A Podcast Love Affair

by Marian Schembari on February 17, 2015

I discovered the magic of podcasts while living in New Zealand. And while I’ve since listened to hundreds of episodes from dozens of shows – whose themes blended together with time – my inaugural listen of This American Life stands out with such sharp clarity.

It was a Christmas episode and David Sedaris (shocker) was talking about his time as an elf in a department store. I was on the ferry heading across the Cook Strait, head leaning against the window, barely registering the land disappearing behind us as I stifled laugh after laugh.

And that was that. Stories hooked me.

Back in Auckland I downloaded dozens of episodes, thinking they would entertain me during my commute. I couldn’t wait to get out the door every morning. I had My Stories. I found myself moved, every time, by the complexity of human life.

That was years ago and the only thing that’s changed is my repertoire. I drive to work now, and in those 45 minutes I listen to The Moth, Risk!, Savage Lovecast, Serial and StartUp.

I’ve downloaded RadioLab and TED Talks, but I always find myself zoning out. There’s something about real human experiences, told by the people who’ve lived them, that anchors me to the world.  In San Francisco it’s easy to forget that not everyone is either a tech worker or a meth addict. These podcasts remind me what diversity is.

There’s a 90-something female helicopter pilot from WWII, a doctor who diagnosed his mom with a collapsed lung, the young gay man still in the closet, a funeral director from Harlem. Every morning I can’t bring myself to leave the car and head into my real life.

Which is why February is my month of storytelling.

Kevin Allison, the host and founder of Risk! happens to lead an online storytelling class. Once I decided to focus this year on creativity and learning, I knew becoming a better storyteller would be at the top of my list. Whether it’s through the blog or at work, I love to connect with people. The few times I have gotten in up in front of a crowd, I felt heard.

Attendee Stories from Chris Guillebeau on Vimeo.

I think that by focusing on becoming a better speaker and storyteller, I can be a better writer. But deep down, my Big Scary Goal is to actually perform on one of these podcasts.

Two weeks after starting the course I found out that Risk! is hosting a show in Portland next month. The theme? Crisis. The story I want to share? That time I was detained in a London refugee center.

My pitch is due by next week so stay tuned. In the meantime, send me good vibes and luck.


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A Dog Story

by Marian Schembari on February 5, 2015

As part of my commitment to challenge myself creatively, I’m writing in new ways. I’ve always been too scared to try my hand at fiction or tell a story as a scene instead of summary. (Never mind actually writing it for the world to see.)

Today I’m doing both.

To ease myself into it I’m taking stories from my every day life, picking up a book I’ve enjoyed, then mimicking the author’s structure to tell said story.

Please also accept this photo of my ridiculously attractive puppy, Homer.

A photo posted by maschembari (@maschembari) on

“A Dog Story”

based on Me Before You, Jojo Moyes

When I round the corner of the trail, Homer is foraging ahead of me, nestled between the trees and chewing whatever delicious sticks and leaves he can find on the damp forest floor. He’s such a cutie this morning, a white shock of fluff in the midst of misty woods in a way that makes him look both out of place and perfectly wild. I stand there watching him, enjoying our morning ritual that’s just for us, savoring this hour alone before chores and work consume my day.

Homer can tell I’m watching him, so he looks up and stares straight into my eyes. Sometimes I forget he’s still a baby, but we’ve been together long enough for both of us to act like we’ve always had each other.

The sounds of a runner perk us both up. Good thing Homer is out of the way of the narrow trail, meaning whoever it is can sail on by. I might get to avoid the awkward, “hello” to a stranger. When I’m out here I  pretend it really is just us alone in the middle of nowhere.

I move out of the way in preparation, turning my back on the direction of the noise, focusing my attention on Homer. The sounds stop and I feel someone behind me, waiting, wanting something. I turn around.

She’s a couple yards away, almost hidden under a narrow tree, cowering in rage. Her eyes bore into me, radiating fury where I can feel it absorbing into my skin, muggy and rank. She’s tightly gripping the leash of a black dog, the fabric wrapped around and around her wrist. The dog stares at us too, aware of the sudden change in atmosphere.

She doesn’t move, just stares. I wait for her to say something, anything.

“Is he friendly?” I eventually ask, interrupting our silent staring contest. I assume she’s terrified that either my dog or hers is about to attack and we’ll be left on this otherwise empty trail surrounded by blood and fur.

After a beat, she speaks, her tone laced with poison. “He’s friendly, but this is an on-leash trail, you know. I run here every morning because it’s on-leash.”

I curse inwardly as I immediately start pouring through my mental trail maps for proof that this trail is, in fact, off-leash. I’m here every morning and have never seen her. I’ve also never seen any dog here on a leash. This is the only magical wonderland us dog owners can take our companions to roam free, chasing squirrels. What do I say? Do I argue? This woman is clearly out of control with fury and I’m not great at confrontation with strangers, especially when I’m being accused of what she seems to think is akin to murdering babies. Never mind that it’s seven in the morning and I’m having to switch from enjoying-the-misty-alone-time-mode to dealing-with-an-angry-bitch-mode.

I try to keep my voice calm. “Actually, the map online says this trail is off-leash.” I still don’t look at her, hoping she doesn’t notice how nervous I am.

“This part of the trail isn’t. They just changed it.” While her tone is icy, she’s the one who seems unsure. My blood starts to boil. This woman is fucking with my morning.

At this point Homer has stopped his foraging adventure. Tail wagging, ears back, he trots towards this woman and her poor dog. She rears back and yanks her dog even closer.

“Watch your dog!” She shrieks. Her horrible voice pierces the silence of the woods. I imagine a swarm of crows frantically flying out of the trees at this very moment.

“Homer!” I call, lightly, high-pitched, pretending I’m not completely terrified this woman is going to beat me to death.

Thank god for Homer. He stops, sensing he shouldn’t go any further. I approach him and grab his collar. It’s time to go. This is ridiculous and I have nature to enjoy. He whines in discomfort as I walk past this woman, giving her a wide berth. The air is heavy and toxic. All I can think about is getting as far away as possible. My face is red in embarrassment while underneath I simmer with shame.

Oh god she’s not done.

“This is an on-leash trail! They changed it!”

I can’t get a read on her problem and she’s angry for no reason. As I walk past her, crunched over clinging to Homer’s collar, I wave my hand up behind me as if to say, “Yeah yeah, whatever.”

“Okay”, I add, snarky, as if I’m suddenly 16 and my mom’s reminding me to empty the dishwasher.

Suddenly, the forest is sucked of all sound. The birds have stopped singing and the wind has stopped blowing and Homer’s footsteps have stopped crunching the twigs and leaves. I keep walking, sensing some horrible storm is about to hit, quickly trying to get away from this horrible woman.

I can practically hear the sound of her mouth opening, her breath inhaling, preparing. That’s when she says, echoing through nature, “You know what?! FUCK YOU!”


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Writing Extraordinary Prose

by Marian Schembari on January 28, 2015

Well, my first writing class was a roaring success.

You know in those romantic comedies, when the girl gets together with her sexy male best friend she ignored for the whole movie at just the last moment before the credits roll? The guy who was perfect for her all along, but she just couldn’t see it? And you think, “Finally, you silly girl!”

That girl would be me, both oblivious and resistant for way too long, realizing that this is what I’m meant to do.

Last Saturday I took a class in Writing Extraordinary Prose, taught by an author and professor at San Francisco’s MFA program.

The focus of the class was on the variety of ways to craft a sentence. We pulled apart work from James Joyce and Virginia Woolf and Truman Capote. We turned them inside out and analyzed their structure and the author’s reasoning behind that structure. We’d then try writing our own sentences following a similar format to see what we could come up with. It was fascinating and mind-blowing and really freaking hard. The math behind art.

I was so excited slash nervous for class, barely able to sleep the night before. Besides worrying about my ability to write creatively, I worried about the people. What would the other students be like? Would I fit in? I expected literary folk, looking like they either stepped out of some obscure novel I’ve never heard of, wearing black turtlenecks and perfectly placed berets, or bored frumpy housewives writing self-published young adult novels about faeries marrying spirit elves with PDF book covers designed on elance.

Instead I found retired school teachers, accomplished novelists, one doctor, one life coach and one cancer patient/professional golfer who used writing as a form of therapy.

I was intimidated and impressed by them all. I twenty years younger than the youngest student and I felt my age every moment. When we had to expand the sentence, “the boy climbed the tree” I struggled. The boy clambered up the tree? The boy hoisted himself up the knotty tree? Oh god no this is horrible. Beginner’s stuff. One woman talked about a war happening beneath the tree, which the boy climbed up as a means of escape. Other students got incredibly descriptive about the history of the tree, who had lived there for hundreds of years.

For six hours we worked on many, many sentences. I did my best and it got easier with time. I ended up pulling most of my ideas from life experiences. I wrote, terrified the teacher would call on me, about my writing insecurities, my marriage, my job.

Writing what I’ve experienced seems to be, for now, the only way I’m able to start thinking more creatively. From there I’m then able to tap into the feeling I get when writing is easy like breathing.

The class was everything I’ve ever wanted. Suddenly I was writing words that didn’t sound like me, but were beautiful and mine regardless.

And that’s where I hit my first challenge. I’m strangely protective of my voice. It keeps me from hating to write and I love how easy it is.

My second challenge was that I don’t particularly enjoy reading James Joyce or Virginia Woolf. I get lost in their work. Trying to reorganize a sentence in my head so I can understand its meaning takes me out of the story. For example, from Mrs Dolloway:

How fresh, how calm, stiller than this of course, the air was in the early morning.

What a fucking gorgeous sentence. It conveys a feeling. A rhythm. I am there, in this morning.

Sort of. After I read it a dozen times.

But if she had written, “The early morning air was fresh, calm and still,” we wouldn’t get that same impact. That sense of wonder and playfulness.

It’s not like I’m torn up inside about whether one way is right or not. Just that for the first time I feel challenged as a writer. Could I, if I tried, write that way? Would I want to? Would it still be me?

This all said, despite being terrified my sentences would suck, I came home buzzing about base clauses and modifiers and rhythm and how I made a sentence that sort of sounded like something Elizabeth Gilbert might write and who knew a sentence could be such a beautiful thing and oh my God maybe I could possibly someday write a novel and do I need to get an MFA?

Overall, here’s the most important piece I came away with, care of our wonderful teacher Nina Schulyer:

“Intuitively, most of you are already doing this. But by bringing awareness to the decisions you’re making, you now have the freedom of choice. Awareness leads to mastery.”

For years I’ve attempted many career changes. Design! Cooking! Yoga! But halfway there I’ve realized I’m so caught up in the final product and never the journey. Which is usually when I quit.

If I was never paid a dime at the end result, what would I do anyway? I sure wouldn’t teach yoga. Or design homes. I definitely wouldn’t teach people how to Facebook their lives away.

But I would write. I do write. Every day. This realization hit me halfway through class once I recognized that weird feeling in my chest was a heart filled with joy. Now, suddenly, there are goals I want so desperately, resonating someplace terrifying within me.

Finally. You silly girl.

 


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My Favorite Writing Resources

by Marian Schembari on January 21, 2015

Remember last week when I was all, “I can’t be a writer because I don’t know the rules?” Well, over the years I’ve tried to teach myself a rule or two. I mostly have no idea what I’m talking about and found these resources while Googling things like how to write. But I found more than my fair share of inspiration.

When I started blogging regularly, I developed a few habits that stuck. Now this is the only way I can write:

1. Brain dump

There’s nothing that kills my creativity more than trying to draft in the perfect voice. Whether I’m trying to write web copy or an introspective blog post, the only way I know how to get my thoughts down is to write exactly like I think. Most of the time it makes zero sense, but sometimes gold happens.

Enter 750words.com. I tried the concept of morning pages in an actual journal, but my handwriting sucks and my brain works faster than my pen. Even though I’m more of an analog girl, doing my freeform writing digitally means that in 8 minutes I’ve knocked out 750 words, it’s legible and easy to paste should blogging inspiration strike.

As soon as I open my computer in the morning, this is the first thing I do. Brain dump. And if it turns into a post later on, sweet.

2. Edit, rinse, repeat

After the brain dump I take a break and don’t read what I’ve written until a day or two later. If it’s blog material, I paste into WordPress. That’s when I organize. Sometimes I read through, get confused about what the heck I’m trying to say, so take a step back and write a small outline. If I were to explain this post to someone, how would I do it?

A great example is last week’s post about not being a writer. My outline looked like this:

  • Always thought I would be a writer. Story about writing as a kid.
  • Various attempts to make a living being a writer. Hated it. Sad panda.
  • Realized there are many ways to be a writer. Yay!
  • What I’m doing about it.

Then I reordered my brain dump to fit this storyline. Then I edit the shit out of it. I usually can’t do more than an hour at a time so I’ll restructure, take a break, come back the next day, edit again, take a break. Come back that afternoon, do a few more tweaks. I usually whittle down an original brain dump of 1,000 words to around 600.

When I don’t do this, it’s obvious. I repeat myself. I say in four words what I could have said in one. When I look back at some of my old blog posts I wish I had used the below articles to make it better improve them. If anyone has any other articles they use like this, please let me know in the comments! I’d love to hear your resources for making your writing as crisp and clear as this one.

3. Go through the following resources to catch mistakes

This is where the “rules” come in. Over the years I’ve found some fantastic resources on the best ways to cut and tighten your copy. I have these babies bookmarked and I go through them one-by-one.

New obsession: While not related to my process, I have been digging Medium’s writing prompts as a way to use my time on 750words as less of a diary and more of a time to practice writing things that make me uncomfortable.

What am I missing? Any other great habits you fancy writers have? Posts you recommend where I can study the lay of the land?


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How to Be a Writer

by Marian Schembari on January 16, 2015

marian writing2

I always thought I would “end up” a writer. Both parents are accomplished writers and as a kid I wrote all the damn time. I still have the dozen notebooks I took to school each and every day, pretending to be Harriet the Spy. I am so grateful for this obsession. I have, perfectly transcribed, every crush, friend drama and grounding. Every tortured thought of 10-18 year-old Marian.

So off to college I went, where I tried writing for The Davidsonian. It’s not that I was horrible at it (I wasn’t great). It’s that I was miserable. Writing in someone else’s voice was hard. Trying to fit into journalistic guidelines made my usually free-flowing opinions gloopy like mud and I’d end up saying nothing. I think I wrote one opinionated, cranky op-ed before I quit.

That experience didn’t deter me though. After college I thought I’d get into publishing. An editor! I thought.

No dice.

Never mind, marketing is The Thing! Lots of copywriting and creative tagline-making. Perfect!

This was even worse. Marketing is, if nothing else, 99% writing like someone else – your ideal customer, Google’s robots, Facebook’s algorithm. It has nothing to do with you. And remember, this is a problem because I find my own emotions and experiences completely fascinating.

So that’s how this blog happened. It was a place I could put all my opinions and fragmented sentences. I embraced my voice.

I loved this blog. Sure, it wasn’t a career, but it led me less-than-gently into my career. I got tons of freelance gigs, all of which I resisted. Ever since, I’ve proceeded to blame my lack of “knowing the rules” for my inability to Be A Writer.

Because besides learning to construct a sentence in elementary school and my parent’s willingness to edit my work, I know little about the art of writing. Is this a blessing or curse? An author friend once told me how glad she was to be able to write without knowing which rules she was breaking. And she has three published books under her belt.

Enter Introspection.

The more I’ve thought about this conundrum, the more I think maybe my gift isn’t writing. Maybe my gift is to write with voice. To be understood. To communicate honestly.

Because despite not knowing the rules, the act of writing have made me a writer and the following are just icing on the cake (OH GOD I USED A CLICHE, I’M HORRIBLE):

(1) This blog exists. People read it. It’s been listed twice now as one of the best blogs for writers by Writers’ Freaking Digest.

(2) I once pitched a book about feminism. Obviously no one wanted it but one agent got back to me and said the following: I took a look at your blog, and although I am skeptical that a book on raising feminists is one that will launch your career as an author, I would be interested in hearing about other ideas you may have. You are a talented writer and obviously very ambitious, and while I think you’ve not yet hit upon your subject, I’ve a feeling you will. 

(3) At work I spend a lot of time on the phone interviewing professionals across the country. To set up an interview I reach out via email. By the time I get them on the phone they always tend to say “you sound exactly like I thought you’d sound”.

This has all helped me realize: Being a “writer” isn’t just one career. There’s a different path for novelists and journalists, copywriters and academics. For so long I thought I couldn’t be a writer because I didn’t have a novel hiding somewhere in me or the ambition to be a journalist like my parents.

So what’s the deal then? How do I write like I write and still make a living doing it? Have I been unable to write for anyone but myself because I don’t know the rules? Or because I simply don’t have the ability to write in any voice but my own?

So to kick off my first month of creativity I’m going to try to answer this question. Stay tuned to hear about my first-ever writing class.

Photo by the talented Gabriele Galimberti for Illy.

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