I’m a copycat. Here’s why.

by Marian Schembari on July 31, 2015

The first time I tried to write a story, novel-style, it went a little something like this: “She leaned over the edge of the boat. She wondered how far she’d come. She was sea-sick.” I stopped after three sentences. This was bad.

Since then, I’ve Googled “how to be a better writer” a dozen times. I don’t know why I keep searching. The advice is horrible and falls into two categories:

  1. Read a lot
  2. Write a lot

“Read a lot”? Are you kidding me? Have you ever met a writer who wasn’t an uncontrollable reader?

We read our favorite authors again and again. We have a pile of books that never gets smaller. We read book reviews and blogs and magazines and essays. We follow authors and read their blogs. We watch author interviews on YouTube. Then we read the transcripts.

The writing advice to “read a lot” is patronizing and unhelpful. The two are not the same.

Then there’s the advice to “write a lot”. This is a less patronizing, but it’s still unhelpful. Just because you sit down at the piano and smash the keys doesn’t mean you’re on the path to becoming a pianist. Without lessons from a professional or a how to course, you’re going to spend infinite more time learning what someone could have taught you in an hour. It’s inefficient practice.

But that’s how most of us write. I do my morning pages. I write blog posts, some of which people read, some of which people ignore. I write articles for other blogs and my editors change things and sometimes I go back and study what they changed and I learn a little bit about my bad habits.

So I’ve been at a loss on how to improve my writing efficiently. I want to put in my 10,000 hours, but all hours practicing are not the same. I’ve been writing on screen and in diaries and on napkins since I was old enough to write. I’ve technically put in said 10,000 hours but I still feel miles away from where I should be.

Recently a friend (hi Bearclaw!) recommended I read The Talent Code, a book about the efficiency of practice while answering the question: how do I get good at something? It also argues that most of us practice badly.

“Deep practice is built on a paradox: struggling in certain targeted ways—operating at the edges of your ability, where you make mistakes—makes you smarter. Or to put it a slightly different way, experiences where you’re forced to slow down, make errors, and correct them—as you would if you were walking up an ice-covered hill, slipping and stumbling as you go—end up making you swift and graceful without your realizing it.”

Since then, I’ve tried many techniques to improve my writing:

  1. Writing class. I’ve taken two so far. One was meh, one was glorious.
  2. Difficult assignments. I say yes to projects I don’t feel qualified for. My work takes double the time because I’m struggling, but I’m also improving faster than if I only said yes to blogs where I talk about my feelings.
  3. More hand writing. I wouldn’t call this a way to improve my skills as a writer over all, but switching up the way I write also switches up the way process what I write about.
  4. Asking for help. In working on a piece for Modern Love I’ve struggled with the concept of “personal essay.” I’d never written one before, never mind for the biggest newspaper in the world with a column that notoriously accepts no one. But instead of waiting until I’m a better writer with more experience, I dove right in, writing and rewriting for six months. During that time I asked for a TON of help. I submitted it to a memoir group on Scribophile, hired an editor on Thumbtack and talked to friends who’d done it before. In reading their comments I discovered how much ground a personal essay needs to cover. I also learned a lot about my own quirks as a writer. This essay is now the best thing I’ve ever created and even if they don’t accept it? I learned a ton in the process.
  5. Copying everything.

Being a “copycat” is a bad thing, right? We’re supposed to be original and daring with anything we create, acknowledging that sometimes you’ll create a dud. I agree with this to a certain extend, but not without reservations.

When I wrote that horrible piece of fiction last year I realized that even though I had been reading for decades, I had no concept of how to structure a story. Not just the big themes, but sentence by sentence.

So I started copying people. Like in this story about the angry woman in the woods. I opened a book and copied their structure. I did it with everything from memoirs to novels to personal essays. If an author started with a piece of dialogue, so would I. If the story switched from present tense to a memory, so would I. If the first sentence was a sensation and the second sentence was a thought, that’s what I did.

After a few minutes of this, I would stop referring to my “template” and get in the flow of my story. My own voice would come through and I wouldn’t need a reference.

During that time I also developed an obsession with coloring books (I love you Johanna Basford). I find the hobby meditative and it’s the only work I do with no purpose other than my own enjoyment. It’s also cheaper than knitting.

marian schembari coloring book

When I first started my coloring extravaganza, I was not making pretty pictures. I used too many colors that didn’t go together and was usually these horrible gel pens. So I started refreshing the #secretgardencoloringbook hashtag on Instagram and save the pictures I liked from people around the world. Color combinations I found appealing without knowing why. Then, I would completely rip them off by copying, color for color, their version in my own book.

If this sounds completely unfun, you’ve never seen my art. I’m okay with words, but anything involving paint is not my strongest skill.

I loved making something beautiful and I didn’t care if it was someone else’s.

And a funny thing happened. I got really good at coloring. The pages I copied were beautiful, but once I studied, up close, the intricate details of other people’s work, I could take it to the next level and create art that was mine.

secret garden coloring book

Now I see colors differently. I know that I prefer shades of the same color instead of lots of colors on one page. I prefer the bright, vividness of my markers as opposed to the shaded wisps of pencils. And it’s started manifesting my home life too. Our new apartment is now the most beautiful place I’ve ever lived, filled with shades of purple flowers in the windows and bright prints on our bookshelves.

dusseldorf germany apartment

Say what you will about copycats, but studying the work I love has opened up a world of creating my own.

 


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Remember that time I was all, “oh my god I’m supposed to be a writer“? And then continued on my merry way?

Well, life’s crazy guys. And since I wrote that post in January a million and one things have happened, never mind the whole quitting-my-job-and-moving-to-Germany thing.

I spent years working in the start-up world at various marketing positions. This was fine. But mostly I wanted to write. Write anything, really. A book, essays, blog posts, help articles. It didn’t matter. And now, a month after we’ve arrived in Germany, that’s exactly what I’m doing.

My work, like most people with a dream, can be broken into two categories: (1) Work I do for money and (2) Work I do with an end-goal that pays me nothing.

Work I do for money

Surprisingly, as soon as I announced I was freelance again, I had a few emails with offers of social media work. While I’m terrified I’m going to have no money forever (I’ve noticed that writers spend most of their time telling you how little money they make – p.s. I hate you guys), the last thing I wanted to do was get back in the social media world. Unless it’s a place where I can be 100% unfiltered, I hate doing brand social media. I hate the noise, I hate analytics, I hate feeling like it’s a race to beat everyone over the head with your next great headline (spoiler: it never will blow your mind).

So I turned them down. And it was scary. But really, really freeing.

Thankfully, saying no to those projects allowed space for the work I really want to do to enter my life.

Right now I spend about half my time working for my old company, running their blog and generally keeping content alive. It’s easy and fun since it’s the part of my job I truly looked forward to doing.

I also discovered a new company called CloudPeeps, which matches community and content managers to clients who need them. Through them I found a super cool Paris-based website that needed a content strategist. Huzzah!

I also spend a little time writing for places like The Penny Hoarder, Brazen Careerist and The Write Life. Those posts are easily the best part of my work day.

The good news: I now have three consistent clients, so should decide they hate me, I won’t be homeless. The other great news is that living in Düsseldorf is cheap. I only technically need to work 20 hours per week to make enough for rent, food, travel and my new obsession with indoor trees.

One of the reasons I left the States was because I wanted to be able to focus on my writing career without stressing about money. There was no way I could have left my job and still lived in San Francisco. I could barely keep my job and live in San Francisco. I don’t know if you’ve heard, but San Francisco is expensive. Living in the States, period, is expensive.

Work that pays me zero dollars

Long-term, my big dream is to write for myself – books, essays, podcast storytelling and this here blog. I don’t fully know what that looks like. I’m working on a book now (SO SCARY), but I have no concept of whether it’s any good. I sort of like the idea of teaching, but to do that I’ll probably need to get my MFA (not off the table). So right now I’m learning everything I can and writing with abandon.

Two projects I’m working on are personal essays, a medium I had never read until a teacher suggested I submit a chapter of my book to Modern Love. After working on it for three months, hiring an editor and putting it on an online writer’s group, I’ve scrapped the whole thing and started again.

Some days I feel like I’m a great writer. I’m not afraid to cut myself open and showing you my scary insides. But most days I feel  horrifically inarticulate. Like when I’m arguing with someone. Or trying to explain why I feel a certain way. I can describe those feelings, but I can’t boil them down to a single sentence. Oftentimes I show my work to other writers and they’re say, “Oh, it’s because x y and z” and I’m all HOLY SHIT YES IT’S EXACTLY THAT HOW DID YOU DO THAT?!

So mostly I’m slamming my head against my desk because I can’t articulate why my ex-boyfriend made me crazy, just that he did.

And speaking of said ex-boyfriend, I got an email from Elizabeth Gilbert last month (okay, fine, it was through her newsletter, but a girl can dream). Her publisher is celebrating 10 years since Eat Pray Love and will be publishing an anthology of stories called Eat Pray Love Made Me Do It. AND I WANT IN SO BADLY.

Lucky for me, the book I’m writing is about exactly this so I spent the last two weeks working on my submission and yesterday I clicked “submit”. Please keep all your fingers and all your toes crossed forever.

And if I don’t get in? Them’s the breaks. Because I’m finally doing the work, not just talking about doing the work or reading about the work. Writing that anthology submission was hard and I learned a ton. I also have a pretty good essay – probably the best work I’ve ever done – and if they won’t take it, I’m sure I can convince someone else to.

I can’t tell you how good it feels to do this kind of writing. I sit at my desk next to the window with my coffee and I write like myself, if only for a few hours. It’s magical and challenging – exactly what I want out of my job.

So that’s where I am. I can’t believe in December of last year I had no idea what path I was supposed to take. Then January came (along with a magical conversation with my friend Amber) and my whole world opened up. Since then I’ve taken two writing classes, gone freelance, focused 100% of my work on writing, submitted to an anthology and actually have publication goals that don’t involve words like “strategic planning” and “management training”.

For the first time, I care.


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Düsseldorfs and Dontsseldorfs

by Marian Schembari on June 22, 2015

When I started telling people we were moving to Germany, their first reaction was, “Oh my God, I love Berlin!” As if that were the only city in Germany. Because who would move all the way to Germany to live a podunk town no one’s heard of?

To be fair, Düsseldorf is a “city”, known for fashion and business. Which is the whole reason we’re here: for Elliot’s job at one of the world’s biggest power and utility companies. But Berlin it is not. Quaint European town it is also not.

I had never been to Germany before this and I’m not going to lie, my expectations were not super high. Every response to my correction of, “No, we’re actually moving to Düsseldorf,” was one of two things:

1. “Oh, bummer. Where’s that?”

or

2. “I know Düsseldorf! I spent a night there on a layover… I think. Industrial town?

So I appeased myself with this internal monologue: It doesn’t matter if Düsseldorf sucks. We’re not moving for the place, we’re moving for adventure. And this will be such an adventure! And anywhere is cheaper than San Francisco. I can quit my job! I can write without having to worry about not having any money! And Germany is basically the center of Europe. We’ll just be gone every weekend traveling so who cares what Düsseldorf is like?

But I was a tiny bit worried. I kept Googling the city and found photos like this:

Düsseldorf Germany

When what I really wanted was this:

charming European town

But we moved anyway.

Thankfully, Düsseldorf is not the industrial armpit I was expecting. First of all, it feels like it’s in the middle of the forest. There are birds chirping all the time. Our apartment is in a dense neighborhood, but you would never know it. There are so many different bird calls outside our window and almost zero sounds of traffic.

There’s also greenery everywhere. We’re a five minute walk from the city’s Hofgarten, a large park with ponds and fountains and baby ducks and bike lanes and fluffy cotton-tailed bunnies.

A photo posted by maschembari (@maschembari) on

Düsseldorf has canals! And the Rhine River! And a castle (sort of)! It has a little old town, the Atstadt, that comes alive at night with row after row after row of outdoor bars where they constantly refill your beer until you physically put a coaster barrier between the mouth of your glass and the eager waiter.

When I try to speak German and butcher any semblance of correct pronunciation, the Germans just giggle and help me out and tell me how awesome I am for trying. Everyone here has been lovely and accommodating. Even our new landlady open a bottled of champagne and took us out for pizza to celebrate us signing the rental agreement.

I mean, even the logo for the city is a damn EMOTICON SMILEY FACE. dusseldorf-logo

Besides the difficulties I mentioned last week – I have no friends, I left my whole life behind, why is setting up internet so hard? – the only real struggle has been the language.

Yes, it’s not impossible to get by speaking only English and pointing at things, but that’s not how I want the next few years of my life to be. I have no idea how long we’ll stay, but I hate entering a city as if it’s temporary. I want community. I want friends. I want to be able to read historical signs (my personal catnip). I want to chat up the waitress and read the menu and call the bank and reschedule an appointment without hyperventilating. I want to fully live here and leave knowing that I experienced it as best I could.

So I signed up for a month-long intensive language course at the Goethe Institute. Which I promptly dropped after two weeks.

Not only was class five hours per day, but there was an unspoken expectation that we would spend the rest of the day in solitary study. The next day we’d be straight onto the next subject, with little review or time for questions.

A photo posted by maschembari (@maschembari) on

Problem is, I moved here to freelance, and I have a ton of projects I planned to do after class. So for two weeks I juggled an hour commute, five hours of German lessons, five hours of work and (supposedly) three hours of studying. That worked for about two seconds before I started to ugly cry and write blog posts about my feelings.

So last week I asked my teacher, after getting 40% on my test, what I should do. She told me that not only do none of the other students work, but that this semester “Upper Management” decided to squeeze two programs into one. So we were learning what most students learn in a year of language classes in twenty days and it was the first time they had tried this.

At the time I was midway through Fluent Forever, which changed my whole attitude about learning German (if you’re learning a language, stop everything and read this book, it deserves its own blog post). I dropped out of class and with the remaining money I signed up for their leisurely twice per week course that meets from July through September.

The relief I felt was immediate and physical. I can’t believe I tried to put that pressure on myself – to not only get back into freelancing but move to a new country and learn the language in a month? Shit’s crazy, yo. And I do this all the time. I tell myself I’m not doing enough unless I’ve burnt myself out.

So today I went to the library, went through my Fluent Forever flashcards, watched some German pronunciation videos and called it a day. I came home and took a nap before heading into my virtual office. And I gotta say, cutting myself some slack has made building a life in Düsseldorf feel possible.

Thanks Dara Kaye for the best blog post title that has ever been written.


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One for Englisch

by Marian Schembari on June 9, 2015

We landed in Düsseldorf early on a Tuesday morning. Neither of us had been to Germany before and we had left everything behind: Our beloved dog, our jobs, our friends, our magical cottage in the woods with the giant skylights and goofy Swedish landlord. I left my therapist, the first one I ever connected with. Elliot left his family and the only home he’s ever known.

At the time, we gave each other high-fives every time we talked about our move: “We are so cool babe,” we would tell each other, “no one else is as cool as we are.” We felt brave and inspiring. This is my fourth international move and the third time I’ve picked up and moved to a city I’d never been to. I got this, I told myself, full of arrogance. But this is the first time I’ve abandoned an actual life. One I had no idea I had until it was gone (because isn’t that always the case?).

I’m not gonna lie, I’ve always hated San Francisco. I try to pinpoint the exact reason why, whether it was the constant harassment from men or the obnoxious tech community or the disgustingly high cost of living, but whatever the reason, it just never felt like home.

But our last weekend in San Francisco was spent at my friend Sasha’s apartment, a place I sublet after arriving from New Zealand. It was my first time living alone and even though it was a quiet ten months, I settled into myself as “grown-up Marian”. I spent most of my free time sitting on the couch reading books and drinking tea. I met my husband living in that apartment. Spending my last weekend there was a blessing: the floral smell of place coupled with the sound of MUNI outside – an electric squeaky hum – transported me back to the time when I knew nothing about the city, but had high hopes and big dreams.

A photo posted by maschembari (@maschembari) on

During the two and half years since moving to San Francisco, everything about my life shifted. I met my therapist, Julia, who quite literally changed everything about the way I see myself and the people I spend my time with. I changed jobs – having been laid off for the first time in my life. I decided tech wasn’t even remotely where I wanted to be. I got a dog, the most stressful thing I’ve ever done. I made American, female friends – another first since college. These friends weren’t other travelers just passing through, but were building lives there too. Women who also wanted to talk about therapy and creativity and go for hikes in the woods.

So sitting here in my lofted apartment in Germany feels like a little death, when that was the complete opposite of what I expected. It’s not until we got here that I realized how much I gave up. What have I done?, I thought, on our first day in Düsseldorf, while the grey clouds suffocated me and the German language felt impossible.

Guess what? Living an actual, real life abroad is hard. It is not, as I thought, just showing up and writing on my computer on my little European balcony, for a few hours each day. It’s one exhausting chore after another. Going to the grocery store is impossible because fabric softener and laundry detergent are not labeled differently so we ended up with more fabric softener than we’ll ever need in our lifetime. I spent an entire day trying to get internet on my phone, walking from one mobile store to another, never truly understanding what the person behind the counter was saying. Am I locked in for 24 months or 24 years?

 Eventually, USB internet stick purchased, I found myself in our tiny flat, unable to connect to the internet and on hold with a German who tried hard to tell me that I need to download software to access the internet, but I needed the internet to do it. So by the time Elliot and I want to go out and explore the city we’re exhausted from just trying to be adults.

My therapist gave me a card that, on the front of the envelope reads, “Not to be opened until you are in Germany and need some extra support.”

I lasted 24 hours before tearing it open.

That first week here made me question everything. I thought we had made a horrible mistake. We have no friends here, we don’t speak any German and I’m terrified that I won’t be able to support myself as a writer. It’s cloudy and cold and I am not that 18 year old backpacker anymore. Did I make this ridiculous decision to move to Germany based on the idea of who I want to be rather than who I actually am?

  A photo posted by maschembari (@maschembari) on

Or did I do it so I can have a life well lived? One where I don’t settle for a city everyone else seems to love, but will never feel like home to me. Because the other part of me – the one who watched fireworks over the Rhein, who found a gorgeous 1000sq ft apartment that doesn’t cost all my money, who can make up funny German words with my husband, who booked bus tickets to The Netherlands just because we can – that part is so completely in awe of my bravery. And I’m beyond proud of myself and my California-boy husband for taking this plunge.

A photo posted by maschembari (@maschembari) on

Because if it wasn’t for everything I learned in San Francisco, I wouldn’t know that of course I feel this way. That only a dreadlocked hippie wearing an Aztec parka and bright friendship bracelets wouldn’t be scared. Of course this is going to be mostly hard and frustrating and stupid. But that every day it’s going to get better and as long as I give myself permission to not do a million things at once, I will be fine.

A few months from now I know I’ll be ordering schnitzel like a pro and catching the trains without Google Maps and talking to Vodafone customer service without pressing 1 for Englisch.


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Sometimes I consider tattooing the word ENOUGH in big bold letters across my arm. This idea usually comes to me while I’m scrolling through Facebook and clicking on articles about the 30 things I need to do before I’m 30 or 75 reasons I need to be drinking hot lemon water/apple cider vinegar/chloroform every morning or why I should cut out sugar entirely or eat a raw onion every night before bed or do these 8 yoga poses to help me fall asleep. I’ll write better if I do more challenging writing exercises every day. I’ll be skinner if I start training for a marathon. I’ll be more interesting if I live abroad.

And this is when I catch myself and need to shout ENOUGH! YOU’RE DOING FUCKING ENOUGH. YOU ARE ENOUGH.

For the longest time I thought I was more adventurous than you. I was a “traveler” because I lived in a  few countries, because I grew up the daughter of a travel writer and because, post-break-up, I would cure my broken heart by leaving on some epic journey. In all sorts of wonderful ways, this did change my life.

But it’s also really freaking hard. And most of the time I don’t actually like it. And if Elizabeth Gilbert has taught me anything, it’s “tell the truth tell the truth tell the truth.”

So here’s the truth: This past year has been a pretty intense battle with myself. Moving to San Francisco was, surprisingly, harder than any other move I’ve ever made. Coming back to the States and joining the corporate grind after four years of identifying myself as a free-spirited expat left me wondering who the hell I was.

After I left New Zealand, in the span of that one year, I met a guy on OkCupid, was laid off from the dream job I worked so hard to get, got engaged to said guy three months after we met, brought home a puppy (the hardest thing I’ve ever done), got married, moved to the suburbs, decided I actually hate marketing and just want to be a writer forever and ever and – here’s the big one – decided to move to Germany (reasons behind said decision: (1) my husband’s company is based there (2) we were both ready for adventure and (3) cost of living is less and I can’t stomach the tech industry any more). It’s pretty insane to not only deal with all those life changes, but then also try to figure out who the hell you actual are.

Here’s what I found out:

(1) I am what they call “highly sensitive” – to noises, smells, itchy fabric, too many people in a room, bright lights, clutter… For a very, very long time, I was told this was a horrible flaw by a very great many people. That by having quieter hobbies meant I was a couch potato. That by not being able to stay out at frat parties all night made me lame. That needing more sleep meant I was lazy.

And then I learned that sensitivities are actually a completely real thing and I’m 100% allowed to go home and wrap myself in a blanket burrito after being in an office full of people all day. And that being sensitive isn’t a flaw, but comes with it’s own gifts. It means I can read people incredibly well. It means that writing clearly about complex emotions is easy. That my friendships may be fewer, but are often deeper.

(2) I also learned that marketing, while interesting in it’s own way, is not why I was put on this earth. After a series of writing classes I finally gave myself permission to announce to the world that I am a writer. And despite every single article telling me about the failing publishing industry, and every single writer whining about how poor they are, I have decided to tell them all to shut the fuck up.

(3) And, the biggest kicker of all, I learned to embrace that travel is hard. That while my identity has been wrapped in my travel experiences for a decade, it’s actually 99% not sunshine and rainbows. That ordering a beer in Hanoi was one of the most nerve-wracking things I’ve ever done and I may or may not have ordered a pizza to my hotel room (tip: don’t order pizza in Vietnam) because I couldn’t brave the traffic after a long day of sightseeing. And when I Couchsurfed for two months through Australia, I would rush back to my host’s home after a day of sightseeing and watch back-to-back episodes of True Blood, instead of forcing myself to brave another event with strangers.

These habits started formulating themselves into two understandings about my life:

(1) Not everything needs to be some character-building challenge. You don’t have to purposefully make everything hard to prove to yourself that you’re doing enough. What if life weren’t some giant inspirational Pinterest poster that says “today, be the badass you were too lazy to be yesterday” or “suck it up now so you don’t have to suck it in later”. What if, instead of constantly trying to do better, push harder, stick it out, build character, live life to the fullest every second of every day, I actually said, “I’m doing perfectly fine as I am right now. I think I’m going to eat a cookie in the bathtub.”

and…

(2) That I can push myself just enough to grow, but if I have a foundation of activities I know help me cope, I’m a much more pleasant person to be around, I’m filled with joy more often and I can stop pretending to be someone I’m not. These activities may be different from your activities. But I’m going to stop yelling at myself every time I want to go to bed at 8pm or not leave the house for 48 hours. Because if I do those things, I can do things like move to Germany.

Because this is who I am: I’m moving to Germany on Monday because I want my life to be filled with adventure. But I’m also terrified of moving to Germany. I’m scared that the language barrier will be impossible. That the weather will suck. That I won’t make any friends. That I won’t actually be able to make money writing and I’ll have to take a job teaching English or, worse, go back to an office.

And other thing? I’m also over the moon excited. I’m so freaking blessed that I’ve been able to have lived in so many different places. I can’t wait to spend my weekends in Greece or Finland. I can’t believe I landed myself a husband who, having never lived outside California, is 100% willing to jump with me and go on this ridiculous adventure.

A change this big and I’m allowed to be both – happy and sad, scared and excited, nervous and confident. And that right now, I am enough. So are you.


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