It’s none of their business that you have to learn how to write. Let them think you were born that way. 
~Ernest Hemingway~


We start learning at a very young age which sorts of stories work, and which do not. Who our intended audience should be, and what reaction we’ll likely evoke. Have you ever witnessed a toddler doing something she knew she wasn’t supposed to do? Like saying a bad word, or throwing her food at the dog? And instead of getting reprimands, the toddler is rewarded with laughter–sometimes stifled, sometimes not–so the toddler repeats it. For the laughter. The smiles. Getting away with being naughty.

Once she learns how to speak, she can figure out the lines that’ll get her out of trouble, which ones don’t work on Mom, but will work on Dad. Which tall tales get her detention, which make her Teacher’s Pet. Trial and error, over and again, seeing which stories make new friends giggle, which ones makes them cry, and if she’s lucky, she’ll discern the best time to tell each.

That’s basically what writing is like, except it takes a hell of a lot longer for feedback.

Over the weekend, I visited the American Writer’s Museum in Chicago. The Ernest Hemingway quote at the top of this page was displayed on a screen there and I stood and stared at it a long time. I’d heard many of his quotes before, but not this one. I committed it to memory. An old-school, writerly version of Fake It Until You Make It. I’m not sure why, out of all the inspirational quotes I saw at the museum, that one stabbed at me the most, but it did.

I thought about it all day, wondered if some people really were born that way and never had to fake it.

Later that same afternoon we sat in a pizzeria, listening to conversations going on around us.

Okay, fine, I was eavesdropping. You wanna know where I get my dialogue? I eavesdrop all over the damn place and there’s nothing anyone can do about it (except maybe, you know, you all could talk a bit quieter when you’re in public. Seriously, the only people who give a shit about what you’re saying are those with ulterior motives, who wish to put you in a blog or story).

Anyway, a guy was sitting at a table next to us, by himself. He was maybe in his mid to late twenties. For a long time, he was too boring to pay attention to, so I’m not sure how, exactly, the conversation started up between him and the man sitting a table over. My ears didn’t perk up until I heard him say, “My girl’s in rehab. It’s been real hard, ya know?” and the second man say, “Oh, sorry to hear that, man. That’s rough.”

At this point, my Ulterior Motive Writer’s Ears switched on. (I keep meaning to ask my husband if my face glows when this happens. I feel like something Super-Powery should signal when my ears turn on.) The first guy–we’ll call him Tattoo Steve–said, “Yeah, she was drinking too much wine.” (This is the part of the story where I became dubious. Or in denial. I don’t know, whatever). And the second guy–Gullible Bob–was nodding in sympathy, and Tattoo Steve turned it up a notch. “Yeah, we’ve got a baby on the way, too. I’m just trying to get myself together for when she gets out.” Cue Gullible Bob coming in with more sympathy, words of encouragement, general shit you say to a person you don’t know who is inexplicably baring his soul to you.

Then my husband and I had to order our food or something obnoxious like that, and part of the conversation was lost on me. (There may have been a pint of beer somewhere in there, contributing to my distraction.)

Once our waiter was gone, and we’d held some conversation of our own to make it look like we weren’t trying to listen in on anyone else’s conversation, we tuned back in to Tattoo Steve being offered some of Gullible Bob’s leftover pizza, even though Tattoo Steve had his own pizza. They were fast friends now, chumming it up, Tattoo Steve spinning all sorts of stories that were tugging at everyone’s heart-strings. The pace at which he was leaving bread crumbs of his story was impeccable, it didn’t sound rehearsed at all, not like some sob stories you hear from pan-handlers or people who are accustomed to begging. This wasn’t some regurgitated script.

That’s what I thought until it came time for Tattoo Steve to pay, and he presented his bus card. To which his waiter said, “Well, uh, hey you can’t pay with a bus card.” As if Tattoo Steve didn’t know such a thing. I grinned wide at my husband. It was all a scam, that story-telling little shit was just making it all up (that was what my grin said, for those of you who weren’t there and couldn’t see it).

I was about to kick Hubs under the table and demand we pay for his pizza–the story-telling was entertaining enough to me to be worth it–when, of course, his new buddy Gullible Bob offered.

This guy was excellent. He had perfectly picked his target and waited patiently, trusting in his story to do what it needed to do.

I thought, maybe some people really are born knowing how to tell stories. I mean, sure, you have to learn where commas and periods go (maybe), and figure out style and syntax, and maybe a few more of those other grammar rules over-and-above comma placement (perhaps), but telling stories? Maybe sometimes it can’t be taught in a classroom or workshop or on a YouTube channel. Maybe it can only be conditioned into you by years of throwing food at your dog and seeing who laughs, who screams, and who gives you more food to throw.




writing. stuff.

I’ve been debating for the last two days, whether or not to write about my weekend at the Writing Workshop of Chicago. I don’t want anyone thinking I’m some expert just because I forked out some cash and sat in five seminars all day this past Saturday. I mean, it would be nice if you all just went along with my delusion that I’m an expert all the time no matter what I do.

After great deliberation, and getting much needed sleep, I decided, eh what the hell. Hardly anyone reads this anyway. So without further ado, here are a few highlights from my weekend at the Writing Workshop of Chicago, 2016.

1). Even if it is May everywhere else in Illinois, you still probably need a freaking winter coat in Chicago. Because, when you leave St. Louis in your tank top and flip-flops, there’s a good chance that by the time your train stops in Chicago, it will be 34 degrees and raining and you’ll find yourself flagging down a cab sans coat, wearing a tank top and flip flops, outside Union Station.

2)   Despite what you may have heard about literary agents, none of them seem to have hinged jaws created specifically for the purpose of swallowing whole the authors of shitty query letters and first chapters told in first person present tense.

3)  Even though I did not see any agents unhinging their jaws to eat wayward authors, it is still a really terrible idea to pitch a story that you haven’t actually finished writing yet. I feel like that one shouldn’t even have to be pointed out, but there you go.

4)  Do not wear high heeled boots to walk around Navy Pier. Okay, you’re now thinking that’s probably something I shouldn’t have to be told. Whatever smartasses, okay. You get a point.

5) Be prepared to edit. Edit, edit, edit. And when you think you’re done editing, you should probably edit some more.

6)  Even if it’s only 40 degrees outside and raining, apparently the Congress Hotel is going to have it’s fucking air conditioning on, so go ahead and just buy a coat to wear to the conference.

7)  For the love of God, quit finding colorful ways to say the word said. Like, seriously. Stop it. This isn’t just advice I’ve loved forever, it is also advice given by literary agent Abby Saul at the conference. Characters can just say stuff. They don’t have to always be huffing or screaming or proclaiming or whatever. Just cut it out already.

8)  If you feel intellectually in-tune with a person, you may have weird feelings toward them. Like even if they are of a gender/sex that you aren’t traditionally attracted to and even if they supposedly have a hinged jaw made for eating people who unwittingly step into their space and spew one too many adjectives, at some point, they may say something like, “It’s okay for characters to just say things,” and then you feel weird and wonder if this is something you have to talk to your husband about.

9)  Now that I really think about it, there was a huge period of time where I didn’t see any agents at all. So I’m not entirely secure in my assertion that none of them offed any of the writers at the conference.

10)  If you’re not writing some kind of Young Adult Urban Fantasy Romantic Paranormal Something-or-Other, you’re pretty much screwed. Don’t worry, I am too. So at least you’re in good company.

11)  If you want to hear from and about a lot of people who have been exactly where you are, and have persevered, a writing conference is a great place to go.

12)  Taking a break from your own brain is a good idea.

13)  Keep a notebook with you everywhere you go, because the best inspirations might not come from the conference itself. It might come from the guy on the train who won’t quit talking/singing/hitting on girls, or the homeless guy who keeps asking your daughter where his baby is, or the grandmother giving out dating advice to strangers.

14)  You should really figure out how to work the Twitter because apparently that’s a big damn deal in the literary world. Don’t ask me. I still can’t figure shit out on there.

15)  There are a lot of us out there, and there’s room for all of us on the bookshelf. (You know, as long as you don’t use too many adverbs, start your story with the weather, or sound like a walking Thesaurus.)

Actually, I’m not at all comfortable with #2 right now. I just wasn’t following them sufficiently enough to make an absolute statement about who what any of them ate for lunch.