Winter is my favorite time of year. Partially because my birthday is in the new year, but mostly because the transition from December to January feels like a much-needed purge. This is when we let go of the old and believe transformation is possible.
At Christmas we dredge up old wounds with family. We think about the new year as a chance to be better. This is a period of resolution, renaissance and rebirth.
In the spirit of this, I want you to think of a person who has hurt you emotionally in the past. A person you have not been able to let go of for whatever reason.
Why do your memories of this still ache, and/or how were things left unresolved? Do you blame them or yourself? Or both?
I am asking you to go where you have refused to go before and to address this person/incident (and yourself) with the most honesty you can muster, even if it hurts.
Don’t specify who this person is or a specific incident, rather describe how they make/made you feel.
Use a minimum of 5 stanzas/paragraphs, OR, alternately, you can use 5 lines.
Doesn’t matter if you use a traditional form, free verse or prose blocks.
Address different questions/aspects in each paragraph/line.
Paragraph 1: Whose fault was it?
Paragraph 2: What were the results of the fallout?
Paragraph 3: Do you still think about them? Be honest.
Paragraph 4: How hard is/was it for you to love again?
Paragraph 5: What would you say to them now?
Does not have to be a romantic relationship. Supplement appropriate adjectives in the paragraph questions.
Most of us don’t start out reading Nietzsche, Kafka, or Joyce and with good reason—it isn’t fun!
When I was in middle school, I was obsessed with trashy romance novels (also, Harry Potter). My trashy tastes have since moved on to paranormal teen romance, which is weird because I essentially went from being a historical-adult-romance-reading teen to a paranormal-teen-romance-reading adult (funny how that works sometimes).
Now I don’t mean to put classic writers like Joyce down; after all, he gave us this gem: “The sea, the snotgreen sea, the scrotumtightening sea” (Ulysses). And he was one of the biggest literary pioneers of the 20th century, along with fellow modernists Gertrude Stein, Ezra Pound, Kafka, and Lorca.
Yes, arduous reads are absolutely worth the effort. After all, these are the texts that transform you from ‘just proficient’ to master. These are the texts that make you reach and pull and grow intellectually. I don’t think anyone would bother to argue against their value. Yet, plenty of people like to police reading habits if they happen to include garbage books.
This is something I would never have admitted to my classmates in grad school, but I don’t think I would have ended up with an MFA had I not taken an interest in salacious lady-porn-trash in the 5th grade. That was the catalyst for my love affair with reading. Despite this knowledge, I found myself asking this question during and after grad school quite a bit:
Is it okay to read unchallenging, garbage simply for entertainment value?
Okay, Joyce. We get it.
Fuck yes it is, and here’s why:
1. Challenging reads never go away.
Academic track or not, you will have to read taxing things you don’t care about for the rest of your life. It’s just a part of our existence, so you might as well enjoy what you read in your free time.
2. It will keep you inspired.
All of us avid readers/writers got here somehow, right? Maybe it was trashy romance or some cheesy, predictable mystery series. Whatever it is, I believe deep-down that everyone loves to read, and I’ve found successful ways of getting adamant, self-proclaimed non-readers to love it. It’s just a matter of finding something you connect with. There’s a reason 46% of romance readers read 1 book per week compared to the 5 books a year the typical American reads.
3. You will discover what sells.
I will never forget this life-changing advice a professor handed down in graduate school: Don’t be too high-brow to find out what sells. Part of his success as a famous novelist is attributed to reading best-sellers. As a writer, it will benefit you to have a grasp of what readers and publishers alike want. And if you happen to enjoy the “research,” so be it.
4. It provides you with sweet, sweet relief.
There are tons of psychological benefits to reading what you like. Stress relief is at the top of the list. Other benefits include natural memory loss prevention, increased empathy, sleep aid, improved writing skill, plus it’s a cost-effective form of entertainment compared to movies and certain outdoor activities.
5. You learn from it.
Even trash has an editor. If you want to ingrain grammar, spelling, and new vocabulary into your brain, keep reading that trash. You’ll also pick up naturally on the formula of the genre you like, which will make it easier for you to plan and write your novel.
6. It helps you escape reality.
“There is no frigate like a book.”—Emily Dickenson
Escaping reality might sound a lot like running away from your problems, but it’s the exact opposite. How many of us have turned to reading and writing after trauma? Your parents’ divorce, a family member’s death, surviving a natural disaster, undergoing physical or emotional abuse—even the necessary act of growing up is traumatic to some extent. Reading helps us look outside of ourselves and process these emotions and experiences. It lets us travel through space and time when we’re destitute. It keeps us from feeling alone, even if we are.
7. It empowers us.
All sorts of sexist tropes exist in trashy romance novels, and yet tons of women feel empowered by them. In Anne Browning Walker’s contribution to the Huffington Post blog,Why Smart Women Read Romance Novels, she says:
“Our society feels threatened by women having sex. Romance novels present the opposite view. Authors use sex scenes to present a healthy activity shared by two consenting adults who (in the end, if not at the moment) fall in love with each other. Heroines are sexually satisfied during each encounter. There’s a safe space to explore your fantasies and figure out what turns you on. Nothing dumb about that.”
This also goes for sci-fi novels with people of color protagonists, YA novels starring gay teens, and books like Crazy Rich Asians—one of the few novels straying from tokenism and asian stereotypes with western success. It’s kind of like Gossip Girl, but these kids put Serrena Vanderwoodsen’s and Chuck Bass’ fortunes to shame. The cool thing though, is that the book allows a large cast of asian characters to be vapid, hot-mess pieces of shit, which is pretty absent from mainstream media in the US. It also begs the question: Why are these types of works really considered trash in the first place?
8. “Good” is subjective.
What qualifies a book as “good”—or “bad” for that matter? You can check out the Goodreads and Amazon reviews or hit up the NYT bestsellers list to see what a whole bunch of people you’ve never met think. Perhaps, you should go with the literary canon pounded into you most of your life by people who’ve also had the literary cannon pounded into them?
Few acknowlege the gaping issues in the literary canon as well as the Modernist Movement I discussed earlier, which excluded black writers of the New Negro Movement (Harlem Rennaissance) at the time and appropriated West African art without citation because white writers considered this art “primitive.” (Yet they thought it was good enough to steal, lmao.) Yikes.
The point though is that it lacks inclusivity. When you can’t relate to a book, or you know your particular demographic is subjugated or excluded entirely, it makes it that much harder to enjoy. Make things simple and think for yourself. Just because your professor thinks it’s “good,” doesn’t mean they’re looking at the big picture.
9. Haters gonna hate.
If you’re in graduate school or a literary community, those in your coterie will try to shame you for reading trash. The high-brow, art school mentality is an unwitting tool of colonialism that ultimately limits the hater. But I digress. Don’t let other people decide what you should like because it will make you fucking miserable.
Let’s be real for a second though. Carrying trash around is embarrassing in these spaces. Can you imagine walking into an MFA student lounge with Twilight or Fifty Shades of Grey in your hand? Or any space for that matter? Hell no! You might as well tape a “make fun of me” sign on your back.
Still, you like what you like so if you want to avoid embarrassment, do what I do—cover that shit up with a false book cover from a more revered title that no one will want to talk about. E-books are probably the safest option, but personally, I need to hold a book in my hands.
10. It’s fun!
There is no greater joy in life than reading a book you can’t put down. So engrossing you carry it with you around the house, the office, or wherever you go “just in case.” Or you dream about going home all day to be with it. So good you lock yourself in a closet with a flashlight so you can soak it all in without interruption. This kind of reading isn’t a fun acticity so much as an addiction—and it’s a high worth chasing to the very last drop.
Q: What are you reading?
A: Currently, I’m on Book 2 of the Hex Hall series, which follows Sophie Mercer, a teen witch in her first year of boarding school. Only it’s not your average school.
Hecate Hall, or Hex Hall (as it’s been renamed by students), is full of magical beings. Sophie isn’t sure how she feels about sharing space with werewolves, fairies, shifters, and vampires—but she doesn’t have much of a choice.
Aside from being banished to Hex Hall for the rest of high school after accidently revealing herself to humans, Sophie’s situation becomes more unpromising when young witches begin turning up dead. And there are no leads as to who the killer might be.
What’s your favorite trash? Comment below to tell me what you’re reading!
One way to inspire those around you is to become a rockstar volunteer in your community. It looks great on your resume, sure, but the spiritual benefits far outweigh everything else.
If you’ve ever been in a tough spot, you probably understand just how important a tiny gesture can be to someone else. I experienced this kind of volunteerism firsthand after Hurricane Katrina left me, my mother, and younger sister homeless. The outpouring of love and support by total strangers made a terrible situation much more bearable, and it restored my faith in the inherent goodness of humanity.
Later, I had the life changing experience of giving back to the Boulder flood victims in 2013 through donations and cleanup efforts. That was when I realized Life’s strange and unpredictable nature, as well as her surprising joys. There are zero negatives when it comes to volunteering, and there are plenty of reasons to get involved locally.
Not sure how? Here are a few ways to start:
1. See if your company offers volunteer opportunities.
Build a positive reputation for you and your organization by banning together. Large corporations almost always have programs at local soup kitchens, 5k runs, and more. If not, this might be the perfect opportunity to lead the charge!
How many cans and packages of food are sitting in your pantry right now? And how many of those do you actually intend to use before the expiration date? Same goes for the clothes you haven’t touched in years hanging in your closet right now. Books, furniture, tools, bedding, etc. Make room for the new while helping others – it’s a win-win!
3. Call your local animal shelter.
While animal rescues always need monetary/supply donations, they also need volunteers. Adoption events are great if you love interacting with animals, and you’ll get to witness the kindness of strangers. So what are you waiting for? Call your shelter and ask how you can help now.
4. Use your craftiness to help others.
Do you know how to knit or crochet? Homeless shelters accept clothing donations like hats, socks, and whatever you can create. Consider knitting hats for chemo patients and donating to your local hospital as well.
5. Hit up Habitat for Humanity.
Habitat for Humanity always has open projects. This an excellent change to meet new, like-minded people and learn a new skill.
6. Offer up your special skills.
Are you a writer? Designer? Engineer? Nurse? Whatever you are, you can help by donating your time and special skills. You can even get a tax deduction for it. Just make sure you keep track of your hours.
7. Pay attention.
There is always a way to help the people around you. Maybe you have a neighbor struggling to work to full time and afford childcare. Or maybe your local park is littered with trash. If someone seems troubled, ask them how you can help.
8. Small gestures.
If you’re limited on time, there are small things you can do everyday to make a better world. Simply smiling at people on the street can be uplifting. Happiness is contagious after all. When you see someone struggling to carry something in or outside, open the door for them. Someone recently paid for my coffee in the drive thru, and I did the same for the person behind me. This small gesture changed my entire mood for the rest of the day.
While there are a number of volunteer matching websites, I recommend getting in touch with local charities and organizations to find out how you can help. Do what you can when you can – you never know what a small gesture might mean to someone else.
Getting a degree in creative writing is both the best and worst decision I’ve ever made, and I wouldn’t have it any other way.
A lot of amazing and crappy things have happened along my writing journey. I was one of 5 poets accepted into my kickass MFA program my year. I now have a stable career as a full-time national magazine editor. But getting here wasn’t easy.
I’ve had stressful periods of unemployment that’ve made me seriously question the value of my education. I’ve had to borrow money, network (which is a nightmare for an introvert), face countless rejections, and a whole list of undignified things I won’t get into.
There is a lot to consider and a lot of risk when you decide to major in something like creative writing, painting, theater, dance, singing, or any type of fine art. So what have I learned between undergraduate and now? If I could go back in time and give myself advice, here’s what I would say:
1. Find what you love early.
Halfway through undergraduate, I finally asked myself: “What do I love? What will make me happy every day?” Many of us feel that happiness is a luxury, especially in these uncertain economic times. And by the time I asked myself these questions and switched majors, my classmates were ahead of me in pretty much every way, including graduate school applications, craft level, foundational knowledge, required reading, performance, and networking. It’s always good to be practical and weigh your options, but try to find a way to make your passions work for you instead of repressing them or being negative. Talk to people doing what you want to do and find out how they did it. Figure out what you can do with a CW degree if plan A fails.
2. Pursue it with everything you have.
Once you find out how your professors and other writers you admire got to where they are, hatch a game plan and ask the hard questions. Is your goal to go on and get an MFA or PhD? To teach? To write and edit? Be a celebrated novelist? Go for it! And whatever you do, do not give up. When you make that decision and act on it every day, everything will fall into place.
3. Don’t be afraid to experiment.
Ever since I was a child, I’ve had this longtime fantasy of becoming a revered novelist whose work would live on for hundreds of years in true Shakespearian glory. So what happened? Well aside from the fact that I wasn’t even a poet or playwright at the time, all of the intro level fiction classes filled up before I could get into one. So I was forced to wait for the next semester and in the meantime take poetry and screenwriting courses. And boy, was I terrified. Little did I know that my first poetry class would change the entire trajectory of my life. Later, in graduate school, I went out on a limb and tried a creative nonfiction class and fell in love with that too. What I’m saying is that you should always try new things and push yourself out of your comfort zone. If you’re afraid or uncomfortable, it means something great is around the corner!
4. Let go of the ego.
As someone who has both taken and taught many an intro-level creative writing class, one of the best things you can do for yourself is leave the ego at the classroom door. No one is trying to hurt your feelings – quite the opposite. If you truly want to get better at this craft and make a living at it, you have to be open to criticism. When I was younger, this was an especially hard pill to swallow. You will never ever stop learning; you will never ever be at the finish line, and this is something all great writers know. If you get into freelancing, you will have to learn to be intuitive and figure out what your editor expects/wants and deliver it. If you want to write a successful book, you will have to understand what your readers like and don’t like. When you look at constructive criticism as a tool of success, critiques will be much easier to deal with.
5. Know what you’re getting into.
As you’re probably well aware, creative writing is not a lucrative field. On top of that, it is extremely competetive. Only a small few go on to earn PhDs, and out of those, few are offered full-time professorships. You will experience tons of rejection along the way from your workshop peers, you professors, the programs you want to get into, and from publishers.
One of my graduate school professors kept a massive binder full of rejection letters from publishers he submitted to. He is now an extremely successful novelist, but he keeps the rejections to show students how many “no’s” you’ll hear before you hear “yes”. Without publications, you don’t have much of a future as a creative writing professor, so you need to constantly submit your work. Eventually, someone will say YES, and you will be reminded of why all of this is worth it.
6. More rejection.
The first year I applied to graduate schools, every single one rejected me. That stung quite a bit, but my portfolio was shit, and I knew it. Since you can only apply once a year to MFA programs, I got an office job. I did that for a year, and it made me realize how badly I wanted that MFA. I worked and worked on that portfolio. I re-took the GRE as well as the classes I hadn’t done so well in. I went to my former teachers for advice and letters of rec. I made sure my personal essay reflected my personality and my passion for poetry in a creative way. When I applied the next year, I got into 3 great programs! What I learned from that is that you can choose to let rejection get you down, or you can use it to motivate you. In the end, that year of sitting out helped me realize what I wanted and made me count my blessings when it finally happened.
7. Be adaptable.
This is the strongest piece of advice I can give. Learn everything you can about everything. Read constantly. Concentrate on your craft. Build a portfolio that you can distribute after you graduate or start doing freelance gigs while you’re still in school. If you don’t get into graduate school or become the next JK Rowling right away, you need to have a backup plan. Freelancing is a great way to make money, and you can even work from home. But most companies don’t care about your short story. They want marketing and ad copy or articles on business, beauty, fitness, tech, etc. If you love fitness or tech, write about it! Also, practice writing on topics you know nothing about. If you can do that and get fast at it, you’ll be just fine.
8. There isn’t a limit to the writing club.
A huge flaw many of us have when pursuing our dreams is believing there are only so many spots for success at the table. Yes, only a few students will be accepted to such and such program. Yes, only a few of the PhDs from that class will be offered full-time jobs when they graduate. But if I’ve learned anything, it’s that you can have whatever you want in life if you work for it. That doesn’t necessarily mean you will get it on your first try. Sometimes you have to prove just how badly you want something before others listen, but eventually, they will listen.
There is much more to be said about creative writing degrees, but these 8 points are a great place to begin. Don’t be afraid of taking risks in life, especially when you’re young. Find your joy, and make it your everyday.
Until next time!
Content Specialist | Editor | Poet | Dog Mom | From Nola