Author Archive: Jess Witkins

ERMAgawd: Why You Must Take Risks and Find the Funny

Ok, y’all know I love me a good writers conference. After I left a career in corporate sales to be a writer, I made attending writers conferences part of my ongoing education goal. I’ve attended at least one a year since 2012.

IMG_3837Well, this year something magical happened. I GOT INTO THE ERMA BOMBECK WRITERS WORKSHOP!

ERMA BOMBECK, FOLKS! ONE OF THE FOREMOTHERS OF FUNNY!

The Erma conference happens every two years, and the last two times I tried to get in, it sold out. No joke, this conference sells out faster every year, like in four hours or less.

So this year, I marked my calendar, I had my morning off, I was holding my credit card in hand with my laptop and my phone ready to GO!

And then, I flew to Dayton, Ohio and proudly wore my newbie sticker that said “Erma Virgin”. Yes, that is what they gave us. Be still my humor-loving, former Catholic heart. 

I’ve been to some stellar conferences and always left inspired, but there was energy like you can’t imagine at this conference. (In fact, the organizers said this was the highest rated conference to date!) I got my schedule, planned out where I was going to go, and then immediately threw that out the window, tried something new, made great friends, and gave it all my best!

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Oh NBD, just new friends holding up our Liza Donnelly (from The New Yorker) cartoons!

ERMAgawd, here’s why you should go! 

Taking risks leads to opportunities and learning lessons. 

You all know I like to say yes to new experiences, but being the newbie here, I was admittedly nervous.

A fair amount of the workshop focused on stand up comedy with the hilarious Wendy Liebman. Wendy’s been a stand up comedian for over 30 years. She’s performed on Carson, Letterman, Leno, Fallon, Kimmel, and been a finalist on America’s Got Talent.

 

It seemed like everyone was talking about the stand up classes. Everyone I met was trying stand up or working on their bits. But I had no intention of going. I’m not a stand up, so that’s not for me.

You guys all know I went, right? LOL

I had planned what workshops I was going to attend the night before they started, and that was the last time I looked at that list. If the stand up classes were getting all the buzz, then I decided to go and see what I could learn from them. After all, I like working in different formats because it teaches you new things about your writing.

After the first class listening to people tell jokes, my gears just started rolling and I spent that night coming up with some material. So the next day, I got up with a bunch of other brave, risk-taking people and did a minute of stand up. And I got laughs! Good ones! That is a very good feeling. One that I’m interested and willing to try again! All because of a risk.

A risk, and the ever delightful and supportive Wendy Liebman, who just happened to be on the same flight to Chicago as me, and who gave me wonderful feedback and encouragement while sitting at our departure gate despite the fact that it wasn’t even 6am yet. Bless you, you’re so kind and charming, and I’m eternally grateful.

Find the Funny 

The other classes I attended were about finding the funny, whether it’s using it to add heart or get through hard times. Or even just on Twitter.

IMG_3874One of my favorite workshops was with Lauretta Hannon, author of The Cracker Queen. She had a lot of great tips on being comfortable with writing your story, even the dark parts, while being ok with yourself in the process. I can’t wait to read her book after she shared some examples of how to use humor to write about the tough stuff, and also where to let the dark moments speak for themselves, because we know not everything we go through will be funny.

 

Both Lauretta and T. Faye Griffin, another presenter, reiterated that making people laugh is a gift. Some of the best writers out there have the ability to make you feel something or learn something, but do so through humor, and that is a very special skill.

It’s kind of mesmerizing to me how many different ways there are to be funny. You can do stand up, you can tell a story, you can caption a photo, you can come up with a punchy headline, you can tweet just to name a few. If there was one takeaway from this conference, it is that “funny” is all around us, and we have the skill to shape it.

I’m so grateful for this opportunity. The crowd at Erma is one of the most supportive I’ve ever seen, which is appreciated because I took one other risk while I was at the conference and signed up for Pitchapalooza, “the American Idol of books”.

In a room of roughly 100 people, I put my name in a hat that probably had at least 60 of those people’s names in it. Only 12 were chosen and I was one of them. I got to pitch my book for one minute to a panel of judges and get feedback on my pitch.

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I swear I thought the audience would hear my heart beating through the microphone, but I had practiced my pitch beforehand and gave it my all. I didn’t win the contest. (Way to go, Liz Dubelman, who did win! She was the first person to say hi to me at the conference, so I have a soft spot for her as a human being. Thanks!) I got really positive feedback and simple tweaks to improve my pitch, and was even complimented on my performance! And that’s a win in my book!

So there you have it, taking risks and finding the funny is what Erma is all about. I’m so glad I could attend and so grateful to the conference organizers, presenters, the keynotes (btw, I hope I wasn’t the only one who noticed all the female keynotes got standing ovations), and my fellow attendees. I’m still riding the highs and energized by all of you!

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What are you currently learning about your writing right now?
What’s inspiring you? 

 

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Little Prayers Poetry: An Interview with Susie Meserve

When it comes to choosing the next book to read, I’ll read anything. I love challenging myself to different genres and diverse authors. I think we learn about our world as readers, and writers, through different mediums and kinds of storytelling.

April is National Poetry Month, and I love exploring this genre because it reaches the reader in a way unlike any other written form. Many of my favorite writers began as poets, and there’s something to recognize about the talent and skill it takes to craft a poem that makes you feel something in a short amount of words and with little filler.

007-KLJ-WEB-Susie-Final-3372Susie Meserve is a poet, memoirist and blogger. Her first collection of poems, Little Prayers, was recently published by Blue Light Press and was the winner of the 2018 Blue Light Book Award.

I’ve followed Susie on twitter and her blog for years, so am happy to welcome her over to the Happiness Project to chat about her new book and why poetry matters today.

***

JW: Welcome, Susie! 

Describe Little Prayers in three words. 

SM: Poetry about life.

SM.LittlePrayersFrntCvrWbWhat would you say are the themes in this collection of work? 

Death and rebirth, flight and return, the life of dreams, the fleetingness of time. And maybe, as Michelle Bonczek Evory suggested on my book cover, “the daily mundane.”

Your poems feature detailed captures of moments and objects, how we can find ourselves lost within those fragments. Is that where the title “Little Prayers” comes from, those moments? 

I think so, yes! This book had several other titles before Little Prayers—for a while it was called “Losing Paradise” (and a friend suggested “The Oracle”). When I stepped back and looked at it, though, I realized that while the poems were all very different thematically and structurally, there was this fleeting, temporary quality to almost all of them. I hope that doesn’t mean they’re not memorable, but they do seem to capture somewhat ephemeral snippets of time—a bird flying in the window, waking in the middle of the night, a session doing dishes, a little ruminating on California—in a meditative, quiet sort of way. So then I looked at the poem “Little Prayer” and thought, yeah, that’s my title poem. I just slightly changed it to indicate a multitude of prayers, not just one. I should add: I’m not a religious person, but my poetry chapbook (Finishing Line Press, 2008) is called Faith. I’m not entirely sure why. I think the act of writing poetry feels somewhat spiritual to me. And let’s face it, it requires a lot of faith—in something!—to be a writer in today’s world.

What does writing poetry compared to other forms of writing allow you to do differently? Do you think you can speak your truth, or Truth, more clearly? 

I love that you capitalized Truth, here, like the universal Truth. I don’t know if I believe in that concept, though. I actually think I can speak my own truth more clearly in personal essays like this one  and this one, where I’ve had to be deeply honest to tell the story. In poetry, I can speak multiple truths, in a sense. It’s all very sneaky. Poetry is absolutely my first love, and I think what I love about it is the unexpected. I just begin sometimes, and things surprise me, and then I have a poem (that may or may not be “true”). This can be very freeing—when it’s working.

Your poems include a variety of style and format. How do you decide what is the “right” format for your poem as you’re writing? 

Great question. This book consists of poems from over 15 years of writing, so it represents a lot of different styles as I tried them on over the years. For a while I was really feeling couplets, then these formless, no-stanza, rambling poems, then poems with numbered sections. I think the poem usually tells you what it wants. For me, a poem I want more control over—because it’s got a more intense, precise quality, maybe—will ask for couplets or tercets, whereas one that feels more free and easy—or unwieldy—might not want any stanza breaks at all.

What’s your best piece of advice for someone writing poetry?

I don’t use prompts, really (though I do like the prompts in the book The Practice of Poetry, edited by Robin Behn and Chase Twichell, excellent for beginners). My biggest advice is to READ. I think when you start to be able to identify the kinds of surprises other poets incorporate into their work, you start to incorporate your own. So reading a wide variety of styles and voices is just essential.

Why do you think poetry is important today? 

I think poetry asks us to tap into a different part of our brains than prose does. It demands and requires more intangibility. I remember well the time my mom told me she liked my poems but felt like she didn’t understand them. I told her she didn’t need to, that she should just appreciate what she got out of them. She told me later how freeing that was for her, that me giving her permission not to work too hard took away a lot of her anxiety and allowed her to just sit with the lines and enjoy them. I think that’s one of the things that’s hardest about poetry—we don’t always “get it” in the way we might, say, a novel or a memoir, and maybe that’s why people run away from it. We don’t want to feel stupid or like we’re missing something. We want clarity, answers. Because poetry often raises questions. But I think that’s a really good thing! Poetry can open us up to mystery and abstraction, which is good for our brains and our hearts. And the music of poetry—learning to hear it—is essential for anyone wanting to write or appreciate good writing.

What’s next on your writing desk? 

I’m most excited about a new poetry collection I’m working on. I’m writing a series of poems about infertility, pregnancy, and motherhood. They’re deeply personal, much more raw, and all linked thematically. I’m thinking of it a bit like a memoir in verse. It’s going really well. I’m super inspired, and just hoping it’s, you know, good.

I’m sure it will be! Thanks, Susie! 

***

In honor of National Poetry Month, Susie is giving away a free copy of Little Prayers to two lucky people who signs up for her newsletter before Sunday, May 6th! Sign up at Susie’s website to win!

You can catch up with Susie on Twitter @susiemeserve or on her website, www.susiemeserve.com, where she blogs regularly about writing and being More Than a Mother.

That Time My Dad Stole All My Money

Since today is April Fool’s Day, here’s a little tale from the vault of dad stories. You remember my dad, right? He’s the one who gave me free butt soap as a gift one time!

This is my dad.

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Note* He is not a real pirate. 

Well, several years ago, NOT on April Fool’s Day, my dad went to the bank and needed a check made for something. I don’t remember the exact details, but the bank was going to charge him money to get this check from his own account. Being the hardworking, farm-raised, former Navy man he was, my dad was not about to pay extra for this check from his bank account.

After going back and forth with the bank teller, my dad grew so angry he decided to CLOSE his account and take his banking business elsewhere.

Dad: “Close my accounts!”

Bank Teller: “All of them?”

Dad: “ALL OF THEM!”

Meanwhile, a week or so later, I went to the same bank at a branch in my town and asked to do a fund transfer from my savings to my checking account.

The bank teller stared at the screen. She tells me she needs a manager to look something over.

You know where this is going, don’t you? 

So, the manager comes over and looks at the computer screen.

Manager: “It appears your account has been closed.”

Me: “CLOSED?”

This is the part of the story where the manager escorts me to a tiny desk in a corner, AWAY FROM THE PUBLIC so when they tell me my account has been hacked or something, I DON’T SCARE AWAY ALL THE PEOPLE.

I worked in retail for six years; I know EXACTLY what that tiny desk in the corner is for. 

So now, I’ve been passed onto Man With a Mustache to sleuth out what happened to my entire savings account.

Mustache Man: “It appears your account has been closed.”

Me: “CLOSED? Who closed it? I didn’t close it. All my money was in there! Where is MY MONEY?”

Mustache Man: *scrolling through my account information* “Do you know a…Jerry Witkins?”

Me: *speaking between clenched teeth* “I need to call my father.”

I ring up dear old dad who greets me like he’s Mrs. Doubtfire.

Dad: “Hellooooooo!”

Me: “Did you recently come into a large sum of money, Pops?”

Dad, in all sincerity: “Say, now that you mention it, I did actually find some extra cash.”

Me: “BECAUSE YOU STOLE IT FROM MY ACCOUNT!!!”

Dad explains to me about his trip to the same bank in his town and how he demanded to close his accounts. What he didn’t realize, and the bank teller didn’t explain to him, is that as co-signer for my savings account which my parents started for me as a child, he closed out MY account along with his.

And here’s the kicker, while he had no recollection of the sum of money in this “extra mystery account,” he figured it was one he’d started a long time ago and told the teller, “Yep, close it!”

Me: “You put that money back!”

Dad: “I’ll think about it.”

Me: “You march back into that back, tell the teller what you did, and put my money back!”

Dad did return my savings, and we had a good little laugh about it…much later. But because the bank had closed my account, I had to get a new account and new number. I wasn’t too upset though. This time, there would be NO co-signer.

Happy April Fool’s Day, everybody!
Tell me your best prank story, planned or otherwise!  

 

 

#BOAW2018: 10 (Unusual) Things That Make Me Feel Beautiful

Hey Women!

What makes you feel most beautiful? I have a hunch it has nothing to do with what we’re constantly being advertised. Never in my thirty-two years have I, or any of my female friends, said “You know, mascara makes me feel the most beautiful ever,” or “This smooth glide tampon makes me feel so freaking beautiful I can’t handle myself!” Damn, I wish I heard that sentence more often. Most of the time, we’re taught periods are a pain (and they definitely can be), but we’re not taught they make us beautiful.

I’m not knocking makeup or modern conveniences. I enjoy both of them too. There’s a place for them, sure. But what really makes you feel the most beautiful? When I think about that question, the answer has little to do with my body.

Author, blogger, and podcaster, August McLaughlin, is hosting her annual Beauty of a Woman Blogfest. She’s asking women all over the world to talk about what beauty means to them. And since she’s also the fab creator of GirlBoner, (“Where Good Girls Go For Sexual Empowerment”), some bloggers are writing about sexuality too.

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I’ve been a participant in both categories over the years. If you want to check out one of my past posts, I recommend Heavy Petting is a No No: Sex Education for the Saint of Heart. 😉

This year, I wanted to talk about beauty as a woman in her thirties. At a time when your body starts changing (like, not bouncing back in ways it once did), it can be a mind shift to still feel beautiful in a world that emphasizes outer beauty and youthfulness so highly. My body changed, and so did my style.

There are some things that remain constant, though. That will always make me feel truly beautiful and empowered in my own skin.

10 (Unusual) Things That Make Me Feel Beautiful

1. Learning something new. 

Is there anything quite like the joy of learning something new? There’s that moment when you’ve really put time and energy and sometimes expense into understanding something that didn’t come naturally, and then…it finally clicks!

Damn, that’s a gorgeous moment.

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2. Reading books out loud. 

What can I say? Words are my love language.

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3. Making art for the fun of it. 

I believe adults don’t PLAY enough. When’s the last time you picked up your ol’ Crayola 64 pack (dating myself there) and just colored? Or used a paintbrush? Or even doodled? I’m not “an artiste,” but playing around is therapeutic and relaxing for me when I remember to leave judgment at the door.

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4. A damn fine blazer. 

I’m a sucker for a power suit. Alas, I rarely get to wear them anymore. But why not give yourself a Try Day Challenge and write about it? I did.

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5. Travel

A friend of mine coined the term “wonderfully uncomfortable” and it has forever stuck with me. Traveling somewhere outside your comfort zone is a great opportunity to meet new people, hear new stories, and gain a bigger picture of the world. I always leave feeling grateful and humble afterwards. Aren’t those beautiful, genuine emotions?

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6. Going for a walk. 

Cool breezes on your skin, your feet pounding the pavement or hiking the trail. I never get clarity like I do when I’m on a solo hike.

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7. Genuine, consensual touch. 

You know people who are huggers? Like good huggers, not creepy uncle huggers? There’s something beautiful and comforting about being with someone who just knows when to give you a hug or reach for your hand. Science even supports that hugging longer has positive effects on the endorphins in the brain! I value a good hug from a friend or loved one.

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8. Recognition

Who doesn’t appreciate when someone finally notices how damn hard you work?! You go, grrrl! I see you!

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9. Eating dessert for breakfast. 

Because I’m an adult. Because I can. Because I’m worth it.

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10. Not buying into all the ageist, objectified patriarchal bullshit. 

Cause ain’t no one got time for that!

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What makes YOU feel truly beautiful? 

***

*This post is part of The Beauty of a Woman BlogFest VII! To read more entries, and potentially win a fun prize, visit the fest page on August’s McLaughlin’s site between today and 11pm PST March 9th.

 

A Year of Reading: The Books I Read for a Monthly Challenge

Gather in, bloggers and readers, I’m going to tell you a secret.

Are you ready? Here goes…

I love reading. 

Ok, that was not a secret at all.

51j4xd2ntcl-_sx355_bo1204203200_I’m actually going to tell you about the books I read for a book challenge I gave myself in 2017. I found this awesome little book on Amazon called A Year of Reading by Elisabeth Ellington and Jane Freimiller.

The book features a different theme each month with five options for what to read. What I loved about using this guide is that it includes diverse authors of various ethnicities as well as a wide variety of genres in its recommendations. Over the course of the year, I read a mix of fiction and nonfiction, poetry and prose, and even a few graphic novels.

It also includes discussion and reflection sections and extra credit opportunities with bonus book recommendations, interviews and videos to check out, and more!

Here’s a sample of what my year looked like using this guidebook to switch up my reading! I didn’t finish every book every month, because life gets in the way sometimes. But there were months I read more than one title for the theme too, so in the end, it evened out.

My Year of Reading

January: A Happier You
Book: The Principles of Uncertainty by Maira Kalman

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What I liked about it: This book is a collection of the author’s art, sketches, and photography. It includes story snippets and random musings. It’s different than any other book I’ve read. For more info about this book, check out my previous post here.

February: Classic Romance
Book: Modern Romance by Aziz Ansari and Eric Klinenberg

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What I liked about it: A fascinating look at love and relationships across generations, geography, and social media.  

Blog Review: Check out my favorite parts in my full blog review!

March: Focus on Justice
Books: Just Mercy: A Story of Justice and Redemption by Bryan Stevenson
March: Book One by John Lewis, Andrew Aydin, and Nate Powell

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What I liked about it: Easily one of my favorite reads of 2017. Incredibly well written, the book chronicles Stevenson’s journey toward working with wrongfully convicted death row inmates and juveniles who were tried as adults. The book discusses one case in detail throughout, but includes multiple examples of cases Stevenson worked on. From tampering with evidence to racial prejudices, the author and lawyer tackles what’s wrong with our justice system.

Blog Review: Read my full blog review of the book.

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What I liked about it: So powerful. Congressman John Lewis joined with illustrators to tell his story of the civil rights movement to a whole new generation in this graphic novel series. Definitely read all three books! Another favorite that will make you think, make you learn, make you humble, make you crave change, do better, be aware!

April: Creative Spirit
Book: Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo

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What I liked about it: Beautiful blend of memoir, prose, and poetry. It’s emotional, artistic, and rhythmic. This one deserves to be read aloud.

Blog Review: Read my full blog review.

May: Families in Fiction
Book: The Star Side of Bird Hill by Naomi A. Jackson

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What I liked about it: Family dynamics are at full play in this story of sisters who move from Brooklyn to Barbados to live with their grandmother. It’s more than a coming of age story, that’s just a small part of the tale. There are family secrets and lessons to learn as the sisters create a new sense of home.

June: Families in Nonfiction
Book: Can’t We Talk About Something More Pleasant? by Roz Chast

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What I liked about it: A humorous and heartfelt graphic novel and memoir about caring for aging parents. As much as you’d think this was a quick, easy read since it’s illustrated, I had to take my time and read this slowly. With older parents of my own, there were parts I could identify with, and the unknown future and potential issues this book brings up made me emotional. It shares real feelings and concerns about what we do with the people we love as they get older.

July: Journeys
Book: In the Land of Invisible Women: A Female Doctor’s Journey in the Saudi Kingdom by Qanta Ahmed

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What I liked about it: I didn’t know a lot about the Muslim faith before reading this and it was interesting to have a woman’s point of view on the religion and its practices both in Saudi Arabia and the western world. Despite faith-based and gender barriers, the author and doctor was able to show the reader her deep love for the religion, the women who are making progress in unique ways, and how to be a strong, professional woman.

August: Starting Over
Book: The Best of All Possible Worlds by Karen Lord (did not finish)

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September: This Digital Life
Book: The Circle by Dave Eggers

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What I liked about it: Um, I didn’t care for this one personally. The storyline is interesting and brings up issues about social media, safety, and security. However, I was disappointed with the lead character and felt the author did not represent her very realistically. I think if a writer is going to write a main character that is a different gender or ethnicty than themself, they should make that character as real as possible. The numerous sex scenes that take place in public bathrooms did not do anything to move the story forward or seem true to the character. They very much felt written by a male for a male. This made my interest in the book lessen.

October: Reading About Reading
Book: The World Between Two Covers: Reading the Globe by Ann Morgan (did not finish)

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November: Comfort Food, Comfort Reading
Books: Life From Scratch: A Memoir of Food, Family, and Forgiveness by Sasha Martin
Relish: My Life in the Kitchen by Lucy Knisley

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What I liked about it: Sasha Martin had a very difficult childhood, and despite moving around and many unstable moments, she’s created a memoir that revolves around food. From the unique, makeshift meals her mother made to family recipes to attending cooking school, Martin finds meaning in them all.

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What I liked about it: Another graphic novel for my list! Knisley shares short stories of food memories in this graphic novel. From learning how to cook mushrooms with her mother to traveling the world and surviving on pastries, her passion for food will be felt.

December: Heartwarming Classics
Book: A Christmas Carol by Charles Dickens

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What I liked about it: I completed this one on audiobook and highly recommend the BBC radio production recording if you can get it. Excellent narrator and the story is infused with additional sound effects like the chains, the chimes of the clock striking the hour, and some instrumental music. I really enjoyed this classic and would read it again.

***

What reading challenges did you do or are you currently doing?
Do you think reading diverse books is important?
What do you want to read more of this year? 

 

 

 

The Phenomenal Woman Playlist Revealed!

It’s time to announce the annual winners of the 2017 copies of the Phenomenal Woman and Cafe Mix playlists!

Every year I make two mix cds as gifts for my mom and sis, and I count on you to help me find the best songs out there to include!

Thank you to all who gave suggestions, sharing their favorite artists and songs to jam out to. I love researching this project because it’s basically me dancing around and surfing the internet, watching a lot of music videos.

So… thank you for your help in making that happen. 

Without further adieu, here are the 2017 playlists! Happy listening, everyone!

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The 2017 Phenomenal Woman Mix

1. On + Off ~ Maggie Rogers

2. White Tiger ~ Izzy Bizu

3. Roll Up Your Sleeves ~ Meg Mac

4. That’s Alright With Me ~ Andreya Triani 

5. Rainbow ~ Kesha

6. Higher ~ The Naked and Famous

7. Want You Back ~ HAIM

8. Ice Age ~ Serena Ryder

9. Deeper ~ Ella Eyre

10. Tightrope ~ LP

11. Simply Falling ~ Iyeoka

12. Breathe You In My Dreams ~ Trixie Whitley 

13. Mermaid Song ~ Emily Kinney

14. What You Don’t Do ~ Lianne La Havas

15. Make It Rain ~ Koryn Hawthorne

16. Capable ~ The Wild Reeds

17. Tennessee Rain ~ Addison Agen

18. Brother ~ Uncle Jed

19. Pretty Please ~ Lauren Ruth Ward

20. Moonlight ~ Grace VanderWaal 

The 2017 Cafe Mix

1. Summer Storm ~ Joel P West

2. Dusty Trails ~ Lucius

3. The Luckiest Man ~ The Wood Brothers

4. The Old Churchyard ~ Offa Rex

5. Glorious ~ Melissa Etheridge

6. Cover Me Up ~ Jason Isbell

7. Into My Arms ~ Shelby Lynne & Allison Moorer

8. Break My Heart Sweetly ~ John Moreland

9. Let It All Go ~ Birdy & Rhodes

10. Someone That Loves You ~ Izzy Bizu & Honne

11. Without You ~ Oh Wonder

12. See You Around ~ I’m With Her

13. I Followed Fires ~ Matthew and the Atlas

14. The Chase ~ Tori Amos featuring Natashya Hawley

15.  Floodlights ~ Jack and Eliza

16. Blue Ridge Mountain ~ Hurray for the Riff Raff

17. When the Right One Comes Along ~ Sam Palladio & Clare Bowen

18. Come Undone ~ Isobel Campbell & Mark Lanegan

19. Ghost in This House ~ Lauren Duski

20. Friday I’m in Love ~ Janet Devlin 

***

And now, for the lovely winners of these cds to be announced!
Congratulations Mark Petruska and Crystal Brunelle!
I’ll be in touch to get you your new tunes; thank you both for helping grow my list!

 

 

Call for Songlists: The 2017 Mixtape Begins

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You know the drill. We’re making a mixtape, people.

It’s old school. It’s outdated. Who even has a cd player anymore?

Well, my mother does. It’s a Bose. Because all old people own Boses.

Since 2007, my reoccurring christmas gift to my mother and sister is a Phenomenal Woman Mix Tape, and I rely on YOUR HELP to find the best songs to put on it. Bonus points – in the last five years, I also added a Cafe Mix for all those winter mug holding moments.

So tell me, who are the phenomenal women you’re listing to? And what coffee shop tunes are you chillin’ out with?

Two lucky commenters will win a copy of each CD! 

***

Get started with these inspiring jams off last year’s CD!

Into the Wild by LP (Phenomenal Woman Mix) 

I Believe in a Thing Called Love by Postmodern Jukebox featuring Maiya Sykes (Phenomenal Woman Mix) 

Wildest Moments by Jessie Ware (Phenomenal Woman Mix) 

Unsteady by X Ambassadors (Cafe Mix) 

Growing Things by Shook Twins (Cafe Mix) 

Check out the full 2016 playlists here, plus 2015 and 2014 if you just wanna dance.

 

Wear What You Want

IMG_3537I love seeing people embrace their own beauty. In a world of impossible beauty standards, the role models I want to embrace are the people who celebrate doing their own thing while opening doors, rather than closing them, for others to find what’s right for them too. I follow campaigns like Tess Holiday’s #effyourbeautystandards. I’ve been a user of #StitchFix for awhile and love how detailed their style profile is and that they allow clients to play with fashion. So when Dia & Co. asked me if I was interested in participating in their Try Day challenge, I said yes.

The Try Day challenge is about the clothes in your closet you haven’t found the guts to wear yet. The items you chose to buy, but haven’t worn. The clothes you’d love to try on and try out, but always second guess yourself or change out of at the last minute.

Dia & Co., like Stitch Fix, is a personal styling business that sends five items to your home to try out with your existing wardrobe. They specialize in plus size fashions which is awesome because no one should have to forgo personal style just because of size. Having worked in the retail industry for several years, I know how hard it can be to find as many options in special sizes. Everyone wants to look and feel great in what they wear. Shopping and sporting your style shouldn’t be as degrading or frustrating as the fashion industry, and let’s not forget misogyny, sometimes makes it.

I say, WEAR WHAT YOU WANT. 

I grew up the youngest child of four, so a lot of my clothes and fashion sense came from my older siblings. Acid wash jeans, anyone? This year it dawned on me, I didn’t really know what my fashion style was because I never actually thought about my personal style. I got the same kind of pieces I always got, bought some trends, but didn’t necessarily have a signature look.

To be honest, I’m still figuring that out, and it’s cool with me if it changes over time. Clothes are just another way to be creative. At my core, I’m a jeans and tshirt kinda gal. But I love the feeling I get when I wear a suit jacket. A nice, well fitting blazer makes me feel like a badass.

Still, I have clothes in my closet that I never wear too. Specifically, two leather jackets. So when I thought about the Try Day challenge, I knew I had to incorporate one of them. Another look I love is denim on denim, but since I don’t live on a ranch and professionally rope cattle, I wasn’t sure I could rock that style either. So, there was my challenge. Wear denim on denim with a leather jacket, and rock it.

IMG_3500I styled my look with things that I loved, and paired them with things I wanted to try. I wore dark denim skinny jeans with a lighter denim shirt. I scrunched up my socks on the outside of my boots (because 80s girl). I threw on a leather jacket, a scarf, and some teardrop earrings and went out with the hubs.

I loved my look and felt good in it (until we went outside, because this outfit is not winter weather appropriate for Wisconsin, but hey it’s called a “challenge” for a reason, right?) All wind advisories aside, I loved doing something that pushed me to try a new look. We could all do with a little more self confidence and creativity, don’t you think?

What items are hiding in your closet, begging to spend a night out?

A Year of Reading: Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo

“We need to give each other the space to grow, to be ourselves, to exercise our diversity. We need to give each other space so that we may both give and receive such beautiful things as ideas, openness, dignity, joy, healing, and inclusion.”

— Max de Pree

I’ve been selecting a book to read each month from A Year of Reading, a nifty little guide that provides five options every month based on a theme. The books included are diverse in author and in genre, so I’m challenging myself to read more out of the box. Now, I’m a fairly eclectic reader anyway, but this challenge helps me to read more books by authors of color, and in different formats than I would normally pick up. January’s The Principles of Uncertainty for example, is mostly artwork, such as paintings and photography, with written musings along the way.

February featured comedian, Aziz Ansari, and his take on Modern Romance

March was a particular favorite read of mine on the topic of justice with Bryan Stevenson’s Just Mercy

Playing catch up, this month’s review features the theme from April: Creative Spirit.

Crazy Brave by Joy Harjo

I am at my core, a lover of memoir. I am in awe of fiction writers as I personally find it difficult to write fiction. I often think the truth is stranger than fiction and many of the craziest scenes or details in fiction books come from truth. For example, in Sara Gruen’s Water for Elephants, there’s a bit about a dead hippo the ringmaster keeps parading about during the circus, pretending the hippo is swimming in its tank. The hippo was in formaldehyde, and Gruen learned about the trick from a past employee of a real, traveling circus.

What Harjo has done with her memoir, Crazy Brave, is phenomenal, and as A Year of Reading suggests, it should be read aloud.

A well recognized poet, Harjo’s memoir encompasses story, lyric, and poem.

Overview from Goodreads:

In this transcendent memoir, grounded in tribal myth and ancestry, music and poetry, Joy Harjo, one of our leading Native American voices, details her journey to becoming a poet. Born in Oklahoma, the end place of the Trail of Tears, Harjo grew up learning to dodge an abusive stepfather by finding shelter in her imagination, a deep spiritual life, and connection with the natural world. She attended an Indian arts boarding school, where she nourished an appreciation for painting, music, and poetry; gave birth while still a teenager; and struggled on her own as a single mother, eventually finding her poetic voice. Narrating the complexities of betrayal and love, Crazy Brave is a memoir about family and the breaking apart necessary in finding a voice. Harjo’s tale of a hardscrabble youth, young adulthood, and transformation into an award-winning poet and musician is haunting, unique, and visionary. 

***

IMG_2217I’m discovering more and more lyric novels lately. Books that tell a story, but do so partially, or completely, in poetry format. Rising authors like Jason Reynolds are doing so, using spoken word to communicate his tale. And in my own neck of the woods, artist and author Mai Chao shared the story of her Hmoob parents fleeing the Secret War, living in a refugee camp, and immigrating to America, in her beautiful lyric novel, Gathering Fireflies. 

Harjo’s work is partially written in verse, and part traditional storytelling. It is beautifully oriented around directions (north, south, east, west), and place (her home of Oklahoma).

This book was a decadent treat for the wordsmith in me. Harjo’s writing comes from a place of loss, misdirection, and unknowing followed by the grace of time, perspective, and truth. In her own words:

A story matrix connects all of us.
There are rules, processes, and circles of responsibility in this world. And the story begins exactly where it is supposed to begin. We cannot skip any part.
― Joy HarjoCrazy Brave

I recommend Crazy Brave for any artists out there. Harjo’s story, and her work, is utmost about resilience, and it inspired me. And for bookworms, if you haven’t yet checked out a lyric novel or memoir, consider this a jewel of an introduction to the craft.

It really should be read aloud.

Have you ever checked out a lyric piece of work?
What did you think of the genre? 

What other books for artists, or on creativity, do you recommend? 

 

 

 

 

Read, Revise, Adapt: Why Writing Across Genres Can Benefit Your Writing

read revise adaptHey Friends,

I just got back from a fabulous week at the Write by the Lake writers retreat in Madison, Wisconsin. If you’re searching for conferences to attend next year, I highly recommend this program. I’ve gone the last three years. They offer a dozen different course options that provide intense study into a specific genre or practice for the week. Courses are for all levels from introductory to those with a full manuscript looking for a masterclass.

This year, I swayed from my usual path of nonfiction and opted for the course on picture book writing.

Here’s what I learned: 

My instructor, Georgia Beaverson, had us do a writing prompt on the first day. We had to write down our first memory. The second day we rewrote that memory from another person’s point of view. She then made us edit our wordcount down by HALF (oh, the agony). 

She said we could also try reworking the piece into different tenses, illustrating that a story can be told in many different ways, by different people, and sometimes reworking it can lead to great discoveries.

I’ve been working on my memoir for the last several years, and I’ve reworked some of my essays to be performed for adult storytelling. (I highly recommend taking a storytelling class if you have one in your area. I took one two years ago and it was wonderful!) What I learned by doing so was that moving around and utilizing the space I could tell in, I imagined new ways of describing the action or character emotions in my writing. Performing the scene helped me write a stronger scene.

In the picture book writing class, I adapted one of my essays to be told as a children’s picture book. The audience was entirely different, since I’d previously written and performed for adults. In this instance, I played up sounds, using onomatopoeia, stronger verbs, and I limited description where illustrations could play a role.

illustration thumbnails

Creating my thumbnail mockup of the picture book.

Using the same plotline, I now had three different ways of telling/performing the story. 

Ohmygawd! Justin Timberlake was right all along! 

giphy-downsized

The more you write, the better writer you become, and practicing different kinds of writing tools, genres, and craft elements are key. I was amazed at how each exercise in storytelling, whether on paper or a stage, shaped me as a writer. It was fun, challenging for sure, but rewarding across the board.

Sometimes when we’re stuck, we aren’t sure how to gain that forward momentum again. Whether or not you choose to pursue a different genre or space for your story, trying out different exercises can offer up different questions to make you think, explore, and get that creative blood pumping again.

Things You Can Try:

  • Work with a critique group that has multiple genres – How will their feedback strengthen your writing? (Ex. Will listening to poetry help you improve your word choice and descriptions? Will the romance author help you write funnier characters or scenes?)
  • Adapt your story into different formats (written, spoken, illustrated) – You may discover something new, or gain confidence in an area you previously felt uncomfortable in.
  • Just play – Are you stuck on a scene? Is the writing starting to bore even you? Move around, make yourself do the actions! Try drawing it, what’s the action you want to portray? You don’t have to show this to anyone else, but practicing in new ways can help get you past writer’s block.
  • Change the POV.
  • Change the tense of the story.
  • Change the audience you’re writing for.
  • Read different genres. Listen to people tell stories. Note what draws you in.

How can you rewrite and/or adapt your stories
to learn something new about them?

Got an example?
Share your favorite way to practice writing.

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