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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There are so many things I love about the world. I’ve seriously considered becoming any one of the following: pastry chef, park ranger, therapist, life coach, photographer, yoga teacher, interior designer, craft store owner and travel writer.

You’ll notice that none of these things are about the internet.

I’m going to be honest with you. I mostly hate sitting in front of a computer all day. My happiest days have never been on Facebook or playing Candy Crush (but yegods do I love that game.) They’ve been spent crafting or hiking or learning or surrounded by a group of women where we all talk about our feelings.

But being an adult is exhausting. At the end of the day I have no energy left for my own projects. Last week was the first time in a year that I’d written a blog post. I blogged more when I spent eight hours a day planting trees in New Zealand. Now I spend eight hours sitting on my ass. The thing is, blogging feeds my soul and I haven’t paid attention to it for months. And it’s not just the blog that’s suffered. Is my entire creative brain. I can’t remember the last time I trusted myself or an idea.

While I want 2015 to be the year of transformation, I also want to be realistic about it.

Which brings me to my goal: Get comfortable with creativity again.

I’m taking myself back to college and will be learning the things I’ve always wanted to learn, teaching myself to be creative again.

Each month I’ll learn a new skill, talk to people in that industry and immerse myself in the culture of knitting/cooking/park rangering. Part of this is to educate myself on the work that interests me. Do I want to give it all up to go to park ranger school? Or will the simple act of learning and being more creative outside my current daily life help me appreciate it more?

To keep riding the honesty train, I’m nervous I won’t have the energy for it. Or I’ll give up halfway through. Or one-twelfth of the way through. I just know that I need out of this rut – ever since my first job fighting my way through cold calls and strategy docs I didn’t fully get. That’s what led me to this. To blogging and “doing” social media. I thought working for myself made me different. That finding a career on the internet early-on made me successful. It doesn’t. It’s not.

That said, the internet has brought me the majority of my great loves. I’ve met most of my friends online. My husband. YouTube taught me to knit again. Pinterest showed me I have a decent eye for design. I’ve fallen in love with the connections we make. The freedom – sometimes to a fault – to express whatever we damn well please. So it’s clearly not all bad.

But then there’s the industry side of things. The part that scares and exhausts me. I’ve been studying online “formulas” for six years now and, trust me, there is no formula. There are shitty trends and ways to game the system. I don’t know about you but I’m tired of Upworthy headlines and slideshow “lists”. I’m tired of GIF posts and Instagram vignettes of that blogger’s perfect life.

I want honesty. I want a story. It’s what made me fall in love with blogging, but somewhere along the road I lost my way.

I want a life that is full. Of relationships, of new experiences, of challenges, of true creativity. One that this year I hope to find off the internet but share it here, on my little piece of it.

So I’m done blogging about blogging. And yes, maybe marianlibrarian will become one in a sea of lifestyle blogs. Or food. Or design. Or travel. Who knows. You could continue reading. You could not. All I know that 2015 is the year I try. The year I put on all the hats and find the one (or seven) that fits.

 

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My Big Fat Techy Wedding

by Marian Schembari on December 30, 2014


I met my husband on OkCupid. For about 4 seconds I was embarrassed about this (my parents have the ultimate meet-cute involving a lost ring and a wrench), but it didn’t matter because Elliot is the greatest human alive and I couldn’t be luckier to have met him. Plus, in San Francisco, where we met, almost every couple I know met online. (And actually, most of my good friends are people I met online. Twitter, blogger conferences, MeetUp, Couchsurfing. The list goes on.)

So when we got married (holyshitImmarried) it only made sense to make our wedding the most tech-powered day ever. Let’s see the list shall we?

Airbnb

We rented an Airbnb for our wedding. After a little snafu involving our own back yard (turns out our upstairs neighbors we’re holding their reception in the yard on THE SAME DAY), we quickly turned to Airbnb to find a place nearby with a pretty yard. After only a day we snagged a gorgeous Victorian with a yard three times the size as ours, a fountain, and the friendliest property manager a girl could ask for. Who knew?

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Amazon

We turned to Amazon for all our wedding decorations. When we realized last minute that we’d now need to decorate, we just used our Prime membership and spent $100 on tissue paper, LED lights, mason jars (because of course) and ribbon.

Glosite

Our wedding website and invitations were sent through Glosite. Though both my grandmothers requested I print out the digital versions and snail mail them. I’m not sure why I’m surprised.

Thankful Registry

Instead of registering at a store, we used Thankful because then we could get presents from  ALL THE PLACES! Which means we could get gift cards from REI, a coffee foamer from Amazon AND this freaking fantastic portrait from Etsy:

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Thumbtack

Obviously I turned to Thumbtack to hire professionals for all the extra stuff. Jayne Serba, an incredibly talented tailor and costume designer, revamped my dress (which I – duh – bought used online). She also tailed Elliot’s linen suit (also bought online – shoutout to Suit Supply) so it fit him like a glove. I also hired Chantelle for my hair and makeup and John to spruce up the Airbnb garden the day before.

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TaskRabbit

Since we were DIYing this whole shindig, we turned to TaskRabbit to hire some spare hands. We found Joyce to (wo)man the day, making sure the bathroom was stocked, wine bottles were recycled and tables/chairs were picked up on time and Morris to pick up our food at a local restaurant and deliver it to the yard.

Sidecar

No fancy limos for this group. After our ceremony and reception, we called a Sidecar to take us to our karaoke afterparty. While I was expecting the driver to be all, “wow, did you guys just get married?” seeing that we were decked out in our wedding costumes, he seemed completely un-miffed. We even chose the shared ride option but didn’t get matched with anyone else going the same way. Bummer. I was definitely hoping for some attention on this one.

Moral = Tech Is Your Friend

While I’ve never been the type to dream about my wedding since I was old enough to form a coherent thought, I did turn into a slightly crazed version of myself in the days months leading up to the event. Even with a casual, 30-person backyard party, there are still a million balls in the air and I don’t wish the stress on anyone. That said, I’m so grateful to live in a city that’s powered by so much creativity and weird ideas. The people we hired and the websites we used and the apps we downloaded saved our asses more than once. Thanks San Francisco. #speederoni

Big thanks to Kelsey Formost for the photos.

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Before Elliot and I got engaged, we started noticing how every couple (and every photo on Pinterest) used the same set of engagement photo poses. (I have a whole Pinterest board with our inspiration)

As a joke, he and I started talking about spoofing said photos – gender-swapping the traditional ones, exaggerating the materialistic ones, etc. One thing led to another, and our photographer/YouTube friend Malia caught wind of the idea. She said, “If you two ever get engaged, I’m doing these photos for you as a wedding gift.” Well, a few days later we did and a few months later she did. Best. Gift. Ever.

Marian Schembari Elliot Speed Engagement Photos

How Said Photos Got Online

We were so excited to post these puppies on Facebook. I will eagerly admit that we’re both social media addicts. We laughed so hard at the final photos so we wanted to share with friends!

While it was out of good fun, part of the reason we took these was to highlight some of the really uncomfortable and traditional gender roles that crop up when you start planning a wedding. For example, I’ve had to explain to too many people that I will never change my last name. Yes, Elliot has seen The Dress. No, I will not be given away.

Let me insert here that WHATEVER YOU DO WHEN YOU GET MARRIED IS A-OKAY. I know you don’t need my approval, but you have it. Flipping the head on tradition is what makes us laugh. It’s okay if you don’t. We are merely providing a humorous (to us) alternative.

Which is why I sent the final album to the editor of Offbeat Bride, the one wedding blog I adore. Ariel, the genius behind OBB, responded with an ALL CAPS request to write a story about the photos and be the first to do so. The next week they were live.

The Slow Trickle

Offbeat Bride is well-read and respected, so there were a decent chunk of people talking about the photos. Elliot and I were excitedly reading comments all day, giddy on outside approval. (Shut up. You know you’d feel the same way.)

Marian Schembari Engagement Bench

After publication, other editors and producers started emailing with requests to re-publish the set. For example, The Good Men Project has a partnership with the Offbeat Empire, so it was picked up there as well. 

It was 22 Words that lit the fire though. I had literally never heard of this site ever, but emails came in one after the other after they covered the story. (They were one of the few that never emailed for permission.)

Then Cafe Mom picked it up. Then Huffington Post.

Good Morning America. The front page of Yahoo. Jezebel. The Daily Mail.

What These People Wanted

I’ve always wondered how topics like this snowball. Why do some images/blog posts/videos spread so quickly? And what rights do the original creators give up because of it?

Well, here it is. Ariel of OBB told me via email:

I knew as soon as I saw the photos that these would go viral. Some of that was timing with Taint Week — since Christmas – New Years is such a slow news time, wacky wedding stuff tends to do well. But some of it was also a combination of a widely relatable topic (anyone who’s been on Pinterest for 5 minutes is familiar with the tropes of engagement photography), and the perfect timing in terms of the wedding industry. New Years is the peak of mainstream engagement season (which stretches from Thanksgiving to Valentine’s Day), and so there are a LOT of folks just starting to think about wedding planning… which means a lot of folks feeling overwhelmed and perhaps a little dubious about some of the expectations. These factors (slow news week + easily relatable + timely in terms of wedding planning season) combined with the humor of the shots meant that it was pretty clear this one was going to go big.

Other editors started asking for “permission to use the photos”. Our response was, of course, duh, but we wanted links back to my blog and Malia’s YouTube channel. We also gently suggested they link to the original article (another reason OBB wanted to be the first to publish).

The photos started appearing elsewhere without permission. The sites in question properly credited both us and OBB, so good form was had by all. It’s been a week now and I think I understand why they didn’t email: Time.

When television producers started knocking, their subject lines all read, “TIME SENSITIVE: Engagement photos”. They all wanted a quote and permission ASAP.

One TV channel wanted Malia to sign a release form. They wanted:

  • To use the photos for free.
  • Acknowledgement that we could never ask for money/royalties for said photos down the line.
  • The right to use the photos however they want, forever and ever. (The wording killed me, “in perpetuity throughout the universe.”)
  • Our understanding that they could also not use the photos and scrap the story entirely.

And finally, they WANT TO BE THE ONLY ONES THAT DO THIS. Which is silly, since “virality”, by definition, means “an image or video that is circulated rapidly on the Internet.” You’ll never be the only one.

One producer asked us if any other show had picked up the story. (Um. Duh. She found it on Yahoo.) When I said Good Morning America and a few other networks had been in touch, I never heard back .

The Big Question: Traffic

A few years ago, I was retweeted by Stephen Fry and my blog traffic skyrocketed. Funnily enough, that did NOT happen here. There were maybe a few extra hundred people here on the blog, but the only real jump was an extra thousand visitors the day we went on Yahoo and another two thousand after Jezebel. That’s it (which, I’m obviously not complaining about). Maybe ten new Twitter followers, 100 new subscribers, a few random Facebook friend requests and one email from someone who discovered my blog because of the article. Otherwise, zip.

Marian Librarian Blog Traffic

So if you think “going viral” (especially for something totally unrelated to your blog) will help your traffic, better to befriend a social media savvy celeb and get a retweet to one specific blog post.

The awesome thing about the traffic bump was that my bounce rate is WAY down (currently at 4%). People are apparently clicking on the link to my blog, then poking around to figure out who the heck I am.

Here’s to 15 minutes of fame. Poor Elliot.

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