Taking My Own Writing Advice: For Pete’s Sake, Make Something Happen!

Working on new novel at ungodly hours of the morning. Now following advice I give writing students when a story stalls. FOR PETE’S SAKE, MAKE SOMETHING HAPPEN! So relinquishing control, I just let a character hop on a scooter in Shanghai w/ a guy she never met. She’s looking for _____; he said the magic words. Oy. What could go wrong? He was smiley, after all.

On Process: Writing & Faith in the Invisible

I’ve got one novel published & out in the world (Thirsty, Swallow Press, 2009); I’ve got one novel in the publishing pipeline (The Art of Floating, Berkley Books/Penguin, 2014); I’m now writing the third. Here’s what’s happening in my writerhead world.

I don’t understand very much at all about the novel I’m writing. I’m just putting my head down, telling the stories that come to me, and trusting that some day on some page in some draft down the road, the women—who all go to Shanghai for one reason or another—will feel so familiar to me that I will believe we had coffee at Starbucks earlier in the week or that I remember meeting each one at Jamaica Blue on Wulumuqi Road in 2010. Or maybe it was 2009. It’s a funny thing to trust in the invisible, to have such faith in the imagined, to believe that this is creativity, not pure insanity.

Hiatus: #38Write Writing Workshops

Last week I announced awesome-blossom news (novel!), and today I’m announcing some not so awesome-blossom news. Due to current insane life pressures (mamahood, job, writing, book coming out, tightrope-walker, etc.), I’ve decided to put #38Write writing workshops on hold for a while.

I know, I know! Boo on me!

I’m just having a hard impossible time not falling off the tightrope, and I need to get a little balance back in my life. As all of you know, helping writers grow, sharing my love for culture and place, and connecting the world via story is one of my great passions, so I’ve not come to this decision lightly.

But don’t worry. I’m hoping to be back in kick-arse workshop mode soon!

In the meantime, get into writerhead as often as possible, write your bloody hearts out, and then write some more.




Gumbo Put Me Into Writerhead

Here’s the tweet that put me into writerhead today:

Heard! Gumbo is a philosophy says @Wyntonmarsalis over @poppyt pot of gumbo for @CBSSunday @paigekk lockerz.com/s/276149155 (via @garnerla)

How brilliantly inspirational is that?

“Gumbo is a philosophy.”

If I had time (and oh, I wish I had time), I’d run with that line.

But for today, I’ll have to be satisfied that I got into writerhead, even if it wasn’t followed by writing.


Writerhead Wednesday: Changes Comin’ Round

For the last year and a half or so, I’ve started most Wednesdays with this:

“Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.”

file000255302390As we move into 2013, that’s going to change. While I’ll still feature cool authors’ writerheads from time to time AND I’ll still (always & forever) be writing and speaking about writerhead, Writerhead Wednesday is no longer going to be a weekly feature.

I know, I know. I’m going to miss it every week, too. But I’m feeling the need for less structure on this blog and more freestyle. After a year and a half of Mojo Monday, Writerhead Wednesday, and #38Write Fridays, I’m moving away from such a regimented schedule. I’ve got lots to share about writerhead, #38Write, global writing communities, books, inspirational stuff, and more. I’m creating the space and place for me to talk with you about whatever is bubbling. And there’s so much a’bubbling.

[Please note that I am looking for a new home for a Writerhead column. If you are an editor (or if you know an editor) of an online literary journal, I’d love to talk with you about offering Writerhead as a dynamic feature. Please get in touch.]

See you soon!

Mission Inspiration: This F’ing Hunger: #2

Here’s what I confessed on Facebook last night:

“Confession: I’m in one of those periods when I’m ready to chuck it all—teaching, eating, showering, blogging, Tweeting, trimming my toenails, etc.—to write.”

You! You’ve felt this, too, haven’t you? This f’ing hunger.


#38Write: The Oct/Nov Writing Workshop Is Open for Registration

#38Write—my global writing initiative—is a monthly series of online writing adventure workshops for place-passionate, culturally curious writers around the world. Each writing adventure focuses on one particular aspect of craft or the writing life (for example, writing kick-butt descriptions), and during each 38-hour adventure, writers connect with me and #38Write writers around the world via a Twitter hashtag and a group Pinterest board. In the September workshop, we had 13 writers in 8 countries.

The *October/November #38Write writing workshop is open for registration!




November 3–4.


$38 (U.S.)

How to register?

Easy peasy. Click over to the CLASSES pages.


#38Write is a writing adventure workshop designed specifically for place-passionate, culturally curious writers that will get you out of your house—no matter where you live—and into your environs.

In June, I launched the first #38Write online writing adventure with #38Write | Description.

In July, I continued with #38Write | Structure, which went forth with 16 writers in 9 countries. One of the assignments for that workshop was to define culture without using a dictionary, thesaurus, or other reference tool. It sparked some pretty spectacular definitions (read them here) and a lively conversation on Twitter.

And in August, 16 writers in 8 countries participated in #38Write | Peregrination. Though the writers are still nursing their blisters, they wrote some pretty amazing pieces about walks that connected them culturally to places. (Read those here.)

Most recently, in September, 13 writers in 8 countries explored experiences when they either fit in or didn’t fit in during #38Write | Square Peg, Round Hole? (You can read a few of their short pieces here.)


  • Each writing adventure is 38 hours long. It’s a manageable amount of time that fits into anyone’s busy schedule. (Good gracious, no, you will not be writing or adventuring for 38 hours straight. I’m ambitious for you, but not crazy. You will need approximately 2-4 hours to work during the 38-hour period…give or take an hour.)
  • Each writing adventure will focus on one particular aspect of craft or the writing life. You will not be writing an entire essay or short story (but you might accidentally do so). Some adventures will focus on a skill, like writing kick-butt descriptions; others might get you to look at what inspires you or how you move from idea to writing; all will encourage you to engage with and explore the culture in which you’re living.
  • During each 38-hour period, you’ll be able to connect with me and #38Write writers around the world via a Twitter hashtag. (How cool is that?!)
  • You will get feedback from me. (For more info about me, click here.)
  • Terrific for folks writing fiction, essays, memoir, or poetry.
  • Beginners and experienced writers are welcome and encouraged to join. There are some of each (and everything in between) in every workshop.
  • It’s affordable. A single #38Write writing adventure costs only $38 (U.S.).


While living, writing, and teaching writing in the U.S. and Shanghai, I learned (and/or relearned) a number of things:

    1. Each of us has a heck of a lot to learn from folks in other countries (and not usually the things we think we need to learn).
    2. Story is an international conversation that can help us better understand one another.
    3. By helping writers from all over the world to improve their craft, I can play a wee role in facilitating this global conversation.
    4. Writing is recursive. You must practice. (And if I do say so myself, I’m pretty darn good at getting writers to practice.)


#38Write adventures are designed for all place-passionate writers, including expats and repats, globetrotters, armchair travelers, nomads, cultural spelunkers, deeply rooted souls, mapmakers and mapbreakers, wanderers and wayfarers, voyagers, and all writers interested in exploring and writing about their environs.

So, yup, if you’re asking, #38Write is probably for you.

To learn more and sign up for #38Write | Habits, visit CLASSES.


*Yes, this particular workshop is a combo…Oct/Nov. I’ve got something special planned for December so I needed to double up on these two months.


#38Write: If You’ve Ever Felt Like a Square Peg in a Round Hole

38Write—my global writing initiative—is a monthly series of online writing adventure workshops for place-passionate, culturally curious writers around the world. Each writing adventure focuses on one particular aspect of craft or the writing life (for example, writing kick-butt descriptions), and during each 38-hour adventure, writers connect with me and 38Write writers around the world via a Twitter hashtag (#38Write) and a group Pinterest board. Lots of good work getting done.

The theme of September’s #38Write workshop was Square Peg, Round Hole? Thirteen writers in 8 countries participated. After reading a number of essays, articles, and blog entries, as well as watching the oh-so-hilarious episode of the “I Love Lucy” show I’ve embedded below, I asked writers to write a couple of pieces, including a short piece about a time in which they either conformed or did not conform to a cultural reality.

Here’s what a handful of the brilliant #38Write writers put on the page:

 Anita | U.S.

Two weeks after starting work at the convent, Sister Mary Alice questioned me about my religion. After taking her medications, she asked “Are you Catholic Anita?”

“No, Sister”

Her wimple framed her sudden frown. “What religion are you?”

I squirmed under her scrutiny. I was raised Methodist but I now follow the Buddhist philosophy. My mind raced through the ramifications of telling Sister Mary Alice of my fall from Christianity. If I told her the whole truth my role would change from being her nurse to being her project, so I told a half-truth. “I was raised Methodist, Sister”.

Fingering her rosary she gave a weak smile. “I’ll pray for you dear.”

I had become a project after-all.

 Meena | U.S.

I landed at La Guardia airport dying to see the gregarious America sculpted by my childhood staples of Archie comics and slapstick sitcoms. It was summer of ’96. The immigration queue labeled ‘Aliens’ was long. Me, the alien waited for my turn that finally was about to come. Before me was an old Indian auntie who spoke little English. She had her papers in order but was finding it hard to understand the official’s question on the length of her stay. Rolling her eyes, the New York official bellowed the question to the helpless auntie. I stepped forward, past the yellow line saying I could help translate. “Ma’am, step back,” barked the lady official. I heard few sniggers behind my back and felt embarrassed. When my turn came to stand by her window I instinctively knew that my entry to USA was going to be unpleasant. She scanned the front, back of my passport and papers. I was invited to offer database programming expertise for an organization that’d sponsored me for 4 months. She then, handed my visa stamped for 3 months. Finding my voice I stated that the program was for 4 months. “You Indians, you are here more than in your own country,” she said insultingly, waving me away. Offended, I pointed to the company letter and said loudly, “Well, an American company invited me. Your country lacks qualified people to do specialized work and that’s why I am here.” It was petty but heck I wasn’t going to take the slur silently. Maybe it was my anger. Or maybe because she wanted to reserve her bullying for another alien, she became quiet, turning her face away.

The friendly Indian auntie standing beyond the counter smiled at me.

Jennifer | S. Korea

Dongjin told me the stories in moments of vulnerability, the two of us alone and intertwined in the black of night. How his father was separated from his parents at the start of the war, his terrible survival, his persecution as the relative of a Communist, the deaths of his wife and first child. I was filled with sympathy for this man I had never met, and fantasized that I could be the perfect daughter-in-law, a balm to him in his old age.

It didn’t last long. I ground my teeth when he told me that women were responsible for happiness in the home. I nodded when he told me to smile more and always speak with a light, pleasant voice. When he blamed a fight he and DongJin had had on my influence, I only bitched to DongJin about it.

But when he started to give me advice about my child I put my foot down. He told me that long-term breastfeeding would create a wimpy, “Momma’s boy.” He accused me of starving Jae because I wouldn’t follow him around and feed him. He told Jae that no one would play with him if he cried. Lacking the ability to argue well in Korean, I ended up lashing back with the same frustrated, dismissive, petulant tones he used to me. Then I’d repent, turning my anger into analysis: He’s taught himself suspicious of happiness; it never lasts. He deals with his anxiety by constantly preparing for disaster. He doesn’t know how to talk to people, he only knows how to command and scold. For a while, the only solution that worked was to pretend I didn’t understand what he was saying.

Ten years later, I still bounce between good intentions and imperfect execution. But I’m proud that Jae can say, “I used to think that Grandfather was nagging me all the time, but now I realize that that’s just how he says he loves me.”

Rocio | Belgium

When I was six years old, I was supposed to go to Morocco with my parents and my brother after Christmas, but I got a fever. My parents decided to leave me with my grandparents and go anyway. I was just enough feverish not to be fit to go, but it was nothing serious. Going to exotic Morocco, wasn’t a prize for me. We used to go very often as we had some relatives there and my parents loved it. The trip was a nightmare, a whole day in the backseat of the car dividing the space in two halves with my brother. This is before highways existed in Andalusia! After almost a day driving, we had to cross the Gibraltar Strait in the ferry for a couple hours, maybe more, and then at the end go to the border and pass the control. And this, too, was long before any electronic passport was in use.

So I was really happy to be left behind and stay. My grandma cooked everyday delicious stuff; even her fixes of Christmas turkey were transformed in amazing homemade cannelloni. I wonder now, if I didn’t fake that fever somehow… But, always a but, I had to accompany my grandparents to church, oh god! I was so nervous before going! Already that young, I knew it, I was a square peg in a round hole, dying to fit in. I had heard at school about god, angels and all the paraphernalia, scary. When we entered the church, I was wishing my grandparents wouldn’t go sit in the firsts rows. All I wanted was for time to go by quickly, me unnoticed; and all I could see were the images of the saints, with those decrepit and melancholic marble faces.

Being in church was hell for me. The mass began. Each and every single part of the ritual, I was absorbed by all the procedures, now stand, now sit, now do the cross… all I wanted was to get it right and all I was imagining was the priest pointing his long thin finger to me, lightnings and thunders accompanying his gesture, and saying out loud: YOU!!!! It was martyrdom. And then the mass finished, I was still there, alive! Back home to a dish of hot cannelloni.

Maria | U.K

I failed miserably at being a free-spirited student during my university years. You know, the kind of student who studies like crazy during many sleepless nights, but who also parties like an animal when the occasion appears. When I was 19, fresh into Journalism school, and for the first time living alone in a flat in Bucharest, all I could think of was getting a job, earning money, and standing on my own two feet. Escaping from under my parents’ tutelage had been my dream since first year of high school. While other freshmen were learning the ropes of how to get from A to B in the Capital, I got my first job—working nights in a media monitoring centre, smoking two, three packs of cigarettes a day and feeling damn grown-up. I seldom attended parties, never took a trip to the mountains with my friends, and didn’t touch alcohol for about three years. Sadly, it also took me almost six months to actually get to know my university colleagues. At a time when I was supposed to learn all about the hot places to hang out in Bucharest and enjoy my longed for freedom, I incarcerated myself in a job, learned the ropes of office politics, and got almost eaten alive by my older, well-versed work colleagues. After the four years of study were up, I suddenly realized what I had missed. And that’s when the bitter taste of regret started eating at me. All I could show for during my college education were a few paychecks, a lot of working week-ends and an untimely coming into adulthood.

Writerhead Wednesday: Featuring Yuvi Zalkow

Welcome to Writerhead Wednesday, a weekly feature in which a brilliant, charming, remarkable author talks about her/his writerhead…a precious opportunity for looky-loos around the world to sneak into the creative noggins of talented writers and (ever so gently) muck about.

I know y’all have been wanting to sneak into Yuvi Zalkow’s writerhead ever since you caught word of the publication of his new novel A BRILLIANT NOVEL IN THE WORKS. [And, yes, I know I’ve been using the term y’all a lot lately; see Dinty Moore’s intro last week. Sometimes I’m southern.]

Me, too.

Though I do think that in Chapter 1 when Yuvi (the character in the book, not the author) says to his wife, “Hush, I’m trying to work,” he really should have said, “Hush, I’m in writerhead.” Maybe Yuvi (the author) will update this in a later printing.

Regardless, I’m delighted Yuvi agreed to yak about his writerhead when I asked. A BRILLIANT NOVEL IN THE WORKS—like Lydia Netzer’s Shine Shine Shine—is going to be one of my favorite novels of the year.

Now, as you know, there’s to be no stomping around in Yuvi’s writerhead. Any stomping, hollering, hooting, or other disruptive behavior and you’re out!

Got it?

Good. Let’s go.

1. Describe your state of writerhead (the where, the when, the how, the what, the internal, the external).

It’s funny because much of my writing is not really in writerhead, or at least not in my version of writerhead.

Oops. Now I’ve made it so I have to describe two things: writing in writerhead and writing in non-writerhead.

OK. First writerhead: Writerhead is when I lose track of time or day. I skip meals. I forget to do the shopping that I promised my wife I would do. Sometimes this happens on my laptop in a cafe. Or sometimes on my iPhone in the bathroom stall of my day job. It can happen with a notebook and pencil with me pulled over on the side of the road. Or a park bench in the shade. It is where I get so immersed in my story that I barely register external sights and sounds. Or else it might be while I’m blasting that instrumental Beastie Boys album (seriously!). It could be when digging through a critical scene in my novel or when I find the perfect voice for my storyteller. Or when I finally realize how the story must end. Writerhead is more than just in my head. It feels likes every part of my body and everything around me. I worship writerhead.

But most of the time, I write in non-writerhead. Writing in non-writerhead is when I’m thinking about that email I have to respond to. Or when I decide to check my twitter timeline. I’m thinking about my flaws as a parent or husband or as a human being. I worry about friends who are sick. I think about my taxes or the bad book review I just received. I awkwardly chip away at a scene and I see that the writing is bad. Or worse than bad: it is empty. I try again. My two hour window has suddenly become twenty minutes because I wasted time telling a poop joke on twitter. But it’s even worse than that: it was a poop joke that no one liked enough to retweet! While I’m working on my novel, I start thinking about an unrelated essay I want to write. I read a blog post that makes me depressed. I should call my parents and check in. My throat hurts. I’m sleepy. That picture on the wall is crooked. Maybe I should straighten it. Time to pick up the kid from daycare. I have squandered so much time!

I think both these spaces are essential to the writer. This is what I wasn’t warned about. Those crappy moments at the table are essential too. I produce meaningful stuff in non-writerhead, even if it is far less efficient. Sometimes I can channel that difficult emotion of being in non-writerhead and use it effectively in my scene in a way that writerhead might not have offered me. Or perhaps non-writerhead is where I organize and tame the few bursts of brilliance I produced during writerhead.

2. What happens if someone/something interrupts writerhead? (a spouse, a lover, a barking dog, an electrical outage, a baby’s cry, a phone call, a leg cramp, a dried-up pen, a computer crash, etc.)

I get resentful as a first response. And then I begin to feel like a failure… What is wrong with me? If this happened to [other-writer-I’m-jealous-of], they would be able to keep writing beautiful things. But for me, it spells disaster.

But I can also sometimes use that frustration from being interrupted as fuel for my writing. For instance, I’m writing about a character right now who has these grand aspirations but is always falling on his face, never achieving what he dreams to achieve. So my own interruption from writerhead can produce a disappointment in me that is useful when writing from the point of view of my character.

3. Using a simile or metaphor, compare your writerhead to something.

Forgive this total cop out, but writerhead is a place I’m not sure exists except during those moments when I’m in it and then I’m so immersed in it that it feels like there is no metaphor that could properly pay tribute to it. But then it’s gone and all the second-rate metaphors come back: the river, the sun, the light, the seed, the marathon, the plane, the clouds, the thunder, the explosion, the sex. But to hell with all those f***ing metaphors! I just want to get back into writerhead!

BIO: Yuvi Zalkow’s debut novel (A BRILLIANT NOVEL IN THE WORKS) is now available online and in stores. He received his MFA from Antioch University and his stories have been published in Glimmer Train, Narrative Magazine, The Los Angeles Review, Carve Magazine, and others. He is the creator of the “I’m a Failed Writer” online video series and has been rejected more than 600 times by reputable and disreputable journals. Visit his website at http://yuvizalkow.com.

HIGH-FIVE: If you’d like to give Yuvi a high-five (or encourage him to rewrite that line that I mentioned above so that it includes the term writerhead), here’s where you can find him: website, Twitter (@yuvizalkow), and Facebook.