The Bluebird Playbook :: Be so amazing they’ll wanna pay you double for the magic you make. (How to be a great freelance writer.)

What will you give up to get there? 

    THIS STORY IS DEDICATED TO MY MOTHER, who told me daily when I was growing up that I could be a professional dancer or writer someday, as long as I was willing to work hard and make a great many sacrifices. She told me to “be so amazing that they’ll wanna pay you double for the magic you make.”

Whenever a movie depicts a working writer character, she’s sitting at a desk in a Pottery Barn-esque home office, and her windows face out on a cool blue winter lake.

The writer character is wearing a messily-neat ponytail, a man’s shirt with the tails out (but not a wrinkle to be seen), and a pair of no-nonsense but well-tailored chinos.

The writer-character is almost always white, of a certain generation, well-to-do, and serene. In the scene I picture in my mind, the writer character is briskly sailing toward her latest deadline on a smooth medley of Kenny G songs in a fast montage with tons of good natural light.

The writer character’s reward for all of her labors will be a chaste kiss from her new lover, the somewhat freeze-dried-looking Jack Nicholson.

I can’t watch these things anymore.

As an actual professional writer who has been meeting actual print deadlines for nigh on two decades, I find these cinematic depictions daffy. Why isn’t that writer hip-deep in crumpled up notes from two-weeks worth of phone interviews? How come she’s not gulping her third pot of coffee that day because she’s got three deadlines to hit and five of her interviews haven’t returned their calls?

Where’s the part where she’s standing on her tip-toes screaming at the photographer who has decided—again—to hire his stick-sized girlfriend as the model for a story about stylish plus-sized professional clothes? How has her makeup managed to stay in place all day given that she’s gotten fifteen hours of sleep out of the last 72 hours, and she is about to start hallucinating right about now that Ernest Hemingway himself will type up her dictation of the last thousand words on Texas Gov. Rick “Captain Hairdo” Perry if she can make “Papa” coffee? Most of my professional writer friends also happen to be women of color— how come the writer lady is always nondescript and Angloi?

And WHY, for the love of Zeus, is she ALWAYS wearing chinos? Where are the &*#@ed up jeans? The huipils? The motorcycle boots? The permanent murderous look in her eye?

Hollywood may not be able to tell you what a freelance writer looks like and does, but I sure as hell can and will.

I know that many of you are antsy to do some freelance writing of your own, but you’ve been intimidated by the many different suggestions and approaches given by people who don’t know jack-s*** about freelancing or writing.

Maybe you’re already freelancing and you don’t know if you’re doing it the right way.

Maybe you think you might want to become a full-time freelance writer and you’re not sure if it’s a good move for you financially or otherwise.

I can’t tell you everything there is to know about freelance writing because I’m not interested in becoming omnipotent about theories of freelance writing, nor do I want to become some sort of ridiculous subject expert about the constantly changing marking of freelance writing. What I can tell you is what I do in order to fetch up a living as a freelance writer. And I will also tell you what I think of writing in general and in specific to help you see what kind of people write the words that you read (and maybe even enjoy!)

You may become a great freelance writer if:

1. You’re a real writer.

If you’re a real writer, you have developed the stamina to sit down and keep writing even when writing is going terribly. Why do you have to keep writing? Because you can’t imagine not writing. Because you have three deadlines today, two tomorrow, and six on Sunday. You have four phone interviews to do this afternoon; a studio visit plus interview with a painter tomorrow; and then the governor has got that ridiculous press talk sometime on Friday. Right after that, you will be running to the —— Theatre to review a visiting dance company’s show. That story is the one you will be filing by phone at 11 p.m. and the show ends at 10 p.m. (Yes, that means you’ll be writing the review in your head as you watch the show on stage.)


Deadlines don’t give a damn whether you’re in the mood or not or if you have a muse or feel “inspired” today. And no one’s interested in a writer that cuts corners by doing the minimum to meet the deadline— if you’ve been listening to “experts” who tell you how to churn out “quick content,” you need to rethink your role models, because no one actually wants to read a writer whose not actually interested in writing. And yes, there’s work involved with creating great writingii.

2. You’re willing to hustle.


Twice a week, you sit down with your notebook and your eye on the clock and you brainstorm stories. You put down any story idea that comes to mind— no matter how outlandish, or expensive, or odd. After you’ve spent 20 minutes penning a list (plus compiling any other story ideas you set out in the notebooks you keep in every room of your house/apartment), you go through and tweak any idea that is:


Banal — Everybody’s written this exact story. How can you freshen it up and make it new for your pitch? What special something do you have that you can to bring to the table that an editor can’t get from a staff writer? And don’t ever pitch a story you wouldn’t want to read— you’re going to get offered plenty of assignments that will require you to find a point-of-entry to help you keep it interesting for yourself and your readers.

“Leggy” — In my book, leggy means way more research than story— publications are always going to pay you by the story, but you need to bill yourself hourly. (Sometimes even quarter-hourly.) If you estimate a story you want to pitch will take 20 hours of interviews/research/writing/revising/editing, but you will be paid a flat fee of X dollars to do it— you’re not going to pitch that story because you don’t write for minimum wage. (There are exceptions to every rule— sometimes an editor might have more wiggle room in their budget for a truly spectacular story, but you need to present the time/money problem alongside your pitch.)

Time-sensitive — Is it two weeks from Halloween and you’ve got a Halloween feature? If it’s a newspaper feature pitch, shelve it for next year. Halloween story deadlines were firmed up by your features editors no later than the end of August (but you know that because you already did your October pitches in mid-August.) Magazine story? Maybe. Features and specialty editors at your favorite magazines are setting up next year’s schedule right now. (In this scenario, you already turned in the October copy for last year’s Halloween story to ——— Magazine back in June. You savvy?)


There’s a lot more to consider about ideas and pitches, but that information you can get from any recent copy of the Writer’s Market, a yearly publication that all writers buy at least every other year. (It’s okay to buy last year’s copy at a cheaper rate, just so you know.) Writer’s Market, and it’s specialized subsidiary publications Novel and Short Story Writer’s Market, Poet’s Market (and the Children’s Writer’s and Illustrator’s Market are your most invaluable resources, next to a shelf loaded with dictionaries, thesauruses, your AP Stylebook and at least one battered copy of Strunk and White. (What? You don’t own a copy of the Writer’s Digest 2014, 2015, or 2016? Go ahead and buy a copy now, darlin’!)

How far are you willing to go? (Two.)

3. You give a great pitch.

Okay, so let’s jump to the part where you call up your editor in New York or you go down to visit “editors’ row” at your local big daily, toting your notebook with this week’s list. Make sure you call and find out when the best time is to catch your editor’s attention— don’t call and launch into a pitch to her if you know she’s on deadline every Monday. Generally, don’t ever launch off like that— it’s just kinda rude. When you do have your sit down or phone call with your editor, be prepared, be well-fed and if necessary, caffeinated, and you had better have more than one pitch at the ready. In all ways, you want be warmed up enough to think on your feet and throw out fresh pitches if something comes to you on the spot.


The components of a good pitch are a simple two-sentence question, followed by a list of potential resources for the story, closed with all the finishing touches to make your editor’s job easier, such as photographs, graphs or artwork, and any sidebars or follow-up stories.


If you were pitching the story you’re reading right now, the pitch might go something like this, articulated at lightning speed to an editor who has 30 seconds to spare. Okay, go:

    Something I’ve been wondering about lately are these experts who claim to know a faster system for writing. What does it actually take to become a freelance writer? Why do we mystify how writers work, especially in a day and age where content aggregators like The Huffington Postiii swindle scabs and untrained writers to work indefinitely without pay? I’d like to call the features editor of Glamour magazine and ask what they look for in features writers, maybe Atlantic Monthly, as well as the story editor for Salon to find out what they recommend professional freelancers do in order to properly pitch a paying story to Salon, and four freelance writers who seem to show up everywhere I look. I think this story might look great with a visually enticing hand-written checklist that a reader could cut out and use, as well as a drawing of different types of writers all grouped together in a bouquet, respectfully in the style of Herschel. (Wait for response from editor.)

Several things might happen after your pitch: The editor might have already gotten a great pitch for a similar story from another freelancer and she’s already committed to running that story. (It happens more than you’d think. That’s why you come with five pitches, not one.) The editor might like the story, but s/he might want you to call different people than your original dream list of interviewees, or s/he might shift the story in another direction entirely, so get ready to take a boatload of notes.

Or s/he might say, “Not today. What else have you got?”

Okay, that pitch is yesterday’s newsiv. You take a big breath, and kick off your next pitch.

    Even though self-portraits are an established trope amongst artists and photographers, the rise of the “selfie” appears to have changed people’s feelings about self-portraits. Is the self-portrait dead? Has there ever been a time before iPhones that the market became deluged with artists making self-portraitsv?

4. You know how to stay hungry.

A good writer is satisfied with an ordinary writing life. Regular deadlines, familiar work, a routine. If you want to aim for writing as well as the greats, you will always have to remain unsated. Unsatisfied even. Take pleasure in your work and your accomplishments, yes, but look higher, try harder, do more. Always.


Because the question you always have to ask yourself at every turn of your writing career is how far are you willing to go? There was a famous writer who was driving down the street on his way to a well-earned vacation with his family when the entire ending of his novel came to him in a bright flash. That writer turned the car around and drove home with his terribly unhappy family because he needed to finish his novel. Right then. (How long do you think that marriage lasted?)

Who will you be when you get there?

The harder question I have to ask you is on which side of this story do you land? What if that was your novel? What if your publisher was down your neck because you were butt-up against the deadline for your next book? What if that was your bright flash?

Would you turn around and drive back home knowing you had it in your hands— the whole schlemiel, the shot at the Great American Novel— knowing full well that the cost would be the trust of your spouse and your children?

If you turn around right now, those two kids in the back seat are going to have the worst childhood memory ever featuring you as the most evil person in the universe. If your marriage was on the ropes, do you think your spouse is going to understand why you’re turning around?

Again, we’re talking about the Great American Novel. This is the effing dream, people. Without even batting an eyelash I can think of three living writers that would step over their grandmother for a shot at the Great American Novel. And all you would have to do… is turn the car around.

Just think about it.

5. You can take a punch and come up swinging.

The greats might have been unhappy, unhealthy and lonely people no matter what they decided to do with their lives. Writing does not make writers unhappy on the main. Writers write because writing is one of very few things that makes them happy. (And when it’s going well, it’s better than food or… well, a lot of things. Yeah, I’m serious.) A driven, hungry writer is going to be confronted with some truly untenable moments in her life that she will have to negotiate on her own terms, probably more than once.

And crazy things will still happen even if you figure out where your limits lie. Right before I went off to graduate school, I had a dead month— No stories. No work. It was disastrous. All of the editors at the big newspaper where I did most freelancing at the time, allowed me to pitch an ungodly number of stories to be written in the three weeks before I moved across the United States for the first time in my life to start an MFA at a school I had never even seen. Because The Husband was working out of town, I also had to pack up our entire apartment by myself.


How did I do it? I went out and bought a stack of frozen meals and ten pounds of coffee and asked the manager of the grocery store if I could take home any cardboard boxes they planned to throw away anyway. Then, I sat down with a bushel of legal pads and started making phone calls.

I wrote 27 stories in the 15 days before I left for Los Angeles. Every single story ran in the newspaper where I freelanced at the time, save for three. One of them was unwriteable— yes, that happens. (Yes, I know that’s not a word.) Sometimes a story turns out to have no legs at all. You call your editor right away and lay it out for her, let her decide whether to cut it or to change it. Two of the stories didn’t work out after they were written and I was given a kill fee vi for them.

As for the move, a friend came over and helped me pack the entire house in a single night. (S— if you’re reading this— I love you. Respect.)

Those incoming checks for 26 feature stories saved us grief in those first rough months in Los Angeles.

But they also serve a larger point when I feel as though I am flagging or if I question my natural existence as a writer. I will always know that I was once the 24-year-old freelance features person who wrote (and styled) some 27 stories in three weeks for the — — daily. Even as recently as last year, I was hired to do a tight turnaround production gig for a TV station— and though I’d never done TV production work before, I took the freelance gig because a) I would be working for a producer who was very kind and very talented and very willing to work with a “green” producer. And b) because I know who I am— I can do a good job under a tight deadline. No dramatics necessary. I wouldn’t have even been considered for the job if a really talented blogger and freelance writer from my area hadn’t recommended me— which she did, based on nothing but my writing on Bluebird Blvd. and my background as a dancer. (She had no idea that I actually worked for some of the same publications that she’d worked for. Isn’t that something?)

6. You know who you are.

I am a writer. I know how to hustle legitimate work. I sacrificed a lot to get here, and I worked crazy hard to learn how to write well, and I am still working hard to become a better writer every day— because I want to work hard at writing. I am not a character out of a movie. I don’t even own a pair of chinos. No one is humming a montage of Kenny G songs while I’m working towards this deadline for y’all. (If you were to sing a Kenny G medley at me right now, you’d better be wearing a big ol’ helmet and running in a serpentine pattern while you sing because I will throw a shoe at you if you distract me when I am writing.)

Besides all that, Texas lakes tend to be festooned with water moccasins, silent snakes that glide like oil over any tranquil freshwater surface, apt to sink a set of startled poisonous fangs into a local human thigh without a lot of provocation. But I’ll take that natural light while I’m working, though— if it helps me meet my deadline, by golly, I’ll take it. I’ll take most anything to soften that permanent murderous look in my eye.


i. The only sort-of exception to the rule that comes to mind is Emma Thompson’s harried, heavy-smoking, spaced out portrayal of novelist Karen Eiffel in the wonderful Stranger Than Fiction. (We actually own two copies of this movie— one for the ranch and one for the house.)
ii. I’m sorry, but you cannot be a great writer and a great marketer— the two professions have mutually exclusive goals. A writer is always shooting for creating something that will last an eternity, and that takes more work. A marketeer focuses her dreams on this year’s lame BMW and 10,000 eyeballs per day on her web presence. (Can you tell I don’t think much of marketing?)
iii. The Huffington Post generally does not pay would-be writers or writers with no journalism credentials. If you have professional ambitions, it would be best for you to consider other avenues for growing your clips instead of this place. Should you have any questions about how The Huffington Post “works”, you might want to read this tidy little piece of doublespeak: How The Huffington Post Works (In Case You Were Wondering). I can tell you that I personally would never write for The Huffington Post, and I wouldn’t have written for them twenty years ago, when I was starting out. Plus, you only need to write about three stories (and only three) for free for anyone before you start doing professional pitches. Go anywhere but The Huffington Post, please.
iv. Here’s something you must know how to do: An editor will say, Can you re-pitch that from a different angle? What that means is you need to take the seed of the idea (in this case, freelance writing) and come at it from a completely different direction. This is much harder to do than it sounds, but if you’re as neurotic as I am, you always have Plans B through F already lined up. For all your pitches and for just about everything else in your life. So, there’s that to consider too, okay?
v. This pitch is this Sunday’s Our Sunday Best Are you excited? I’m excited!
vi. A kill fee is half the original pay you would have made if the story ran. You cannot re-sell the story because it belongs to the publication now. But they bought it when you pitched it— so you get a kill fee. Never, ever write a story on spec (speculation— no promise of pay), unless you have the assurance of a kill fee.  

A NOTE about the WRITER’S MARKET: If you’ve never owned a recent copy of the all-purpose Writer’s Market, I do highly recommend you keep a copy that is relatively new (printed within the last three years). The specialized versions of the Writer’s Market are great, but please go browse the reference copies of the Poet’s Market et. al. at the local library first before you buy. These books are not particularly economical if you’re only going to use them for one project. (If you’re in a spending mood, I’d suggest you buy more books written by the great writers in the writing field you’re pursuing, actually.)

BUT if you’re going to freelance write, you’re really going to want to make your job easier and get some kinda recent copy of the Writer’s Market. If you’re self-publishing, the Writer’s Market also puts out a yearly Guide to Self-Publishing and if you’re hunting for a literary agent— that is, an agent that handles fiction, they have a Guide to Literary Agents. I also get the Photographer’s Market every few years too.


The Bluebird Playbook (No. 2) :: Brace for Impact in Three, Two. . .

Roaring Back: Remembering Maurice Sendak


The Big Green Book


For M.L.
An unseasonable thunderstorm crisscrossed South Texas on Monday night. 

It smashed and kicked outside the windows of my office. 

While lightning x-rayed the trees, I tried to work my way through a set of revisions that curled on the page into a stubborn knot of gnarled roots and words.

After two hours of sweat-hard writing, I put my pen down.

I sat in my chair in the dark and listened to the storm growl and snap.

It rained on and off through the night. 

I woke yesterday to a thin thread of light and to the death of Maurice Sendak. 

He had experienced a stroke several days before, and his body yielded the way bodies do to great trauma.  Sendak was 83.

I was devastated.  Why?  Sendak had a wonderful adult life, mostly. His childhood was grim, but he made his peace with it. He had a strong partner for many years.  He left great art.
The Big Green Book

If you think that my devastation over Sendak’s death has something to do with my childhood, it does not.

You see, I never stopped reading children’s literature. 

Pictures books. Easy readers.

Whatever lit ghettoized[i] name you want to apply to it— any artist-writer who can transcend mere pictures and words? I’m there.

In short, I never stopped reading Sendak’s art.
The way I read children’s literature deepened, strengthened, as I aged. 

My mother and I continued to check out books from the children’s section until I was old enough to take the bus downtown alone to the library. 

On my own, I still checked out children’s lit— and I watched larger themes of love and loss and mystery emerge— rendered in crisp language with exquisite art. 

I was learning about illuminated manuscripts then, too, like The Book of Kells, so these books for children had special portents and signs.

As this was my mother’s area of special interest, she began to tell me stories, some apocryphal, about these mythical writers and artists who made an impact on generations of readers.
She has two stories about Maurice Sendak.

These tales remain wrapped in the cloth of her vernacular, a language as stylized as a Japanese furoshiki covered present. 

I hope to unfold them carefully for you.

Every artist I know gets The Fear[ii]

When I was in my 20s and things got bleak between writing jobs and projects, she’d tell me the apocryphal story about the time that heavyweight Maurice Sendak met Tomie dePaola in Italy, and one artist asked the other— Do you ever fear it will all go away someday?  The other answered.  Yes, absolutely.

Imagine it!  She would say again and again when I’d call tense with The Fear. 

Imagine these two prolific geniuses sitting down to lunch with an interpreter.  And this? Is the first question on the table? Do you ever fear it will go away someday?  Yes, absolutely.

The second story she tells comes up when I call her with a different fear— Do I tell the story?  What if people yell?
The Big Green Book  by Maurice Sendak and Mallory McInnis
She says— Remember In the Night Kitchen.

This phrase is code for Sendak’s seminal 1971 book— which folks have tried to ban off and on because it has a child with no clothes on this page here and that page there.  

When those folks can’t get the book banned, they deface it by covering up the little boy with a Wite-Out diaper, or some other nonsense.

It’s one of my mother’s favorite books, and my own as well— In the Night Kitchen captures that landscape of the fantastic and the banal that populates all children’s dreams.

The subtext of my mother’s code is— What if Sendak didn’t publish In the Night Kitchen?  What if he bowed to popular opinion?  What if his publishers had balked?

That book mirrored my nightly dreamscape as a child. I sleep-thrashed my way through vivid narratives. 

Picture books like The Perky Puppy were not going to help me understand the synaptic tango my brain improvised night after night.

I needed a darker and sweeter tale. A story much more like actual childhood. In the Night Kitchen explained dreams to me and so much more.

Plus, Sendak’s children aren’t like the children in other stories.
In Sendak’s stories, children were children.

His characters refused to do as they were told.

Lions threatened them.   His children roared back.


Childhood is a fantastic and terrible business, really.

Sendak said famously that he did not write children’s books.  He wrote, and then people told him that what he wrote was for children.[iii] And then he grimaced.

Beause Maurice Sendak, unlike the rest of us, never forgot the complexity that once knotted all of our tiny faces.

It rained all morning yesterday. I sat in my office and wondered at the cool weather, wondered at my own sadness at Sendak’s passing.  

Between watching interviews with Sendak all day, I asked myself the questions that float under the wet skin of all rainy days— how will I proceed?  What artists light the way ahead?

Today, it will rain again. I’m still asking hard questions.

Oh, Sendak. 

I owed you a greater debt than I realized.  You were fierce and true to what you had to say on the page.  Today, I place your name on the altar of my hopes and dreams.  

All these years, you gave me courage and asked for nothing in return. 

The lion roars.  I roar back.

The Big Green Book


[i] The ghettoization of genre literature— including children’s books, science fiction (Speculative Fiction), mysteries, et. al.— is an ongoing issue and a potent one.  Hence, the loaded term “literary ghetto”— which gets used— a lot— with a great deal of symbolic weight.


[ii] “The Fear” is an idea coined by Hunter S. Thompson.  It’s mentioned as a drug reference in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas.  My friends and I use this phrase casually to refer to artist’s/writer’s block.  It’s apt.


[iii] Stephen Colbert interviewed Maurice Sendak in 2011, which my friend J. and her friend A brought to my attention— Maurice Sendak on The Colbert Report Part 1, Maurice Sendak on the Colbert Report Part 2. The intrepid artist M.L. recommended the NPR compilation of Maurice Sendak interviews as well.


*Thanks to Mallory McInnis for the great Sendak reference images.


Instant Bluebird! Make the Song Go Bang! (A Quick Lester Bangs Primer)

Lester Bangs singing. He had quite a set of pipes.

Music reviewers were of several stripes during Lester Bang’s heyday. Some of them were just yes-men with press badges, others were imitators of Hunter S. Thompson and all those wannabe Gonzo journalism guys, and there were people like rock writer Nick Kent, who could be considered rock criticism’s unintentional stuntman.  (He’s been beaten up by just about everybody.)

And then there’s Lester Bangs— he looked like a slob, he sounded like a college professor and he ate other rock critics whole to amuse himself.


Really, Bangs still stands out from his peers: His dedication to the writing craft and his ardent never-gonna-let-ya-go-baby love of music proved to be a potent mix for future generations of rock music listeners.

Without further hooha, here are a handful of rich sources to help you find your inner Lester Bangs:

A word of caution, though— at unpredictable moments you will find that his writing will be NSFW. (I mean really NSFW. It’s a brand new world of NSFW. You think I make up words? I’ve got nothing on this guy. Mine are totally SFW, though.)


Richard Hell, originally of the seminal NYC punk band, Television, wrote this moving essay, “The Right to Be Wrong,” for the Village Voice when “[amazon text=Main Lines, Blood Feasts, and Bad Taste&chan=default&asin=0375713670]” was released in 2003.

Here’s a delicious quote from Hell’s short essay:

Nevertheless, of all the most highly regarded rock journalists (say Tosches, Robert Christgau, Marcus, and the execrable and excremental Richard Meltzer) Lester was the only one who valued self-doubt and who actually seemed to like the music more than he liked himself. Lester was a critic who reserved the right to be wrong, which seems to me admirable.


Cousin Creep maintains a full copy of a really rare audio interview with Lester Bangs being interviewed by Sue Matthews. A full transcript is also provided. You can find short interviews on YouTube, but most of them are rehashes of some drunken things he said about Roxy Music’s Brian Ferry. This interview is much more comprehensive. I am so glad it exists, and so grateful that blog Cousin Creep maintains this legacy.


While doing the research for my Lester Bangs Mash Note, I discovered a new resource on WordPress called Rock Critics. Rock Critics created this scrumptious list of Lester Bangs-related links. The sources are comprehensive and fair-minded. I considered other possible sources before choosing this one. What I discovered, though, is that many blogs copied a single Bangs’ essay in its entirety without any source attribution. Go to Rock Critics and be pleased to note that RC uses legit sources with real attributions and links.


To round off this Instant Bluebird, I found a gorgeous and heart-glowing audio recording on YouTube of Lester Bangs and his protégé, rock musician and writer Peter Laughner, goofing off and playing music in the offices of Creem. The link is to part 1 of 10.


We really should write about rock writer Nick Kent sometime soon. He’s a little bit more complex than my pithy statement up-top implies. I think what I like about Kent as a rock writer is that he used to be intentionally gullible for a story.

Blithe doesn’t really cover this sort of thing, and insane is overreaching. You see, Kent would wander into situations that he knew were seriously hazardous to his own health/sanity/bank book, and then write about them after.

I don’t recommend this lunatic method he employed in his youth— I’m just amazed that he managed to pull out of a nosedive each and every time and make his deadlines with that dogged journalist’s commitment to good writing that has always been the gold standard for print publication work. Love it.

Bathing in the Flames of the Fire I Built

Proud as...

One of the singular pleasures of my life is laying up in bed with the lamp on, reading a book. 

I’ll read anywhere I’m put.  

But my first instinct when I have a book in my hand is to get horizontal— floor, bed, couch— any flat surface will do me.

I’ll even take a bench if that’s all there is, and I’ll tuck my elbow behind my ear to keep from getting one of those hard bench headaches.

Two or three days ago, I found myself horizontal and sideways on the bed and reading— with a stomachache.  I pulled up my knees and yanked up the sheets.  One hand absently rested above my abdomen. 

The book on the bed that day was Flannery O’Connor’s Mystery and Manners:  Occasional Prose.

I don’t know what you’ve read by O’Connor, but she’s an American writer from the South— one of the writers who got lumped in with the New Gothic Fiction crowd back in the 1940s.  

As a further insult, she got lambasted for about everything you can think of that doesn’t sound useful.

Critics took her down for being too Southern, too grotesque, too darkly comic, too religious (She was Catholic.), not religious enough, too accessible, and too inaccessible.

Oh— and mean.  The critics loved to call her mean.

Nobody was thrilled with the fact that she was a woman, writing, either, but in those days, being a woman was an ongoing insult no matter what you did.

Besides putting up with critics, O’Connor had lupus, early, hard and young. (She died at the age of 39.)

That gal really couldn’t win for losing.


She could write.  Better than me, anyway.  Better than most people, living or dead.

It’s the one thing O’Connor could do, and she did it well, and she was quite sick from her twenties onward and that’s all there is to it.

When she was called upon to speak about writing around where she lived (she couldn’t travel much when the lupus progressed), O’Connor wasn’t about to waste her time or yours making you feel good about your sloppily constructed story.

She honestly didn’t care what you thought.  She was going to tell you what she knew.  And that takes sure aim.

This book I was reading?  Basically, it’s a collection of speeches where Flannery O’Connor goes on a tour nailing every writer to the wall like she was collecting the pelts of any ink jockey who overused passive tense verbs. 

Good for her.  Time is short.  And art is long.

As I lay up there in the bed, I found myself laughing so hard my stomach hurt bad-awful.  But, y’all, I couldn’t help it.

All I could think as I alternated between laughing and gasping from the pain, is that O’Connor was no different than any of my mentors.

I don’t know what it is about me, but I have always had real teachers, the kind that won’t mess around, the kind that could, and did, say, “This is not good enough.  There’s more in you than what you’ve got right here.  And now I’m going to tell you why.”

The true mentors I have in my life, I think we picked each other, and they knew— and know— that when I’m in, I’m all in.  No going back.  And I know this about them, too.

O’Connor wanted writing more than she wanted anything else.  And she wanted it to be good writing.  She didn’t want to fool around with folks who were trying to make a quick buck off a bad story, or as she put it in “The Nature and Aim of Fiction”—

    They are interested in being a writer, not in writing.  They are interested in seeing their names at the top of something printed, it matters not what.  And they seem to feel that this can be accomplished by learning certain things about working habits and about markets and about what subjects are currently acceptable.


And that’s one of her nicer statements.

I was born with a furrow between my light brown brows.  It’s only gained depth and width over the years.  I didn’t have much of what I’d call a childhood— I had dreams and I had a family who helped me get to those dreams as quick as I could because I had a lot of work in front of me. A life like that will deepen any furrow.

The furrow used to bother me, but that set of vertical lines stands for something I knew from a young age. 

Real art?  It is play and a ton of work.  If you’re a messing ’round type, you get a messing ’round art. 

I want to think that you (that I, that O’Connor) bathed in fire of our own making to put this story on the page in front of you, of me, of us all.

The stomachache shuffled off by the evening, but what I read that afternoon stayed in my gut.

I’ve been writing and laughing for two days because Flannery O’Connor gave me a talking-to about what I love most, which is writing and making art. In that same essay, she rounds out her wallop by saying—

    Now in every writing class you find people who care nothing about writing, because they think are already writers by virtue of some experience they had.  It is fact that if, either by nature or training, these people can learn to write badly enough, they can make a great deal of money, and in a way it seems a shame to deny them this opportunity; but then, unless the college is a trade school, it still has its responsibility to truth, and I believe myself that these people should be stifled with all deliberate speed.


I told you the first excerpt was one of her nicer statements.  Now you believe me. 

That furrow between my light brown brows? That furrow means I’m paying attention. That furrow means I earned it the hard way. I got that furrow from laughing, too.

But, mostly, I earned that furrow by bathing in the flames of the fire I built. I’m building that fire right now.

And if I do it right, do it as a deliberate, meaningful act— it will crackle and pop for the both of us.


Mash Note Dept. | Joan Didion



Once, a long time ago, I moved to Los Angeles, a city so large it defies the description of city.

The traffic from my apartment sounded as thick as an ocean, day and night, and the ocean, the few times I got near it, sounded like traffic, volatile and crashing and endless.

And in this place a long time ago, I discovered a writer I had not read before— whose voice, brittle and hard, made me tremble at the knees.  I was brash then, and a little mean on the inside, and I was under the mistaken impression that I knew what I was doing.

I read Joan Didion’s Slouching Toward Bethlehem in a single afternoon while sprawled on an olive green vintage couch with a curved back and brocade upholstery.  I was cloaked in jeans and a black t-shirt and a scowl.  (That was my uniform when I lived in L.A.  I wore a pair of broken-down black cockroach-stomper boots too.  It was all of a piece, really.)

That warm musty gold light of a Los Angeles sunset flamed and flared over the dingbat apartments through my useless picture window.

The view was traffic and crumbly ‘60s apartments like my own.  I turned the last page of the paperback copy of Slouching.  I closed the back cover with care, and still lying on the couch, I set the book on the cheetah-print hand-painted coffee table to my left.  I stared at the popcorn ceiling for five minutes, ten, and then, I swung my legs over the side and sat up abruptly.

And as I sat up to watch the sun burn out like the last red ash of a big fire in the window behind me, I knew then for the first time, really, something somebody should have told me, anyone, a stranger on the street, even.  Someone needed to put a hand on my mean little shoulder and say:

You don’t know what you’re doing, and you never will.  That is why you are a writer.

Well, to be honest, I don’t know if I would have listened had someone gently or rudely passed along this important bit of information.

It’s possible someone said this to me and I brushed it off.

It’s also possible that, had someone said this to me, I would not have understood what she was trying to say.

Joan Didion had to say it to me.  Not personally.  In one afternoon, and one book of essays, I learned the hardest lesson I had learned to that date:

You’re never gonna know what you’re doing.  Nobody does.  Especially writers.

Let me unfold myself off of that old olive green couch for a minute, and look you square and make Didion plain.

Joan Didion is a writer that many people picked up in the last few years due to a memoir she wrote about dealing with the death of her husband.  Now, she has a second book out that covers the horror of losing her daughter Quintana Roo, within months after her husband died.

What I find though, is that most people aren’t rooting around to see what else she has written.  Had they read The Year of Magical Thinking closely, they would have noticed that Didion’s first reader, the one who read all of her drafts, was her husband.  A fellow writer.  Had they read a few other things, they might have discovered that she lost her editor Henry Robbins, 33 years ago.  He was her second reader.

Here’s something to know about writers–all writers have primary and secondary readers.  These people, whether they are writers, editors or mainly a keen friend with a good eye, are the ones that the writer is writing for and to and any other preposition you can think of. 

We don’t even fit in the picture.  We are what arrive after the thing is written.  We are not participants in this process.  We are observers of the artifact that is left after the writer and her readers have done the dance of draft and redraft, revision and notation.

Didion’s readers were gone.  She remained.

It’s in her soul to survive, and when you read her early essays and fiction, you get the sense that she was rooting around, even then, looking for the survivors, trying to understand what makes a person take this path instead of that one.  This choice instead of that one.  

She wasn’t mean then, nor is she mean now.   However, Didion had an uncanny knack for hearing sirens in the night, for being with the wrong people at the right time, for watching things fall apart.

And between the lines of the essays in Slouching Toward Bethlehem and the one before that, The White Album, you know she too is trying not to fall apart, trying to hold it together.  She picked up her pen in a quiet room.  And she took out her notes and her clippings.  And she thought of her first reader, her husband John Gregory Dunne, in the next room. 

And she thought of her editor Henry, all the way in Manhattan, as she sat in that room in a row of dying mansions in Los Angeles of the mid-’60s.

Her pen touched the paper.  Her mind stroked the match of an idea into a light.

I imagine this essay, On Self Respect, written for Vogue, was first scrawled in this way in the middle of the night:

    In brief, people with self-respect exhibit a certain toughness, a kind of moral nerve; they display what was once called character, a quality which, although approved in the abstract, sometimes loses ground to other, more instantly negotiable virtues…. Nonetheless, character—the willingness to accept responsibility for one’s own life—is the source from which self-respect springs.

Should you decide to read more Didion, I will tell you her words will trick you into thinking that what is happening in front of her was all under control. 

You may even mistake the reading as a pleasure because her hand is so steady with words and phrases, starkly poetic.  When you walk away though, you too may learn what I learned that long ago day on a couch in a dingbat apartment watching the sky flame and go out over Los Angeles:

We don’t know what we’re doing.  We’re trying to know what we do.  That’s why we’re human.

Today I still read Didion.  She’s another touchstone for me, a reminder of the way words can be tools or weapons.  I handle her work carefully; keep an eye on my own pulse.  Didion may be small in stature but she knows her weaponry and she knows how to use it.

Four years ago, I found a copy of a first edition of The White Album.

I tucked it into my bag the day that I took my old sole-broken cockroach stompers to a cobbler who specializes in hard luck cases like these old black boots of mine.  I sat in the waiting room of his small building, staring over the counter at the heavy machinery and the man weaving in-between it, a small man with a starched oxford shirt and an old heavy apron that brushed against his knees as he walked.

As I waited and watched, I read the first sentence of Didion’s White Album:

    We tell ourselves stories in order to live.


The cobbler called me to the counter.  He carefully looked over my boots, the broken seams of the fancystitching on the shaft , the trim pulling away from the dip at the tops, the bombed out interior where my feet had beaten down the insoles, and finally the soles themselves, splintered into so many pieces.  He sighed.

Mi’ja, these boots. You see this?  Had you brought me these boots before you tore the seam here, maybe then, I could have repaired them.  Like the ones you see up here on the shelf.  They look new, but they are not.  You did not care for these boots, and now…”

The cobbler shrugged expressively.

“…I am sorry.  You will have to find a new pair of boots.”

I thanked him in a small voice, and took my broken boots home.  I put the boots on a shelf and let them gather two year’s worth of dust.  I put The White Album on a shelf in another room, and that too, gathered dust.

Someday soon, I’m gonna get me another pair of boots.  A pair that I will shine and moisturize and love.  I’ve learned to protect my books from dust. 

And I learned how to wash away that mean little streak I’d been carrying around like a pebble in a boot for years. 

I may not know what I’m doing.  In fact, I’m glad I don’t.  What I do know, most days, is how to protect and nourish what I love.  It is good enough.  It is the toughest thing I own these days.


The Cultured Cowboy provided me with a well-written refresher on the names of the anatomy of a cowboy boot.

As you consider this essay, and Joan Didion,  please keep in mind that I only really discuss two of her early collections of essays.  She is an accomplished novelist as well,  and with her husband,  wrote several screenplays that became famous movies.

To know more about Didion, I find my way in her work by reading this interview from The Paris Review published in 1977.  Though this interview did not inform this essay,  I think it reflects Didion in a light that is not overly precious.  And I love that,  as I do not think Didion sees herself as overly precious.