real writer

Last week I had one of those days where putting one word down after another felt like trying to tap dance through the La Brea tar pits in steel-toed boots. No matter how hard I tried to eek out a story, the only thing of interest to come from my writing session was the acrobatic show put on by the gray squirrel who likes to pilfer peanuts from the bird feeder outside my window before the blue jays can get to them. One had to applaud his moxie—lord knows, I didn’t have any.

Back when I first started out as a writer a day like that would’ve paralyzed me the rest of the week simply because the judge’s voice in my head (who strangely sounds like Fred Mertz from I Love Lucy) bellowed: “That’s it, Ethel. The girl’s a fraud, I tell you—a genuine, bona fide fraud.”  Go ahead, add the laugh track if it makes the experience more authentic for you.  I don’t mind.

It wasn’t until a few years later I had the good fortune to attend a panel discussion between authors Dean Bakopoulos and Charles Baxter at the Fox Cities Book Festival. Bakopoulos asked Baxter about his apprenticeship as a writer, and Baxter replied he spent many nights lying awake waiting for the Fraud Police to knock on his door. He also said no matter how accomplished a writer you are the Fraud Police never stop looking for you. Needless to say, I found this insight to be both enlightening and scary as hell.

So how does one drown out Fred or tell the Fraud Police to take a hike when they threaten to break down the door?

In Charles Baxter’s “Full of It”—a letter to a young writer, collected in Frederick Busch’s anthology Letters to a Fiction Writer, he suggests:

To be a novelist or short story writer, you first have to pretend to be a novelist or short story writer. By great imaginative daring, you start out as Count No-Count. Everybody does. Everyone starts out as a mere scribbler. Proust got his start as a pesky dandified social layabout with no recognizable talents except for making conversation and noticing everybody. So what do you do? You sit down and pretend to write a novel by actually trying to write one without knowing how to do it.

Again, sage advice worth consideration.  Still, after some sleepless nights of my own, I came to the conclusion that maybe the first step one should take is to actually look Fred or Sgt. Fraud in the eye and see him for who he really is behind all the bluster—FEAR. Fear of not being able to deliver. Fear of letting down your loved ones. Fear of being told you’re wasting your time. Fear of being the most boring, unintelligent storyteller on the planet, maybe even the universe. Fear of the dark, icky stuff you’ll uncover. Fear nobody will read your novel/story/poem/essay. Fear that everyone will read your novel/story/poem/essay. You get the picture.

In her book, Big Magic: Creative Living Beyond Fear, Elizabeth Gilbert says “fear is always triggered by creativity, because creativity asks you to go into realms of uncertain outcome. This is nothing to be ashamed of. It is, however, something to be dealt with.” Perhaps if one accepts fear as part of the creative process, it becomes easier to acknowledge its presence and move forward, especially on those days when the words seem so few and distant.

What do you think?  How do you stay motivated when the Fraud Police come knocking on your door? Feel free to leave a comment.  I’d love to hear from you.

Photo credit: Photo by Ryan McGuire on

I’m not sure what it is about the miscellany of how writers and other artists live their daily lives that’s always fascinated me.  I know better than to expect anything earth-shattering—and yet, somehow, it’s a comfort to know someone as accomplished as Stephen King has to find time to take the dog out just like the rest of humanity. 

Back when I first started out, I treated myself to a day planner that included photographs of famous writers busy at work in their homes. The photographer, Jill Krementz, was the wife of the late Kurt Vonnegut.  She, if anyone, ought to know what it’s like to live with a writer.  God bless her soul.

My favorite photograph in the planner is one taken of Susan Minot sitting at a little secretary desk that’s wedged between her refrigerator and what looks to be a pantry or make-shift bookcase. It still speaks to me to this day not because Susan is scribbling away on her notepad, but because her child’s artwork and fingerprints are on the fridge right beside the magnetic poetry tiles.

I suppose it’s easy to romanticize the creative life. We imagine Kerouac on the road or Virginia Woolf retreating to a room of her own or Ernest Hemingway living the dream down in Key West.  There’s this strange aura we place around writers.  We want mystery. We want magic.  In fact, I’ve never been to an author reading where one, if not all, of the following questions hasn’t been asked:

Can you tell us a little about where you write your stories?

Do you write first thing in the morning or are you a night owl?

How about word count?  Do you shoot for thousand every single day?

Ah, and yes—where do you get your ideas from?

Everybody leans in waiting for some kind of revelation to take place.  The author stands behind the podium shifting her weight from one foot to the other as she tries to find a creative way to make jotting down chapter notes on the back of a grocery receipt while she waits in the car for her son to get out of band practice sound exotic.  Depending on the day, maybe it is. 

The author Cynthia Newberry Martin has a wonderful feature on her website called Catching Days. Since 2009, she’s invited a different author each month to share an essay on what it’s like to live a day in his/her writing life.  Besides the photographs in my planner, these essays have become a life line for me, especially on the days when it feels as though life and work are in a constant tug-of-war with one another.  I encourage you to read them.  They really do bring everything into perspective.    

curious dino

“Curiosity is, in great and generous minds, the first passion and the last.”

–Samuel Johnson

Last week I had the opportunity to spend a morning playing with my two grandsons. The oldest is three.  He loves dinosaurs and Play-doh and is full of questions:

“Grammy, do you think Velociraptors can live in space?”

“Grammy, do you know how snow is made?”

“Grammy, do sharks have to brush their teeth?”

And from his little brother who just turned one a few months ago and is awfully proud he’s finally mastered the art of walking on his own: “What’s that?  What’s that?” as he drops toy after toy in my lap.

I love watching the wonder come over the boys’ faces as I try my best to answer their questions, which often prompts more questions, until finally they are satisfied and go off to nibble on a cracker.

Sometimes I find it disheartening that as we grow older, we seem to forget what it’s like to follow our curiosity.  We get bogged down by rules, of how it is we need approach that big ol’ monster we call the ‘real world’ and keep it locked in its cage.  One could say the same when it comes to writing.

Often writers, especially new writers, go for the safety net. They may read a craft article or be encouraged by a writing instructor to write what they know.  Sure, on the surface it sounds like it makes sense.  Each time we sit down at the desk or computer we bring with us everything that has attached itself to us, like lint on a sock.  Flannery O’Connor even said if one survived childhood one had enough material to last a lifetime.

The question is, though, how much do we really know?  Do we know enough to sustain a novel or short story?  Will what we know be as interesting to our readers as it is to us—or worse, what if what we know isn’t even interesting at all?  I know how to make a pretty mean chicken noodle stir-fry, but I’m pretty sure nobody wants to read about it.

Back in February I came across an article in LitHub written by Emily Temple, which complied a list of thirty-one famous authors who gave their take on these very questions.  Of course, the answers varied, but all seemed wise.  The response given by Ken Kesey, which was taken from his article,Remember This: Write What You Don’t Know,” published by The New York Times back in 1989, gave a new perspective to this idea of writing only what you know:

“One of the dumbest things you were ever taught was to write what you know. Because what you know is usually dull.  Remember when you first wanted to be a writer?  Eight or 10 years old, reading about thin-lipped heroes flying over mysterious viny jungles toward untold wonders?  That’s what you wanted to write about, about what you didn’t know.  So.  What mysterious time and place don’t we know?”

The last time I spoke with my daughter on the phone she said my grandsons had decided to build themselves a spaceship constructed out of their mini Paw Patrol couch and a few living room pillows. The oldest manned the controls from his brother’s electronic learning table, while the youngest sat in the back asking “What’s that?  What’s that?” I wonder if they found any Velociraptors.

Where will your curiosity take you this week?


Photo credit: Photo by Hello I’m Nik on Unsplash


How do I know which point-of-view (POV) to use when writing my story?  It’s a question I’ve heard over and over again in workshops and/or critique groups I’ve participated in.  And yes, I’ve raised my hand alongside everyone else in hopes that someday a profound, no-fail formula will sprout up to demystify it for us all.  Sad to say, I haven’t come across one yet.  In the meantime, here a few things to consider when making the choice of who can best tell your story:

Point-of-View centers around two decisions one must make up-front:

  1. Whose story is this? From whose perspective will the story be told?
  2. How much distance will the POV character/reader have from the events of the story?

Point-of-View can be broken down into four categories:


Seems pretty obvious, but in first-person the main character is referred to as “I.”  The character can either be the protagonist, a participant, or if it suits your fancy, a disinterested observer.

Most times the first-person POV is written in the past tense, simply because the narrator must know how the story will end, which means he/she can never die in the story—that is, unless the narrator is a ghost or some other-worldly being.

The main advantage to writing in first-person is the intimacy it provides the reader.  The story unfolds simultaneously for both character and reader, thus allowing the reader to personally invest in the story.

This, however, can also be considered a disadvantage, since the reader is then restricted to only the knowledge and/or information the POV already possesses and makes the character unreliable at best.

There are a few other things to consider when you choose first-person. The POV character must be in every scene; otherwise, there’s no story.  Also, the POV character can never physically describe him/herself from the outside. Everything must rely on introspection—that is, unless there’s a mirror or shiny surface nearby.

Still, if you ask me, the intimacy and the degree of emotional resonance the first-person can create for the reader–well, it might be worth giving it a try.


In second-person, the POV character is referred to as “you” or “your.”

The one main advantage to the second-person POV is that it allows the reader to totally immerse and become a participant in the story.  This works well for shorter pieces, such as flash fiction, but can be difficult to maintain over, say, 300-pages.

Second-person can also be used to step in for a first-person narrator who feels alienated from him/herself.  Many of the stories in Lorrie Moore’s collection, Self-Help fall into this category.  Check them out and see how they make you feel as a reader.  What do you notice?

Third-Person Limited

The third-person limited character is referred to as “he” or “she.”

Third-person limited allows the reader to focus more on the story at hand rather than on the specific worldview of the narrator.  You also have the ability to withhold information to maintain suspense.

One disadvantage, of course, is the perceived distance between the narrator and reader.  Yet, there are different lens at the author’s disposal:

  1. Close Third-Person, which resembles first-person in that the events are narrated from a point closely related to that of one character but told in plain English instead of in the character’s own diction. To read an example of close third-person, try Mary Gaitskill’s “Tiny Smiling Daddy.
  2. Third-person Objective, which uses a cinematic approach, describing the events from a camera-like perspective where the reader is limited to what can be seen and/or heard without going into the consciousness of any of the characters. A good example of third-person objective is Ernest Hemingway’s “Hills Like White Elephants.”

You’ll find that most contemporary literature is written in third-person.  It could be because it’s the most forgiving.

Third-Person Omniscient

The third-person omniscient narrator is not a character in the story, but simply the all-knowing presence telling the story as it plays out. The reader has the ability to observe the story from many angles and perspectives at once.  There are zero restrictions.

This POV is probably most associated with classic literature. Think Charles Dickens and Jane Austen. There aren’t too many writers who use this today, even though it sounds fabulous to have the ability to know and see everything taking place.  Who doesn’t want to be a god, right?

So, there you go—point-of-view in a nutshell.  Still, unsure which is the best fit for your story?  As an exercise, try taking a piece of your own writing and rewrite it in a different viewpoint.  How does it change the story?  How does it relate to your reader?  After doing this a few times, one will begin to grow on you.  Trust me.


For almost two decades, November has been synonymous with NaNoWriMo, otherwise known as National Novel Writing Month for all you newbies out there. The premise is to write a 50,000-word novel draft in thirty days, all while trying to hang on to your sanity. Here’s my confession for the day: I’ve never had the fortitude to make it to 50,000 words, much less make through the first two weeks without petering out.  No worries.  If anything, it’s helped me better understand myself as a writer—that I’m more wired to write short fiction and flash than epic novels.  Although, if a character comes knocking on my door one day and says let’s write a novel, well, I’m not going to walk away.

That being said, this year I came across FlashNano, an alternative challenge for those interested in writing flash and short fiction, facilitated by Nancy Stohlman, one of the most interesting and inventive flash writers out there.  If you haven’t read Nancy’s work before, I suggest taking the time to do so.  You won’t be disappointed.  FlashNano challenges writers to write thirty stories in thirty days. Nancy provides a daily prompt to get your creative juices flowing and the rest, that’s entirely up to you.

Still sound daunting?  Well, it doesn’t have to be.  The main thing to keep in mind is that this is meant to be a generative exercise, not a marathon.  Will you write a bunch of bunk that’ll end up in the circular file at the end of the month?  Possibly.  You might also end up with characters and plot twists and story ideas you wouldn’t have otherwise created had you not taken the time to give it a try.  After all, there are eleven other months in the year to revise.  And we all know that’s when the real writing happens.

For more information about FlashNano, visit

If you’re interested in NaNoWriMo, more info can be found @

Do you have an interesting NANO story you’d like to share or any tips on how you made it though the month? Feel free to drop a line in the comments below. Your comments are always welcome.