How to be a writer

How will I know when I’m a for-real writer? Will I one day just stop giving a damn, start sewing a flask in my jacket pocket and slipping things like, “You must take risks!” and “Show, don’t tell!” into everyday conversation?

And why are stereotypical writers always drunk? Better yet, why am I NOT drunk?

Wait, am I drunk?

"How to be a writer" Comic by The Oatmeal

Source: The Oatmeal

So I’m sitting here, drinking (orange juice), reconsidering my technique, and I suddenly recalled a thing by James Parker I read a few years back that deconstructed the way society romanticizes the traditional “literary bad boy.”

“It’s the question every writer faces, every morning of his or her life:

… Do I sit down with my pumpkin latte and start Googling, or do I fire a couple of shots into the ceiling and then stick my head in a bucket of absinthe?

… in the end, who cares? Drink, divorce, insanity, firearms: all beside the point. The work is what counts. Who was badder than Emily Dickinson, housebound and life-abstemious in Amherst, Mass., but kicking open the doors of perception with every poem? The real mischief is on the inside. Get it down on the page. Break on through, but don’t forget to click “save.”

… Hone your disciplinary habits, in other words, labor fiercely and in grim sobriety to create the imaginative space, and then let that bad boy run wild.”

So I guess I can skip the bad acid trip and high-stakes cock fight I had planned for tonight.

But, right? I mean, everyone’s turmoil manifests differently. For some it seethes quietly below the surface, and for others it’s all breaking dishes and chain smoking on a stranger’s stoop until you’re shooed away with a broom. In the end, you just have to do the work. Or at least, that’s what I hear.

Still, I can’t help but wonder whether I’m digging in deep enough, if the hours of writing I squeeze in while standing on the subway, tapping out one-handed lines with my thumb, count as writing like a motherfucker or just make me the MTA’s most irritating strap-hanger?

So okay fine. Pour me another.

Related: Sentences I Wrote While Trying to Write Like a Motherfucker

How to be a writer via The Oatmeal


The Thing You Love

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round & round we go

A post shared by Jean Jullien (@jean_jullien) on


It’s been another week, folks, and — surprise, surprise — I am once again behind on nearly everything I had wanted to do, such as, oh, I don’t know, writing another post for this here blog.

Of course, it’s partially a matter of what I choose to put first, but factoring the wearisome 10-to-6, the 70-minute commute each way, the emails to return, the taxes to sign, the X-ray bills to pay, the last-minute yoga class and the hurried “namaste”, the clothes to fold, the fingernails to trim, the trips to plan, the coffee spills to wipe up with a napkin picked out of the trash — somehow, after all that, those precious spare minutes always seem to escape my grasp.

Do what you love…in between work commitments, and family commitments, and commitments that tend to pop up and take immediate precedence over doing the thing you love. Because the bottom line is that life is short, and you owe it to yourself to spend the majority of it giving yourself wholly and completely to something you absolutely hate, and 20 minutes here and there doing what you feel you were put on this earth to do.

Seems like everyone I know is suffering from “full plate syndrome” lately. Some days, honestly, it feels like mine’s a limp paper plate of day-old salad from the office kitchen or a week’s worth of stale peanut butter and sugar-free-jelly sandwiches with a bite taken off the top.

So you decide: is this oldie but goodie from The Onion a knee-slapper or a tear-jerker?

For me, I suppose it depends on what kind of lunch I ate.

Happy Friday. Do what you love, y’all.

Instagram art: by Jean Jullien.

Quote: via Find The Thing You’re Most Passionate About, Then Do It On Nights And Weekends For The Rest Of Your Life.

Reading Aloud

This past Friday G and I set aside our excuses and went for a lovely little date night out. We were yearning to do something out of the ordinary, seeing as we spend quite a bit of our free time at home, working alongside each other and taking periodic breaks to eat cheese and watch HGTV reruns.

We decided to see if we could get last-minute tickets to Radiolovefest’s Selected Shorts, which was playing nearby us at BAM. After snagging the best available seats at the box office, we purchased two sippy cups of white wine and settled in to be read to by the likes of Cynthia Nixon, John Cameron Mitchell, Anika Noni Rose and Amy Ryan.

Radiolovefest Selected Shorts, March 2016

Radiolovefest Selected Shorts, March 2016

If you’re not familiar with the series, Selected Shorts is a weekly public radio broadcast of short fiction, as performed live by a rotating cast of actors. Our evening’s theme, “Dangers and Discoveries,” is not currently available on their podcast, but they do offer an excellent selection of readings for free.

This was truly a show made for both of us. For Gregg, who is a sound editor by trade and who also happens to be working on John Cameron Mitchell’s next film, the rhythms of the live performances and the echoing soundscape of the theater were a pleasant departure from his carefully controlled post-production cocoon.

For me, of course, there was the writing. Hearing the intonation of the words and the natural flow of the sentences reminded me how strongly dialogue informs storytelling.

My favorite short was, “Pie Dance” by Molly Giles, which I could only locate a digital copy of in this excerpt from The Flannery O’Connor Award: Selected Stories. A memorable passage follows:

… “I know I am boring. I am growing dull as Mrs. Dixon, Konrad’s mother, who goes on and on about her poodle and who, for a time, actually sent us birthday cards and Christmas presents signed with a poodle paw print. I clasp the broom with both hands and gaze fondly at Stray. I am too young to love a dog; at the same time I am beginning to realize there isn’t that much to love in this world. So when Pauline says, “Can it do tricks?” I try to keep the rush of passion from my eyes; I try to keep my voice down.

“He can dance,” I admit. 

“How great,” she says, swaying on the railing. “Truly great.”

“Yes,” I agree. I do not elaborate. I do not tell Pauline that at night, when the children are asleep, I often dance with him. Nor do I confess that the two of us, Stray and I, have outgrown the waltz and are deep into reggae. Stray is a gay and affable partner, willing to learn, delighted to lead. I could boast about him forever, but Pauline, I see, already looks tired.”

Delivered beautifully by Cynthia Nixon, the story burst alive with the line “I don’t know what to do about my husband’s new wife,” and continued to carefully peel open, layer by layer, until it revealed its delightful, twisting core. Do read it. Read it aloud, even.

John Cameron Mitchell, reading “Joplin and Dickens” by Padgett Powell, was animated and uproarious. But to me, the standout performance of the night was Anika Noni Rose’s soulful portrayal of Ruby in Megan Mayhew Bergman’s “Hell-Diving Women” — an unnerving tale of love and violence in America’s first integrated all-girl swing band.

I don’t manage to fit much live radio into my schedule, and in the past I haven’t committed fully to any particular podcast, but I think I may have just found my newest addiction.

We ended the evening deliriously happy and, as usual, deliriously hungry, so we polished it off with pulled pork and cornbread at Smoke Joint, as you do when you’re craving highbrow comfort food.

Feeling sated and staring at Gregg over our empty plates, I suddenly remembered how early in our relationship, I would read stories aloud to him on a car trip or in bed on a lazy, sunny morning. I’d break my book spine backward and begin, shakily at first, and then slowly my voice would give way to the words, which flowed sure and true, ready at last to tell their story to someone new.

A Meatball Walks Into a Bar

I’ve been feeling pretty pleased by all these “official” days March has been serving up in the last week or so.

Hug Me I'm 1/2 Italian

Hug me, it’s 2008.

Immediately following International Women’s Day, the good citizens of America were bequeathed with National Meatball Day, which I fully intend to celebrate this weekend by tucking into some saucy balls with my “Hug Me I’m Half Italian” bib simultaneously tucked into a pair of high-waisted sweatpants.

(Watch out, New York. I’m redefining the way high-fashion and meatpacking intersect.)

Also, apparently last Friday was National Grammar Day, so here are Seven Bar Jokes Involving Grammar and Punctuation, from the McSweeney’s archive.

A personal favorite:

“A dangling modifier walks into a bar. After finishing a drink, the bartender asks it to leave.”

If you need me, I’ll be at The Meatball Shop stretching out the old nerd-pants.


What’s in a Jot?

“Take this down, Smee.” – Captain Hook.

Jots are snippets of writing. They can be long or short, finished or unfinished, spontaneous or planned.

When you keep replaying a painful conversation in your head, jot it down.

When you’re scarred by the image of a subway pigeon pecking at a chicken bone, go ahead and jot that down, too.

When your Great Aunt Lena regales you with tales of how tough it was working on a farm in Italy as a young girl — well, you get the idea.

Just get it down.


The Jot is my process. It’s about letting my work be in progress so long as I’m doing the work.

It’s also about focus. So while I’m practicing wordplay and storytelling, I’ll also be feeding my brain with content that keeps my writing muscle lean, and sharing that here, too.

Naturally, you can expect some muddled, ugly paragraphs and more than a few botched “jots.” But hopefully, somewhere in there, you’ll also find a word or two that resonates — something that makes you stroke your beard or your double chin and say, “Huh.”

Welcome to The Jot.