Writing Craft & Practice

Exploring the boundary between skill and inspiration...    and a few other things

My radio interview: “singular they”

Have I ever mentioned that I ❤ DC,” by Ted Eytan, licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0, cropped from original

A radio host read my essay on they as a singular pronoun,  so I got to advocate for this usage on KGO ‘s Maureen Langan Show in San Francisco. I explained that in order to know for sure what pronouns someone uses, you need to ask. “That’s a lot of pressure on me,” Maureen objected. She wanted to know why she should go out of her way to use this  pronoun in such a weird, awkward way, so I told her.

It was a nice opportunity to evangelize a bit. Language is embedded deep in our brains, so even political progressives who support people who identify as nonbinary  often resist using they  to refer to a single specific individual. It just feels wrong. When my essay came out I got a range of messages, from which I concluded that people’s responses to language aren’t always logical.

Or they’re too logical. One person suggested that, logically, we should use it  for someone who isn’t a he or a she.  In my opinion people wouldn’t take kindly to being called it. So I suggested an experiment: try calling a few people it and see what kind of response came back. It makes an interesting thought experiment, doesn’t it?

Maureen was also curious about a different word-related issue, one that has surprisingly passionate advocates on both sides of the question: do you type two spaces after a sentence, or not? I’ll tackle that in the next post.


Let your unconscious solve your writing problems

I’m a writing mentor for a teenage girl, so I’m always looking for ways to help her dive beneath the surface level of her writing and connect with her own creativity. Often this means retrieving various lessons I absorbed from my own mentors over the years.

Here’s one that solves a lot of writing problems: go to sleep and let your unconscious do the work.


Embroidered bags from Greece, mid-19th century, New York Public Library Digital Collections

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More trumpery, and questions of “meaning”

found poem mind map

I didn’t intend to do another “found” poem from a Trump speech, but the following passage, sent by my friend Sallie Reynolds, was irresistible. It’s one single sentence.

You choose: read it first, or read the two poems below it first: by me and Winkie Ma, a high-school senior whom I mentor in a writing program. Found poetry was one of our assignments. I brought the passage to a mentoring session and each of us tackled it.

Here goes, hold on to your rational mind:  Read more

“Found” Trump poem


“Atlas Slave.” Photo Jörg Bittner Unna (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (http:// creativecommons. org/licenses/by-sa 3.0)], via Wikimedia Commons

This month’s assignment for my Girls Write Now mentoring program  was “found poetry.”

There are several ways to “find” a poem, but our assignment was an “erasure poem,” where you take an existing text and black out lines and words. The poem is what’s left, rather like Michaelangelo and the block of marble.

I was in a stream-of-consciousness sort of mood, so I  downloaded a transcript of a Trump campaign speech, and to my surprise—since I’m in no way a poet—produced something that I rather like. (WordPress doesn’t let me reproduce the line breaks nicely, so I turned it into a photo, below.) Read more

The Trojan Purse and the subversive woman

trojan-purseThis ten-foot high wooden purse on wheels was part of a week-long art festival in Prospect Park, Brooklyn. Happily for me the artist, Ethan Crenson, was on hand the day I came upon it, conducting dialogues with curious passersby.

Why a “Trojan” purse? Was it filled with some kind of subversive material? No, Crenson told me. It was empty. The idea was that everyone could project their own feelings or ideas into it—anger at capitalism, the political system, whatever. I didn’t ask him why he’d chosen to make it a purse—probably because my own imagination immediately supplied a rationale.

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My Girls Write Now mentee in Newsweek!

anthology coverEvery June, Girls Write Now, where I volunteer as a writing mentor for a teenager, publishes an anthology of specially polished pieces by that year’s group of girls. This year Newsweek ran a big story on the GWN program, featuring six selections from the anthology. And one was by my own mentee, Winkie Ma! I am beyond thrilled.

Her piece came out of one of GWN’s monthly genre workshops: Dystopian Flash Fiction. I had vaguely heard of flash fiction but had never met it, so to speak. I haven’t written fiction since my 20s, so a fiction workshop is a challenge for me. Adding a 500-word limit and making the piece dystopian didn’t make it easier. I was happy to find myself producing a bare-bones concept of a piece with a strong theme and a twist at the end that could actually be done in 500 words (currently on my list of things-to-work-on).

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Self-sacrificing women: free tipsheet for you

An issue that hasn’t gone away

Breaking women's culture of self-sacrificeHow many men would eat food they don’t like because their wife likes it? Or wear clothes they don’t like because she wants them to look a certain way? Women do these things all the time. I did them with my former husband.

In my book Slaying the Mermaid: Women and the Culture of Sacrifice, which uses Andersen’s Little Mermaid as an image of the ultimate self-sacrificing woman, I investigated why so many women feel obliged to put other people’s needs first—even when they don’t want to. I discovered that the self-sacrificing impulse comes from women’s history, not their nature.

Recently a therapist contacted me to say that excessive self-sacrifice was a big problem for her clients, and I decided to revisit this subject. I did more research and reporting, and the result is a brief new ebook, Mermaid No More: Breaking Women’s Culture of Sacrifice,  available for preorder at 99¢ at all ebook retailers (see sidebar) and in all formats.

Mermaid No more offers pragmatic, specific strategies for figuring out whether you too are a “modern mermaid” and for overcoming your own personal pull toward unhealthy self-sacrifice.

In the meantime, you can preview it by downloading my free tipsheet (see sidebar). Most women are prone to unconscious, involuntary, self-defeating self-sacrifice, due to our training in what I call the “culture of sacrifice.” See if you recognize yourself in any of the indicators.

And you can leave your own thoughts about self-sacrifice on the Mermaid No More web page.

A Jewish fable for adults

IllustratordefaultKelev’s Journey: A Jewish Dog Wanders Home, by my client David Hammerstein, is about to be published, and I’m just thrilled. I knew Kelev when he was first coming into the world.

David is a retired investment advisor who took up creative writing during a difficult time in his life. He found himself producing stories about Kelev, a black Lab who lives in Pittsburgh with an orthodox Jewish family. When Kelev learns about his Jewish heritage from his beagle buddy Schmalzie, he embarks on a spiritual journey as God’s mitzvah macher. Nosing through a thicket of thorny questions about Judaism in a quest to achieve tikkun olam and heal the world, Kelev becomes a leader among local animals, resolving disputes and helping neighborhood cats and dogs discover their own Jewish faith. Then he performs the ultimate mitzvah, and finds peace.

I’m far from orthodox, but I thoroughly enjoyed editing this delightful book. Not only is it a lovely expression of a truly universal, open-minded spirituality, but really funny. I read it over and over as it went through revisions, and I laughed at the jokes each time.

It’s a short paperback with adorable illustrations and will be great for adults to read to children (though first you want to read it for yourself).

You can “look inside” the book on Amazon.