Recommended Reads: My Desert Island Writing Book

41dtozisuvl-_sx321_bo1204203200_Recently I’ve received several emails from readers on the topic of writing, asking if I have any advice on the topic or sometimes just wanting to chat. And I’ve realized that all of my best writing advice comes from people who have a heck of a lot more experience than I do, so I’ve decided to share a favorite book of mine at the beginning of every month.

For December it seemed only right to start off with Anne Lamott’s Bird by Bird: Some Instructions on Writing and Life. It was the very first writing book I ever read and if I were stranded on a desert island and forced to only choose one writing book, it would definitely be this one. While it’s not a how-to manual, Lamott’s book is packed full of helpful advice and encouragement. But the following are two of my favorite insights. In fact, they’re my two favorite tips about writing period. Read More


Am I a real writer yet?

What I crave isn’t numbers or popularity, but legitimacy (2)“But would it be a real book?” I said, more to myself than to Ian as I weighed possible options in my mind. I’d spent some time that day investigating a self-publishing option through Amazon that would allow me to take the Word document that I’ve become rather emotionally attached to and transform it into a book available for purchase on Amazon in both Kindle and paperback.

But would it be real?

“I want a real book,” I told my husband. Just like Geppetto wanted the Blue Fairy to transform his little wooden puppet into a real boy, I wanted her to work her blue magic and bippity boppity boo my manuscript into a real book. Only, unlike Geppetto, what I was really after wasn’t life but legitamicy. Read More


Oversharing versus Authenticity: A Memoir Blogger’s Dilemma

lightstock_132881_medium_user_3645479When you’re a memoir blogger, someone who packages up your personal stories into bite-sized chunks for public consumption, finding the tightrope wire between authenticity and oversharing can be a near-daily challenge. Or at least it is for me. Nadia Bolz-Webber, author and Lutheran (ELCA) pastor, says that we should speak from our scars, not from our wounds. And that has been one of the single-most helpful pieces of memoir-writing, personal-story-sharing advice I’ve ever been given.

Wound-writing is important. I’ve found that when I write from a wound, something that still stings and aches like hell, I’m able to heal a little more. It’s a way of saying goodbye just a little more to that story or situation or doctrine. It feels a little less raw after I write it all out. It stops bleeding a little bit more.

Wound-writing is a necessity for those of us who process through writing. But it’s also something we have to be careful with. When I write from my wounds I’m more apt to overshare, but in some ways what bothers me the most is the tone. When I let the wounded-words fly, I don’t come across as safe. I come across snarky, judgmental, and harsh.

There are places where wounded-words are safe to share. I can tell my inner circle. I can tell drafts on Word that I’ll never do anything with. I can tell letters I’ll never send. There are ways for me to process without telling all of my blog followers.

It’s not that I’m not allowed to share wound-writing on my blog, because I certainly could if I wanted, but I don’t want to. I want to stick to scar-stories because when I write from a scar the story is still raw but the bite has been softened, the venom has been diluted. (Yes, there’s still snark but every sentence doesn’t have be to dripping with it.)

I’m making wound-writing a regular part of my healing process. But those pieces are things I only share with a very select group of people. And sometimes I don’t share it with anyone at all. Sometimes it’s just for me.

And then later, when it’s had time to turn into a scar, I might rewrite it and share it on the blog. Or I might never share it.

I’m slowly learning how to identify when a story is something I can tell without oversharing. And I’ll give you a few pieces of advice that I’ve learned the hard way.

1. Before you push that publish button ask yourself, “Is this a wound? Am I still emotionally bleeding?” And if you are, save it as a draft and come back to it later. It’s not going anywhere.

2. Ask yourself, “How do I want to present myself? How do I want people to feel when they’re around me?” For me, the answer is safe. My goal is to write for the people that I want to feel less alone. I want my blog to continually say “Me, too” and “I understand” and “I’m so sorry you’ve been through that also.”

However, in order to be supportive, in order to be welcoming and kind and just basically not an asshole, I first need to heal. This doesn’t mean that everything has to be totally figured out. If I waited to write about church stuff until I was totally healed from all of it, I’d never write about it at all (or at least not in this decade). But instead I write about the specific events, the specific things that I’ve gotten enough space from to be able to breathe. The stories that are no longer eating me up inside, no longer bleeding all over the floor.

3. Ask yourself, “Which people have I already told?” If the story you’re thinking about sharing as a blog post or a Facebook status or wherever else relates to a pain or a struggle that you’ve never shared with anyone before, then it’s best to not push that button because you’re most likely oversharing.

One of my personal goals is that my husband never learns something about me via my blog. I don’t want him to come to me and say, “Kelsey, I had no idea this had happened. I’d never heard any of this before.” If I’m writing about something that is raw and I’ve never talked it out with him, then I’m oversharing. It doesn’t mean it’s not something I can write about later, but it’s not something I can write about right then. And that’s okay.

I’ve found coming up with an order of people to tell has helped me to see what would be oversharing. For me, my husband and counselor are the first people that I share the wounded-words with. Then, I talk with the family members I’m close to and my best friend. And then I tell my close friends. And so on.

My blog in some ways is like my ongoing memoir and personal newsletter all rolled into one. So sometimes things will come up that maybe I hadn’t mentioned to someone or maybe hadn’t explained fully. Sometimes my blog is the way I tell friends about something that I’m feeling or thinking or have experienced because writing feels so much more natural to me. But I make sure that my inner circle, specifically my husband, doesn’t learn new things about me via the blog.

***

I think memoir bloggers can easily turn into shock-and-awe bloggers if we’re not careful. In the pursuit of our next big break we can share too much, we can share too quickly, we can be too aggressive or snarky or edgy, we can hurt others, and we can lose the tone we want to maintain. Usually blogging is based on what someone did today. “Today my child did something cute” or “Today I finally mastered this recipe” or “Today my cat did something weird.” But memoir blogging isn’t about the here and now. It’s storytelling.

If you’re going to be a memoir blogger the best advice I can possibly give you is to hang onto your stories. Sit on them. You’re not a journalist. You don’t have to get the story out before dawn. You don’t have to pick a catchy title and get the whole damn thing to your editor stat. You’re a memoir blogger. You’re a storyteller. And when they need to, stories can wait.

Tell your stories, but slowly. Give them a soft opening. And wait. Wait to share them with the entire internet until it’s no longer bleeding. Wait until you get a little distance. You can always post it later, but you can’t take a post back if you post it too soon.


13 Things I’ve Learned About Blogging

Flickr cc Christian Gonzalez

Flickr cc Christian Gonzalez

This month my little indie blog celebrates it’s 1st birthday. Happy birthday, Blog! And, in honor of its birthday, I decided to write up some of the things I’ve learned about blogging over the last year. Not that I’ve learned anything terribly profound but it has been a learning experience, nonetheless.

1.  Be yourself.

When I was in my teens I used to keep in touch with the majority of my friends via email. One of my pen pals was a big fan of classic literature, Jane Austen in particular. And her emails seemed to mimic the language she loved and admired in Austen’s work. But it wasn’t how she usually talked, so it ended up sounding strange, stilted, awkward when she randomly pulled out an Austen-esque phrase in an otherwise very modern-toned email.

A few years later, however, her writing voice began to relax; it began to sound more like her real voice, and that made all the difference. She went from being an okay writer with random awkwardly archaic phrasing to being a good writer because she embraced her own voice.

We all have people we admire. As far as essayists go, I love Anne Lamott and David Sedaris’ writing voices probably more than anyone. I love them because they’re hysterical and raw but, more than anything, because they’re voices are so individual, so specific to them. But I’m not them. And I shouldn’t try to be. Learning to relax, to figure out what quirky things I bring to a page of freshly typed text, how to sound like myself, not the self I’d like to be …  it feels like the first step when it comes to any type of writing.

2. Don’t be afraid to take a chance.

Take yourself and your blog seriously. However, this isn’t the New York Times, so it’s okay to play around. I’d never really written fiction before but I tried out a couple of flash fiction pieces over the last year because it’s my blog and I can do that. Am I the next great American novelist? Certainly not, but I learned, to my surprise, I actually enjoy mucking around with short fictional pieces.

Blogs can be a great place to take a chance, try something new; they’re like the writing version of a sketch book.

3. Don’t let numbers determine the value of what you’ve created.

Don’t weigh the value of an article, story, poem, photograph, recipe, or advice piece based on how many “likes,” comments, or reblogs it’s gotten. Some of my personal favorite posts, the ones that I feel like I really put my heart into, haven’t been as popular as some less soul-felt pieces. And that’s okay. A lot of it’s just luck.

Sometimes I have to remind myself, “I don’t care who reads it; I like it, and that’s all that matters.” Sometimes I get hits, sometimes I don’t. But that’s not what determines the worth of something I’ve written, my blog as a whole, or my ability as an indie blogger.

4. Write for an online audience.

When it comes to writing — and talking, if I’m feeling comfortable with someone — I can be wordy. (Believe it or not, most of my posts have been whittled down in word count from their original first draft.) But very long columns of text are extremely hard to read online.

I’ve found that when it comes to reading other blogs, if a post is going to be long I greatly appreciate some sort of visual break — they’re like benches along a trail that give you a sense of hope while exercising, even if you don’t end up using all of them. Otherwise, it feels like a lot more work visually and I’m more apt to click back over to Facebook to see if anyone’s shared any cute cat videos in the last hour.

Up until very recently, I’d worked as a writing tutor for college freshman and sophomores for four years. I spent my days helping students to understand and execute good thesis statements, topic sentences, body paragraphs, transition sentences, and closing sentences. It was the very beginning of academic writing, so it was rigidly structured, brain-numbingly formulaic, and void of personality.

Learning to write for an online audience, for me, means chopping up paragraphs, forgoing topic sentences, and focusing on writing how I talk rather than how my English 101 teacher taught me to write an MLA-style research paper. Basically, it means relaxing and insuring there aren’t gigantic blocks of text strewn throughout a post.

5. Interact with readers.

I don’t have a ton of active reads, but I love the ones I have. And sometimes I actually greatly appreciate the fact that my blog isn’t one of those super crazy busy ones because it gives me the chance to respond personally to each of my readers. It makes blogging more of a conversation and less of a grossly long monologue by yours truly (although, it’s still that, too).

6. Don’t feed the trolls 

It’s not worth it. Not ever. The instant you know a comment is courtesy of a troll, delete it. Trust me, you don’t need to know what other random crap they decided to spew in your direction; it doesn’t say anything about you, but it says a lot about them. And it’s not worth your time.

And, besides, if you do read it then you’ll likely spend minutes, maybe hours, agonizing over how you’re going to respond or why someone could think, let alone say, something like that. And that is exactly what they want. It’ll save you a lot of time and emotional trauma to just push that delete button.

Sometimes people can be extremely mean — even on the most non-threatening posts. But you’re lord and master of your blog, so you can sentence any comment you like to a swift execution. And for the sake of your sanity, you should.

7. Don’t make your blog’s focus too narrow.

I’ve had blogs in the past with very narrow focuses and I quickly ran out of things to say. The general theme of this blog is “a highly fragmented memoir.” I wanted to practice writing creative non-fiction, and was happy to have company. It’s what I enjoy writing and the focus is broad enough that I won’t outgrow this blog nearly as quickly as I’ve outgrown others in the past.

8. Don’t write for your critics.

Blogger Rachel Held Evans said in a tweet: “Don’t write for your critics. Write for the people you want to make feel less alone.” Maybe you want to help new cooks feel less alone in their culinary misadventures or maybe you want to help the exhausted parent feel a little less alone. Or maybe you’re writing for the people you want to make laugh or the ones who share a similar dream. Or maybe you’re writing for the people who will enjoy the fictional worlds you carefully craft with your prose. Whoever your target audience is, focus on them — not the random trolls.

9. Read other blogs but don’t try to be them.

I’ve found it helpful to look over other blogs — especially blogs put out by published authors because they take blogging very seriously — because it’s given me some helpful ideas of how to organize posts or how often to post.

When I find myself feeling annoyed — “Ugh. Another update email? They seriously posted another blog post today?” — then I suspect that maybe that’s something to put on my things-not-to-do list. And when I find myself appreciating something like an informative but quirky About page or well-organized, easy-to-navigate categories I try to figure out how to do that in my own way. But I don’t try to be their clone, either.

10. Don’t publish your first draft.

I feel like as a writing tutor I should know better because I always told my students to never, never, never turn in a rough draft to their teachers.

But I’ve been guilty of first-draft blogging, myself. And sometimes even after it’s in its second draft I won’t notice all of the typos. So I’m finding it’s helpful to have someone look over it before I post it. And if there’s a little too much snark or bite or whatever in a piece, it gives me time to sand it down a little before sharing it with the world.

If I’m not sure about a post I leave it in “draft” form for a while. It gives me time to evaluate it later when I’ve gotten a little distance from it.

11. Don’t blog mad.

It’s easy to passionately pound on the keyboard as smoke billows out of my ears. But those are the posts that need to sit, maybe even for a few days, so that I can evaluate them when my nostrils are no longer flaring.

12. Citation, citation, citation.

The first time I ever saw one of my posts on someone else’s blog — the entire thing, just copied and pasted somewhere without my permission and without so much as my name — I was irate. After it happened a few more times, I packed up all my toys and didn’t return to the world of blogging for several years. Maybe it was an extreme reaction. But it hurt. I was mad. And I felt like I couldn’t keep my posts safe, so I didn’t want them online.

I’ve come to realize, unfortunately, that’s one of the hazards of blogging. But I don’t ever want to cause someone else this same frustration and anger because I loved their work — whether it be a photograph, poem, blog post, whatever — but didn’t bother to cite it correctly.

A word to the wise: it’s better to be too careful when it comes to copyright than not careful enough. Not only is it obeying the law (just because it’s online does not make it Public Domain) but it’s also good manners and it’ll win you more friends online if you don’t steal other people’s stuff. And having a good relationship with your online neighbors is important.

Basic rule of thumb: NEVER quote an entire piece without permission, even if you include the author’s name (this isn’t quoting, it’s stealing). And when you do quote a section of a piece, ALWAYS include the author’s full name and a link back to the source (I try to also include the title of the post or article that I’m quoting from because I’d appreciate it if someone added that extra bit of information if they were citing me but it’s not essential).

It’s also helpful if you’re quoting an author to reference what work it’s from and page number because then, if your readers like it, they can find it themselves. If they find themselves questioning whether Famous Person really said that, they can fact check.

Citations add a  level of professionalism and credibility to your work. (Basically, it helps people to know you didn’t just pull it out of your butt or decide to quote a meme you found on Facebook.)

13. Sometimes stories communicate better than points.

A whole back I made a list of the top 19 reason I left church and thought about posting it, but I realized after sitting on the post for a few days that each bullet point sounded so harsh and didn’t even begin to fully express the stories and heartache behind them.

For example, saying “I think church youth groups can be unsafe” is very different than telling the story of how when I was 14 one of my youth leaders, he was in his mid-twenties, began acting inappropriately — constantly looking for a chance to talk to me, emailing me every single day, sitting next to me and leaning on me, always trying to touch me, etc. It made me very uncomfortable, and the youth pastor, even when my mother complained, did nothing.

After I graduated from high school and moved out of the area, my former youth leader continued to stalk me online for years. It was creepy. And, to make it even creepier, he later made the local news because he was arrested for possession of child pornography and for sexually assaulting kindergarten girls — girls, plural — while working as a school bus driver. According to the news, the creep says there could be as many as 30 victims. It was nearly 31.

Do you see the difference? Saying “I think church youth groups can be unsafe” sounds judgmental, flippant, and harsh. Sharing the story — or even just a few facts from the story, like above — shows that sometimes, at least occasionally, church youth groups can be unsafe. And I believe this because I’ve personally experienced this scary thing firsthand. It takes it from a flippant, random point on a list to a personal, frightening story from my past. It makes it personal and relatable.

Obviously, you don’t have to tell stories that are so personal. But sometimes telling the story behind why you feel or think something or a story that illustrates a point you’d like to make can go over better than a list of what can feel like cold declarations.