• April is National Poetry Month!

    Prose writers can click here to find one way to honor their poetry fellows. See what Pacific Northwest poets are doing in April here.
  • I’m a writer, too!

    On 12.01.09, I estimated that I had about 32,000 words left to write to complete my first draft of the opening book in my paranormal mystery series, THE LOST & FOUND.

    Here's my progress updated 2.12.10:

    33% of 32,000 (10,648 wds)
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Live writing workshops for Kitsap WriMos and bloggers via the Park District!

ATTENTION National Novel Writing Month participants (aka “Wrimos”) and newer bloggers! If you live in Kitsap County or the downtown Seattle area, please consider enrolling in the different workshops I now offer live through the Bainbridge Island Metro Parks and Recreation District.

THIS SATURDAY! Four spots left!
Blogging 101 for Writers (BIMPRD #523310, $40), Sat Oct 10, 10am-3pm
Now’s the time to get that blog started! I’ll help you set up a WordPress blog and give you tips for writing, managing and maintaining content.

SIGN UP THIS WEEK! Starts Sun Oct 18!
Team Rainbow! National Novel Writing Month clinic (BIMPRD #523311, $80), Sun Oct 18-Dec 6, 1-3pm *no class 11/29
Ready to take on the task of writing a 50,000 word novel in 30 days? Let me help you get there. I’ve succeeded twice and am a better writer for it. 

Complete class citations on page 15 of this Park District PDF

BIMPRD landing page with registration instructions and log in


Interview with author Jennifer Culkin

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I am more fascinated than ever with creative nonfiction. Whether it’s memoir, a collection of personal essays, or creative journalism, the narratives of people’s lives inspire and inform me in ways that straightforward biography simply doesn’t.

Recently I read an amazing collection of personal essays by local author, Jennifer Culkin. Her book, A Final Arc of Sky, recounts her experiences as a critical care nurse and life-flight medic within the framework of her life as a working mother with multiple sclerosis. I found the depth of her narrative astounding and truly appreciated the intimacy of her essays because they illuminated a lifestyle I’ll never be privy to myself.

Today I offer an interview I recently conducted with Jennifer; we chatted quite a bit about the writing life in general, and what follows are insights into her world that readers of the Writer’s Rainbow blog are sure to glean something from.


An Interview with author Jennifer Culkin, author of the memoir, A Final Arc of Sky

Writer’s Rainbow: What is the greatest pleasure you take from writing?

Jennifer Culkin: It feels like a form of wrestling to me—muscular, up-close engagement with feelings, ideas and language.  When I sit down, I usually have something sitting in my gut that has arrested my attention in some way, but I don’t know exactly what there is to say about it.  I write in part to discover—with as much precision and specificity as I can—what there is to say about it.  Tremendously satisfying.  It hits any number of sweet spots.

WR: Do you have a particular weakness in your skill set or process that continues to hound you as a writer?

JC: Oh, there are a lot of things.  The worst is that when a deadline is coming up I’m a horrible procrastinator, and ultimately that’s as painful as ripping out fingernails.  But I don’t know how to change that about myself.  I’ve tried all sorts of schedules and mind-games but the writer in me seems to be a balky teenager who wants to sleep late.  Sigh. And I’m a slow writer.  That’ll never change. 

I’d also like to write a novel, but I’m not a great plotter.  I do think I have potential to improve in that area—it could be fun to make the effort to improve in that area.  And I’m sick of my own tics as a writer.  If I’m boring myself, I’m boring the reader.

WR: You’re a busy working mom. Are you an everyday writer, or do you just write when you can fit it into your schedule?

JC: When I work at the hospital, my day starts at 4:30 AM and I don’t get home until about 9:15 PM; work is a fast trot/total immersion for twelve hours and there generally isn’t a minute available on those days, unless I were to try to jam something into a notebook at lunch. 

Usually I do a desultory crossword puzzle at lunch and luxuriate in the sensation of sitting down.  But those long days enable me to work 2-3 days per week instead of 4-5.  I do write something every day I don’t work—whatever I feel like writing unless I’m under a deadline.  When no deadline is looming, I amuse myself.

WR: What’s your favorite writing “situation”—where and when do you like to work best, and with what tools?

JC: I’m a computer girl.  I love the glowing blue-blank page, the tactile click of the keys, and my process is completely dependent on the ability to edit as I go.  I don’t know what will happen if the end of the world comes and the lights go out permanently.  Or if MS worsens to the point I can’t type.  I dread that day.  But I suppose I’d adapt, like people do.  

I have an office-loft that overlooks the living room in my home, and because of the office chair and adjustable computer screen it’s physically the most comfortable place to write for hours—my neck and shoulders thank me.  But the informality of the laptop in other locales also has its little siren call.  Once I’m engaged with what I’m writing—once I’ve achieved escape velocity—I can do it anywhere with any amount of background noise.  Right now I’m sort of half watching the Tour de France.  Boys on bikes!

WR: Describe any writing rituals you might have.

JC: I always feel like writing first thing in the morning, so most days I do, right after I make the killer cup of coffee.  When I’m working on something serious, I put on these old black corduroy pants that have an elastic waistband and I sit down in my loft.  If I’m stuck or feeling particularly procrastinatory, I either journal about it so I can bitch to myself or I deal myself out three Tarot cards and divine my future.

WR: Do you ever play music while you write?

JC: I did it once—listened to Green Day’s American Idiot on my MP3 player while I worked on the “Night Vision” chapter of the book.  It was fun—almost addictive fun—but the voice in the chapter took on punk overtones.

WR: You’re an avid cyclist. Do you ever lose yourself in thoughts about writing while trekking around on your bike?

JC: I love riding because I can think about everything in the universe while my legs are busy.  The feel-good neurotransmitters start to flow and take the edge off everyday anxiety. 

I’ve also noticed that my physical abilities transiently improve when I engage in vigorous exercise.  The physical and biochemical changes that occur during exercise must make nerve impulse transmission more efficient across those damaged areas in my brain and spinal cord.  

It’s also my chance to listen to music as much as I want.  Mudhoney, anyone?  The straight life baby/has taken its toll/confined your mind and/stolen your souuullll…yup, it’ll get you up a hill.

WR: Your book, A Final Arc of Sky, is a memoir about your life as a critical care and life-flight nurse. However, you also interweave in the narrative your discovery of what would be the eventual diagnosis of MS.

I’m interested in the intersection where nursing, writing and multiple sclerosis meet: how does encountering each of these facets of your life inform the others in this trinity? Does nursing inform writing, does writing inform self-care for the MS, does the MS inform you as a nurse?

JC: Hmm, a complicated question.

Physically, for me at this stage, MS is like carrying around a 20-pound backpack all the time.  I’m not so severely impacted that I can’t do things I want to do, but my energy is extremely finite.  It goes, it goes!  It always goes before I’m ready for it to go.  My energy is like the caboose of the train I ran to catch, disappearing into the distance.  And once it goes my neurologic symptoms—dizziness, balance issues, tremor/fine-motor impairment, spasticity, deficits in memory and information processing—get worse, sometimes a lot worse.  Too tired for too long and I’m setting myself up for a flare—that happens about twice a year at present.  

So I have to husband my energy.  I can push myself—I’m the sort who will push herself—but sometimes that backfires.  It’s not always the right answer.  Critical-care nursing in my current setting is demanding physically, intellectually and emotionally, so I know two days a week I’m going to have to go all out for 12 hours, 17 if you count the commute. 

On one hand, I think it improves my endurance in the big picture, like cycling does.  My natural inclination as a person is to put out a huge, focused effort followed by sloth.  This is why 12-hour shifts in an intense specialty appeals to me.  In college and grad school, I was the type who wrote 30-page papers the day before they were due.  But now that sort of effort is often too much for me. 

I manage by working part-time.  I manage by having low domestic standards and expectations of myself.  We’re talking cracked paint and weeds.  I manage by living in the now.  I don’t know what my abilities will be later in the day, next week or next year.  I judge minute to minute what I can do and screw the rest, frankly.  When I truly CAN’T throw my leg over my bike or start an IV anymore, when it’s an absolute, then I will at least know I did it when I could.

Artistically, nursing uses a whole different area of my brain as opposed to writing.  It’s immediate, scientific-analytical, highly social, and cracks along at record speed.  Writing is both a physical and an emotional release from that.  It’s sedentary, solitary, ruminative and painstaking—I can give myself all the time in the world to sort it out and get it right. 

The way they balance each other is almost exquisite.  When I write I’m sitting down, physically resting, and I get a chance to think about what I’ve done.  A chance to think about all the little things that I noticed while I was taking care of patients, and while I was living life, but had no time to dwell on.  And writing is a safe place to explore my feelings about MS. 

My circle of family and friends is supportive, very supportive, but they have their own problems and in my estimation they shouldn’t have to worry about mine any more than I can help.  I don’t want to whine to them.  So I can have my unadulterated say about MS in a journal and it bothers nobody.

WR: You like to journal and it was your journaling that helped bring this book into existence. What piece of advice would you give to the would-be author who is considering a practice of journaling?

JC: You only have to please yourself when you’re journaling.  That’s the beauty of it.  Whatever your practice is, it should feel good—organic–to you. 

 If you have to force yourself to journal, then it might not be the right thing for you, or so says my sulky inner teenager.  Your journal should be a place of release and rest.  I have a lot of writer friends, and everyone’s idea of journaling seems to be different, which is great.  Some people only journal by hand, some people draw in their journals, some people collect tactile bits of life and stick them in their journals.  Some jot down cryptic phrases and ideas for development later.

My own journal is a place of focused play.  Extensive focused play, all in Word documents with weird little titles that clue me in to what I wrote about.  I zero in on something that intrigues me, bothers me, sticks with me in some way, and I tend to explore and develop the theme. 

I love tinkering with the craft of writing, with the language, punctuation and construction—it feels satisfying to do that, and in fact, that is how I become engaged each day in whatever I’m writing, I start by tinkering with what I’ve already written.  So my journal tends to be dense, to read like a piece I might publish, but I can be no-holds-barred honest and the pressure is completely off. 

I don’t journal with the idea that I’ll use any of it, but then I’ll find myself working on something and I’ll realize oh, I’ve already written about that.  I tell a story to myself in my journal, and sometimes I can then tell others the same story, or modify some of it for use.  

Writing is art, and art is not linear.  A journal isn’t linear, either.  So if your natural tendencies as a writer are anything like mine, this style of journaling might be useful to you.  It is time-consuming, though, without any certainty of payoff in the real world.

And a word about e-mails: I have some lovely, talented writer friends who are generous with their ears and their time, and I sometimes exchange pretty extensive e-mails with them.  This is one way I procrastinate, true, but sometimes there is good stuff in these e-mails and I can use it later.  Maybe you’re like me, and you can, too.

And one more thing. I talk myself through stuck places with journaling.  When I write, I have three documents open: the piece I’m working on, a document called “Outtakes” for phrases and paragraphs that need to come out in the short-term but that sometimes find a place later on, and a document called “Notes”.  “Notes” is for talking to myself and figuring out why I’m stuck.  Sometimes I’ll get on a jag in “Notes” and realize I’m not stuck anymore; I can cut and paste a whole section back into the piece and keep going.

WR: You won the Rona Jaffe prize last August for your memoir. Describe that experience.

JC: I was at work, having a busy day in the Emergency Department Observation Unit.  I checked my voicemail at lunch on June 30th last year and there was a message from Beth McCabe of the Rona Jaffe Foundation asking me to return her call.  It was 3pm here, and they’re on the East Coast, so it was too late to call her back, but I figured then I had won.  They never call if you lose; they send a thin letter. 

That was a moment of pure elation.  And over the next several months the Rona Jaffe Foundation was so good to the six of us who won.  They did their utmost to publicize and showcase us and our work, and I’m still using the $25,000 to supplement my income so I can work part-time instead of full-time.  The money is doing exactly what it’s supposed to be doing.

WR: What are you working on now?

JC: At this point, I’m a little fatigued, and I’m trying to figure out what might cohere into a second book.  I write most days as I always have, but I’m in a phase where nothing is linear and nothing seems to be adding up. There’s good compost, but no garden yet!

Magic Carpet Ride 3: sail through your magical realist manuscript with the help of a pro!

Announcing the third annual Magic Carpet Ride, an innovative one-on-one creative writing mentorship.

The purpose of the Magic Carpet Ride mentorship is to assist a promising magical realist writer from anywhere in the world in the completion of a polished manuscript by the end of the session which can then be actively submitted to potential publishers. This competitive opportunity is the first of its kind to provide specialized instruction, direction, and motivation specifically for a writer of literary magical realism.

This mentorship, valued at $2000*, will be awarded annually, and on a competitive basis, to a single applicant who is able to demonstrate:

• a deep commitment to completing their work in progress

• strong writing skills

• a desire to learn and to succeed

• a good understanding of the magical realist nature of their manuscript

Postmark deadline for receipt of all application materials for the 2010 mentorship session is October 31, 2009.

Email deadline for receipt of all application materials for the 2008 mentorship session is midnight [Pacific time], October 31, 2009.

Full details:

Creative solutions for the writer who doesn’t want to be yet another Voice in the Dark

Something that’s been coming up a lot with my other clients: marketing issues. These boil down as follows:

  • submitting short work
  • finding agents
  • considering self-publication
  • considering electronic publishing
  • finding venues for reading
  • making webpages
  • building reputations through P2P (person to person) networking
  • online social networking
  • maximizing Twitter

Are you struggling with any of these concerns? They seem so “business-like,” and yet, as a creative person, you have the right foundation for making these things work on terms that mesh with your creative life.

I’ve co-hosted a writers’ marketing group for years and many of the things we learned as a group can be applied across disciplines.

I’m no marketing guru, per se, but I know how to find ways to balance the creativity life with the necessary work of promotion and networking yourself.

I’m a firm believer that we make or do things to communicate with the larger world; it’s an existential question as to whether it matters to be creative if nobody notices. For me, and for most of the people I’ve worked with as clients, it definitely matters that people notice; otherwise, we’re just voices in the dark.

These days, the marketing models are changing as well, and social networking is becoming a great equalizer, making it possible for people to generate platforms of followers/fans/connections that are responsive to their creative work in a way that the old corporate framework never really supported.

Do let me know if this is an area where you are challenged or want to learn more about, and give me some details of what it is that you are challenged by or what you have already done but would like to do more of. I’m happy to discuss, perhaps even to demystify or de-stigmatize, this “business-side” application of your creativity.

Taking new clients August 1.

Field’s End Roundtable Tuesday: Michael Lisagor

Michael Lisagor addresses the question, “How Can You Share the Words You Live By?” at the next Field’s End Writers’ Roundtable, 7:00 – 8:30 pm, Tuesday Feb 17 at the Bainbridge Public Library, 1270 Madison Ave, Bainbridge Island, WA. Free; donations welcomed.

Directions: From the Ferry Dock in Winslow, Bainbridge Island, take WA-305 north; turn left at High School Rd NE. Take High School Rd to the corner of Madison. The library is on the southwest corner of High School and Madison. Two parking lots to the library can be found on the north and south sides of the library building.

BIO: Michael Lisagor is the author of Romancing the Buddha: Embracing Buddhism in My Everyday Life. He has performed a one-man play based on the book at the BPA on Bainbridge Island, in Washington, D.C. and in Santa Monica. Lisagor has written over 100 essays for various magazines and newspapers, and, as a management advisor, is a frequent speaker at corporate and association events. His latest book is The Enlightened Manager: Lessons on Leadership. In it, he uses more than 450 organizational interviews conducted with industry, nonprofit and government managers to discuss how to respond to workplace challenges with an enlightened perspective.

The coffeehouse: a writer’s home away from home

It’s not a stretch to say that the corner cafe in Anytown USA is likely the first place writers will go to get some work done. Especially now with (mostly free) wi-fi services, exceptional coffee, more plug ins and the cheap rent of a cup of joe to hold one’s table for a couple of hours.

I live in a community of 23,000 and we have, easily, a dozen hangouts where we can set up shop away from home, and every one of them a stand-alone business (meaning: no Starbucks!). Some of my favorites? Pegasus, Bainbridge Bakers, Blue Ocean Cafe.

People who aren’t writers smile at what they must imagine is a romantic notion about the writing life: Ah, to while away one’s hours in a coffeehouse for a living.

We writers don’t usually hold them to the reality check of that misconception: the reason why we go there is not because our lives of intellectual vigor are leisurely, but rather, quite typically, low-paying and riddled with hard, real work. And big bucks or no, we all have to write somewhere. We run the risk of turning into hermits if we stay home all the time, and if we did that, what would we have to write about?

No, the simple truth is, the library is the most affordable writer’s haunt, but let’s face it: you can’t take in hot beverages. And a cup of something yummy at the writer’s elbow make a coffeehouse the perfect home away from home.

Friends often ask: Isn’t it noisy? Aren’t there too many interruptions?

For me, it’s precisely the din of clinking cups, forks against pastry plates, chitchat, soft music and the fluttering of newsprint that makes it a great place to work. Babies crying, old guys debating the news, the laughter of young mothers with kids still in school: these are comfort sounds to me.
At home, there might be family members or the telephone or the buzz of the dryer to compete with. As much as I love my family, I have yet to find a way to completely silence them or otherwise eliminate urgencies like Mom, is there any popcorn? or Honey, where are the Band-Aids? or May I please speak with Tamara (mispronounced) Sellman?

As for interruptions, they come no matter where you go as a writer (at least they do for me), but I appreciate the ones out in public because:

a/I like to see my friends and I won’t see them at home unless I make arrangements, and then I have to clean up my house;

b/interruptions have become my reminder to stretch my spine, breathe and look across the room to save my eyes—things I always forget to do at home;

c/a friendly face is still better than a knock on the door from the UPS guy in need of a signature; and

d/when the DSL is down or the power is out, one coffeeshop or another on the rock I live on is usually up and running.

I suppose we could all hang out at bars, but I wouldn’t know. Probably, there are many Hemingways in earnest of repeating that legacy, but I’m not one of them. Drinking alcohol while writing makes my brain go fuzzy, while drinking coffee helps me to avoid the sometimes-problem I have of face-planting into my keyboard from sheer exhaustion during deadlines.

(Still, I finished my first NaNoWriMo novel at a bar in November 2006. Even then, all I drank was iced tea. I was there for the soup.)

So what exactly does a writer get done at a coffeehouse? Some writers generate new work on their manuscripts. Some writers just go there to check email, treating the space as a kind of office away from home so that their home office is only used for writing. Some writers take printouts of drafts and revise the old-fashioned way, with ink and sticky notes. Some writers spend their time doing web research or reading source materials. Some writers interview experts who correspond in some way with their works in progress. Many writers meet with many other writers just to hobnob (which isn’t a waste of time; without our own personal support systems to interact with, we’d all be goners).

I have been known to do all of these things, and I know I’m not alone. Neither am I alone in my rotation habits: I spread myself between coffeehouses frequently. Many of us do. It’s done to spread our coffee dollars across the java-drinking landscape, for sure, but also to change up the “workplace” scenery, to sample different seating environments (this really helps with back problems), and to try not to look like a freeloader (I mean, one cup of coffee spread across 2-3 hours every single day might give you a reputation with the staff as the guest who wouldn’t leave). I also try to work around rush periods so the wait staff (when there is one) can keep their seats open for the breakfast and lunch crowds.

So let’s hear it for the all-American corner cafe. During times of economic downturn, why not grab a cuppa joe at the one in your neck of the woods and show your support? After all, they’ve been keeping the writing life cozy and caffeinated forever.

Original images: “Pegasus Coffeehouse,” “Blue Ocean Cafe windowfront,” and “Bainbridge Bakers Esoterica” © 2009, Tamara Kaye Sellman. All Rights Reserved.

Read Like a Writer, with Anthony Flacco’s (and Francine Prose’s) help

Whenever a new author moves to the island, there’s always a bit of revelry. Ours is a creative enclave, after all, and bringing new talent into the fold only makes the environment that much more dynamic.

As my islander’s welcome to crime writer Anthony Flacco, I thought I’d post the vitals for a UW Extension course he’s teaching this spring. (I hope we can get him to teach for Field’s End next year…) He’s a very personable guy; the folks at Eagle Harbor Books have taken a shine to him! Check out his class below.


Popular Fiction Creative Workshop for Experienced Writers
This workshop consists of consists of:
• an opening retreat (catered)
• ten weekday evening workshop sessions
• a closing retreat (catered)

Course Description
Using Francine Prose’s Reading Like a Writer, students will first gain instruction in the art and skill of “close reading” at the opening retreat before launching into 10 intense sessions that include presentations, activities, discussions, and small-group work. The closing retreat will include more presentations and exercises to tie together the curriculum. Students will also prepare a synopsis and verbal “pitch” as well as gain detailed information about the business of writing, including information about working with editors, publishers, and agents.

About Anthony Flacco
Anthony Flacco, author of two novels and two nonfiction books, is noted for the cinematic nature of his prose. His first novel, The Last Nightingale (2007) was published by Mortalis Books at Random House and released to acclaimed reviews, including a rave from the New York Times, which noted the “precise and vivid detail” of his writing. His second novel, The Hidden Man (Mortalis, 2008), also received strong critical acclaim. Flacco’s true-crime book A Checklist for Murder (Dell, 1995) earned strong sales, and his nonfiction book Tiny Dancer (St. Martin’s) was named among the “100 Most Noteworthy Books of 2005” by the Kansas City Star. Flacco holds the MFA from the American Film Institute, and is a past recipient of the prestigious Disney Studios Screenwriting Fellowship, where he spent a year working for the Touchstone Pictures Division. Visit his website at www.AnthonyFlacco.com

Course takes place at the UW campus, Seattle.

Wed, 6-9:30p, Feb. 25-May 6, 2009
Sat, 10a-3p, Feb. 21 & May 9, 2009 (no class April 1)

$1,199; Registration fee $35; 4.5 CEUs.

Tuition is due in one payment at the time of registration. The University’s tuition exemption policy does not apply to this workshop. Tuition and fees are subject to change.

More info