Moonstruck
  • ·         Star Wars
  • ·         Small Apartments
  • ·         Boogie Nights
  • ·         Ali
  • Toy Story (all of 'em)

Act 1:

Significance of opening image: metaphor of thesis

5 minutes into the movie: present a statement of theme, the basis of all decisions and the bigger idea of the movie

“Save the Cat” moments – you have to make people care – they need a problem they have to solve

Catalyst – the inciting incident 12 minutes in

Refusal of the call – individual vs. systemic problem, a period of indecision – character must leave Act 1 of their own accord, a decision is made!
·         Who will be the sounding board?
·         Who will be the mentor, supernatural aid?

Act 2: 25-30 minutes
·         Antithesis is presented (about 10 scenes)
·         B-story line begins (love story?)
·         The promise of the premise is given to the viewer in first half of second act
·         Characters bond and are tested, make friends and enemies
·         Introduce a new character just before the midpoint (p 55) – often there is a reversal of momentum here, tangible vs. spiritual goal conflict

Second half of Act 2: 9-10 scenes
o   Ideas fail, desperation grows
o   Friends abandon the hero
o   Consequences from earlier actions happen
o   Walls close in on hero (trash compactor in Star Wars)
o   All is lost – p 75 – called the Death Beat just before end of Act 2
§  Also death of mentor, loss of sounding board                       
§  Usually a “false” victory or defeat here – rock bottom
·         At 75-78 minutes
·         Visualizing moments – characters stare off into the distance, internal reflection, to go inward

At the end of Act 2 – what am I going to do? Find the courage to be the hammer, not the anvil – once this decision is made, it’s the breakaway from Act 2!

Act 3:
·         desire for wisdom to be achieved
·         To transcend opposition
·         A triumph of integration and wholeness
·         Combine knowledge and mistakes to succeed

One more thing: 5 final steps! Stack the odds against the hero and make the ending surprising as well as inevitable
·         Urgency -  beat the ticking clock
·         Surprise
·         New new plan
·         Crossing return threshold
·         Climax – falling with style

Coda? Denoument – not Deux ex machina!

If you have a problem making your plot have what it takes for the audience to care, go back to the beat right before the midpoint (at p 55) – find something there to be addressed or assimilated or overcome in the climax

Final image – opposite of opening image?

Why write story?
·         Contribute your own myth – make new mythologies!
·         You get a little window to tell your stories – what will be your story?

Friday, October 30, 2015

Update: 100 Poets for Change at Sundance Books!

You whom I could not save
Listen to me.
Try to understand this simple speech as I would be ashamed of another.
I swear, there is in me no wizardry of words.
I speak to you with silence like a cloud or a tree. – Dedication, Czeslaw Milosz

With these words, poet Melanie Perish opened our open mic in celebration of 100 Thousand
Poets for Change at Sundance Bookstore in Reno September 26. About 35 people, readers and writers, gathered for our first annual event which included a panel discussion of poetry  and change followed by an open mic reading.

Reno Poet Laureate Gailmarie Pahmeier and UNR professors and scholars Ann Keniston and Steve Gehrke discussed how poetry can enact change as well as be the change itself. The words of Juan Felipe Herrera, the US Poet Laureate, set the tone for the panel:

“Poetry is a call to action and it also is action. Sometimes we say, "This tragedy, it happened far away. I don't know what to do. I'm concerned but I'm just dangling in space." A poem can lead you through that, and it is made of action because you're giving your whole life to it in that moment. And then the poem — you give it to everyone. Not that we're going to change somebody's mind — no, we're going to change that small, three-minute moment. And someone will listen. That's the best we can do.” - Juan Felipe Herrera

Gailmarie Pahmeier encouraged the audience to read widely.  She read from a new edition of Kim Addonizio’s Jimmy & Rita and the poem Instead of a Shotgun by Carey Salerno, promoting caring for animals and the homeless.

As each reader stood at the podium to share a poem that spoke to them personally of change or political awareness, I relished the experience of being in a room of people busy with paying attention to the poem and sharing a compassion for others.

Steve Gerhke read The Nail by CK Williams:

it’s we who do such things, we who set the slant, embed the tip, lift the sledge and drive the nail,
drive the nail which is the axis upon which turns the brutal human world upon the world. -  The Nail, CK Williams

Poet Ann Keniston read Dedications by Adrienne Riche and spoke about the tension between the wish to change people’s minds via poetry and the sense of the difficulty of doing that—as something that energizes and animates a lot of recent poems by herself and others. 

What I love about a reading at Sundance Books is letting my eyes wander the spines and titles of books surrounding me as I listen to the reading. Outside Sundance Books roared Reno’s leather-studded motorcycles and their riders.  A gust of wind blew leaves off the trees in the courtyard outside the Victorian building that houses Sundance.  When Michael Branch read these lines from Stephen Dobyns’ poem How To Like It, I wondered at how this poet could write so well about my own unsettled desire and restlessness:

These are the first days of fall. The wind
at evening smells of roads still to be traveled,
while the sound of leaves blowing across the lawns
is like an unsettled feeling in the blood,
the desire to get in a car and just keep driving. – Stephen Dobyns, How To Like It

I realized that the poems we had heard, poems of change, political poems, shared this restlessness, dissatisfaction, and sincerity while resisting cynicism.  Everyone who participated in Reno’s Poets for Change event is already brainstorming ideas for next year’s celebration, excited to see where we can go with 100Thousand Poets for Change.

Wednesday, September 16, 2015

Poetry as Change, Refugees, our new Poet Laureate and 100 Thousand Poets for Change

“Poetry is a call to action and it also is action. Sometimes we say, "This tragedy, it happened far away. I don't know what to do. I'm concerned but I'm just dangling in space." A poem can lead you through that, and it is made of action because you're giving your whole life to it in that moment. And then the poem — you give it to everyone. Not that we're going to change somebody's mind — no, we're going to change that small, three-minute moment. And someone will listen. That's the best we can do.” - Juan Felipe Herrera

I met my friend at Coffeebar this morning – it was our first opportunity to catch up since she had returned from her first experience of Burning Man (see her beautiful article in The Tahoe Weekly). After she filled me in, I was surprised that she hadn’t heard about the horrible situation refugees in Europe were experiencing as they escaped war in Syria and other places. She'd been in another world. The news has pressed on me daily – and their helplessness in the face of brutality makes my own helplessness seem that much more insignificant.  What is our responsibility to stay informed on international updates?  How can we live a life that does not reinforce the inequalities that cause these problems? My friend asked “how can we live open to love? That’s the problem. No one wants these people who aren’t of their own tribe.”  I feel that I can’t make a turn without needing to reprimand myself for a choice I make on how I live.
Last weekend I was in Texas at my uncle’s memorial service.  He died suddenly last Tuesday.  How would I want to be spoken about by friends and family at the end of my life? What is important is what we do, actions we take, how we reach out to others, how we impact each other.  That’s what I took away from a weekend of reconnecting with cousins and relatives I hadn’t seen in over a decade.  They were open and welcoming to me and my brothers and family.  That’s what matters.

That’s why our new Poet Laureate Juan Felipe Herrerra inspires and comforts me as much as he does.  I met him last year when he came to the Writers in the Woods reading series at Sierra Nevada College to read his poetry with Jane Hirshfield.  His voice is soft and sure and listening to him read his poems made me want to sit down and free my own voice in the way he has let his voice free.  He was interviewed on NPR a few nights ago and spoke about poetry as action. A call to action, yes, but writing the poem, and the poem itself, is action. This is an antidote to my helplessness.

This idea of poetry as action and even change is the foundation of 100 Thousand Poets for Change, a national event happening September 26th. I’ve helped organize a local event at Sundance Books in Reno from 3-4:30 pm that Saturday afternoon.  A panel discussion will explore the idea of change and how poems can take on the idea of change.  An open mic will feature poems of change.  If you have been feeling helpless, come to our event on 9/26 and tend to the actions you take each moment. As my friend says, every small gesture makes a difference.