Month: July 2011

Soaking in writing

the author, many years ago

This post is #7 in a series of 50 dedicated to the art and life of writing, in support of the 50 for 50 Project to benefit WriteGirl. If you like it, or if you think it could have been improved by a better writing education for its author, please give generously. And pass it on.

A common thread runs through the backstories of superstars, no matter what their fields of accomplishment: growing up, they spent a lot of time soaking in x.

Musicians grow up hearing a lot of music. Artists are raised amidst art. Men and women of science began as boys and girls of science, talking about something besides the weather or America’s Most Wanted around the dinner table.

I grew up around writers.

My father and grandfather were writers, and they hung out around other men, and yes, they were all men back then, who were writers. On Saturdays, they gathered at a little coffee shop on the corner of Rush and Bellevue in Chicago’s Near North Side to kibbitz and, in my writerly imagination, enjoy hamburger sandwiches and coffee, old-school style. And yes, to smoke, of course. Everyone smoked back then.

My memories of Dad and Gramps don’t all have to do with writing, but a surprising number of the most pungent ones do. Most mental images of my dad have him looking down, either at a yellow, letter-sized “legal” pad (his paper since I first understood these things) or at some piece of reading material, the former on the floor, leaned back against the couch in the den that served as his bedroom during Divorced Dad Weekends, the latter in the tub. (As a side note, this may account for my fascination with the film noir Laura, whose writer-character we first meet in the tub, typing on a machine perched atop a board serving as a makeshift desk.)

I rarely saw my grandfather writing; I was an only grandchild until age 5, and he spent whatever time he and Gram were allotted with me fully engaged in some kind of merrymaking, talking, or (bless his heart) shopping. Often for books. But Gramps always had the study of my dreams: Mid-Century Awesome, with a massive and elegant custom wall unit of interlocking shelves, nooks, and whatnot for his books, magazines, files, and, of course, his typewriter return, which sat just to the left of his writer-writing desk at a perpendicular angle.

The ubiquitous accommodation of and proximity to writing made writing seem like the most natural activity in the world. It was not a matter of being easy or hard; it just was. One did it, and a lot of it, just as one did a lot of eating and sleeping and walking.

This might be the greatest gift WriteGirl gives: to let a young writer soak in it. The girls are given their own journals to write in. Then they meet with their mentors once weekly, at a coffee shop, quite often, to write, to do the exercises, but also to talk about writing, and all the work that goes into and around writing to support the writing.

The coffee shops are not O’Connell’s but the ritual is the same: we are writers; let us spend time together, telling each other our stories.



the author's yellow-themed bedroom in 1971

This post is #6 in a series of 50 dedicated to the art and life of writing, in support of the 50 for 50 Project to benefit WriteGirl. If you like it, or if you think it could have been improved by a better writing education for its author, please give generously. And pass it on.

For most of my youth, I enjoyed the unbelievable luxury of having not only my own room, but my own bathroom.

On top of all that physical space, for the first five and a half years of my life, I was an only child, adding an extra buffer of psychic and emotional space around me.

I understand that a writer writes, period, sitting or standing, in peace or amidst chaos, by brilliant natural light or candlelight. Whatever it takes.

I also know that were it not for the unbelievable luxury of all that room, I would probably not have grown up to become a writer. Writers need room of some kind, either the kind they are given or the kind they stake out for themselves, and preferably both, and plenty of it. (And yes, I’m all for the actual, delineated-by-a-door-that-closes kind of room, too; after much futzing and fudging that line in various partnerships during my adult life, I’ve finally added it, in ink, to the list of non-negotiables.)

Yes, stimulation and input are important. Of course, it’s important to read anything you can get your hands on, and to be taught to know the good from the bad. Please, accept that you’re a person, fellow introverts, and learn to co-exist in space with others. Preferably sometime before I got the hang of it, in my 40s.

But nothing grows without room. Not ideas, not flowers, not love, and definitely not writing.


Frrrrriday Rrrrroundup! #62: 50-for-50 edition

This post is #5 in a series of 50 dedicated to the art and life of writing, in support of the 50 for 50 Project to benefit WriteGirl. If you like it, or if you think it could have been improved by a better writing education for its author, please give generously. And pass it on.

All of this week’s entries in the Frrrrriday Rrrrround-up were written in response to and support of the 50-for-50 project. I thank you, fellow writers!

Delia Lloyd reflects on how middle age seems to bring with it the joys of discovering philanthropy. I couldn’t agree more.

Daniel Shannon weighs in with a lovely tribute to the two women teachers who made them the (glorious) writer he is today.

Jodi Womack extracts early lessons from the project that hadn’t yet occurred to me. She’s good like that, is Jodi.

A writer/marketer who also happens to be a mom goes into the importance of teaching all children a love of writing.

Finally, the adorable Alice Bradley writes way too many nice things about me and the project.

And in case you didn’t know, we have interviews up on the 50-for-50 blog with the first five of my favorite inspirational women-who-write:

They’re lively and wonderful interviews, thanks in no small part to my friend Marilyn Maciel who basically came up with the interview questions after I begged her. But I did beg politely!

Please, please, tell your friends, pass along useful information, use what you will, and most importantly, give what you can.


Video largely by the unstoppable team of Heather Stobo & Lisa Casoni.

Music is “St. Louis Tickle,” by The Heftone Banjo Orchestra, Brian Heffernan, Director

Poetry Thursday: Finding your voice

art by nikki mcclure

This post is #4 in a series of 50 dedicated to the art and life of writing, in support of the 50 for 50 Project to benefit WriteGirl. If you like it, or if you think it could have been improved by a better writing education for its author, please give generously. And pass it on.

You begin
by following
the ones who went

Step by step
you walk,
straining to find
the right set of footprints,
for the trails lead everywhere,
Up mountains,
through thickets,
into caves
and crevasses,
clearly the work of those
crazy, spelunking limericists,
marveling at the wonders
the giants have left
in their wake,
carved into trees
chipped into stones
blooming in rows
or artfully planted
to look random.

The maps,
they never seem to work

Is this the lake?
Was I supposed to turn there?
This road seems so much narrower
than the one in the picture,
than the one in the song,
than the one in my head.

I must be lost,
you think.
I will wander this land
for all eternity,
traveling in circles,
looping back on myself,
around and around.

I will never get There.

And then one day,
the light slants down
at a particular angle
which you both notice
and do not
and the air feels familiar
but completely different
and there are no other footsteps
but yours
and you are walking,
no, you are walking,
blazing a trail
for the next intrepid soul,
scattering your own seeds
and songs
and fairy messages
along the way.


Image inside the frame by Nikki McClure, one of a series of pieces from her beautiful yearly calendars. You can get it in a luxurious, desktop-sized image of inspiration with a $15 contribution to the 50-for-50 project on IndieGoGo, through September 13, 2011. After that, no dice, Bryce.


Award, schmaward

two girls who used to think awards mattered

This post is #3 in a series of 50 dedicated to the art and life of writing, in support of the 50 for 50 Project to benefit WriteGirl. If you like it, or if you think it could have been improved by a better writing education for its author, please give generously. And pass it on.

Believe it or not, I was sort of a nerd back in the day.

Not the very smartest nerd, of course. Just the almost-smartest nerd from a fairly shallow pool, and one whom the nuns felt would be the best all-around candidate for some award that some nice alumna had decided to gift the school with.

I’m not being coy about the name of the award; I truly do not remember it. While it seemed like the high point of my eight-grade year, my culminating season of a pretty winning eight (soon to be followed by a near-disastrous four, especially socially), I cannot for the life of me remember the name of that award, or what it purported to reward me for. I don’t even remember if there was money involved, and I almost always remember money.

Here’s what I do remember from my eighth-grade year at Sacred Heart Elementary School on Sheridan Road in Chicago, IL: Frances Kent.

Mrs. Kent was my eighth-grade English teacher, and the first teacher I remember who specifically, carefully, and generously urged me on to write. Perhaps she saw some promise there. Perhaps she felt herself to be something of a kindred spirit. In hindsight, it’s clear that she was a Second Wave Hot Ladynerd, what with her fabulous legs kicking out from under her knee-length pleated skirts, and her freckled nose, and her little round nerd spectacles.

Whatever it was that made her forgo what was surely a better-paying job in pretty much any other field where writing and smarts were required, I’m eternally grateful to her for her service, and her name is forever engraved upon my heart as surely as her hand is visible in my work. As my friend Daniel says, “…without women writers, I wouldn’t exist.”


The first rule of writing

write what you LIKE, by austin kleon

This post is #2 in a series of 50 dedicated to the art and life of writing, in support of the 50 for 50 Project to benefit WriteGirl. If you like it, or if you think it could have been improved by a better writing education for its author, please give generously. And pass it on.

I always hated that whole “Write what you know” thing. I didn’t know jack shit from jack shinola when I first picked up a pencil, and I doubt anyone would have enjoyed The Highly-Limited World of a Five-Year-Old Middle-Class White Girl from Chicago (Harper & Row, 1966). Better that I should make up not-entirely-sensical stories about Russian princesses and doll villages and what happened to Ken when the grown-ups left us unattended to play Barbies.

But there’s something more to this idea of writing what you like: it makes things juicy. Juicy-messy, but anyone who’s ever had one of those Christmastime pears from Harry & David knows how awesome that can be. Writing what you like instead of just what you know is like starting in the middle, where the action is. You’re not ramping up with a lot of exposition or PC BS; you’re diving right into to the wacko of life. And I don’t care how stuffy or sane or normal or straight anyone seems on the outside, on the inside, there’s a whole lot of wacko going on. Count on it.

Every time this blog has gotten boring, or the newsletter, or the column, or anything else I’ve written, it’s been because I was trying to do things A Certain Way. To give people more of what they wanted, so I could get something. What people and what they wanted, I had no idea; what I was trying to get, though, was always one of the same two things: attention and love. Sometimes in the form of money, sometimes ink, sometimes (ugh) celebrity.

And every time my writing has gotten interesting, it’s because I’ve gotten back to talking about what interests me. Which changes. Like people.

You knew that already, though. Things only seem to stay the same; you know that they don’t, that the price of pretending they do means living in a world that doesn’t really exist, and looking a whole lot like some sad Baby Jane nightmare relic of a Hollywood that never was.

Write what you like, and you’ve got the beginnings of work you can love.


P.S. Did you know there’s a whole other thing going on at the fundraising blog, too? Interviews with my fave old and new ladywriters. First up: the outstandingly helpful, funny and PROLIFIC Bonnie Gillespie.

Image inside the frame by Austin Kleon, one of a series of wise slides from his talk, “How to Steal Like an Artist (and Nine Other Things No One Told Me).” You can get it in a luxurious, desktop-sized image of inspiration with a $15 contribution to the 50-for-50 project on IndieGoGo, through September 13, 2011. After that, you’re on your own.

The love you take

the author and members of

This post is #1 in a series of 50 dedicated to the art and life of writing, in support of the 50 for 50 Project to benefit WriteGirl. If you like it, or if you think it could have been improved by a better writing education for its author, please give generously. And pass it on.

Almost four years ago to the day, I went to a lunch that changed my life.

The organizer, Bob McBarton, had been after me (gently) to attend one of his literary “salons” for some time. Every time I read the email announcements, I was tempted: he brought in some really fantastic people to talk books, politics, and culture, around a pretty sweet table.1

But when I’d look at the accompanying attendee list, always lengthy Word attachments, to accommodate the weight of the bios, I’d chicken out. Never mind the guest speakers, even the attendees were luminaries in their various fields, each of them hugely accomplished, and in “real” endeavors, not this b.s. futzing around I’d done in advertising and acting and my silly little blog. They’d published books (multiple books, in some cases) tried significant cases, produced award-winning films, run cities. One of them had overcome physical obstacles that made my Crohn’s onset look like a paper cut, and gone on to succeed in multiple high-profile positions in multiple incredibly tough-to-crack industries.

Finally, though, my curiosity got the better of me, and I went. I wound up seated between the mayor of a nearby town and a couple of nice, unassuming ladies in the general vicinity of my age. Of course, I was way too uninformed to talk about the homeless problem with hizzoner, so I turned my attention to the women, Keren Taylor and Allison Deegen, the executive and associate directors, respectively, of a local nonprofit called WriteGirl. They’d spent the better part of the past six years helping hundreds of teenage girls not only get through high school and into college, but become confident, well-read, joyous communicators.

I was talking about changing the world through writing; they were doing it.

One girl at a time.

* * * * *

There’s a little test I use when I’m coming up with something, an essay, a song, a poem, a talk, and trying to get at a Truly True Truth: if it makes me either (1), laugh out loud; or (2), burst into tears, it’s a keeper. Because as you well know if you’ve ever lived through a highly emotional time, an illness, a death, a natural disaster, a knock-down-drag-out with your honey, laughter and tears sit so close to each other, they might as well be making out in the balcony.

I have cried at every WriteGirl workshop I’ve been to. I’ve also rarely laughed so joyously as I have there, nor felt more hope for humanity. These are amazing girls, all of them. They vary in their levels of introversion and extraversion, boldness and shyness, just like the rest of us, but each of them has been 100% present and committed at every workshop I’ve been to. They throw themselves into the exercises, even when the exercises challenge them or feel a little weird at first. They show up, week after week, to work with their mentors in between the monthly group workshops. They engage, they ask questions, they play, and they write. Oh, boy do they write, and how. You want to laugh and cry, brother, you get yourself to a WriteGirl meeting.2

No less amazing are the women who volunteer their time to mentor the girls, to organize the workshops, to corral the bazillion details that go into running an organization like this. Need I tell you that money is always, always tight? It is. What Keren and her team manage to do on the money they receive is matched only by the astounding calm with which they manage the constant doubt of where the next buck is coming from.

For once, I want these wonderful women not to worry: I want them to know that $50,000 is coming, and in 50 days, and from you. From us.

* * * * *

Did you know that everyone and his brother’s band is doing a Kickstarter-type campaign these days? It’s true, look it up.

Well, I’m throwing my hat into the ring. And possibly what’s directly beneath it.3

For my 50th birthday, I want to raise $50,000 for WriteGirl. In 50 days. So let’s get cracking.

There’s an IndieGoGo page you should go to right now. You’ll see various giveaways for various contribution levels.

Some of it is new and fun and exceptionally affordable. I had a number of designer and artist friends whip up some custom desktop wallpapers. There are MP3s! Of some of your favorite songs, and some of mine, all from women artists!

Some of it is stuff you cannot get anywhere else. Most pointedly, I do not do any copywriting anymore, but for a price, you can hire me to write your bio. Or your own silly-but-effective anthem, or your own poem that will make you cry. (Or one of the girls will, your choice!)

Or, if you’re really loaded and looking for a way to relieve yourself of $50,000 in a hurry, I will dedicate my first book to you. (Which would also mean I’d feel obligated to finally put one out there, so if you’re one of the people who’ve been patiently waiting and you have a friend with 50,000 spare dollars, hit ’em up.)

You can also donate without taking a “gimme,” if you’re so inclined. Or buy something as a gift for someone else, their own personalized-by-me Field Notes book, for example. An anniversary or birthday song. A love poem. It would be very much in the whole giving-is-getting spirit of things.

Which brings me to my last point: this is not for me, but it is entirely for me.

* * * * *

This whole project has been a combination of long-term thinking and short-term scramble.

Amazingly, so far, things have been falling into place, but that’s the angels’ work, not mine. Because while I was not too scared to envision myself bald, or even to envision raising what is, and there’s no other way to put this, a fuckton of money in an insanely short time, I was too scared until recently to ask for help.

When I finally did, the most amazing thing of all happened: people said “yes.” My friend Mike Monteiro said, Yes, I’ll make another run of the “Old” t-shirts for you, and we’ll give all the money to the girls. (link coming soon!) My friend-turned-client Jean MacDonald said, Yes, you can give away copies of TextExpander, how many do you want? Jim Coudal said, Yes you can have a bunch of Field Notes, and by the way, you might want to customize them, and here’s what we use.

My friends Lisa and Heather said, Yes, we’ll make a video, and you can stay at our place while we shoot. My friend Jennifer offered up her house for the party, her HOUSE.

My friends Jason & Jodi and Peleg and Judy and Adam immediately pledged financial support, and in amounts that took my breath away. My friend Tim offered up his team to build the website and then, when I waited too long and missed my window, my other friend Gabriel stepped in to save me. Every friend I’ve approached, Danielle and Dyana, Alice and Eden, Pace & Kyeli, Michelle and Jill, Josh and Donna, plus dozens more I’m forgetting now and hundreds more who signed up for the early notification list said, Yes, we’ll help you, and yes, we’ll get that money for these girls.

As I’ve said about myself before, I’m a pretty loquacious motherfucker, but when it comes to describing how this outpouring of love and support have affected me, I am at a loss for actual words.4 They’re inadequate, or at least, they are in this form and in this moment when I am, to put it mildly, somewhat knackered.

That I have such friends and in such quantities is remarkable. What is left now is for me to rise to the occasion, to try being just as remarkable.

For the next 50 days, I will be blogging and emailing and tweeting and calling. I will lay aside my fear of asking and ask. Oh, boy, will I ask!

And at the end of this road, whether I fail or succeed at raising every cent of this money, and don’t kid yourself, failure is always an option, if I have given it my all, I will receive my gift: to have given my all in pursuit of something greater than me.

But DAMN, I want the money for those girls, too. So let’s get crackin’, shall we?


Things you can do right now to support the “50 for 50” Project:

1Hey, food counts. Just sayin’.

2Of course, if you’re actually a brother, you’ll have to take my word for it. It’s a dude-free zone, except for a few actors who volunteer to play the male roles in the presentation at the end of the screenwriting workshop.

3That’s right: if we raise the whole $50K, I’m shaving my head at the culminating shindig. BALD, BABY. To the skin.

4Laughing and incoherent blubbering, however, I have been doing quite a bit. I can barely open up my email these days without bursting into tears of joy. This is a mighty fine thing, although it draws stares in coffee shops.